The strap of Jessamine’s bag cut into her shoulder. It was packed with a selection of rare and remarkable books that had taken three years to track down and acquire. She was taking them to market to exchange for an invaluable prize. It would all be worth it when the transaction was complete.
Miser Crabbe was the barter king. Whatever you wanted, needed, he could find it for you… at a price. Jessamine was willing to pay his price.
All her life, Jessamine had been saving for this day, holding back memoirs and essays, romances and thrillers, fanciful tales and bloodthirsty horror. Those bound in buckram were valuable, but those dressed in leather fetched the highest exchange.
The cynosure of Jessamine’s library was a cherished bible gifted to her by a holy heretic on his death-bed. The museum-worthy scriptures, with its gilded edges, and etched plates signed by Marc Chagall on French wove paper, its leather binding shiny and worn from constant use, was the only material possession the fallen monk kept before entering into his solitary life.
She had befriended the heretic, visiting him at his small, yet comfortable cave to read passages to him when his vision faded in his last days.
The first two books Jessamine collected were first editions she inherited from her great-grandfather. Before he passed, Jessamine’s Pops made her promise to use them only in an emergency. If there was to ever an emergency, this was it.
Jessamine had rare, limited-run novels, and recherché manuscripts signed by coveted authors. She had shelves full of bound specimens of ancient typography, of curious errata printed in five different languages, and of dust covers that were more sought after than the books they adorned.
Her entire collection was enviable, but the books Crabbe insisted on she did not have. Few people could have located the books Crabbe demanded. His daunting requirements had all but made Jessamine’s search impossible, and his part of the bargain unnecessary.
The market was bustling, busier than Jessamine could remember. A perfume of parchment and vellum, ink, and paste wafted through the tents, enticing patrons to linger and perhaps make impulsive swaps.
Jessamine wended her way through the stalls and narrow aisles, tempted to stop to peruse the tables for hidden objets d’art – an unobtrusive little volume of great value, yet meager in its aesthetic, or a faded facade that conceals a majestic tale from long ago. There was no time today, she had a rendezvous with Miser Crabbe and he waited for no one.
If Miser Crabbe were a book, he would be a cheap, pulp fiction rag with a plot as thin as a sheet of newsprint and written with one-dimensional characters.
Jessamine would be a rare volume of poetry clothed in a hand-painted cover on fine canvas, rich in emotion, its flowing calligraphy inked on delicate rice paper in a language too beautiful to be spoken.
She found Crabbe’s tent with him lounging on a mountain of cushions devouring handfuls of savory scones, half-chewed crumbs littering his shirt, his corpulent hulk reminiscent of the feral hogs that terrorized Sleg Forest.
“My dear Jessamine, as beguiling as ever,” Crabbe said. “Your radiant skin is as fair as the porcelain flowers that share your name.”
Jessamine bowed her head in deference.
“Miser, thank you for granting my petition,” she said, still diverting her eyes. The sight of Crabbe rising bile in her throat.
“You brought the volumes we discussed?” he said, brushing soggy orts from his clothing and surrounding cushions.
“I have, sir.”
Jessamine handed her bag to Crabbe’s lackey who handed it to Crabbe.
As Crabbe removed each book, he made a guttural noise, like he was chewing and swallowing a tough chunk of meat. He flipped through a few of the books, sniffing their musty aroma and stroking their bindings. Once he counted and examined each book, he passed the empty bag back to his manservant, who then returned it to Jessamine.
Crabbe piled the books around him, then snapped his fingers. His manservant brought out a small, leather pouch and handed it to his master.
Opening the pouch, Crabbe showed Jessamine the document she requested in barter. She took the paper, reading the written declaration, officially signed by the regional magistrate.
“Is our exchange satisfactory?” Crabbe said, salaciously stroking the books at his side.
“You delivered as promised,” Jessamine said, tucking the pouch and the document into her bag.
“I hope we can do business again very soon,” Crabbe said, lying back on the cushions.
“With my freedom now inscribed, I have no more need of you,” Jessamine said.