Glimwarden, Chapter 12

Melanie

It had been a long time since anyone else had lived in the Black Mare. Melanie had a night of restless sleep, and when she woke up in the morning to the sound of carts and footsteps outside, she had a feeling of unease before remembering that there was someone sleeping in what had once been her bed. She moved quietly as she got dressed and used the bathroom, trying her best not to disturb Chloe. She knew the upper floor well enough to avoid the creaky spots, which she’d always had to look out for when her father was hung over. She made her way downstairs in silence.

Breakfast was usually nothing more than grains boiled in milk, but Melanie hadn’t had company in a very long time, so she decided to use some of her store to make a treat for herself and Chloe. The girl had been traveling for a long time and was twice exiled, presumably without any friends or family if she came to the Black Mare alone. That called for warmth and hospitality. The refrigerator and pantry were both nearly empty given that she’d given food and drink to the refugees the night before, but there were enough scraps to pull together a breakfast. She turned the stove on to cook some strips of leftover beef while she made the most of what was left over. Melanie assembled two plates piled high with too much food: toasted butter-crust bread, black currant jam, beef, and fried eggs. Once that was complete, she added cutlery and made her way back up the stairs, hoping that Chloe would wake up before any of it got cold.

Melanie didn’t need to worry though, because Chloe was standing in the small living room. Her head was tilted sideways as she read the titles on the spines of Melanie’s book collection. Melanie shifted her weight on the floorboards to cause a creaking sound, but the other girl showed no reaction.

“I made breakfast,” Melanie said.

Chloe turned from the books and nodded once before sitting down in one of the cramped living room’s two chairs. She took the offered plate and began to eat quickly, intent on her food. It had been the same when she ate dinner last night, as though she expected to have to run at any moment. Melanie tried to imagine it. The desperation of a destroyed home wasn’t uncommon, though it was rare for books to dwell too long on the destruction of a town and the scars that loss left behind.

“There’s a bathroom if you’d like to take a shower,” said Melanie. “We have hot water. And I can loan you some clothes if you’d like.”

“Thanks,” said Chloe between bites. “I can’t repay you.”

“I know,” said Melanie. “You didn’t have anything with the wagons?”

Chloe paused to chew for a moment. Her eyes stayed on Melanie though. “I woke up to the sounds of screaming and ran for the lantern. Everything I had, I left behind.” She frowned. “My mother … didn’t make it.” She fell silent. “Langust fell and there was never a chance to go back for anything.”

“I’m sorry,” said Melanie softly.

“It’s fine,” Chloe replied with a wooden voice. “These things happen.” She returned to her meal, and this time Melanie joined her.

Melanie wanted desperately to ask about the girl’s family, but that line of questioning now seemed closed off. It would be absolutely heartless to launch an inquiry into the girl’s genealogy when she was still mourning the loss of her mother. Melanie noted that there was no mention of a father, which piqued her curiosity, but that too would have to wait for another time. Melanie would have to content herself with the fact that they were both Masters and almost certainly distant relations.

“Do you like books?” asked Melanie, nodding toward her shelf. Money was tight enough that books never stayed with Melanie long; they were traded or sometimes sold as soon as they were read. Her bookshelf was a collection of books she’d borrowed from anyone who would agree to a loan, library books, and books she owned that were waiting for a trade. She could only hope that Chloe wouldn’t judge her on the basis of that collection.

“I don’t really read,” replied Chloe. She glanced briefly at the books, only long enough to confirm that they were of no interest to her.

“Oh,” said Melanie. “And … can you read?”

Chloe glared at her.

“I’m sorry, that was a terrible question, it’s just that you hear so much about what single lantern towns are like, how difficult life is and how little they have,” rambled Melanie. “Books are a luxury and a printing press is one of the last things that anyone would build, so there aren’t really any books if you only have a few hundred people, and besides that you know who everyone is anyway so you could just borrow whatever book you needed. I just thought that maybe it was possible no one had taught you how to read.”

“One lantern towns aren’t like that,” said Chloe. “Early on, maybe, but most one lantern towns aren’t early on, they’re either on their way towards expansion or they’re holding steady and not growing.”

“I’m sorry,” Melanie said again. “I was just … I read a lot of stories and the one lantern towns are always so backwards.”

“They’re dysfunctional,” said Chloe.

“Have you been to other towns then?” asked Melanie. “Besides Gossom, I mean?”

Chloe glanced toward the window that led out onto the street and took some time to eat the last of her bread. “How long can I stay here?” she asked.

“That —” Melanie paused. Her question had gone unanswered. “I don’t really know what the long term plan is. I’ll have to talk to Philip. You can stay here until that’s figured out though. We don’t have the spare housing for another few hundred people, I know that much, so it will take some time to get everyone settled.”

Chloe nodded.

“There’s something that you’re not telling me,” said Melanie. She squared herself. “That’s fine. Whatever it is, you can keep it to yourself. But I can’t promise not to ask questions.”

“Can you keep secrets?” asked Chloe.

“Yes,” said Melanie. “I don’t really have anyone to tell secrets to.” The list only had two names on it: Sander and Philip. Sander would (try to) provide a sympathetic ear, while Philip might actually get something done.

“Good,” said Chloe. “Don’t tell anyone that I’m staying here.”

“And … that’s the secret?” asked Melanie.

“For now,” said Chloe. “I need to get the lay of the land. I need to think.” She twitched her hand and clenched it into a fist. “I need to find out what the others are doing. We can talk tonight.”

Melanie nodded. It was infuriating to have a mystery with no clear resolution in sight, but she reminded herself that life wasn’t like the stories and sometimes a person had to wait for ages before there was a resolution to things that had been started much earlier. Sometimes there wasn’t any resolution at all. Chloe was an unrepentant mystery, far different from the surrogate sister that Melanie had been hoping for last night, but Melanie would give her a chance, if only to find out what secrets she was hiding.

❧❧❧

With the issue of her unexpected house guest put to the side for the time being, Melanie set about her morning work. Nights at the Black Mare were for cleaning, which left the tavern ready for customers come lunch time. That normally left the morning free for cooking, baking, and restocking her supplies. Last night she’d been nearly cleaned out by the refugees, which meant that the morning would be spent at the market, unfortunately leaving little time for reading. Rogue’s Lantern did have a general store, but the prices were higher than at Chancellor’s, which meant that Melanie was in for a two mile walk each way in order to save some money.

When she opened the door to step outside, Sander was waiting for her.

“Hi,” he said with a smile as he pushed off from the wall he was leaning on. “Are you busy?”

“I’m always busy,” replied Melanie. “I need to get to the market.”

“Well, we can walk and talk then?” asked Sander. “Actually, wait a second — do you want to teleport with me?”

“Sander,” Melanie began, ready to shoot him down. She stopped and thought about it for a moment. “Okay, sure, if it will save me some time.”

“Oh, it won’t,” said Sander. “But it will save you some walking, if I can get it to work right.”

“Sure,” said Melanie. “But I thought that teleportation happened in the blink of an eye?”

“I mean, it does,” replied Sander. “Normally, I guess. Or so fast that it might as well be instant. But my signature is a little bit different, because it adds velocity.” He looked at her face and apparently decided that she didn’t understand. “So, velocity is movement in a given direction. That’s two parameters, right? Say, twenty miles per hour due north.”

“I know what velocity is,” replied Melanie. “Can we start walking in case this doesn’t pan out? I don’t want to lose my morning.”

