The True Story of a Kartenian Soldier in an Enemy Land

— Isa Prospero

After the war, all one saw were books. From north to south, in villages, cities and by the side of roads, boards were removed from shop windows, stalls raised in the streets, volumes taken out from boxes—pages bound in leather or unrolled parchments showed small letters or colorful illustrations. Yian had never seen so many books. He’d never seen one. In Karten, he’d learned to wield a hoe by the age of five and a sword before reaching ten. Reading was for noblemen or judges or alchemists, nothing that remotely touched his reality.

In the damned republic of Lacconia, though, the books never seemed to end.

Of all the strange things in that land, it was the second he found the most unsettling.

The first were the lights.

It was snowing the night he finally reached the capital. His stolen boots squelched as he crossed a maze of narrow streets. It hurt to breathe. He’d fractured something, and the cut in his leg throbbed nonstop. His skin was hot and sticky inside the heavy coat; a sluggishness had taken over his body, slowing his steps and thoughts.

He left a trail of red drops in the snow.

After three weeks of slinking around fields and woods, avoiding people, exchanging his filthy uniform for the clothes of enemy corpses and grabbing food wherever and whenever possible, he couldn’t stop now. The port was right there in the capital, and he only had to reach it and sneak onto a ship bound for Karten to return home.

He leaned against a wall, each exhale fogging up the air. The frozen streets were empty; the only signs of life were the lights behind dozens of closed windows.

They all shone red.

It can’t be, he told himself. It was unthinkable that the bastards burnt crimson stone to light up their houses…

Turning his head, he almost laughed. He’d stopped in front of another book display. But these were different; Yian could tell even without understanding a single word. It was the colors.

Vivid, the illustrations caught the eye—a man arguing with a fairy, a warrior lady fighting a dragon, two children lost in the woods. Stories. He knew them. He vaguely remembered hearing them as a child, or at least versions of them. He rubbed the frost-covered glass clean.

“Pretty, aren’t they?”

The voice came from behind, and the shock drove him away from the wall. He hadn’t heard the woman approach, but now she was right in front of him.

He needed to move. Run. But his vision swayed like a ship at sea…

“They’re mine,” she continued. “We’re closed now, but you can come tomorrow if… Oh!” She was all bundled up in a scarf and wool hat. A gloved hand rose, but came down when Yian flinched, keeping his eyes on the ground. “Kid, you alright? That overcoat is too thin.” He didn’t say anything, driving his nails into his palms. “My name is Amelia. What’s yours?” Silence. “You…you don’t want to chitchat, clearly, but…”

Overcoat? Chitchat?

Except for a word or two, her language was very similar to Yian’s. But he couldn’t reply—he was sure his accent would betray him as soon as he opened his mouth. He shook his head, not knowing what he was denying, and staggered on his feet.

“Hey, hey,” whispered the woman, as if speaking to a frightened animal, and reached out to steady him. She was old—must’ve been over forty—but her eyes were lively. She bit her lip. “Are you hungry?”

Just thinking about food made his stomach cramp. A few days earlier it would have been easy to refuse, but now he was ravenous in a way he hadn’t been since the last plague had killed all the cattle in his village.

“Come in for a moment,” she said, “and have some soup to warm up.”

Before he realized it, he was nodding.

The first thing he noticed inside was the heat, and then he let himself be pulled through the shop lined with bookshelves to the back of the house. A part of his brain yelled that it was a trap, but the next second they were in a kitchen and he was sitting down. Yian smelled food—something was being heated in the stove, fragrant with spices he couldn’t name—and he didn’t move until a hand lightly touched his forehead and a bowl was put in front of him.

He inhaled the steam coming off the broth.

I’ll just get my strength back, he decided, and then go.

The rest came in flashes.

Something soft beneath him.

A door opening and two people talking in low voices. The woman, Amelia’s, and another one, lower. When he cracked open an eye, he saw both women at the door, outlined against the red light of the hall.

“What did you do, love?”

“He fell in the snow… He’s burning up.”

Hands touched his forehead, his neck, pulled his coat aside. He tried to attack the unknown woman, but she moved away.

