Because why is it never Gabriel who goes off and has grand adventures?
The bookshop was too small and cramped for so many people on such a hot afternoon. Customers stepping over boxes in the aisles, stacks of books being knocked over, people pushing in too many directions- customers going to the register, clerks coming out with boxes of new shipments.
"Hey, Gabriel, where's the Embolium book set we just got in? Customer wants a copy."
Gabriel had staked out a relatively safe spot near the geographies and atlases and stacked unopened boxes around him like a fortress. "Last bookshelf in the back room. They haven't been shelved yet."
Gabriel felt luxuriously guilty taking up the entire aisle with his boxes and his rolling cart. He was humming a few bars of the Wooing Widower while shelving the new arrivals; Itsuki's sister had played the old favourite for her harpsichord presentation last week. He hadn't planned on coming, but it had only been a small circle of friends in the audience, and he'd enjoyed the music. And the wooing widower puts on his jacket, and the wooing widower claps on his gloves…
"Excuse me." Two shadows fell over his stack of books. He felt his stomach lurch. "Where did you move your cooking books? We thought they were beside the picture display, but I suppose with the sale they've had to clear out the shelves."
"Er…cooking books," Gabriel said to his boxes. "They…should be to the right. With…with the gardening."
"Oh." The woman's husband looked. "Which side?"
Gabriel pointed in the general direction without looking at him. "Over there."
"Er…alright." They seemed almost about to leave. "Oh, and another thing!" She unfolded a piece of paper. "We were looking for this book in biographies. About Semperia Coro. Do you have it?"
"I'm…sure we must," Gabriel said vaguely without looking at the proffered paper. "I'll get Itsuki to help you with that. Itsuki!"
"But…can't you show us where it is?" she protested.
"Er, sorry, I really have to…Itsuki!"
Itsuki came loping down the aisles. "Yeah?"
"They need help," Gabriel murmured to his boxes. "Semperia Coro. Biographies. Must be the new one. Jadeth, Arhelyei. Should be on the second shelf beside the Kingdom-Fellers series."
"Well, good gods, Gabriel, if you know where it is…" But Itsuki gallantly offered to take them.
"One of our boys did a project on the Coro family," Itsuki added to them. "If you're interested."
I knew that, Gabriel thought to himself fiercely. I knew that.
The woman's husband brightened. "Oh, I've heard of your projects. What are they for?"
"Gives us the information to better help you," Itsuki said smoothly. "You can be sure we know what we're talking about. Whenever a book becomes popular, we always send out someone to do research on the topic." In a lower teasing voice, "Carnelian says it makes us 'more rounded individuals' or something."
Gabriel could hear them laugh.
He went back to opening his boxes.
"Closing up, Gabriel?" Itsuki asked.
"Alright. I'm headed home. Whew, what a day, eh? These sales drive me crazy."
"Yes." Gabriel locked the till. "Is Carnelian still in his office?"
"Should be. Anyway, take care- See you tomorrow. God, Haruna's going to kill me."
"Yes," Gabriel said absently. "See you."
Carnelian had shoved his office into the back of the store next to storage. It was a strange corner office, oddly shaped and with a narrow warped door that blended into the wall.
Gabriel knocked twice and poked his head in. "Sir? I have the accounts."
"Hmm?" The chair squeaked. "Oh, yes. Did you have Itsuki double-check them?"
Gabriel took the opportunity to let himself in. "Yes."
"Good, very good. Ah, thank you, just leave it there. I have to send in an order for next week; that New Taith-mar Summers book is selling very well, isn't it?"
"Yes. We had to restock it thrice today. Might not last till next week. We should probably order again."
"Yes, I was thinking the same..." Carnelian stopped and looked up over his reading glasses. "Was there anything else, Gabriel?"
"Sir." Gabriel laid the accounts notebook on the cluttered desk next to Carnelian's teacup. "Have you made a decision about my project?"
Bars of fading light were coming in through the blinds onto the desk. Carnelian leaned back in his chair, his hands crossed over his stomach. "You know I'll be retiring soon, Gabriel."