“Sure,” said Sander. He turned to look down the street. “To Chancellor’s?”

Melanie nodded.

“Walking is actually a great example,” said Sander. “Our velocity before, while we were just standing around, was close to being motionless and directionless, relative to the ground, obviously.” He paused for a moment. “Do you know anything about relativity?”

“Do I need to?” asked Melanie. It wasn’t something she remembered from school, but that had been two years ago. “It’s some complicated math thing.”

“It’s also a complicated physics thing,” said Sander. “Anyway, forget that for now. We’re walking, so we have a speed, which is walking speed, and a direction, which is towards Chancellor’s, right?”

“I guess,” said Melanie.

“One of the cool things that you can do with velocity is add them together,” said Sander as they made their way down the street and out of the buildings that collectively made up the neighborhood of Rogue’s Lantern. “Like, let’s say that there are two velocities. Velocity one is our velocity right now, which is walking speed toward Chancellor’s. Velocity two is, maybe … running speed toward Healer’s. If you add those two together, you’d get a new velocity.”

“Running speed plus walking speed, headed that way?” asked Melanie, pointing between the road toward Chancellor’s and the road toward Healer’s.

“Well, kind of but not really,” said Sander. “You need head-to-tail vector addition to get the real result, which is pretty difficult to do in your head … or in your tail for that matter.” He smiled at her, not seeming to mind that she didn’t smile back. “You only add the speed parameters together if the direction parameters are the same. But if the directions are opposite from each other and the speeds are the same, then the speeds would cancel each other out. Get it?”

“I don’t understand what this has to do with your teleportation,” said Melanie.

“Oh,” said Sander. “Well when I teleport, there’s a time parameter and a distance parameter, which naturally gives both a speed and direction, which is a velocity, and it adds to my current velocity.”

By Melanie’s estimation, they were a quarter of the way to Chancellor’s already. “Meaning?” she asked.

“Meaning … well, lots of things,” said Sander. “But the big reason I can’t just teleport us instantly should be obvious: near-instant teleportation means very, very high speeds. High enough to kill me. But even at lower speeds there’s a chance for injury, because I’m going from stopped to a dead sprint all at once.”

“So we can’t save that much time,” said Melanie. “That’s disappointing. Can’t you just run in the opposite direction and then teleport?”

“Yes!” said Sander. “Velocity cancellation was one of the first things I thought about. Come on, hop on my back.”

“I am absolutely not going to do that,” said Melanie. “You can hold my hand. That’s how you did it with Philip, isn’t it?”

Sander nodded. “It was, but that’s inefficient. After I finished at the Black Mare last night I did a few experiments. Mass is a factor, but surface area is too, because the bind needs to envelop that extra mass in some way. So basically, if we’re just holding hands it’s going to take me a lot more bind.” He crouched down. “Hop on.”

Melanie frowned at him and he gave her an expectant smile. She almost never touched other people. Her father had cared little for the concept of personal space; he was always lifting her up to move her aside when she was in the way, wrapping her in hugs, or patting her on the head when she had done something well. Melanie wasn’t averse to touching other people, but at some point she became aware that she wasn’t having any physical contact at all. It was one of those things which, once she’d noticed it, couldn’t be unnoticed. Whenever she touched another person, almost always incidentally in the course of serving food and drink, her mind called attention to it.

The Briars Once More opened up on the main character, Lucian, cursing and grumbling his way down a country road. Melanie had immediately thought to herself, Ah, so Lucian is a gruff and cantankerous character who will slowly be changed by the road of trials he does not know lies ahead of him. But as it turned out, she was wrong; Lucian was normally happy and upbeat, and for the first two chapters he had simply been in an uncharacteristically bad mood. That had left a lasting impression on her, because it opened up the possibility that every future story would trick her in the same way. She began to wonder what it was that defined characters, and eventually she began to wonder what it was that defined people. There was a difference between someone who was acting like a jerk and someone who was actually a jerk. Some things were fundamental to a person while others were only transient, and language did a poor job of differentiating between the two. There was a wide gulf of difference between saying that Melanie read books and saying that Melanie was a reader, because one was a thing that she did and another was a thing that she was.

Melanie didn’t touch other people. It had been that way for so long that she wondered whether it was fundamental. When she was serving people, she found herself handing over plates and cups in such a way that her fingers would have no chance of brushing theirs, if only because it would draw her attention to the fact that this was the only physical contact she would get in the near future. When did it change from something that she did to something that she was?

“Thinking?” asked Sander. He was still crouched down in front of her.

“No,” Melanie replied. She climbed onto Sander’s back and tried to keep from making a squeak as he hooked his arms under her legs and lifted her up. He was more muscular than she would have imagined, but she’d heard that those born of wardens were unnaturally fit. She wrapped her arms around him to keep herself steady; it was uncomfortably intimate, and all the more so because she hadn’t even had so much as a hug in the last two years.

“Okay,” said Sander as he turned in place, back toward Rogue’s Lantern. “Based on my experiments last night, I can go about a mile and a half at my maximum.” He started to jog back towards the lantern. “I can run about three times faster than I can walk, it takes me about forty minutes to walk between lanterns, and we want to come out at just under running speed in the opposite direction, which means … five minutes?” He started picking up his pace, until he was practically sprinting with Melanie clinging to his back. She finally did squeak, just as the scenery changed around them.

Sander gripped her tight as he slid along the road, killing his speed with the friction of his feet. Rogue’s Lantern was far away now, and they were skidding along the cobblestones away from it. Sander nearly lost his balance, but he managed to recover just as they came to a stop. Melanie untangled herself from him and smoothed down her dress as he turned to look at her with a grin on his face.

“There,” he said. His smile was infectious, and Melanie found herself smiling back at him despite herself. “That’s a forty minute walk reduced down to five minutes, so I guess we did end up saving quite a bit of time. I should have done the math before we set out.”

“Are you okay?” asked Melanie. She looked him over. “You’re not going to faint?”

“Nope,” said Sander. “I’m stronger than I was at the battle for Healer’s. Though I have to say that you’re a lot heavier than you look.”

“Sander, that’s rude,” Melanie replied, as though she were talking to a child. She felt a flush creep into her cheeks. She was offended, certainly, but she didn’t imagine that Sander had actually intended any offense.

“No it’s not,” said Sander. “If anything, it’s a compliment, right? I’m saying that you don’t look heavy.”

“No woman wants to be called heavy,” said Melanie. “It’s not a good adjective.”

“I didn’t call you heavy,” said Sander. “I said that you were heavier than you look. You’re still quite light, if I’m on talking about the spectrum of how much people in general weigh. Though I guess I haven’t picked up that many people.”

“Sander,” said Melanie. She tried to put as much warning into her voice as possible.

“All I’m saying is that you can be either heavier than you look, lighter than you look, or weigh as much as someone would think you do when they look at you,” Sander continued, unabated. “I don’t know why one of those would be preferable to the others, because they’re all relative terms.”

Melanie sighed. She could see the direction that the conversation was heading, with no clear resolution in sight, which meant that one of them would have to simply drop it — and this was the sort of thing that Sander could be incredibly obstinate about. She had once listened to him give a long monologue about how stupid fishing quotas were, which he’d delivered with the same sort of tone. “Okay. I have to get all this shopping done so I can start on lunch.”

“I’ll come with,” said Sander. “We still need to have a talk.”

Melanie started walking toward the market and Sander fell into step behind her. “About what?”

