A special edition of Friday Fiction, on Saturday because I was on the train yesterday and had forgotten to schedule a post. Happy Fourth of July!
Nyssa pressed forward through the crowd. At her height – or rather, her lack of height – her field of vision was filled entirely with bodies. And while the crowd was composes mostly of nobility, who supposedly had regular access to baths, it had been a long, hot summer day. Her nose was filled with the stink of sweat.
She pressed onward. This was her first Victory Day at the palace; she was not usually the sort of person to receive and invitation. In years past she had climbed up to the roof of her lodgings-house, picnicked with her house mates, watched the brilliant pyrotechnics, and dreamed of the day she would create one.
This would be a better view.
Finally, Nyssa passed through the front row, sighing in relief as the cool breeze washed away the sweat and stink. The palace gardens finished at the edge of a cliff, the thick vines that twined through the underbrush spilling over the edge in a brilliant green waterfall, rendered a dusky gray by the rapidly disappearing sun. There were no trees on this side, giving those assembled a perfect view of the river.
The barges were anchored out in the water, halfway between the banks. Squinting, Nyssa could just make out the workers who scrambled over them, unpacking crates and setting up for the display. Somewhere among the rest of the crates was one with a black rose stamp. Her stamp. The anticipation sat heavy in her belly.
Nyssa craned her neck, looking left. She was all the way at the edge of the crowd, but in the center sat the king and his retinue, among them the chief wizards of the Academy. Most of the fireworks that night would be theirs; it was difficult indeed to receive a slot with a submission. But Nyssa had done it, had poured her every waking hour into the endeavor for months — selecting the ingredients, mixing, testing. Sulfur and saltpeter and charcoal – the base of such pyrotechnics – had been her constant companions; the smell had clung to her hands and her clothes.
But saltpeter and sulfur were standard stuffs; the real art lay in the selection of secondary ingredients, alchemical powders that turned the sparks colors and charms and spells that brought them to life. A good showing in the fireworks show could catch the attention of the Academy — could be Nyssa’s key to freedom.
The sun had gone down. The first fuses were lit down below, and the rockets ascended with a whistle and exploded with a bang. The crowed oohed and aahed obligingly, despite the fact that these early offerings were, in Nyssa’s opinion, uninspired. Bright showers of sparks, scattered spheres, simple shapes painted the sky. Nyssa clasped her hands tightly, waiting.
The display continued. Fireworks exploded in the shape of the royal crest; a lion formed in the sky, his mouth open in a soundless roar. With every moment Nyssa’s expectation mounted. Surely her offering would appear soon?
They were coming to the end; she could feel it. The energy of the crowd was at its peak, and the last firework had been a dragon which wove between the spheres and breathed sparks. The assembled nobles had screamed in delighted terror, and the wizards looked particularly smug. Nyssa felt a coldness spreading through her. They hadn’t used it. Surely it would have appeared before now; the dragon was the triumph of this Victory Day. The show would end, as it always did, with one final explosion, shaping a crown of sparks across the sky, She turned to go.
The crowd around her gasped, eyes going wide and dark. One woman fainted. Confused, Nyssa, turned back toward the river.
There was the crown, as usual. But beneath it — no– rising through it was a brilliant red bird, beating powerful wings made of flame. It passed through the center of the circlet —
Another gasp from the crowd. The bird flung open its wings, sending multicolored sparks shooting across the darkened sky. It opened its beak, letting out the angry screech of an avian predator.
Nyssa preened. She’d been particularly proud of that charm.
The bird swooped down, angling its wings to overfly the city, banking to come around behind the palace. People twisted, desperate to get a better view. It spiraled up above the city, ascending in tight corkscrews. It peaked, turning over to dive at the crowded nobility. At the very last moment, its brilliant wings snapped open, and the bird swooped over their ducking heads, showering the crowd with sparks which gave off no heat.
She was proud of that spell, too.
The Phoenix rose over the river once more, wings spread wide, and dissolved into nothingness.
There was a moment of complete silence.
Then the crowd came to life, roaring its approval. Even those who normally affected an air of boredom with everything — it was an incomprehensible affectation, thought Nyssa, but that’s fashion for you — roused themselves to applaud. Delighted, she eavesdropped on their conversations, heard words like “amazing”, “beautiful”, “triumph”. She leaned over, craning her neck for a view of the wizards — they were huddled together, deep in discussion.
Nyssa felt her heart lift. I did that, she thought. I did that! She thought she might burst with pride.
That night, at home once more in her creaky bed, covered with her threadbare blanket, she fell asleep smiling.
Behind closed eyelids, a phoenix flew.