3.3: Rule Number One

The moonlight that invades the office encapsulates the occupants in brilliant lights and stark shadows, turning them into characters on a comic strip. On the desk between lay a collection of thick books. Plastic bags beside them hold ISBN tags.

     “I can’t believe this, Zathony,” Stark says. “I know you’re a callous teacher, but you’ve never put these kinds of materials in a student’s hands before. Why would you give these to that girl?”

     “I gave her the call numbers of catalogs for aviary creatures. What she found in their place was not my doing.”

     “So, what, she just happened across these demented experiment logs on her own?” Stark barks accusingly.

     “I’m saying something else is afoot. She went and found these books right after I gave her the call numbers. You’ll no doubt check those call numbers to confirm my words. And when you do, you’ll find that means someone overheard our conversation and narrowly beat her to the library to plant those for her to find.”

     “And why would someone want to do that?”

     “I’m as lost as you are, Stark,” Zathony replies. “Believe that I’m as incensed to find the culprit as you are. Their interference pushed a young woman over the edge and made her set fire to my dormitory. However, if the hand you recovered is any consolation, our comatose witness may have already taken care of that.”

     “Which is an even greater nightmare,” Neth interjects sourly. “The school year just began and we’ve already had a grave incident to report.”

     “I say we keep this in house. The Avinian government will offer as little aid as they’ve done historically. Why get disinterested bureaucrats involved in something they will only stall to keep themselves entertained?”

     Marmagar points to his feet and feigns kicking a couple times.

     Zathony gives him a curious look. “You mean they’ll kick us out of it?”

     Marmagar shakes his head, holds up a single finger, then gestures slicing off his wrist, then again points down below.

     “I will not expel the young lady,” Neth says. “I cannot hold her responsible for the manipulations of an as of yet undiscovered party.”

     “I reached out to Warden Crata to thank him for the warning and to let him know I’ll be visiting him tomorrow so we can identify the previous owner of the hand.”

     “What warning?” Zathony presses.

     “He called this morning to explain some his informants heard whispers of an assassination where the target was Four Hearts Academy. He heard no names, just this location. I was doing a late-night sweep of the campus when I found Nuria reading those. She couldn’t get away fast enough when I arrived. When I saw the page she was on, I understood.” She smoothly changes tone to address the headmaster. “When she awakens, she’ll be traumatized, sir. I don’t advise expulsion, but she will need time to deal with this…under professional eyes.”

     “We will have to inform her brother and mother tomorrow.”

     “There’s still the matter of the investigation,” Zathony reminds them. “If you go to Warden Crata, it increases the chance that this incident goes public.”

     “It’s a risk we have to take. I do not possess the resources to identify a hitman here. On that score, we cannot leave him out of it. As far as the books, I can research their origins quietly and determine where they came from.”

     “How well do you know this Warden Crata, and how quietly can you investigate the books?”

     Stark eyes him crossly, irked by his endless nagging. “I trust him much more than you at the moment. And I am capable of discovering where the books came from. They’re old and ill-maintained. Meaning they’re not meant for public eyes, and for good reason. I’ll start with reports of stolen goods. These may belong to a collector.”

     Zathony eases away from Stark, finally aware of his presence in her personal space. He inclines his head slowly. “As you will, Stark.”

     “As much as I’d like to agree with your notions of keeping the investigation quiet, we cannot. Not since Tyra was involved.”

     “What does she have to do with anything?” Stark asks with a worried tone.

     “I only told Tameri this, hoping not to cause a stir among the faculty, but she is the daughter of–”

     The office doors squeal as they part, alerting all the occupants. Stark’s knuckles liquefy briefly, but she reconstitutes them upon recognizing the intruder. She takes a step back as Tyra approaches, again dressed in her kimono.

     “Has Nuria awaken yet?” Neth asks hopefully.

     “No. I’m convinced she’ll be resting longer than we all anticipate. Which is why I’m here now. Before she awakens, we need to discuss her well-being. And future.”

     “And what can one child say to affect the future of another?” Zathony remarks with no veil on his condescension.

     “What I’m going to say cannot leave this circle,” she warns gravely. “Unfortunately, that means that no investigations can run regarding tonight’s events.”

     “That’s not possible. We have evidence of a serious crime. I will not let a hitman come onto this campus without consequence,” Stark argues.

     “There were consequences. Nuria vaporized her in self-defense. No harm done.”

     “No harm done? Are you–” Stark pauses sharply. None of Tyra’s former wounds exist anymore. Not the cut above her eye, no evidence of the limp she expressed on the way back to campus, and not the bruising on her throat. “Where did your wounds go?”

     “I have the ability to heal physical wounds. I used the power on Nuria before you and your officers arrived. That’s why she didn’t bleed out. And back to her. Nuria’s involvement in tonight’s incident will come to light should an investigation commence, which ultimately lead to my own exposure. And once my name is put onto any report, my mother will find out, and she will drill into Nuria’s life with a fine-toothed comb. And when she finds out what I learned tonight, Nuria and I will be taken away.”

     “And what did you learn tonight?” Neth inquires.

     “Nuria is a phoenix. I saw the immensity of her power first hand. I also believe it wasn’t a conscious effort on her behalf.”

     “That’s why the books affected her so,” Stark explains. “She knew she was a phoenix when she read them.”

     “Ah,” Zathony drags the syllable out. “She mentioned cages when I saw her rapidly packing her clothes to flee. She must’ve assumed I sent her there to taunt her.”

     “Did you?” Stark asks pointedly.

     “I’m not a monster. I sent her after what I believed would be normal catalogs. She only told me of big red wings. Nothing else.”

     “What would your mother do with Nuria should she learn of this?” Neth says. He rubs his fingers together briskly, afraid of the answer.

     “The outcome I see most probable is that she’ll be inducted into the Vanusi army, groomed to be a general. Phoenixes are but one of extremely rare Vanusi creatures she’d love to have in her regime.”

     “And you would hide this from her? Why?” Stark asks.

     Tyra sighs and proffers a white journal from behind her back. Strips of duct tape tie together in the shape of “D”. “Nuria saved my life tonight. I would not turn that service into something that would negatively impact her life.”

     Stark lifts the cover and finds a short sentence in the middle of the page.

“I place my trust in the intent of the actions of others, rather than the action itself.”

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