“The competition,” said Sander. “I was thinking that we would game it ahead of time. All we really need to do is to figure out what sort of things will be asked of us, so that way we’ll be able to prepare. You’ve read lots of historical accounts, so maybe there’s some precedence?”

“I don’t know,” said Melanie. “You just want to know how glimwardens are chosen?”

“In other towns, if they don’t do it like here,” said Sander. “I went looking for a comparative guide to selection processes, but didn’t find anything. I can’t imagine that someone never wrote one, but apparently it never made its way to Light’s Hollow.”

Melanie could easily imagine that. There were demonstrable gaps in what the libraries and personal collections held, many of which she’d discovered by trying to use the books she was reading to track down other books. “I’m not sure how much help I’ll be,” said Melanie. “It’s hard to know what’s based in reality. I read a story once where new glimwardens were chosen by fairies, which I’m pretty sure don’t actually exist. But if we’re not talking about the fantastic or improbable … maybe we’d be asked to run a race? Or fight each other? Or hunt darklings?”

“I don’t know,” said Sander. “It can’t be anything too dangerous, and it probably won’t be anything where the bind helps too much, because otherwise someone like me who’s in the Auxiliary has too much of an advantage. But I don’t really know what they want from a candidate.”

As they walked past the tall buildings that surrounded Chancellor’s Lantern, they began to hear the buzz of a crowd. The market was only another two blocks away, but on impulse Melanie changed course to go toward the voices. Sander followed without comment, as he had started in on a rather boring description of how he personally would select the next glimwardens, a scheme which apparently involved rewriting (or simply ignoring) a substantial number of laws and completely changing what it meant to be a glimwarden.

The crowd was gathered around the hospital, and standing on some sort of elevated platform in front of the double doors was the old man from Langust, Farrell, who Melanie had seen the day before. He was dressed in finer clothing than he had been, and appeared to be giving a speech. Melanie shushed Sander so she could listen without distraction.

“These people worship fractured gods, but we must not disparage them for their heresy,” said Farrell. “They live decadent, manicured lives, but we must not disparage them for their excess. They live under mob rule, their leaders selected on the basis of mere popularity rather than divine guidance, but we must accept that the divine light of the gods does not come easily. We live now among heretics, but we must make peace with that heresy, lest we find ourselves thrust onto the dangerous path of pilgrims once more.”

“What does any of that mean?” Sander whispered to Melanie.

“It means they don’t like us,” Melanie whispered back. The speech was giving her a queasy feeling. She looked at the people that were gathered around him. They were all refugees, dressed in dingy clothing and with a battered look about them.

“We have been beaten,” Farrell declared. “We will be stronger for our scars. We have been broken. We will be stronger for having mended. We have been exiled. We will be stronger for our journey. There is an old story about the Diplomat, from whom I so gratefully take my name. He came to a large town, much like this one, to speak with them about a structured trade agreement by which all might prosper, as was common before the darklings were so bad as they are today. The people of the town found him to be too foreign and shut him away in their jail, where he could see their town only through a small window to the streets outside. Yet the Diplomat was perfectly content with this arrangement; he waited and listened, gathering what information trickled in. When three days had passed, he learned enough to convince the guards to let him go, and with another three days after that he was able to bring the leaders of the town to heel. His confinement was no punishment. His disadvantage was not just inconsequential, but a blessing in disguise.”

“Come on, let’s go,” said Melanie, though Farrell was continuing to speak.

Sander followed after her. “Are you allowed to just give speeches in front of the hospital like that?” he asked. “What if someone needs emergency care? There had to have been a few hundred people there.”

“I can see why Gossom kicked them out,” said Melanie. The speech was still going on in the distance; Farrell was repeating a story that Melanie had heard before, about the Chancellor and the King coming to terms with one another after the Chancellor beheaded his own wife. “I wish Philip were here.”

“Why?” asked Sander.

“Because he would know what that was about,” said Melanie. “He was insulting us.”

“Maybe he’s just a jerk,” said Sander. “People can be jerks sometimes.”

“He wasn’t just talking for the sake of talking,” said Melanie.

Sander shrugged. It was as though he had already forgotten it. Melanie could tell that there was something dangerous about Farrell though, an unpleasant intensity that was looking for a target. He was, to all appearances, their leader. The truth was, there were too many things happening in Light’s Hollow, and they were happening all at once. A lantern failure, an influx of immigrants, talk of expansion, and all of the usual things that always went on. The town had troubles in the past, but they came one at a time, which allowed for time to adjust and recover. She couldn’t shake the terrible feeling that something bad was going to come of all of this.

❧❧❧

For lunch, Melanie made a large pot of shredded chicken in a fragrant squash broth. It wasn’t her best work, but it was quick enough and the squash — the first harvest of late summer — had been quite cheap owing to some discoloration. Sander had offered to stay behind and help her with the cooking, but she had spent more than enough time with him for one day. For once, he listened to her and didn’t attempt to force himself into her company. The remainder of their morning had been pleasant, for the most part. Sander did most of the talking, and she let his words wash over her like a wave. She was growing more accustomed to the idea that Sander was a friend, rather than someone trying to be her friend. At the very least, he would be an ally in the upcoming competition.

Lunch service was slow at the Black Mare. Construction was still ongoing at Healer’s Lantern, which was pulling in a lot of labor from around Light’s Hollow, and she was certain that the refugees were pulling in their own share of attention, which left Rogue’s Lantern more sleepy than it normally was. One of the worst parts of running a tavern was trying to account for the ebb and flow of customers. Melanie didn’t normally care for keeping her ear to the ground, but that was almost a necessity if she wanted to be able to predict how busy she was going to be.

After lunch there was a lull, which happened on most days. Since there were no pressing matters, that meant it was a time for reading. Melanie buried herself in Shadows in the Lantern Light, which lasted her until it was time for dinner and the copious amounts of drinking that always followed it. Melanie had expected Chloe to make an appearance at some point during the day, if only to grab a bite of food, but there was no sign of the other girl at all, not even after most of her customers were finished with their dinners and halfway drunk. The Black Mare was always most crowded after dinnertime, as it swelled with people looking for a place to be social. Melanie found it annoying, but the margins on drinks were better than on anything else she served, while also requiring the least amount of work from her.

It wasn’t until closing time, as Melanie was encouraging the last stragglers to leave, that Chloe came through the door. She watched the room closely for a few moments before striding in and, without a word, going up the stairs that led up to the living area. Melanie suppressed a frown at that, but she cautioned herself that she shouldn’t have expected too much from the mysterious girl. If Chloe was in bed and asleep before Melanie finished cleaning up, then, she decided, she would have a right to be frustrated.

When she came upstairs though, Chloe was sitting in one of the chairs, waiting patiently.

“How was your day?” asked Melanie. She tried to keep the annoyance from her voice. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Did you tell anyone that I was here?” asked Chloe. She was fidgeting in her seat.

“No,” said Melanie. “Not that I talk with people all that much. Though if you wanted to keep it a secret, you should have waited until the tavern was properly closed.”

Chloe shrugged. “People might talk, but they don’t know who I am. No one does.”

“And who are you?” asked Melanie. She realized that might come off as combative, so softened it immediately. “I mean, I don’t know anything about you, or who you’re hiding from.”

Chloe frowned. “I’m in over my head,” she said. “I need more power. I need allies. I need information.” She hesitated. “Does the word ‘vicissitude’ mean anything to you?”

