It’s a slow morning in the shop. Wilhelm leans on the counter, watching the dust motes dance in the morning sun, when the little brass bell on the door jingles and the prettiest girl he has ever seen walks across the threshold.
Papa has been selling pens and ink to strangers for twenty years. Papa claims that he can smell a Wealdling from a hundred paces. Right now, however, Papa is on a train to Hannover, to buy new pens at the big factory, and Wilhelm is alone in the shop.
There’s nothing obviously wrong with the girl, but Wilhelm can tell she is not a local. Her clothes have been assembled a bit strangely, as if she only knows the proper way of dressing from vague descriptions. She’s wearing trousers, and none of the local girls would wear those in public. Still, Wilhelm can’t be sure, and he doesn’t want to call the police on her without cause.
“Good day, madam,” he greets her, formal as his father demands, even though the girl looks to be close to his own age of fifteen years.
“Good day,” she returns, and looks around in the store, where the shelves present his father’s merchandise in regimented order.
“I am looking for some good ink and paper,” she says, and smiles at him. He isn’t the kind of young man who draws smiles from girls like her. He knows he is a touch too awkward and a bit too pudgy, and the girls here in the merchant quarter only overlook such obvious defects when they manifest along with wealth. Papa is well to do, but he is still just a paper trader, and there is no great wealth in inks and pens and sealing wax.
Now that she has spoken, he is almost convinced she’s a Wealdling. Her inflections have an unusual melody to them.
He knows the law, of course. Even though magic only works within the Weald, the Crown has ordered that none shall sell the people of the Weald things that can be used to write spells: no ink, no paper, no pens. Wilhelm knows that he should refuse to serve her even if he doesn’t have the fortitude to go outside and call for a policeman. But she is here in this little shop, and the authorities are not, and she is smiling and flashing her brown eyes at him, so he returns her smile and gets out the inkbottles.
She samples them almost like his father would sample fine wines. Wilhelm shows her everything—the peacock-blue school inks, the iron gall ink, the perfumed correspondence inks used by the highborn and those pretending to be. She takes the dip pen he offers and tries out half a dozen inks on as many different varieties of paper: cotton rag, linen, French vellum, onionskin. She draws lines, geometric shapes, and little sketches of apples and horseshoes.
Then her attention shifts to the pens underneath the glass countertop. She looks at the phalanx of cigar shapes in fascination, and Wilhelm moves the papers to give her a clear view of the display.
“What are those?” she asks.
Wilhelm opens the pen case and removes one of the pens. He presents it to her, and she takes it carefully.
“Those are fountain pens,” he says. “They carry their own supply of ink in their bellies.”
He shows her the lever on the side of the pen and demonstrates the mechanism.
“There is a sac of arabicum within, and this lever squeezes it. You let go, and it draws in the ink and fills the sac.”
She turns the pen in her hand with longing in her eyes. She tries out the filling lever, works it carefully a few times. With her attention on the object, Wilhelm sneaks a few glances at her face. There is a dusting of freckles on her cheeks and the bridge of her nose.
“You could write a page without having to dip,” she muses.
“You could write many pages without dipping,” he replies. “And carry the pen for the day’s writing without having to carry an ink-pot as well.”
Her gaze darts from the pen to his face, and he can see sudden excitement flaring up in those brown eyes.
“I would like to buy two,” she says firmly.
He wraps her purchases in coarse packing paper. When he ties the parcel up with a ribbon, he chooses a purple one, because she fancied the purple ink and he thinks it might please her.
He rings everything up, and she eyes the noisy register warily. Once again, he gets the feeling that she is unfamiliar with the whole process, that she is merely following instructions from a book.
“That will be eleven marks and fifty pfennigs, please,” he tells her.
She produces a leather satchel, dark and shiny with age, and rummages around in it. Then she puts a few aged Prussian coins on the counter next to her wrapped purchases. He picks up the money and counts it.
“This is eight marks,” he tells her. “I’m afraid you’re short three marks and fifty.”
She looks at the money in his hand, and he can see just a trace of color creep into her cheeks. She reaches into the old leather satchel again, searches for a moment, and then puts a small handful of coins onto the wrapped package on the counter.
