Reflection: Thorn of the White Rose

Chapter 1

Ink, Paper, and a Secret Meeting

Charis picked up the last book from the table in front of her and flipped it open, fanning the pages as she inhaled the heavenly aroma of fresh ink and paper. The pleasantness of the scent was further enhanced by the fact that this book was the very last one from—what had been—two towering stacks of new acquisitions she catalogued and processed this evening. Her left hand ached from hours of carefully recording each book’s information into the log and copying the relevant details onto cards for the University Library’s card catalog. She wasn’t even supposed to be working tonight. But, when half of the staff had been too sick to report to work, Charis volunteered to take on an extra shift at the last minute. It seemed like everyone was getting sick lately.

As if summoned by her thought, there came a sneeze followed by a sniffle from the woman sitting beside her.

“It sounds like you’re getting sick too. Are you sure you don’t want to go home and rest?” Charis asked the Head Librarian. “I can finish the remainder of this by myself.”

“I can rest—,” the woman began, pausing midsentence to wrinkle her nose and hold up one finger while she tugged a handkerchief from her pocket with a free hand. She blew into the cloth, emitting a painful-sounding honk before speaking again. “I can rest when the work is finished.”

Charis winced, partially in sympathy and partially out of concern for her own health. “Well, if you insist on staying, at least we’re almost done.”

The Head Librarian managed a thin smile. “I do appreciate your help this evening. It’s a shame that more of your coworkers don’t share your dedication. How silly to let something like a little cold keep them from coming in.”

Charis accepted the woman’s compliment with a smile, though she wasn’t sure that she would have reported in either if she weren’t feeling well. It was important to be reliable and to take pride in your work, but there was such a thing as being too committed—and the Head Librarian was a prime example of that. At the very moment that thought crossed Charis’ mind, the woman’s hand flew up to her mouth to muffle her next cough. It was a good thing she did since it may otherwise have drowned out the soft knocking that came from the doorway at the same time.

“Good evening, ladies,” Charis’ father called out. “I thought I’d drop by to let you know that my meeting in the Special Collection Room has wrapped up. Amon should be leaving shortly as well.”

“Thank you,” the Head Librarian replied. “I take it Amon will lock the room on his way out?” Her tone made it clear that the last part was more of an instruction than a question. “The gate was left open a few weeks ago. Even though it didn’t cause a problem, I don’t want it to become a habit.”

Charis squirmed in her seat as she fought to maintain a neutral expression. It was her fault that the gate had been left open on the night of the Arts Festival. Well, not entirely my fault, she silently amended. Amon moving the ladder and stranding her in the window nook had made her so angry and flustered that she stormed out without even thinking about the gate. In her opinion, that made him responsible too.

“I reminded him to lock up before leaving,” Charis’ father affirmed before turning his attention to Charis. “I didn’t expect to see you here. I thought you were off tonight.”

“I was supposed to be, but I offered to come in since so many of the staff are sick.”

“And she’s done the work of three this evening,” the Head Librarian added.

“I would expect no less.” His voice was stern, but a ghost of a smile flittered across his lips as he spoke. “Will you be done soon? I can wait and walk home with you.”

“Go on, Charis dear. I can handle what’s left,” the Head Librarian said while attempting to stifle another sneeze.

Charis shook her head firmly. “There’s no need for you to wait,” she said to her father. “I want to help with a few final tasks, so I’ll be here awhile.”

A look of understanding crossed her father’s face. “In that case, I won’t distract you anymore. Don’t be out too late,” he said before departing.

Charis spent the next half hour sorting each of the newly catalogued books onto carts based on the section of the library where they would be shelved. The Head Librarian stubbornly persisted with her own work, alternately sniffling, sneezing, and coughing all the while.

Finally, just as Charis was about to push the first cart out of the room, the older woman laid down her pen with a sigh and looked up at the clock. “I think I’ve done as much as I can for tonight. It’s nearly time for curfew anyway.”

