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To Trade in Secrets

By Erin K. Wagner in Issue Seven, November 2022

There was a revolution. A bloody one. The farmers were angry, and they were dirty and sweating with years of back-breaking work. They turned their farming equipment—their sickles, their rakes, their spades—into weapons. When they breached the high spiked wall of the czar’s court, there was a wonderful and brief silence—a thousand breaths held in anticipation of what would come. The farmers were not kind to the royal family. They ripped the jewels from the czarina’s ears and they cut off her head. They paraded the czar through the streets naked and covered in pitch. He cried as best he could, though the pitch had sealed his eyes half-shut.

The University Schöning, though within sight of the czar’s court, did not hear that there had been a revolution for three years. This was due primarily to the University’s curious manner of defense, because the University Schöning did not defend itself with walls of stone (though it had those) nor with armed guards (though it had those), but with protocol and administrative bureaucracy based on the trading of intellectual debts. The architect of the university, one Chambers Richtold, had designed the edifice as a series of nested courts and chambers. To pass from one court to the next, a visitor had to offer an item of academic interest to the gatekeeper. This could be one of any number of things. The preserved corpse of a rare beetle. The formula which predicted the pattern of rainfall. The answer to the question posed by the chiaroscuro in Master VanLeek’s masterpiece. The incantation that would curl the end of one’s beard. Bit by bit, secret by secret, one could progress through the halls of academia to the very center, the University Schöning itself—the professors.

What use have rebels for bureaucracy? Very little. But the farmers had a certain fear of the university’s inner sanctum, and they paused on their way to the court to consider the doorman who sat perched on a stool in the small gatehouse. The heights of the university’s towers overshadowed him. His skin reminded them of parchment and his fingers reminded them of quills. (His nails were long and yellowed like the keratin of a feather.) So they passed on and comforted themselves that they could return later if they felt the need.


The messenger sent by the czar’s court, begging for aid, reached the professors three years after the walls of the palace had been breached. He had few secrets and little knowledge to trade. For half a year alone, he had been stuck in the Vestry of Unspoken Languages. The gatekeeper there was renowned for his taciturnity. He was also not easily impressed. When the messenger finally thought to imitate the mating call of the rare birds (the double-tailed svallow) who had nested in the eaves of his childhood home, he was ushered through into the inner sanctum with a relieved sigh from under the gatekeeper’s overgrown mustaches.

The messenger was emaciated from his journey. Food and water had been made available to him as a guest of the institution, but he had eaten little of it, tortured by the thought of what the czar, the czarina, and their seven frail children might be suffering. If he had known that the czar had died from the pitch burns less than a day after the start of the revolution, the messenger might have given up on his quest altogether. If he had known of the czarina’s beheading, he would have turned his knife on himself. If he had known that the seven frail children had gone missing, he would have wept. As it was, he stumbled forward and onto his knees in front of the half-circle of solemn and seated professors. No one spoke for many minutes. The professors all had a similar look to them—sunken-cheeked and sallow-skinned. Their eyes were brilliant, though. Shining and sharp.

“Tell us what you think you know,” said the Master of Philosophy. She was the highest-ranking among them, and no one had yet bested her in a debate.

Pressed now to the moment, the messenger stood up, shuffled his feet and cleared his throat. He was intimidated by the sight of them all, seated close together, black robes dusted white with dandruff.

“They have breached the walls,” he said, his words tremulous under the low eaves of the hall. A bird fluttered into the air and resettled on one of the beams. A solitary gray-barred feather spiraled downwards.

“Define your antecedent,” the Master of Languages said. “It is unclear who they are.”

“The revolutionaries.” The messenger faltered.

One of the professors sniffed, loud and long. The messenger glanced quickly at each of their faces. When he studied them more closely, he saw that they were drawn and tired. They looked almost hungry.


The Master of Sciences interrupted him. “A paradigm shift can happen quickly, radically. Or it may be the gradual change of years. Which is this?”

The messenger did not know what a paradigm shift was. He knew only that he was scared and that events had developed very quickly. He could hear still the farmers shouting outside the walls, battering at the stones.

“This was sudden,” he said. “I fear the czar is in danger of his life.”

The Master of Philosophy lowered her head and sighed, as if she did not find the answer satisfactory. “If one were outside time—”

“We are not outside time,” the messenger shouted. “But I do not know now how much time has passed and I fear for the czar. I fear for his children. And the czarina.”

