Reflection: Harbinger of the Phoenix

Chapter 1
Handkerchief

The scene out the window was the kind of gray gloom that threatens rain all day but fails to produce even a single drop. The leaves on the trees were a mix of vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges dappled with just a splash of lingering green, but even those hues were dimmed by the overcast sky. Charis laid her open book over her thigh and reached down to tuck the blanket tighter around her cold feet. This was perfect book-reading weather. From her perch in the cushioned window nook high atop the stacks, she could see the entire Special Collection Room. It was a beautiful view. Ornately carved wood in the shapes of vines and leaves laced up from the floor and crisscrossed the ceiling. Bookcases lined the walls, some open to the room and some protecting their contents behind glass doors. Rolling ladders were positioned along each one to provide access to the topmost shelves as well as to the reading nooks interspersed along the windows above them.

Unfortunately, Charis’s enjoyment of her favorite reading spot was diminished by the presence of Amon, hard at work on his research at one of the large tables in the center of the room. He happened to glance up as she looked down at him, raising his eyebrows and giving her a small smile. Charis turned away and picked up her book again, pretending that she hadn’t seen him. The Special Collection Room was the Library’s repository for rare or particularly valuable books. Not a single one stored here was less than a hundred years old, except for the novel Charis had brought in with her. The room was isolated from the main body of the University Library, so the bustle of the art show currently taking place there faded into the background.

She tried to resume reading, but her eyes skimmed the page without actually taking in any of the words. Charis reached into the pocket of her oversized cardigan and ran her thumb across the folded cloth inside. She still hadn’t returned the handkerchief Amon had lent to her the night that she had gone to the ruins of the Manor. He had helped her out of a tight spot then, and she was grateful. If she had been caught, Charis was certain she would have been forced to hand over Nerissa’s spirit chimes to Casimer’s lackeys. Then they would have become just another spoil of Casimer’s conquest. Even if he was only one step up from the lackeys in Charis’ mind, it was Amon’s intervention that allowed her to get away unnoticed that night. It was thanks to him that the precious memento of her friend now hung in front of her bedroom window.

Charis had intended to return the handkerchief to Amon months ago, but each time the opportunity presented itself there had always been an excuse not to. Enough time had passed that it seemed awkward to return it to him now. She was frustrated, not wanting to throw it away or give it back. If Nerissa were still here, she could have helped Charis sort out her feelings. She curled her hand into a fist, squeezing the handkerchief tight as she felt her eyes begin to burn. This was the first Arts Festival that she would be attending without Nerissa. It was yet another event in a seemingly endless list of events that passed without her friend. Charis let her head loll to the side and she sighed, staring out the window at the rainless clouds.

The sound of a chair scraping across the floor, the rustling of papers, and the soft thump of books being closed echoed through the room. Amon was finally leaving. Charis listened to his footsteps and felt mildly annoyed that he didn’t at least say goodbye before he left. Not that she really cared. When his footsteps stopped, Charis stubbornly continued to stare out the window, refusing to look to see if he glanced back before walking through the gate.

Suddenly, the rolling ladder beside her rattled, and her head whipped around in surprise. A moment later, Amon appeared at the opening to the nook. There was only enough room for one person at a time in the window seat, so he remained on the ladder. He leaned his elbows on the cushions and rested his head against the end post of the small railing that edged the nook.

The usual lock of black hair had strayed from his neatly combed part. It had flopped onto his forehead and covered the bridge of his nose. Charis instinctively wanted to reach out and brush it into place. Instead she said, “I’m surprised you can see well enough to climb the ladder with your hair in your face like that.”

Amon ran his fingers through his hair, pushing back the lock temporarily. His brows furrowed briefly, and then he grinned.

“What are you grinning at?” Charis asked impatiently.

“Seduced at the Edge of the Ocean,” he read aloud. “I didn’t know you were a fan of romance novels,” he teased with a mischievous look in his deep-blue eyes.

