A Doomsday Book for Queen Mab – Entry #11
A census taker travels the length and breadth of the British Isles to survey the land’s supernatural inhabitants.
(I’ve decided to do a series of short vignettes inspired by the December 2012 prompts from the International Story a Day Group. Mostly to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. As the December 11 prompt was not posted before 5 pm UTC -7, this is based on the October 31 prompt “an old book with strange writing”.)
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The whitewashed cottage with a thatched roof stood at the end of Strand Street, a beacon in the oncoming dark storm blowing in from the Atlantic. The census taker and her assistant hurried up the cobbled walkway, passing a wooden sign carved in the shape of a mermaid. Across the mermaid’s torso were the words, “The Bitter Old Mermaid: Antiquarian Books, Sold and Bought.” The census taker did not knock. Instead, she simply opened the door and stepped inside as a metal chime announced her entrance. The kelpie came in after her. But before he closed the door behind him, the sky opened up and poured.
Strings of white lights hung across the ceiling and bookshelves gave the interior of the bookshop a warm glow. The shelves themselves were made of polished oak and were filled with old tomes off all kinds, from the leather bound volumes to rare first editions. And like all antiquarian bookshops, this one also possessed that old musty book smell that made it seem so familiar. What wasn’t so familiar was the rest of the decor. Next to the door was a tall thin shelf containing shells, bits of coral, and clear bottles of what looked like sand. Among the lights on the ceiling dangled fish skeletons. The carpet was blue and green, with stylized motifs of seaweed and dolphins.
The mermaid herself sat at a corner desk surrounded by books and papers. A paperweight that looked like a petrified jellyfish sat atop some hastily scribbled receipts. The mermaid did not look particularly bitter or old. She was wearing a neon pink shirt with the word “outrageous” outlined in purple rhinestones. Her blonde and blue and green hair was pulled back into a ponytail.
She glanced up at their entrance and gave them a smile. “Hello. How may I help you?”
The census taker glanced down at her clipboard to double check the name. “Are you Eseld Teague, the current Mermaid of Padstow?”
The mermaid’s smile sharpened and something unsettling glittered in her eyes. “And what if I am?”
“I would like to ask you some questions for Queen Mab’s census, Ms. Teague,” the census taker replied. She looked back up to hold the mermaid’s gaze. “It would probably go better for you if you voluntarily answered all the questions.”
Ms. Teague turned to glance at the kelpie. But the kelpie only grinned back, showing sharp teeth. The mermaid gave a small shudder and looked back at the census taker. “Very well. What are your questions?”
It was just as well that the mermaid decided to cooperate. The kelpie didn’t particularly like most merfolk. Many of them had the superior attitude that they were the rulers of the sea and that every other water creature should simply make way for them. Besides, the kelpie had run-ins with merfolk before which had always ended with them taunting him and he threatening to eat them. He did not think Aileen would be particularly amused if he threatened to eat the latest appointment.
The kelpie kept his attention on the interview, but in the back of his mind, he became aware of something not quite right about the antiquarian bookshop. There was magic in the air, a heady and almost sickening mixture of old, new, dark, light, and everything in between. An indication that at least some of the books on the shelves were most certainly grimoires. And as the interview ended, he also became aware that something was staring at him.
“Well, if there’s anything else I can do,” said the mermaid after the census taker thanked her for her time, “just ask.”
“I believe I will browse a little bit,” the census taker replied. “I do love books.”
The kelpie could not take it any more. He whirled around. And discovered at the end of the room, on top of a short waist high shelf containing the volumes of a 1912 encyclopedia, was a tank. Inside the tank was a small yellowish octopus with glowing blue rings on its skin. The animal’s slitted eyes watched the kelpie. It waved its arms menacingly.
“Ah ha!” exclaimed the kelpie. He strolled towards the tank to glare at the octopus. “The annoying twerp should be happy it’s in a cage. Otherwise I would guarantee it would come to a terrible end.”
“That’s Johnny,” said the mermaid. “He’s just waving hello. He also likes to be petted. Try scratching him between the eyes.”
“Oh no, I wasn’t born yesterday,” said the kelpie. “I’m not giving myself a heart attack petting that poisonous thing.”
The mermaid sighed. “Well, it was worth a try.”
A second later, the census taker reappeared from behind one of the shelves with an old book with a tattered leather cover. “I found this on the fifty pence cart,” she told the mermaid.
“Fifty pence it is,” said the mermaid.
As the census taker took out a coin purse from her messenger bag to pay for the book, the kelpie took a look at the book. There was no writing on the cover. Inside, the yellowed pages felt very peculiar, as if they were made of something else rather than paper. The text was handwritten rather than printed and it used a very old runic alphabet in a language that the kelpie could not identify. The kelpie could not sense any magic emanating from the book, but that in itself was not the definitive indication that it was a book of magic.
Once the fifty pence was handed over, the census taker took back the book from the kelpie and put it in her bag. At his curious expression, she just shook her head and said, “I’ll tell you later. First, though, we need to get to that restaurant on Quay.”
The kelpie perked up. “You don’t suppose they have custard tarts on the desert menu?”
“I have no idea. But even if they don’t, I’m sure you’ll find a suitable substitute.”
As the kelpie followed the census taker out the door, he did not notice that the octopus had used a tentacle to raise the lid of his tank. The mermaid made a warning gesture. In response, the octopus retracted his tentacle and sank back to the bottom of the tank, the blue rings on his skin flickering in frustration.