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  1. At twelve years old Delphinia Acontis was fairly tall for her age, and she drew herself up every inch of it as she approached the high counter. "How much?" Anxiety coils in her gut, but her chin is lifted, pre-pubescent voice demanding as much respect as it could. The woman across the counter splutters, blinking down a long nose through thin spectacles. "W-what?" "I'm 'ere to buy. I got coin. Jus' somefin' simple, for my little brovver." Shifting, she pulls a pouch from under a secret sling within her shirt. Da would beat her senseless if he knew she'd been skimming off the top. Still, this was important. "Love, I think you might be--" "I got coin. You got no reason not to serve us!" The pouch rattles as she slaps it down on the counter to punctuate the point. She feels her brother bury his face in her side at the shouting, dropping a hand to his shoulder to comfort him. "Shh-!" The woman raises her hands defensively, glancing around the room and meeting a few gazes now watching the exchange. Shame rises hot into Delphie's face. "Di' you jus' shush me?" "This is a library!" The woman finally manages, in an exasperated half-whisper. "Fine, we'll jus' take our coin someplace else. C'mon Didge." Snatching the pouch off the counter, she spins on her heel, brother in tow against her side. Hugging Didge a little tighter, she braces for the cold blast of winter air on the other side of the heavy oak doors. "No, no, it's alright. You don't have to go." Rounding the desk, the librarian hurries after them. Like bartering in the market, they always come running when the business threatens to leave. She turns, trying to look confident and judgmental despite the blush clinging to her cheeks. "So you'll sell us a book?" The librarian takes a breath, coming down to a less imposing height on one knee. "We don't sell books here--we're a library. Libraries let people borrow books, you don't have to pay." Delphie glances around skeptically, taking in the tall shelves that stretch back into the building. The woman's tone rankled her pride, but she tries to swallow it down, failing somewhat. "Seems a shi' way to run a shop." Instead of being offended, the woman actually laughs softly. "It's not a shop, it's a... public service. We get our money from taxes, donations, and to some extent, fees." "Fees?" Hazel eyes snap to the older woman's face, cautious of this new catch. "Well people can't keep the books forever, or we wouldn't be able to loan them out to others. So, we let them have them for a certain amount of time, and if they're late bringing them back or lose or damage them, we'll charge a fee for that." "An' that's it? Wha' abou' those wankers? How much do it cost to jus' sit about in here readin'?" "Nothing, as long as you don't ruin any of the books or anything. You're welcome to come in and read for as long as the library is open. You just have to keep your voice down and not bother the other guests." She smiles at them gently. "You wanted a book for your brother?" Delphie looks down at the mop of tight curls pressed against her side. "Gotta teach 'im 'is letters." He peeks out at the librarian, shuffling shyly further behind his sister. "None of the books we got... they's all too hard." "Alright. Well let's get your hands washed so you don't leave any smudges on the books, hm? There's a lavatory over there. Then once you're done, I'll meet you over by the fireplace with some good books for learning to read, alright?" After a moment's consideration, Delphie nods, and soon finds herself hoisting her brother up to help him reach the sink in the washroom. "You're gettin' too 'eavy for this." She mutters into his back. Still, there's something almost sweet in the reminiscence of days when she had constantly carried him; or there would be, if her legs didn't feel about to buckle. "Make sure you use lots of soap. An' ge' a drink. They's prolly go' good water 'ere." Didge hums a little response in place of words, before finally announcing a small, cheery, "done!" Gently placing him back on his feet, she demands an inspection of his hands (wet, but acceptably clean) before moving on to her own. The water prickles at her frostbitten fingers and she grimaces at her features in the mirror. Small wonder the librarian had asked them to wash up, the way her face was smudged with dirt. She takes a moment to clean it, making herself wince as she scrubbed too hard at an old black eye. "Awrigh'?" His tiny voice sounds concerned. "Yeh, I'm fine." She wraps an arm protectively around him once again as they head back out into the main room and make their way over to the fireplace. It roars, grand, warming the whole building from the winter chill outside. Sitting down just in front of the grate, Delphie feels warmer than she's been since fall, though the heat bites painfully into her frozen feet. Didge flops onto the outer hearth, sprawling out and soaking up the warmth of the stones with his whole body. In just a few minutes, she watches more color come into his face than she's seen in months. He looks contented, and lets out a little noise to match. He turns his attention from the fire to her face. "Yous smilin'." He points gleefully up at her. "So? I smile all the time." "Not real smiles." He half crawls, half flops himself across one of her legs. Delphinia's brow knots in concern, and her lips part to start some denial or retort, but she's cut off by a soft WHUMPH and a weight against her back. She jumps, startled, a strangled cry escaping her, dislodging the blanket that had been tossed around her shoulders. Turning, she can't quite reign in the terrified look she gives the librarian. "Shhh! I'm sorry, it's alright. Though I'm afraid I might make you wash your hands twice. My husband accidentally packed me a second lunch. I thought you children might like to have it." The lie is easy for Delphie to detect, but she takes a moment to search the woman's face for the reasoning behind it. Pity. A war between hunger and pride rages in her gut, the pain of her stomach winning out. She looks down, ashamed, as she accepts the handout--a mince pie wrapped in cloth and a tin filled with potatoes. "Fanks." Didge pipes up from her side, earning a surprised look from his sister. He barely spoke to the rest of their family, let alone a stranger. "You're very welcome." Delphie watches her leave, unwrapping the food they were given. The smell of it alone made her salivate and her jaw ache with hunger, but she passes it to Didge. When he breaks off half and hands it back, she hesitates for a moment, wanting to make sure her little brother got his fill. Watching him tuck in happily, she decides to follow suit and let him have the lions share of the potatoes if need be. She forces herself to eat slowly, despite how long its been since her last decent meal, knowing eating too fast could make her sick. Before long, the pair are nestled under the thick wool blanket on a rickety old couch near the fire. Hands cleaned (a second time) and full bellies, Delphie reads softly from a children's book. She hesitates and trips over sounds and words, stuttering across letters. Why did ds and bs need to be so confounding? The librarian would flit by regularly, no doubt checking that the ruffians weren't stealing something; but Delphie couldn't be angry about it. After all, her constant hanging about meant that Delphie could ask her about words she wasn't sure of (never occurring to her that that might be the reason she was there). Didge loved every moment of it, soft little happy hums and gasps of delight at colorful illustrations on the pages. Warm, quiet, content, Delphie eventually feels Didge nodding off against her shoulder. She nestles her chin in his thick curls, taking a break from reading to watch the snow collect on the windowpanes. Closing her eyes, she wonders how it's possible to feel so safe in such a strange place--and if it's possible to feel that way more often. "Delphie?" She jumps slightly, realizing she had dozed off. Her hands instinctively move to her hidden coins and her knife, finding nothing amiss. The fire still roars in the hearth, the snow still collects on the window, the book still stretches across the blanket on her lap. And most importantly, Didge was still curled up against her side. "Yeh?" "Like it here." "Me too Didge." "We'll come back?" Wriggling down deeper into the blanket, she pulls her baby brother into a tight hug. "Yeh, we's gonna come back every day we can. Learn all the fings books got to teach. All their secrets!" She whispers excitedly. "We'll be the cleverest thieves in all Gilneas!" Didge giggles, returning the affection. He smiles down at the book, running a tiny hand over an illustration of some exciting battle filled with wizards, elves and knights. He pauses, his little brow drawing together and looks up at her questioningly. "Why thiefs?"