Nestled between the butcher and the baker, across the street from the candlemaker, a shop stood as if hunched in on itself and trying to look inconspicuous. Sera had never seen it before, despite living in the same town and passing the same buildings for as long as she could remember. Glancing around, she noticed that unlike all the other shops, this one did not have a single customer wandering in or out. A small sign hanging from a metal arm simply read, “Charming Little Store.” This, she decided, warranted further investigation.
She marched straight up to the worn wooden door and pushed it open. A strand of bells jingled somewhere in the strangest room she had ever seen. Rows of shelves stretched from floor to ceiling, each stuffed with stacks of scrolls in varying colors and sizes–some brown and brittle, some creamy white, some a strange non-color that seemed to change when she watched it out of the corner of her eye, but stopped when she stared at it directly. Something in her quietly insisted that the space between the other shops was not big enough to accommodate all of this.
“Are you a customer?” inquired a raspy voice from about the height of her navel. Sera looked down and met the bright blue eyes of a man whose beard reached down to his waist. His hair was white and his skin was wrinkled and ruddy as a fallen apple, but he was only slightly taller than her youngest brother, who could still count his age on the fingers of one hand.
“Are you a dwarf?” she asked.
“No, I’m just very short.” He rolled his eyes. “Yes, I’m a dwarf, don’t be daft. Are you here to buy something or not?”
“What are you selling? Just paper?”
The dwarf bristled. “Just paper? This—” He flung his arms open to indicate the army of shelves. “This is no mere paper, my potential purchaser of property. These… are magic spells.”
Sera folded her arms over her chest. “Oh, so you’re one of those dwarves. And what would you want in exchange? My firstborn child? Some straw spun into gold?”
“Because I can’t spin, you know,” Sera interrupted. “And I don’t intend to have children any time soon. I can’t charm forest creatures, and I certainly won’t clean your house while you’re away. I already work at a tavern, so I clean enough as it is.”
“Now hold on there,” the dwarf said. “It’s not all like that. You’re thinking the really big spells, the ones that turn poor girls into princesses. I sell… smaller spells.”
Sera was nothing if not curious to a fault, and this was the first really interesting thing to happen in her life—not counting the incident with the jellied pears when she was seven, because honestly, she had just been standing nearby. She wrinkled her nose at the dwarf, who reminded her strongly of the “magic” carpet salesman that her father had chased out of the tavern last summer.
“How small, exactly?” she asked.
“So small, most people don’t even notice them,” he replied. “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to walk on the ceiling?”
“Like a spider?”
“Just like that,” the dwarf answered.
“I don’t like spiders.”
The dwarf’s hand twitched. ”Perhaps you’d like the eyesight of an eagle?”
Sera shook her head. “I’d go mad, looking at all the dirt on the floor.”
“The strength of a bear?”
“I’d be made to move barrels of beer all the time.”
The dwarf shifted nervously from foot to foot, then set off down the nearest aisle. He pulled down scrolls and scraps and even thick sheaths of paper, scanning them briefly before tossing them aside, occasionally calling out to her in a voice that cracked at the edges.
“What about the speed of a hare? Or darksight? Would you want to speak to animals?”
“Is that anything like talking to humans, or do they have more interesting things to say?” she asked, poking a small paper folded into the shape of a flower.
“Depends on the animal, but not usually,” he responded. “Birds are the worst, gossip like old ladies.” He disappeared, and Sera thought he had finally given up when a crash issued from a far-off corner, followed by a cloud of dust. She suppressed a sneeze as the dwarf waddled forward, holding a ponderous tome nearly half his size. With a dramatic thump, he dropped the book on a podium and produced a magnifying glass.
Sera peered over his shoulder at a mass of tiny, unintelligible squiggles that could have been writing. She could almost swear that the splotchy bits were moving whenever she looked at them directly.
“We’ll find you something,” the dwarf grumbled, moving the glass back and forth as if trying to follow a hysterical bug in an invisible maze.
She turned away from the dwarf and found herself nose to nose with an enormous white cat. It could have been two cats huddled together for warmth, or hiding under a blanket with only one head sticking out. A cat only got this big by devouring small dogs and digesting them slowly like a snake.
Slowly, gingerly, Sera stepped back while maintaining eye contact with the creature. It stretched out a paw and began to clean its claws, licking between them as if sharpening them with its tongue.
“Nice kitty,” she mumbled. The cat paused and its pupils widened.
“Pay him no mind, young lady,” the dwarf said. “He’s just looking for attention. Sweet as a baby, he is.”
“Babies aren’t sweet,” Sera replied. “They scream and cry a lot. And spit up on things. And he’s far too big to be a baby.”
The dwarf paused in his relentless reading to glare at her. “Aye, he’s older than the… he’s very old. Already gone through seven of his nine lives.”
“Curiosity killed the cat, don’t you know,” the dwarf smirked. “And he’s a very curious cat.”
Sera tried not to stare at the fluffy mound of menace. “But that’s doesn’t make sense… what’s so dangerous about curiosity?”
“It depends on the kind of curiosity, I suppose.” The dwarf stroked his beard, staring at the book. “There are some things that folks just don’t need to know.”
“Like what?” Sera demanded, her back stiffening.
“I wouldn’t know,” he replied. “No need.”
Sera whirled to face him, fists clenched. “See, that’s the problem. People just decide you don’t need to know something, so they won’t tell you. Or they think you know, so they get angry if you ask. Or they don’t know, but they don’t want you to know that they don’t know, so they pretend to know but you still don’t know because they won’t tell you, because they don’t really know themselves. And that’s not fair, you know?” she finished, whirling to face the dwarf, who sported a bemused yet satisfied expression.
“Have I got the perfect spell for you,” he said with a grin.
* * * * *