Sometimes it’s not about the stories but about who gets to tell them. This is by Nin Harris.
In the sylvan city of Tare, deep within the ornate forest the Yroi called the Svieg, lurked a strange contrivance that was known as a “mechanical moveable type”. Erheani learned to work with the machine, which could produce six dozen pamphlets per day. She learned the ways of setting up different typefaces. She helped cast the clay and bronze tablets that were fitted into the steam-powered printing press machines. Because of a finite supply of water and coal, the machines could not produce more pages, nor could the pamphlets be longer than ten pages apiece. This had always seemed so limited to Erheani. She fantasized about stories that were so long, it would take weeks to finish reading them.
“Are you done with setting the plates yet, Er-hee?”
Erheani looked up from the bronze moveable type plates she was setting with the Dvenri letters, punctuation marks, and illustrations. It was from a series of pamphlets that recounted Dvenri folktales, banned by the Yroi Empire as being seditious.
“Almost done Lee-Lee, I just need to make sure everything is aligned just so,” Erheani said.
Erheani’s family was informed by telegram of the delay. She assured her father that the delay was temporary. She perhaps did not tell him that she had escape from bandits who had captured their wagon-train, carrying the Book of Living Testimony and the precious bags of bronze and silver coins with her. She did not explain the things she had learned in the terrifying forests of the Svieg. She did not explain how they had met. Madame Li-Yan had been gathering sweet-smelling herbs for her medicinal teas and long-boiling soups. Their eyes had met in startled recognition a split second before Madame Li-Yan registered that the Mirozhi girl was in fatigued trauma. She did not explain that it was Madame Li-Yan’s money that was paying for the telegrams, and for her room and board, or the fact that the room she was given was not the one she slept in every night.
She did tell them that she was in an apprenticeship, and that it would augment her future studies in Lith Gurland.
“Almost there is too slow! No need to be so perfect. Just make sure the letters print right. I think you already have got it.”
“Alright! Alright! I am done!”
Erheani allowed Madame Li-Yan to inspect her handiwork. Madame Li-yan nodded in satisfaction.
“You have learned very fast, Er-hee. Are you sure you will not stay with me? Learn to be a Master Printer, and write your stories so we can print them.”
Erheani shook her head.
“I want to be a Master Storyteller, Lee-Lee.”
Madame Li-Yan threw Erheani a skeptical look.
“So you think you will attain this in the grand city of the Yroi who have colonized both our lands? What good do you think will come of it, Er-hee? Your stories are good. No, they are better than good. Almost every night we go to The Bronze Wok, and almost every night we get the Master Chew personally cooking our dinner because of your stories. I have never eaten so well in my life.”
Erheani stopped working, and wiped her ink-stained fingers carefully on a damp cloth. “Lee-Lee, my family saved their money so that I would be able to be a Master Storyteller. It is not just my dream, it is theirs as well. I would love to stay here and be with you, this life is beautiful.”
She took Madame Li-Yan’s hand and squeezed it tight. “I have obligations, Li-Yan. I cannot let my family down.”
Madame Li-Yan looked thoughtful.
“You have made my printing press a lot of money, Er-hee, and I have paid you a generous salary. I can double that amount so you can return all that money to your family.”
Erheani stared at Madame Li-Yan, flushing a little in embarrassment.
“You would do that for me? I am not sure I would be comfortable with that.”
The woman smiled, “I’d be doing that for my business, silly. I have tripled my publishing output since you joined the firm. But this is also because I do not think you will be happy in Lith Gurland. Stay here, prosper, and when we have free time we can visit Lith Gurland together. Perhaps,” and here the woman hesitated, “Perhaps we could rent a small apartment across from the Clockwork Fountain? Wouldn’t that be nice? I would like to collect some supplies so we can try out that new idea of yours as well. Engine-powered moveable types that are able to run for a day sounds intriguing. We would be tourists, not supplicants.”
Erheani frowned, “But, if I don’t try to be a Master Storyteller, I’ll always wonder, Lee-lee.”
“This is Tare, the city of dissidents, artists, and people who work for change. Why would you not stay here where you can do so much good? Why do you want to go all the way to that cruel, glittering city that will wear you down?”
“I’ll always wonder, Lee-lee. That wondering might kill me.”
Madame Li-Yan’s eyes were devastated, but her voice was kind, “Sometimes wondering is better. But if that is your wish, I will not keep you.”