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She dealt in books. Hardcovers with pages that turn under your fingers and tickle your senses with the smell of the past or the musty odor of a title that’s been shelved for awhile. She’s also a writer, but she’s neither successful nor inspired, and a writer without words cannot be counted as a writer at all. Her pride was the corner bookstore on a small side street in a lonely city with gentle hills and fog-shrouded highlands.
On the day she found her muse the old woman sat staring at her lifeless novel. She’d always imagined she’d write something brilliant and memorable; a flash of inspiration in a realm or literary blandness.
She had only the barest bones of her maiden novel; the first rough outlines of a much-fussed over plot, one-dimensional characters, hints of a setting. Perusing the obituaries, she called various names to the scruffy Labrador at her feet. “Somnus?” she asked the dog. “Bakari?”
The door chimes sounded and she looked up, surprised as a foreigner walked in. Tall, hooded, with leonine features suggested this was not a man to be trifled with. The foreigner was older, nearly as old as the book-keeper. Grey-streaked mahogany hair framed his intense gaze, and his demeanor appeared tired, sad, and desperate together.
“I’m looking for a book.” He stated his mission without preamble, but in the apologetic way that one uses when they have no time for normal pleasantries but wishes they did.
The bookkeeper set the newspaper aside. She regarded the man for a long, unhurried moment. “I’m called Kepi. What are you searching for?” She nudged the dog, prompting the mongrel to roll on its back adorably.
The foreigner half-smiled at that, the heartache not leaving his cobalt eyes. He handed the bookkeeper a slip of paper upon which had been scribbled a title and the author’s name. Kepi frowned at the unfamiliarity.
“I’m sorry,” She said, briskly. “I don’t own that.”
The foreigner’s fist clenched in frustration. “Pardon me, I have to leave.” he said abruptly, and the woman was surprised to see a new emotion play across the face: fear.
Kepi regarded her only customer. “I know of people who deal in older books” Something told her to help this foreigner whose emotions flew at the loss of a book. “It could take a few days,” She added, an understatement. Already she was calculating the time, the favors...
“Thank you.” It was sincere, quiet, simple, but so much more because of that. “It’s for … ” hesitation, “someone very important to me.”
After acquiring the necessary information the bookkeeper lowered herself at the computer, making a note of the order; “Jinn – Draigonslayer,” before beginning to locate the title.
It took nearly eight days of searching, manipulation, and bribery to obtain a copy of the rare book. It was a handsome price but Jinn had indicated money was not an issue; time was. This prompted old Kepi to deliver the package herself on her journey home.
The sun was still high and the air warm. The scribbled address led her to a tiny house nestled at the base of the hills.
The house itself was neat and well tended. Kepi pressed the chime and the door slid open, revealing a small hallway. There wasn’t a table to lay the hardcover upon, and she was already inside... She followed the short hall to a modestly decorated, brilliantly lit front room. The soft white walls and furniture bathed in light gave the room a warm, inviting glow.
She glanced in the room, nearly dropping Jinn’s book when surprised with a quiet hello.
Kepi entered the room, her eyebrows arching at the appearance. She hadn’t realized that this stately room was being used as an infirmary.
The youth was curled on a plush chair near an immense window that looked towards the mountains. He was covered by a thick, warm-looking throw, shivering in spite of the room’s warmth. Medical tubing ran from his left wrist to an intravenous feed. A monitor behind his chair tracked his vital signs. The man himself was quiet, but had a haunted, resigned air about him incompatible with his age. Staring at him, the old woman realized the boy was dying, the room serving not as a hospital but a hospice.
The young face scrunched in an embarrassed frown. “I’m sorry,” he apologized in a whisper that still carried undercurrents of melody, of strength. “I thought you were someone else. I couldn’t tell …” He trailed off, distressed.