“It has been three years,” said the gatekeeper with the mustaches.

The messenger looked in horror at the gatekeeper and then back to the professors. He felt as if he were made of wax. He wobbled on his legs. “It may be too late,” he whispered.

“I’m sure it is.” The Master of Magics spoke for the first time. “It is.” He spoke with surety.

“Please.” The messenger dropped to his knees again. “Please, you must help. There must be something you can do. There must still be something.”

A silence. The bird rasped. The noise of it was more comforting than the stillness of the professors. “You must do something,” the messenger repeated.

Must is a curious word,” said the Master of Languages.

The Master of Philosophy cleared her throat. “It is not our place to act in the world outside these walls. We are theoretical in our bent.”

“You are men, not theories,” the messenger said quietly and hopelessly.

“I have often wondered that,” said the Master of Sciences.

With a sob deep in his chest, the messenger collapsed, falling forward.

“He will need rest.” The Master of Philosophy spoke not unkindly. She had studied many tomes on ethics. She gestured to the gatekeeper.

The gatekeeper came forward and there was pity on his face. He hoisted the messenger to his feet, hooking his arms under the thin man’s armpits. He walked backward, dragging the messenger with him, and the messenger was too weak to protest. As the door swung slowly shut on the hall and the circle of black-robed professors, the messenger heard the Master of Magics speak again.

“It is always too late.”


The doorman’s fingernails had grown longer. He had not cut them in the two years since the czar’s messenger had left, and they curled in towards his hand, yellow and brittle. The shadows of the University’s towers dulled the brilliant white of his hair. He lifted his head, slow and painful, when the youth approached.

“I must speak with the professors,” the youth said. Her voice was soft and hoarse. Her face was hidden by the hood of her cloak, but he caught a glimpse of rounded cheek and thin lip.

“Do you know the price?”

The youth paused. “I have brought all my secrets with me, old one.”

The doorman smiled. He felt his teeth with his tongue. “And how many secrets can you have, young one?”

“Enough.” The youth did not shift her feet or tap her fingers. She stood very still.

“Then enlighten me, child. Tell me something I do not know.”

The youth bent forward and whispered in the doorman’s ear. His heart skipped a beat and the loose skin at his throat trembled.

“And how can you know that?” The doorman’s voice was raspy with tears because he knew the answer.

The knife entered in slow and smooth under his ribs. The doorman almost thought that he could feel the cold of the metal, but it was his own blood cooling. He slumped back onto his stool as if sleeping.

“Enter,” he said, saliva and blood at the corners of his mouth. “For you have enlightened me.”


The registrar reached forward to straighten the line of quills on the desk in front of him. His robe was striped and reached to the floor. The toes of his shoes curled up from underneath the layers of his skirts. He could not stay still, and he was bored. When the youth’s footsteps echoed under the vaulted ceiling, he looked up eagerly. He could not see her face clearly, but saw a sunken cheek, caught the flutter of dark eyelashes.

“Welcome,” he said. “How can I assist you?” He was solicitous as he had been trained. He ignored the rusted red that had dried on the youth’s hand. The youth touched one quill and then another. She did not seem familiar with the writing implements.

“I must speak with the professors.”

The registrar bobbed his head. “You know the price. You have entered in past the doorman.”

“I know it.” The youth’s voice was quiet.

From beneath his desk, the registrar took a hefty book, bound in leather and clasped in gold. The pages were made from vellum, thin and soft to the touch. The registrar could trace the hair follicles of the animal who had given up its life to the pages. There was an old and musty smell when he turned over the leaves to a blank page.

“You may write here.” The registrar tapped his finger on the open book.

The youth hesitated, then she lifted one of the quills and held it awkwardly between her fingers. She scrawled two symbols, large and bold on the page. The symbols were simple, but the registrar did not recognize them.

“These mean safe,” the youth pointed to the first, “and unsafe,” she pointed to the second. “On your walls, we have written the second.”

“Our walls?” The registrar tilted his head in confusion. “Who is it that writes these? Who are you?”

“One secret at a time,” the youth said. “These are the warnings and signs of the homeless and those who live on the streets.”

“Perhaps you require nourishment.” The registrar reached for the bell at the corner of his desk.

“No.” The youth laid her hand on the registrar’s. It was smooth and cold, and the registrar could feel the incantation on it. “I will not eat under your roof.”

