The Porcelain Prince

Amber Dreams

By Laura Schiller

1. Amber

A lazy afternoon breeze brushed Rhiannon Taylor's shoulders as she walked down the front steps of Hoffmann College, making her slow down and look up at the pale blue sky. On the green lawn all around her, her fellow students were sunbathing on blankets in tight little knots, tossing Frisbees or footballs around, or lounging on the stone steps and smoking cigarettes.

Rhia was alone, her classes finished for the day. She was so tired from a late night of studying for her Economics exam that she could have dropped down on the grass and slept right there; however, since it was her turn for grocery shopping and her roommate would be very put out if she returned empty-handed, she made her way to the bus stop sign and settled down to wait.

She dropped her heavy backpack on the ground and stared at the road, at the neat little suburban houses and the hint of the river beyond. She noted the blurred specks clouding her vision and sighed; how could her glasses be so filthy again when she'd cleaned them only this morning? She took them off and tried rubbing them clean with the edge of her sleeve, with no success.

The bus came up after what seemed like ages, glaringly blue and white with an advertisement for Burger King plastered to the side. A wave of suffocating bus smell hit her as the doors opened with a hiss; she grabbed her bag and flashed her MetroCard to the driver and he grunted, looking as if he found yet another passenger to be a personal insult of some sort. The bus was nearly empty; since Rhia had gotten out of class early due to the exam, she was ahead of the students' rush hour. She sat down close to the front with her bag on her lap, wishing she could lean her head on something; the rattles and jolts of the vehicle made it impossible.

Watching the blur of trees, gardens, telephone poles and houses passing by through the window, she wondered – not for the first time – if she had done the right thing, applying for the Commerce program when it bored her to tears. Whoever called economics 'the dismal science', she thought wryly, was right.

The bus was now driving down a street filled with curious little shops – a bakery, a furniture store with a huge basket-like chair in front, a toy store with a giant Caillou doll in the window, a rather shabby art gallery, a video rental adorned with decade-old posters, and an antiques shop – was it one? – with a wooden sign swinging above the door. The sign read Spinelli's Arts and Crafts in golden letters on a dark blue background. It was a tiny place, its white paint peeling off in some places and cracks forming in the walls. The shop window was piled with all sorts of things, but there was only one thing which Rhiannon focused on. Her mind froze.

Something glittered in that shadowy shop window, two things, like a pair of jewels...or someone's eyes.

A fiery, golden amber.

She stood up impulsively, having to grab the metal rail for balance when the bus slowed for a stop sign. The shop disappeared from her vision as quickly as the others had, and for some reason she wanted to cry, as if she had missed the chance to find something wonderful.

But no, she hadn't missed her chance yet. There was a bus stop on this very same street, and if she walked, she could surely get back to that shop and see whose eyes had been sparkling out of the window just now. It was almost five p.m., but she knew that Provigo, the supermarket, stayed open until late in the night. She had plenty of time.

She reached up for the yellow cable strung above the windows and gave a sharp tug. A beep came; after a few breathless seconds, when it seemed the driver was ignoring her, suddenly the bus stop came into view outside her window and, with a groaning shudder, the thing stopped and opened its doors. She jumped off, slinging her bag over one shoulder and clinging to the strap, and ran in the opposite direction the bus was headed to.

She almost ran past Spinelli's, it was so small, but when she caught another glimpse of amber out of the corner of her eyes, she stopped in front of the glass window and stared, breathlessly, half-amused at the hint of her own wide-eyed reflection in the glass.

There was a lopsided stack of books in the window, beautiful cloth- and leather-bound volumes mixed up with modern paperbacks. There was a gold-framed painting of a young blonde woman in a pink sundress with a straw hat; for a moment, it seemed that she was turning her head to look at Rhia, but that had to be a trick of the light. There was a life-sized, very elegant black crow carved of stone, sitting on a pedestal. There was an ornate silver pot of ink, along with a matching fountain pen lying on a scarlet pillow.

Beyond the window, she could see other things: bookshelves, an enormous grand piano, picture frames, paper, brushes, tubes of paint and more. It seemed to be a shop for artists of every description, selling both raw material and finished creations. However, she took all of these things in with barely a glance; immediately her eyes were drawn to the center of the window display. That was where the glittering stones were; they belonged to a ceramic doll, about as high as the space from her elbow to her fingertips.

She had never seen a doll like that before.

It was a young man with realistic proportions, wearing a black tailcoat and trousers and a white shirt. They were real cloth, not just painted on, and there was even a tiny red paper flower in one of his buttonholes. His painted hair was a dark, rich brown, just long enough to gather into a short ponytail at the back. When she looked closely into his face, she expected him to be wearing the blank expression most dolls wore. Instead, though he did not smile, his face was so full of joy and rapture that it brought tears to her eyes. He seemed to be looking directly into her face and, trying to get as close as possible, she put her hands on the glass in front of her and stared at him with hungry eyes.

