An unexpected shipment of mystical books arrived by post this afternoon. I hate mysteries, especially when they involve finances. I handled the store inventory and would have remembered ordering a set of such pricey mage books. Stress triggered one of my headaches, adding to my cranky mood.
Mother stepped through the old velvet curtains separating the shop from the downstairs parlor and kitchen. “Are you alright, dear?” she asked.
“I’m lovely. Did you enjoy your nap?” I replied, digging through the box for any clues to the enigmatic delivery.
“Yes, Sabine, but you shouldn’t have let me sleep so long. Tell me what’s wrong. You’ve got that quizzical look.”
“Just confused,” I mumbled, sitting cross-legged on the floor as I emptied the crate’s packing, tossing straw everywhere but coming up empty-handed. I stacked the books neatly to keep them safe. “I never ordered these and can’t find an invoice anywhere. Did Luther do this? Mother, he needs to tell me these things.”
“I’ll speak with him. Don’t fret, I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation,” she replied, brushing away bits of yellow straw and touching the elegant gold-and-blue covers of the books. “It’s a shame we rarely carry such elite merchandise anymore. These are well-crafted tomes. Expensiveones.”
“I hope so! It vexes me when he does things like this, even though they’re gorgeous. Magic is currency in our world, but I can’t profit if I can’t balance the ledger.” I inhaled, enjoying the scent of the books, sweet with the tangible dusting of magic woven into each page. It even softened my headache. Magic is something even a baseborn can smell. For an instant, my headache retreated. The odor depends on the type of magic, of course. Light magic has a clean scent, like fresh air and sunshine. Dark magic smells vile, or at least I’ve heard it does. Mages who practice the shadowcraft rarely purchase their wicked materials openly.
“You work much too hard, dear. Stop frowning. It causes wrinkles, and you have such a lovely brow.”
“I’m not frowning. I’m just thinking really hard.”
Mother stroked the book lovingly. “I remember now. He mentioned something a few weeks ago about ordering special volumes for someone. Father tends to be absentminded these days.”
“Forgetfulness doesn’t cover the bills. You know our funds are low this month after paying for a shipment of store supplies. Luther never bothers with finances except to pinch from its coffers. I had to barter with the grocer for cheap coffee and cornmeal in exchange for a batch of headache draughts I made so we could eat. I couldn’t even afford sugar or a tin of milk.”
“I saw Master Thomas, the grocer, on my walk this morning. He praised your headache medicine. You’ve become a skilled apothecary and should be proud. I remember now! I believe Sir Thomas Graven ordered the books as a birthday gift for his daughter, Marigold. I hear she’s home for the spring holidays from the Academy. Wasn’t she your friend at school?”
“We were never friends, Mother. She called me ghost-eye and made my life a misery. Mageborns don’t play with baseborn bastards. They bully them.”
“Well, you were just children then. You have such lovely pale gray eyes, dearest. They’re your best feature. I’m sure it was just envy on Miss Graven’s part.” Mother glanced at me and whispered, “Your top buttons are undone, dear. You do not wish to send the wrong message if someone comes into the shop.”
“Sorry, Mother.” I fastened the top two buttons of my blouse despite sweating from my labors in the stuffy shop. Mother was always conscious of ladylike images, especially as I got older.
“Much better,” she said. “I’m sure you’re mistaken about Marigold. People do change when they grow up.”
“Perhaps,” I remarked to close the subject. I loathed Marigold, a demon in blonde ringlets who had tormented me from the age of six. She got away with it because she was rich and mageborn. I adored books with a passion, but Marigold and her circle of nasty hens killed my love of school. I left at thirteen. Mother needed me anyway.
Mother opened a mystic book only to be confronted with blank pages. “I keep forgetting I can’t see the magical words anymore.” Her smile vanished as she closed the book. I knew how much it pained her to know she’d never see mystical script again.