The registrar glanced at the guards which stood between his chamber and the library beyond. “Then pass on, young one.”

The youth bowed her head slightly and moved towards the library.


The librarian was thin, almost skeletal. Her cheekbones were sharp, her thin eyebrows sharper. She shelved the last book on her cart before turning to the youth who had entered. She only caught a glimpse of fair curls and full lips under the folds of the youth’s hood. Behind her, she could feel the weight of the shelves and shelves of book stretching back into the dim archives. She put a hand behind her ear so that she could hear the youth better when he spoke. Her hearing had been damaged in a fire.

“What did you say?”

The youth stopped still. “I did not say anything.”

“Then what did you mean to say? You cannot pass through these halls with closed lips. Everything in there,” she pointed one long thin finger at her head. Her nails were dyed a brilliant red, “must come out.”

The youth flinched away from her finger, and a frown passed briefly across her face. She turned her head one way and the other, avoiding the librarian’s gaze, craning her neck up to see the highest row of books. The soft lights inset into the ceiling flickered off the golden letters on their spines.

“What secret can you share with me?” The librarian pressed her. “Or will you take some days browsing these stacks?” She smiled, the corner of her red lips crooking up at one corner. “I promise you that I know everything in these books already.”

The youth reached into a pouch at her belt. She hesitated as if reluctant to pull out the object inside. The librarian grew very still, waiting. Finally, she drew out her hand. She held a small book. The librarian reached out her arm, questioning.

“A book to the librarian?” She chuckled a little in the back of her throat. “Predictable perhaps.”

The youth moved the book close to her chest. She looked angry.

“There can be no reluctance here,” the librarian said. She was merciless.

She gave the book up. The binding was worn smooth, and the librarian lingered on the untitled cover a moment before opening it. She found, when she opened it, that it was a journal or diary. The writing was thin and spidery. There was a faint scent of perfume when she traced the letters with her nail. At the bottom of the first page, as a signature of sorts, was a seal. It was made of almost transparent wax, and a dark hair whirled through the wax. The imprint was of a two-headed stag.

She looked up at the youth. She did not look angry or sad now. Her face was stony, emotionless.

“You are permitted to the chamber beyond,” she said quietly. The youth dropped her head and moved off down the narrowing aisle of shelves. At the far end, the light from the gallery silhouetted her shape as she passed through the door.


The curator mentally noted every feature of the youth’s face before speaking to her. He memorized the shadowed eyes, the thin lips, the broken nose. He framed them against the backdrop of a red velvet curtain. There was a suggestion of wounded superiority in the youth’s stance in the portrait the curator had mentally created.

“There must be beauty in it,” the curator said. His voice was impatient. “I will not be easily won over like the registrar, and I am not easily amused like the doorman.”

“Do you know what I gave them?” The youth stared beyond the curator and did not meet his eyes. She studied the sculpture which dominated the rotunda of the gallery. A slender, nymph-like woman carved from marble. The stone woman reached upwards, stretched to her full length, staring and straining for something she could not quite grasp.

“No.” He imagined drawing the curve of the youth’s arm with charcoal, drawing the clenched fist and the tracings of veins.

“And what of the librarian?” the youth asked.

“She is sharper than some. But the unknown alone will fascinate her.”

The youth reached into the pouch at her belt. She pulled out a thin envelope. She ran a finger under the flap of the envelope and the paper hissed in the quiet of the gallery. From the envelope, she took a thin, almost transparent piece of vellum. She held it up high, reaching towards the dome of the rotunda. From above, a glancing beam of sunlight pierced the skin of the vellum, and the curator saw an image there. He stepped quickly forward, finding a better angle to see what the youth showed him.

On the vellum, there was an image true-to-life, not created from paint or ink or charcoal. Life breathed in the skin and in the eyes of the man in the picture. The curator felt that he could see the soul of the man. He wore the czar’s diadem, and he tucked his hand in the breast of his jacket.

“What new magic is this?” The curator extended his hand to the picture, but he could not bring himself to touch the fragile image.

“It is not new. But it was guarded.” The youth lowered the picture. She stared at the image, and she traced the face of the man portrayed. “You do not share your soul for all to see.”

“And this is what you offer me?”

The youth looked at him, and the hurt in her face was more than suggestion. “Yes,” she said, her voice husky.

