For as long as they could remember, the people of Gutenburg, New Virginia lived and traded and spoke in whispers. The jingle of coins, the barking of dogs, and the chatter of the square were fragments of a memory of a dream, from an older, louder time. Now, the unspoken law of the land was to be unspoken. Goods and coins were traded in muffled cloth. Muzzled pets trotted quietly, obediently, stepping gingerly behind their masters. And the people spoke rarely in words, but traded hand gestures and tilts of the head.
It was not a natural silence, but one they endured, for fear of rumors passed from ancestor to descendant.
But, as every trapped animal dreams of freedom, so too does the urge to sound. Years passed, and the silence grew restless and taut, until one day it reached its breaking point. The silence stretched, and stretched, and stretched, then shattered as the ancient Muse raced through the marketplace, humming to himself, prized trinket wrapped in a cloth bag clutched tight against his chest.
In that moment, the blanket of quiet vanished, and din rushed in to fill its place. Vendors cried as the spry runner somersaulted over carts and leapt onto stalls. Chickens fluttered and clucked, sensing the panic in the air; dogs yipped and whined and pawed at their muzzles. And the ominous rumbling of the motorcars shook the ground as the Poets followed in quick pursuit. Yet the Muse heard nothing but his own internal hum.
Amplified shouts rang out into the square, loud and brass, stunning peddlers and shoppers alike. “Catch him!” “Stop the criminal!” Their eyes followed, but their limbs did not. To the civilians, the earsplitting commands were an unwelcome intrusion into their quiet, orderly afternoon. “Leave us be,” their sorrowful eyes pleaded. “Be quick and be done with it,” their silent faces cried. Yet the Muse heard nothing but his own internal hum.
Though the narrow space was ill-designed for vehicles, the Poets barreled past, to the dismay of the vendors. Produce and trinkets scattered, and tables were overturned as one motorcar brushed against a wooden shop propped against a wall. Another swerved to avoid an elderly woman marching slowly onto the path, face twisted in a grimace. She flicked out five stumpy fingers in a defiant gesture: Enough!
It was the last word she ever signed. A device jammed into her navel; the woman crumpled to the ground, shaking uncontrollably. The sparking tool receded into a tinted window, and with a sickening crunch, the motorcars drove on. Yet the Muse heard nothing but his own internal hum.
He flew past another stall filled with papers and ink stains, this time finding himself face-to-face with the deep blue irises of a wide-eyed boy. The bag slapped against the table, and the child tilted his head with an inquisitive smile. Of all the rest, he seemed the least distressed by the sudden noise, the unexpected deviation from peace. The Muse paused, picking the bag up from the base, and continued on, humming.
The shops began to clear, and paved stone gave way to dirt and weeds. Here, the Muse slowed, as the long years began to catch up to him. Panting heavily, he gazed around. Ahead, farmland and crops lined row after row as far as the eye could see. To the side, a tall metal fence rose high into the sky, stretching around the entire town, towering over even the dark trees that peeked out from beyond the wires.
The Muse turned, eyeing the destruction in his wake. The motorcars were speeding ever closer, several dozen yards behind and closing in fast. Taking a deep breath, he clutched his prize to his chest and scampered towards the fence. As he brought his face inches from the razor-sharp wires, his humming transformed. The tranquil tune dropped to a low rumble, and a sequence of guttural growls and grunts reverberated from his throat. Yet the noise carried a strange musicality, an animalistic rhythm that seemed to command the trembling wires.
The fence obeyed.
With a snap, the intertwining metal links split. They bent and unraveled, twisting and coiling away like fleeing vines. A small hole formed before the Muse’s mouth, growing with every measure, until the warped wires left a small human-sized opening. Through this gap, the Muse stepped gingerly, avoiding the cutting edges of the broken metal. Then, having safely crossed, he inhaled deeply and resumed his gentle hum.
As he entered the forest, the sky darkened. Tendrils of light peeked through a mass of green; shadows stretched onto the overgrown path. His pace slowed to a brisk walk as pain jolted up his left hip. No, not now! he thought. Just a bit farther!
