I sip at my coffee as slowly as I can. Nothing short of pure dread engulfs me as I picture my return to Skander Manor, empty handed. I can just imagine Aras’ podgy pink face puffed up in rage, his fur standing right up on end. “Why, oh why, did I leave such an important job to you?” he would ask me in between deep, shuddering breaths. Aras would be, of course, trying to calm himself down - this was one of the last existing copies of Zafara Lore in Neopia.
He would continue, his little eyes bulging in their sockets, “Seriously Tom, I gave you the money and told you a place and a time. All you had to do was be there and collect it for me. Whilst I accept that spotted Zafaras may not be the smartest of pets I truly thought you capable of this. I’m disappointed in you, Tom, I really am.”
Aras has always been one to take things seriously. For a Lutari he is surprisingly solidly-built, he’s pink and he has this strange little bald patch on the top of his head. Stress, he tells us, is the cause, but we all know that he’s getting on a bit in years. Not that we’d say it to his face, of course.
I suppose fear has a way of playing on itself and growing inside your head. My return to Skander Manor is not as bad as I thought it would be. Aras looks at me with tired, old eyes.
“It’s okay, Tom,” he says in his quiet, wispy voice. “It was your first job. I’m sure you will do better next time.” He smiles to himself as if indulging in some private joke. “I did tell you the Trading Post was absolutely cutthroat, did I not?”
I nod. “I... I’m so sorry, Aras, I know how much you wanted Zafara Lore, but when I got there it was just so confusing. There were flashing lights everywhere and pets selling all sorts of things and I just wanted to have a little look around, Aras. But then I arrived at the lot number you told me and it was already sold.”
A kind paw is placed on my shoulder and Aras shakes me lightly. “Don’t be so harsh on yourself. Doven and Erraline make mistakes all the time. Why, I remember when they were working for me out at the Auction House and they placed highest bidder on one of their own auctions.” He laughs and makes me feel slightly better. I never knew that the twins weren’t perfect. They’ve always seemed so impressive to me. “And this other time,” Aras continues with a wink, “Saskia was cleaning out the library in the Eastern Wing of the Manor and found a book entitled Rare Treasure Maps. Well, inquisitive as all young minds surely are, she opened it up, had a little read and placed it back on the shelf. Then POOF! It was gone in a flash of yellow smoke.”
Perhaps I should make some better introductions so that you can understand, dear reader. As Aras always says: “Clarity, Tom, clarity allows us to begin on the journey to comprehension.” So, to begin... let me see... well, Aras isn’t just Aras. He is much, much more. Aras is formally known as Sir Arastonus Skander the 7th of Brightvale. Long name, I know. He comes from a family of renowned and impressive scholars. He’s awfully proud of this and is something of a scholar himself. His pleasure and profession is dealing in rare books. Buying them, selling them and most importantly, reading them.
And us? Who are we? Well, “we” work for Aras. There are four of us but I only just started. Erraline and Doven are twin yellow Grarrls. They specialise in buying from the Neopian Auction House and almost always manage to bring home impressively cheap rare books.
Next there’s Saskia. She’s a purple Ixi, softly spoken and young like me. It’s her job to go through Aras’ massive libraries and find things to sell. She’s always fighting with Aras who tends to cling possessively to his books - even the ones he never intends to read. Finally there’s me - Tomah Excevius, but you can call me Tom, everyone does. I’ve been working for Aras for less than two months and as you can probably tell by now I messed up my first ever job at the Trading Post, it’s certainly not a good start.
The day after my abysmal failure Aras offers me a fresh start. “This Saturday a sometime-friend and old colleague of mine will be selling her copy of the Golden Shoyru Book. I have already written to her and expressed my interest in it. Her name is Lady Petronilla and she will be at the Snowed Skeith at midday. I expect you to be there for me, Tom.”
* * *
The soft, melodious sounds of Jazzmosis waft across the dimply lit Snowed Skeith and threaten to lull me to sleep. I force myself to resist. There is too much at stake to take a brief nap now. I have been sitting on this hard wooden bench for ages, waiting for Lady Petronilla to arrive. The exchange could take place any minute and I might miss it. Aras would surely be livid if I messed up again.
The rickety old door of the Snowed Skeith clatters open and a brilliant white Usul stalks into the room. Lady Petronilla is just as Aras described her to me. Expression haughty, her eyes survey the room and finally settle on me. Rising from my seat, I bow. “My Lady Petronilla,” I murmur. “I am Tomah Excevius; Sir Skander sent me for the book.”
Lady Petronilla takes me in critically - from my crinkled tunic to my rumpled hair – and scowls lightly. “Skander trusts you?” she questions with raised eyebrows that threaten to disappear beyond her hairline. “Well,” she says with another scowl, settling herself down on a seat. “I guess we will have to make the exchange then...”
“I would like to see the book first,” I murmur. Aras has always made it clear – no matter how much you trust someone, when it comes to selling books they are going to try and blindside you.
The Usul’s pale eyes bore into mine as she slowly reaches down into her bag and pulls out a large package wrapped in silken cloth. Unfolding the fabric, I glimpse the cover of the Golden Shoyru Book. I know immediately it is the one Aras has wanted since before I met him.
I unfold a piece of paper that has been burning a hole in my pocket since this morning and slide it across the table. I’m sure it’s a bad sign when Lady Petronilla’s scowl only deepens.
“Twenty?” she asks me incredulously. “Did you invite me here to mock me? Skander knows how much this book is worth and I know he’s been coveting it for years.” She shakes her head. “No, I won’t take less than twenty-five.”
I sigh. Aras did tell me that Lady Petronilla liked to haggle. I pull a second slip of paper out of my pocket and pass it to her. A faint smile passes over the Usul’s features as she reads it.
“Okay,” she says with an uncharacteristic grin. “I’ll come by Skander Manor tomorrow to collect my payment and deliver the Golden Shoyru Book.” With those words Lady Petronilla stands back up and leaves the Snowed Skeith. I pause, not quite sure what just happened. I think I may have just negotiated my first deal.
I hurry back to the Manor and almost flatten Aras himself as I rush through the door. “Lady Petronilla said ‘yes’,” I exclaim gleefully.
“Calm yourself, Tom,” advises Aras. “There’s still plenty of water to go under the bridge before the exchange comes through. Now, sit down and tell me what happened.”
I stumble over the words that rush to fly from my mouth. “...and she’s coming tomorrow to collect the money. And she said she’s going to bring the book. Isn’t that amazing?”
Aras smiles. “Quite amazing, yes. Do keep in mind, Tom, that I have just agreed to pay twenty-seven million neopoints for a book. Please be cautious that you do not happen to read it before I do. That would be a real pity.”