Isaak Wissinger bent down and picked up a paper from the street. At least he was still able to do that. Many of the people he saw passing him on the street seemed barely able to lift their own feet. He was still in the ghetto of Zurelendsviertel. He had been unable to get out. During the past eleven months, Wissinger had been forced to use the money that his guardian angel had given him to buy scraps of food. She had been right. When push had come to shove, the other Zaeri had helped themselves and their families, and not the famous writer they knew of, but didn’t really know.
The angel had not come back since that night. If Wissinger had not had the money to spend on moldy bread and mysterious meat, he would have thought that he had dreamed the whole thing. Of course there were also the stories. Stories had come into the ghetto from the outside world—stories about a mysterious woman. A blond woman had attacked Neuschlindenmacht Castle, burning it to the ground, though nobody knew exactly how. A powerful witch had fought and killed a dozen wizards of the Reine Zauberei on the streets of Kasselburg. A blond sorceress had freed hundreds of Zaeri prisoners held in a work camp and had killed or frightened off a company of soldiers guarding them. Wissinger carefully listened to the stories without adding his own experiences. There was nothing to indicate that these stories were about the same woman, or that they were even true. But Wissinger believed them.
“You’re thinking about me right now, aren’t you?” asked a sultry voice right by his ear.
Wissinger jumped. The woman was back. He looked up and down the street and realized that there was no one else to be seen. This was unusual. It was almost mid-day. He looked back at her. Yes, it was the same woman. She was dressed at least this time. Sort of. He tried to think where her black corset and leather pants would be everyday dress, but could imagine no such place in the world. She tossed her hair back and then took a pose with her chin held high, like a statue.
“Um, you’re back,” he said.
“Oh my. Here I was told that you were the greatest writer in Freedonia, and this is your introductory line?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Well now you’re just being thick,” she said. “I came back for you. You were supposed to be gone, out of the ghetto and to the coast at least.”
“I couldn’t get out. The Kafirite, Kiesinger, the one who smuggled some Zaeri out for money. The day after you were here, I mean in my room, he was arrested. He wasn’t arrested in my room, he was arrested… wherever they arrested him, but no one else took his place. There was no one else who would help, to smuggle me out.” Wissinger stopped speaking and realized he was out of breath.
“Relax lover. We’re leaving now.”
“Wait. We have to go back to my room.”
She smiled seductively. “What a wonderful idea. I thought you might be more welcoming this time.”
“No, it’s just… it’s the middle of the day.”
“Well, um… I… Aren’t we in a hurry?”
“You’re the one who wants to go back to your room.”
“I have to get my book.”
“What book is that?”
“My book. It doesn’t have a title yet. It’s about life here. It’s hidden in the wall.”
“Then let’s go get it.”
Wissinger led the woman down the cobblestone street to his apartment building and upstairs to his room. His building had been a fine middle class apartment twenty years earlier. Now it was rapidly falling apart from neglect. Holes had appeared in the walls and the floor. In one spot just outside his apartment door, he could see completely through to the floor below. In a way this was all fortunate. The crack in the wall next to the loose board, behind which he hid the tools of his trade, didn’t look out of place. Removing the board, he pulled out the tablet and pencil.
The tablet was the type children used in school. He had started at the beginning and had used every page. Then he had turned it over and had written on the backs of each sheet, in ever smaller script as the pages had become scarce. The pencil was the last of a package of twelve. Oh, how he had wasted his pencils at first, insisting on a sharp point, whittling each one back with his knife. When he had gotten to the sixth one, he had stopped such foolishness. He let the lead become as dull and round as a turtle’s head and had only cut back the wood around it, when it, like the turtle’s head, had become hidden inside. That was all over now.
He felt the woman press against his back. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and licked the back of his neck. He turned around and kissed her deeply. She pulled him toward the cot, and he let her. He spent the last hour that he would ever spend on that horrible, worn, bug-ridden mattress making love to a beautiful woman.
“I don’t even know your name,” he said, as they dressed.
“Like the daughter of Magnus the Great?”
“Yes, exactly like that.”
“You’re not her, are you?”
“Yes. Yes I am.”
She slipped back into her boots and headed out the door. Wissinger stuffed his pencil in the pocket where he kept his penknife and tucked his tablet under his arm. A quick look around reminded him that he had nothing else of value. Quickly catching up with Zurfina, he followed her downstairs and out into the street. Even though the sun was still high, there was nobody to be seen. It was as if they were the only two people in the world. Down the street and around the corner, then down the main thoroughfare, they finally reached the twenty-foot tall wooden gate to the outside world. It was standing open and the guards who had always been there were gone.
“What’s going on?” Wissinger asked.
“It’s just magic.”
Once outside the gate, they wound their way through the city streets of Gartow. It was much nicer here. The buildings were in repair. The shops were open. But here the world was just as devoid of life and humanity as it had been inside the ghetto. In no time at all they were past the edge of town. They stepped off the road and crossed the first field of many that filled the space between the city and the distant edge of the forest.
“Zurfina, how is it… oh… um.”
“What is it?”
“I just remembered that according the Holy Scriptures, Zurfina… that is the daughter of King Magnus, was burned at the stake.”
“Fine, I’m not her then.”
“But your name is Zurfina, isn’t it?”
“I’m tired of all your questions,” she said, stopping and glaring at him. “It’s been nothing but questions with you since I got here. What’s going on? Who are you? Can I be on top?”
“One more question and I’m leaving.”
“No. I’m sorry. No more questions, I promise,” said Wissinger. “Just tell me which way I am supposed to go.”
“That’s it!” she snapped, and with a flourish of her hands, she disappeared with a pop.
“I didn’t… that wasn’t a question… I phrased it…”
A sound drew Wissinger’s gaze to the sky. A flock of small birds flew overhead, twittering as they went. Then he heard the sounds of voices, and looking toward town, he could see people. A steam carriage chugged down the now distant road. It was as if the world had suddenly come alive. Dropping to a crouch, he looked around to see if there was anyone close. He could detect no one. Staying hunched over, he made for the forest as fast as he could.