I watched her wistfully turn away, but I knew how much it hurt her. My mother, Brona, was blessed to be mageborn. Unlike most of our Fable clan, who were minor charm caste, she had possessed the power to become a true sorceress. At sixteen she was accepted by the elite Mystic Academy at Túr Solas, the capital city of the Ravenna Republic. My mother excelled at her magic studies until love ruined her.
Apparently, love is a sin when not precluded by a marriage rite. A bad affair can be forgotten, but if a girl falls pregnant out of wedlock, it disgraces her and the family. It brought my poor mother trouble—namely me. Then, as if her misfortunes weren’t enough, an epidemic of mage fever struck, and the Fable clan was reduced to three—me, mother, and her father, Luther.
The doorbell chimed as Altheda Dusan entered. “Sabine and Brona Fable! I was hoping to see you two today.”
Glad for the distraction, I hugged her. “Good afternoon! I haven’t seen you in almost a month,” I said.
“Been busy, girl,” Altheda exclaimed, “People are birthing babies like feisty rabbits, and the spring colds have folks down of late. I’ve seen more sniffles now than in the winter.”
Altheda had known me literally since my birth. She was our village healer, midwife, and a dear friend. She delivered me. And when the scarlet madness—mage fever—took hold in my mother, Altheda nursed Brona through the chills, the night terrors, and the screaming insanity. She helped keep my mother alive even though the fever stripped Brona, like every other mage it struck, of her magic.
Altheda grabbed the small footstool I kept handy. I was too small to reach the higher shelves, but I kept it for her ease since she was a dwarf. Altheda often confronted people about their narrow view of those who live on the rim of society because they are different or poor.
“What’s your pleasure today?” I asked, brushing bits of straw from my blouse.
“My depleted pharmacopeia needs restocking. Here’s a list. Willow bark tablets, blessed thistle, dandelion root, comfrey, nettle. The works.”
She handed me a long list and began counting out coins on the counter. I was glad because it meant we would have milk and meat on the table.
“How are you faring today, Brona?” Altheda inquired. “Taking your medicine?”
“I’m quite well,” Mother replied, taking the list and gathering the requested medicines with quiet efficiency. “I hope you’re the same. We must have tea together soon.”
“I’ll be looking forward to it, love.” Then Altheda leaned in and whispered to me, “Has the old wizard checked you yet?”
“Last week. I’m afraid I’m still just a regular girl,” I replied softly in her ear, so Mother would not hear. These tests for my mystical awakening always occurred around my birthday, which was in a few weeks. I’m not only a bastard, but because of my mother’s fever, I’m baseborn as well. “I hate these silly annual examinations, but Mother always insists. My spark of hope is always snuffed out when the old man shakes his head.”
Altheda nodded.” Just make your mum happy. Next year, when you turn eighteen, you won’t need to go.” She looked at the books on the counter. “Heavens, these are lovely tomes. I’d wish for magic just to be able to have these beauties.”
“I remember how the symbols shimmered before my eyes into wondrous words of power,” Mother remarked, her voice overcome with loss. “Without magic’s beneficence, there’s nothing but an empty page.”
I worried she might get upset and bring on an attack of one of the side effects that had lingered through the years.
Altheda nudged her with a grin. “Now, Brona, don’t fall into a gloom. You know how it distresses you when you dwell on the past.”
“Have you had your tea, Mother?” I asked. It was my subtle way of making sure she took her medicine.
“Not yet, Sabine.” She sighed and wrinkled her nose. “It tastes so bitter.”
“Then add honey,” I suggested, dusting off the last volume.
Mother smiled.” You’d add honey to anything.”
“I like sweet,” I said with a shrug.
“Take your medicine, Brona,” Altheda told her. “You must look after yourself.” Then our friend gathered her fresh stock of medicinal herbs and potions, carefully putting them in her satchel.
I deposited Altheda’s coins into my felt purse and tucked them away in my skirt pocket, calculating how much food I could buy with them.
Altheda smiled, waving as she left. “I’ll be calling on you next week.”