Wilhelm picks up one of the new coins and examines it. A coin of such weight can only be solid gold. It isn’t a Prussian coin, or a Bavarian one. Wilhelm has never seen a coin like this. On one side, it shows a creature that looks like a cross between a lion and an eagle. On the other side, there’s an unfamiliar coat of arms: a sword crossed with an axe, and a two-headed snake entwined in both blades. Wilhelm has no idea who minted this peculiar coin, but he knows how much paper money he can get in exchange for a weight of gold like this, and the handful of gold coins on the counter before him is enough to buy every pen in Papa’s showcase, and all the ink in the store besides.
“Will that be enough?” the girl asks, trepidation in her voice.
For just a moment, Wilhelm is tempted to take all the gold she is offering. If he puts one of those coins toward her purchase, she has paid for all her merchandise twice over, and he could keep the rest of the gold for himself. He knows for sure now that she is a Wealdling, and that she would not object—that she would consider the overpayment a fee of sorts, for selling her outlawed goods. But he does not want this girl to think ill of him, so he takes the Prussian money and just one of the gold coins and pushes the rest of them back toward her.
“This will do,” he tells her.
Even with the single gold coin, she has still overpaid, so Wilhelm rummages around on the ink shelf behind the counter and produces a bottle of scented purple ink, the same kind she had fancied earlier. He adds it to her purchases and smiles at her.
“A pretty color,” he says. “It suits you.”
Before he can chide himself for the clumsy compliment, she rewards him with a smile of her own.
“Thank you,” she says. “You are very kind.”
“Not at all,” he murmurs, and hands her the goods. If she is a Wealdling, he has just given her the tools to write hundreds, maybe thousands of spells, but he finds that he does not care. Why should he care what the Wealdlings do with ink and paper in their own world?
She takes the package, and their hands touch briefly. When she walks out of the store, she looks back over her shoulder and gives him one last smile, and the sudden sense of loss he feels when she steps back into the sun-lit street almost makes him stagger.
Wilhelm comes out from behind the counter and quickly walks over to the door, to keep her in his sight just a few more moments, but by the time he has reached it, she has turned a corner and disappeared.
He spends the rest of the morning dusting shelves and restocking paper without much enthusiasm. Every once in a while, he pauses and pulls the odd gold coin out of his pocket to look at it. He had planned to exchange it for paper money at the Royal Bank, but the more he looks at it, the more he is inclined to keep it, to forego its monetary worth so he can hold on to this token.
Without Papa around to chide him for wasting money, Wilhelm closes the store for lunch and walks to the bakery on the corner of the market square nearby.
He buys a dough-wrapped sausage from the corner bakery, but before he has taken a bite out of it, he catches a glimpse of the girl from his shop, and the lunch is suddenly forgotten. She is walking along the row of farmers’ stands on the far side of the square. Wilhelm only sees her from behind, but he recognizes the tan-colored coat she wears and the long horse-tail of her brown hair.
He doesn’t know what he will say to her if he catches up. He isn’t even sure that he will try to speak to her again. All he knows as he makes his way across the busy market square is that he wants to keep her in his sight just a little while longer, because her smile had made him feel like someone other than pudgy Wilhelm from the paper store. He knows that once the dark-haired girl slips away, life will become boring and ordinary once more.
As he closes the distance, Wilhelm realizes that the girl is not alone. Someone is walking with her, a gray-haired old man who keeps pace just a few steps behind her. He is walking with a cane, but when Wilhelm gets close, he sees that it is really a staff, a gnarled old thing that looks like it grew out of the ground somewhere. His garments are even more unusual than hers. The old men here in the city wear knee-length coats and hats and cloaks, not leather breeches and linen shirts without collars.
Then the girl stops at a candy stand to purchase something, and the old man adjusts his gear as he pauses next to her. A leather satchel hangs by his side, and Wilhelm draws in a breath when he recognizes it as the satchel the girl was carrying earlier—the one that now holds half a thousand sheets of fine paper, two new fountain pens, and half a dozen bottles of ink.
Wilhelm knows that he should fetch a policeman. He knows that if someone wonders about their strange appearance and calls the authorities, he will be in big trouble for selling them the ink and paper they carry. But he does no such thing, even though the nearest police station is just around the corner from the far end of the market square. He follows them as they make their way along the fringes of the market. Then they walk down one of the side alleys, the one that leads down to the ancient warren of shops that has grown in the cracks of the city since the days of knights and castles, and Wilhelm does not follow. There are fewer people walking the alley, and he will not be able to stay unnoticed. Besides, down there is where the city’s thieves and tricksters ply their trades, and not even the memory of the girl’s perfect face can entice Wilhelm to venture among them.
Instead, he gives the girl and her companion one last glance and then turns around reluctantly, to return to Papa’s shop and his ordinary life.
