Kingdoms Gone: Book One
By Frances Pauli
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 gapped 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 show any sign that she noticed Satina’s entrance.
The custodian, however, did not. 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 trod 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.