Alida Quill is just fine spending hir holidays alone with a book if it means freedom from hir family’s continued expectation to court and wed. When hir co-worker Ede sets hir up with a friend and won’t take no for an answer, Alida plots an extravagant, public refusal scene to show everyone once and for all that ze will not date. Ever.
Ze doesn’t expect to meet Antonius Quiver, a man with his own abrupt, startling declarations on the subject of romance.
It isn’t courting if he schemes with hir to pay back Ede … is it?
Contains: One autistic, aromantic organiser extraordinaire armed with coloured ink; one autistic, aromantic officer a little too prone to interrupting; and an allistic friend in want of better ways to go about introductions.
Content Advisory: Aromantic characters pressed into dating along with casual references to general amatonormativity and ableism.
Length: 2, 261 words (part one of two).
I don’t date, court, woo or pay suit to anyone.
“Do you ever do anything but work, write and read?” Ede Thimble leans across the counter and stares at Alida with intent brown eyes, ignoring the crate of straw-packed ink bottles at her feet. Ten minutes ago, she offered to shelve them. “You come here, you spend the day looking things up and writing things down, and then you go home and do the same!” She sighs before waving her arms and the trailing sleeves of her dress with extravagant enthusiasm. “Yesterday was a holiday! You could have spent it dancing, drinking or gaming! Anything involving another person!”
Alida Quill sets down hir pencil, working to hold back a frown. Hir family owns the business—the name Quill is a byword in Elsten for fine stationery—but as the youngest of the three Quill siblings, hir thoughts on matters of hiring go ignored.
Did Jan select Ede because her inquisitiveness gets under Alida’s skin?
“I didn’t just read. I went to morning service, I baked…”
Spiced apple cakes, the sultanas conveniently “forgotten”. After which ze curled up by the fire, book in hand, and spent a glorious, undisturbed afternoon flipping through a collection of fairy tales for hir catalogue of stories that don’t end in marriage. Hir siblings and their wives patronised dance halls and gaming houses, granting Alida a rare half day with nobody to annoy hir about avoiding friends and family.
“Temple!” Ede rolls her eyes and leans against the glass counter, putting fingerprints over a surface Alida just finished polishing. “You’re not even pious! Do you go anywhere not home, here or services—”
The door opens, admitting a blast of chill air and a pair of damp student mages in brown robes, and Alida grits hir teeth at the thud as the taller lets it slam closed. Both carry empty string bags and a folded piece of cream paper—good cotton rag watermarked with the Academy’s crossed-wand seal. Why the Academy wastes expensive paper on yearly materials lists, ze’ll never know.
Ede straightens and gifts the students her warmest smile. “Good morning, sirs! I see you’re looking to get ahead of the winter’s commencement class. Smart! Can I first tempt you with our newest brushes, or would you prefer me to work through your lists?”
Alida permits hirself a sigh of relief and returns to inventorying the shelf of journals and ledgers.
Ze considers Ede no small trial, between her questions and a lackadaisical attitude to cleanliness. Yet Ede’s ability to charm and flatter, a gift Alida doesn’t wish to possess, frees hir to manage stock orders, shelving and the accounts book. Ze answers questions and handles sales when needed, but Alida prefers to leave the art of convincing customers to Ede and Jette. As if either will think to dust the shelf or turn the bottles labels-outwards when displaying!
By the time Ede sends the students back out into the weather, bulging parcels wrapped in spelled wood-pulp paper, Alida stands on a stool behind the counter, positioning the last of the new inks. Ze doesn’t know how to answer people asking, for the umpteenth time, about hir prospects; ze always knows how many nibs, pens and brushes are contained within the store’s array of redwood drawers and shelves. Hir hands give the glass counters their sparkle, the wood its gleaming richness, the leather chairs by the window their waxy softness and scent. Ze laid the fire warming the shop against the cold outside. What’s wrong with finding contentment in hir work? Why isn’t this a worthy life, hir days spent in labour enough for bed, food, clothing and a reasonable number of books?
Alida wonders, not for the first time, if ze should have tried to pretend belief and gender enough to join the Sisterhood.