“I own a bookstore,” Kepi said slowly. “I’ve brought a book requested by Master Jinn. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.” She watched the boy’s face shine at the mention of a book, watched a pale hand lift eagerly. The woman was struck by the tragic beauty of a bright spirit encased in a crippled, dying body. Once the man must have been attractive; a high forehead sloped towards a cleft chin, and the glowing eyes, shining in their obvious blindness, were an entrancing blue-grey. Short ginger hair tapered gently into a scraping of afternoon stubble and an odd, trailing braid sloped over his right shoulder to lie across his chest. The old woman put him around twenty-five years, too young to be preparing to leave this life.
“Jinn’s out but should be back soon. I’m called Aether. May I have the book?”The words were rushed even as he hastened to add, “It’s all right to come in. I’m not contagious. It’s, err…hereditary.”
“That’s all right,” Kepi replied, awed. There was something about the child’s nature, something quiet and tender that was so rare in a world stinging with war and greed, that made her know that even had the youngling been infectious she would have chanced the meeting. Perhaps she was just an old fool longing for the days of chivalry, of knights. “Of course you may see it.”
She approached with the book and watched as Aether slowly uncurled himself from the chair and stretched out slender, grasping fingers, which Kepi caught and, ignoring the red blush creeping across pale cheeks, carefully guided towards the hardcover.
“Thank you,” he breathed, long fingers gracefully turning the slim volume. He looked toward her with a question that died on his lips as he somehow picked up on the utter pity and near-antipathy she was contemplating. His mouth tightened into a narrow, humiliated line and Kepi realized with a flash that this must have once been a proud, confident young man.
“I’m very sorry,” The old woman murmured, laying a hand on the boy’s cheek. He appeared startled at first, but a frail smile graced his wan features. “Forgive my rudeness. Not only have I intruded upon you but I have also displayed very discourteous behavior.”
“Milady, no apology is necessary,” he demurred kindly. “I’ve been told I’m not exactly … pleasant to look at anymore.” Aether’s mouth twisted again into a harsh, mocking smile that had a fatalistic tint to it, cracking the old woman’s heart.
She took hold of the trailing braid and gave it a light yank. “Don’t take blame for an old spinster’s faults, young one.”
His eyes widened and the self-degrading sneer dissolved into an ‘o’ of sudden astonishment. He laughed unexpectedly; a melodic sound that was undercut with sorrow and heartache and the pain of loss.
“Thank you,” Aether managed after a moment, bright eyes glimmering with a sheen of tears that brimmed on long lashes, refusing to fall. “No one has done that in ages.”
“Done what?” Kepi asked, taken in by the young spirit. “Scolded you?”
“No. Pulled my braid,” he clarified, and the light in his eyes danced. “I used to get in trouble frequently and a good yank was the preferred method of punishment. But that’s been over for quite awhile,” he sighed. “They think I’ll break.”
She still didn’t know what illness he was afflicted with, wasn’t sure she wanted to find out. Still; “And will you?”
“No,” he replied mechanically. “I’ve got a little time yet,” then, more to himself than the woman. “Not too much, but a little.”
Silence comfortably filled the room after that, leaving Kepi a moment to pray she would be able to face her own approaching mortality with the grace of Aether.
Abruptly, his face contorted and the man gasped faintly. Kepi’s old face wrinkled with concern, trying to decide how best to help the youth. At last she settled on stroking the braid, trying to remember the soft words of comfort she’d heard as a child.
“I’m okay now,” Aether murmured hoarsely, sightless eyes opening slowly. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied quietly, finding that the thought of an afternoon of reading seemed repugnant in the face of leaving this young man alone in his ill state. Where was Jinn?
“He’ll be back soon,” She was assured, and Kepi was so relieved to see some color already returning to the pale face that it didn’t register that Aether had effectively read her thoughts. “He worries.”
“Would you like me to stay with you until he comes?” How the neighbors would talk! The old witch growing a heart.