The curator took the picture between his thumb and forefinger. He held it up to the light again, and again he saw the czar come alive—the imperiousness of his gaze, the haughtiness of his stance.

“Go on,” the curator said. “Go on, and show your magics to the alchemist.”

The youth crossed her arms close to herself, as if she were cold or exposed. She shuffled forward, her steps loud in the rotunda. The shadow of the sculpture threw her into darkness.


The alchemist could not pause at first, because she was immersed in the most delicate phase of her new procedure. She moved slowly, careful not to spill any of the molten bronze as she transferred it to the waiting beaker. She could sense the youth watching her as she worked. The bronze hissed and cooled rapidly after she poured it. She looked up. The youth moved like she was wounded, the hint of her skin pale, almost livid. There was a weight of magic and incantation on her shoulders. She estimated the strength of the spell as best she could and whether it was malevolent.

“If it hurts you, you need not maintain it.” The alchemist spoke as sympathetically as she could.

“Do you know the spell already?” The youth sounded tired.

“No,” the alchemist smiled. “Do not worry.”

The youth came closer to her worktable. She scanned the tools there, the beakers, the calipers, the burners. “It is a spell of transformation,” she said.

“Ah.” The alchemist was interested, but she had learned long ago to not be too eager. And once the youth said it, the alchemist could see that it was true. She could see the planes of the youth’s face shifting and shifting again, rapid and unceasing.


“Because—” and her tone was defiant and angry. “I am all my parents’ children.”

The alchemist had worked a long time in the field of alchemy, and it was a magic that required a certain suspension of disbelief, a certain fuzziness in the scientific process. She knew questions would not always breed answers.

“Tell me the incantation,” she said, “And your obligation to me is fulfilled.”

She whispered it to the alchemist as if she was afraid to speak it aloud. Her breath was stale. The alchemist could hear the cracking in her voice, close to her ear. When she had finished describing the instructions, the alchemist took up a lead pencil and jotted down notes to refresh her memory later when she revisited the spell. She could already envisage uses for it.

“Be careful,” she said, and pointed the youth’s way to the next chamber.


The gatekeeper in the Vestry of Unspoken Languages lifted his head at the sound of shuffling steps. He had been thinking in silence for a very long time, though the termites in the walls of the university had come to him and told him of the visitor. He had expected the youth long before, as quickly as she had moved through the chambers of the registrar, the librarian, the curator, and the alchemist. But it seemed that the university had worn away the youth’s energy, and the chambers which had followed had tired her. She came now, head bowed, her hair hanging greasy around her face. There were circles under her eyes when she raised her face to him.

Five days, he signed to the youth. Five days. You are fast.

He could not tell if she understood him. She shifted, straightened her back. She was thin, and the bones of her collarbone jutted out above the collar of her dark shift.

Too slow. She had learned sign language differently than him. Her gestures were more frenetic. But he could understand them.

You are almost done. Tell me something I do not know. Share a secret with me.

I am almost out of secrets.

The gatekeeper widened his legs and made it clear that she would not pass through the doors if she did not follow the procedures of the university. He watched her eyes as they studied his face and his posture. He saw the dried blood on her hand which had turned brown in color. He knew of the knife slid through her belt at her back. The termites had told him of the doorman’s death. But she had followed the word of the law.

She slumped suddenly, her whole body untensed. Almost inaudibly, she gasped a few words under her breath. When she looked at him again, he was disconcerted. The gatekeeper was rarely disconcerted. It was a young woman who stood there, her face sharp and unmistakable. She looked like both the czar and the czarina. She had the light hair, the dark eyes, the angled cheeks.

The royal line survives.

“I survive,” the youth said aloud. “Let me through.”


The professors turned their heads, almost as one, when the doors to the chamber creaked open. The birds squawked and shrieked in the rafters above. One, which had learned a few words from the gatekeeper, yelled out. “Well come. Ill come.”

The youth walked in slowly, and the gatekeeper closed the doors as he retreated into the vestry. She moved to stand under the highest point of the roof, in the center of the room. The professors continued to watch her. They were dressed in black robes. Their faces were long and their heads were bald.

“It is sooner than I expected,” the Master of Magics said finally.

The youth opened her mouth to speak and then shut it. Her face was red as if she were choking.

“Calm yourself,” said the Master of Languages. “The words will come easier.”

The Master of Philosophy bent forward slightly from the bench. “You have passed through many of our halls. You have spent many days, and you have given up almost all of yourself to come here.”