Charis snapped the book shut and flipped it so that the cover was facing down. “I read a little bit of everything,” she replied haughtily. “It’s called being well rounded.”

One corner of Amon’s mouth turned upward in a lop-sided grin, revealing the dimple in his cheek that always appeared when he smiled. “It would be nice to read something for fun, but that will have to wait until my research is finished.”

“And when will that be, exactly?” Charis asked.

“Don’t worry. It will be quite some time before I am finished,” he replied. “I still have a lot of work to do.”

Charis folded her arms across her chest. “Why do you assume I’m worried about that? Maybe I’m looking forward to it.”

Amon’s expression turned serious. “Have you considered that, perhaps, I hope you don’t want me to leave any time soon?”

Charis bit her bottom lip. She didn’t know how to respond to that. Was he really sincere? She decided it was safer to change the subject. “I doubt that you came up here just to chat. What do you want?”

“It’s getting late. We should go home to change clothes before the play,” he said. “Would you like to walk with me?”

“You’re right, it is getting late, but I’d like to finish this chapter first,” Charis replied coolly. There was no way he could know she hadn’t actually been reading.

“I don’t mind waiting for you,” he offered. “We’re going to the same place anyway.”

Most of the University students from out of town lived in dormitory units on campus or in nearby apartments. Much to Charis’ dismay, Amon stayed with her and her father in the President’s campus residence instead. As Casimer’s nephew, he could certainly afford an apartment, but Amon had been concerned that his presence could attract unwanted attention and be disruptive to the other residents. So, Charis’ father had offered one of their spare rooms. Their home had privacy and the convenience of being on campus.

“I don’t want to make you wait. I’ll be along shortly,” she said. His persistence was becoming annoying.

Amon glanced out the window at the darkening sky. He rubbed his forehead and brushed away the errant lock of hair once more. “It’s getting dark earlier now, especially in this kind of weather. It would be safer if we walked together.”

“I’m not convinced I’m any safer with you than I am alone,” Charis retorted.

Amon froze, staring out at her from between his fingers. His expression was a mixture of anger and hurt. “I’ll be on my way then. It’s not like it’s a long walk anyway,” he said flatly. “Be sure to lock the gates before you leave.”

The ladder rattled as he climbed down and then shuddered on its track as he shoved it roughly to the side. Charis watched as he stomped out of the room and listened as his footsteps faded, gradually blending in with the dull hum of the art show. Crawling to the edge of the nook, she grasped the railing with one hand as she leaned over the side. She reached toward the ladder, stretching as far as she could, but it was too far away.

No matter, Charis thought. He will feel sorry and come back for me soon. She scooted over to where she had been sitting and settled herself on the pile of pillows. Opening the book again, she stared absently at the pages and waited. Outside, the sky grew increasingly darker. After a while, it became apparent that Amon wasn’t going to return. She hadn’t really been that rude to him, had she?

Charis chewed her bottom lip and crept to the railing. When she looked down, her stomach dropped. The ceiling in this room was nearly two stories high. If she tried to jump, it would be almost four meters to the floor. Her grip on the railing tightened reflexively at the thought.

“Hello?” she yelled out. “Is anyone around?” She waited for a response. Maybe Amon was lingering in the hallway just outside the door. Charis called out again and again, but there was no answer. No one was near enough to hear her.

She considered climbing down using the shelves to support her. They should be strong enough, but if they weren’t, then the books they contained would be damaged. Never mind the thought of how far she would fall as a result. She swallowed and adjusted her sweaty grip on the railing. Could she tie the blanket to the rail and climb down that way? No, the blanket was far too short. Charis cursed Amon under her breath as she looked at the ladder. If only there were some way to reach it from here.

Again, she stretched out as far as she could, straining to reach any part of the ladder, but it remained just beyond her fingertips. With shaking hands and sweaty palms, Charis turned around and gingerly stepped down onto the topmost shelf. She clung to the railing posts as tightly as she could and swung her left leg out to try to hook the ladder with her foot. Relief flooded through her when she caught it on the first try. She awkwardly dragged it toward her until it was close enough that she could climb on.