Wilhelm is getting ready to close the shop for the night when he hears a commotion in the street outside: angry shouts of arguing men and the shrill whistles of police officers. At first, he pays it no mind. It is Friday evening, the end of a market day, and the square has a public-house every hundred steps. There are beer-fueled fights here every weekend. So he puts away the money from the till and locks the iron grates in front of the window.
He has just finished wiping all the glass countertops when a thunderclap shakes the floor beneath him and makes all the bottles on the shelves chime in dissonance. Another crash follows, this one even louder, and the gas lamp on the ceiling starts swaying. Outside, the shouts of anger have given way to yells of fear and alarm.
Wilhelm hurries out into the street. To his left, over by the market square, blue-tinted fires are lighting up the evening sky. People are rushing away from the square, flowing past him like a current.
At first, the blue fires in the market square make Wilhelm think of a natural calamity, an accident that set the gaslights and their lines ablaze. As he gets closer to the square, however, he sees that he is only half correct. The gaslight lanterns are ablaze, vivid blue fire bursting from shattered light fixtures all around the square, but this was no accident. In the middle of the square, standing on the old granite fountain, Wilhelm spots the old Wealdling. He has a stack of parchment sheets in one hand, and he is reading a spell off the topmost sheet in a booming voice. When the old man has finished his incantation, he thrusts out his hand and points it at a group of Prussian soldiers who have just arrived in the square. They try to bring their needle-guns to bear, but they are too slow. Another blast shakes the ground beneath Wilhelm’s feet, and the soldiers scream as they are blown off their feet and flung back down the side street like ragdolls. Wilhelm watches in horrified fascination as the parchment with the spell on it crumbles in the old man’s hand as if it had turned to ash, and the Wealdling scatters the fragments with a wave of his hand.
The market square is in ruins. Vendor carts and tables are overturned everywhere, burning fiercely with blue fire, a circle of perfect destruction surrounding the old man on the fountain. The old Wealdling pulls another piece of paper from the stack he carries in his hand and starts reading the spell written upon it in a loud and angry voice. Behind Wilhelm, another group of stern-faced policemen come running into the square, blocking his way back, so he ducks and rushes over to the nearest doorway to keep himself out of the line of fire. He is now in front of Ketterer’s bakery, where he had bought his lunch earlier, and he tries the door to find that Herr Ketterer has locked it.
The old man flings another spell across the square, but this one doesn’t seem to do what it is supposed to do. Instead of knocking over the policemen fixed by the Wealdling’s index finger, the spell shatters a pair of nearby windows. They burst with loud cracks, raining shards of glass onto the cobblestones below. The policemen, unscathed, aim their big revolvers at the Wealdling and open fire, a discordant cacophony of cracks and pops that sounds feeble after the thunderous spell. But if the magic spell did not quite work the way it ought to have, the guns of the policemen do not function as they should, either. Their reports sound weak, and none of the bullets seem to go where they are aimed. They bounce off walls and careen across the square, buzzing like irritated hornets.
Wilhelm cannot conceive what madness could have driven the Wealdling to pick a fight with all the protectors of the city. More soldiers are streaming into the market square from many side streets. These men are armed with needle-guns and used to the carnage of the battlefield. The old man is reading off spells, one after another, but they take time to recite, and the fire from the soldiers’ rifles grows more withering with every moment. Despite their arms’ sudden lack of reliability, they hold fast and close ranks.
A group of soldiers advances along the side of the square, behind the old man. They use the doorways and awnings of the shops for cover, and he never sees them as they draw ever closer and take aim.
The old man is in the middle of an incantation when half a dozen rifles thunder. He falls to the cobblestones without making another sound. Wilhelm’s heart thuds in his chest. The soldiers rush forward and take aim to fire another volley. The bullets pluck at the old man’s clothing as they tear into him, but he never even twitches again. In the fading light of the evening, the pool of blood spreading underneath the body looks black as ink.
Someone addresses Wilhelm with an angry shout. He tears his gaze from the lifeless form of the Wealdling and turns to see a soldier aiming a rifle at him. Wilhelm freezes on the spot, the fear lancing through him like a sharp blade. Then the soldier has assessed him and decided with an irritated shake of his head that he isn’t a threat. The rifle’s muzzle moves away from Wilhelm.
“Get out of here, boy,” the soldier shouts. Wilhelm does not need to be told again. He turns around the way he came and runs without looking back.
