Reflection: The Stranger in the Mirror

Chapter 1

The Heiress of Chiyo

“What harm could possibly come from reading a book?” Nerissa scoffed. She ran her fingers eagerly over the creviced cover of the aged book in her hands. “None at all,” she finished, not waiting for her friend and fellow conspirator to answer. She turned the book to examine the binding with greedy fascination.

Charis was quite familiar with her friend’s rant. It was repeated each week without fail when she brought new books. “Don’t get attached, I told you that one wasn’t staying! It is not like you don’t have enough books already.” Charis chided her gently, looking for a way to distract her enthralled friend. “I don’t think all of these will fit in the usual hiding place. Where are you going to put them?”

The question successfully pulled Nerissa from her rapture. She paused for a second, eyeing the stacks, one eyebrow raised and her lips twitched to one side in thought. “The only ones they will have a problem with are the scientific texts that were written in Marise. This mathematics text is a little thick, but I think all four will still fit in the usual spot. You’re right though,” she said with a doleful sigh, “I really ought to put them away before someone comes by.”

Now successfully distracted, Nerissa set down the object of her fascination, pulled up the loose stone tile in the floor and began nestling the four taboo books into their hidden nook. Charis seized the opportunity and scooped up the discarded volume, cradling it in her arms.

“I’m the Heiress of Chiyo and yet I’m reduced to hiding books from my parents in a hole in the floor. Honestly, I don’t see why I should have to go to such lengths,” Nerissa complained. “Ugh, this one isn’t going to fit!” She removed the topmost book and began rearranging the others to make more room. Noticing Charis’ silence and fearing she may have sounded ungrateful, Nerissa quickly continued, “I am ever indebted to you for smuggling these in for me week after week. Do they really think that we can ignore Marise’s development forever? Even if we don’t utilize their technology, at the very least, we should understand it!” Nerissa’s ramblings trailed off as she noticed Charis wasn’t paying attention. Nerissa looked up, still half bent over the hiding spot. Her viridian eyes glinted with suspicion from between long locks of golden-brown hair that had fallen in front of her face as she went about her sly work.

Charis had only made it halfway to her book bag. She didn’t realize she had been caught until Nerissa peeped over her shoulder and pointed to a nondescript flap on the ancient book’s binding. It was hardly noticeable without close inspection, but few details ever escaped Nerissa’s sharp eyes. “What is that for anyway?” she asked.

Charis faltered, “I-I’m not sure, I think I remember seeing a crystal inside there when I was little, but it’s not there anymore.”

“I hope it didn’t break,” Nerissa remarked casually. “It’s very odd to see a crystal embedded in a book. I’ve seen them in nearly everything else, but never a book.” Charis had no idea exactly how or when it had happened, but somehow Nerissa had regained possession of the book from her.

Nerissa pulled aside the airy curtains that surrounded her bed and sank into a mountain of aqua and ivory pillows. Charis settled in opposite her and leaned back against the curving lattice that spanned the two thick posts at the foot of the bed.

“It’s certainly rare now, but maybe it was more common in the past. There are so few books this old that it would be hard to know for sure,” Charis pointed out. Nerissa’s response was a distracted hum and nod of agreement as she skimmed through the yellowed pages.

“Which reminds me…have you heard about the crystals that have shattered around town?” Charis asked casually.

Nerissa’s head snapped up from the book in her lap to meet her friend’s hazel eyes. “Shattering? On their own? Are you sure?”

Charis nodded. “I haven’t seen it happen myself, but that is what I’ve heard people saying around the University. I thought for sure you would have heard about it before me.” Charis was somewhat surprised by Nerissa’s reaction. She considered it to be no more than a strange coincidence, but Nerissa seemed mildly alarmed.

“How many have shattered?” A smirk passed across Nerissa’s lips—there was not a single event or rumor in Niamh that escaped Charis’ detection. As the daughter of the University President, Charis’ personal grapevine had connections to nearly every person in the city. For a long time, Nerissa had been somewhat envious of her. People spoke so openly with Charis while they tended to be overly polite and formal in the presence of the Heiress. Her envy was in the past now though—even if they didn’t speak freely in front of Nerissa, Charis was more than happy to share all of the juicy tidbits of her network with her.

“I don’t know exactly how many, but more than a few people have mentioned it to me. Why? Is there something significant about it?”