“It’s a fancy way of saying a change,” replied Melanie. She stopped to think for a moment. “It comes up in stories sometimes, but it’s usually the bad sort of change.” It was a rare word, one that she’d learned from context rather than from looking it up.

“It’s a philosophy from far to the west,” said Chloe. “Some people believe that hardships are the only way that we can become better than we are. A change in circumstances forces a change in the self. My mother …” She paused. “If you mount an attack against someone, they’ll be forced to learn defense. If they’re not challenged, they become lazy and decadent. People only grow when they have no choice but to grow. It’s a way to be cruel and pretend it’s an act of kindness.”

Put a woman under a mountain of debt and claim that you were helping her grow, thought Melanie. “I don’t understand what this has to do with your secrets.”

“The lantern failure in Langust was a vicissitude,” said Chloe. She spat the last word. “It was a challenge they were meant to rise to, and if they didn’t … then they weren’t worthy of their survival.”

“How do you know this?” asked Melanie.

“I saw the man responsible,” said Chloe. “He was an illuminator, with an aura as black as pitch.” She clenched her fist until her knuckles were white. “When he saw me, time stood still, an effect of his signature, I think. He spoke a single word, using it as an apology, an explanation, and a challenge.”

“Vicissitude,” said Melanie.

Chloe nodded.

“Wait, you saw the shadow of the bind on him?” asked Melanie. Which would mean that she herself was a glimwarden — or a cullion.

Chloe flushed. “I need your discretion, for now.”

Melanie hesitated. “Okay,” she said. “But if you need power, allies, and information, I can’t do anything for you.”

“You know people,” said Chloe. Her eyes were intense and searching. “Philip Phandrum is the closest thing that this town has to a crown prince.”

“He —” He has an office, you can just go there and talk to him yourself. Melanie had, of late, been trying to be a more pleasant person, so she stopped herself from saying that. She had never thought of herself as someone with connections, but she supposed that was part of who she’d become. How Chloe knew that was another matter, one question to add to the pile. “Yes, I can help you talk to him. I can’t promise that he’ll be receptive, not without proof, but he’s very reasonable.”

Chloe nodded and sat back in her chair with her eyes closed. “The survival of Light’s Hollow might be at stake,” she said. “Maybe the stone has already been thrown. Vicissitude … it might be visited upon you.”

Glimwarden, Chapter 11

Chloe

Chloe hated Langust from the moment she set foot in it. It was a pimple of a town, insignificant and yet still somehow more unsightly than its size should have allowed. The bulk of the houses were hidden behind a ten foot stone wall with heavy gates leading out into the patchwork of fields. Chloe felt disgust when she saw those walls; darklings could climb walls almost as fast as they could cover open ground, and they were hardly a deterrent to anyone waging a war, since even a halfway powered illuminator — called glimwardens, this far west — could leap the barrier in a single bound. Walls weren’t good for anything. That made them a sign of weakness. People built walls because they wanted to feel safe and secure, but weren’t capable of accomplishing that.

Langust had only a thousand people in it, all huddled around their singular lantern. They were simple people, but that was no great surprise. A town of a thousand people could support only a limited number of businesses, and a single lantern could only capture a limited amount of resources within its circle of safety. The most obvious sign of Langust’s material deficiency was a lack of proper windows. There was presumably some reason that Langust couldn’t make glass, but the result was that the houses were open to the air, protected from the elements by curtains and shutters. Similarly, there was a distinct lack of color within the town, both in what the people wore and in the decorations that adorned the houses and businesses. Clothes were either brown or white, with only small accents of embroidered thread or poor quality jewelry.

If those had been the warning signs, then Chloe’s internal alarm bell began ringing the moment she spotted the cathedral. It was the tallest building in Langust, built with what must have been a damnable amount of labor, and it stood in stark contrast to everything that surrounded it. The buildings of Langust were like too many teeth in an overcrowded mouth, pushing each other aside and built without regard to straight lines or structural stability. It wasn’t a surprise that there was a surfeit of wood in the structures, considering the clear-cutting that had been visible as Chloe had entered into the town. The cathedral was different though; solid stone rose to ten stories, making it visible from practically anywhere, even beyond the walls. It was designed as a place of power, a symbol of authority, which meant that it was exactly where Chloe wanted to go.

Every westward city ultimately descended from Tor Ellsum. Chloe’s mother had once said that visiting a new town was similar to archeology. Each town bore a mark of its descent in one way or another, reflecting the state that Tor Ellsum had been in when the founding caravans were first loaded up. Tor Ellsum wasn’t the direct progenitor of every city in the vast continent, but it had a hand in founding many of them, enough that it paid to know some history.

None of that really mattered though, not in the grand scheme of things. The only thing of any importance was power and who had it. In Chloe’s experience, the best place to start was with whoever had the largest building.

She adjusted her clothes as she went. She was out of place here, and she didn’t know enough about Langust to convincingly blend in. She would need to steal or buy clothes in order to slip back into comfortable anonymity, if she were forced to be here for any appreciable length of time. She had grown accustomed to sleeping behind buildings and under the shade of a tree, but the problem there was always that people didn’t take kindly to it. Renting a place would involve expenses, which meant that Chloe would have to make money, and there were other problems as well, all of which would slow down her plans considerably. She could tell that Langust wasn’t the town for her. Every day spent here would fray at her nerves.

The front face of the cathedral presented three figures in bas-relief standing above six abstract symbols. That alone was enough to give a good measure of how distant the town of Langust was from Tor Ellsum in terms of time. There had been nine gods, once upon a time, but they had been consolidated in three, only the King, the Chancellor, and the Diplomat. The other six gods hadn’t been removed from the collective consciousness all at once, but here it could be plainly seen that they were vestigial. Chloe vaguely recalled the doctrine as suggesting that the three central gods each had three expressions, such that the Singer and the Watcher were merely expressions of the Diplomat, and so on. It was only important that she know enough to not make some terrible gaffe, and that was as simple as remaining silent.

Chloe stopped to watch the entrance to the cathedral. There was a fair amount of foot traffic going in and out of it, which appeared to indicate that it was open to the public, but on closer examination she realized that all of those coming and going were men. A frown crossed her face as she thought about that. She had passed for a boy before, but the fashions in Langust appeared to demand long hair for women and short hair for men. Chloe had no strong opinions on the length of her hair, nor on her personal appearance in general, but cutting her hair now would commit her to a masquerade — one she would be punished for if she were ever found out. The cathedral, then, would have to wait until nightfall. Unfortunately, there were no other likely buildings to case, aside from the nearby lantern which was too closely guarded. Chloe was forced to fall back on her least favorite activity — waiting.

In a town of a thousand people, waiting was a tricky thing. Stand in one place for too long, and eventually someone would come along to ask her who she was, sometimes politely, and other times with their hand on the hilt of their sword. Moving around helped, as did pretending to be engrossed in deep thoughts, but that was a stopgap measure; if anyone was watching, they would pay attention to the fact that the same girl had passed them by three times. What the act of waiting really asked for was somewhere to lay low, but Chloe had only the vaguest understanding of how the city was laid out, let alone the usual paths that people followed, who owned which corners, and how to respond if someone asked her what she was doing. What she needed to do was to find a place of business where she was allowed entry, but she worried she was still too young to not stick out and invite comment. On top of that, she had no money.