“Bring your spice cake too,” I called after her.
“With or without vanilla icing?” she called back.
The promise of iced cake almost made me feel better. Her talent at baking rivaled her skill as a healer. I shoved the crate behind the counter and grabbed a broom, sweeping up the loose straw. “It’s quiet today, Mother. Why don’t you go back upstairs and rest? I can manage until Luther gets back.”
“I’m fine, dear,” she said, dusting the potion bottles in the case. “You know I like to be useful.”
The doorbell chimed, alerting me to another customer. I looked up to see Sir Thomas Graven and his daughter, Marigold Graven, enter the shop.
“Goodness! Have you been rolling in a hayloft, Sabine?” Marigold remarked idly, her pristine handkerchief fluttering in her fingers. “You should pay better attention to your appearance, but you always had a dirty face in school. Still, hard work keeps a girl from straying into sin, as our pastor says.”
I wanted to cram her lacy kerchief down her throat. I took a deep breath, put down the broom, and dusted off my dress. I smiled coolly and ignored her rude comment. Nor did I bow my head in submission as she thought baseborns should before their mage betters. Her eyes narrowed like a rat’s beneath her frilly pink bonnet, as though I’d challenged her to a duel.
Mother greeted them with her most brilliant smile and gracefully led them to the counter. I always envied my mother’s elegance. “Welcome to Fable House. Your timing is perfect. Your books have just arrived.”
“Excellent,” Graven replied, sweeping back his cloak and examining one of the volumes. Tall and lean with sharp features and black hair, he seemed carved out of granite rather than flesh. In contrast, Marigold was soft and round as pudding, but with none of the sweetness.
Mother looked fondly at the books. “I’ve seen nothing this lovely since my days at the Academy. I hope they please you.”
“Indeed they do, Mistress Brona,” Graven replied. Then he and turned to his daughter. “Do you like your birthday present, sweetheart?”
“Oh, Daddy, they’re so pretty!” Marigold giggled with the exuberance of a toddler offered gooey candy.
Luther arrived, reeking like an ale barrel even from a distance. “Welcome, Lord Thomas Graven!” He scurried to Graven like a penitent peasant and offered his hand. Graven did not take it, but he turned aside, tugging at his own fine leather gloves.
Luther ignored the slight but grinned broadly as he brushed his gray hair off his face. “As you see, my special order for your books arrived in time for Lady Marigold’s birthday. I was honored to serve you, Lord Graven. I hope your lordship is pleased with this rare collection for your lovely daughter. Old Luther Fable still has his contacts for some superior magic items.”
“They are satisfactory, Mister Fable,” Lord Graven said.
Thomas Graven often did business with us, buying mystical supplies or ordering books. I once sold him a special pocket tome to keep spells handy. He was sorcerer caste and one of the richer nobles in town. I think he felt sorry for my mother. I know they attended the Academy together before her banishment and later loss of magic. His patronage was needed coin in the till.
The shiny new magic books absorbed Marigold’s attention and deflected any further sarcasm directed at me.
“Our business is then concluded. Take them to our carriage,” Graven ordered. “I thank you for your assistance in this acquisition.”
“Happy to be of service. Fable House thanks you for your patronage.” Luther nodded, taking the seven volumes of magic I envied. Mother opened the door for Luther as he stumbled past Marigold, who wrinkled her nose and fluttered her lace handkerchief as she left.
Lord Graven tipped his tall hat to us before leaving. I remembered to curtsy. I don’t trust mageborns, despite my longing to be one. But Thomas Graven was always kind to my mother, which perplexed me, actually. Marigold was not so mysterious.
Luther returned, pleased with himself. “Well, Lord Graven was a satisfied customer if I must say. The mystic scribes still know old Luther Fable, and I know how to deal.”
“A wonderful sale indeed!” I said, hoping to extract some information. “Such an expensive purchase will help our coffers this month. Do you have the invoice? I need it for the books.”
