After a moment, the strange woman’s narrow gaze snapped to Mrs. Mapleberry’s.
“You have heard of fountain pens, yes?”
“Well…” Mrs. Mapleberry’s smile faded slightly, and a small crease appeared over her eyes. “Yes, of course, but–”
“I’m not one to embrace new things frivolously, but it’s a marvelous new invention, the fountain pen,” the woman said, as if admonishing a small child. Edmund listened with interest as Mrs. Mapleberry looked more and more aghast. “I’m given to understand even the lower classes can afford them now. Can’t you afford even one?”
“Well, frankly, no,” Mrs. Mapleberry sniffed, pulling herself up. “They are still quite expensive compared to a good solid dip pen, and I’m afraid that — being a poor orphanage like we are with the taxes and all — we haven’t quite caught up with the times.”
“Obviously,” the woman dropped the pen back onto the table, and pulled a small thin rod of pure black and a thick glass eyedropper out of nowhere. Edmund stared as the woman’s spindly hands unscrewed the pen and placed the cap next to the inkwell. Carefully, she dipped the eyedropper into the ink and drew a thin dribble of black into the clear glass. With aching slowness, the thin fingers gripped the pen like spider legs resting on a web and gently deposited the ink into the pen without spilling a drop.
When the ink was at last gone from the eyedropper, she slowly re-screwed the cap onto the back of the pen, and with a sharp flick of the wrist snapped it once like a whip. Edmund had to stop himself from jumping back from her sudden movement. By the time he had collected himself, the woman had already brushed the pen quickly across the paper, and dropped it with a light plunk next to the eye dropper and ink-well.
“You may keep the pen and ink in lieu of my payment,” the woman said derisively, as she picked herself up out of her chair. She bent almost in half, her hooked nose squarely pointed at Edmund, and gave a sharp nod. “Get moving, boy. The horse is outside.”
“Really!” Mrs. Mapleberry shifted her great girth as she stepped forward. “I hardly think that a new pen is adequate compensation for adoption! The going rate is twenty per child, and I’ll thank you to provide appropriate payment.”
The woman’s eyes grew dark as she turned to face Mrs. Mapleberry full in the face. There was a pause, and then the old woman gave a small cough.
“Twelve generations ago,” she hissed, “Patron Alphert Moulde, of Moulde Hall, built this house for one of his daughters as a wedding gift. It was passed down through my family until Patron Plinkerton donated it to the city of Brackenburg in 1717 for use as deemed required by the Mayor. You may consider one hundred and ninety years of free rent payment enough.”
Mrs. Mapleberry had turned a stark white, her lips clamped tightly shut. She gave a quick nod as Matron poked Edmund with her umbrella, herding him back out of the room and out of the orphanage.