The pain refused to leave. A dull ache throbbed above his left jawbone. Out of habit, his fingers brushed the air where his ear had once been. He ground his teeth and hummed louder, relentlessly.
Behind him, motorcars screeched to a halt. The Poets leapt out of their vehicles, footsteps sounding, doors slamming. Twigs snapped beneath their boots; a shout, a crackle of electricity split the air, but all their warnings fell on deaf ears. The Muse staggered on, half-jogging, half-limping through the underbrush. The pain flickered again, and suddenly flared, and the man found himself sprawled on the ground, arms out, bag in front of him.
He did not hear the Poets, but he felt the metal device against his back, the rough arms pulling him to his feet, cuffing his hands behind him. He did not hear the insults or the orders, but he felt his body stiffen as two soldiers marched to the bag on the ground. He forgot all pain, now reduced to a dull throbbing, feeling only a cold horror growing down his spine as they turned the cloth upside down, shaking out the trinket onto the forest floor.
But nothing fell. Peering inside, the soldier’s face changed: a shade of scarlet indignation to match the hue of his earmuffs, mixed with a tinge of fear. His mouth opened and closed silently, and he turned to the old man.
“Where is it?” he demanded, but the Muse could not hear him speak. He could not hear the crack of the stunner as it crashed into his back, knocking the wind out of him; nor could he hear the screams that filled the forest as they beat him—screams that resounded from his own throat. With a pang, his mind flashed to the bag fallen upon the newspaper stand and the boy with blue eyes, hand outstretched, head tilted—the last face he knew before all went black.
At long last, the Muse heard his humming no more.
Part I: Silence
The music seeped through the interior of our little shop like a faint perfume, bringing with it a kaleidoscope of colors. At first, the tune was barely perceptible: ephemeral splashes of color that flickered at the corner of my consciousness. Then, gradually, it crescendoed. Shimmering emerald, royal blue, the dazzle of yellow; the notes danced lightly through the air. Soft and mellow strings twinkled at me, wrapping me in a warm ball of sunlight. I began to drift under its spell, enraptured by the soothing lullaby permeating the air; so cloying, so overpowering.
Just close your eyes, it whispered, and I acquiesced, feeling the warmth wash over me, settling into a comforting blackness. Just let it all go…
“Ari?” a distant voice called from the other side of the void. It floated in the air, barely a whisper, already forgotten.
Let it all go…
“Arion! Shut that Dinful thing off!”
A slap in my face startled me, and I closed the wooden box. The orchestra winked out mid-note. Simultaneously, my senses heightened, and I felt my face reddening as I peered into the piercing blue-eyed glare of my identical twin. I turned away. Already, I disregarded common sense, bringing my music box with me to the shop. Had I let the magical device overcome me and a client (or Din forbid, a Poet) arrived for a print, well, there would be hell to pay.
I fiddled with the box idly, staring down at the russet lines on the smooth rosewood, as my brother started to berate me.
“Cacophony!” he swore. “What were you thinking?” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “You’ve heard the rumors, what happened to the kid who was humming in public?”
I nodded grimly. “Taken into a room, had the music whipped out of him.”
“And Tessa’s little flute, the one she bought from the antique store?”
“I know, Devin. I know!” But my impassioned brother continued on.
“They say she caught some bad disease and had to move to the countryside with her aunt, but everyone knows…” He drew a line across his throat. “Man, I can’t believe you still hold onto that. I’ve told you a million times, toss it!”
I sighed. Musical devices of all types were forbidden by law, and for good reason—they were dangerous. Putting the listener to sleep was just the tip of the iceberg. Some songs were said to melt one’s ears like wax or drive one’s mind to insanity. Perhaps these were just children’s tales meant to frighten us into obedience; but sleep magic was as real as my brother’s scowl. The music box I’d picked up from an old man, years ago, was proof enough.