Amelia’s face appeared next. “This is my wife, Dana. She’s a…doctor. Do you understand? She can help you. We need to bring your fever down.”

No. They were going to throw him in a hospital and he’d be found. He couldn’t stay here, but his body was heavy, heavy as iron…

Something wet left traces down his face.

The world spun.


“Sweetheart, he’s not…”

“I know, Dana. Please. He’s just a kid.”

Then hands felt his torso and leg and he felt an excruciating, never-ending pain, which might’ve lasted for a second or an hour or a day and only faded with unconsciousness.

When he opened his eyes, he was in a small room with white curtains that let in the morning sun. The memories of the night before returned suddenly, jumpstarting his heart.

He’d let himself be captured.

He tried to sit up and groaned, falling back down. His torso was naked under the blankets, but wrapped in bandages—so was the injury in his leg.

A figure appeared in the doorway.

“Oh, you’re awake!” Amelia raised her hands in a show of peace when he shrank against the headboard. “It’s alright. Can I…measure your temperature?”

He didn’t answer, but also didn’t try to run. Amelia laid her palm on his forehead. “Much better.” She turned to the bedside table, where there was a pile of towels, a basin of water, and a thin glass object with a thick red liquid inside. Yian’s eyes widened, but she just asked him to open his mouth and shoved it inside. “I’ll take it out in a second.” She wet a cloth and brought it to his forehead. He looked around dizzily, and saw through the curtain that it was still snowing.

How was the house so warm?

Amelia sat in a chair next to the bed. “Kid, do you understand me?”

He nodded.

“You’ve been here for two days. You had a fever, and the cut in your leg was suppurating. Dana is taking care of you. I don’t know if you remember her—the dark-skinned woman?”

He nodded again.

“You broke a…” She traced a finger under his heart from one side to the other. “Rib. You need to rest and take your medicine. You can stay with us until you heal.”

He widened his eyes, heart thumping wildly again, and shook his head.

Amelia raised her hands. “I don’t know where you came from, but we didn’t tell anyone you’re here. And we don’t have to. Just rest.” She pulled the glass object from Yian’s mouth and examined it.

Despite the room’s temperature, a cold despair took over his limbs. Weak like this, he’d never make it to the port. What could they be planning? Why hadn’t they called the authorities yet?

Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they thought he was a street kid, though he hadn’t seen many of them in the alleys of Lacconia. Could it be a trick? Did they want revenge?

Amelia didn’t seem to burn with rage against the enemy. For the first time he noticed that the woman’s hair was dark like his, tied up in a messy bun. She had lines around her eyes that became more pronounced when she smiled.

“If you’re worried about money,” she said, “you can help me out with a few things.”

He narrowed his eyes. Work? That made more sense. He could understand exchanging services for food.

A corner of Amelia’s mouth twitched. “How do you feel about making books?”

Their living quarters were behind the store, on the other side of a curtain. It consisted of the kitchen, the small room he’d woken up in, the women’s bedroom, Amelia’s workshop, and something called Dana’s laboratory, a word he didn’t know but that seemed to mean the room was always locked.

“She keeps her work stuff there,” explained Amelia. “So don’t go in, alright? It’s dangerous.”
The doctor spent the better part of every day hidden away in that room or visiting patients. In the mornings, she changed Yian’s bandages, emphatically recommending that he not do any heavy work, and made him drink a disgusting medicine that made him nauseous. She was a woman of few words and decisive gestures, eyes always bloodshot as if she didn’t sleep enough.

The rest of the day he spent with Amelia.

She was the shop’s owner. She sold—and made—the books. When Yian managed to get up, she led him to her workshop, a narrow room with a huge wooden machine, a desk, piles of paper and fabric, skeins of yarn, and many small pieces of metal. He watched her take a tray full of the metal objects, fit it in the machine, and brought it down with the pull of a lever until it touched the page beneath. When she raised the mechanism, the paper was filled with markings.


“We print the books page by page,” said Amelia. “Then we bind them.”

But what drew Yian’s attention were the plaques piled up in a corner. Unlike the metal trays with letters, they were stone. Bright red stone.

“They’re for the illustrations,” she said, shooting him a strange look. “Crimson stone is more malleable, so it’s easier for the artists to carve. Have you ever seen one?”