“It used to be a common belief—or superstition if you ask my Mother—that when a crystal breaks suddenly it is an omen that a significant change is coming. It doesn’t indicate whether it will be something bad or good, just a sudden change. The theory is that the natural flow of energy through the crystals changes so suddenly…” Nerissa cut short her technical explanation upon noticing that Charis’ eyes had taken on a glazed look. “I’ll have to see if Tao has heard anything more when I talk to her tonight. You won’t mind if I take this to show her too, would you?”

“Not so fast! I brought that book so you could finally see it, not borrow it. It’s a precious keepsake from my mother!”

Nerissa summoned her best pouting face. “You don’t even trust it to your oldest friend in the world? I’m hurt, Charis. Really, I am.”

“Don’t you dare! You think you can manipulate your way into getting anything you want from me, but it isn’t going to work this time! I know your tricks too well. After all, I’m your oldest friend in the world.” Truthfully, her resolve was already beginning to weaken. It always did, but Charis was not about to admit that. Nerissa’s persuasive tactics were nearly impossible for anyone to resist. She never abused her position. She was simply a singularly unique person who naturally drew others to her and held them spellbound by her very presence. It was as if she somehow breathed in the essence of life itself and radiated it out to others from the very fiber of her being.

“Charis, we said we’d do anything for each other!” Nerissa whined.

Charis sighed. Nerissa also had an annoying habit of whining when things weren’t going her way. “Not a chance. This is not one of those things.” After pausing momentarily, Charis added, “And we were five when we promised that!”

“That is exactly my point! You are far too attached to the past. Think of this as a way to start letting go,” Nerissa said, her eyes brightening and nodding her head encouragingly.

Charis considered for a second before realizing she was getting sucked in yet again. “Wait…you brought up that promise, not me! Nerissa, I’m serious. Father is just as protective of this book as I am. He would be angry if he knew I had even showed it to you and doubly so if he knew I had taken it out of the house!”

Nerissa had learned a long time ago that it was generally unwise to push Charis too far and she knew she had reached the limit this time. She relinquished the book to Charis’ anxious hands although she desperately wanted to examine it further. Despite her lighthearted exterior, Nerissa had other reasons for wanting to hold on to that ancient book longer. Based on her initial perusal, Charis’ book seemed to be no more than a collection of lore. Still, any book that old was bound to be filled with all sorts of fascinating history. Moreover, there was just something intriguing about it that Nerissa couldn’t quite put her finger on. This was made only more tantalizing by the fact that, for some mysterious reason, no one was supposed to actually read the book. What is a book for if not to be read? A more thorough investigation was most certainly needed. Before she could ask to see it one more time though, Charis had tucked it securely back in her bag.

“I have to get home now. Amon returned from his most recent trip this afternoon so I have to cook for three tonight.” Charis continued grumbling as she gathered last week’s supply of books and stowed them in her bag. “Amon’s behavior is obviously suspicious. I don’t know how my Father can be so blind to it.”

Nerissa had heard these complaints countless times since Amon had come to study under Charis’ father at the University a little over a year ago. “He is obviously a horrible man—handsome, well-educated, dedicated to his studies of historical art, and he frequently travels home to visit his widowed mother. Let’s not forget the most grievous issue of all—he shows a special interest in his mentor’s daughter. Who in their right mind would do that? It’s scandalous, really,” Nerissa teased.

“You know that I have many reasons to distrust him! Not the least of which is the fact that he is Casimer’s nephew. Am I the only one who still remembers that Casimer once attempted an attack to take over Chiyo?” Nerissa’s eyes narrowed, but that didn’t stop Charis from continuing. “That alone is reason enough to be suspicious—and don’t start with your diplomacy lecture. I can’t quite figure it out yet, but he’s up to something. I can sense it. His interest in me is just a part of the act.” She put special emphasis on the last statement.

“The attack was nearly twenty years ago and diplomacy has been restored for the last fifteen. It is a thing of the past. You can’t judge a person’s character by their relatives anyway.” Nerissa chuckled softly at her friend’s visible exasperation. “You’re right, he is clearly a man of dubious intent,” she added, struggling to keep a straight face.

“You and Father are far too trusting!” Charis muttered, but the corner of her mouth was starting to turn upward unwillingly.

“You are far too suspicious, but as long as we have each other it will balance out,” Nerissa concluded with a contagious grin.

