Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Novice Conquers the Rhythm...

Thorn leaned over the study desk, eyes squinched in concentration, tapping the words out against the wood with the sides of his thumbs. The air smelled of musty parchment and his tutor's spicy perfume. From the enclosed carrels around him came similar tapping, quietly furious. Exams were coming.

Leaning over his shoulder, Abby was a petite furnace with long dark hair that tickled his cheek.

"A novice revenges the rhythm?" he guessed.

"Close," she murmured, her voice gray velvet in his ear. He felt her hair move against his face. Then she was reaching past him, to indicate a group of scratches on the scroll. "Try this bit again."

He tried to ignore the warmth of her breast pressing against his shoulder, the warmth of the attraction tingling in his belly and beneath. He tapped the beats out, listened.

"You missed the doubled thirty-second," she said, her long purple fingernail indicating a mark he hadn't seen. "That makes it a definite article."

"The? The novice revenges the rhythm? What kind of sense does that make?"

"It doesn't, yet. Try again. You messed up in the middle."

It occurred to Thorn that if he kept screwing up, Abby might just stay here in the library with him forever. But then he'd still be translating this stupid scroll. It was very nearly a fair trade.

"Why couldn't they just have written it in words?"

"These are words. Try again, impatient boy."

Boy. That was a problem, too. When they were in their thirties--impossibly far from now--the difference in their ages wouldn't matter at all, but right now he was fourteen and she was seventeen, and it didn't make a difference to him but to her it was probably all the distance in the world.

He beat out the marks again. "Conquers. Right. The novice conquers the rhythm."

"Good!" The pleasure in her voice was genuine. "Now the next part."

"What does that mean, though? The novice conquers the rhythm? Isn't conquering the rhythm what makes you a master in the first place?"

"Read the rest." She moved away from him to settle back onto her stool. His shoulder felt cold and he couldn't help watching her cross her legs beneath her long gray skirt. "Finish this bit and we'll talk about the meaning."

He was too distracted to concentrate on the marks on the page, but he tapped them out anyway, listened to the sound of bone on wood. "The conqueror--the master, right? The master, um. Inhabits?"

"That the master--use the context, Thorn."

He blushed. "I'm sorry. This is hard."

"If magic was easy it wouldn't be magic."

"That makes no sense at all."

"Give it time."

"But magic is easy because it's magic. That's the point!"

Abby was already shaking her head. "The beats, Thorn. Let's get this done."

Thorn sighed and returned his attention to the scroll. For a moment the stiffness had gone out of their conversation -- they were just two kids shooting bull, not the gorgeous tutor and the pimply kid whose parents paid extravagantly for her time.

"The novice conquers the rhythm--" he looked up, saw her nodding-- "that the master, um, inhabits?"

"Exactly." Her lips, a paler purple than her fingernails, bent in a smile. "Well done. Inhabits is a tricky one. You wanted to use 'colonize', didn't you?"

He shrugged. "Yeah. But it didn't have the double-tap at the beginning."

"Exactly." Her smile spread. "Believe it or not, you're getting better at this."

"For all the good it's going to do me."

"The novice conquers the rhythm," she said.

"That still makes no sense."

Abby scratched her chin and leaned back against the table. Thorn was acutely conscious of how it made her small breasts stand out. "Okay. Let's try it this way. You've had a girlfriend, right?"

The magic that was Thorn's own heartbeat missed its rhythm. "Like ten."

She smirked. "Okay, Romeo."

"I have!"

Abbie's hands rose in surrender. "Ten it is. Anyway. When you first date someone, that first time. It's all about what comes next, right?"

"I guess."

"And then you hold her hand. Maybe kiss her, just a little."

He was getting warm again. Picturing kissing her. Imagining what that lavender lipstick would feel like against his lips.

"And then you've figured out that part, so now you're making out, right? And after that, maybe she lets you put your hand up her shirt--"

Not only was he flushed, now his pants weren't fitting right, either. He couldn't look her in the eye, so instead he watched her mouth. Her beautiful kissable mouth.

"So you've conquered that. And--do I need to go on?"

Yes, he thought. God and all the little fishes, yes.  "No, I get it." His voice was too high.

She chuffed out a laugh, held his eye a moment too long. That was almost worse than her words.

"So all these things, you've conquered them. But you're still a kid. You don't know your own body yet. You don't know her body; you're still exploring. So you're conquering left and right, there's a white trail of conquest all over the bedspread--"

He swallowed hard, concentrating on not moving, not even to breathe. She didn't seem to notice.

"But you're not a master. When you're a master, you start to realize that it's not about the conquest. It's about enjoying the moment. The talking, the laughing, the dancing. The sex, too, of course. But it's more than that. You inhabit the relationship. You live in it, get comfortable. It's not just you and her anymore, it's this thing that you make together."

She curled her hair around a finger and put the end in her mouth, nibbling on it worriedly.

"That's what I keep telling myself, anyway."

When she let the hair fall away from her mouth he saw the lipstick on the ends, and he realized that she'd be taking graduating exams in just a few weeks. Exams that would kill her if she screwed them up. Confident as she played, she was probably terrified.

"Do you have a boyfriend?" he asked.

She gave him a smile, but it looked sad. "You applying?"

What would she say if I said yes? Instead, he swallowed hard. "We still have half an hour. We should get back to work." He looked back to the scroll. "I still have stuff to conquer."


Here's another from the Chuck Wendig Friday Challenge series:

I'm not getting much done on my novel, but I'm having a blast with the flash. And writing these inspired me to write something else that's not posted here 'cuz I'm trying to sell it; we'll see how that goes.


  1. Great story. It feels like a piece from something bigger, and I find myself wanting to know much more about this magical rhythm and the potentially fatal exam.

  2. Thanks, Jo! It does feel like part of something bigger, doesn't it? Hrm. Maybe there's more one day...

  3. I agree with Jo; the story does feel like it is a part of something bigger. I really like how you included the prompt sentence as an integral part of the story and added the dynamic between the two characters. The only thing is at the end, where he realizes she has really important exams, but then it seems like he just dismisses it by asking if she has a boyfriend and after that, the focus switches back to him getting back to work. I feel like you wanted to add more to it but instead you just ended it. Hopefully, one day you will flesh out the story even more because you really could!

  4. Thanks, Raphaelite! Who knows. If I ever figure out a larger story to tell here, I'd love to do so. Flash is really good for creating little worlds you might want to explore later...