Someone had done this on purpose.
There was no way—none—that Vernon Roche could have been assigned the table across from Iorveth, of all people, without at least one person noticing that they should ideally have been at opposite ends of the hall. Or in different halls.
People flocked to him. Because, they said, he had a vision. He was a pillar of the community.
More of a pillock, in Roche’s fair, balanced, and entirely unbiased opinion.
A burst of laughter from Iorveth’s table made Roche look up just in time to see him waving inky fingers around for the growing crowd to see.
“So, that’s the demonstration where I show you how not to do it, although a little ink’s never hurt anyone.”
Strong words for a man famous for developing an ink that now came with a warning booklet listing all the pens it was known to melt on contact, and which had a high enough pH to dissolve a body.
Roche turned his attention back to the nib he’d been tuning, dipping it one last time to check the line and the smoothness and humming happily as it glided across the paper, perfect.
He set it aside and glanced down at his order list, Iorveth still talking to an ever-expanding crowd that was now blocking the way to Roche’s table. Demonstrating a new ink, no doubt with some exotic pen-ruining quality that Roche would be left to clean up after when people started using it in their vintage pens, which they would inevitably do.
Why it was so hard to stick to something tried and true was beyond him. It was true that Scoia’tael inks came in colours and formulas unique to the brand, but at what cost? What was wrong with a nice solid Foltest ink? They’d been in the business hundreds of years, they knew what they were doing, they’d never melted a pen.
If it was a taste of the exotic people were after, some beautiful, reliable inks came out of Nilfgaard, and there were rumours that some of those companies had been producing them much longer. As long as you also used Nilfgaardian paper, they were perfectly practical.
“You can’t get this anywhere else,” Iorveth said, shaking an unlabelled bottle for the crowd.
“Oh yes?” Roche spoke up. “And what does this one do? Release toxic fumes if you use the wrong paper? Cause the piston to explode? Double up as engine degreaser?”
Iorveth paused, made direct eye contact with Roche, and then, very slowly, stuck his tongue out.
Iorveth’s tongue disappeared.
“It glows in the dark,” Iorveth said. “Might leave a bit of… residue, on the nib. But it comes off.”
Oh good, Roche thought, already mentally preparing for an influx of pens with glow-in-the-dark ink-encrusted nibs within the month.
No one ever learned with Iorveth’s inks, that was the problem. They could put whatever they liked in their pens and Roche couldn’t stop them—much as he might have liked to—but they’d have something stained by his Sansretour Teal, send it to Roche to be cleaned, and then next month they’d have a feed clogged with Impera Black, and they never connected these two events to the one common denominator: Scoia’tael ink.
Roche looked up to see Dandelion approaching, and smiled—now this, this was a worthy customer. One of very few people who used music nibs for the purpose of writing music, and a man of excellent taste in pens.
He paused beside Morvran Voorhis—of Voorhis Mills, the paper company—and, to Roche’s dismay, looked up at Iorveth and sighed dreamily.
“I’ve never seen him in person before,” he whispered, except that Dandelion’s whisper tended to project a good ten feet in any direction. “He’s so handsome.”
A growl rumbled in the back of Roche’s throat, growing louder as Morvran nodded in agreement.
This was why Iorveth didn’t do shows. Oh, he could entertain a crowd all right, and people loved to come and see him—and, honestly, it was nice to be so appreciated in person.
The problem was a tendency to let his tongue get away from him.
Better nibs, he’d promised. A variety of calligraphy nibs, nibs that were more art than engineering, not that the people asking understood that. They all thought nothing was outside of his grasp.
And now people would expect it. They’d want to put in a pre-order, they’d be pestering pen and ink dealers who would in turn pester him, because anything new he produced was gold.
It was gold because it was good. These? These wouldn’t be. He had no idea how to do what he’d promised.
What he needed was…
“I sold three bottles of ink for you while you were gone,” Vernon Roche said, fiddling with the insides of something old and complicated. “Here,” he said, pushing a small stack of cash across the table.