That last problem was solved easily enough by pickpocketing from a passing woman. Chloe held no compunctions about stealing from people, aside from the obvious practical matter of what might happen if she got caught. She was usually more concerned with the attention it would bring to her than the actual consequences of incarceration. She was confident that she could escape from any jail this small town would throw her in, and that aside, wasn’t long for Langust anyway. She matched pace with a woman in a long, flowing gown, and slipped her hand into the woman’s pocket. The hardest part of pickpocketing wasn’t actually the skill needed to execute the techniques, but the sheer fortitude necessary to reach into a stranger’s pockets and pluck something out while looking like you were doing something else. Chloe accomplished this with ease and split off into an alley where she could make sure there was no attention on her.

Her prize, as it turned out, was a handful of small metal coins, all impure silver, if Chloe had to guess. They were imprinted with faces of different men and numbers that gave their values. With those in hand, Chloe strode through the streets of Langust, looking for a likely business that would allow her to loiter until the sun had set.

Actually interacting with people was nerve-wracking. Each city was different in its own subtle ways, but the subtleties were never lost on the inhabitants. When Chloe ordered lunch, was the fact that she didn’t order a drink to go with it unusual enough to draw attention? Which kind of drink was an appropriate pairing? Was she supposed to say please and thank you? Show deference to the waitress, who was hosting Chloe, or receive deference, as Chloe was the customer, or possibly both at the same time? Was she meant to pay after placing her order, after the food arrived, or after she was finished with her meal? Was she supposed to clear her own plate? It was these small details that could get people talking, to the point where they would remember her, if not to the point where they would inform the town guard or possibly the illuminators.

Most of the time, Chloe settled for playing a character. She could pretend to have her head in the clouds, or to be lost in the inner workings of some serious intellectual problem. In Langust, the former seemed more suitable than the latter; she’d seen no women going into the cathedral, which was a bad sign. She’d seen from the street that there were women eating in this place though, and some even eating alone, which provided her with some cover. She placed her order with the waitress without incident, picking a baked pork bun off the chalkboard menu. Then she began to listen.

“Well I don’t understand why he would even say such a thing,” said a petite woman who was eating her lunch with another friend at the next table over. “It does nothing to advance his cause and everything to make him look bad.”

“He wasn’t trying to advance his cause,” replied the other girl, who couldn’t have been much older than Chloe (and was one of the reasons Chloe had decided that this place was probably safe). “You think that the man is only looking out for the one thing that he says he is, but it was more about inflicting lasting harm. Diplomat Farrell cares about inflicting harm more than he cares about his cause.”

“That’s so uncharitable to the man!” cried the first woman with a laugh. “I know you don’t like him, but he truly does care about ensuring peace and stability.”

“I never said that he didn’t care,” replied her friend. “I only said that in this particular case, he cared more about inflicting harm on an opponent than he did about his own success. There was no benefit to him in his remarks, at least so far as his chances go, so we must look for benefits elsewhere.”

Chloe switched her focus to another table, making sure that she still wore the expression of a daydreamer. There was a group of three men having a rather heated discussion about the glimwardens.

“You think it’s not the right of a warden to retire?” one of them asked.

“No,” another replied. “Of course not. They make a pledge to the town, and that pledge is for life, not just until the point when they want to stop earning their keep.”

“Might not their retirement be included in their lifetime earnings?” asked another. “There are employers who give their workers one day of the week off, but you wouldn’t say that on that one day they’re not earning their keep.”

“That’s not it,” the second man replied. “A day of rest provides a chance to relax and recuperate for future work, it’s not a reward for work well done. Retirement, for the wardens, would be a gift given by the people of Langust, in direct contradiction with the doctrine of service.”

Chloe itched to ask questions. How many wardens were there, how powerful were they, where were they stationed? She needed to know whether there was any sort of organized opposition to the monopoly of power in the town, as that was the best predictor of whether there were internal patrols. Unfortunately, everyone around her was discussing the nitty-gritty details of daily life rather than the broad picture of how Langust was actually organized. It wasn’t even clear that the cathedral was the seat of power, as she’d expected it to be; surely it had been constructed at great expense, but it was entirely possible that a coup had occurred which moved power over to some other area of the city.

When the food came, she ate quickly, though not so quickly as to draw attention to herself. She let the conversations wash over her, but they were either about issues she didn’t understand, or about the petty experiences people everywhere had in common. Religion was mentioned once or twice, specifically in regards to the Diplomat and Chancellor, but it was difficult to ascertain anything specific. She listened to their accents, trying pick them apart so she could copy them later. Some of the vowels were flattened, and some of the pronouns were occasionally dropped. It was impossible for Chloe to learn it all, but if she kept her answers short, perhaps it was possible to slip beneath notice.

After she was finished eating, she left her money on the table, as she’d seen others do, and headed out to walk around the city. In a fight, she would be against someone who knew the twists and turns of the disordered streets, but scouting out the pathways allowed her to mitigate some of that disadvantage. She tried her best to keep to where other people were gathered, so as not to stick out. As the sun began to set, she made her way back to the cathedral and found a position behind a business that was closed for the evening.

Chloe felt the warmth in the center of her chest, which she’d been carefully carrying around within her all day. Hiding the bind took a significant amount of skill, but her mother had taught her well. A woman could move through even as small a town as Langust without worrying too much about being thought unusual, but if an illuminator had seen her cloaked in the shadow of the bind, there was no chance that she wouldn’t have been chased down. She relented on the suppression, just a small amount, and opened her mind to allow in the extra sensations. When nothing seemed to change, she allowed more out, not enough to refill her stores but enough to see the altered light. She was just in time to see two men, one lit with an aura of sunset red and the other with an aura of sage green, as they walked together into the cathedral. These were the first illuminators that she had seen. She frowned at them, then sealed the bind back inside herself with a force of will.

When they had gone inside, Chloe sat waiting for them to come back out, which didn’t happen until the sun had set. She casually strolled away from the business she’d been hiding behind and made her way to the cathedral, doing her best to look like she was simply out for a stroll. The cathedral was surrounded by a courtyard, which left little space to hide in. That meant that the only way to hide was to pretend that she belonged. The earlier foot traffic in and out of the cathedral appeared to have stopped, leaving her alone as she walked across the cobblestones. When she got to the base of the cathedral, she took a moment to look around, to make sure that no eyes were on her. In the growing darkness, she would only be a shape, except to those eyes that could see the shadow of the bind.

She felt the warmth in her chest again and this time set it free all at once. The bind came flowing back into her, suffusing her muscles and erasing a day’s worth of fatigue. She scanned the town around her, trying to see the telltale glow of another illuminator, but thankfully there were none. She turned her attention back to the cathedral and looked up toward the roof. This close, she could tell the cathedral was fortified, capable of slamming down metal shutters to provide some token resistance; there were few windows, which were mostly set high up in the face of it, above the massive reliefs that showed the Chancellor, Diplomat, and King. She waited as the bind accumulated within her and prayed that no one would come out to stop her.

After two minutes had passed, Chloe accessed her signature. It was pointing down, as it normally was, but now she yanked it with an act of will, turning it to point up instead. She shot into the air, accompanied by the familiar sensation of falling. She adjusted her signature slightly, weakening the pull, then killed her signature entirely as she drew closer to one of the windows. The arc she traced was imperfect, but a steadying hand on the window frame kept her from stumbling as she landed. Thankfully, the lack of glass in Langust meant that she wouldn’t have to take the risk of shattering anything.

