The Phoenix Crossroads
By: Sasha Janel McBrayer
All stories begin somewhere. My journey into the murky waters of publishing began when Silverthought Online published my first short fantasy story in 2009. Here is an exclusive excerpt.
At lunchtime the wind was high. The hem of his robes blew about, frustrating his pace. The sand went into his eyes. Lasos began to wonder why in all of Cegria no architect ever stopped in the Phoenix Crossroads and set to pave the streets. Then he remembered that everyone in town is merely passing through. Those few locals, born to die on the warm patch of barren Earth stamped into the center of the cardinal directions were fortunate to have what buildings they did. As he continued from the library to Nikanor’s he found those gathered at the Phoenix Pit obstructing his path.
Lasos slowed his pace to watch the current episode at the town’s namesake. He yawned as the latest participant walked toward the seemingly innocuous hole in the earth. The man was lame. When he was nearly to the edge, he dropped the hastily fashioned wood crutches and dipped his leg, and the foot that had gone missing, likely from war, into the Pit. Smoke flooded upward, past the man, whose face squished up like a fist. After some moments, under his Uncle Kerkyon’s watchful eyes, attendants helped pull the man backward. His foot had been restored.
This was nothing new.
Lasos continued on to scumble across the patchwork of gray stones that surrounded the dry fountain at the town’s heart, appreciating footfalls on something other than dirt. He passed the house of Lady Yaba, soothsayer. It was among the largest private homes here, but it was not beautiful and did double as Yaba’s place of business. Lasos regarded the sign in her window relating she is closed for tea. That meant Yaba was drinking some malicious smelling Orien brew with no more company than her many cats. He passed the Kissish bathhouse. It was too beautiful, decadent enough to be plucked up by the gods and placed in Earden City. They charged an exorbitant fee for its use and the perpetual vacancy was ghostly. Lasos always rushed as he passed it by.
Finally, he reached Nikanor’s Inn. Inside he did not hear the wind, only human bustle. Every manner of person traveled through the Crossroads. Some were going west to Bettan or east to Femos. Some were going to places far, of which the humble scribe has never dared dream. They were dark and light. They traveled small or in bulbous caravans with horses and camels and wagons. There were always men, women, children, and those difficult to distinguish. Lasos sat elbow to elbow with them as he took his lunch. They blurred into a rainbow of sameness.
After eating, the scribe resigned himself to kindly carry some hot lamb to his Uncle Kerkyon at the library. The library boasted a strong, satisfactory arcade. Among the columns Lasos always felt serene and safe. It was only the wide cell inside the big edifice, smelling of parchment and ink that felt like a prison. His cynicism was due to the inevitable day when Kerkyon’s wits or eyes or hands failed him, or his life ended, and Lasos would inherit his Uncle’s role of town scribe. The notion of forever being chained to the Phoenix Pit, merely to record events loomed over the younger man like an ebon cloud.
Few travelers knew of the Pit’s existence and the locals who were not busy in service to the passers through were generally bored of it. By the time Lasos returned from lunch the handful had dispersed, allowing Lasos to freely pass into the library, past the exaggerated, tall walls full of scroll storage plots, and into to the main cell. Pinned up deer hides insulated the cold white walls inside creating a contrast to the long, stark hall. Kerkyon repeatedly dipped quill into ink and scrawled several black lines onto the fresh, opalescent parchment. His dedication to efficiency even after all these years bothered Lasos deeply and the junior scribe tightened his grip on the darker, cheaper paper in which the warm lamb shank was wrapped.
“Come in, Lasos,” Kerkyon commanded in his booming alto.
The rest of the day passed just the way many others had passed. There was little more Lasos could learn about his future occupation.
The next day began as a reasonable facsimile of the last. The wind was high again. Only there was a wedding procession stopped in front of the dry fountain in time to meet Lasos at his lunchtime walk. Funerals and weddings were rare in the Crossroads. Lasos noted this as he stopped, shielded his eyes from the wind-blown dust, and watched the ceremony. Perhaps it was the dry climate, he conjectured, which made the townsfolk live so long. More and more modern physicians seemed to agree that dry air did all four humors well. Then again it could be the dour days that gave the heart so little excitement as to lengthen its life. Regardless, few people equaled few deaths and even fewer pairings.