The thought of King Casimer’s curfew still made Charis bristle, but she refrained from voicing her disapproval. Instead, she said, “It will take me a few minutes to deliver all these carts to the circulation desks. Please go on home. There’s no need for you to wait for me.”

“That’s very considerate of you, dear,” the woman said as she wrapped a fur-lined cape around her shoulders in preparation to leave. “I’m sure I’ll be feeling much better in the morning.”

“I’m sure you will,” Charis agreed, even though she doubted that would be the case. She bid the Head Librarian goodnight and then pushed the cart down a short hallway and into the body of the library.

Shadows loomed out from the towering shelves, crisscrossing with one another to form a pattern of patches in varying degrees of blackness that almost seemed to imitate the room’s checkerboard floor. Not a single glow lamp hung from the chandeliers or wall sconces. They had all been removed by the day staff hours ago when the library closed and been taken to the racks outside to recharge in tomorrow’s sunlight. Although the moonlight barely provided enough light to see, the darkness didn’t bother Charis. She had worked late many times, and she knew the library well enough to navigate through the numerous rows and aisles with her eyes closed.

The first few cart deliveries were completed quickly and uneventfully. Unfortunately, that trend did not persist for long. The fourth cart had a squeaky wheel that filled the silent library with its constant, echoing screech, leaving Charis with a ringing in her ears afterward. The fifth cart, much to her dismay, was also in dire need of repair. One of the wheels fluttered back and forth, making contact with the floor at random intervals. Whenever it did, the cart would lurch unpredictably in one direction or another. It took every ounce of her strength to keep it from careening into the bookcases on either side of the narrow aisle. Charis seethed with irritation as the cart nearly escaped from her grasp yet again. Never before had the walk to the fiction section seemed quite so long. By the time she reached the desk, she wanted nothing more than to give the cart a frustrated shove and walk away. The only thing preventing her from doing so was the fear that it would topple over in the process, and then she would have to pick up all the books. Instead, she gently brought the cart to a stop beside the desk, pivoted on one heel, and flounced away.

As she made her way back down the central aisle for the last cart, a reverberating thud rang out. Though loud, the sound wasn’t entirely unexpected. Noises made in the spacious entryway area had a tendency to carry throughout the building—especially when it was empty. Charis assumed this one had been made by the doors closing behind either Amon or the Head Librarian on their way out.

Sure enough, Charis returned to find a darkened office. The Head Librarian had taken all but one of the glow lamps from this room out to the racks before leaving. Charis was glad that the woman hadn’t decided to wait for her. She really wasn’t in the mood to make the obligatory small talk on the way home.

There was no sense in coming back to the office, so she slid her arms into the straps of her backpack, put on her cape, and shuttered the remaining glow lamp. She muttered a quick prayer that the last cart would be more cooperative since it was bound for the reference desk on the opposite side of the library.

To Charis’ great relief, the last cart had none of the quirks the previous two possessed. It glided down the aisles silently and effortlessly as if the weight of the books it carried was no burden at all. This was a fortunate stroke of luck since the other carts would have been too loud or too distracting for Charis to notice the distant, but distinct, rattle of Amon closing the gate to the Special Collection Room.

Keep quiet, Charis, she told herself. Like her father, Amon didn’t know she had volunteered to work tonight. If he did discover she was still here, particularly this close to curfew, she was sure he would insist on walking home together. Given a choice, she would rather have left with the Head Librarian. At least around her, Charis’ mind didn’t turn into a befuddling jumble of emotions.

She didn’t want to attract Amon’s attention, so once she brought the cart to a halt beside the reference desk, she slipped off her shoes. If Amon was leaving the Special Collection Room, he was much closer to the main entrance than she was. There was no need for Charis to hurry. All she needed to do was stay out of sight and wait for him to leave. She moved furtively toward the front of the building, peeking around the corners of bookcases for any sign of Amon before tiptoeing across the aisles between them. Her ears strained in eager anticipation for the thundering of the doors to signal his departure.