Puzzled, he inclined his head. "Yes, sir. Ever since we heard about it, we've been regretting the day it comes. We'll miss you terribly."
Carnelian smiled a little. "Well then, if I have any faith in the town's gossip-chain, no doubt you have also heard that you and Itsuki are up for consideration to take over for me."
"Oh, don't look so surprised. It's the only thing anyone is talking about."
"I…yes, I suppose it is."
"And? …Would you like to take over for me?"
Gabriel saw the store with its huge display windows, its dark bookshelves, the sombre lines of cash registers, the smoky smell of cleaning polish. "It is…very dear to me," he admitted.
"Hmm." Carnelian opened a drawer and went through a file. "How many times have you been away on projects this year, Gabriel?"
"W-Well…there was last month in the city for the new architecture book. And I was away for a few weeks before that to update your records on the Dorica books."
"And what did you do today?"
"Er…" He didn't see where Carnelian was aiming. "Opened the shop, got in the new shipments, kept the shelves stocked, ran the register. Well…I closed just now, so I cleaned up, did the accounts, and just finished putting up the new display you wanted."
"Who did you help?"
"When people came to you for help."
"I-I don't know. I usually just sent them to Itsuki."
"Ah. Because Itsuki knows the store better."
"No, but…sir, he's better with customers than I am. He's….he's…"
Carnelian's mouth pursed. "This business isn't just about selling books, Gabriel, it's about buying customers. Running back to your projects and making yourself scarce isn't something you can do if this place goes to you. You have to interact with them." He waved a vague hand towards his door. "And no, don't try telling me you see them every day; I see you hiding behind those stacks every time the sales hit at the beginning of the season. Good gods, we get a new shipment in, and your face lights up like it's Stiph-Sacrosanct week."
"I don't mean to, sir," Gabriel murmured.
Carnelian sat back. "Oh, Gabriel, you never mean to. Never. Every single time." He sighed and got another folder from the drawer. "Fine. Let's see now. You said…" Carnelian opened the folder. "You want to go to Whittling."
Gabriel took a fortifying breath. "Yes. I'd like to explore the area a bit. And the ruins. There's a new novel coming out about it-"
"No, it's Tokiko Arisugawa."
"The famous Madam Tokiko? She hasn't published in months."
"Her fiancé is an old acquaintance of mine from…from Degne. He told me." He smiled a little crookedly down at Carnelian's paperweight. "Would you like the galleys?"
Carnelian laughed. "You would never- not a single devious drop in you. All my others use project excuses to have quiet respectable vacations on the beach. You go off, and I have forty pages of notes to go through in the aftermath."
Gabriel felt he should say something in apology. "Sir, Whittling is only a few miles outside town. I could be back whenever you needed me."
Carnelian was chewing on the end of his spoon. "You really want this, don't you?"
"Yes. Oh, yes," he replied earnestly, his hands clasped.
"Might I ask why? And no-" he jabbed a finger as Gabriel opened his mouth- "None of the Arisugawa business. Why do you want it?"
He seemed lost for a moment. "It…interests me. Not just because of her book, but I've always heard stories- that ridiculous Cutler-Eye ghost story we would frighten each other with when we were younger. The Whittling ruins, how Acheree sprang up from the kingdom's traffic. Wandering around by myself there doing research- I suppose that's my quiet respectable vacation."
"And that is where the problem roots itself. You like collecting stories, digging out information. Dear gods, you eat books. You practically exist for this job- I would have you succeed me in a second….But you said it yourself. Cutting yourself off from other people is how you take your holiday; it's just-" Carnelian threw up his hands. But he was wearing that certain particular smile, and Gabriel knew he had his project.
"Oh, thank you, sir!" Gabriel leapt up from his chair and shook Carnelian's hand excitedly. "Thank you! I'll send you back more information than you'll ever need."
"I was quite afraid of that," his boss replied. He clapped a hand on Gabriel's shoulder. "Prove to me," he said quietly. "Prove to me that you can be just as good with them as you are with your books, and the job is yours. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," Gabriel replied, and though he knew Carnelian was being encouraging, he felt his spirits sink a little.