London, 1883.

The window glass in the door is warped and distorted, meaning that one cannot see inside. There is a vague yellow glow, and some bright blue and red smudges; but all there really is to go on is the smooth wood and copper sign hanging above the door, stating in elaborate and curling letters:


Inquire Within.

The youth who is contemplating this is agitated, running his fingers up and down each other and twisting his mouth with indecision. He looks up and down the broad street he is in; no one else seems to notice the strange shop. They are walking by with their heads bent against the feathered winter wind.

He looks through the window again, and with a sudden resolve opens the door. It makes a quiet clicking sound, like a typewriter, thuk-thuk-thuk, until it swings slowly closed behind him.

He is standing in a low-ceilinged room, dusty, warm, with wide golden wood floors. The blue and red smudges are stacks of thick books. Every wall is covered from floor to ceiling with shelves of varying width and color, green thin shelves with silver books and long purple shelves with tiny white volumes. The atmosphere is close, but oddly clear. The youth sees a small cast-iron spiral staircase, spindling up to a floor above.

He is suddenly aware of a faint scratching noise behind him, and whirls around.

There is another person in the room.

He can see her profile outlined clearly. She is sitting on a wooden stool behind a tole-painted desk, writing in one of the books with a fountain pen. She has the longest brown hair he has ever seen; it drops down over her shoulders and puddles in little end-curls over the floor. She finishes and lays aside the pen; turns her face to him. He is slightly startled; her eyes are small and deep and set very widely apart.

He takes a step back.

"You are…the Writer?" he says.

She nods.

"I was told to come here by Perzetti."

She nods again, and speaks. "You are the boy from Les Miserables?"

"Combeferre." His own name feels strange in his mouth.

"Ah, yes. One moment, please." She stands and pulls a thick book, covered with rich brown leather, from a blue shelf. Its pages are filled with a thick black scrawl, arranged in what appears to be an unending list of names. She runs a finger down a page. "Let us see. Capulet, Juliet; Cleopatra; Cullen, Edward – " (here she makes a slight sound; of disgust or another emotion, the youth cannot tell) " – you are included here somewhere; don't worry. I must – well, here you are. Combeferre. You are not satisfied with your lot, I see?"

He shakes his head. No.

She stares thoughtfully into his face for a moment. Philosophical, knowledgeable, gentle, guiding. In an instant, she knows.

"I know where you may go," she tells him.

He only looks back at her.

"Do you want to change your destiny, Combeferre?"

"If I will be happy," he says. "I only want to be happy."

She nods, as if this was the answer she expected. The cream-colored shelf holds pale green books, and it is one of these that she pulls out and opens. "I've been having complaints from the Little Mermaid. It seems instead of receiving legs from the sea-witch she learned of her future, and she informs me that she does not wish to become a child of the air." As she speaks, she turns the thin pages. "Since I can't change the prince's knowledge of her, I'm sending you in." She looks up while taking a pen from a drawer. "She is very beautiful. You will both make each other happy, I think."

She knows how his heart yearns for beauty. How the rings inside a stone and the words of Socrates make him glad. She knows how the rise and fall of the grass billows on the dunes make him so happy. She thinks of the little mermaid, of her brash dazzle and the wise gold of her temper and her zest and rapture for living, and the Writer nods.

"You won't remember," she said. "The fighting and the blood of the Revolution, you will forget it. You won't remember me, either." She dips the pen into the ink and begins writing.

After a few paragraphs, Combeferre starts to fade.

When she finishes writing, she is alone in the room.

She smiles, and puts the book back on the shelf.