(this excerpt finds one of our heroes, Talbert Gretchen, hard at work in his school’s library. He is oblivious to the approaching stranger who calls out to him)
“You shouldn’t worry so much.”
The voice, despite being as fresh and feminine as was, startled him and he jerked at the sound. In response he managed to make a sound that resembled nothing so much as “Bluhuh?”
“Sorry, I guess I snuck up on you but seriously, don’t get so hung up on this. No one expects you to declare a Project your first week. Certainly not Instructor Hill.”
“I’m not searching for him. I’m searching for myself.” He reached out for the next book as he looked up at the source of the distraction. Yet again she startled him. She was tall for a boy much less a girl and had the same broad, strong shoulders of they women he knew back in the islands who made there livelihoods from paddling down rivers either fishing or serving as guides. She must be a year or two older than him. Her clothes were simple cotton. Nothing fancy, just trousers a simple blouse, covered by a simple leather vest. He did his best to keep from directly looking but could not help that she she had curves that more than equaled the broadness of her shoulders and he tried to dismiss the images of her in the next to nothing that some of the canoe women wore. Despite the alluring qualities her of her body it was her face that grabbed his attention. Her skin was clear and smooth and several shades lighter than his own. For her complexion it seemed neither pale nor tan and was full of the glow of health so particular to that age. Her nose was pert and slightly upturned complimenting the small chin that almost seemed to point down. The center of her chin was dotted by a tiny freckle. She had crystal blue eyes that almost seemed to glow. Thick eyebrows the color of honey sat just about those icy embers. The stretch of forehead was crested with tresses that shared the same honey-color and they spilled down her back and peaked out leveling off at her elbows. Her features combined to suggest a member of a royal house of some fantastic race that was written about in the mythic histories.
Talbert noticed that his hand was still searching for a book and he wondered how long he had been groping the empty air. He broke away from the siren pull of her eyes, gave a small frown and finally managed to retrieve the next book. “I’m sorry, I just had a thought about…” He examined the title of the book “The use of fungus to curb the spread of intimate afflictions.” He felt his face flush and wondered if she would notice.
“As interesting as that sounds, have you noticed that you are the only one here tonight?”
He looked around. He had not noticed, but he did see that her observation was not quite accurate. “You’re here.”
“Yes, but that’s different. I was here on a task for Instructor Kline. And I do not intend to remain here. By all appearances, you do.”
He looked over his books, shrugged and lightly tossed his fingers upwards. “So it would seem.”
“Have you forgotten what night it is?”
All he could do was look at her blankly. He fought the urge to allow his eyes to drift down to her chest.
“It’s Foundation Night.”
Another blank look.
“Don’t tell me this is your first Foundation Night. That is adorable!” She smiled with her mouth open. That might have been the moment she captured Talbert’s young heart, the first young woman to do so. “You’re coming with me.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him from his stacks of books. He was powerless to resist. Had he eve been so aware of his own hand before? Of what it was he was holding? He could feel the smoothness of her palm and the slenderness of her fingers as she led down hallways and up twisting and turning stairs. Her soft and lacked callouses of any form and had a confident strength about them. He wondered if she played sports, if she liked books, what her family was like. He then recalled that something crucial was lacking.
“Wait, stop.” They were still climbing stairs. He had never been in this section of the school, at least not as he recognized, but Talbert was lost not only geographically. How could he ask the question without it sounding odd? She was leading the way and looked down at him from the higher stairs. Her height was compounded by the steps and he felt she must tower over him. He couldn’t imagine how they must look together. She was some fairy princess made real. She practically floated. He felt short. Her hair shimmered and glowed in the torchlight. He was sure his must look like unkempt sheep’s wool. She was still smiling that same open mouthed smile that was engaging and inviting and full of mirth. He could barely stammer out what had become the most important question imaginable to him.
“So, umm, I don’t know your name.”
She closed her mouth and came step down closer to him. She was over a foot away but he could swear he could feel the warmth coming off of her just as he knew there was the scent of sandalwood in the air. The smile might have faded but it tugged at the corners of her mouth and still danced in her blue, blue eyes.
“Do you make of habit of running away with girls whose names you don’t know? I didn’t imagine that was the kind of boy you are.”
The moment hung heavy between then Talbert felt there was something that he was supposed to be doing, but could not figure out what it was supposed to be. He knew there were several things that he wanted to do, that his body told him he should be doing even as his mind told him to resist.
There was a deep tolling of a bell. It echoed through the stairwell. The vibrations of it came up through the floor. The pealing and the shaking must have broken the spell of whatever had held them for those few moments as she immediately began climbing the stairs at an even faster pace.
“Hurry up! We’re going to miss it!”
She was no longer leading him by the hand and his palm felt cold and lonely.
They burst through a door and were on the roof. They could see the courtyard and grounds below. Students and even teachers were spread out on blankets. There was a hush in the air. Talbert could feel the anticipation and wondered what could be coming.
It started with a single streak of light. A lazy green glowing rocket ascended towards the heavens. Just as it could go no farther it and began to creep back down it erupted into showers of sparks. The crowd below roared in approval.
Talbert began to scoff. They had fireworks back home that were far more impressive than a lone rocket. Even a single rocket left twice the impact if it was fired over the water. He began to tell the blue eyed fairy princess about how fireworks looked better when there were also reflected on clear water but before he could get the words out the second, third, fourth and fifth rockets took flight. There eruptions had no sooner faded than the next half dozen burst into the night air. It was a dazzling array of colors and shapes, patterns and visions. For the audience below it was happening above as something separate from them. For the two of them on the roof, they were apart of it. The explosions were at eye level and so close it seemed as if they could reach out and touch them. It was spectacular. Talbert had almost never seen anything as beautiful. That sat and watched the glory of colors playing out in front of them. Ideas flooded his mind, not only about what was in front of him but also who was beside him.
During one of the occasional lulls the fairy princess leaned over to him. “I’m Daniella.” The smile was back.
“Daniella,” he repeated, testing out the name. He like saying it.
“Aren’t you going to tell me your name?”
“You mean you make of habit of running away with boys whose names you don’t know? I didn’t imagine that was the kind of girl you are.”
“Of course I know your name. Everyone knows the name of a new member to the Study.” She punctuated this by swaying and giving him a gentle bump with her shoulders. Even sitting she was a few inches taller than him and he could felt the solidness of her. “Introducing yourself is still the polite thing to do.”
“Then by all means lets be proper,” he tried to match her playful tone. “I am Talbert Gretchen.”
“Pleased to meet you, Talbert Gretchen.”
“Pleased to meet you, Daniella.”
“Pleased to meet you, Daniella D’avador.”
Their eyes met. For a moment everything was still. He could not take his eyes off of her. He was aware of the tiny motions of her eyes, her lips, her mouth. Was it a signal? Did she want him to? Was she waiting?
The crack of fireworks pulled their attention back to the sky. he was disappointed and relieved. It was suck a nice moment and he didn’t want to ruin it by being stupid.
A warm hand slide along his arm and entwined with his. There came the soft pressure of her shoulder nestling against his. He could smell sandalwood.
The fireworks continued.