Wilhelm sits down at the steps in front of his father’s store with shaky knees and watches the flocks of people rushing toward the market square. What he just saw seems impossible—everyone knows the Weald’s magic doesn’t reach this far. But then he recalls his teacher saying that the Weald grows by a league or two every year. Even though the nearest outstretched finger of it is still over fifty kilometers to the south, it seems that the Borderlands now touch this city. Now Wilhelm knows why the gaslights have been unreliable lately, and why the factory workers complain about broken-down steam engines all the time.
Down at the bottom of the hill, a line of Prussian soldiers comes up the street, bayonets fixed atop their needle-guns. They halt in front of the bookstore, where the street is at its most narrow, and plant their rifle-pikes before them like a hedge of steel. Then a group of policemen pass through the soldiers’ ranks and start rounding up the people in the street with shouts and the harsh trilling of whistles. They check papers and inspect clothing, and Wilhelm realizes they’re looking for more Wealdlings.
Then he catches a glimpse of the girl in the crowd, and the flush of excitement makes him light-headed.
He jumps up and hurries over to where he saw her long horse-tail and brown overcoat.
She is halfway down a side alley when he catches up and grabs her by the arm. She wheels around with a fearful little shout. To Wilhelm, she looks as frantic as an animal in a trap, sensing the dogs closing in.
“Not that way,” he tells her. This side alley curves around to come out on the same street she has just left, only much closer to the bookstore where the soldiers now block the path. Further down the alley, beyond the bend, Wilhelm can hear the tromping of hobnailed boots. He points back up the alley with urgency. She regards him for a moment, panic flickering in her eyes, and turns to follow him.
He takes her to the store. When he pushes open the door, the policemen have closed half the distance from the bookstore already. Wilhelm pulls the girl into the darkened store with him. He fumbles for the key in his pocket and locks the door behind him. Then he pulls down the blinds to cover the window.
The girl sits down in front of the pen counter, clutching her satchel. Wilhelm motions for her to follow him into the back of the store, and she obeys. When they are in Papa’s cramped little office, she sits down on the floor and hugs the satchel again, like a talisman.
“Is he dead?” she asks in a thin voice. The expression on her face tells him that she knows the answer to her question already.
“Yes,” he says. “The soldiers shot him, up by the fountain on the square.”
She shakes her head slowly, and Wilhelm can see the tears rolling down her face.
“Stubborn old man,” she says, the sadness in her voice blended with affection. “I told him not to fight them. I could have talked our way out.”
“What happened?” Wilhelm asks.
“Two policemen came over,” she says. “They asked for our papers. Then one of them tried to take the satchel from Wulfric. He is good with that staff. Even better with spells.” More tears stream down her cheeks. “Foolish old man, always stubborn as a cart-ox.”
“Your father?” he asks, not wanting to compound her misery by using the past tense.
She shakes her head.
“Teacher,” she replies. “Friend.”
She rests her head on her knees and sobs. Wilhelm sits down next to her and gently puts his hand on her back.
Outside, the commotion passes the store. Someone tries the door, jerking the handle roughly a few times, and the girl looks up in fear as the doorbell jingles discordantly. Wilhelm swallows—surely, any moment a hobnailed boot will kick in the door—but whoever was testing the lock moves on.
He knows that hiding the girl is a crime, after what her guardian has done up on the market square. Wilhelm remembers the soldiers being flung through the air as if a giant’s hand had tossed them. Surely, some had died before the old Wealdling fell. At the least, all the market carts are smashed to kindling—hundreds of farmers, butchers, and bakers left without their livelihoods. Still, Wilhelm knows—saw—that the two Wealdlings were no danger to anyone before the police stopped them. The two of them were just going about their business, without any unkindness.
They were shopping for candy, he thinks. Could the police not have let them be?
The girl lowers her head onto her knees again. He wants to comfort her but cannot think of the words, and he does not dare touch her. They sit on the office floor for a long time, listening to the noises outside.
It is nighttime when all is finally quiet. Wilhelm has been sitting on the floor next to the girl for hours, and a while ago she fell asleep in her awkward position. In her sleep she does not look fearful anymore. Wilhelm finds that looking at her face has made his fear subside as well.
He quietly gets up on aching legs and walks upstairs, to the apartment above the store where he lives with Papa. There are blankets in the linen closet by the bathroom, and he takes out a few and walks back down the dark staircase. He does not dare to start a gas lamp for fear it might draw attention, so he leaves the place in darkness as he makes his way back to the office.