“I suppose so,” Charis agreed, tucking an errant lock of coppery hair behind her ear before hefting the book bag onto her back with a soft groan. She looked over her shoulder as she walked out the door. “One day you’re going to break my back with this bibliophilic addiction of yours!” Her parting words and laughter echoed through the hallway back to Nerissa’s ears.

Nerissa smiled to herself as she crossed the room to slide open the delicate paper paneled doors that lined the far wall. Immediately, the room was swept with a gentle breeze and the familiar, faint scent of bergamot and cedar was carried in. The air stirred the slender crystal chimes that dangled between the doors, filling the room with their soothing, musical tinkling.

Returning to the other side of the room, Nerissa seated herself at the dressing table to examine her reflection. The table was covered with an array of glass bottles and jars in every shape and size, simple and ornate, filled with creams and sparkling powders in every color of the rainbow. A long red cloth containing brushes of myriad number and variety was rolled into a neat, scroll-like bundle. On the right-hand side of the table, were three rows of short, fat bottles of sparkling nail lacquers, all identical except in color. Next to those stood a small stack of boxes containing false lashes, some simple and natural, some ornate and interwoven with decorative crystals. Jars with tiny glass beads in the bottom held dozens of hair combs and pins for easy viewing. This was her one vanity and she lacked the willpower to resist the newest powder or shadow color. In Nerissa’s mind, her hair and cosmetics were the only things that really made her appear feminine. She supposed her face was pretty enough—with the proper makeup—but she had the extraordinary misfortune of inheriting her father’s handsomeness rather than her mother’s delicate facial features. It was her additional misfortune that she never developed much by way of feminine curves either. If it weren’t for creatively designed corsets, she would have no bosom whatsoever.

Scrutinizing herself in the mirror, she lightly touched up the pink-orange-yellow gradient across her eyelids then deftly piled her long locks on top of her head, securing them with two sparkling hairpins. Examining the ends cascading over the pins, she silently thanked her mother for at least passing on to her such lovely hair. The finishing touch was two puffs of strawberry-rose scented perfume in the air above her head.

She stood and gathered a folder of notes and double checked to ensure that the stone tile over the hiding spot was seated properly before stepping into the hall. If Nerissa’s room could be described as breezy, the hallway was a tunnel of swirling wind. The red fabric banners hanging from the ceiling fluttered away from the walls, such that the symbol of her country emblazoned upon them, the golden phoenix, seemed to be flying.

She glanced into her parents’ room, their studies, and the vast meeting room as she passed by, unconsciously obeying that irresistible instinct every person feels upon passing an open door. Preparations were well underway for the annual masquerade party which was to be held the following night.

Nerissa opened the heavy wooden door at the end of the hall and was swept out from the isolation of the second floor into the hive of activity that had overtaken the main room. The normally quiet great hall was abuzz with workers who were carefully arranging exotic flowers, sparkling glass beads, and beveled lamps. One man perched precariously atop a ladder, hanging thin strips of long, diaphanous crimson fabric from the high ceiling. Nerissa hurried down the sprawling staircase and passed a table piled with glow lamps that were being cleaned before being hung from the two immense chandeliers hanging in the center of the hall. She moved through as discretely as she could manage, wishing that she could be more inconspicuous, but was still cornered several times by workers seeking her opinion.

She at last stepped into the sunshine and breathed a sigh of relief as she scurried down the walk and through the open front gate. There were no guards at the gates of the Royal Manor. The peaceful country of Chiyo had no need for uniformed men to watch the doors, but Nerissa knew that there was a group of guardians who protected the Royal Manor itself in secret. She knew very little else about them though on rare occasions she thought she had seen someone lurking in the shadows—places which had certainly been vacant only a moment before. When she had asked her parents about them, all they would say is that their very existence was a secret that should never be disclosed. Nerissa didn’t know how many guards there were, but she imagined that their numbers were likely few. There was only one time she knew of that anyone had dared threaten the rulers of Chiyo. The guardians’ success on that occasion was the very reason for the impending celebration.

Before proceeding to her ultimate destination, Nerissa had one stop to make at a boutique, where both of her costumes for the following evening were being made. The boutique was small, but the seamstress there was extremely talented and had a knack for creating unique styles. Those qualities made her a favorite among all the nobles in Niamh, so it was only natural that she be the one to design the costumes for most of the women attending tomorrow’s masquerade ball. This year was unusual because Nerissa had requested not one, but two costumes. Nerissa had asked that the second one be kept a secret under the pretense that she wished to surprise her parents. She disliked being deceptive, but the tale was mostly true. The secrecy was vital to her plans for the evening, which hinged on the fact that no one would know about the second costume.