Upon reaching the bottom, she paused momentarily to collect herself. Her knees felt like they were made of jelly. How dare Amon leave her stranded! Charis was about to storm out the door when the sight of Amon’s workspace in the middle of the room caught her eye. An evil grin spread across her face as she approached the table. All of the books here were related to rare and antique paintings—Amon’s area of study. Most were collections that documented various works: the history, artist, style, symbolism, interpretation, types of paint used, and other relevant information. Some of the books dated back to King Gared’s time and, as such, were written in one of the ancient tongues. They were dead languages now, having nearly disappeared after the institution of a national language for all of Renatus.

One book sat by itself, directly in front of the chair, so it seemed most likely that this was the one Amon had been using last. Since several markers jutted out from the pages in the same place, Charis opened the book at that spot. Loose papers, covered in Amon’s tight, precise handwriting, were wedged inside. She was tempted to tear them up but hesitated as she skimmed through them. She wasn’t well versed in this dialect, but she could translate well enough to see that Amon’s notes weren’t quite an accurate interpretation of the text on the accompanying pages. That was odd. Amon was a meticulous researcher and fluent in multiple languages. It wasn’t like him to make such a fundamental mistake. She would have to point out the discrepancy to him later.

Charis’ thoughts immediately flew back to her escapade with the ladder. Then again, why should she do anything to help him after that? She sifted through the stacks, arbitrarily pulling bookmarks from their pages and placing them into other books in random locations.

Satisfied with her mischief, she then turned away from the table and hurried from the room, cursing Amon under her breath with every step. The hinges of the open gate squeaked softly when she passed by. As soon as she got home, she was going to burn his handkerchief.

**************************

Chapter 2
Encounter with Destiny

The streets of Niamh were filled with more people than Desta had seen in her entire life. She had spent most of her first day in the city simply sitting by the window of the room she and her mother shared, amazed by the unending stream of people flowing by. They moved up and down the wide sidewalks, some moving at a brisk pace as they went from one place to the next, and some meandering between shop windows. All the while, horses and carriages carried still more people and goods through the crowded streets. The variety of buildings was as extreme to her as the volume of people. She had seen every combination of old and new, tall and short, and wood and brick. Despite all of the buildings and movement, the city was filled with trees and grass and blooming flower gardens. The sheer amount of activity was both intimidating and enticing. Part of Desta had wanted to remain in the quiet room, while the other part yearned to dive into the hubbub and experience everything she possibly could.

Of all the things she had seen so far, the University Library and Theater left her the most awestruck. They shared a building, which was the largest one Desta had ever seen. The outside looked like the castles described in storybooks. The only thing missing was a moat, but there was a gigantic stone fountain in front. Desta had heard that Niamh was grand, but the reality of the city was so much more than she had imagined. Suddenly, her village seemed so tiny and plain.

Now, instead of sitting by the window at the inn, Desta sat beside her mother in the balcony section of the theater, a few rows away from the very back. These were the best seats that they could afford, but the view from here was still incredible. She had been so excited to be able to wear her best dress tonight since there were few occasions to wear it back home. Yet, the fashion in Niamh was just as over the top as the rest of the city. Even her best dress couldn’t compare to the stylish finery that was worn by those around them—especially the people sitting in the floor seats nearest the stage. Desta peered down in wonder as the seats filled, admiring the hats and gowns worn by the women. Their outfits must have cost more money than her mother made in a year!

The clang of a bell rang out over the murmur of the crowd, and the room immediately quieted. The conductor of the orchestra stepped onto the stage and introduced himself, the director of the play, various patrons of the university, and, finally, the University President. Each of them rose and bowed in turn while the crowd clapped. Desta noticed that the red-haired woman seated beside the President wore one of the outfits she had admired earlier.

