When I was old enough, Mother would wake me up early. Before the sun itself was awake. She would dress me, feed me, and set me to my morning tasks: sweep the floors, dust the shelves, and catch any pests I found in the books. By sunrise, the first customers from far and wide would come in and I would be off doing other things. Father handled the money while mother handled the customers. I was their little helper.
When mother said I would be a big brother, I wasn’t thrilled at first. It didn’t seem like a good idea to have a tiny thing around. What if it got hurt? What if it damaged a book? Father laughed and told me I was little once and I had turned out fine. “Besides,” he’d said, “you can show the little one everything you know about being a shopkeep.” He tousled my hair and we opened up the shop while mother rested. By now I would help with inventory. Mother had made connections with a local coven, so every morning I would help set up herbs and elixirs to sell.
As soon as Alea could walk, she would follow me everywhere. Waddling around the store, greeting the customers with a one-toothed grin, and occasionally falling down with a pout whenever she’d bump into something. I would bend down to pick her up, kiss her brow and give her some small task. “Take this book to mama,” I would say, and she would waddle off eagerly. The customers found it cute so it wasn’t much trouble. I would have to keep an eye on some of the fae who would fawn over her and give her too many sweets. Otherwise, it was as if she was the customers themselves would take her to be their own little one. I had learned to play other roles: serving tea, delivering orders, and even setting up booths for markets in near-by towns. I would never take Alea with me on those trips but she would be the first to greet me with a wet kiss when I came home.
We hadn’t seen father in months. I wanted to go searching for him but mother insisted I stay. “What will he say when he returns home to find his shop in ruin,” she would say. Every morning as I would place the books in a way that mother liked, I would think. She was afraid the worst had happened. That he had been taken with the others. Every day I would dust the counters and place the newest shipment of teas so the light would hit them just right when the sun rose. The humans had been much more aggressive in their hunt for the elf-born and though they were never this far south, how could any of us feel safe? Alea was old enough to hold a broom so I would have her help me sweep while mother rested. It seemed like she needed much more rest these days.
I held Alea in my arms as she cried. Her little body was wrapped around me as she buried her head in my chest. The sun was bright and the clouds were as puffy as our eyes. I had closed the shop for the past 4 days, as was customary. Yet I knew when we returned, there would be a pile of orders waiting for us. “When are they coming back? I want mama and papa,” she said between sobs. I rubbed her back. “I know pet...they are gone but we remain,” I said what little words of comfort I could offer. I lifted her head and kissed her brow.
Alea brought so much light to the shop. She knew every regular by name and learned their preferences. “Master Lukhil welcome! I’ll get your tea started and your table in the back is ready,” she would often say with a smile. She was much too little to go on deliveries or even serve the tea without spilling but everyone loved her. After some time, I had taken on an apprentice. We had a couple of spare rooms so we could provide room and board. She was a dragon borne. Beloved and feared by all. She sought knowledge of human culture and I needed another body. It may have been her presence or mere coincidence, but none had reports of human poachers in some time. She would prepare tea blends, potions, and help us deliver orders further than we’d ever thought possible. We had to expand the building after awhile to house the increase of customers.
It was Kalsara’s idea. Once a week, we would close the shop and offer the local younglings a class. The parents would pay a small tuition. In exchange, Kalsara and Alea would teach them basic trade skills. It was during a slow day for the shop so I didn’t mind. Besides, it was good for Alea to be with younglings her own age. When I offered to help, Alea would hit me with her tiny hands and say I needed to rest. She was a fierce little thing but she was right. I would spend half the day sleeping and the rest going over our bookkeeping. Kalsara would come to bring me my meals and tea. She would brush the hair from my face when she thought I’d been sleeping.
By the time Alea was old enough to make deliveries on her own, Kalsara had obtained a small one-person vehicle for her. It had cost a hefty amount of herbs and spices as well as some gold but it was worth it to see their excitement at such a contraption. It was rune-powered, perfect for elf-born, and had a small cart on the side. Alea was eager to go from one side of town to the other, delivering our goods and spreading the word of our shop. Some would give her little gifts as thanks and she would keep her treasures in her room.
“Are you sure? It doesn’t seem like a good idea to have a tiny thing around. What if it got hurt? What if it damaged a book?” Alea said, rubbing gently on Kalsara’s swollen belly. I laughed and hugged her to me. “You were little once and now you can nearly run the shop yourself. Besides, you can show the little one everything you know about being a shopkeep.”