The room she stepped into was empty, with only tarp-covered furniture within it. Chloe was not terribly surprised at that; the room was so high up that it would be a terrible place to live, suited only for extravagant parties whose function was to display wealth and power. The height made it unsuitable for proper storage, except perhaps for those things which needed to be kept away from the public eye. Chloe listened closely for the sound of footsteps, then when she convinced herself that there was no one around, set to snooping.

The cathedral’s upper floors were mostly empty, which only reinforced the idea that they were rarely used. One section had a railing around a circular hole, which looked down forty feet to row upon row of pews. For anyone else, the height might have been dizzying. She kept her ears open and let her bind refill, but every new room held only more furniture and sealed up things that were of no use to her. She was beginning to second-guess herself; the cathedral was the largest building within Langust, but it was so far bearing no fruits, and it didn’t seem like anyone made this place their home. The armor she was looking for would take up quite a bit of space and be difficult to hide. She took a rare moment of self-pity to slump against the wall and think about what she knew.

Women were, in most respects, better at being illuminators. The reasons mostly boiled down to physical size. The bind had many functions, but two of the most important were to enhance the physical strength of the user and to propel the user across the field of battle. The first function was muscle agnostic; a person grew more powerful in relation to how much bind they had, regardless of their physical strength without the bind. For the second function, size was a detriment, because the bind required to move the body around increased with mass. There were benefits to having more physical strength, such as the ability to go without using the bind, and there were benefits to being taller and having a longer reach, but in general, shorter, less muscular people made better illuminators, especially as the amount of bind increased. For that reason, it was quite common for enlightened societies to use only women as their illuminators, and then only short and slender women.

The armor that Chloe was looking for had once belonged to one of those women a long, long time ago. A group of despotic matriarchs had controlled a town with an iron grip, one which they tightened by gorging themselves on hearts and fashioning elaborate runework arms and armor. They had become renowned warriors, with their legends eventually finding their way across the land, until some terrible fate befell their city and doomed the survivors to be scattered to the winds. One of those women had marched west to found a new town of her own, wearing bright red armor which increased her strength a thousand times over. Her name had been Langust.

To be sure, there were reasons not to get too excited. Even if the town of Langust had been founded by the legendary Langust herself, there was no guarantee that it would still be around. It was supposed to be a tall suit of armor, rendered perfectly indestructible and capable of producing force to more than match the wearer’s own, but it was possible that only parts of that tale were true, and if its indestructibility had been overstated, perhaps it would have been dented or rusted away. Lastly, even if Chloe could find it somewhere in Langust, she would still have to pry it from the hands of whoever its current owner was — and that was assuming that the tailored armor would fit any small, slender women.

She waited until the cold, dead stillness of night had fully overtaken the town of Langust. As she continued her explorations, she began to feel despair creeping over her. Had she thought that the armor would be tucked away in a storeroom? That it would be proudly put on display instead of used by the local illuminators? The armor was supposed to be an artifact of immense power, built using complex runework and imbued with hundreds of thousands of hearts. Surely it wouldn’t have been buried away, though … the only illuminators she’d seen were men, and not short ones either. At any rate, the suit was nowhere to be found among the cathedral’s empty upper floors, nor did her brief excursions into the lower floors provide any useful fruit. Chloe sighed and rested her head. Unfortunately, this would take some digging.

❧❧❧

Chloe’s first two weeks in Langust passed slowly as she gathered information about the town. She practiced their speech until she could emulate them, stole clothing so she could look like them, and made subtle changes to how she wore her hair. Food and drink were either stolen in the night, or paid for with stolen coin she’d taken from the same businesses that she plundered food and clothing from. Nights were the worst, because she needed a place to sleep without fear of someone finding her. She would have rented a room, but that would raise questions she would be unable to answer, and of course she had no references to give (the same reason she would be incapable of finding a job). In the end, she settled for sneaking into industrial buildings and resting her head on a sack of textiles or a bag of grain, then slipping out before the sun could come up.

She watched Langust’s singular lantern and studied the movements of the illuminators. There were nine in total, far more than required to fuel their lantern, and apparently much more regimented than in other towns, given the similarities in their armor and weapons. Once she knew their movements, she was able to avoid them and plan times when she could use her own bind to her advantage.

Her only real options for information, aside from eavesdropping and watching the movements of the people, were to find the local history books and to actually speak to the citizens to see what she could find.

She tried the books first, but she’d always found reading to be fairly boring, and she didn’t really know where she was supposed to be looking. One of the frustrating things about coming into a town under the cover of darkness is that you couldn’t simple say, “Hello, I’m new here, please explain all the basics to me.” The books weren’t written for outsiders either; where she found histories, they went into the arcana of forgotten political disputes and long-past disasters. For being no more than a hundred and fifty years old, Langust appeared to have had its fair share of tragedies and upheavals. Its historians also had a maddening tendency to ignore chronology. Of the early history of Langust, there was only confirmation that Langust, the person, had actually existed, though confusingly they called her a man. There were two references to “the spirit of Langust”, which apparently came out to protect people in times of need, but the descriptions contradicted each other and didn’t make terribly much sense. Chloe assumed that the spirit of Langust referred to the armor Langust wore, rather than some para-magical effect, but the spirit came out only infrequently. That implied that someone wore it when there was great need, the purpose of restricting it to special occasions was lost on Chloe. The books shed no additional light on the matter.

When she had reached the end of what the histories could tell her, she was forced to speak with the citizens, which she was loathe to do. There were so many ways to go wrong when speaking with strangers. A few days of being in Langust and stealing from its citizens was not sufficient to avoid all pitfalls, nor was there a good way to broach the topic that she was interested in. Her mother had always said that when there were no good ways, bad ways would have to do.

“What do you know about the spirit of Langust?” she asked a young man who was walking by himself on one of the side streets.

He stopped and stared at her with his mouth agape. “What?” he asked.

“Sorry to bother you,” said Chloe. She stuck out her hand. “Chloe Lemprose.”

“Oh,” said the young man. He stuck his own hand out. “Joseph Wells. Are you related to Diane Lemprose?”

Chloe nodded. “We’re second cousins, I think.” The Lemprose name had been borrowed for just that purpose; it was common here, enough to muddy the waters. “A friend and I were having a discussion over lunch and I was wondering whether you knew anything about the spirit of Langust,” Chloe said. “Sorry to just stop you, but I need some direction and you seemed like you might be knowledgeable.”

“I’m not, really,” he replied. He scratched the back of his head.

“Well do you know anyone who might?” she asked.

“Sorry Chloe,” he replied. “All I know is that he comes out when things are at their most dire.”

Chloe clucked her tongue. “Alright, I guess I’ll ask around some more.”

It was a useless exchange, but it did give her an idea — two ideas, actually. The first one was manufacture some reason for the spirit to show her — or his — face though, and that seemed like it was slightly more reckless than the situation called for. The second idea was more simple; follow the pathways of power.

If the spirit of Langust was just the name given to a suit of armor which was worn only in times of needs, that implied that someone had control of the suit. Power accumulated. If you had physical strength, you could use that to gain political strength. If you had economic leverage, you could use that to hire physical power. Chloe had seen it dozens of times before. If someone owned the suit, they were almost certain to have some other sort of leverage within the town of Langust. If they were using it rarely, it was because they didn’t need it to maximize their power. Why anyone would retire a powerful artifact, Chloe didn’t know, but that certainly seemed to be the case.