“Was it worth it to give up the secrets of your fellows, the words of your mother, the image of your father?” The Master of Sciences stroked his beard thoughtfully. “To give up the incantation you worked so hard to learn?”

“Or rather,” and the Master of Magics nodded his head toward his colleague in courteous disagreement, “what was worth so much?”

The youth began to speak softly, but she grew louder as she continued. “I saw my father ripped off his throne, his diadem torn in two, and his skin coated in tar, burning even as it hardened. I saw him cry. I saw my mother beheaded, her eyes open and staring long after she was dead. And I saw my siblings scattered into the streets, some of them lost to me, some of them dead.”

The professors nodded their heads, but they did not seem surprised or particularly moved by her recitation.

“He sent to you for help. My father sent a messenger and he begged you to use what magic, what words, what science, what philosophy you had to calm the rebels. To save us.”

One of the birds ruffled his feathers in the rafter. Birdshit landed near the youth’s feet. The skin at the corners of her eyes was pink.

“You did nothing!” Her shouted words bounced back once and twice from the far corners of the hall.

The professors were old, and they breathed loudly in the quiet that fell back again over the chamber.

“I stand here, and I stand for both my mother and my father. I stand for my brothers and my sisters. I am not the eldest daughter, heir. I am all of them.”

“And you seek justice,” the Master of Philosophy said, and her voice sounded old as well, creaky and breathy.

“The power to hurt us,” said the Master of Magics.

“What did you think you would do when you came to this point?” The Master of Sciences stepped down from the slight dais upon which the bench stood. “What would you do to us?”

“I demand an answer and a reason.” She split her gaze now between the Master of Sciences near her and the professors still on the bench. “I demand to understand how you could abandon us to that fate.”

The Master of Philosophy tilted back her head and stared into the darkness above them. She sighed, and there were years and years of weariness in the sigh.

“I remember when your father came here as a young man. He came to learn from us, the way his father had come and his mother before him. We taught him what theories we knew. We taught him definitions of justice.”

“And enchantments of prosperity.”

“And the rhetoric of a ruler.”

“We taught him how wheat and barley grows.” The Master of Sciences was closer and sounded louder.

“What are you saying?” She was almost spitting in her anger.

“I am saying,” and the Master of Philosophy seemed suddenly an individual. There were pits of acne scars on her cheek. “I am saying,” her voice wavered, “that we taught your father everything we knew. We sent him away from the walls of this university and we told him to rule well, to be kind, to be harsh where need be.”

“We did not teach him to be what he became.” The Master of Languages was angry now in his own turn. “To rule only with fear. To rule unlistening and unkind.”

“It is not our place to act in the world outside these walls.” The Master of Philosophy spoke again. “We told this to the messenger that your father sent.”

The youth stumbled backwards. The door to the chamber creaked open and the gatekeeper looked in curiously, as if prepared to usher out the youth as he had helped out the messenger two years ago.

“I have come all this way to have you tell me that my father deserved to die? That my mother deserved her death?”

“The question of what we deserve is a difficult one.” The Master of Philosophy answered quietly. “Did the doorman deserve to die?”

The youth’s face flushed red.

The Master of Magics sounded almost kind. “You came here to learn. And you must choose now whether you will stay and do so.”

The youth looked from the professors to the open door and the gatekeeper waiting there. There was wounded pride in the way she stood.

Stay, the gatekeeper said.

“Ill come. Well come,” the bird shrieked out from above.

A feather, gray and barred, drifted down towards her, and the youth lifted her head and reached up, straining to catch it.

© 2022 Erin K. Wagner

Erin K. Wagner

Erin K. Wagner is a professor by trade, a medievalist by discipline, and a writer of speculative fiction by design.

She lives in upstate New York, a storied and story-making place, but her roots are in Appalachia, planted in rural southeast Ohio. Presently, she teaches an array of literature and composition courses in the SUNY system as an associate professor.

Her fiction is interested in examining how humans explain the inexplicable, and her writing has appeared in a number of magazines, including Apex, Clarkesworld, and Nightmare. Her second novella, An Unnatural Life, was released by Tor.com, and her short story collection is forthcoming from Aqueduct Press. She is an active member of SFWA. Her website is www.erinkwagner.com.

Fiction by Erin K. Wagner
  • To Trade in Secrets