In Nerissa’s mind, the masquerade was supposed to be one night when no one knew anyone else’s name. The masks and ornate clothing provided a sense of anonymity that Nerissa could achieve on only one night a year. It afforded her an opportunity to truly mix with others as an equal. Yet, ever since she had become old enough to attend the royal ball at the Manor, she had lost even that one night. Her mother had great fun dressing the whole family in matching or themed costumes and she had no care for anonymity. Nerissa didn’t want to deny her mother that pleasure, but it came with the unfortunate by-product of making her identity immediately known to all. To be fair, it wasn’t only the costume that had that effect. Looking down at the sparkling phoenix encircling the ring finger of her left hand, Nerissa knew that this was another reason why her identity would always be immediately known. The golden phoenix ring, it’s head and red enamel tail feathers facing right, representing the future was worn only by the Heir or Heiress of Chiyo. Her parents each wore similar rings, representing the past and present. Regardless, if all went according to plan, tomorrow night she would carry out her own masquerade and spend the evening in blissful anonymity.

A tiny bell chimed as she pushed open the door to the shop. The front room served a dual purpose as both a showroom for the season’s new designs and a fitting room, with curtained booths on one wall and lined with mirrors on the other. Nerissa was idly examining a rack of blouses when the dressmaker herself emerged from the back room.

“Ahh! Heiress Nerissa, you must be here to check on your costume!” Nerissa smiled politely and nodded in agreement. “Come on back and take a look! The last few days have been hectic, but the second one is nearly done.” She followed the woman into the backroom where bolts of cloth were neatly arrayed in a rainbow of color along the walls. There were several other dresses on mannequins around the room, but Nerissa’s eyes were immediately drawn to one in particular. The dress was remarkable, with elegant ruching on the bodice and layer upon layer of fabric filling out the skirt. However, it was the color that truly set it apart—the crimson orange of sunset.

“I was a bit worried since this is the first time I’ve used this color dye, but I think it turned out rather well,” the dressmaker said. She held up a long feather that had been dyed to match. “I’ll be adding these to it tonight.”

“It’s beautiful,” Nerissa breathed. “Do you need to check the fit once more?”

“No, I’ve been working on the embellishments and accessories, so I haven’t made any alterations since the fitting earlier this week.”

“Excellent, I look forward to seeing it finished.”

“My husband can bring it to the Manor tomorrow afternoon,” the woman began.

“No need for that,” Nerissa interrupted. “I’m sure you’ll both be very busy delivering costumes to your other customers. I’ll come by tomorrow afternoon myself. I’d like to be sure that no one gets a peek at it before tomorrow evening anyway.” Nerissa winked as she returned to the front door of the shop.

“I couldn’t possibly allow…”

“I insist. Besides, someone might wonder why I am having two dresses delivered and that would ruin the surprise!” Nerissa interjected, cutting off her protests. “As always, I thank you for your hard work.”

“It is my pleasure, Heiress,” the woman replied with a bow.

The tiny bell on the door rang once again as Nerissa exited the shop and stepped into the bustling street. The main streets were filled with people. Rarely was it so crowded in town, but preparations for the following night’s festivities were underway here as well. Booths and stands were being constructed in the grassy squares that separated the buildings on one side of the road from the other. Tomorrow night the streets would be filled with masked revelers. Unlike the elegant decorum of the masquerade at the Manor, the festivities in town were energetic and sometimes wild celebrations involving games, contests, food, and drink. Though she had always lived in the Manor by the river, the capital city of Niamh had a special place in her heart because it was where she had spent most of her youth. Even her earliest memories of the masquerade were of spending the evening on these very streets with Charis and her father, playing games and eating snacks until they felt sick.

Despite being the daughter of Chiyo’s Blood and Bond, there had been no guarantee that she would one day inherit the rule of the country. Royal children were always treated the same as all other children in terms of schooling and discipline. That changed at age 12 when she, like others before her, began to learn about policies, procedures, and protocol from her parents and took on minor responsibilities. During this time, her actions and behaviors were evaluated by a secret council to determine if she was fit to receive the title of Heiress. She still had no idea who the members of the selection council had been. Nerissa had been approved of unanimously and was named Heiress on her seventeenth birthday. She had been the Heiress of Chiyo for three years, and now there were only a few citizens who still remember her as the child she once was.