The most powerful man in Langust was Clement Farrell, the Diplomat, an older man with slicked back gray hair. He was an anointed representative of the god whose name his position bore, and he could be seen in the cathedral day after day, speaking quietly with the men who came to visit him. There was some division among the sexes in Langust, but it was clear that here, men were in control. The illuminators were men, the politicians were men, and men owned all of the businesses. It wasn’t so bad as in other places, as women were allowed to walk freely and speak their minds; Chloe was thankful for that, because it gave her cover to go where she wanted and do what she pleased.

She sat in the upper floors of the cathedral and watched him speak from the balcony there. No one went into the upper floors, so she had made it into a home for herself, albeit one which she couldn’t enter or leave without considerable trouble. She stored food, water, and clothing under one of the wrapped up tables, and occasionally slept up there, leaving before first light so she could wander the town in the middle of the day. She had many of these hidey-holes throughout the town, hidden in out of the way places where they were unlikely to be found. The cathedral was one of the only places where she could spend time without worrying about whether anyone was looking for her, but it was difficult to leave without being seen. Some days, she watched the constant procession of men and tried her best to listen in from dozens of feet away.

The histories told an incomplete story, but at one point there had been a triad of leaders, each taking their title from one of their three gods. The King was the ruler, in charge of directing the productive output of the town. The Chancellor was the adviser to the King, a thinker who steeped himself in the way and means of the world. The Diplomat was a listener, serving as a combination of judge, arbiter, and confession-taker. At some point, the position of King had been retired, leaving only the Diplomat and the Chancellor. Langust’s Chancellor was bed-ridden, and had been for quite some time, leaving the Diplomat as the sole figure at the head of their government, tasked with all responsibilities. So far as Chloe could see, that mostly involved mindless chatter, but she guessed that this was one of those occasions where appearances deceived.

Diplomat Farrell arrived at the cathedral just after the sun rose each day and left just before the sun went down. He had no guards, but people treated him with extreme deference, and not just when he was in the cathedral. He knew everyone in the town; it was quickly apparent that if visiting him once per day wasn’t mandatory, it was at least expected of every healthy adult male. All of the illuminators seemed to report to him as well.

Chloe followed him home one day, from a great distance. She wasn’t surprised to see that he lived in a large house, though the extended family she saw through the windows was surprising. After a brief moment looking in on the house from a safe vantage point, she realized that she was mistaken. The six or seven girls in his house weren’t family members. Her thoughts turned tawdry for a moment before she realized that any one of them would be properly sized for the suit of armor she was seeking.

It took another two days of scouting the house to decide on a method of entry. She eventually settled on breaking in through the third floor, into a room which appeared unoccupied. She waited until deep into the night to do it, both so the town would be as silent as possible, and so that she could regain as much bind as possible. She wasn’t spoiling for a fight, as all she wanted was the armor, but going into an unknown place demanded caution.

She used her signature to fall up towards the window, then immediately pulled back on it until she was drifting upward. She reached out and grabbed onto the shutters to slow herself, which thankfully didn’t make a noise. The shutters were latched by some internal mechanism that Chloe couldn’t see, but she had always been strong with using the bind for telekinesis. The bind suffused her bones and muscles; it clung to her skin to prevent injuries. But skin was just a conceptual limit, and the protective field could be pushed and shaped. As she clung to the shutters, nearly weightless, she pressed a finger where the latch would be and closed her eyes to give special attention to her extrasensory perception. She extended the bind from her finger, pushing it forward and into the crack between the slats, feeling with it until she encountered the latching mechanism. With a mental push, she unlatched it, then swung the shutters open. Chloe swung herself inside before allowing her signature to fade away and leave her standing in what appeared to be a storage room. She looked around carefully, then glanced down the street outside to make sure no alarm had been raised. When she looked back into the dark room and let her eyes adjust, she saw the armor.

It was larger than she’d thought it would be, seven feet tall and splayed open, which only served to make it seem wider than it really was. The exterior was metal, painted red, but the inside of it was gray cloth, some of it clearly stained with blood and sweat. Chloe approached it cautiously.

It made a certain sort of sense to hide the armor; if there was a mythology around it, it was better to bring it out in times of need to claim a mandate from the founder of the town. And if it were to be hidden, it was better to hide it near where those who would use it would have ready access to it. Chloe had no idea who the girls who lived in this house were, but she accepted that they were meant to use this suit. It felt like a moment of undue serendipity to find the armor here.

Now it was time for the moment of truth. She strode forward to try the armor on. If it fit her, she would run away from Langust that very night, leaving all of her caches behind. If it didn’t fit, she would have to find some other way to steal it; carrying it through the woods while darklings made their attacks didn’t seem like a winning strategy, even if she was able to procure a lantern small enough to carry with her. She slipped off her shoes, unbuttoned her dress and let it fall to the floor, then clambered into the armor.

Armor was normally thin; even full plate was no more thick than padded fabric. Langust’s armor was monstrously thick, enough that it seemed to envelop Chloe as she stepped into it. When her foot was halfway down the boot, it stopped, leaving her feeling as though she were standing on foot-high heels. Her hand snaked its way through the forearm of the armor and found a thin cloth glove which her fingers slipped into, still far from where the gloves of the armor appeared to be. She moved her fingers, experimentally, and saw that the red fingers of the armor moved in sympathy; she was simply controlling them from within the forearm.

The armor did not fit perfectly. It was tight around her calves, and as she sealed it up, she felt it pinch slightly at her hips. The suit was all one piece, though individual parts of it flexed and opened. The only piece that wasn’t connected was the helm, which Chloe put on once she had everything else in place. When she’d put it on, she had a shock; as seen from the inside, the helm was completely transparent. That was impossible with any of the effects runework could produce, and Chloe had no idea how an artisan might have accomplished it. She looked around the room, being careful in her movements so as not to make any noise, then took her first step.

To start with, the armor was light. That couldn’t possibly have been natural, given how thick and layered it was, but the effect could be accomplished through runework, if you were willing to pay the price. That allowed for better mobility than Chloe would have expected for something so bulky. The real boon that the armor provided was how it added to strength. The effect was subtle at first, but as Chloe moved silently through a few martial arts forms, she saw the trick to it. The armor amplified what the wearer did, but it did it unevenly; it added little when moving slowly, but provided a great deal of power when attempting to leverage full force. There were other strange things to get used to, like the slope her feet seemed to be on and the sensation that her fingers weren’t where they were supposed to be, but the armor very nearly fit her and seemed to be in good working order.

Chloe stepped up to the window, whose shutters were half-opened to let in moonlight. She stepped up to the sill, conscious that her feet were in a very different place than they should have been, then turned her signature toward the sky and started falling toward the moon and stars, leaving Diplomat Farrell and his house behind her.

❧❧❧

Chloe had passed the city walls of Langust and was loping through the fields when she saw the first darkling. She stopped in her tracks and took a quick gauge of her bind: halfway full. It was one of the smaller ones, dog-like, and it was visible only briefly as it ran between two fields of maize. She waited for it to spring towards her, and grimaced as she realized that she was unarmed. There had been no weapons within the room that held the armor, or else she would have taken something with her. Given that she was encased in the armor though, a small darkling like that would hardly prove a problem.

It took another moment for her mind to catch up with her fighting instinct. She was within a few hundred feet of the town’s walls, well within what should have been its domain. In the two weeks she’d staying in Langust, she had never ventured outside those walls. The large lanterns all tended to be the same size for reasons of efficiency, but it was possible that Langust used a much smaller lantern for some reason, but —

Another two darklings darted through the fields. The maize was tall enough that they could only barely be seen as ripples in their stalks, nearly indistinguishable from the movement of the breeze.

