"The Eye of the Phoenix"
Note: This story is copyright 2002 by the author, all rights reserved.
All characters and events are fictitious, any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
The settlers called their land Tihman, in their language meaning "peace." In a mountain at Tihman's center was the sacred firebird of legend, the Phoenix. The Phoenix, a gentle creature blessed with eternal fire, saw how the people needed him, to give them the power of fire and some form of government. So, in his wisdom, the Phoenix chose a woman of the Tihmani to be the balance to his male, and reign over Tihman as the Lady of the Phoenix. His life span was roughly that of a human, and so it became identical to that of his chosen. When he died, so did she, and vice versa. The Phoenix renewed himself in the ashes of his funeral pyre, and became again an egg. This egg hardened for one and thirty days, the mourning period for the Lady. Then, the Phoenix would hatch, and choose a new Lady from the candidates the Tihmani Council had selected. This is how the land of Tihman is always to be ruled, until the Phoenix comes no more.
Ria knew what her place was in the kingdom of Tihman. As apprentice to a cleaning woman, she would learn that trade, and ply it wherever she could. Her master, her Aunt Kay, was a cleaning woman for a noble family. Ria despised cleaning, but she had to help her aunt at this manor, and then grow up to the same occupation. However, fortune was about to smile upon Ria, who was age nineteen.
It happened when she was cleaning the room of the young Duchess Talaga and the news came. Talaga came rushing into the room, astonishing Ria so much she dropped her cleaning rag.
"You!" Talaga exclaimed, already trying to undo the closings on her dress. "Please, help me get changed very quickly. I know it's not your job, but I need to rush!"
Ria swallowed, but complied. As she helped the young Duchess, she eventually got up the nerve to ask. "If your grace doesn't mind, why are you in so a hurry?" She cursed, now as always, the peasant lilt to her speech, but it couldn't be helped.
"Lady Marriah has passed away," Talaga replied, quickly, pulling her gown over her head. "The messenger is coming here now, and I may be selected to stand trial for the next Lady." Talaga brushed at her gown, then faced Ria, who averted her gaze hastily to avoid offense. "Thank you," Talaga said. "What is your name?"
"Ria, your grace," she said in a small voice.
"Ria, if I am chosen, I will take you with me for helping me now." Talaga smiled, then quickly left.
Ria sighed a sigh of utter relief, almost collapsing on the floor. So the Lady of the Phoenix had died. If Talaga was invited to stand as potential Lady, Ria would go, too. That could change her entire future! Ria glanced toward Talaga's washroom. Well, just this once…
She went in there, and rinsed off her face, hands, and auburn hair. She rubbed off most of the dust from her dress, and went out the door.
It wasn't too hard for Ria to figure out where the messenger was. Everyone, from lowest servant to the Duke, was heading toward the Hearing Hall, where, normally, the people took their complaints. When Ria had gotten there, the Duke and Duchess were already in their thrones, and the young Duchess Talaga near her mother. The messenger was already talking.
"Your graces, it does not seem to me that Duchess Talaga has any talent to be chosen…" he trailed off, pausing as if listening to some sound only he could hear. "Perhaps I was mistaken. Your graces, now I do sense some undercurrent of power, though I didn't sense it before. It would be best if Duchess Talaga goes to Mt. Everflame, to be on the safe side. Your grace, you may take with you one servant, two horses, and whatever you may carry between you. We leave tomorrow for the Phoenix Mountain." He bowed, and backed away a step, before turning and going to the door.
Ria still stood near the door, and the messenger paused and looked at her strangely before leaving.
But now Talaga began to speak. "Mother and Father, I have already promised this position to a servant of the lower class. I saw her enter, so, Ria, please come forward."
Ria felt very self-conscious as she walked up the aisle that parted when it became clear where she was. However, she let no fear show in her hazel eyes. She curtsied carefully to the skeptical Duke and Duchess.
"Talaga, are you sure of this?" asked Duchess Emarra.
"Yes, Mother," replied Talaga. "She was the one who assisted me in getting ready so quickly. It is my choice, and she is my choice."
"Her name will have to be lengthened," Duke Tallan thought aloud. "Ria…Aria, I think, will do well. Talaga, take her to pack. I will have some of the lesser tailors send up…suitable clothing."
A clear dismissal, Talaga left, Aria following. The lengthening of one's name was a rare and wonderful event. It literally made you a higher rank. Ria, three letters, meant a peasant. Aria, four letters, meant the same as a five-letter name—middle class. Now she'd be able to get a better job than a simple servant!
It wasn't difficult for Aria to pack, since she had few possessions and only three new dresses were sent up, along with a tunic and trousers to wear on the trip. Talaga and Aria would be riding horseback, and this was the quickest way to go. The messenger, a man named Haylar, had insisted this. Aria encountered him again as she took her pack to Duchess Talaga's room, to help her pack. Naturally, she had far more things. But Halyar stepped forward, gesturing her to stop.