He allowed a half-smile. “I wouldn’t want to be a bother, ma’am.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that, Aether.” She savored the name, feeling the rightness of it. The silence again filled the room. In all Kepi’s years, she had come to understand that silences were as important as words. “Is the book for you?” She asked amicably.
His brow scrunched, making her smile sadly. “I think so,” he answered, hesitant. “What’s the title, please?”
“It’s actually a children’s book; The Draigonslayer, And Other Tales.”
A smile broke across his face, so beautiful she felt a stab of guilt for not allowing Jinn to deliver the much-adored item.
“Yes, it’s for me.” he said, delighted. “I used to own a copy when I was a child. It was my favorite book, all about heroic knights and brave deeds; I would spend hours upon end buried in it. He remembered.”
“I did,” And Kepi didn’t have to turn to know it was Jinn who stood there. The voice was unmistakable. She hadn’t heard the door, but hoped he’d seen the joy on Aether’s face. A large hand touched her shoulder with surprising softness. “Thank you, Mistress Kepi, for delivering the book.”
She turned to face him and was unsurprised to see the emotions he had borne previously, those of pain, sadness, and fear, etched into the lined face still, but there was a quiet calm in his nature that she suspected had everything to do with the young man whose upturned face was focused blindly on Jinn’s.
“You’re welcome,” Kepi allowed a smile. “But I should be going.” She could tell that she was now unnecessary and reached out to grasp the young man’s fingers in farewell. “Thank you, Aether, for allowing me your company.”
He smiled, and she tried to commit it to memory. “Ma’am, thank you. For the book and everything else.”
“Goodbye, young one.” She touched his cheek, offered Jinn a smile.
As she left, a brief conversation began between the two. Just before Kepi passed out of hearing, there was a rustling of paper. She realized that Jinn was reading aloud from the book and paused in the hallway, listening.
“A long time ago, in the days of heroes and draigons, there was a young boy who wanted nothing more than to grow up and be a knight one day.” Jinn’s voice cracked and Kepi swallowed hard. A murmur from the young one prompted Jinn to resume reading. “The boy was loyal and brave and true, but he despaired of ever becoming a knight because he was an orphan and there was no one to teach or care for him… ”
She glanced back at Jinn whose strong, proud features were lined with grief and pain. Tears streaked down his cheeks as he read a child’s book to a young man who was far too old for such things but listening with a small smile nonetheless. Aether’s bright eyes glittered, his hand resting on Jinn’s shoulder with one of Jinn’s larger ones covering it protectively, hiding the diseased skin from view.
Father and son, she realized belatedly and Jinn, without pausing in his reading, looked towards Kepi with a small, secret smile that confirmed her unvoiced observation. Smiling, she brought a hand up to her right ear and made a tugging motion. Jinn looked confused for a moment, then, understanding, pulled the young man’s braid the next sentence. Aether’s eyes brightened as he grinned, elated, and Jinn whispered something that made the boy’s smile widen and the two shared a quiet laugh.
Kepi felt her old heart expand as she left.
Some weeks later Kepi sat in her shop and recalled the tiny family. She had to push the thought of them aside, though, because recalling those laughing, useless eyes never failed to bring a hint of moisture to her own. The boy was a knight for modern times; Jinn as well.
She reached for her notebook, hoping to channel her energies into the unnamed novel. Kepi glanced at the notes, written with slightly more direction in the past month. Her visit to Jinn’s small house had prompted her to write in an aged style and her cast of characters had expanded to include a knight, a father, a dragon…
With a final look at the notes and few paragraphs, Kepi deliberately wrote a name in the corner or a paper, then again at the foot of the page. The more times she wrote it, the more perfect it felt.
Aether. If the young man had to be taken from this world so suddenly, she would at least immortalize his name and his bravery within the inadequate words of her book. She would place him as a knight he desperately wanted to be and so perfectly emulated. Kepi would be sure to include the loving father, a strangely emotional, kingly man. And she might just add a bookkeeper, an eavesdropper, an almost-writer.