A door opened on the other side of the hall, early afternoon sunlight streaming through, and angled in such a way that it haloed around Roche’s hunched shoulders, as though he himself was glowing.
Roche hated him—had always hated him, from the moment he’d stepped into the community—but…
He knew nibs. He fixed pens, sure, and he’d made a name for himself as an expert on rare and vintage pens and assorted other things, but really, in the depths of his heart, Iorveth knew—Roche was a nib man.
Crossing the aisle, he came to a stop in front of his table, wondering how to approach the subject.
Did Roche go for elves? That might have been the simplest way to do this, and some of his hostility had to come from a place of sexual frustration.
“Then I think I ought to buy you dinner with the proceeds,” Iorveth said. “Tonight?”
Roche blinked at him, and then narrowed his sharp eyes. “What do you want?”
Right, okay. Sleeping with him wasn’t going to work.
Shame. There was something about his clever, work-roughened fingers Iorveth quite liked.
“Well,” Iorveth said, reaching out to pick up one of the pens a client had left for Roche to work on. It was no surprise he’d been kept busy, it was impossible to listen to any serious enthusiast for long without them mentioning him—something he’d taught them, or something he’d said on YouTube, or a pen they’d picked up from or had valued or restored by him…
Not to mention a lot of Iorveth’s own customers having to go to Roche for help when they failed to read the label on his inks. Some of them came with small instruction manuals for a reason.
“I’ve just promised a new series of user-friendly calligraphy nibs for my pens,” he continued, twisting the pen he was holding open and getting covered in black ink for his trouble.
He set it back down again when the smell told him it was his own black ink.
Roche looked at him as though he was thinking about summoning security.
“In steel,” Iorveth went on. “Affordable, as always.”
“And how, exactly,” Roche began, “were you planning on managing that?”
Iorveth picked up another pen, unscrewed the cap, and found that the nib had been fused to the feed. This time, though, he wasn’t sure it was his fault.
“Thought we might collaborate on it?” Iorveth offered, glancing up at Roche’s tattered banner. If nothing else, pulling this off was guaranteed to be profitable.
Iorveth was a man of simple tastes and minimal expenses, and he suspected Roche was little different, but it never hurt to have a few crowns in savings.
“Why?” Roche asked suspiciously.
Iorveth shrugged. “You’re the nib expert.”
“I don’t like you,” Roche said.
“That was blunt,” Iorveth responded.
“And you don’t like me!”
“Now, when have I ever said that?”
He hadn’t, and he knew he hadn’t. He’d poked fun at Roche, occasionally said he was wrong about things, and he’d been known to respond to unfair aspersions on his work with a little more… passion, than was entirely necessary.
But he’d never said he didn’t like Roche.
“Why would I want to help you get out of a mess you’ve created for yourself?”
“Because it means putting your name next to mine and you’ve always envied the attention I get,” Iorveth said. “But it’s fine, I’ll go to Elihal.”
“He doesn’t do nibs,” Roche said. “He does pens.”
“And his partner is the one who actually makes the nib blanks,” Iorveth said. “And the pens will be beautiful, and no one’ll care so much about the nibs.”
Roche pursed his lips.
“You’d put your name on a second-rate pen?” he asked.
“Well, I tried to work with the one person who could make them first-rate.” Iorveth folded his arms over his chest. “But since you refuse, I’ll have to work my way along my options. Doesn’t matter to me. You’re the one who’ll have to fix them when people start realising they’re not as good as they could be.”
Roche’s mouth fell open, and Iorveth knew he had him. He hated, absolutely despised it when people sent him Iorveth’s pens. He thought they were too cheap and simple to bother with. And if he didn’t help with this, he’d be inundated with them.
“You wouldn’t,” he said.
Iorveth shrugged. “I wouldn’t actually be doing anything. People come to you because you’re the best. Can’t be helped if someone releases a popular but flawed pen onto the market and people send it to you to get it fixed, can it?”