Though I remembered little from that time, my brother often spoke of that market day as the day animals turned savage. Normally docile and quiet, dogs barked and chickens clucked wildly, as if some inner switch were flipped, turning them back to their primeval urges. After all, they are just animals, I thought. As Tutor Grimm often remarked, “Noise is uncouth and base, the product of animal instincts. Quiet is poised and dignified, the mark of a civilized culture.”
Yet noise had filled the air that day, when the old man dropped a small wooden box onto our old stall and raced past, chased by Poets. Scars lined his face, already blemished with disfigured ears and a swollen lip, but the man seemed strangely content, humming a melody to himself: the same music, I later learned, as the tune emitted by the magical wooden box.
I longed to disassemble the device and learn how it worked—how the little mechanical handle cranked out the mysterious tune—but fear stopped my hand. I was afraid that I might not be able to put it back together, or that if I broke it, it would never stop playing, and I would never wake…
Or perhaps it was the orchestra I heard, backing the melody, that really frightened me. The unbidden music that seeped into my mind, and mine alone. Where did it come from? And why did it feel so right, like the perfect puzzle piece to fit the melody? I knew better than to ask Devin; I’d get no answers from him, other than a curse and the brand of lunacy.
A sudden shadow in my periphery startled me from my reverie, and I glanced up to see Mel, a bright girl with a quiet smile, flicking her dark hair behind her shoulder as she approached our print shop.
Hey, Ari. Hey, Devin, she greeted us in sign, her fingers slipping through the motions of our names with a familiar ease. I quickly hid the music box in my lap under the countertop, hoping she hadn’t noticed. To my relief, she appeared as delightfully clueless as usual.
Peering around and seeing no one, she approached the counter and gave my brother a quick hug. As they pulled out of the embrace, his face was lit up with a beam.
“It’s so good to see you,” Mel gushed.
“It’s been ages since we were last graced by your presence,” Devin grinned. “Keeping busy?”
I rolled my eyes. They’d been apart for what, two days?
Mel took no notice. “Yes, we’ve had an influx of new clients. Master Karl has had me measuring cuffs and sewing dresses for days.”
“New clients?” I frowned. The little suburban enclosure of Gutenburg rarely got new visitors. In fact, Mel and her mentor had been the last two immigrants to pass through the fence, making their home in the empty apartment across the street from our shop. They hailed from out of state roughly a season before, seeking a new environment and new styles of fashion (she told me as she clasped her hands dreamily)—though I wasn’t sure they would find any here.
“Oh!” Devin suddenly interjected. “Must be the Poets setting up for the Speaker’s visit.”
“That’s right!” Mel’s eyes lit up. “I was dropping by when I saw this.” She held up a sheet of paper. “Remember this? The poetry contest?”
“Ah!” My brother blanched momentarily, then resumed his stupid grin. Mel, who was staring wistfully at the paper, did not notice.
“I’ve always wanted to hear you recite a poem!” She smiled brightly. “Up on the stage, with the whole town’s eyes on you…”
I shuddered at the thought, but Devin smiled, unfazed. “Should be a cinch,” he proclaimed confidently. He scratched his chin. “Although, I suppose I should dress for the occasion. Ari, do you still have that—”
Mel waved her hand excitedly. “Oh, Master Karl would be happy to fix you a nice shirt and jacket. He—” She froze with her mouth open, eyes darting to the door. “I need to get back! Karl’s gonna have my hide!”
She handed Devin the paper and tiptoed up for a quick kiss. “I’ll bring your shirt soon! Can’t wait to see you there!” She turned, gave me a wink, and darted out the door.
I turned to my lovestruck brother. “You’re going to a poetry contest?”
“Why not?” he retorted defensively. “Better than sitting around, printing things all day.”
I snatched the paper from his hand, staring at the pamphlet. It carried an unfamiliar design—someone out of town must have printed and posted it. From the center of the sheet, the electric eyes of a man with curly grey hair and a thin mustache, donned in a black vest and white earmuffs—typical bureaucratic fashion—gazed back.
