Fantasy medieval medieval fantasy flash fiction

An Economy of Words

By Wendy Nikel
Sep 4, 2019 · 501 words · 2 minutes

Photo by amirali mirhashemian via Unsplash.

From the author: A seamstress struggles to conserve her words in a world where each one is precious.

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Growing up so far from the wordfields, I learned early on to appreciate the few words I have, so as the fitting for Baron Kensington's festival garments drag on, I cringe at each wasted remark.

I drop my own "yessir"s and "nosir"s gently from my lips whenever he requires a response, and I catch as many as I can in the folds of my apron without drawing attention to the crude act. My words are nearly past the point of recognition anyway – warped and worn from overuse, from years spent hoarded in mama's glass jars as my inheritance, from being cobbled together from sounds and syllables traded to the wordsmith until they resembled something useful. For what good are things like "cupidity" or "accoutrements" to a poor seamstress's daughter when the "tea" and "rent" are worn so thin?

But the baron has no such qualms about his words, no regard for the damage he does as he flings them from his mouth. He spits tirades regarding "dilettantish haberdashers" and "dunderheaded laundresses" as I circle his stool, my fingers working frantically with measuring ribbon and pins, wishing I could work faster just so that he'll leave.

My hands shake, and the pin slides too deeply into the fabric. The baron cries out, and I expel a "sorry!" with such force that I'm unable to catch it, unable to stop it from splintering into tiny bits on the stone floor.

"You worthless child!" The baron's words barrage me, slapping wet and sharp against my face. "You've pricked me, clumsy fool! You think I come all the way into the city, to this hovel of yours, to be accosted with pins?"

I had no "sorry" left; I had used mine, and now it was ruined. I bit my tongue to keep other words from sputtering out – ones like "vain" and "vulgar" and "crook," which have often found their way to the back of my tongue during his fittings, but which I've never allowed to slip. Hot, angry tears gather in the corners of my eyes, and I imagine a world where the tables are turned, where I have more words and he none, and he must listen to me.

"What are you standing there for, you dim-witted girl?" he rages. "Get back to work. I haven't time for such pitiful nonsense."

I swallow my words along with my tears, clear them from my throat, and finish the fitting, the only sounds the swish of the fabric and the occasional insult dropped from the baron's lips to my head.

He leaves a trail of grumbles out the door, and when I close it behind him, I take a moment to appreciate the silence.

Then I take my broom and dustpan and gently, carefully sweep up each discarded word, bending them back into shape and bottling them up in glass jars before they can dissolve, keeping them safe for the day when I've gathered enough.

The day when I will speak and be heard.

This story originally appeared in Cast of Wonders.

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IMPOSSIBLE REALMS: 12 Fantasy Short Stories

Speculative fiction author Wendy Nikel invites you to explore the strange and magical worlds of twelve standalone short stories, previously found in Daily Science Fiction, Cricket magazine, Podcastle, Deep Magic, and other fantasy magazines and anthologies. Come with us beneath the waves, where something terrible lurks; follow a fiddle's melody across a lonely desert; and sail the skies with the most fearsome airship pilot Juliet Silver.

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Wendy Nikel

Space explorer, time traveler, wanderer of eerie places