“This is blackmail,” Roche said.
“Extortion,” Iorveth corrected. “I don’t actually have anything on you. I’m just saying that I will make your life miserable if you don’t help. Not even on purpose! Just as a side effect of my bigger business plans.”
“I hate you,” Roche sighed.
Iorveth grinned. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Iorveth’s workshop was even more of a disaster than Roche had imagined in his worst nightmares. Tools and parts of pens were scattered over every surface, and every surface was covered in ink stains, and there was a spider web in the corner the size of a dinner plate.
Roche stared at it, since it was currently the least horrifying thing in the room. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a shoebox full of rusting wrenches and files.
“Don’t mind Charlotte,” Iorveth said, nodding to the spiderweb. “She keeps all the other bugs to a minimum. She wouldn't hurt—well, she’d eat a fly, but she’s never come down to bother me.”
“You named your spider,” Roche said, slowly, as though curling his tongue around the words would help him understand.
“Couldn’t talk to her if I didn’t name her,” Iorveth said, as if that explained everything. As if it was a perfectly rational thing to say.
Roche had expected Iorveth to drive him mad, but he hadn’t expected it to be so fast. He’d expected to last at least a day or two.
“Why am I here?” Roche asked.
He hadn’t realised he and Iorveth lived just two streets away from each other.
“Because we’re meant to be working together?” Iorveth said, raising an eyebrow.
“But why not just… make the pens and then send them to me in bulk for tuning?” Roche asked. That seemed like the least unpleasant way to deal with this.
Iorveth frowned at him. “Because you’re here to design them. I know you don’t think much of me, but I do know how to tune a nib. What I need from you is engineering. Conceptual work. Tell me what’s important so I can make it happen,” he said, gesturing to a box filled with unsplit, unstamped, untipped nibs.
“Thought we might… put a little fleur de lis on them. Since that’s your… thing.”
“Logo,” Roche said, the word engineering still bouncing around in his mind.
He wasn’t an engineer. Iorveth was the engineer. Roche knew how a pen worked, but he’d never been called on to design one. Not even a nib. He had no idea where to start.
“Right, logo,” Iorveth agreed. “I’ll work on a stamp, then.”
The last thing Roche wanted to do was admit that he was out of his depth, but it was bound to become obvious soon.
“I’ve never designed a nib in my life,” he said. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Iorveth frowned again, dark brows drawing toward a deep line between them, the tips of his ears twitching.
“So?” he asked. “I’ve got hundreds to work through. It’s all trial and error.”
I glanced at the box he’d waved to before.
“Copper tipping,” Roche said suddenly, an ancient thought resurfacing.
“Copper tipping,” he repeated. “It’s softer than steel and cheaper than gold. I don’t think you could make the whole nib out of it, but… years ago I did a little research. And scrap copper is only a few dollars a pound.” Roche hesitated. “It’s just a thought. Always wanted to try it.”
Iorveth shrugged. “Let’s try it. I must have some scrap copper somewhere.”
A frond of excitement unfurled in Roche’s mind. Iorveth could just try things like that, he had the knowledge and the equipment to do it.
“We could plate the whole nib, for the look of the thing,” he said, sorting through a rusted set of drawers in the corner. “I like copper. I like the way it tarnishes.”
Iorveth wasn’t rejecting the idea outright, or reacting with the kind of skeptical cynicism Roche had come to expect, and…
Well. Maybe working with him wouldn’t be so bad?
“Pass the… no, the other one,” Iorveth said, a thrill of satisfaction running through him as Roche handed him exactly the drill bit he’d wanted. They worked together surprisingly well.
“I have improvements,” Roche responded, passing a sketchbook full of technical drawings over. “And thoughts on feed design for nibs intended to put down more ink.”
The copper plating hadn’t worked quite the way they’d intended, but Iorveth now had a collection of very pretty nibs to do something with, at least.
“This looks sensible,” Iorveth said, pointing to one in the middle of the page.