“Rain!” Ede declares in the smug tones of a woman who charged an extra ten cents for the protective paper. That fewer people dare the streets in a worsening squall doesn’t diminish her joy; she claps her hands, swathes of blue wool and white lace shrouding her fingers. “I love when I can make rich mages pay for something extra!”
Alida takes up hir duster, steps down off the stool, doesn’t fall when hir toes catch the hem of hir skirt and moves to hir nook by the counter. Hir small desk, hidden from customers by a display case of envelopes, holds a ledger, a brass cup of pencils, a wad of cat fur and a tin of wax polish above a drawer that doesn’t quite close. Spell more wrapping paper sheets, ze writes at the bottom of the day’s list, nodding at Ede so she doesn’t think herself ignored. “Not all the students are rich. The Academy is expensive, but that doesn’t mean some people don’t save up. Or that those people can afford to replace a soaked journal.”
Hir parents sent hir, back when the family thought Alida to make something grander of hir life through magic.
“They’re richer than me.” Ede sighs again; Alida represses the urge to mention that Jette pays Ede wage enough to support her mother and fund a penchant for lace. “I tell you what—I’ve got a friend who makes those annoying corrections, and I can’t get his nose out of the newspaper, either. I bet you two’d get on like anything. Instead of temple and reading, how about I introduce you next Endday lunch?”
Alida twists the folds of hir skirt through hir white fingers, watching the wind hurl rain against the front windowpane. Didn’t Ede understand Alida the first time ze explained this? “I don’t date, court, woo or pay suit to anyone.”
“You’re just like Antonius, Alida. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before now!” Ede opens her mouth as the door admits a regular gentlewoman in a long coat, a sopping newspaper held above her head in a vain attempt to protect her dyed suede. “Good morning, good sir! Such dreadful weather out, and so early in the season! Should I help you now, or would you like to first stand before the fireplace a minute?”
Wet newspaper, coat and boots, along with the door the customer struggles to close, create puddles enough that Alida darts into the stockroom for a mop and bucket.
Please, ze prays as ze works the mop over the floorboards, let Ede forget this plan as easily as she forgot about the crate of ink bottles.
“You need to meet Antonius,” Ede says the next morning, entering the shop without a greeting or by-your-leave while Alida places two small logs above the flaming kindling in the fireplace. “My cousin brought him around last night, and I swear he said five words—and most of those were contradictions! Things he read about!”
Alida takes the poker and shifts one of the logs to get more air underneath, biting hir lip. If this Antonius discussed books or articles, he likely said more than five words.
“See? You’d get on like ducks on a pond!” Ede bustles towards the fire, peeling her gloves off her hands and tucking them into her belt before unbuttoning her cloak and hanging it on the hook beside Alida’s. “Like priestesses in the vestiary!”
“Like priestesses in a room for storing clothes?” Alida asks, returning the poker to the rack beside the grate. Is this an absurd double-entendre? If so, why the vestiary? Surely there’s better places for those goings-on than the religious equivalent of a cloakroom? “And what did I say to make you think that?”
“You had that look where you’re bursting to correct me.” Ede sighs and turns to warm her back, hiking up her skirts and inching as close to the fire as is safe. “You think I don’t know that look? Alida, you must meet Antonius. He’s perfect for you.”
Ze glances around the shop in search of distraction. The counter gleams, the table with scrap for testing pens sits cleared of yesterday’s samples and the shop cat, Miep, lies asleep on the armchair closest to the fire. The floor doesn’t look dirty, but Alida will sweep while Ede double-checks the paper inventory. That should redirect her from this horrible conversation.
“I don’t date, court, woo—”
“I know! Please, Alida, please. Just once.” Ede crooks her head, fluttering her long eyelashes. She’s pretty in an artistic, skilful way, never in want of admirers: this morning she pinned her myriad black braids into labyrinthine coils and knots adorned with white lace and ribbon. “You need to talk to people! Do something on a holiday that isn’t a book!”
Alida shaves hir brown hair to avoid prolonged morning ablutions. Ze’s always wondered, but never dared ask, how early Ede rises to groom, dress, eat and walk the ten blocks along the Wine Canal.
