The Penny Prophet

by Holly Jessop. Winner of the Best Novel Opening for Children or Young Adults competition 2022

‘What we once called Magic died long ago, or so they would have us believe.’

Leah fought the urge to roll her eyes as the man spoke. She knew that these street performers, these penny prophets as they were unflatteringly known, liked to put on a show, guiding your gaze to one hand while the other dug through your purse.

But she had needed to come.

‘Everything that once lived on Perran leaves an echo when it departs. Echoes that ring through certain places, certain objects, guiding the ones that remain on this island.’

A light gust swept through the market, billowing out the dark sheets surrounding his stall. Shouts of nearby sellers thrusting wares at passers-by floated through and echoed from the stone ceiling above. Somewhere, a fiddle played a lively folk tune. The cloth floated back, and quietness settled.

He reached a thin hand towards the table between them, and picked up a small box. Leah’s heart skipped. He flicked open its rusted latch and slipped a deck of cards into his palm. His eyes brushed over her as he shuffled them.

She hadn’t expected him to be so young, his soft features placing him in his early twenties, not much older than herself. He wore the black robes of a scholar, though from his rolled sleeves and unkempt hair, she doubted he had ever stepped foot in a university, let alone the College.

‘They’re beautiful cards,’ she said, breaking the silence.

‘They are.’

‘Do other penny p- uh, other readers have similar cards?’

He finished shuffling and placed them on the table.

‘There is only one such deck in the entire archipelago.’

‘And how did you come by it?’ She aimed for nonchalance.

He smiled, all crooked teeth and thin lips.

‘Now that would be telling.’