Her maneuver was proceeding smoothly until Amon stepped into sight at the opposite end of the row of bookshelves, striding purposefully away from the entrance. Charis jerked her head back into the safety of the shadows and pressed herself against the endcap. Staring up at the ceiling, she held in a vexed sigh. He must have forgotten something in the Special Collection Room. Why else would he be coming this way?

Charis considered making a dash for the entryway. After all, she was already wearing her pack and cape. If she moved quickly enough, she could be out and on her way home before he reemerged from the Special Collection Room. But if Amon somehow happened to spot her, she would never be able to come up with a reasonable explanation for why she was scurrying through the dark library in her socks. She supposed it would be more sensible to give up and call out to him, but when it came to Amon, her stubbornness frequently won out over sensibility.

Making an uncharacteristically impulsive decision, Charis followed him. She couldn’t risk having him come up on her from behind, so there was no other choice but to keep her eyes on him. Surprisingly, he passed the arched hallway leading to the Special Collection Room without hesitation and continued along the exterior wall until he reached an unmarked door. He reached into his pocket to withdraw a key, and Charis’ shoulders relaxed. She didn’t know why he was using the side door, but at this point, she didn’t care.

Her respite was short-lived, however. Instead of leaving, Amon stepped aside, allowing a tall man with a long ponytail to come in. Charis’ eyes widened in recognition. Though the man was wearing a floor-length cloak, it was pushed aside so that the sword at his hip was on full display. His hair, coupled with the sword and his commanding stance, immediately reminded Charis of Nerissa’s companion, Raysel. Was Amon meeting with Nerissa’s allies?

A mixture of astonishment and guilt washed over her. Nerissa herself had warned that knowledge of the Ohanzee was a closely guarded secret—people’s lives depended on that secrecy. Suddenly, she saw Amon’s suspicious past behaviors in an entirely different light. Hadn’t he tried to reassure her that he wasn’t really as bad as she made him out to be? Of course he couldn’t tell her he was involved with the Ohanzee. All this time he had been helping Nerissa’s allies, and all she had done was return his attempts at kindness with nothing but suspicion and hostility.

The two men exchanged words briefly, but Charis was too far away to overhear their quiet conversation. Now feeling far too curious to stay put and emboldened by the presence of one of the Ohanzee, she slunk down the aisle toward them, careful to keep the bookcase between her and their line of sight. This had the unfortunate side effect of also obscuring her view. She crouched down, skimming the shelves until she found a cluster of short books grouped together on both sides of the bookcase. The gap between their tops and the shelf above allowed barely enough room for her to see through.

“Are you certain that we are alone?” the man asked. “I thought I heard something just now.”

Charis’ eyebrows climbed her forehead as the man looked over his shoulder and stared directly at her hiding spot. She concentrated on holding herself perfectly still, the tip her nose pressing against the spine of one of the books. The whole area was in shadow, and the gap in the shelves was barely taller than her eyes. There was no way he could see her…was there?

“Yes, I’m certain,” Amon replied patiently. “I heard the Head Librarian pushing carts around earlier, so I checked her office immediately before coming here to be doubly sure she had gone home. This old building creaks and groans constantly, but those noises are only noticeable at night.”

That wasn’t the Head Librarian pushing the carts—that was me, Charis corrected silently.

The explanation seemed to satisfy his companion, and the man focused his attention on Amon once more. “You have kept me waiting for too long,” he complained.

Amon folded his arms across his chest, and Charis noticed for the first time that he was carrying with him a black leather portfolio. “It couldn’t be helped. You were the one who insisted we meet tonight instead of our usual night. This was the earliest I could slip away without the chance of being seen.”

“As you say, it couldn’t be helped. My schedule is unusually tight right now. I’ve had to take on a number of additional tasks recently.”

“Have your comrades started coming down with the sickness that is going around?” Amon asked.

