Ghosts haunted the gloomy aisles and darkest corners of the library. Hidden behind a massive, load-bearing timber, Aidan watched Roxanna scrutinize the stacks with a faylight held aloft. She cocked her chin and gnawed her lip as she brushed her fingertips across the leather spines.
Aidan wiped his palms dry on his acolyte’s robe and swallowed. He made a fist over his heart as if he could subdue the palpitations. Surely she must hear.
The red fay in Roxanna’s palm sputtered with agitation. She pushed the light closer to a book, pursed her lips, wrinkled her forehead, and wrested a tomb from the shelf. With the heavy book lodged against her chest, she strode the aisle. Her slippers soughed and gown rustled like leaves in a breeze. In three steps, she’d discover Aidan stalking her in the shadows.
The scent of lilac swirled to his nose. He drew his breath and held it. Sweat beaded above his lip. He imagined her shriek, his humiliation, his attempt to explain why he hid.
She veered for a reading table, pulled a chair, set the faylight on a pricket, and opened her book.
Aidan slumped, wiped the sweat from his lip, and raked his hair with his fingers. Now or never. He twisted his wrist to summon a gold-glowing fay and stepped from the pillar. A few paces took him to her table, where he glanced at a drifting ghost beyond their lights. Was the spirit trying to tell him something? Aidan rubbed his eyes and cleared his throat.
Roxanna startled and jerked her gaze from the page.
Aidan winced. “I…I’m sorry.” His cheeks flushed with heat. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t. What do you want?”
What did he want? He licked his lips. He wanted to share her burdens and joys. Too much? “I was wondering what you were reading.”
“Why do you care?” she snapped.
Aidan quailed, and his faylight trembled. “I…I…saw how absorbed you were and wondered what so fascinated you.”
“So you thought you’d interrupt me when I was obviously concentrating?”
“No, no, I didn’t mean…” The light in Aidan’s hand dimmed. “I only wanted to—”
“Know my business?”
He hung his head. “Only share it.”
Roxanna’s chair scraped the flagstones as she stood. She cupped her hand, bid the fay from the pricket, and turned her back on the young man.
Aidan shuddered in her chilly wake, staggered to her abandoned chair, and tapped his forehead to the table. Maybe he was ill. That would explain his fever, the nausea, the erratic beat of his heart.
His faylight stung his hand.
Aidan jolted up, blinked, and looked around in a daze. His chest hurt like someone had punched him. The fragrance of lilac lingered. He sniffed the sweet-scented pages of her book and read a line.
…the sinner must be purified in pain, the offending eye plucked, the degenerate purged, and Our Lady fed. Only blood upon the altar will appease her wrath at our transgressions and cleanse this wicked world.
Aidan thumbed to the title page, Our Lady’s Mysteries. Blood offering had been anathema for a thousand years, ever since the Inspired Age. What interest would Roxanna, a student of physik, learning to heal the sick, have in such barbarous doctrines?
The meta-story: This is the first part of a short story I wrote for a contest, but then set it aside because I didn’t feel it met the criteria. When I decided to write something for Neil MacDonald’s Scrivener’s Forge, I thought of this draft and pulled it out to rework as an exercise. I’m posting the new draft here to add to his froggy link, where you can read other exercises.