“Announcing the Speaker of Baltimore: Sir Edgar Poe!” Devin began to read aloud, peering over my shoulder. “He will be touring the districts to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his speakership, blah blah…”
“Hang on, where does it say anything about a poetry contest?” I flipped the sheet over, but nothing caught my eye. “Just dull Poet business…”
“There, at the bottom!” my brother pointed. Peering at the footer, I noticed the tiny postscript scrawled in: Ceremony to be preceded by poetry recitation. All performers welcome; most enthralling to win invitation to private dinner with the Speaker.
“Ah. There’s your chance to finally join the Poets. A private dinner with Sir Fancy-Stache Poe. The life you’ve always wanted—”
My twin gave me a shove. “C’mon, I already promised Mel. You know how she is when you flake on a promise.”
“You’re a real pushover, Devin.”
“Hey,” he laughed. “You’re just jealous she’s picked the better twin.”
Ignoring the jibe, I returned to the back of our shop, running my hand over the press. I breathed in the familiar fumes of ink and old parchment and sighed contentedly. Back here, with Father’s books and our machines, was where I felt the most at home.
The remainder of the day idled by, with few other customers. My thoughts returned to the cool wooden box in my lap as I stared out the window, watching the townsfolk go by. Against my better judgment, the jingle returned to my mind, a silent accompaniment to the passersby. Gemma, the baker’s girl, walking her puppy, which danced and bounced excitedly to my rhythm. Todd, the blacksmith, tapping his fingers to my song. A hooded beggar ambling down the road. My eyelids began to droop…
“Ari?” My brother was at the door, looking back. I started in half-darkness, the lights dim.
“I’ve closed up shop. Let’s go, the sun’s almost set!”
Shaking my head free of its curse, I grabbed the box and slid it back into its resting place, a hidden cabinet in the wall. Then I stepped outside towards the pink horizon and headed home.
2 - Devin
Lounging on my stool, I tapped my feet impatiently on the counter, purposefully close to Ari.
Quit it, he signed to the side without turning to me, but I ignored him, feigning ignorance. Tap, tap. Tap.
“Oy!” He turned to glower at me. I returned my most innocent expression, which was quickly ruined by a quiet snicker. “All right, all right.” I set my feet back down on the ground and sat up straighter. “It’s just so Dinfully boring in here!”
My complaints weren’t unwarranted; days in the shop passed woefully slowly. Our printing service had been drawing fewer requests lately, and often only a handful of customers would appear in an entire day. I didn’t understand how Ari could sit still for hours, lost in his own world. I itched for some action, something to do. In the last two days, Mel had been the only visitor I’d even had a proper conversation with, apart from my reticent twin, of course. Speaking of...
The door swung open, and Mel strode in, bringing a ray of sunlight into our dingy shop. “Your shirt’s ready! And I brought one for Ari, too!”
Finely pressed and folded, the simple white dress shirts outshone our entire wardrobe. As I cradled the gift, carefully transferring it to the counter, I caught a faint whiff of honeysuckle. I reached into my pocket for some bills, but Mel waved them away, against my protests. “It’s on me!”
“Just do a good job at the contest, okay?” Still beaming, she stepped back towards the door. “I can’t wait to hear your poem!”
“Right.” I signed a happy goodbye, fuzzy as a cloud, and settled back in my chair, her last words finally resonating in my mind. My… poem? A rising panic filled my stomach, and the clouds dissipated beneath my feet. As the fleeting buzz of Mel’s present disappeared, my breath faltered, and I turned to my twin in open distress.
“Help me, Ari! I completely forgot to pick a poem!”
He sighed, and though he said nothing to reprimand me, I could hear his exasperation. Typical of my brother to leave things until the day before the big event.
“I dunno, go dig through some of books in the back. I’m sure we have some poems.”
“Oh, stop complaining.” He got up and drifted towards the back room. “I’ll do it.”