He stared at her.

Each of those plaques was worth more in Karten than Yian’s whole family had ever earned. Just one of those impossible objects—inside a random shop in Lacconia, in the possession of two women who didn’t even seem to be rich—would be enough reason to kill and be killed in his kingdom.

Whether in liquid or solid form, the sacred metal was the most precious substance in the world. In Karten, nobles used it to forge swords that could run through any material and kill with the smallest of cuts. Cannonballs were made with it, and one often heard stories of some soldier who had lost his arm messing with things better left alone. It was said alchemists invoked evil spirits to use the stone’s power and create walls impossible to break down, roofs impossible to burn, ships impossible to sink. It was even said they consumed the metal, prolonging their lives for hundreds of years.

They went to war over it.

And it wasn’t just the plaques. Tubes that ran from the kitchen expelled crimson stone steam to heat up the whole house, and every single one of the lamps in the rooms emitted a red, odorless light. The first time he saw Amelia pour the shiny red liquid into the one in his room, he’d watched, flabbergasted, as the light immediately burned stronger.

“We have to be careful,” Amelia had said casually. “Crimson water can hurt you. The metal’s too concentrated.”

He had stayed up at night considering how many of those lamps he could fit inside his coat when he ran away.

So he only shook his head when she repeated the question, waking him from his reverie. No, I’ve never seen one.

“Well, I thought you could help me with the…” She pointed at the metal plaques. “Matrixes. I compose each page based on the original text,” she raised a pile of handwritten pages from the desk, “and it takes some time. You can help me out. If you want.”

When she saw that he stared confusedly at the scrawl on the parchments—which didn’t look at all like the metal letters on the tray—she seemed to realize something.

“But I guess it’s not that easy, is it?” A small smile touched her lips. “Don’t worry, I can teach you the letters.”

His heart thumped hard, as if she’d offered some forbidden treasure.

His only choices were yes and no.

Yian nodded.

Day after day in the workshop, Yian repeated the sound of each letter in his mind as he put words together. It took him ages to create a single matrix—Amelia did the same work so fast he felt his face heat up.

But she didn’t complain. If anything, she was always talking about how nice it was to have help and some company. When business was slow at the shop and after closing time, she’d sit on the other side of the desk. Faced with his silence, she talked about one thing or another: how she’d met Dana, her family who lived in the countryside, the places she’d visited, the debates happening in the University of Lacconia, the books they were composing. She never talked about the war. Maybe it had ended so quickly, thought Yian, that she didn’t even think about it anymore.

She called him “kid,” but the word sounded affectionate—unlike when nobles spat it out to demand small services from him.

Amelia only asked personal questions once, wondering if he wanted to send a message to anyone or if she could help him return to his family.

I don’t have any family and all I need is a ship, he’d thought.

But he had only shaken his head.

A small bell over the front door rang whenever a customer came in, and Amelia ran to meet them with a flutter of skirts and a smile on her face. Yian listened carefully, trying to pick out any useful information, but quickly realized that a large portion of her clientele were children. They came with their parents and didn’t seem to fear anything—they touched the books, laughed loudly, asked Amelia to tell stories.

And many afternoons, she would sit on a stool, pick up a book and start reading to a circle of boys and girls with bright eyes and easy smiles.

Yian would hide behind the curtain that separated the store from the house, peering through the gap and listening attentively. He still couldn’t read well; it took him a long time to make out sentences and he didn’t know many words in Lacconian. But when Amelia told stories to the kids, losing a word or two wasn’t a problem—he could grasp the meaning of the sentences, feel the emotion in the voice of the characters.

One night, she left that day’s book on his bedside table. Yian mouthed the sound of the words and touched the illustrations, tracing the outline of the vibrant images. He’d never had anything so beautiful in his hands.

A few days later, while composing an adventure story full of pirates and monsters, he realized he’d stopped working to read a few pages ahead and find out how the hero was going to escape the scrape he was in. He raised his eyes, but Amelia didn’t seem worried across from him.

And then, without much thought, he selected a few metal letters and waited.