"A moment, young miss, if you don't mind," he said.
Aria lowered her gaze respectfully. "Certainly, sir. What is it you wish?"
"You will be accompanying Duchess Talaga on this trip?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," she replied. "My name is Aria, sir."
"Aria, you shall have to be careful as we travel," he said. "I doubt you've had weapons training, and sometimes trips to bring prospective Ladies to the Mountain are attacked. Stay back, and let the guards and myself do the fighting."
"Yes, sir," she said, though she couldn't imagine why he was telling her this and not Talaga.
"I am Haylar, miss, and I do not like being addressed as 'sir.'" He smiled, a smile that reached his brown eyes. "Kindly remember that for our next encounter." He left, and Aria, still slightly confused, went into Talaga's chambers.
As expected, things were in shambles. Talaga could not seem to limit herself to what she needed. It took Aria most of that day to get things settled. She was to stay that night in Talaga's lady-in-waiting's room, since they'd be off early the next day. It was the best bed she'd ever slept in.
When Aria woke at dawn the next morning, she was fully refreshed, though Talaga looked far from it. Her blonde hair was in disarray, and her normally sparkling green eyes were dull. She looked as if she hadn't slept more than an hour. She likely hadn't. Aria laughed silently. Talaga would surely regret that by day's end, if Haylar went at a pace to get them to the Mountain in time.
The Phoenix Mountain, Mt. Everflame, was in the precise center of Tihman. Haylar was the only one who looked fit by the time they reached there. Talaga was white as fresh paper, and Aria was only a bit better off. It was interesting. During the course of this trip, Haylar had grown rather close to Aria. Stranger still, though, was that he seemed to behave almost respectful around her, though he was technically of a higher rank, with a five-lettered name. Aria hoped and prayed he wasn't falling in love with her.
Despite her weariness, Aria couldn't avoid the awe she felt at seeing Mt. Everflame. Surrounding the volcano where the Phoenix Egg lay in waiting was a city whose walls were the colors of fire. Aria knew from what Haylar had said that these were predominantly chapels and their ilk, but there were also a great number of inns for the peasant-folk and manors for the nobles, who came to pay homage to the home of the Phoenix, and the Phoenix Eggs at those times. Aria would be staying in one of the latter with Talaga, one especially for those chosen to stand at the hatching ground for the Phoenix to choose from.
Talaga went into the rooms reserved for her and Aria, behind the servants carrying the baggage. Aria began to follow, but Haylar stopped her, a bound package in his hands.
"Aria, I have something I need to speak to you about," he said.
Aria swallowed. "What is there to be said that couldn't be said as we traveled?"
He handed her the package. "Take this. Don't open it yet, it's a gown. After they take Duchess Talaga to the Hatching Grounds, open it and put it on. Then, follow the crowds to the Grounds. Do you understand?"
"Yes," replied Aria. "But why this secrecy?"
He shook his head. "I cannot explain it now. Just trust me." Then he bowed slightly, very slightly, and left.
Aria stared after him, dumb confusion on her face, but he didn't return. Sighing, she went inside and hid the parcel with her luggage. Talaga was too busy directing the unpacking to notice.
"Aria?" she called, finally, a little while later, after Aria had already changed into a dress and was assisting the other servants.
Aria turned. "Yes, your grace?"
"Could you go find a kitchen servant and send up for a meal for us?" Talaga asked.
She bowed her head. "Certainly, your grace. I'll go right now."
Fortunately, Aria had changed into that dress by then, so she looked somewhat respectable. The servant she found didn't look twice at her, and simply did as he was told when she ordered two dinner plates.
"Yes, honored one," he said, in fact.
"Why do you call me that?" exclaimed Aria.
"Are you not one of the contestants to be the new Phoenix Lady?" he asked in confusion.
"No, I am simply servant to one," Aria laughed.
"I see. Strange, you have a look about you that reminds me of Lady Marriah, may she rest in peace." He left, and Aria laughed a bit more, and returned to the rooms she was to share with Talaga.
Talaga was resting on the bed in the main bedroom. The chambers had four parts: a receiving room, a main bedroom, a washroom, and a servant's bedroom. The latter would be hers, naturally. Just now, anyway, Aria felt like resting, too. The Phoenix wouldn't hatch until sometime the next day, after all. Speaking of which, Aria thought of the package Haylar had given her. Maybe she wouldn't rest after all.
Aria pulled it from beneath the bag, and set it on her bed. She sat down next to it. Feeling a strange apprehension, she untied the brown string that held it closed. This she discarded, and she opened the package. What harm could opening it a little early do?
Unfortunately, there was a knock on the main door. Aria put a cushion over the package, and got up quickly to open it. It was a servant carrying two covered trays she assumed to be the food. Aria took these, and set one on the small table near the door. The other, she carried into Talaga's room.
"Duchess Talaga?" she said somewhat hesitantly.
