Every Friday I post a short story here in its entirety. It stays up for one week and then I post something new. When I do, the old one is taken down. So please enjoy the story of the week while it lasts.
Anan shut their eyes, heart hammering in their chest as if it was trying to knock the box out of their arms.
They couldn’t afford another punishment, not after the last one.
But the box held a demon and the master of the library didn’t care about Anan. They were just a slave.
To destroy the demon, the masters would kill Anan.
Unless Anan won a bargain from the demon to free them both.
Price of the Gift
By Meyari McFarland
Anan shut their eyes, heart hammering in their chest as if it was trying to knock the box out of their arms. Every beat felt as though their heart was trying to pound its way through their breastbone. Blood throbbed in their ears, loud enough to drown out everything other than the faint sound of voices in the distance. It shook Anan’s knees, their hands, their stomach until Anan was afraid that they’d throw up all over the books.
Couldn’t. That would be a punishment offense and Anan couldn’t afford another punishment. Could not, not today, not tomorrow, not ever. The last one had been so horrible that Anan was prepared to do anything they had to to avoid another.
They swallowed, eyes screwed shut. The taste of bile receded, burned at the back of their throat until a second swallow, a third, drove their lunch back where it belonged.
It helped enough that Anan was able to open their eyes. Master Chizoba stood by the spell register, one hand clenched in a fist, the other gesturing wildly towards the register as if its existence answered whatever question Master Dayo had asked. Anan couldn’t hear what Master Chizoba said. Too far away and the argument was hissed, quiet, violent in its sheer minimalism.
Master Dayo’s nostrils flared. His chin came up. One corner of his mouth curled upwards to reveal his teeth. He leaned closer to Master Chizoba to hiss something with sharp abortive gestures and angry eyes that made Master Chizoba gasp and shudder with rage.
Not Anan’s fault.
It wasn’t. They’d only brought in the mail, two letters from Court and one box about ten inches square. Yes, the box was heavy. Yes, it seemed important with its leather hinges and heavy lead seal over the lock securing the lid, but it was still just a box and Anan had only carried it a few yards. They still shuddered and backed off a step when Master Chizoba thrust one hand towards Anan and the box still nestled in their arms.
“Don’t set that down!” Master Dayo snapped at Anan. “We won’t accept it.”
“We don’t have a choice,” Master Chizoba snarled at Master Dayo. “The messenger is already gone.”
“None of us can handle it,” Master Dayo said, voice rising even though he lowered his shoulders, spread his hands as if fighting to calm his temper. “The thing is sealed and contained. We can send it straight back where it came from. It doesn’t even have proper letters of provenance.”
“Ah…?” Anan held up the two letters that had come with the box and then flinched at the way Master Chizoba pointed at them triumphantly.
“Give me that,” Master Dayo said.
He strode over and snatched both letters from Anan’s hands, tearing the first open only to curse and thrust the second into Master Chizoba’s hands so that he could pace and snarl curses that would have gotten Anan beaten bloody by old Master Gabi. Master Chizoba shook his head, mouth pinched with anger and disgust, as he opened the second letter. His eyes went wide. Then his face went so pale that Anan saw the veins under his skin. Then his legs gave way and he collapsed to the floor, staring at the letter.
“Master?” Anan asked.
“Oh, now what?” Master Dayo demanded.
He snatched the letter from Master Chizoba’s hands. A quick skim made Master Dayo go too pale, too. Anan stared at them, box clutched in their arms. This. This wasn’t good. There should be something for Anan to do but they didn’t know what was wrong or what was in the box or why it had caused both of his masters in the library to be so very upset.
“Master?” Anan asked and this time their voice came out much higher, much more frightened. “Please, what do I do with the box?”
Both Master Dayo and Master Chizoba stared at him, faces slack. After a moment Master Dayo walked on wobbly legs to the sole chair not filled with books and papers. He sat hard. The legs of the chair screeched against the thick red tile of the floor. Anan heard a whimper and then flinched as they realized that it came from their throat, not from either of his Masters.
“I’m so sorry, Anan,” Master Dayo breathed. The second letter hung listless but heavy in his hands as though it weighed tons. “So very sorry.”
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