"Oh, now, honey. I just cleaned up that window, so would you mind not messing it up again?"

Rhia jumped and took her hands away. The speaker was a man standing on the other side of the shop window; the wind brought the sound of his loud, friendly voice outside through the open door.

He was in his late middle age, small and round-bellied, with a fringe of snow-white curls going around the sides of his head. His brown eyes twinkled at her from behind thick glasses as he listened to her apology; she had to laugh at her own embarrassment and she knew immediately that she liked this man.

"I was just looking at this...figurine," she explained, thinking it sounded a bit more respectful than 'doll'. "He's amazing. How did the artist manage to paint his face like that?" As she talked, she went into the shop, setting off a sweet chiming sound from the bells above the door.

"I made him years ago," the old man said proudly. She assumed he was Mr. Spinelli, the shop's owner. "Everything from the face down to sewin' the outfit. Went a little crazy there for awhile...couldn't get him outta my head. It was like he wanted to be made. You an artist too, honey?"

Rhia bobbed her head from side to side in a vague affirmative. "I paint and draw... sometimes."

"Ah, I thought so. Saw it in your eyes." Mr. Spinelli nodded and shook a finger at her. "So you'll know how that feels, eh? Sometimes creation just bursts out of you on its own."

Rhia remembered, rather guiltily, the nights she had spent in front of a canvas, only to feel twice as lost and stupid during class the next day. But what did he mean by saying he 'saw it in her eyes'? Was that possible or was he just trying to flatter her into buying something?

Mr. Spinelli picked up the figurine and turned it around, so that it faced them instead of the street. He peered intently into the young man's face, blinked twice, then held him out to Rhia with an enormous, beaming smile.

"Ah, excellent! Wonderful! I knew you'd come along someday, darlin'. You are ex-act-ly what we've been waiting for."

"What – what do you mean?"

"You want him, right?"

Rhia's eyes shone. "Oh, yes!"

"Then he's yours."

She rushed to the counter at the back of the shop, dropped her bag and began rummaging through it in search of her wallet. "How much?" she called over her shoulder to Mr. Spinelli, who hadn't moved.

"Oh no, no, no!" He held out one hand and waved it in the air, calling her back. "You don't have to pay! Someone as passionate about...about art as you are doesn't have to pay."

Rhia's eyebrows shot up. Seriously? How come he's still in business? asked the cynical part of her.

"Are you sure?" she asked out loud. "He's so special...it feels like I'd be cheating you or something."

"It's fine!" Mr. Spinelli spoke in the deep, solid voice of someone totally unshakeable in his decision. "You have a special connection there, hon. I don't wanna spoil it by asking for money."

Rhia frowned. There had to be some way she could repay him...

"I know! How about I come and work for you? Like, a part-time job? I'd be happy to."

Mr. Spinelli frowned, thinking it over, then stuck out his pudgy right hand for her to shake. "You got yourself a deal. What's your name?"

"Rhiannon Taylor." She hoped he wouldn't ask her to spell it; she often got odd looks from people because of her strange name. Thankfully, Mr. Spinelli didn't seem to care; he squeezed her hand affectionately and pumped it up and down.

"Leo Spinelli. I'm real pleased to meet you, Rhiannon – and so is Aedan," glancing down at the figurine in his other hand. "That's his name."

"Ayden..." The name felt strange and pleasant in her mouth as she pronounced it, carefully because she had never heard it before.

"How do you spell that?" After being asked that question ever since she could talk, it was rather a triumph to be asking it herself for once.

"A-E-D-A-N," said Mr. Spinelli. "And now we're all introduced, I guess..." He sighed and shrugged. "It's time to hand him over."

He carefully gave her the statuette; she raised her eyebrows mentally as she slipped him into her bag, because of the wistful expression Mr. Spinelli suddenly wore. It was as if Aedan were his child, rather than an object meant for decoration.

"So I'll see you next week," said Rhia, with a nod and a polite smile. "Thank you so much, Mr. Spinelli. It'll be great working for you."

"Same goes for you, Miss Taylor," crinkling his eyes over the formal title. "Take care now."

She stepped outside, waved once through the shop window, and headed for the bus station, shaking her head. I can't believe I just did that! Now I'll be stuck in that dusty little shop all the time. And the weirdest thing is that I don't even mind...not much. As long as that nice Mr. Spinelli is there to chat with.

I'd like to try drawing Aedan...it's not like he can move around and spoil the view. And he won't complain either if I get it wrong.