The Librarian's Apprentice
Dawn arrived in Shenkuu, the Naleap awaking to the morn with songs of jovial praise. Sunshine burst forth from the east, painting the sky a vast array of pink, red and gold hues, washing the land in light. A breeze traveled through the bamboo forests, dusting the dew-kissed blades of grass as it went. A more beautiful morning Rita Holloway couldn’t ask for. The sun crept through her single window, and she gladly moved aside the curtains so light could shoot inside.
The elderly White Korbat sighed happily, looking on at the books that aligned the walls of her small wagon. She was, in fact, the keeper of the traveling library, a business that was shrouded in mystery and lore, appearing at random times to grace people with literary treasures. Only the keeper knew the ins and outs library, and how to work the magic that filled its every crevice.
Rita moved her knobby limbs, walking over to the bookshelf embedded into the wall and gently stroking the spines of her manuscripts with bony fingers. While she normally would’ve been content with this, her grey eyes stared dolefully at the books. The Korbat knew her time as the keeper would soon be over, and she would have to find another to take her place, so was the tradition of the traveling library.
But who? she wondered, her wrinkled face twisting in thought. Very few were fit for the job of a keeper, and even the few that could do it still needed much training before he could learn the trade by heart. Brushing up against her late seventies, Rita wasn’t sure she had the strength left to train an apprentice and regretted that she hadn’t sought after one sooner. Her love of the little library had made her reluctant to pass it down to the next capable Neopet.
But find an apprentice she would. With a snap of her thin fingers, the wagon began to roll down the path all on its very own. The cart creaked and moaned with age, but the magical quality kept every nail in place, no matter how the years flew by. Rita knew she was very different in that aspect when compared to the library, having to deal with vexing health issues more often than she would like. But now wasn’t the time to focus on the defects of old age. At the moment, all the Korbat could hope for was that she would merely be able to nurture a new keeper before her own time was up.
From the day it was discovered, it was clear to Neopia that Shenkuu was a merchant town. The marketplace was located just below the ring of mountains that all of the city’s major shops were built on, and, since it was on firm ground, available to many a passing salesman. Neopets flocked there every day, whether to browse the day’s selections, buy imported merchandise, or just stroll around and gawk at all the action.
Rita hoped the multitudes that gathered there would give her better chances of finding an apprentice. As the traveling library rolled into the marketplace, she snapped her fingers once again, parking it alongside the other book stands. Perhaps the Korbat would also sell a few manuscripts today; the library had a certain rule surrounding that process.
Oftentimes, pets that just happened across the traveling library at random would be given a book, free of charge. But when it was stopped at a location like a marketplace and was available to everyone, there was a price to pay if you wanted a certain volume. Rita put rare books up for sale often; she had to have Neopoints for her own daily needs and to restock the library regularly, of course.
The Korbat looked out the wagon’s single window, gazing at all of the passersby and wondering how on Neopia she would find an apprentice. Tying up her stringy grey hair in a long ponytail, Rita recalled what the last keeper had told her decades ago, her old mind trying to remember just what he’d said.
“But how will I know who my apprentice is?” Rita had asked.
“You will know. That’s how I found you,” her mentor had said sagely. “When you see him, you will know.”
But the Korbat didn’t know. In fact, she had no idea what to do. How was she to single out a perfect student among all of these people? The woman groaned inwardly, now wishing more than ever that she’d chosen to do this sooner and feeling quite fed up with the situation. She could’ve seen her apprentice somewhere in the past, passing him by without a second thought, too engulfed in the library to notice. The very thought made her plight feel utterly hopeless.
Plopping into her old chair with a heavy sigh, Rita stared absentmindedly at the Neopets passing in front of her window. Through her half-moon glasses, the world just looked like a flurry of motion, the sound of endless chatter preventing her from hearing herself think. Maybe I’m the last keeper there will ever be...
Pushing that thought aside, the Korbat noticed she was being watched. Peering through the crowd, she saw a young Shoyru gazing at the library with eyes of wonder. Rita watched him as she stood to her feet, and the young man returned the glance with a nod, steadily approaching the wagon.
“Anything I can do for you?” the elder called, her voice croaky from age and lack of use.