“Of course it does,” Roche huffed. “I came up with it.”
“Pass me a knife.”
“Tomorrow, then?” Roche asked, hovering in the doorway of Iorveth’s workshop. He wasn’t certain he’d be invited back, but…
“Tomorrow,” Iorveth confirmed. “If you get here early enough, I’ll make enough waffles for both of us.”
“Waffles?” Roche asked.
“Yes, Vernon. Waffles. Sort’ve like a pancake only… waffly.”
Roche tried not to think about the way the tips of his ears were burning.
Iorveth shrugged. “I only make the ink.” He sniffed. “Not as good with words.”
“I’ll be here in time for them,” Roche promised, something softening in the centre of his chest. Something he preferred not to think about.
“Letho of Gulet Pens was talking about you this morning,” Roche said between mouthfuls of waffle and home-cured bacon Iorveth was secretly very proud of and extremely pleased that Roche liked. “About this project. As always.”
“We are friends,” Iorveth pointed out, checking on the next batch of waffles.
“Friends,” Roche repeated, with an edge to it.
“Yes, friends. Not jealous, are you?” Iorveth asked, eyebrow raised.
“Of course not.” Roche shovelled another mouthful of breakfast into his mouth.
“I’ve never let him in the workshop,” Iorveth said, peeling the waffle out of the iron and pouring the next one. “Just you.”
Roche was silent a moment longer, and then took a breath to speak. “That’s all right, then.”
“This is crooked,” Roche said, holding up a nib that had been cut perfectly straight, thank you very much.
“No it isn’t,” Iorveth argued.
“Yes it is,” Roche insisted, gesturing to a sheet of paper he’d been using with a series of uneven lines on it.
“Maybe it’s your grinding that’s crooked,” Iorveth said, peering at the nib in question.
“No.” Roche snatched it away from him. “It’s the cut. It doesn’t line up properly with the feed. Or it’s your ink.”
Iorveth sighed. They were so close to being finished, but of course they couldn't have gotten through a whole project together without fighting.
“It’s always going to be the ink with you, isn’t it?”
Roche sniffed. “Well, perhaps if it wasn’t so irresponsible.”
“Irresponsible!” Iorveth threw his hands up, taking a step closer to Roche.
Working together could never have lasted, could it? They’d been getting along so well—too well. Only because they hadn’t actually talked about the thing Roche hated Iorveth most for, and the thing, Iorveth could admit in the privacy of his own mind, that he was most sensitive about.
Roche’s outright rejection of his inks.
The one thing Iorveth did well, because he loved doing it. The thing he cared most about. Pens had always been secondary and nibs were just the thing that marked the paper.
But inks. Inks were what had excited him in the first place, what dragged him into the world. Perhaps it was stereotypical—an elf being attracted by shiny things and bright colours—but here he was.
“Yes, irresponsible,” Roche said. “You have no respect for tradition, your inks are destructive to anything other than the cheap tat you produce, and you issue user manuals with them, so you know. You know, Iorveth, that it’s irresponsible and you try to pass that responsibility onto customers who’ve come to expect inks to behave a certain way.”
Iorveth snarled, some combination of panic and anger welling up in his chest.
He didn’t want to fight.
They’d been getting on so well. For a full two weeks, they’d been…
Iorveth had looked forward to shared breakfasts and takeout orders when they worked into the night, he’d rearranged his entire life around having someone to work with, and now…
Now Roche was shouting at him, reminding him that he still wasn’t accepted, that he was still an outsider, that he always would be. That Roche didn’t really understand.
Iorveth had thought he was starting to understand.
“Out,” Iorveth growled, pointing to the door.
Roche’s eyes widened, as though he was genuinely surprised.
“Out,” Iorveth repeated.
“Fine,” Roche snarled back, slamming down the pen he’d been working and heading for the door without another word.
“Fine,” Iorveth muttered in the direction of the door, his stomach dropping to somewhere around his knees.