Nerissa walked along, lost in thought, which is precisely how she ended up with a cream-filled pastry in her mouth before she knew it was coming. She blinked in surprise and then smiled broadly around the edges of the protruding confection. There were only a few people in Niamh whose opinion of Nerissa had not changed upon her being named Heiress—and the stout, laughing man in front of her was one of them.

“So how is it? Do you think it is good enough for tomorrow night?” he questioned, leaning closer to her expectantly.

She swallowed the first bite and pulled the remainder of the pastry from her mouth. “Recruiting unsuspecting taste testers again, Pan?”

“Humph! You’ve been sneaking tastes of my cooking ever since you were this tall,” he grinned, gesturing to the level of his knee with one hand. “It’s about time the tables were turned!” His whole body shook as he chuckled so loudly that those passing by craned their necks to see what was going on. Oh yes, Pan was one of the people who still remembered the antics of Nerissa’s childhood all too well.

A window above the bakery banged open and Pan’s wife leaned through, “Pan! You’re not telling tasteless jokes again, are you?”

“Never, my dear! How could you even think I would do that in front of such a refined lady?” he called back innocently.

Pan was one of the most jovial people she knew, always quick to smile and laugh—and equally quick to bring about the same reaction in others. Nerissa had lost count of the times she blushed at jokes he had told in her presence. He had a habit of forgetting himself and saying off-color things from time to time.

His wife tsked affectionately from the window. “If he makes you blush again, Nerissa, you have my permission to send him off to the farm for a few weeks until he learns to control his tongue!” She laughed and disappeared again.

Nerissa stepped into the shop, trailed closely by Pan. “I think that the pastry will be just perfect for tomorrow night,” she said with a smile. “Now that I have the taste in my mouth, I ought to bring a couple to have with our tea.”

“Visiting with Tao today? I wondered what had brought you by,” Pan said absently while placing two confections into a small, waxed paper bag.

“Yes, since tomorrow night is the masquerade I can’t come on the usual evening.” Nerissa couldn’t resist taking another bite of the sweet in her hand. “If I don’t fit in my dress tomorrow, I will hold you personally responsible, Pan,” she said in her most scolding voice.

“My dear, you really shouldn’t talk with your mouth full, I can’t understand you.”

Nerissa raised an eyebrow. She hadn’t any food in her mouth at all when she said that. However, she did catch a glance of herself reflected in the glass case and realized she had a bit of cream on her cheek, which she quickly wiped away. “How much do I owe you?”

“For my favorite taste tester, no charge,” Pan chortled, sliding the bag across the counter to her.

“The sign in the window says, ‘No free samples.’ You can’t disobey your own sign, Pan,” Nerissa playfully lectured.

“If you insist, then today’s fee will be a kiss right here.” No sooner had Pan pointed jovially at one of his rosy cheeks than a loud thump resounded from the ceiling, followed by an exasperated exclamation of “Pan!”.

“She doesn’t like it when I let others use her discount,” Pan whispered conspiratorially.

Nerissa laughed and placed two coins on the counter. She dashed out the door, turning back long enough to stick her tongue out and wink at him once outside the shop. Pan simply put his hands on his hips and laughed.

To make up for her unexpected stop at Pan’s shop, Nerissa cut through the gardens in the center of the city, which were just beginning to bloom. The wide legs of her pants rustled and stirred curls of fallen cherry blossoms with each step as she hurried along the winding path. Throughout the gardens were tall stone sculptures, crafted to display the grand conquests and wondrous achievements of Gared, the Hero of Renatus and one of Nerissa’s distant ancestors. In the center of the gardens, was the largest statue of them all. It depicted Gared atop a rearing horse, waving the flag of Renatus above his head in triumph. From a distance, Nerissa could see a man leaning casually against the horse’s massive hind leg, his long black hair streaming behind him in the wind with a sword at his side. As she strained to get a better look, a lock of her hair was freed by an errant wind and blew into her face. She quickly brushed it from her eyes, but when she looked again all that remained were long shadows stretching across the ground as the breeze stirred still more soft pink petals from the trees. It happened so quickly that she wondered if perhaps she had imagined him entirely, yet her senses tingled with an odd sense of foreboding.

