Nuria realizes she hasn’t known Reddic long, but she’s amazed by the degrees his smile changes as she regales him with her adventures in his absence, including her making amends with Tyra. Her mentor responds most positively to that portion of the story. She doesn’t sully the mood by mentioning her battle with Liamria. She’s fine even keeping that from her brother and mother. Her tale nears its end as the duo takes residence on the silver couch inside Ibri House. She grabs the peach pillow from behind her back and clutches it against her chest.
“And that’s when Professor Lynald explained Mother’s Source to me. I can only use it when the sun’s up, but it only got harder after that. Probably because I was moving around, I guess. I’m sure- actually, now I know I’m wrong thanks to that slight lip twitch you just made.”
Reddic opens his mouth, but Nuria cuts a hand through the air. “No need to explain. I was looking for clues in your face this whole time. I figured if I saw anything but a smile that I’d have to jump on it.” The phoenix takes a breath. “So, is my theory warm or cold?”
Reddic doesn’t immediately respond, so she’s left to search his gaze for clues since his smile no longer wavers. After a minute, she can find nothing she can make sense of. Finally, Reddic speaks. “You’ve made some wonderful strides while I was away. I’m feeling a tad redundant in the face of your talent. To get so far and so quick on your own…it’s–”
“No. Not on my own.”
“I’d love to take credit, trust me, but doing this on my merit alone wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t even be on this road if not for you,” Nuria says, a touch of reverence in her tone. “And I’m ready to keep traveling it!”
“And so you shall…the moment I get Neth on board with my next idea.”
“Yeah…don’t know if you noticed that I noticed the two- three of you at odds, but that doesn’t seem likely.”
“You, Neth, and Stark,” the phoenix states matter-of-factly.
Reddic chuckles. “Ah. Well, Stark’s not against me. It’s just that as an officer, she’s hardwired to follow the chain of command. And while Neth and I are not exactly friends, I respect his position.”
“Then why can’t he- they- respect yours?”
“You don’t have to keep including Stark, Nuria.”
“But–” Nuria clamps her mouth and shuts her eyes tight. She groans as she corrects her mood. Like with Liamria, Nuria banishes Stark from her mind. Reddic’s back and she intends on not wasting time. “Fine. Whatever. So, what’s this grand plan of yours?”
He flashes his typical jocund grin before answering. “Well, I can’t tell you everything yet- don’t wanna ruin all the surprises- but–”
“–that’s my proposal.”
Reddic leans back in his chair and crosses his legs, resting his hands over his lap. His dark dress shirt and pants are contrasted by a double-breasted white vest and dress shoes. As usual, his sleeves are folded back above his elbows. His two different colored eyes sparkle in the rays of sun pouring into Neth’s office via a large spherical window.
Across from him, the headmaster and officer are shrouded in light silhouette, their backs to the sunlight. Their stern expressions and rigid postures tell him he may owe Nuria an apology. However, he does note that Stark’s stern countenance is less animated than Neth’s. He shifts his gaze to her for an instant and marvels when she moves her arms uneasily.
Did something happen between her and Nuria while I was away?
“Just Reddic is fine.”
Neth continues, “–why would I ever approve of such an escapade? In your absence, I tried to prohibit Professors Marmagar and Zathony from attempting something similar much closer to campus. They only succeeded by ignoring my veto; a tactic I warn you not to try. While you were gone, The Pure launched two attacks in the vicinity of my students. I–”
Reddic’s smile vanishes without a trace. “Two? I’d only heard of the mall attack.”
“I am not entirely certain, but Nuria, Tyra, and Koren lied to me about what happened in the Winding Hills. To save Zathony’s job, no doubt.”
“She told me the three of them got heated over the contest.”
Neth and Stark exchange quick looks. Afterward, only Stark’s expression softens, though Reddic detects guilt also.
Perhaps Nuria hasn’t informed her of the truth, either? Or…perhaps the truth involves Stark? Or worse, her mother!
“You know,” Reddic says, “I’m surprised she hasn’t confided in you Stark. I was under the impression you and she were close.”
Stark doesn’t respond, but her expression grows darker than her silhouette. Reddic lifts a brow and turns away.
That settles it. Nuria and the other two saw Liamria…and survived. I’d love to hear that story. But then…based on the timeline of events, Lia–
Reddic’s eyes widen slightly, then he grins.
Ah, so that’s it. Stark followed me. Nuria noticed. She’s noticing quite a lot, actually. She confronted Stark. Kept quiet about it and Liamria. I should be worried about Neth knowing about Kirby, but…that girl. A world of power is at her disposal. One day, she’ll–
“Regardless, I do not believe this exercise to “complete Nuria’s Ibri tutelage” is necessary to be done so far away,” Neth says, reading from a form on his desk. “She can do so on campus grounds.”
“I respectfully disagree, sir. I imagine you’ve read the entirety of the library down in the archives. I have only completed perusing Kirin’s journals; I’m sure you know why. Within them, it says that phoenixes, Kirin included, grew better in elevated environments. And yes, I understand safety is paramount, which is why I requested access to the location listed on that form. There is no better well-guarded location to teach Nuria.” To Stark, he says, “No offense.”
“That being the case, there is no–”
Neth’s office door bangs open and Nuria stomps up to the desk, fuming so that she has to shake embers from her fingertips.
“Nuria, can you please return to the foyer?” Neth asks gently.
“What’s wrong with the two of you?” Nuria asks not-so-gently.
“Nuria!” Stark exclaims incredulously.
“Young lady, you will mind your tongue!”
