The man and woman had created a space for themselves on the bridge. Normally. a crowd would just have pushed past them without any sort of regard for the young couple. However, the man was on one knee and it looked as though the woman was holding her breath in with the way her hands covered her mouth. While much of the crowd did pass by, a ring of onlookers created a protective bubble around them.
“Sylla,” the man said after a long pause, “I can’t imagine my life without you.”
“I want to make a life together, a life I want you to be a part of. Together we will decide what’s best, and I won’t decide anything without you. This I swear.”
Aya realized that she’d stopped breathing herself, for a moment. She wasn’t on the bridge, so it was difficult to make out exactly what was happening, but, for some reason, their voices were clear enough to hear.
From what she could see, the man was holding something up. A necklace, perhaps. Whatever it was, it was large enough that he needed both hands to hold it up.
“Rajha…” it was much more difficult to make out what the woman, Sylla, was saying. Her voice was a bit softer, but Aya moved a bit closer to the bridge. “…I do. I do love you… …want to be with you… …always…”
Something twisted inside her, Aya wasn’t sure exactly what the feeling was, but bittersweet was perhaps the best word for it.
Unlike other girls her age, almost old enough to no longer attend the academy, and ripe enough to wed and have children, she had no such aspirations. She wasn’t sure if it was something broken in her, or something broken about the world.
It definitely felt like the latter. The crowd applauded as the young man, Rajha, stood up and placed his necklace around his betrothed’s neck. The stone set in it wasn’t precious, but it was smooth and polished and gleamed in the afternoon’s light all the same.
Still, while Aya didn’t want to become someone’s wife and devote her life to raising their children, the embrace that the couple shared looked warm and her heart unexpectedly yearned for it. The feeling was so sudden and powerful that she had to look away for a moment as it overcame her.
In that moment staring down at the river, she remembered that she had a task to do. Aya’s mom had asked her to deliver the clean laundry to their Forday customers. Her satchel was half empty, but she sifted through it to remind herself of her next stop. The Bleekers, right.
The unfortunate thing about the gathered crowd was that it made the bridge more difficult to walk. Without thinking, Aya hopped up on the railing, which was easily wide enough to accommodate a person walking across it. Of course, it was still precarious, removing the only barrier between one’s self and the swift flowing Ruar, and Aya’s heart began to beat faster before she forced her body to be calm.
There were a couple of glances up at her, but most people were either more interested in the newly engaged couple, or in getting across the bridge. As Aya crossed, she noted that the bubble continued to shrink, until the couple was swallowed up by the crowd.
As she hopped down from the railing on the other side of the river it occurred to Aya that Rajha and Sylla were likely only a couple years older than her at most. However, Nairth was a large enough city that it wasn’t entirely a surprise that she didn’t know them.
The academy kept things very separate. A typical week of classes consisted of three days out of the six or seven days in a week, but the academy was open all week long, except Holday, the seventh day that occurred every other weekly cycle. Class schedules were so tightly regimented as to make it impossible for interaction between them.
Aya couldn’t say why the policy was what it was, but all of the schools in the world were run by the Church, and the Church did a lot of things that she couldn’t explain.
* * *
It was close to evening when Aya made it back home. Thrum’s grocers was open, so she went through the front door to the back of the shop rather than take the alley entrance which had a stair leading up to their home on the second floor.
Their second story apartment was the only home Aya could remember, though her mother said they had lived there for ten years. Thrum’s business had done so well that he now had lodgings in the East Point district, a cozy, well-appointed home that could only be called small because of its neighbors. He had a second store there as well, one that was much larger, but he left the running of it to his eldest son. In spite of his move, Thrum was a near daily fixture in her life and she waved to him as she passed through.
Balding and somewhere between fifty or sixty, Aya never dared ask, he was a stout, portly man with a full beard of snow and a genial smile on his lips.
“All done with your chores, then?” Thrum called over.
“I’m sure ma will have some more for me when I get up there.”
This elicited a booming laugh from the older man. “She works hard too, make sure you both find some rest. Eh?”
“I’ll let her know of your orders.” Aya gave a mock salute.
Customers weren’t allowed past the oak door in the back, but Aya wasn’t a customer. She ignored the sign and pushed her way through, immediately ascending the stairs on her right.
In truth, she wasn’t sure there would be any more work for her to do, except to help her mother with dinner. Which was a good thing, lugging laundry through the city was tiring work and Aya was looking forward to lying in her bed with a good book.