The Brown Shoyru looked slightly nervous, fiddling with his patched-up coat and biting his lip. His dark hair was unkempt and his clothes were those of a commoner’s, and the Neopet seemed to be only in his late teens. “I-I’d like work here, ma’am.”
Rita’s eyes widened. “Well, what do you know!” she murmured to herself. Maybe this was just who she was searching for. She didn’t feel any sudden connection with the lad as her mentor had had with her, but considering the circumstances, the Korbat would take in just about anyone, so as long as the library kept traveling. “Come on in then, boy, and tell me about yourself.”
The young man gladly obliged, making his way to the door and stepping inside. He was instantly spellbound at seeing the inside of the library, his eyes wide as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. It was when the keeper herself cleared her throat that he finally remembered to introduce himself.
“So, you’re Matthias, are you?” Rita mused aloud, examining him with narrowed eyes. Now that she could have a good look at him, he seemed vaguely familiar for reasons she couldn’t quite place. “Eighteen years old and all on your own.”
“That’s right, ma’am,” he said with a slight nod, his voice chipper. “I’m currently out of a job, and I was wondering if you needed any help around here.”
“You do know what you’re getting yourself into, don’t you, boy?”
A pause broke into the conversation as Matthias seemed to be rethinking what he was doing. Finally, he replied, “Of course; I’m here for a job. This is the traveling library, isn’t it?” The young man examined the inside of the wagon, his hands shoved in his pockets as he looked about in awe.
Rita suddenly broke into amused cackles, leaving her guest confused at her mirth. “You remind me of myself, you know. Dazzled by the library as soon as you saw it...” The Korbat’s voice trailed off as her laughter subsided. “How about this: you work for me for one week, and I’ll see if you’re good enough for the job.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Matthias said absentmindedly, still gawking at the room. “Uh, Miss Holloway?” he added. “Pardon me, but... this wagon looks a lot bigger than it did from outside.”
“Does it?” The old woman smirked. “Well, then you’ve begun to notice the library’s magic. But I assure you, lad, that is merely the beginning.”
The following week was filled with more activity than what Rita had experienced in the past few decades combined. In the beginning, all had started off well. Rita showed Matthias his new room, which was located in the back of the wagon behind a peculiar door. It was virtually impossible for a room to be back there with the wagon appearing to be so small from outside; in fact, the inside of the entire wagon consisted of two bedrooms, a storage room, and the front in which books were sold. Even after these facts were explained to him, the magic continued to surprise its new guest.
The library itself even seemed to have a life of its own at times. Books were often found on top of things, stacked up near the window all on their own. They'd given Matthias quite a fright at first, as they tended to move about when no one was looking. The wagon would even roll places without anyone telling it to; the Shoyru had found this out one morning rather unfortunately after stepping out the door and finding himself falling into a pond.
Rita often talked to the library like it was an old friend, scolding it when it misbehaved and making conversation with the books. Something about her touch, her voice, made her a part of the magic. Her new assistant knew her as a moody old woman, but when she began tending to the library, it was as if she was another person entirely. He knew it must have been because she was the keeper, for there was no other explanation for it.
As Matthias grew used to the enchanting place, however, Rita became suspicious of him. Something at the back of her mind nagged her, telling her she’d seen him somewhere before, but her forgetful mind simply refused to unearth the memory. It wasn’t until their fourth day together in which she was finally able to place just who he was.
It was a fierce night, small blasts of thunder rolling and rumbling through the wagons walls like an invisible landslide of sound. Rain pattered steadily on the roof, and the window was bolted closed to keep out the unwanted precipitation. Rita had lit every lamp in the wagon, wrapping herself in an extra shawl to avoid getting chills from the weather outside. It was then when she turned to Matthias, running her small hand over a bookshelf's surface.
“These must be cleaned often,” Rita told her student, taking him rather off guard. “The books they hold need much care.” Matthias had been helping with repairs around the library, doing chores that its current housekeeper was too old to accomplish, such as repainting the wagon a fresh shade of scarlet and fixing the leaky roof. He had yet to learn the real material of the trade, and tonight Rita decided it was finally time she taught him some of the basics of being a keeper.