When the clapping ceased, the conductor returned to his podium in the pit area in front of the stage. He picked up a slim baton and raised his hands. As he did so, a sweet, smooth note enveloped the room, seeming to emanate from all directions at once. The stage curtains drew back, and the play began. Desta watched, mesmerized, and regretted that she would not get to stay to enjoy the whole play. She loved to perform in plays for festivals at home, but those were nothing like this. Unfortunately, she and her mother had not really come to enjoy the show. They had another reason for being here tonight.

Partway through the second act, Shae nudged her daughter. Desta was so engrossed in the play that she didn’t notice, so Shae leaned over to whisper in the girl’s ear. “It’s time to go,” she said.

Desta turned toward her with an unmasked expression of disappointment but nodded in agreement anyway. She took one last, long look at the stage then rose to follow her mother. As they reached the doors, an usher stepped into their path. For a moment, Desta was afraid he would not allow them to leave.

“There is no reentry if you leave. It can be a distraction to the actors and audience,” he warned.

“I understand. Thank you,” Shae replied.

He opened the door barely far enough for them to slip through, and it swung closed silently behind them. Shae sighed with relief and patted her purse. The book inside was quite heavy, so she didn’t really need to feel it to be sure it was still there, but the gesture was reassuring nonetheless.

Shae had been feeling unusually anxious recently. This was partly because she had never stolen anything before and partly caused by a dream she recently had. The dream involved a group of merchants coming to her home. There was nothing about their behavior that was threatening, but something about them reminded her of the men who had accompanied Queen Echidna. One of the men, with long black hair and olive skin, stood out to her in particular. There was a message—a warning—that she was supposed to give to him. The ending of the dream was the real cause of Shae’s anxiety. When the men departed, Desta had gone with them. She didn’t know the reason why Desta left, but she did know that her daughter was supposed to go with them. Whether or not it was meant to be, as a mother, Shae was not ready to allow her sixteen-year-old daughter to leave with a group of strangers.

“Let’s hurry while the lobby is still empty,” Shae said as they began to descend the stairs.

“Yes, it’s hard to tell how long it will stay this way,” Desta agreed. She scampered down merely a step behind her mother.

The moment Desta’s foot left the bottom step, the doors they had just come out from opened again. Shae half-expected to see the usher, but instead two young couples sauntered out.

The blonde woman fanned herself as the doors closed. “It’s simply far too hot to remain in there a single second more,” she declared.

“Oh, I kn-ow,” the brunette woman cooed in response. “I don’t understand how it’s possible for the theater to be so hot, especially considering tonight is such a cool night.” She, too, began fanning herself ostentatiously.

Despite her nerves, Shae found the pair amusing. They were moving their fans in perfect synchrony.

“It didn’t seem terribly hot in there to me,” Desta whispered.

“You aren’t wearing layer upon layer of petticoats like they are,” Shae argued even though she agreed with Desta. “Ah, here’s the ladies’ room!” she said, intentionally speaking loudly enough to be heard by the two couples. Shae took Desta’s elbow and guided her away from the stairs. They strolled across the lobby slowly, trying to look as casual as possible.

The couples sashayed across the lobby together, with the women fanning themselves all the while. They paused near the valet window, beneath the Carriages sign. Promptly after one of the men rang the bell on the counter, the pale, thin valet appeared.

“Please summon our footman to have our carriage brought around. Tell him that we don’t wish to roast in this place any longer,” the brunette said, right before Shae and Desta entered the ladies’ room.

Once inside, Shae pressed her ear to the door, straining to hear the conversation in the lobby. She heard the women say, almost in unison, “We will be waiting outside in the fresh air.”

Shae sighed with relief. “It sounds like they will be leaving soon,” she said.

Desta pulled her eyes away from the elegant decor of the powder room and pressed her ear against the door as well. She heard the tapping of high-heeled shoes against the marble floors and then the sound of the anteroom doors opening and closing.