While all of the children in the city were taught to read, having books was a luxury that many of her social status couldn’t afford. However, her mother insisted on making sure there were always some in the house.
“Escape this city every once in awhile,” she often said to Aya. “In the only way we can.”
Aya was determined to escape Nairth in truth one day, but she still couldn’t yet see the path she would have to take to do it.
“Aya, is that you, hun?” A voice called out as Aya shouldered her way through their front door.
“Unless Thrum has been making visits I don’t know about.”
“Dear, I wish you’d stop with that little joke of yours.”
In spite of her words, Aya’s mom emerged from the kitchen with a smile on her face as she dried her hands on a cloth at her waist. Thrum was a widower of five years. Aya would never dream of her mother forcing herself into a marriage she didn’t want, but if she was going to continue to try and press Aya about Thrum’s son, Josiuh, then Aya was going to press her about Thrum.
Her mother reached out and took her hands, her brown eyes looking into Aya’s blue orbs intensely. It was a gaze that promised she would never have any secrets from her mother, but Aya merely smiled and kissed her mother on the cheek.
They were best friends, as close as a parent and child could be anyways, she never intended to have any secrets from her mother.
“He did order us to rest.” Aya said after a moment, a slight smirk playing on her features.
“I’m sure he did,” her mother said as she pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I already have a stew going, come help me with some rolls and we’ll be done.”
As much as Aya despised the idea of being anyone’s dutiful wife, there were a number of domestic duties she favored, and making food was one of them. She dropped her empty satchel off, then washed her hands in the wash bin that her mother had drawn up before reaching for the leavened dough. She tore fist-sized chunk from the loaf and began to knead it.
The dough was softer than flesh, but it still had a fair bit of substance to it and she relished the bit of resistance it gave as she stretched it to its limits before rolling it back on itself. A quarter turn and then to repeat.
Aya found herself briefly thinking of the couple from earlier once more. She hoped they were happy together somewhere, cuddled up with each other. She’d never met her own father, but in spite of the words her mother used to describe him, she could tell that her mother had let the one she truly loved get away. Aya was a bit more ambivalent though, she found it difficult to favor a man who had walked out on his family.
Her mother had implied that there were reasons for his leaving, but, without knowing the reasons, Aya could only picture the worst.
She punched her current role a little hard and ended up with a slightly sticky pancake on the counter. Grunting, she simply tossed the dough among the scraps, which would later be fed to their garden outside. Aya took a look at her progress and realized she was done.
“I’m going to read!” She called out, her mother wasn’t in the kitchen.
There was a moment of pause and then, “okay! I’ll let you know when it’s done.”
Aya’s current story was entitled The Last Prince and His Phoenix. She preferred heroines when she could find them, but they were rare and The Last Prince was a hero that spoke to everyone. In fact, she giggled as she picked up the well-worn book, even though the Prince was a boy, he was frequently described as beautiful. Aya realized that if she did ever end up with a boy, she’d want him to be beautiful too.
Her room was a bit of organized chaos as she plopped back on her bed. It wasn’t messy, there was just a lot to fit in such a small pace. School books, leisure books, paper and instruments for drawing, along with dozens of actual drawings, finished, unfinished, and never likely to be finished. Aya had also claimed the space in a rather unique way by painting floral designs all over the walls of her room. It felt like there was something in every inch of space. Sometimes it felt cramped, but other times it was like a warm, well-wrapped blanket.
She lost herself in the story for the better part of an hour.
Phoenixes had always teased at a special part of Aya’s imagination. They were birds most commonly associated with fire and rebirth, but as strong as that myth was, the legend she was reading had offered a slightly different shape of it. In the Last Prince legend, there was a Phoenix for each element, though they were still eternal beings of rebirth, each and every one of them.
Sometimes Aya saw a Phoenix in her dreams. Instead of the red warmth of fire, it was a glorious metallic white gold. She hadn’t seen its powers, but some part of her was certain that it was a Phoenix of the ice and cold. Yet she was also certain a heart of flame existed within it as well.
Aya put her book aside and sat up in her bed, reaching for the stack of papers that she knew contained her glimpses of the majestic creature in her dreams. The first sketch in the stack even had a name on it, “Nu.” She smiled wanly at it, she wasn’t sure if that was the Phoenix’s name, or merely one of convenience for her, but she was certain that, in time, she would know more.
Phoenixes weren’t real, of course. None of the creatures of myth were, it was a fact that had been instructed into her head. Myths. Were. Not. Real.
Yet, still Aya dreamed.
“Dinner’s done!” Her mother called.