She raised her eyes and smiled. “What is it? Is the text too hard?”

He set the letter down on the table, in order.

She read slowly: Y-I-A-N.

Her eyes widened. “Your name?” she asked quietly.


She smiled brightly, the corner of her eyes crinkling. Was he imagining it, or were they shinier? She raised a hand as if to stroke his hair, like he was one of the kids she told stories to, and he lowered his face.

“Oh, that’s lovely. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Yian.”

One day, he heard Dana leave her laboratory in a huff and tell her wife she was going to buy some supplies she was out of. Next thing he knew, maybe because of how strangely safe he’d felt lately, he found himself in front of the mysterious door, a hand on the knob.

Yian twisted.

It opened.

The room was small and crowded—there were boxes piled up against a wall and two bookshelves with glass jars full of herbs and colorful liquids. But it was the worktable in the middle of the room that caught his eye. Connected transparent tubes created a complex device that expelled steam and hissed like a furious teapot. Crimson water flowed between the various levels, running down the channels until it fell, drop by drop, in a bowl at the center. He took one more step. The table was entirely covered in white chalk drawings—criss-crossed lines and circles that spread out from the center, covered with symbols that were definitely not the Lacconian letters he’d learned.

The ringing in his ears was cut off by a voice behind him. “Guess I should’ve remembered that kids are curious.”

Amelia didn’t sound cold, but a block of ice still settled in Yian’s stomach. He shivered when she touched his back.

“What’s with the face?” she joked when he flinched away from her touch. “Is it really so scary?”
Scary didn’t begin to describe it. Alchemy was evil, everybody knew that. Alchemists could create monstrosities, torture and poison, could drive people mad or kill them in a thousand different ways. And Amelia…lived with that woman. She was married to an alchemist.

Even if he dared speak, he might not have been able to. His throat was dry, closed off. A terror he hadn’t felt since the night he escaped the battlefield washed over him.

Dana had touched him. Treated him. Given him some mysterious concoction to drink.

He, too, was living with an alchemist.

“Don’t be scared,” urged Amelia, her voice low. “I don’t understand any of this either,” she pointed at the strange drawings, “but think of it like…another language. I don’t speak it, but it doesn’t mean it’s saying something bad.” She sighed. “Shall we go back? I won’t tell Dana you came in here.”

Every time Dana spoke at dinner that night, Yian lowered his nose almost to his plate, terror probably clear on his face. He couldn’t taste the food. His hands shook around the cutlery.

Neither of the women said anything, but Dana’s scowl grew deeper and deeper.

Later, he lay awake thinking about escape for the first time in days—perhaps weeks. But at some point he must have slept, because he woke with Amelia looming over him, a sheepish smile on her face.

“Good morning. I wanted to see if you were still—I mean, I have something different for you today.”

Seeing no way out, he followed her to the workshop, with a glance at the laboratory’s closed door. Amelia made him sit down in front of a new manuscript.

He almost choked when he read the first part.

Calterite, popularly known as crimson stone or the sacred metal (or in its liquid form, crimson water, blood of the gods or the divine elixir) is a mineral that allows a connection with the attributes of the high celestial sphere via alchemical commands…

Yian didn’t have a clue what a high celestial sphere was, but he knew he shouldn’t be holding that thing. It was a manual for alchemists. A book of magic, secret, forbidden…that Amelia was going to sell to whoever walked in? He felt dizzy.

Wouldn’t he be killed for reading it?

Apparently not. Apparently, in Lacconia, secrets were displayed in shop windows. He carried on for the next few days, avoiding Dana whenever possible—afraid to stay, but unable to drive himself to leave. Because, although the book was complicated and full of unknown words, something always made him return to it like a castaway finding the shore.

Calterite is employed in medicine, in the arts, in the rituals of many religions and also in war…

With alchemical symbols and a celestial diagram, we construct a matrix…

The connection between the alchemist and the superior attributes allows the metal to assume the desired properties and obey the commands of the matrix…

And then there were calculations and diagrams, and the so-called matrixes which were nothing like the ones he knew, and lists of plants and their properties, incomprehensible information about water and earth, descriptions of animals and their organs and the human body in each of its peculiarities. It was all very complex—and boring. He’d never thought the world’s biggest secrets would be boring. All the same, he felt an indescribable emotion whenever he understood anything, as if he’d stolen an especially tasty treat from the hands of a nobleman.