Desta and her mother had intended to visit the library soon after they arrived in Niamh. Their plan had been to search ahead of time for books with crystals in their spines and note their locations. That part of the plan could be done during regular library hours, but the rest had to be done in secret. Since the crystals would only glow for the One, Shae and Desta would have to resort to peeling back the inner covers. They had no doubt that the librarians would frown upon people damaging their collection. On top of that, Desta and Shae intended to borrow the book once they found the correct one. Except, in this case, “borrowing” was less like checking out the book and more along the lines of stealing it.

Unfortunately, their original strategy was foiled by the fact that the library had been closed both days for festival preparations. Instead, they had settled for gathering information by talking with the innkeeper, whose son was attending the University. The woman was quite proud of the fact that her son had received a scholarship. She had been more than happy to discuss anything related to the University, and her son’s studies, at length. It seemed the woman was an expert, but Shae suspected that her knowledge was fueled by maternal pride more than personal experience. Shae made a point to casually mention that they wanted to visit the library to look for an original copy of her favorite collection of lore. The innkeeper had immediately suggested that they look in the Special Collection Room since that was where the old and rare books were stored. That, at least, gave Shae and Desta a place to start their hunt, even if they didn’t know where the Special Collection Room was.

Time passed, and there were no more sounds from the lobby aside from the muffled voices of the actors in the play. The door to the ladies’ room opened a crack, and two pairs of eyes peeked around the edge into the lobby. The man at the valet counter was gone. The lobby was empty. The entry to the library was conveniently located next to the ladies’ room, so they needed to dash just a few feet and duck beneath the velvet rope that barred entry to the hallway.

“Let’s go,” Shae whispered, tip-toeing back into the lobby. Desta followed behind her.

The sightless eyes of stone statues, frozen in depictions of scenes from famous plays, were the solitary witnesses to the women slinking through the short hallway. The only evidence of their passing was the gentle swaying of the Closed sign that hung from the rope.

The leather soles of their shoes made a soft tapping sound on the checkerboard floor, but in the dark stillness of the empty library it seemed more like a deafening echo. The arms of the chandeliers hung empty, like branches with no leaves, and no glow lamps hung from the sconces on the walls. Desta was relieved that the clouds from earlier in the day had broken, and the moonlight provided sufficient illumination to see by. The walls here were a deep shade of red and decorated with carvings of golden phoenixes that seemed to be flying toward the ceiling. The curled feathers of their outstretched wings cast odd shadows across the walls and onto the floor as the moon drifted in and out of transient clouds. Desta knew it was her imagination, but it still felt like the shadows were following her as she moved. She quickened her pace and reached out to grasp the strap of her mother’s leather bag.

Shae flinched and spun around. “What are you doing?” she gasped. “You scared me!”

“This place is creepy,” Desta replied timidly, shrinking back from her mother’s ire. “I didn’t want us to get separated somehow.”

Shae glanced around at the cloth-covered easels and pedestals that lined either side of the central aisle. Those must be the paintings and sculptures that had been on display earlier in the day during the first part of the festival. In this dim light, it would be difficult to discern between the artwork and another person.

“It’s a good idea to stay close,” she said. “Be careful not to knock anything over, or we’ll be caught for sure.”

They crept onward, pausing every few feet to read the signs posted on the endcaps of the towering bookcases. The signs indicated the type of books on each set of shelves and occasionally pointed in the direction of other areas. Halfway through the history section, they found the first sign labeled Special Collection Room. The arrow pointed to the left, so the pair turned to walk down the narrow aisle between two of the cases. The space felt confined compared to the openness of the main aisle, even though there was still ample room for Shae and Desta to walk side by side.

A groaning sound broke the silence around them, and Shae halted. Desta, hardly a step behind, bumped right into her back. They both stumbled awkwardly forward.

“Did you hear that?” Shae hissed.