“Or what? You’ll expel me? Go ahead! Then Reddic wouldn’t need your permission to take me anywhere!”
Reddic sees the nearly imperceptible flinches the two soft silhouettes make and finally understands the truth of their feelings. At least, for Stark. Once again, Neth does not simmer down.
This one’s a tough nut to crack.
Neth says, “Nuria, we are only–”
“What? Trying to look out for me? I don’t need you to!” Nuria glares at Stark. “Either of you!”
“What’s gotten into you?” Neth asks.
“I’m trying to learn, and the two of you won’t let me! The real reason I joined Vanusi- why I came to FHA in the first place- was to learn the truth of my golden fire. What it was, what it meant, how to use it, to learn about myself. All I’ve done in Ibri class is learn about myself and how to improve, and I don’t mean just my powers! That’s all thanks to Reddic!”
Nuria steps closer and takes Reddic’s hand in hers. “I know I’m being rude, but I don’t see another way to get across that Reddic is a good person. Trust me.”
Reddic looks at Nuria with a grin brimming with pride.
Neth takes a deep breath, banking his fury behind a mask. “Nuria, I’m sorry, but my answer is still–”
The headmaster faces Stark first. Reddic and Nuria follow suit, regarding the officer with inquisitive and anxious looks respectively.
“Nuria’s absolutely right.”
“You can’t be serious?”
Reddic raises an eyebrow.
“But I am. We’ve been quick to judge Reddic without good reason. I can admit I’ve erred. Headmaster, we both Reddic our apologies.”
Reddic watches Stark closely as she speaks, in awe of the look she delivers Nuria. In return, the phoenix’s tension drops, her hand relaxing over his. Yet, the headmaster looks no less displeased than before.
“At the expert judgment of my head of security, I will apologize for misjudging you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Reddic replies.
“Now, as for your request, I am still apprehensive, but since you’ve made it clear once again you will only accept volunteers, I will approve it.”
Reddic and Nuria both brighten and give each other triumphant smiles.
“However,” Neth adds hastily, “my one condition is that Stark be allowed to attend as official security. I trust her to be a great help should any participants require protection.”
“Excellent!” Reddic cheers.
She and I are overdue for a chat, anyway.
Nuria can tell Neth’s anger has yet to subside despite his calm demeanor, noticing him white0knuckling his wooden cane. She worries that some of the other students will be cowed by his presence. The second he invaded their Piranha BBQ dinner, the mood flatlined. The phoenix banks on Reddic’s excessive jovial attitude will balance out her peers. She glances at Stark standing at the edge of the stage and sees nothing in her posture that’s positive or negative.
She may have gotten Neth to apologize, but nothing’s changed. She’s not on my side anymore.
Nuria turns in her chair and watches the auditorium fill swiftly, the S’nue class arriving first and the Ohaida class ending the procession. She lifts an eyebrow when the other professors remain in the back. The phoenix tries to summon her greater vision to glean their expressions but fails. The students, on the contrary, are clear to see. So far, her Neth prediction rings true.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” the headmaster says after stepping up to the lectern, climbing atop a step stool hidden from her peers. If Nuria weren’t annoyed with him, she’d laugh. “I apologize for calling this assembly last minute. As well, I’d like to thank you all for attending on such short notice. Our dear Professor Reddic has informed me of an opportunity he wishes to offer to any volunteers. However, do not take my word for it. I open the floor to him to explain.” Neth steps away from the lectern. “Professor Reddic, you may address them now.”
Nuria narrows her eyes when Neth shows her mentor a sly grin.
He thinks Reddic will fail again. I did join on a whim when no others considered it. Then he dresses down the adventure. I’m not gonna let Reddic get beaten so easily!
“Wait!” Nuria calls out before she’s even on her feet. Her shrill call reaches the microphone, and by the time she catches up to Reddic, she sees more attentive faces amongst her peers.
She looks Reddic in the eyes and nods tightly. “I’ve got this,” she whispers.
Just like with her peers, she sees his tension abate. His smile extends, more of his teeth showing. He bows his head and steps away from the lectern. Nuria boldly steps forward.
“Hey, guys. Thanks for your time,” she greets warmly. “Having been to three of your classes, I know the workload you have on your plates, so I appreciate you taking the time to be here. The assembly is to announce that Ibri House is ready to return the favor. We’re inviting you to join us on a magnificent trip off-campus. In his absence these past couple of weeks, Reddic’s been scurrying all around Vanu to secure the chance to visit one of the greatest landmarks in history, rivaling Four Hearts itself. From the jump, this was the plan. He’s asking for volunteers again because he doesn’t want the journey to feel like an assignment, the same as he did for Ibri House at the start of the year. He wants as many of you to experience this as possible, matching the original six students he hoped for. Like back then, he wants to extend the invitation to Ibri students first, then the rest of you.
“So, if you’re ready, awesome! If you aren’t, don’t worry about it. If you’re ready, then join us up here. If you aren’t, then wish us a safe trip.”
Nuria glances at the other stage occupants, the intensity of their emotions increasing from Stark to Neth to Reddic. She and the latter exchange one more nod. The second Nuria whirls back to the crowd, the intensity of her joy rises, saturating the stage, eclipsing even the rage she knows Neth must be feeling.
The light on the stage glints off three pieces of metal, one with a glass disc embedded in the base and the other two enshrined in sheaths with hurricane decals.
Guess I was bound to have Ohaida classmates eventually.
Nuria dashes forward and hangs one arm over their shoulders. Rum and Shuri jostle her playfully in return.