One day he sat down to breakfast when Dana was at the table. Her lips curled up. Her smile was different than Amelia’s—a little ironic, as if laughing at a joke he didn’t understand.

“It’s the first time in five days you don’t look as if you’re going to run off at the sight of me.” She put down her cup. “Finally. Today you’re not going to the workshop. I also need some help.”

She waited in silence until he finally nodded.

The Kartenian alchemists’ attack on the capital had destroyed a good portion of the port. There’d been dead and injured, some of whom Dana had treated after the peace accord—or, more accurately, Karten’s capitulation.

The war would be quick, the sergeant had said when Yian left with his battalion. And it had been. They just hadn’t known they’d be on the losing side.

Now, he realized it couldn’t have happened any other way.

“This matrix is simple,” said Dana, pointing to the most complicated drawing he’d ever seen in his life. “To sum up, this part describes the substances and the properties we want to extract from them, this explains the patient’s condition, this invokes the divine attributes we’re going to use, and this is something like my personal signature, which will connect me to the rest in order to supply the strength for the transformation. And, naturally, the diagram represents the star map which will guide the process, and defines the dominant element, in this case water. Did you get all that?”

No, he thought. He nodded.

Dana laughed. “Liar. It took me years to start understanding these things.” She took a bowl with crushed herbs, a thick resin, and blood from the woman for whom she was making the potion. Then she looked at him and pointed at a jar on the table. “Three drops.”

Yian tried to keep his hands steady as he put that exact amount of crimson water in the bowl with a dropper. He closed the flask and, feeling his heart in his throat, took a few steps back as instructed.

Dana laid the bowl at the center of the matrix and made a gesture over the table. The lines of chalk lit up, shining red, and Yian felt the air in the lab change, covering his arms in goosebumps.

And he saw alchemy work for the first time.

To his surprise, he wasn’t afraid—that wild heartbeat meant something else. The potion swirled slowly, as if spun by an invisible spoon, and Dana’s eyes shone like two drops of blood. She closed them a moment later and, when she opened them again, the hue had faded into a slight redness. The lines on the table shone weaker, like embers on a bonfire.

She spoke in a whisper. “They say the world was created after a great cosmic battle and that crimson stone is the blood the deities spilled. That’s why they call it blood of the gods.” She snorted. “Who knows, maybe it’s true. Every time I make a transformation, I feel I’m connected to something larger than myself.”

Yian could understand. He felt his own world had widened irreversibly.

He hadn’t lost the habit of listening behind doors, and stopped short outside the women’s room when he heard the word he was always attuned to.

“Are the war prisoners still detained in the north?” Amelia asked.

“Are you keeping up with the news?”

“I read they sent a delegation to negotiate with Karten.”

“Well, they’ll only print this tomorrow, but…they refused the offer.”

Silence. “Refused?”

“Karten doesn’t want the prisoners back.”

“Then what…?”

“There’ll be a council vote to decide what to do with them.” Dana’s sigh was loud behind the closed door. “I don’t know what they’ll decide.”

“What’s to decide?”

Her wife hesitated again. “Some are proposing executing them all,” she finally said.

Executing. Yian had read the word in one of his novels.

“Those beasts!” Amelia’s voice was harsh. Yian had never heard her so furious. “It wasn’t those soldiers who asked to launch an invasion. They were abandoned by their own country!”

“Sweetheart, you don’t need to convince me. But tensions are high. People get taken in by instigators in times like this. We’ve had casualties. And though we won quickly, they did raze houses and farms as they came through…”

Yian flinched.

“So let them hold the generals accountable, demand reparations from the king,” said Amelia. “Since when does this country simply kill people?”

“It doesn’t; that’s precisely why there’ll be a vote. There hasn’t been an execution since the new constitution, let alone on this scale. They’d need the majority of the councilors to agree.”

“And do you think they will?”

“Well—I don’t know. Public opinion has weight in this kind of thing, and it is an election year… I just want you to be prepared if…” Yian didn’t hear the end of the sentence.