Chapter 2

Shatter

The sense of foreboding lingered as she finally arrived at Tao’s home. Calling it a home was really an understatement. The building in front of Nerissa contained not only Tao’s residence but also a classroom and crystal shop. Despite her age, Tao had seemingly boundless energy to channel into her “hobbies” which included teaching crystal classes to the town’s children and running one of the largest crystal shops in Chiyo. Her most intriguing work, and the reason why Nerissa met with her each week was to delve deeper into the uses of crystals. She was always looking for new stones and new uses for them. Tao had a knack for combining crystals—twinning, she called it—in unique and unprecedented ways so they could be utilized for highly specialized tasks. In her younger days, Nerissa and Charis had been particularly vexed by one of Tao’s first inventions: a combination of stones which can detect lies. It was a popular item among parents, judges, and merchants. These and other creations were sold in her shop along with individual crystals imported straight from Rhea, the distant mountain region of Chiyo.

As Nerissa entered the store, tiny crystals tinkled overhead, spurred into motion by the opening of the door. An apprentice waved a greeting on his way into the stock room. Tao’s voice could be heard clearly emanating from the other room, leading her students through the steps to identifying a crystal’s element first by the shape and then by the color. Nerissa occupied herself by browsing the glass cases for new additions. One case contained hundreds of fire-fire stones. Their sharp, jagged contours in sparkling yellows, oranges, and reds presented a stark contrast to the soft curves of the blue and purple water-water stones in the adjacent case. On the opposite side of the shop, two women were exclaiming over the pure, clear spirit stones. They commented on both their remarkable quality and their inexpensive price. Spirit stones were the only crystals identified solely by their color without regard to their shape. Colorless crystals of high clarity were very rare indeed—meaning spirit stones were prized above all others.

Wandering past the case of fire-air and air-metal stones, Nerissa paused to look at the most unique crystal in the collection. It was one of her personal favorites. This particular specimen was not for sale. It was far more rare than even the clearest spirit stones. The stone was a gradient of clear, blue, green, and pink with threads of silver within the crystal itself; representing spirit, water, earth, fire, and metal, respectively. A single stone that embodied all five elements was so astronomically rare that its existence would be nearly impossible to believe if she couldn’t see it with her own eyes. Stranger still, the stone didn’t behave like any other. No matter what crystals she and Tao had tried to twin it with, and they had tried numerous combinations, it simply sat there as unreactive and lifeless as an ordinary rock.

The rustling of papers and books a moment later told Nerissa that the class had ended. Passing the case, she walked a short distance down a narrow hallway to the doorway of the classroom. Holding the bag of pastries behind her back, she leaned against the frame and waved discretely when Tao spotted her. The students, none any greater in height than Nerissa’s waist, filed out of the room. Some paused and briefly bowed with formal greetings of “Hello, Heiress Nerissa!” and others simply laughed and waved, calling out an informal “Hello, Nerissa!” before hurrying on their way. As Tao carefully organized the papers on her desk, Nerissa mused to herself about what the students would think if they saw the way their teacher really was. A crashing sound near the window, followed by a stifled curse from Tao, caught her attention. Before Nerissa located the source of the sound, Tao had already pulled a brush from its hook on the wall and begun pushing tiny shards of a green crystal from the floor into a basket of rubbish.

“Tao, that crystal! What…,” Nerissa began before Tao cut her off mid-sentence with a hiss.

“I’m simply a clumsy old woman. It’s a shame, really. That was a rare specimen. Earth-air crystals like that one can only be found in remote areas of Marise.”

It was not possible for Tao to have knocked the crystal over since she had not been near the window! She was rambling, an obvious attempt at changing the subject.

“Tao…” Nerissa started again, this time cut off by a pointed look from Tao along with a sharp nod of her head toward the other room. Her apprentice was hovering near the door, pretending to be busy dusting. “…that is a shame,” Nerissa finished, barely catching herself.

“Indeed. Help me carry these upstairs before I drop them as well,” Tao said dryly. She paused just outside the door to bid goodnight to her apprentice before proceeding on.