Years ago, our father had gifted us with a collection of books from different writers, all printed by his own hand. Together with the family press, it was his last present to us. Weeks after Mother passed, he had embarked on a trip to the Old Continent, for reasons he would not explain. He left us with the words, “watch over each other,” a meager year’s worth of savings, and the promise of more money to come overseas. None did, and soon his memory faded, rotting away like the dusty old tomes on the shelf. Though I was content to forget the books—just as our father had forgotten us—my brother treasured them. Ari spent hours with his nose buried in them, as if inhaling the scent of the ghost of our father left behind in the pages, his fingers tracing every line. I didn’t understand it. We already spent hours working with words, inking them for our customers; how did he not tire of them?
Well, at least one of us knew how to pass the time. As my brother picked through the library for me, I glanced out again onto the street. A familiar face there tugged at my memory; I frowned, unable to place it. Then he bent over, and I remembered: the hooded beggar on the street from the day before last, with that same unkempt beard and haggard eyes. What was he doing? Hunched over the ground, he seemed intent on some task, though the wall prevented me from seeing lower. Curiosity piqued, I stood up. At the same time, the beggar looked up and stared, through the open window, straight into my eyes.
For one long second, we gazed at one another, frozen. Behind his cloudy gaze, I was surprised to see his pupils shaking, his eyeballs dancing with frenetic energy. Then the man jerked his head away, leapt to his feet, and made a dramatic gesture to the skies. Waving his arms erratically, as if seized by some violent spirit, he began to stumble blindly around the street, stopping and starting with an almost rhythmic gait. Then, out of nowhere, he let out a whistle: a piercing melody that rang loud and clear through the air.
“What are you feeling?” Ari called softly from the back room, oblivious, but I ignored him, rushing to the window. For a second, I listened to the forbidden song, my hands frozen by my side. Then I whirled into action, slamming the glass shut and drawing the blinds to a close. Across the street, I could see a gloved hand disappearing behind another set of curtains.
“Something dark? Something short and sweet?” Ari continued, stepping out to the counter. I turned, face pale, and he glanced at me, a furrow between his brows. “Devin?” What’s wrong?
I shook my head, but my brother rushed to the window beside me, peeping through the blinds. “He—he’s whistling!” Alarm spread across his perplexed features, and before I could react, he pulled open the door, waving frantically.
Excuse me! Hey!
“Ari!” I hissed, tugging on his collar. “He’s clearly one of them!”
“So we need to shelter him, before any Poets arrive!” Ari motioned again to the hooded man on the street, who finally noticed his gestures to come inside.
“So we need to lock the doors and pretend we never saw him!” I sputtered, aghast. “Are you out of your mind? If we get caught—with a Muse—”
It was too late. The whistling beggar had ambled over to our door, still conducting his strange air symphony. Even as I protested, Ari grabbed his arm and ushered him inside. I closed the door after a frantic glance outside and a quick prayer to Serenity that no one had seen us. Then I spun on my twin.
“If the Poets come knocking, he broke into our house,” I demanded, pointing at our unexpected guest.
“C’mon, Devin. Be nice.” Propping the haggard man on his shoulder, Ari moved to the back and deposited him on a chair. I followed, biting back a retort. Instead, I appraised our visitor. Up close, his unkempt beard and wizened face reeked, and I backed up involuntarily. As I did so, his whistling drew to an end, and the sporadic gestures faded, his arms dropping to his sides. His eyes refocused, as if returning from a trance, and settled upon my brother.
“I was conducting, wasn’t I?” he mused in a low voice.
Ari nodded mutely, face torn between curiosity and concern.
The man sighed, visibly deflated. “It’s a pity my apprentice wasn’t here to record it.” He gazed around at the shop, taking in the musty scent of our parchment and printing supplies. Then his attention snapped back to Ari. “But I should thank you for bringing me here… out of the public street.”
His manner of speech stunned me; it felt too refined, too grandiose for a simple beggar. As if realizing my very thought, his eyes narrowed, and his voice became a grunt. “Now, I’m off. Not a word to the Tone-Deafs, you hear?”