They were silent for a moment until Amelia said, “Well, we’re the public too. I think it’s time we expressed our opinion.”

Yian tiptoed away, heart clenching. He could move now. His injuries had healed a long time ago.
He’d heard enough to know what he had to do.

The laboratory was immersed in weak moonlight that came through the high window as he pondered his decision. He didn’t hear the door open.

“I’d suggest the stone,” said Dana behind him, making him jump. “It’s heavier, but safer. If you spill a single drop of the liquid on your skin, it’ll open a hole. Of course, we’d rather you didn’t go.” She took him by the arm. “Come. Amelia wants to discuss something with you.”

Her wife was sitting on the covers, hair messy and eyes tired.

He sat on the edge of the bed while Dana left them alone. Amelia took his hands. “When you arrived here with a fever, you were delirious,” she began. “And you spoke to me. Do you remember?”

His heart raced. No.

Her next words sounded like a secret. “I know you didn’t want to come here.” His stomach lurched. She knew—she’d known from the start. “Your…comrades are detained.” Yes. “There’ll be a vote to decide what to do with them. Depending on the result, it might…not be safe for you to stay here any longer. But I had an idea. I don’t know if it’ll help, but I think it’s worth the risk.” She tried to smile. “You like the stories, don’t you?”

The question caught him by surprise. Yes.

“Would you be willing to tell me one?” She squeezed his hand. “Yours?”

Yian wanted to say there was nothing interesting in his story. That he was just an unimportant soldier that people wanted dead. That he’d been silent for so long that he didn’t know if he could speak, or in what language. And more importantly, that he thought that, even if he did speak, no one would want to listen.

But Amelia looked at him calmly—expectantly.

“I think,” she said, “we can change some opinions.”

And he found himself nodding once again.

“This is Illo, my nephew,” introduced Dana the next day, pointing at a youth a few years older than Yian, with blonde hair, glasses, and a garish outfit. “He looks like a fop, but he’s a good writer.”

“Damn, auntie,” whined the young man, then smiled at Yian as he gave an exaggerated bow. “Hi. No need to fear.” He made a gesture as if closing his mouth. “I won’t tell anyone you’re here and I won’t put your name in the book.”


Illo sat at the kitchen table, where a pile of blank pages awaited. “Talk however you like. About whatever you want. You can start with the war or your birth, your family or your kingdom. Leave it to me to put order to it all.” He smoothed out one of the pages, quill hovering over it. “And, of course, you can speak in Kartenian. I know your language.”

Amelia ran a hand across his back and pulled out a chair. Yian sat between the two women.
What did he want to say? Where could he start?

For a moment, he feared his voice was gone due to lack of use.

Then he felt his lips move on their own.

“My brother died when he was two,” was what came out.

And suddenly words started pouring out.

Yian talked about the hunger and the cold. About the tributes that his parents had to pay to the lord who controlled their lands. About the illnesses that struck the villages and left piles of bodies behind. About the first man he saw die, swinging on a rope for stealing a sliver of crimson stone.

He talked about how, one day, soldiers had come to the village conscripting boys to fight for the kingdom. About the training, the weight of the sword in his hands, the exhaustion and the inedible food. About the sergeant who was always snarling at them and saying it was an honor to fight for the glory of Karten. About how the king would conquer Lacconia, take possession of the crimson stone mines of the neighboring country and create an empire. How each of them would get a few drops of metal if they fought well.

He talked about the alchemists who walked across the camp, arrogant and powerful, evoking terror in the hearts of all.

He talked about Karten’s plan—how the alchemists would attack the capital while soldiers would land in the north and advance through the countryside. The people wouldn’t resist; they’d burn everything in their path and the Lacconians would surrender.

He talked about how the people fled, but didn’t surrender. About the slow and cumbersome advance. Wherever they went, everything was already razed to the ground, and soon the diseases started. Rumor had it that the local population had poisoned the earth and the water. Then one day, when half the regiment was out of action, Lacconian troops fell on them.

