Another story about Altenay, the magical Finder, as my answer to the June 2022 WEP challenge, Please Read the Letter. I seem unable to restrict myself to 1000 words. All my stories so far tend to extend to about 1300 words. ☹
Chaos ruled the house in the middle of the University district. Half-filled boxes, chests, and cloth sacks littered the floor.
“Hello, Mistress Syrenia,” Altenay greeted the young woman at the door. “Your message asked me to come here.”
“Yes, thank you for coming promptly, Finder,” the woman said. “Call me Melana.” She led the way into a former study or a library. The empty bookcases lining the walls reached up to the ceiling, but most books had already been packed into crates.
“This was my father’s house,” Melana said. “He died and left me everything. But one book, the jewel of his collection, is missing. I want you to Find it. They say you can Find anything.”
“Mostly,” Altenay agreed.
The unoccupied shelves around her loomed dolefully. Bookshelves were supposed to have books or at least knick-knacks. Having lost their content, the shelves felt incomplete, almost grieving.
“What book,” she asked aloud.
“A bestiary,” said Melana. “The Amazing Beasts of Revocnava Island. It was my favorite. It had incredible pictures. I wanted to have it, the only one of my father’s library, but it is not here. I’m selling the rest.” Melana’s resentment shimmered in the air, augmenting the disconsolate atmosphere of the house.
“You father didn’t tell you what happened to the book? Before he died?”
“We were estranged. We didn’t talk,” Melana said stiffly. “But he knew I loved that book. Maybe he had sold it to spite me. I would buy it back, whatever the price. Just Find it.”
“Could you tell me more about the book,” Altenay prompted.
“I heard you need something, some connection to the book,” Melana said. “Another book from this library. Anything of my father’s.”
“No, anything of your father’s wouldn’t work. It is too generic. There were thousands of items here, all connected. I need something more specific. Something unique to the book.”
Melana’s lips twisted in self-mockery. “When I was a kid, before my father abandoned my mom and me, I tore a page from the book. I loved the illustration. Would it do?”
“Do you still have it? Yes, that would be best.”
“Wait.” Melana disappeared into the bowels of the house. She returned a few minutes later with a large leather portfolio. The bright red-and-teal dragon glared at them from the page, its every scale outlined in gold.
“A really astounding picture,” Altenay said reverently. “That must be a huge book.”
“Yes,” Melana acknowledged. “Do you have to take the picture?” She seemed reluctant to part with it.
Gingerly, Altenay put a finger on the page with its glowing paint. Instantly, her Finder magic sprang to life. It pulled at her, sharp as an arrow. It knew where the rest of the book was.
“I’ll bring your portfolio back when I find the book,” she promised.u
“When will you know?” Melana demanded.
“Give me a day or two,” Altenay said. She could probably find the book within an hour. It was close by, she was sure, for her Finder magic to be so crystal clear, but she always hedged her bets when dealing with clients.
She left Melana’s house with the portfolio strap across her shoulder. With one finger inside the portfolio, on the image, she marched where her magic pointed. The day was sunny, the hour still early, and her magic’s direction unambiguous. She was prepared to walk a while, but it only took a few minutes. Holding her ornate tubeteika, so it wouldn’t slip off her head, she lifted her eyes at the imposing colonnaded edifice. The University Library.
She hurried inside and followed the summons of her magic past the fiction section, past the alchemists’ room, past the memoir chamber, into a spacious hall called History and Geography. The bookcases inside stretched in rows to the far wall. Her magic blinked and dissipated. Argh! Somewhere in this huge room full of books was one book she was seeking. Irresolute, Altenay stood inside the entrance arch. How could she find Melana’s book here?
“Are you a new student?” someone asked behind her back.
An older man with a bald head regarded her with friendly interest. “Are you looking for something specific? I’m the librarian here.”
“Hello,” she said. “I’m a Finder. I was contracted to locate a book.” She told him what she was looking for.
“Hm. A bestiary. We have some books donated to us from private collections. If you tell me the name of the previous owner, I might know where his book is.”
Altenay winced. “I promise confidentiality to all my clients.” But maybe she should disclose the name in this case. “Syrenia,” she said at last. “I don’t know his first name.”
“Professor Syrenia? He died recently.”
“It’s a sad loss,” the librarian said. “He was a noted scholar, traveled a lot in his youth.” He shook his head. “But he didn’t donate anything to us.”
“My magic insists the book is in this room,” Altenay said. “Maybe he hid his personal book here.”
“Why hiding it?” asked the librarian, his brow crinkled in puzzlement. “He should’ve told me.”
“I don’t know. Something to do with his daughter. She said they were estranged. I can show you a page from this book. Maybe it will stir your memory.” She opened the portfolio.
“Torn from the book,” he muttered with disapproval.
Altenay smiled apologetically. “She was young.”
“Still, should’ve more respect for a book. Let me think.”
He started walking. Altenay followed.
“I know the book. Saw it once when I visited his house,” the librarian murmured to himself. “I was a student then, took a class from Syrenia. That man’s knowledge was encyclopedic.”
He stopped in front of a case containing huge, illustrated volumes. His finger traced along the front of the case without touching the spines, traveling through the air like a magic pointer. The lower shelf. The middle shelves. The top one. The finger stopped.
“This book definitely doesn’t belong to us.” He pulled a ladder to the case, climbed, and took out a large tome with the embossed gold lettering on the cover. The Amazing Beasts of Revocnava Island. “Gotcha!” The librarian opened the book.
Attached to the front page, was a letter. “To my beloved daughter Melana Syrenia. Please, read my letter. It will explain why I had to leave you and your mom, even though I loved you both all my life.”
Hurriedly, Altenay lifted her eyes, embarrassed to catch even a glimpse of the letter addressed to another.
“Well,” the librarian drawled and resolutely closed the book. “It’s certainly not ours, but I can’t just let you walk away with this book. Professor Syrenia put the book here for a reason. I’m responsible for every book in this building. Tell Mistress Melana to come here.”
“Thank you,” Altenay said.
A few days later, when Melana Syrenia came to pay for Altenay’s services, Altenay couldn’t restrain her curiosity.
“Yes, I read the letter,” Melana said. “He was cursed. He stole a priceless statue from a temple on Revocnava Island when he was young, and the priestess cursed him. The curse extended to his family, and when he realized that, he abandoned us. To remove the curse from us. He did it because he loved us, and I never knew. I was mad at him my whole life. I wouldn’t have read his letter if he just sent it to me. If it wasn’t connected to the book. If the book wasn’t hidden.” She sounded sorrowful. “Now, I suppose I’ll have to return the statue.” She sighed. “That darn letter!”
Tagline: A letter could change a life … when delivered at the right time.