TABITHA HEFTED THE STACK OF BOOKS. Around her, the used bookstore she owned hummed with the sound of customers looking through books, old sheet music, and whatever other item Krysilla thought might sell and was made primarily of paper. Unruly wisps of auburn hair drifted into her field of vision, nearly causing her to trip over a stack she’d left near the entrance to this particular nook a minute before. Frustrated, she blew the wisps out of her face long enough to set the books down. She could have used a little breeze for the same action, but couldn’t bring herself to use any magic here. As cheesy as it sounded, she thought this place was magical enough as it was. She carefully set the previous stack next to the second and went to talk with Scott about shelving them, though she wasn’t sure he’d be too happy about the idea. He’d probably get Danielle to move them instead.
Once again, her stomach knotted at the thought of making Scott a manager. It wasn’t that he did a bad job or had a lousy work ethic. Quite the opposite. But she had taken on this failing store (her favorite place to wander) after she had graduated from college, using the small inheritance her parents had left her, and had done all the work herself, shelving, buying, selling. As the number of customers grew, she added a couple of employees but having a manager was something else entirely.
Unfortunately, a manager was exactly what she needed right now.
Spotting Danielle, she said, “Hey, have you seen Scott around?”
“I think he was helping a couple of women in the sci-fi section.”
“Great.” Women were Scott’s kryptonite. “Should I rescue him this time?”
“Nah. It’ll only encourage him.” She gestured toward the speculative fiction section where Scott leaned too casually toward a couple of annoyed college students. “Failure’s the best teacher, right?”
“He’s going to look creepy when he hits middle age,” Tabitha muttered.
“You know it. I know it. He needs to learn it. Thank goodness he’s got the next twenty-five years. He might have a chance.”
She thought of the stacked books waiting to be shelved. “Okay, well, if he doesn’t get shut down in the next thirty seconds, would you please shelve some philosophy books for me?” She pointed to the stacks barely visible from the checkout counter.
“You know,” Danielle mused, still watching Scott, “if you want this place to look more intellectual, maybe you should put some of those books in the window.”
“People come here to escape, not to think. But if you’d like we can create an Employee’s Choice shelf near the front.”
“Hmmm.” Danielle folded her arms, looking displeased with the attention Scott was giving the two women. Tabitha shook her head. Books were obviously the last thing on her mind.
The door opened and a very nervous man entered, wearing a thick coat and knit cap, even though autumn in Texas hadn’t moved beyond forcing folks, on occasion, to wear a light jacket in the evening, which it was not. He shoved his hands in his coat pockets, the right one moving as if it was playing with something.
And in the air, the faint aura of dragon wafted round him.
Murmuring some sort of polite withdrawal, she walked toward the stranger. The first time she’d felt that aura at the age of twelve, she’d acted much as she did now, walking toward the source, both curious and apprehensive at what she might find. There’s a difference, her mother had explained, between those with a dragon-feel and true dragons, though she’d never explained what that difference was beyond the fact that most with a dragon-feel were unaware of it, and that she should only kill the true dragons. All Tabitha knew was to be wary of those with the aura.
And that she loved the feel of it.
“May I help you?” she asked, her eyes focused on the stranger’s face.
His eyes widened and he opened his thin-lipped mouth, his breath catching before he spoke. “I’m looking for a book. Um. Prince.” His head whipped around and for a moment he studied the passersby through the window. “The Prince,” he continued, turning back to Tabitha. “Machiavelli?”
“Oh,” Tabitha glanced out the window to try to discover what had startled him. Was he on the run? He couldn’t be, she chided herself, and gestured for him to follow her. No criminal would ask for a philosophy book while trying to escape. At best, he’d be looking for books on how to hide his identity. The image of a man on the run sitting down with a pile of books on how to live a life on the run made her giggle, which made the guy even more nervous.
“What?” he demanded.
“Nothing. I just thought of something funny.”
His eyes narrowed on her, and for a moment she thought he might be sniffing. Then, he relaxed, though he still glanced at the shopwindow.
She could sense a bit of dragon in him. Was he able to sense her abilities as well? Did he know what he was? She’d never encountered that before. Then again, she hadn’t looked very hard, either.
She waved a hand toward the shelf. “Here is where we keep our philosophers.” Scanning the shelf, she frowned. Not there. Murmuring to herself, she began to look through the stacks she’d set down earlier. “I hope he didn’t get mis-shelved. Ah. Here he is.” She pulled Machiavelli’s best-known work out from the stack, turned toward the stranger to hand it to him, and stopped. He was trembling. “Are you okay?” she asked, very concerned now.
For a moment, his mouth twisted upward, and she thought he might either laugh or cry. Instead, his shaking increased while his mouth turned into a thin, blank line. “Fine,” he lied. “I just—I can’t touch that.”
Tabitha looked at the book in her hand, trying to figure out what could be wrong with it. “It’s a little dusty, but I’m sure it—”
“It’s covered in cloth.”
“Well, yes, it’s a bit of an antique. I should probably shelve it with—are you sure you’re all right?”