He talked about the battle, at least what he remembered of it—flashes of terror and blood.
He talked about being injured. Seeing his comrades captured, pretending he was dead and rising in the dead of night, fleeing while the enemy raised their camp. He talked about crossing the country from north to south.

He talked about how he’d never seen a book before.

The next day, Amelia handed him a new pile of pages.

It was his life, but in a way he never could’ve told it himself. Had he really spoken about the scent of flowers in the summer? His brother’s stiff body when they buried him? The fear of punishment that seemed to hover over everybody’s lives?

He couldn’t remember.

The story was intensely familiar and at the same time seemed like someone else’s life. Someone important.

“Sometimes the truth becomes clearer through someone else’s eyes,” said Illo later when Yian mentioned it.

“The title’s the most important part!” the writer said that night. All four of them were gathered in the kitchen like conspirators. “It has to catch the eye.”

“The Life of a Kartenian Boy?” suggested Dana.

“Boring,” said her nephew.

“The true story of something,” said Amelia. “People like true stories, even if most of them have a good deal of fantasy.”

“Perfect! The True Story of a Kartenian Soldier…”

…in an Enemy Land,” added Dana. “It already points out the conflict.”

Illo gave a slow and satisfied smile, then turned to him.

Yian repeated the words in his head. It sounded like a real book, he thought.

And because habits were hard to quit, he just nodded.

He’d never seen the man who came into the shop a few days later, but by the drop-shaped badge that shone on his clothes, Yian knew he was an alchemist. And unlike Dana, who claimed to be just a doctor, he was clearly an important man.

Amelia didn’t say anything as he touched the pile of copies of The True Story that sat in the middle of the store.

“All I hear about is this book,” said the man. “No one knows where it came from, only that many places started selling it at the same time. So I did some digging and discovered the original was delivered anonymously to several bookmakers. Free of charge.” He paused. “Very generous of the authors.”

“They must prize the diffusion of knowledge,” answered Amelia.

The man raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing?”

She shrugged. “What I’ve always done. Making books. As far as I know, and I’m not breaking any laws.”

“No,” he ceded. “But I should warn you, you’re playing with fire. Did you see the review on the paper this morning?”

She had, and showed it to Yian—the author complimented the narrative, saying it was “at once touching and revolting.” Later he’d read another opinion piece calling it “pure enemy propaganda.”

“If you wanted attention, congratulations,” said the man. “You got it. They started a petition at the university for the Kartenian prisoners, and tomorrow there’ll be a demonstration in front of the council building against executing the troops.”

“Really?” Amelia didn’t hide her joy.

“And believe me, some of your elected officials are not at all happy about it. They were counting on the anti-Kartenian mood to pass some projects to restrict the movement of foreigners.”

“What a shame.”

“And hypothetically, if the story were true, it might cause problems for whoever took in the fugitive.”

“Hypothetically, councilor, what are the odds that civility will win?” Amelia shot back.

He huffed and shook his head. “There are five days left. The future will tell.” And as he turned from her, Yian could hear him mutter, “I had no idea a book could cause so much fuss.”

The day of the vote, Amelia and Dana couldn’t stand just waiting for news and went to the council building to watch the vote, leaving Yian alone.

With the shop windows closed, he thumbed through books he’d never been interested in before, regretting it now that he’d probably never get a chance to read them. How many stories would he never hear, how many things would he never learn? It wasn’t surprising that these people were so creative in war and peace. They lived surrounded by ideas.

When Amelia and Dana burst through the door, he only had time to notice that Amelia was crying before finding himself in a crushing hug—and it took him two wild heartbeats to notice they were tears of joy.

She tripped on the words. Pardoned. Freed. They’ll finance the return of those who want to go home.

Dana laid a hand on his head. “But you can stay, of course. We’d like you to.”

How strange and wonderful, he thought, to have choices.

That night, he fell asleep under a soft red light—an open book over his chest, to be taken up again tomorrow.


Isa Prospero

Isa Prospero is a writer and translator based in São Paulo. Her short fiction has been featured in Brazilian magazines such as Superinteressante, Trasgo, Mafagafo, and Pretérita, and in English in Strange Horizons and anthologies such as All Borders Are Temporary (2018) and Stories of the Nature of Cities 2099 (2019).