“You’re people!” Alida jerks hir hands in frustration. “This is talking!”
“Talking talking. Talking because you want to, because it’s fun, not because we’re stuck in a shop together six days a week. Please.” Ede drops her skirts, setting thick layers of wool and cotton to rustling, and turns to face Alida, her narrow hands outstretched. The fire gifts the underside of her dark fingers, protruding from their wreaths of lace, a rich, reddish shine. “Antonius needs someone, and you need someone. You’d get on so perfectly if you wet blankets dried out enough to try!”
“Think about it. Please!” Ede whirls away from the fire and heads to the counter, perhaps surmising that she’s pushed Alida past general annoyance into I-can’t-bear-to-look-at-you anger. “Do you want me to wipe the counters?”
Alida, fighting to calm hir voice, darts into the stockroom for the broom. “No. I need you to double-check my counts on the paper inventory. All of them.”
Even Ede’s strangled curse isn’t enough to make Alida feel pleasure in revenge—not after the stabbing betrayal of one more person failing to understand hir.
Over the next three days, Ede finds a wealth of excuses to mention her cousin’s cousin. He was top in penmanship at school, is an amateur historian, and once rescued a drowning kitten. Alida has to admit, past Ede’s tendency to deliver criticism as an enticement, that Antonius sounds more interesting than most. Similarity holds no meaning, however, when one partner wants what the other can’t offer. If Ede can’t accept Alida, how will anyone else?
“Please, Alida!” Ede leans over the desk, buttoning her green cloak. “Just talk with him! Just once!”
Alida, counting out the cashbox and checking the total against the day’s purchases while Miep rubs his grey cheek against hir boot, looks up, tired. If ze agrees, Ede will have learnt that she can badger Alida into anything with enough time and repetition. Just the thought makes hir shudder, given Alida’s struggle to correct that error with hir siblings.
“If you don’t like him or never want to see him again, I won’t say a word. Not one. Just once. Endday lunch. By the time we walk there and back, it won’t even be an hour!”
Ede looks right at Alida, her brow furrowed, her hands fisted and raised to her chin in a gesture resembling praying or begging. “Meet him once and I’ll never ask anything of you again. And I’ll come early and shovel the ash from the fireplace for the next week.”
Miep yowls, looking up at Alida. Every evening, ze checks the books, counts out the money and feeds the cat, in that order. Never has their routine stopped Miep from demanding that Alida disregard human tasks in favour of his fish or mince.
“You’re supposed to also catch mice,” ze mutters. A cat’s badgering bears no unexpected consequences. Alida need not struggle to realise what will happen if ze feeds Miep when he requests. Acquiescing to Ede, though? Meeting someone Alida doesn’t know and can’t predict?
In the shop, strangers rarely deviate from standard forms of communication and intent. They ask questions about stock, prices, quality, delivery. At temple, services provide memorisable, rote shapes of interaction. Outside those worlds, where people new to hir can and do say anything? Ede, Jan and Jette desire the unexpected; Alida doesn’t understand why.
“Alida!” Ede waves her hand in front of Alida’s face. “Don’t just ignore me!”
Can ze agree in a way that means Ede won’t again harass hir? A public refusal, perhaps? A bold, dramatic declaration of Alida’s unwillingness to engage in romance, in front of Ede and this Antonius? One announced in such a way that embarrassment will keep Ede from thinking Alida suitable for anyone? Word will come back to hir siblings, but they already think Alida prone to shameful outbursts. Why not?
Alida writes down hir last total, releases a sigh of relief at the matching numbers and carefully returns the stacks of coins to the box. “Never ask anything of me again and shovel the ash for a fortnight.”
Miep meows as the lid clicks shut, butting his head against Alida’s skirts.
Ede bounces upright in a cascade of fabric, her sleeves flapping underneath her cloak. “Done! By blood and name and craft! Oh—please wear your blue, white and red skirt tomorrow! And your red coat with the long tails and brass buttons! And your good cloak with the satin lining, because the hood looks so pretty with your eyes, and…”
Alida will feed the cat and lock the shop behind Ede, but before ze goes go home, ze has some planning to do.
And a few signs to make in coloured inks.