Miss Altangerel’s costume gives me pause. She wears the body of a hawk as a headdress, its wings sweeping back along the side of her ears, her own eyes and nose hidden behind the predator’s sharpened gaze and yellow beak. A curtain of rawhide strands hangs from the bird’s chest, strung with small bells and obscuring the lower half of her face. The bells tinkle slightly with her breath. Parlor tricks, I remind myself, but when the hawk blinks, I take a step back, feel the pulse throb in my neck.
“Come in,” she says. Her voice is smoke over moonlit water. “Make yourself at ease.”
Lord Huxley loves providing these little diversions for his company. The library has been decorated for the evening’s entertainments: black lace drapes the windows, obscuring the moon, the gaslights are dimmed, and three candles sputter on a small table near the fire. Shadows move in the corners, seemingly independent of the flames. I remove my hat, take several steps toward the table where she sits, unmoving as a stone. The hawk’s head turns, tracking my movements.
I shift from one foot to the other, wishing to avoid the bird’s gaze.
Miss Altangerel doesn’t speak.
I clear my throat. “Do you want me to sit?”
“If you prefer to sit.”
I lower myself into the hard wooden chair opposite London’s most celebrated spiritualist, set my hat on the table. I’ve been in this library a thousand times, have glanced at but somehow never before seen the stuffed beasts—stripes and claws, tusks and fangs—that Huxley has brought back from the West Indies and the Far East and mounted on his walls between the shelves of books. Glass eyes glittering, all but lashing their tails, waiting for a moment to pounce.
“You wish to have your fortune told?” Miss Altangerel places her hands on the table, flat against the wood, fingers spread wide. They are not, as I had expected, the knotted hands of an old woman, but the hands of a girl—smooth and slender, without ornament.
Even with the bird’s eyes upon me, I remember who I am: a man of science. “I wish to not offend the kindness of our host.”
“Ah. You are not a believer then.”
“I am not a believer.”
“I see.” The string of rawhide bells in front of her mouth tinkles with her words, and I suspect a note of amusement in her voice. She is shrouded in a heavy beaded shawl, but where that garment falls away, she is small and well formed.
Something about her youth—the swell of breasts beneath a silk bodice—irritates me, and I want to get on with it. “What happens next? Tea leaves? Crystal balls? Do you want to read my palm?”
“Would you like me to read your palm?”
“You are the medium. You tell me.”
With a languid grace she unfurls her hand across the table. Candlelight catches the fangs of a white Siberian tiger, frozen in mid snarl, and the room smells of cloves and the scent of dung fires on the tundra. With hesitation, ready to jerk it back if needed, I place the back of my hand in hers. She runs a warm thumb along the base of my own where it meets the wrist. “I believe…” She traces my lifeline with the lacquered nail of one forefinger, red as garnet. “You want me to read your palm.”