Before either of us could respond, two quick knocks sounded on the door. “Cacophony!” I swore, stepping to the door and placing my eye to the peephole. A female peacekeeper waited outside, wearing an unfamiliar dark coat and red headset. I gulped and signed back to my twin.
Poet. Back room, now.
I turned back to the door and swallowed again, my pulse racing. Behind me, I could hear Ari scrambling to his feet, leading the man away. As his footsteps receded, I paused, composing my face with nonchalance. Then I pulled open the signing slit under the peephole and gave the laziest, most disinterested gesture I could muster.
Peacekeeper, a gloved hand signed in return. A few quick questions. Allow me, step inside?
I checked to make sure the back room was closed. Then, steeling myself, I pulled open the door.
Greetings, I signed lazily with a sweep of my fingers.
Afternoon. The guard’s gesture barely completed before she pushed herself inside. I stumbled back, feigning surprise. “Whoa, whoa. How can I help, officer?”
Now that we weren’t in public, the peacekeeper switched to a gruff, impatient voice.
“We’re searching for a ragged-looking man causing a disturbance on the street,” she barked, eyeing me and the room suspiciously. “Have you seen or heard anything?”
“No, officer,” I offered innocently, just as a loud clunk echoed from the back room. Din’s bastard, I thought furiously. I forced the muscles of my jaw into a rigid smile.
The peacekeeper’s eyebrows disappeared into her cap, and she peered around me. “Can I just take a quick peek?”
I hesitated. “That’s our private storeroom—”
She darted around me without a word, stepped behind the wooden counter, and reached for the door handle. Just as she touched it, the back door opened, and Ari stepped out with a tall stack of books piled halfway to the ceiling. “I dropped ’em,” he smiled apologetically. “Sorry.”
He stepped forward and set the stack on the counter, then turned as if noticing the peacekeeper for the first time. “Oh!” He raised his fingers in a respectful gesture. Hello, officer.
Her eyes darted between the two of us in the usual double-take that occurred whenever a stranger saw our likenesses together for the first time. I waited impassively as her mouth dropped into an “O,” then closed as she worked out our relationship. In any other scenario, it would have been comedic; now, I could barely breathe, heart pounding in my chest. The guard nodded distractedly and peered into the back room, but apart from dusty shelves and a single press, it was completely deserted. A breeze drifted through a small window opened to the alley.
Satisfied, the guard thanked us with a wave and stepped out of the shop. “If you see anything else, let us know,” she said. Then she vanished, off to the next neighbor for questioning.
I shut the door and unclenched my jaw, letting out the air I had been holding. “Serenity…” I wheezed. I collapsed onto the floor, back against the wall, suddenly exhausted.
“Hey, it’s okay.” Ari stood next to me, smiling down at me. “He escaped.”
I shut my eyes and took in several deep breaths. “Yeah. Lucky him.”
Though I failed the keep the spite out of my voice, Ari didn’t seem to notice. “And, well… in other news.”
“Yeah?” I cracked open one eye to see the smile spreading across his lips.
“I’ve picked out a poem for you. Or rather...” he hesitated. “Our visitor did.”
I raised an eyebrow, bemused.
“While he was climbing out the window, he knocked over a stack of books, and the top one fell open, right to this page.” Ari reached out and passed me a thick, leather-bound tome, opened halfway. I glanced at the beautiful illustration and the title, and finally released a dry chuckle.
“Fate’s got a funny sense of humor, eh?”
I shut the book, the sketch of the outstretched black feathers and beady eyes etched into memory.
by Edgar Allan Poe
3 - Ari
After the whistling beggar’s disappearance, life returned to its usual pace. An influx of customers at the shop, likely from the visiting Poets prepping for the Speaker’s tour, kept us busy at the press, until the strange happenings soon faded to the back of our minds. My music box, too, lay abandoned and forgotten in the cabinet as I scurried around, scrambling to and fro with parchment after parchment to print.