“How could I not hear it?” Desta gulped. She looked up as a shadow flickered across the ceiling. “The bookshelves aren’t going to fall on us, are they?”

Shae was more worried about whether or not they were being followed. She pulled herself together. If anyone had seen them sneak in, the person would confront them directly, not follow them. Now was not the time to be paranoid. “Of course they aren’t. That noise wasn’t any different from the sound of a house settling. You’re being silly.”

“You’re the one who froze up when you heard it,” Desta replied sullenly. Her sweaty grip on the purse strap slipped a bit as Shae started walking again.

At the end of the aisle, was another sign pointing toward the Special Collection Room. The occasional creaks and groans persisted, spurring Shae and Desta to quicken their pace and continue onward. They followed the bookcases along one wall until they finally reached a tall, arched opening leading to a tenebrous hallway. The sign above the arch read Special Collection Room.

They huddled together as they inched through the hall. It was so dark here they could see little else but the opening at the far end. They passed several recessed coves that contained still more sculptures. Though Desta couldn’t tell what the subjects of the statues were, she assumed these were permanent decorations since only one was covered with a cloth.

“We made it,” Shae said, relieved, as they reached the opposite end of the hall.

“It seems my luck is with us tonight,” Desta said, gesturing toward the metal lattice gate that stood open in front of them.

Shae stepped through the opening into a spacious room. It was as ornately decorated as the rest of the library. Moonlight poured down into the room from short, wide windows near the ceiling. Even that didn’t provide enough illumination to penetrate the darkness that filled the gaps between the massive bookcases that lined the walls. The center area of the room was populated by sturdy-looking tables. All but one of them was empty.

“That is fortunate,” Shae said. “I didn’t anticipate any section of the library would be locked. We would have come all this way for nothing if this gate had been closed.” She pulled the purse off her shoulder and set it down on a table near the bookcases.

“Let’s start by searching for any books that have crystals with them. The ones we are looking for must have crystals, or at least an empty spot where a crystal could have been,” Shae instructed.

Desta ran her hands over the spines of the aged books as she walked. “I know,” she replied softly, rolling her eyes.

“Don’t roll your eyes at me,” Shae chided.

“You can’t see well enough…I mean, I didn’t!” Desta argued.

Shae heaved a sigh and climbed up one of the tall ladders as quietly as she could manage. They hurriedly combed the shelves, with Shae looking over the highest ones and Desta those closest to the floor. Not a single one had a crystal embedded in the spine.

Shae descended the ladder, frustrated. “Maybe the crystals were somehow hidden inside the other five books,” she mused.

“If that’s the case, could they have the same title or author name as ours, or a matching symbol somewhere on the cover?” Desta proposed.

“That’s a good thought,” Shae replied. “Let’s look at our book one more time to see if there might be any clues.”

Desta hurried over to the table where Shae had left the purse containing the book. There couldn’t be much time left before the play ended. They had to be sure to get back by then so they could blend into the crowd to leave. She reached in and lifted the book by its spine. The leather slipped in her sweaty grip, and the crystal popped free from its pocket. It rolled across the floor and disappeared into one of the dark gaps between the bookcases.

Desta wanted to curse, but she couldn’t with her mother around. She laid the book on the table and hesitated, pursing her lips, before finally dropping onto her hands and knees to reach into the nook. She patted the floor and was startled to touch a large, solid shape that resembled a shoe. That was odd. It must belong to a statue that was obscured by the darkness in the nook. And then Desta realized that the shoe was warm. She yanked her hand back and skittered away from the gap. Her heart skipped a beat then thumped so hard that she feared it would fly right out of her chest.

A hand extended from the nook, and a male voice said, “Is this what you’re looking for?” The fingers of the hand uncurled to reveal the dropped crystal. Desta’s heart skipped a beat again—this time not from fear.

The crystal was glowing with a bright white light.

**************************

 

Harbinger of the Phoenix low res

Available in E-book and Paperback format on Amazon.

© 2015 Rachel R. Smith

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