“Thought you were working on a secret project with Iorveth,” Dandelion said, peering at the newly-tuned nib Roche had just handed him.
“Fell through,” Roche said, shoulders tensing up at the reminder.
His eyes fell on a pen he’d rescued from a dusty corner of Iorveth’s workshop. Not one of the pens Iorveth made. Something older, unusual enough that it’d take Roche two days to decide that it was an elven make, from a small workshop that’d gone out of business fifty years ago.
Iorveth had shrugged and said it didn’t work. That was all. No further information.
“You mean you two fought,” Dandelion said, dipping the nib in the nice, sensible, standard black ink Roche had on hand for the purpose. He hummed as he scrawled a few notes—the melody he was writing, Roche thought. Dandelion had his faults—he was, in fact, mostly fault—but he knew music, and he appreciated a pen that made it easy for him to write it down.
It made him Roche’s favourite customer, and one of his most valuable.
“Yes,” Roche agreed. “Stupid, really. But Iorveth is…”
“Hot tempered,” Dandelion offered. “Pretty, but volatile.”
“Like his bloody inks.” Roche sighed.
And then realised a moment later that he’d agreed Iorveth was pretty.
Dandelion grinned at him. “They’re not bad, you know. Fun as long as you take precautions. I have a couple of his pens.”
Roche blinked. “I’ve never seen them,” he said, indignant.”
“Because I know you hate them and I want you to like and respect me,” Dandelion explained, signing his name under the notes with a flourish. “And keep doing work this good for me. I only use them to take notes. And the permanent ink, so I don’t lose anything if Geralt spills his beer on it. Or… spills someone else’s beer on it.”
Roche snorted. Dandelion’s bodyguard was… well. He was a bodyguard. Seemed like a good enough soul, might’ve been faster to drink a bottle of ink than write with it.
Iorveth would have liked him.
“I think you don’t like him because he’s having more fun than you are,” Dandelion said. “And maybe because you feel like he hasn’t earned his place. Like he’s doing the wrong thing, cheapening the whole deal. Literally and figuratively.”
“You couldn’t buy a bottle that size of any other ink for three orens,” Roche said, and then added. “I’ve had a bottle of Dragon’s Blood since he first came out with it. I’ll die before I get through the whole thing. And it is a beautiful colour.”
“See?” Dandelion grinned, wiping the nib of his pen and then capping it. “Besides, I saw the Instagram photos of you two getting along.”
“He called me a nib elf,” Roche complained.
“When he says elf, he means it as a compliment,” Dandelion said. “Iorveth… Iorveth’s awkward. He’s a little strange. He keeps to himself.”
He’d never let anyone else in his workshop.
“And he respects you. It kills him that you hate him. He’s always wanted to be your friend.”
Had he? Could that possibly…?
“He did make me breakfast,” Roche said.
Dandelion’s eyes widened. “Wait, what?”
“Not… not post-coital breakfast.” Roche wrinkled his nose, though it was difficult to muster the level of disgust he felt was appropriate.
Iorveth did have very clever hands.
“Just… before we started work in the mornings.”
“I can’t believe you just uttered the words post-coital breakfast,” Dandelion said, wincing dramatically.
Roche rolled his eyes. “You’re hardly a blushing maiden.”
“No, I just hate the phrasing.” Dandelion pursed his lips. “Do you need me to help you write an apology? I’m good at those.”
Roche had no doubt Dandelion had at least had a lot of practice writing apologies. Whether or not they worked was up for debate.
“Hang on, what makes you think I need to apologise?” Roche asked.
Dandelion gave him a withering look.
“Always start with a gift,” he said. “Coffee might be a good option.”
Roche’s gaze fell on the pen he’d rescued again.
Dandelion was right. He did owe Iorveth an apology. As little as Roche understood the exotic inks, he did understand they were important to Iorveth.
If he was any kind of decent person, he’d live and let live. No matter how many pens he had to clean out with bleach because of it. At least Iorveth was keeping him in business.