The man’s ponytail swished as he shook his head. “No, only a few have become ill, but our numbers are spread thin. Many have been reassigned to monitor the spread of the outbreak, while others have been assigned to assist with the distribution of experimental medicines and the collection of results. Still others have been sent to Silvus and Rhea to deal with a situation…”

He trailed off as a distant rattle rang out, followed by the unmistakable thud of the entryway doors. Charis froze, even as her heartbeat doubled its pace. Though she didn’t fear that the Ohanzee man would harm her, she definitely didn’t want to be caught. Before she could consider whether to stay in place or run, the man stepped swiftly out the side door. For a fleeting moment, Amon hesitated, his gaze swinging indecisively between where the man had been standing and the front of the library. With a grumble, he spun and hastened toward the source of the sound.

The soft tapping of his footsteps gradually faded away, leaving Charis with nothing but the sound of her own rapid breathing for company. Her knees threatened to give out on her, aching as much from crouching as from nerves. Deciding it would be safe to stay here for now, she eased to the floor, and her legs tingled as the muscles loosened.

A few minutes later, she heard the echo of the main entrance doors closing, followed soon after by more footsteps. They grew louder with every passing second, signaling Amon’s return. She rose to her knees and peered through the gap in time to see the man step inside.

“The Head Librarian came back for her lunchbox,” Amon said with a hint of annoyance in his voice. “I told her I was finishing up and walked her back to the entrance.”

“We will not meet like this again. It’s too risky.” The man’s tone was so low it almost sounded like a growl.

You are the one who insisted we meet tonight,” Amon said, utterly unfazed by the unspoken threat in his companion’s tone.

The man grunted in response, but he didn’t argue. “Let’s get this done so I can be on my way. King Casimer is eager to receive the latest update on your research for him. He thinks he has located the original of one of the paintings described in your notes, but he doesn’t want to acquire such a high-value piece without being sure it’s the right one.”

Charis’ chest tightened in an instant, and her heart climbed into her throat as that one statement made the actual truth of the situation readily apparent. This man wasn’t one of the Ohanzee. He worked for King Casimer. You should have known better than to think Amon might be an ally, she berated herself. He’s been doing research for Casimer on the side all along.

But what did Casimer hope to gain? There would be no reason to hide the fact that he was doing research if the paintings he sought were simply wall decorations—even very valuable ones. Although Marisianne culture focused primarily on science and technology, they also had records on the arts and art history. However, since the University Library contained the most extensive records of artists and their works in all of Renatus, the paintings Casimer was looking for information about must be old and obscure.

Amon unwound the strap that bound the black leather folder in his hands and withdrew a sheaf of papers. “Somehow I doubt the price of any painting is high enough to give my uncle pause,” he commented as he handed them over. “Even if he bought the wrong one, the cost would be pocket change for the Treasury of Marise.”

The man rolled the papers and secured them within a tube that he pulled from the lining of his cloak. “Indeed, but even the deepest coffers will empty if the contents are spent frivolously.”

“I suppose he is also concerned that it would look bad in the eyes of the public to be buying expensive pieces of artwork while this strange sickness spreads unchecked,” Amon relented. “I hope my most recent translations will help him come to a conclusion about that particular painting.”

The man nodded in agreement. “We’ll meet next on our regular night.” Without waiting for a response from Amon, he opened the door and disappeared into the night amidst a swirl of black fabric.

Now that Casimer’s messenger was gone, Charis inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. She watched from her hiding spot as Amon locked the side door and then began to walk toward the main entrance of the library. After waiting a few minutes to put some distance between them, she crept down the hallway, dodging from the shadow of one bookcase to the next. This time, Amon did not double back. He went directly to the front doors, and the key jangled as he locked them behind him.

Charis hovered near one of the windows, watching until his retreating form was out of sight before letting herself out as well. If she hurried, she would just have time to get home before curfew.


Reflection: Thorn of the White Rose

Available in E-book and Paperback format on May 31, 2016.

© 2016 Rachel R. Smith