“What’s so special about these creepy old books?” The Shoyru plucked one from the bookshelf and opened it, tilting the volume at a vertical angle, the pages fluttering as he let them fall from cover to cover.
“Matthias!” the Korbat almost shouted, her voice increasingly stern. She snatched the manuscript from his hands and closed it cautiously. “Never handle a book that way! These are delicate, marvelous things, don’t you see?” Rita looked into her student’s eyes with a severe glare, thunder grumbling in the distance, and something in her mind finally clicked. That look of shame that sparked in his eyes at a firm reprimand... she’d seen the same look before in a photograph. Rita never forgot a face, no matter how feeble her mind might have been.
“You... you’re Matthias Riddington, aren’t you? The page boy I saw in the papers, just a few months ago. Caught stealing the packages you were delivering, and just barely slithering out of a prison sentence! That’s why you needed this job, you, you-” Rita felt her blood race with anger and tried to calm down for fear of hurting herself. Blast this old heart...
“But, wait-I...” Matthias stepped back, his expression a mix of shame and surprise. “You wouldn’t understand; I needed some way to survive, ma’am. Running errands isn’t easy when you’re starving to death. I did what I had to, and I still regret it! Please, don’t turn me out... I need this job, more than you know.”
“But that’s just it,” the Korbat ranted. “This isn’t just any job, boy. This is a trade you’ll have to stick to for a long time, and you’re never sure if you’ll get enough money to put food on the table. And even if you do gain riches, it isn’t what being a keeper is all about. This library, this tradition, is meant for spreading the wonders of literature, not merely supporting one’s self. Do you understand?”
The Shoyru was silent, his teacher’s words echoing in his mind. He thought of everything he'd seen in the past few days; all of the magic, the connection Rita had with the library, and the supposed importance of her craft... “No,” he finally said. “I don’t understand it at all.”
Though she was still upset, Rita’s heart violently fell at hearing his response. Her last chance at passing down the library, slipping through her fingers within mere seconds...
“But I would be honored,” Matthias added slowly, “if you would teach me to.”
“Hey, hey, mister! Wait up!”
A young Zafara sprinted onward, trying to catch up with the progressing wagon. His footsteps fell fast and hard on the beaten path, the windy day pushing against him as he ran. Thankfully, the wagon gradually slowed to a stop, a small snapping sound splitting the air as it did. The Neopet gratefully approached it, catching his breath as he stood on his tiptoes and peered inside.
Manning the wagon was Matthias Riddington, looking nicer than he ever had years before. He was wearing a suit tailored to his tastes, and his unruly mess of hair had finally been tamed down. He tipped his hat to his young customer, saying, “Looking to get your hands on a book, lad? It's a fine day for reading outside.”
Having rested a bit from his run, the Zafara was happy to reply. “No, sir, I just wanted to ask you something. Y'see, my name is Toby, and I met a lady who worked here named Rita, back when I was nine. It's been a few years since she gave me book for free, and I forgot to thank her. It took an awfully long time to track this library down. Do you know where I could find her, sir?”
The Shoyru sighed, somber at the mention of the former keeper's name. “I'm sorry to say, but Rita passed on about a year ago. She'd just finished two years of training me for this occupation when she departed.”
Toby's face fell at the news. “Oh...”
A moment of silence passed between the two, the wind whipping at the wagon as clouds moved across the blue canvas of the sky. “Miss Holloway was a great woman,” Matthias said, “and an even better teacher. I was a sorry sight back then, and she was close to kicking me out one night, just when my training had begun. But she said that as soon as she saw that I was willing to learn, she knew down to her very soul that I was to be the next keeper of the traveling library.”
“That's really something,” his customer agreed with a nod. “I'm sorry I wasn't able to thank her.”
“I'm sure seeing you with a book was payment enough. Sure you don't want another? Just restocked a good collection.”
“Oh, no,” the Zafara insisted with a shake of his head, smiling slightly. “I've got to get home soon, anyway. Mum doesn't know where I've run off to. Good luck!” Toby started to walk away, but stopped after taking a few steps, recalling something he'd forgotten to add. “Um, sir, this might sound silly, but... I think your library looks a lot bigger in there than it does out here.”
Matthias leaned out the window and tipped his hat to his customer with a smirk. “Does it?”