It was a small ceremony. The participants were not locals. The travelers must have felt, for one reason or another, they could not wait until reaching their destination for the final marriage rites. By their colorful garments, repeating in crimson and black geometric patterns, Lasos recognized them as hailing from Kiss. Though the whole continent recognized the same wedding tradition more or less, the process was varied in severity and complexity, from country to country. People of Kiss were particularly stringent.
The process always began with the walk. A man who had his eye on a particular woman would ask her to walk with him. On this outdoor stroll he made his intentions known. In the Cegrian city-states, the walk was usually a formality, but among the Kissish, the walk was key, sometimes initiated though the man and woman were strangers and the woman was forbidden from attending without a chaperone. Whether she was favorable or not he next sought audience with the woman’s parents to gain their final permission. Lasos remembered pretending at the walk in primary school with Old Nikanor’s youngest red-haired daughter who eventually took her true walk with a sailor and was never seen again.
If permission was granted the rest of the process took just four weeks and ended in the final ceremony. This was the part Lasos spied. The husband to be, in his finest Kissish turban, slid the fingerless marriage glove onto his woman’s left hand. Not only would the lady’s marital status be hence forward visible by this glove, but her station in life as well. The wealthy had lavish marriage gloves, whereas the poor wore those of more humble material. Even from his distance Lasos made out the most intricate black lace overlay on the Kissish woman’s new accessory and the sparkling of a few sewn in gems. Perhaps her man was a thriving merchant.
It all ended with a kiss and someone throwing yellow petals into the intemperate wind. Lasos continued after to Nikanor’s Inn.
She had shiny, long, black hair, and unblemished olive skin. Her eyes were soft and without the pride and boastfulness of women’s eyes who might rival her splendor. Were those loudly colored roses standing tall and demanding all the attention in the garden of the world, then this young woman was a lovely, symmetrical vine. Your eyes might pass over the vine for all the greenery of the garden, but when you did pause upon it and give it study, you soon found it more appealing than any rose. Perhaps it was her deeply green eyes that made Lasos think of perfect Bettan Ivy, though he was sure she had come from the South East by her long, clean, linen dress; Nitkora perhaps.
The ivy woman sat beside a big man who looked to the scribe to be the spitting image of the mythic warrior O’Jaxor. Lasos would have believed he was O’Jaxor should someone have said so. The man’s chest was as wide as his muscled frame could withstand. He had a thick, bull-neck, eyes of a muddled green-brown, a clean-shaven head, and a neatly trimmed, black, short-beard that started beneath his nose and framed his lean lips. He wore no weapons or armor, yet Lasos was certain the gargantuan could crush a man.
The most unusual accessory of the strong man, the green-eyed woman’s traveling companion, was what he carried with him always. It was a small child. The tiny girl had not but 3 years and featured his same muddy eyes. The settings of their jaws were the same, too, but the little one’s hair was long and thin and the color of sand in sunlight. Lasos saw none of the Nitkorian in the child. He was certain the girl was the product of the big man and a rose kind of woman. In fact, the Nitkorian lady wore no marriage glove yet it was quite unheard of for a man to travel alone with an unmarried woman thus.
While Lasos was watching, the behemoth finished his lunch, rose, hoisted up his child, pressed his beard into the Nitkorian’s ear and departed. Lasos could barely wait the span of a minute to rise and sit back down at the dark-haired woman’s side.
“I am Lasos,” he said in introduction, avoiding her green eyes a little. “I do hope my lady’s escort has not abandoned her, but if that were the case, and you should have need of anything whilst visiting the Phoenix Crossroads, do let your servant know.” His own chivalry startled him.
The attention made the lady blush but she willed the color away with majestic composure. She offered a polite smile. “My servant, Lasos? I didn’t know I had any.”
“You do now. Ah…miss…er…Madame.” Lasos was baffled. Did she belong to the big cheek kissing man?
“Miss,” she answered. “I am Prone. My escort has retired to our room.”
The scribe’s stomach turned. Lasos’ searching eyes burned with curiosity, however her own darted away from his as deftly as a deer evades a lion.
“Miss, might your servant inquire about the man and child?”
She blinked rapidly. “Atys has asked me to marry him,” she replied.
Lasos choked. Was this Atys a barbarian? He had observed none of the proper customs. Traveling with her thus made the Bettan Ivy into a harlot.