He folds up one blanket to serve as a pillow and puts it on the floor behind the girl. He gently nudges her awake and shows her the blanket and the makeshift pillow, and she takes both without protest.
Wilhelm feels pleasingly chivalrous as he watches her go back to sleep wrapped in the blankets he gave her. Lying down next to her would be an intrusion, and improper besides, but he also doesn’t want to go to his bedroom, which is as far away from the office as a room in this house can be. So he fetches two more blankets from upstairs and makes himself a makeshift bed behind the pen counter in the store.
In the morning, the girl is gone.
When Wilhelm wakes up, still dressed in the clothes he wore the day before, he walks over to Papa’s office to find it empty, save for the two blankets. They are in the middle of the floor, neatly folded.
He checks the front door of the store to find it locked. All the windows are latched, the shutters still fastened from the outside. However the girl got out of the shop, she did so without breaking a lock or window.
He realizes that he never asked her name.
Wilhelm gathers the blankets she left and carries them upstairs. Before he places them in the linen closet again, he sticks his nose into the soft wool. The scent of her hair is faint, but he recognizes it instantly.
It is close to seven o’clock, and he should be hungry for breakfast right now, but Wilhelm finds that he has no appetite. He trudges downstairs to get Papa’s store ready for the day’s business.
She left him something on the pen counter: a folded sheet of paper and a small leather pouch. He picks up the pouch with trembling fingers to find that it is quite heavy. When he opens the drawstring and peers inside, he almost drops the pouch in surprise. There are gold coins inside, just like the one he took in payment from her yesterday. He takes them out and stacks them on the counter. Twenty-one of the peculiar coins come out of the pouch, a small fortune.
Wilhelm slowly unfolds the paper. She has done a little drawing with the purple ink he gave her—a large wooden bridge, covered with a roof decked with shingles shaped like fish scales.
He knows this bridge, even though he has never seen it with his own eyes. There are lithographs of it in the books about the Weald he has been reading in the bookshop down the street. It is the bridge that spans the river in the Borderlands south of here—the bridge beyond which civilization ends and the Weald begins.
Underneath the drawing, she has written in narrow, loopy script: Je m’appelle Venadis.
Wilhelm sits down on the floor behind the counter for a long time and looks at the drawing and the single word beneath it. When the chime of the clock reminds him that it is time to open the shop, he ignores it. Instead, he runs his fingers over the lines she drew, the neat loops and hooks of her name underneath. He says it in a low voice, letting the unfamiliar combination of sounds roll off his tongue: Venadis.
Then he sits and thinks, with the drawing in his hands.
They will find the paper, he realizes, and the renewed fear makes his stomach roil. And if he carried one of the pens I sold, they will find that as well.
There are lots of paper stores in the city but only one that carries the new fountain pens. Papa ordered them from the overseas trader, and when they arrived at the shop two weeks past, he had boasted that no other shop in the province carried them yet.
Wilhelm knows that he could probably talk his way out of it. He should hide the gold, burn the note, and tell the police someone stole the pens and paper yesterday. But probably is not a good word when the other possibility is a five-year sentence in one of the Crown’s prisons.
When Wilhelm gets to his feet, he does not walk over to the door to unlock the store. Instead, he goes to fetch his leather book-bag. Then he goes back downstairs, where the regiments of ink bottles stand guard between stacks of notebooks and sheet paper. He fills the bag with inks—the expensive water-proof ones that will stay on paper even in a downpour. Finally, he walks over to the pen counter and takes all the new fountain pens as well.
He leaves ten of the gold coins in the secret compartment his father keeps behind a lithograph on the wall of his office. Papa will not be pleased, but Papa has good business sense, and he will have the gold melted down or hold on to it until it is safe to exchange. That much gold is enough to pay for the missing merchandise and make up for the fifty Prussian marks Wilhelm takes out of the register’s drawer. He will need safe money for the journey south. If he hurries and takes the late-morning train, he can be in the Borderlands this afternoon. From there, it is only twenty kilometers to the bridge Venadis has drawn, and even a pudgy fellow can walk that distance in four hours. He can be at the Weald Bridge by nightfall.
Wilhelm walks out of the store, locks the door, and drops the key into the mail-slot.
Outside, there’s a new scent in the air. The wind carries the smell of charcoal and ashes from the market square, flakes of burnt paper floating on the wind like premature snowflakes.
Wilhelm takes a deep breath and sets out for the train station with a smile.
Return to Issue #74