“Hah. So you’re a collector yourself, then,” she said, amused. “Except you don’t collect the books. You collect the stories about them.”
“You know, I think you’re right,” he said. “I’d love to hear more about your uncle, and how he came into possession of these.”
“He never talked much about his former life, before my family came to this country. He was a gardener, but that’s all I know. That, and these books were his treasure. And he gave them to me…”
By the time the General and the Master made it down the stairs, the fight was over.
“Fight”, in this case, was an overstatement. The soldier was very dead; his own bayonet had been driven up under his chin and transfixed his skull like a cocktail olive. Brother Doj, weeping openly, was tending not to the fallen Kimba but instead to a small shrub he had broken in his fall. It had snapped off cleanly just above the root.
General Huang acted first. Drawing his own bayonet, he charged the prostrate brother, yelling incoherently. His stroke would surely have transfixed the young man had the Master not interposed himself, seemingly without traveling through the intervening space. He was just there.
The General looked at his knife, standing out of the chest of Master Sun. Horrified, he met the Master’s eyes. Master Sun smiled gently at him, said one word, and died.
Everyone was stunned, immobile. The students and escort had come out at the noise; they looked on as the Master gently crumpled to the ground.
In sharp contradiction to the first, this second revolution was over almost before it had begun. Rumor of the deaths of General Huang and Master Sun reached the capitol early that morning; by nightfall, the palace guard was in complete control of the city, the airport, and the small radio station. The army hadn’t left its barracks, and Leader Mbuto’s state funeral was already underway — closed casket.
The revolt had been almost bloodless, but it wasn’t to remain that way. The Leader’s six wives and countless children were massacred by the new Revolutionary Council as they ruthlessly consolidated power over the next two days.
But when they arrived at General Huang’s official residence, his own widow and young daughter had vanished in the night. Careful search revealed nothing. There was only one oddity, a broken chess piece left just inside the open front door. It was a red king.
“I’d love to hear more about your uncle, and how he came into possession of these.”
“He never talked much about his former life, before my family came to this country. He was a gardener, but that’s all I know. That, and these books were his treasure. And he gave them to me just before… before he died.” She glanced aside, lost in thought.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“No, it’s not like that. He said he was ready, and that’s the day he gave me the books. They were a treasure, and I was to guard them.” She paused. “I didn’t know what he meant by that, but I never got to ask him.”
“Hmm. Well, then, perhaps…” he began. “Perhaps he meant you should keep them — a family thing, an heirloom.”
“No, it wasn’t that. He knows — knew. He knew I’m going to college this fall, and I don’t have space for much stuff in the dorms. I’ve been donating my old clothes and things for months; I can’t store extra things at home.” She bit her lip, looking down.
“Oh, good for you! What is it you’ll be studying?” He wasn’t much for conversation of this sort, but he knew you were supposed to show an interest. He wasn’t very good at it, but he tried.
“Me? I’m going to be a teacher,” she said, looking at her hands. “Kindergarten. Uncle loved that, loved that I’d be teaching children to read. He raised my grandmother, after her mother died, and then helped her raise Dad. He’s always been there, and now… now he’s gone, and the tale of these books is gone with him.”
She met the bookseller’s eyes and suddenly smiled. It was radiant, beautiful, sun coming from behind clouds. He was dazzled. “I think he’d have wanted you to take care of them, to see they get to the right people.”
She would have given them to him, but he insisted — people never value what’s free — and she accepted the money with good grace. Then she was gone, and the little three-volume set found a home on a shelf in the back — away from the sunlight and the damp, but where air could reach it.
And there they wait still — for the right person.
You know how this works: Send me money and I’ll keep writing.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Sometimes fiction, mirroring life, leaves us with a few loose ends. That’s just how it goes.