Prone continued, “His daughter is Aketa, an angel down from heaven…a little spoiled though.”
“And her mother?” Lasos asked.
“Gone. Abandoned them flat,” she said. Her eyebrows met each other helplessly.
“Forgive me,” Lasos continued, “but good Miss Prone, do you dislike your Atys?”
She answered, “I like him more than I should and hate myself for it.”
Lasos was both surprised by the Nitkorian’s honesty and shaken by the gravity of the situation as related by the seriousness in her ivy colored eyes. “Then fly, Prone,” he said, in an excited whisper, “Fly this instant! Go before Atys can follow.”
She looked defeated. The deer of the scribe’s imagination was now in a cage.
“I cannot. I am bewitched. I am lied to, and yet I cling. I am so convinced of his need for me I am made to feel the villain,” she explained. “Yet, Atys respects no custom, no tradition, and not my parents who are left mourning the loss of me. His will is absolute and it has targeted me. The child, equally bewitching also has need. I am sure she loves me. His body is such a vile thing,” she continued, nearly as an afterthought. “I am sure it was forged by Phesuez, god of the ironworks. A look, a touch, causes me to feel gilded.”
“Take the child and go,” Lasos pleaded.
“She has more need of him than she shall ever have for me.” Prone looked defeated, however she did not entirely dislike her present company. After some small moments passed, she decided to change the subject.
“Tell me one thing, Lasos,” she said, “Since you are from here. What was that gathering near the library yesterday?”
Lasos proceeded to tell Prone about the town and its pit. As he did, her eyes no longer evaded his. She seemed to hang on every word, and so he continued almost feverishly. Her sadness remained notable. At times during his tirade Prone looked like a lonely fawn. She buoyed herself now and again, however, and took periodic sips from her cup. She nodded and urged Lasos to continue.
The scribe could not finish delivering the information, for fear he’d never have Prone’s attention again. He was telling the story of the rich man who had lost his fortune and made attempt at regaining it by dipping his purse into the Phoenix Pit.
Before he could relay the outcome to that incident, Prone’s slender fingers were touching the skin of the scribe’s arm. He stopped speaking instantly. He stopped breathing also.
“Was there any who ever put themselves into the Pit entirely?” she questioned.
Lasos nodded. “One man,” he said, “He had grown old and was bent on finding his youth again.”
“What happened to him,” Prone asked.
The scribe’s shoulders rose toward his ears. “He disappeared. My Uncle Kerkyon believes he may have somehow returned to the womb of his mother.”
For the first time, Prone laughed. It was marvelous to watch. Lasos’ mouth came opened and he smiled.
“I felt certain,” she said eventually, “That your Pit must be the answer for me. That providence put us here. But I am wrong. I can no more put Atys inside it so that he might forget to want me, than I can place little Aketa within to stop her fondness for me. The Pit cannot make her mother return either.”
Lasos became alarmed. Throughout his speech about the town he had forgotten to relate the most important aspect of the Phoenix Pit. He had taken it for granted until now.
“No, no, Miss Prone. You must keep away from the Pit. It is truly unpredictable. The outcomes its seekers desire and the outcomes which it deals out are never the same.”
“I do not understand. The soldier yesterday,” she said. “His foot was restored.”
“No, Prone,” Lasos continued. “Not in the way you would expect. It was a child’s foot.”
“What,” Prone exclaimed.
“Yes. His foot was returned to him, but in a much newer state than he anticipated. And the poverty stricken rich man,” he related, “His leather purse was not filled with gold as was his desire. Instead that leather satchel leapt out of the rushing smoke and laid him flat on the dirt. The purse was a calf again, as if it had never been killed and worked by the tanner’s hands.”
Lasos was pleased that his words and tone had drained color from Prone’s face. He wanted only her safety and happiness and could not see where the Pit could produce these. Then her deep sadness seemed to veil over her eyes again and his gladness left him.
“There is another,” he said suddenly. Yabba had always seemed a nuisance until now. “Prone, might I escort you, in all respect, to the house of the town soothsayer? She is old and wise in many things. If you are bewitched, she may know the remedy.”
Prone’s lips thinned. Her use of the word had not been literal. She did not believe there was any magic involved in the caging of her heart. Atys was a force of nature. He was pleasing to the eye. He needed no magic to aid him.