Work quieted down in the evening, and I found myself impulsively pacing behind the counter, remembering the forbidden whistled tune. Absent-mindedly, I reached to open the cabinet and pull out the wooden box—
“Oy!” Devin prodded sharply, and I withdrew my hand as if stung, caught in the act. The cabinet door swung back and stopped halfway, ajar.
I shook my head, clearing all thoughts of music from my mind. As I returned to the present, I saw Devin lounging uselessly as usual in his chair. I changed the subject. “Shouldn’t you be practicing your poem?”
“Oh, have some faith, I’m a natural!” He grinned at me, thumping his chest. I rolled my eyes as he cleared his throat.
“Ahem—today, I shall be reciting ‘The Raven,’ by Sir Edgar Poe.”
I turned, amused. “You’re really choosing that poem? I was half-joking when I suggested it, you know.”
“Why not?” he treated me with a toothy grin. “It was clearly a sign from Serenity. Now, stop interrupting and listen to genius.
“‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and… teary…’”
His voice trailed off, and I grimaced.
“‘Weak and weary,’” I corrected. The words came back to me in a flash, for I had sat, once, absorbing the ink of that very book, memorizing line after line of the curious narrative; soaking in the last memories of Father.
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “You’re reciting the Speaker’s own poem to him, and you can’t remember the first line? You’ve got some nerve.”
“Hey, it’s not like I spend all my days with my nose buried in dad’s books…” His retort faded into a sheepish smile. “Okay, okay. I’ll practice.”
He turned to the back room just as a rap sounded on the door. He sighed, and switched directions, moving towards the front door. “Another Poet?” he grimaced as he gazed through the peephole. He pulled the door open. “If this is about that beggar, we never—”
He stopped short as a young man dressed elegantly in a high-collared waistcoat and polished shoes stepped into the room, closely followed by none other than Mel. “Hmm.” The man peered around at our little shop and sniffed loudly to himself. “Not much of a print shop, is it?”
I frowned. In front of me, I felt the hair on Devin’s neck bristle, the color rising in his cheeks. “It’s the longest-running print shop in Gutenburg, thank you very much.” So he did feel some pride for our store, as much as he disparaged it himself.
The haughty Poet stepped around him, gazing at the books and parchment behind our counter. Mel stepped up to Devin, an apologetic expression written on her face. “Seth just wanted to look around,” she explained. “He works with the Speaker, apparently, and asked me to give him a tour of town.”
Devin’s fists clenched, and I saw him steal a mistrustful glance at the man, who was thumbing through one of our poetry books.
How you know him? he signed at Mel.
Just met, she shrugged. But can’t say no when Poet ask you show around. She dropped her eyes to the latest edition of our town’s newspaper, The Quiet Herald, her attention drawn to the news of the Poets.
Devin and I turned to the newcomer, who had wandered behind the counter, in flagrant defiance of our “staff-only” sign.
“Oy,” Devin started. “You’re not supposed to be back there—”
“What have you even got behind here?” he scoffed. He pushed open the back door, examining the library and rows of parchment. “Ugh. Smells like ink and musty paper.” I frowned; next to me, I could almost see the heat rising from Devin’s skin.
As I opened my mouth to speak, my eyes focused on a small cabinet between us and the Poet.
“Devin…” I whispered, tugging at his sleeve. Music box, I signed frantically.
There it was, on the shelf in the cabinet, forgotten amidst our squabble. While hidden from the main door and the view of incoming clients by a bend in the wall, it was quite obviously visible from the back, in perfect line of sight of the storage room. The box itself looked innocuous enough, but most unfortunately, the glass door of the cabinet was slightly ajar after my hasty retreat following Devin’s admonishment. If the Poet paused to examine it and curiosity got the better of him...
Devin turned back towards the cabinet, but I grabbed his arm, stilling him; moving any closer would just attract the man’s attention. The Poet was still staring into the back room, but turn one step to the left, and he would definitely see the half-open cabinet.
“Well? Are you done?” Devin’s demanding voice wavered only slightly. Turn to the right, I thought frantically. To the right…