“None of your concern, missy,” Luther snapped. “This was a business exchange between gentlemen. The good word of Graven will help our business.”
“Luther, I keep the accounts, and nothing was noted about this,” I replied, my temper fermenting. I feared it would be an empty argument, for he had probably already spent any profit.
“Lord Graven paid me for the damned books, so stop nagging. Now get out of my way, girl,” Luther mumbled. “It’s what you call an investment, you ignorant little slut. I did it at cost, as a favor to Graven. It will cultivate the Fable House reputation.”
The only thing Luther ever cultivated was a thirst for ale, I thought. Maybe whiskey. “Graven is rich,” I said. “We are not! I had to barter for food this week.”
“Don’t pester me, you little bastard. You need to spend money to get money!” Luther shouted, bending down nose to nose with me.
His breath stank, but I stood my ground. “We’ve nothing to spend.”
“Hold your tongue, girl!”
“Both of you stop this at once,” Mother. “Father, go upstairs. Sabine and I will clean up and make supper.”
“I’m not hungry, Brona!” Luther snapped.
“Don’t yell at her!” I said.
Luther’s eyes narrowed on me. “Why’s your hand in your pocket like that? You hiding something, girl?” grabbing at my skirt pocket and seizing the precious coins. “Hiding my money now, are you? You ungrateful little thief!” Luther slapped me hard across the face. My cheek burned, as my hands and head became enflamed—which they did when I was angry or upset. I set my jaw for another blow as Mother rushed between us.
“Father, please stop! It was for a lovely sale Sabine just made with Altheda. No one is hiding anything from you. Sabine works so hard. You promised not to hit her anymore.”
“We need money for food,” I insisted, jerking away.
“I need it more. I’ve a business meeting with some important folk.” Luther chuckled, clutching the money close to his chest. “This will come in handy.”
“For what? Swilling beer and losing it all at cards while we starve?”
Luther unbuckled his belt. “You need a beating, girl?”
It was my own fault. He lunged at me, but I ducked and bolted for the door, hiking up my skirts as I ran. The folly of my temper and Luther’s drinking always wreaked chaos. But his belt didn’t have time to touch my back this time. Only his curses followed me as I fled for the nearby woods.
I’m not sure how long I ran. Only sheer exhaustion forced me to stop when I was deep in the forest. I collapsed near the stream, breathing hard. I splashed my face with the cold water, wishing for something, anything to change my life.
My frail moment of precious peace was broken by rowdy voices nearby. I followed the sounds until I came upon a pack of local boys, maybe around nine or ten years old, laughing as they brutally beat the ground with sticks and rocks. I raged when I saw their victim—a small green-and-gold pukis dragon, its poor head bashed in by the vicious human monsters. Their cruelty flared my once-spent temper. I snatched up a big stick from the ground and rushed them, shouting curses. My screams must have been intimidating, or they thought I was mad, because they ran off.
I dropped to the ground and blubbered like an idiot. Through bleary eyes, I saw that their atrocities had killed more than this poor pukis dragon. Broken eggs lay scattered in the grass. The pukis must have had a nest nearby and tried protecting her eggs from those fiends! In the glow of the afternoon sun, I glimpsed one gleaming, unbroken egg in the grass. I wiped my eyes and touched its blue-and-green shell. I felt its warmth. I gathered a thick pile of leaves and carefully laid the egg there. I found a stout branch and dug a grave for its poor mother and shattered brothers and sisters. I covered the grave with dirt, rocks, and fallen branches. I stayed in the woods until sunset, pondering my fate and the egg’s.
I could not abandon this poor egg to cruel nature. I’d read pukis dragons are rather small, about the size of a house cat, but reputed to be mischievous critters. Some mages keep them as pets because they look like tiny dragons. I knew Luther might protest, but I didn’t care. Mother would let me keep it.
I gently wrapped the pukis egg in my scarf to keep it warm. “No one’s going to hurt you, my little dragon. I will protect you now.” I walked home slowly, cradling my pukis egg in my hands.