“I have a better idea.”
“Roche,” Iorveth blinked against the early-morning sunlight, not used to stepping outdoors until after his first cup of coffee of the morning. “What do you want?”
Roche cleared his throat, then produced a slim black box. “I rescued this from your workshop,” he said, holding it out to Iorveth.
The pen. The ancient, broken one that had…
Roche didn’t know. Couldn’t know that this pen not writing anymore was why Iorveth had started to make pens in the first place. Cheap, replaceable pens with as few moving parts as possible, so they couldn’t break.
He hadn’t known anyone like Roche back then. He hadn’t known people like Roche existed.
“The piston needed to be replaced. I didn’t touch the nib because I thought… I thought since it was old, it might… mean something.”
Iorveth accepted the box cautiously. “It does,” he said. “You’ll kick yourself when I tell you what.”
“I won’t,” Roche said. “I… wanted to say that while we were working together I… came to understand what you were doing. And why you were doing it. Even if it doesn’t appeal to me, I shouldn’t… umm. That is… dammit. Should have let Dandelion help.”
Iorveth raised an eyebrow. “Dandelion?” he asked.
“He’s a client,” Roche explained. “He… it doesn’t matter. The point is, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, and I regret arguing with you, and… I think we ought to finish the project.”
Iorveth smiled, dropped the box into the pocket of his tattered dressing gown, and opened the door wider.
“I was just about to start breakfast. If, umm. If you’re interested?” he scratched the back of his neck. “Then we could… get back to work. I wanted to show you some ideas I’ve had.”
Everytime I think of something and go to tell you and see the empty spot where you were working it’s like swallowing a stone, Iorveth didn’t say.
“Breakfast would be very welcome,” Roche said. “I’ve been up all night.”
Iorveth chuckled. “So have I. Come inside.”
As soon as Roche settled at Iorveth’s kitchen table, a sense of peace washed over him. It didn’t matter that their pen-related philosophies were different.
It mattered that they both cared. Deeply cared about the thing they were doing, wanted to make people as happy as possible with their pens.
Iorveth’s approach was different, but his heart was in the right place. Perhaps moreso than Roche’s was.
“This is for you,” Iorveth said, putting a bottle of ink down on the table in front of Roche.
With a handwritten label that read Temerian Lily in Iorveth’s untidy scrawl.
“It’s, umm. It’s a very functional mid blue,” Iorveth said. “So safe you could drink it.” He paused. “But probably don’t.”
“I wasn’t planning to,” Roche said, reaching out for the bottle.
“Should be okay for anything,” Iorveth said. “I was thinking. When we work these nibs out… maybe this kind of thing? Vintage-safe inks in a range of colours. You could help.”
Roche unscrewed the cap and dipped the tip of his finger into the ink, surprised by the scent of lillies rising from the bottle.
“Oh, and umm. Scented. Because that’s… traditional.” Iorveth scratched the back of his neck. “Not for fountain pens, but… for inks. You know. Hark back to the history of the thing.”
“Without making it out of iron gall,” Roche said. “Or shellac.”
“Right, exactly,” Iorveth agreed. “Do you like it?”
Roche spread the blue colour down his finger, for once in his life not reaching for the cloth he kept on him all the time to wipe it off. As Iorveth had promised, it was a nice, practical blue, leaning a little purple, and really very striking in its simplicity.
Iorveth passed over a pad of paper for Roche to swatch it on as though he could read his mind.
“Definitely a white paper ink,” he said. “But. Well. I like it. And it matches, umm. Your branding. It’s for you. As a thank you for helping me. I’ve been working on it in secret since we started.”
“Iorveth, I… don’t know what to say,” Roche said, looking up at him.
Iorveth chewed on his lower lip. “I’d like to hear that you’ll keep coming over for breakfast,” he said.
Roche capped the bottle, turning it over in his hands, warmth swelling in his chest.
“I’ll keep coming over for breakfast.”