The professor drapes the red cloth over her outstretched hands covering both like a stage magician might drape a sheet over a levitating assistant. Karen’s been around mages enough to know he’s preparing a spell and not just about to clean her hands.
“Malachi probably calls this getting the stink off,” the Professor says.
“He’s not taught me this.”
“No? Well, he should have and it’s time.”
Bleh don’t like that last exchange at all. …not just about to clean her hands. He grasps her hands in his and begins to scrub through the cloth with his thumbs. He starts at her fingers doing the group in a few swathes then focuses on individual fingers. The cleansing isn’t symbolic or ritual it’s rough and abrasive.
“Turn them over, but stay under the cloth,” he repeats the method of scrubbing on the back of her hands. He’s careful to not touch her hands with his or expose her to the reverse of the cloth. He pulls his hands away, but leaves the cloth draped. He catches her attention with his eye and demonstrates his hands coming together flat fingers horizontal and fingertips pointing to her chest. He nods tosses a nod to her indicating she should do the same. She does. The Professor matches the corners to straighten out the fold then pinches the centerline of the bight and folds it the rest of the way into squares. He tucks it away in his pocket.
“Tingly?” he asks.
“Raw.” His chuckle is a mixture of apology and amusement. “Aaaa, you’ll be fine. This is delicate work. Can’t have your touch clouded by the mundane.”
The Professor does something plausible to cast a spell over the books. Maybe the glow, maybe they gleam a bit. Maybe they shudder, I don’t know but in any case the result is something Karen can sense or see or hear.
“I’ve been perfecting this spell for many years. It’s like a net or a filter. Trace your fingers over the books and tell me what you find.”
Touching the first book, Karen’s eye’s widen. She pulls her hand back brushing her thumb across her finger tips like she has cookie crumbs on them. She looks at the Professor. He smiles back.
“I’ve never read this book yet it feels as though I have.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s the story of…the main character has this…it takes place in…” Karen’s joy sours.
“You haven’t read it. There’s no substitute to actual reading. I’ve tried to find one, believe me. No magic”
“I’m sure I could have told you all about it if only you hadn’t asked me to tell you.”
“Exactly the same for me. And for all of the few others I’ve shown this to. It still works for what we need it to work for.” He sweeps his hand down the table and gestures to the remainder of the stall. “Try the rest.”
Karen drags hand along the contour of the books, Testing and tasting each in turn. Each time her touch strikes a new book she feels the joy of adventure, or learning and enjoying something new. In the brief moment after as her touch separates from the book she feels the disappointment there isn’t more to read and the story is over. The sensation is of a complete reading but no memory of the content. Equal parts satisfying and false. She tastes one table of books right handed then heads down the next row with her left hand.
She’s headed down the penultimate rack of books when one zings her and she snatches her hand back. “Shit.”
“Point to it for me.” Karen indicates the book that stung like a bad key on a piano backing away while she does. “No need to worry, Karen. There’s nothing wrong with the book. I’m getting old and I like the spell definitive to the touch. Let’s see here. Ah yes, there we go.”
“What is it?” she asks.
“Nothing really. I embedded a copy of [Hornswaggle’s Guide to Unicorns] into this Netter Anatomy book. Both are quite good actually.”
“This was a test?”
“Think on it more as training or just think on it as experience. I wanted to share.” She still looks a little hurt. A little duped. “I’m an old teacher. I like my lesson plans to work. Believe me this would not have been as useful if you’d found nothing at all.”
Blah blah blah.
She decides to finish up the stacks anyway and it turns out she finds a second book. She assumes it’s been planted like the first. Instead of calling it out to him she pockets it or ignores it to see what he’ll say. Later after they’ve left and he’s said nothing she goes back to retrieve it and it’s gone or evil or taken by some other mage the seller can’t easily identify. Either way it’s suddenly a plot point I hadn’t expected to write. And may not actually need. Gives me something to consider at least.