Nerissa followed the elderly instructor up the narrow stairway to the second story where she lived. The living area directly above the shop and classroom was as different from the first floor as night is to day. This floor was one large room that was both airy and spacious with a wide set of paneled glass doors opening onto a balcony. Bookshelves lined every available wall. They were stuffed and stacked to overflowing with volumes of literature and lore about crystals, their history, their myths, and their uses. Stacks of papers and still more books crowded the two tables in the center of the room. Some were closed with colored ribbons peeking out from the pages to mark important or interesting passages and others were stacked atop one another while still open. There were even books on the floor protruding from Tao’s bed, apparently tucked away just before dreams overtook consciousness.

Tao busied herself, starting a fire in the small stove and putting a gray kettle on top to boil water for the tea. “Which lucky young nobleman will be escorting the Heiress to the masquerade tomorrow?” she queried, not the slightest bit ashamed of the boldness of her question.

Nerissa decided silence and a doleful look was the best answer. The idea of dating any of the noblemen of Chiyo was not particularly pleasurable. Each of the young nobles she had the distinct displeasure of being acquainted with were less than discrete about their true intentions. After the third heartbreak caused by one of these self-centered leeches, Nerissa decided she would be much happier if she never married. Never mind that there were plenty of other men in Chiyo and that there were no requirements that she marry another noble. Her own mother had married a farmer after all. Nerissa was thoroughly convinced that she would never find someone that was interested in her and not her station.

“You shouldn’t choose to be alone just because you had a few bad experiences, you know,” Tao said.

Oh, yes, I can, Nerissa thought.

Tao crossed the room and opened a drawer, pulling out a small cloth sachet. “Humor an old woman, please, and take this. It will help you find love.”

“I’ll probably just end up with some cocky nobleman. I’m much better off without love.” She would not reduce herself to pouting in front of Tao. Nerissa examined the water-water crystal inside the pouch and shot Tao a questioning look.

“It will help you attract true love. It just arrived from Rhea and I set it aside for you,” she answered.  “You should be careful. If you keep saying that you’ll end up with a cocky nobleman, it might just happen,” Tao added teasingly as Nerissa winced.

“It’s a beautiful stone. Thank you.” Nerissa appreciated the gesture, even if she disagreed with Tao’s sentiment.

The muffled tinkle of the chimes on the front door was music to Nerissa’s ears. She looked out the window to see Tao’s apprentice making his way down the street.

“You were about to ask about the shattering crystals, yes?” Tao asked. An unreadable look flittered across her face before she smiled faintly. She stood on her tip-toes, stretching to reach the top shelf in the tall wooden cabinet where she stored the tea leaves.

“So you’ve heard about them too?” Nerissa waited for Tao to nod in confirmation before going on. “What is the need for secrecy? I’ve been told that crystals are shattering all over town, so it isn’t like no one has noticed.”

“Is that what your friend Charis says? She has an uncanny knack for gathering information. It is causing a stir among many people because they believe in the omen that a spontaneously shattering crystal represents.”

“I wonder why so many are breaking.” Nerissa was beginning to feel unsettled.

“You are a particularly perceptive girl, Nerissa. Have you seen anything unusual over the last few days?”

Nerissa twitched involuntarily just a second before the kettle began its shrill whistle. She hoped that Tao hadn’t noticed, or if she had that she would think she had been startled by the kettle. “I’ve been busy the last few days preparing for the masquerade on top of the usual duties and my studies at the University. This is actually the first day that I’ve had some free time this week.”

A knowing look crossed Tao’s face, but if it was due to Nerissa’s evasion she did not pursue it. “I have read,” Tao gestured to a book opened and earmarked at the corner, “that immediately preceding a great event, the building energy becomes so intense that it can sometimes become a tangible manifestation to anyone perceptive enough to sense it. Those who have experienced it wrote that it seemed almost as if the future were overlapping with the present.”

“I am hardly a prophet, Tao.” Nerissa frowned, pushing the image of the disappearing dark-haired man out of her mind.

“Indeed, you are not. There are very few true ones in the world. I simply think you are remarkably perceptive and you have been since you were a child. Many of the things you told me as a girl make me believe these books are absolutely accurate.” Tao poured the steaming water into two ceramic cups then opened the can containing the tea leaves. She carefully measured the mixture of tea leaves and rose petals before pouring them into the cups as well. Placing the pot and cups onto a tray, she carried them out to the small table on the balcony where they both settled into their usual spots.

“What could the omen mean?” Nerissa asked, watching as tiny brown tendrils spiraled down from the leaves to the depths of her cup.

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


reflection low resAvailable in E-book and paperback formats on Amazon.

© 2015 Rachel R. Smith

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