The stranger shook his head increasingly from side to side, then said, “Do you have any gloves?”
“Germs. Dust mites. You know, things that live—that—do you have any paperback copies?”
The man was definitely not all right. “Do you want to sit down?”
He looked away from the window now and stared at the shelves full of books. “Can you look it up? Never mind.” He dug in his pocket and Tabitha watched him carefully as he pulled his hand back out, holding nothing. He rubbed his hands on his pants leg. “Would you do me a favor?” He turned from the books and stared at her with an intensity that made her revise her earlier thought. He had to be insane.
And yet, the aura of dragon hadn’t left. If anything, it had gotten stronger.
“A man will come in later, asking for The Prince as well. He’ll be wearing dark glasses and have dark hair, probably brown.”
The stranger continued, “Just give him this, please. Thank you.” He grabbed her hand in a firm shake with the same hand he had put in his pocket before. She felt something smooth against her palm. He turned as he let go of her, walking as fast from her store as he could.
Magic swirled around the thin crystal she held, warm and bright. With more calm than she felt, she put her hand in the pocket of her skirt, as she always did when walking, and went back to the cash register. Still in shock over what had occurred, she decided to act as if nothing had happened while she figured out what to do. And keep an eye out for a man with sunglasses in the meantime. Taking her place once more behind the register counter, she began straightening complimentary bookmarks.
“Hey, are you all right?” Scott asked.
“Yeah,” she said, realizing for the first time that he was no longer trying to make a good impression on the girls. “Yeah. Would you please shelve those books for me?” She pointed at a stack she’d gone through earlier.
He went back to work, but that seemed to be when Danielle decided to find out more about the stranger. “So, what was up with that guy?”
“I don’t know,” Tabitha said, and that was mostly true. However, she didn’t feel like standing around talking about it. Not yet. “Hey, if anyone else shows up asking for Machiavelli, would you let me know?”
“Especially if it’s another weirdo? Got it.”
She had just turned to walk back to her office when Danielle said, “I mean, the last thing you need on your mind before you go out with…”
She stopped. There was no way to avoid this. Might as well see it through so that Danielle wouldn’t pester her about it later. “Howard.”
“Howard tonight is this store. Right?”
Tabitha’s smile felt tight, but she said nothing. Danielle meant well. Besides, it was because of her advice that she had a date tonight at all. “I’ll focus this time. I promise.”
“You’d better. I don’t want to hear any complaints this time about how you couldn’t find anything to admire in him.”
“It’s because he bored me.”
“Not every guy is going to sweep you off your feet the moment you see him.”
Avoiding the rest of the lecture by reciting it, Tabitha said, “Sometimes love takes a while to bloom. Yes, I know. I swear, Danielle, tonight I will show him I can be appreciative of his attempts to wow me, I will admire his masculine nature, and I will accept that he’s human and therefore liable to disappoint in the future in some small way. And hopefully, that will make up for the fact that I don’t regularly go to the gym.” She slapped her generous hip, which had only become so in the last few years.
Danielle giggled and opened up a box of promotional bumper stickers to place on the counter. “If only your dad hadn’t been so perfect, your standards wouldn’t be so high now.”
“Well, I’m not lowering them just so that I can get married.” Her mood darkened at the thought. Man after man had failed the list in some way. And what made it worse was they were good men. They just never really caught her interest, or made her light up like her mother had when her father walked through the door. Or they had a dragon aura. Avoiding marrying one of those was something she’d promised her mom long ago. But the older she got, the smaller the pool of available men became until she was starting to think she was going to remain single for the rest of her life.
“You don’t have to lower any of your standards,” Danielle said, placing a small stack of stickers in a neat pile on the counter next to a box of pens. “It just narrows down your options, that’s all. But then, it kind of makes it more of a challenge,” she grinned. “Like finding a good pair of heels.”
Tabitha tried to smile. But what if the day of the party comes and you still haven’t found a pair? That’s when you take what you can find and hope it works out. She thought of Howard and felt tired.
Better to focus on the current situation. Now that Danielle was happily working again, she went through a door behind the counter that led to her office. Shutting it, she closed her eyes, waiting for any sign of a dragon aura to appear. Nothing.
It was at this moment that she wished she knew more about magic. Her lessons had been focused mostly on defense with only a little devoted to attacking an enemy, and then mostly in only one way. But this had nothing to do with either. The magic wrapping itself around and through the crystal had a power that didn’t extend beyond an inch or two surrounding the object, and even that felt leftover, like the smell of a marker after it had been used.
Pulling the crystal into the open, she gazed into it, trying to figure out what it did without actually doing anything to it. As if she knew what to do.
There was something inside it. A thread maybe? She lifted it up to the light, hoping perhaps that would interact with the spell inside and reveal something of the crystal’s nature. Nothing.
Sighing, she put it back in her pocket. At least she knew how to defend herself if anything happened. And if someone with a dragon aura decided to follow her home, her wand might change their mind about attacking her apartment.