There was a slight sound from the bed as she stirred. "Yes?"
"Your grace, here's the food you asked for," said Aria.
"Just set it down on the bed table." Talaga gestured vaguely without sitting up. Still, Aria did so, and then went back in her own room, after returning to the receiving room to get her food.
She sighed, and sat down again on the bed, not yet bothering with the food. Aria removed the cushion from atop the package, and glared at it. "Fine, then, I suppose you're bad luck. I'll just wait until tomorrow, like Haylar said."
Tomorrow seemed to take a long time in coming. Aria didn't know how Talaga managed to bear the waiting. The Duchess simply sat in the receiving room, already wearing the gown of the potential Ladies, and sewed. Aria sat near the window of that same room, watching the bustle of the city below, as many people attempted to get into the Hatching Grounds. All of Tihman knew the Phoenix would be hatching this day, to start the reign of a new monarch.
Aria, too, was anxious to see who the new monarch would be. If the Phoenix chose Talaga to be Lady, then she could probably get a new job at the Flame Castle. In fact, out the window she could see the tallest tower of the Castle, gleaming in the sunlight. Aria was certain Talaga would hire her. After all, she would be the only one from her home; the one who had accompanied her from her home. Still, Aria realized, first they would have to wait for the Phoenix to hatch. It was already mid-afternoon.
But a servant ran in then, disturbing Aria out of her broodings. "Your grace! It's time! The Phoenix Egg shakes!"
Talaga stood up so quickly she knocked over the pile of embroidery. She followed the servant at no slower a pace than a run. Aria, too, stood, but she went into her room instead of the hallway. She went quickly to the chest of drawers, and took from there the still wrapped gown. She tore off the paper, and the dress fluttered down, without so much as a wrinkle in the gauzy fabric and silk.
Aria gasped, for she recognized the dress as that of a prospective Lady. The base of the whole dress was smooth red silk, and the skirt was covered by gauze skirts of yellow and orange, designed to make one look like a living flame, as the Phoenix was. Surely Haylar had made a mistake in giving her this! But…he was the one designated by the Council as being able to discern those with the potential to be Lady. If he felt she could be, then by God she would try.
Aria then pulled off her gown, and pulled this new one over her head. It had no clasps, and seemed seamless, and yet it fit her as if it had been made for her. Also in the package were flat-heeled slippers the same color and with the same shine of the gown. She slipped those onto her feet, and they, too, fit. She brushed through her hair, causing it to flow from her head like it, like her gown, was a live flame. Then, she left the room.
A servant quickly came up to her. "Come with me, honored one!" she called out. "The Hatching is due any time now!"
Aria followed the servant, through crowds and lines of people. The outside streets parted for her as soon as they saw her outfit, though, and Aria knew this was to ensure all candidates were at the Hatching Grounds at the appointed time. Which was all too close a call for Aria.
The many seats surrounding the Grounds, carved out of the solid stone, were full of anxious people. The Egg, too, was surrounded by a semicircle of women of all ages, the possibilities to be future Lady. Aria hesitated before entering, but the rocking Egg drew her onward. The Egg shook once more, and a vicious crack developed. The head of the Phoenix shot out, and he looked at the blue sky above. Then, he looked toward Aria, unmistakably meeting her eyes. The crowd gasped, and reflected in the Phoenix's green eye, Aria knew what they saw—a woman who looked like she had been pulled from a fire, with the flowing gown about her legs and her hair the color of a blazing flame. In that instant, the Phoenix pulled himself from his Egg, and the ever-burning fires of his feathers ignited. The semicircle broke for the bird the size of a full-grown hunting dog, and he passed through it to Aria, crooning softly a sweet song, and Aria knew unmistakably that he was hungry. How she knew this, though, she didn't know.
Her legs almost gave way then, as the Phoenix came still closer. But a man roughly her own age that she didn't recognize came forward, and supported her to prevent her from an unseemly fall. He wore the clothing of a high-ranking noble.
"You are the new Lady," he whispered. "I do not recognize you from among those presented to the Council. What is your name?"
"Aria," she replied as the Phoenix stopped at her feet.
"I am Jyrian, my Lady." He frowned, though his green eyes—eyes the same color as the Phoenix's, Aria realized with a distant part of her mind—remained bright. "But your name is far too short. What was your mother's name?"
"Des," Aria replied, not seeing the connection.
"Here." Jyrian pressed a bowl containing various fruits into her hands. "Feed him." Then he turned to the crowd, his ash blond hair catching the light of the slowly descending sun. "This is the new Lady, Lady Desaria!"
Another new name extension, she thought wildly. But the Phoenix was still hungry, and so she set down the bowl, allowing him to eat. Apparently, a wild dream she never recalled dreaming had just come true. For she now was the Lady Desaria, and the lowest ranking woman to ever hold the position, she realized. At least her face, reflected in the eye of the Phoenix, did not show the fear she felt.