Satina could smell the paper from the street facing entrance. She stood just inside the stone arch and inhaled the crisp, slightly-musty aroma of old knowledge. Outside the nook, the sea still dominated the evening air, tangy and full of salt and fish and other slippery creatures. Here, however, she could block out the tide for a moment and enjoy the smells of home. Stories lived here, and any town that boasted an archive, that still cared about what once was, was worth her time—even a port town.
Even one that belonged to the Shades.
She ignored that mark, glowing faintly over the doorway inside and out, and lifted her skirts and cape hem enough to enter the main room. It wasn’t quite three stories, and the scrolls that rested on the rickety shelves had long gaps between them, empty spaces where the stories stopped, where history paused and waited to be filled in by the knowledgeable—or the creative. Still, books were books, and she felt her shoulders relax instantly in the presence of these.
The late hour had brought only one other wanderer to the stacks. A woman in a green dress and ratty shawl slumped at one of the reading desks. She’d found a proper book, neatly bound in leather that frayed at each corner, and she lifted the pages with a soft hand, so focused that she failed to give any sign that she noticed Satina’s entrance.
The custodian, however, did not fail to notice. He stumped across the floor boards with the help of a slim cane. His back hunched as much as the woman’s, but it had the permanent curl of long years behind it. A sparse patch of white hair waved at the back of his bald head, and his eyes were barely visible between wrinkles that looked more than a little like old leather. Satina imagined him as a book as well, worn but still brimming with information.
She brushed her cloak back behind her shoulders and marched out to meet him. Reading tables stood to either side, and behind those, the shelves rose all the way to the high ceiling. The old man didn’t come straight at her. He wandered in a serpentine between and around the tables, muddled perhaps, or maybe driven by long custom to a well trodden path. Either way, the center aisle was clear and yet he drifted around to her left side and approached between the rows.
“Eh?” His cane thumped a final, reverberating clank against the boards, and he leaned forward and titled his head to the side. “You want to read something?”
“Yes, no. I mean I do, but…” But I need a place to hide out. But they’re after me, and your archive felt safe and homey. “I was just hoping for a quiet moment.”
“Well, quiet we can do.” He chuckled, and his old shoulders bounced with it. The gesture went a long ways toward calming her as well. His lips shifted into a smile. Friendly. Here where the paper smelled better than the sea, she’d found exactly what she’d hoped. “This way.”
Satina followed him to the front of the room. They went straight on the return trip, as if his sideways ritual had been appeased. Each step brought a thump of the cane, rattled the shelves and sent a soft whisper of papers rustling. Very nice.
“You’re a goodmother.” His voice was low to begin with, but facing away from her, it dimmed even more, and she had to stretch to catch his words. “Aren’t you?”
“Not something you see every day.”
“I can imagine.”
“You grant wishes too?” He stopped beside a tall podium. It faced out across the tables, allowing him to watch the doorway and read at the same time. But she hadn’t seen him behind it when she entered, had she?
“Sometimes.” She’d missed the second tag too, the glowing Shade symbol etched and also painted across the podium’s front.
“I got me a wish,” he said.
Satina took a step backwards. There was only open aisle behind her, and she could run well when she needed to. “Oh?”
“Oh yes.” His old hand shot up, and Satina heard the woman at the table move. She heard the pattering footsteps that would put her directly behind and right in the center of the aisle. “It doesn’t pay well, reading books.”
“You want money?” She could work with that. She’d done it before, but the woman he’d ordered to block her exit suggested this wouldn’t be quite that simple.
“There’s a reward for her.” The lady’s voice rasped more from hard living than age. She probably drank, but then, living in a gang town did that to you. “I seen the flier.”
“I can get you more than that.” Satina stepped back quickly, heard the woman come forward and saw her answer on the old man’s face. Her fingers slipped inside her cloak, and her eyes scanned the building, tried to peer back farther, behind the stacks. “I can grant bigger wishes than that.”
The custodian came forward, nodding his head until the white fluff danced madly. When he stopped, his eyes stretched wide enough she could almost make out their color. “Except, we’d rather just have the reward. You see, we’re a Shade town, goodmother, and you are worth more than money here.”
Satina had no answer to that. There was no answer to it. She bolted straight for him instead. His arms snatched at her cloak, but he was by far the feebler of the two Shades, and she pressed past him, dodging enough that his fingers only brushed the fabric. She threw a handful of powder back over her shoulder, igniting it with a thought. The flash would earn her only a few strides lead, but a few strides would help.
The custodian shouted to the woman, and the clatter of feet chased her to the back wall. No exit there, but she’d seen a glint of moonlight to the left. She spun and slipped behind the shelves, leaping a pile of books and an old crate and making for what she prayed was an unbarred window.
“Stop her!” The man screamed from his podium, too feeble for the chase even.
Satina paused at the open sill, threw a leg outside and looked back to find the woman way too close behind her. She shoved off, fell the short drop to the brush below the window and thanked her goodmother luck for an archive in an old enough building not to have glass panes, not to have its shutters locked.
“She’s here!” Her luck ran out when the woman started screaming. “The Granter is here!”
Lights moved in the streets. Feet pounded against paver stones and even the distant wharfs shifted their attention to her, to the criminal in their midst. Satina bolted uphill, not by the wide road but out across the fields. She ducked through a slick, wooden fence and ran out through the moonlight toward the nearest stand of trees and the pocket hiding in their shelter.
Her cloak billowed like a shadow behind her. She held her skirts high and churned each step closer to safety. They’d spotted her, of course. Men with torches at the fence, slipping through, following her. A dog bayed, and she ran faster, ran until her chest tightened.
The forest drew her in, but the Shades would not stop at its edge. She fled through a thin strip of brush, leaped a fallen log and skidded to a stop beside a tree like any one of the others. The dog growled, just on the far side of the log. Satina stopped to face it. She watched the flames drifting into the woods, saw the torches come.
She should have known better than to try this town. Too many nights sleeping on cold ground had softened her good senses. She’d only thought the archive, thought that a town with an archive, might see past gangs and affiliations. A stupid thought. Now the Shade town faced her, a ring of anger and flame. The dog snarled, and the goodmother Granter stepped one pace to the side and vanished.