Chloe tugged on her signature and fell up into the sky to get a better view before she could be attacked. She looked toward the town from above, and saw not a single light on in any of the windows. It was the dead of night, but even then there should have been lights on, places where someone had forgotten to turn off a light before bed, or public places that were constantly lit even at night. The whole town was dark and silent. Chloe let herself fall back down to the ground. There was no wailing alarm, no voice calmly projected over speaker asking people to wake up. A quick glance to the wall showed that the early darklings were scaling it with practiced ease.

Chloe swore to herself and dropped back to the ground, allowing her bind and the armor to break her fall. Without much of a thought, she ran back toward Langust, kicking up dust and muttering under her breath as she covered the ground. When she reached the city walls, she leapt over them in a single bound, passing by the darklings and landing on a roof with unsteady, armored feet.

“Wake up!” she shouted at the top of her lungs. “Wake up!”

Glimwarden, Chapter 10

Melanie

The competition had been announced as planned, even in the wake of the lantern failure. Melanie had responded by making an announcement of her own; for the duration of the competition, the Black Mare would be closed. She posted the notice on the front door with a certain feeling of trepidation, not just because of her deal with Colsum, but because of the faint worry that if she closed down for long, business would be dry when she reopened the shop. Through the rest of the day, there were a few whispered conversations and glances in her direction, but it wasn’t until William, her ill-favored suitor, came in that anyone asked her about it directly.

“You’re going to join the competition?” he asked. “Why?

“Was there something that you’d like to order?” asked Melanie. “The soup of the day is a creamy fennel chowder.”

“You never said anything about wanting to be a glimwarden,” said William.

“A woman is allowed to have her own private life,” Melanie replied. It still felt odd to refer to herself as a woman, but she managed not to stumble over that. “As it happens, my private life is quite extensive and no concern of yours.”

“You’ll make a fool of yourself,” said William. He straightened his shirt and looked around the tavern, which had a large enough crowd that Melanie had little time for her current book. “Look, I’ve made no secret of my affection toward you, but it’s precisely this sort of thing that makes my father think that we’re not a suitable match.”

Melanie frowned. It was true that it wasn’t a secret, but he had never said anything outright. Instead, he’d come to visit the Black Mare from time to time and always sat at the bar, asking her questions and attempting to engage her in conversation. William Wright came from a moderately wealthy family, but that was the only thing that was attractive about him. His face was plain and forgettable and he had neither a workman’s firm roughness nor the delicate grace of an aristocrat. Melanie had already decided that she had no interest in him, not even as a potential solution to the problem of her debt. She had imagined that he would fade away into the background, never to be seen nor heard from again.

“What is it you like about me?” asked Melanie.

“I — well, I think you’re beautiful, to start with,” said William. “And you’re smart, you’re independent in a way that’s really very rare …” He looked around again to see whether anyone was watching. Melanie saw a couple in a booth turn away before William laid eyes on them.

Melanie wanted to respond that he was wrong. She wasn’t smart, she just read a lot. She had done well in school, but that was mostly because she’d had few friends. She wanted to tell William that she was not, in fact, beautiful, which seemed like a simple objective fact. Melanie didn’t think of herself as ugly, but when she looked in the mirror she saw too many flaws. William was only saying that she was smart and pretty because that was something he thought he should say. Perhaps he believed what he was saying, but that didn’t make him right. And that left only her independence, which was a simple illusion; she was independent only because her parents had died, not because of any personal attribute. She was shackled to the Black Mare; that was the least independent arrangement she could imagine.

Telling William he was wrong would only result in him insisting that he was right. He would believe that she was either humble or self-deprecating, but either way she wouldn’t convince him that she shouldn’t be the object of his affections. In the past, Melanie had dealt with suitors by being herself, which seemed to be more than enough to put them off. So far, that hadn’t worked with William, and Melanie wasn’t convinced that it ever would. Still, she didn’t see why she had to be the one to tell him that his pursuit was ill-advised, and she wasn’t about to do it in her place of business while nosy people were listening in. The problem was that the Black Mare was open most of the day, and she was loathe to cut its hours and reduce her profits. That left little time to seek William out in a place where they could have a painful discussion in private.

“So you like that I’m independent but you don’t think that I should try to become a glimwarden?” asked Melanie.

“You’re twisting my words,” said William.

“You like that I’m independent because it means that it will be easier to chain me in servitude?” asked Melanie.

“That’s not fair,” said William.

“I don’t really care,” replied Melanie. “I don’t think it’s fair of you to come to my place of business and insult the choices that I’ve made for my own reasons. If I pay back unfairness with unfairness, that almost seems equitable, doesn’t it?”

William frowned at her. “I suppose I’ll see you on the battlefield, won’t I?”

“I suppose so,” said Melanie. “Unless you wanted something to eat?”

William scoffed and turned away from her. She could only hope that this was the end of him coming into the Black Mare. She watched his back as he went, trying to push him along with her gaze. As William pushed his way out the door, Sander slipped inside.

“Melanie!” he called. His curly blond hair bounced as he jogged toward her counter. “I ate your cake, it was delicious.”

“You’re alive,” she replied. She felt a contentedness settle into her belly at that. “Don’t do that again.”

“Don’t make a miraculous recovery?” asked Sander with a ready smile. Philip, who had entered just after Sander, came up to lay the two borrowed swords on the bar.

“You know what I meant,” said Melanie. “Stay safe so that people don’t have to worry about you.”

“It’s nice to know that you worried about me,” replied Sander. He was giving her one of his idiot grins, like a dog that couldn’t stop wagging its tail.

“I didn’t say that I worried about you,” said Melanie. “I only said people were worried about you. I presume, anyway.”

“Thank you for use of the swords,” interjected Philip. “They served us well. I can only apologize for the delay in returning them.”

“It’s not a problem,” said Melanie. “At least now they’ll have one true story attached to them.” She lifted the swords and looked them over, in part to distract herself from the way that Sander was looking at her. She’d known the cake was a bad idea, but it had helped her feel better in the short term. She had encouraged his friendship and was now reaping the rewards. Comparing him to a dog was unfair, but there was some truth to it. He was both excitable and loyal, quick to take a compliment but slow to understand criticism. In The Briars Once More, everyone had an animal familiar that followed them around; Melanie had thought that Sander’s would be a dog for as long as she’d known him. (She felt that her own familiar would be a cat.)

“I’m sorry to cut this short,” said Philip. “But I need to attend to a matter that Sander and I were discussing.”

Sander looked at him in surprise. “You do?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Philip. “I consider it under the umbrella of my duties to the mayor’s office. If I’m right, there are going to be both political and logistical challenges to be met.”

“I can come with,” said Sander.

“Dealing with people isn’t where you’re most skilled,” Philip replied, which Melanie felt was an enormous understatement. “Melanie’s been looking forward to seeing you better, and I’m sure there are things the two of you would like to catch up on. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, depending on how things go with the foreigners.”

Sander looked at Melanie, then nodded to Philip. “Alright, thanks for taking me to see Kelly.”

“You were the one doing me a favor,” Philip shrugged. He turned and left the tavern, walking quickly as though he were afraid that he would be followed.

“What were the two of you talking about?” asked Melanie.

“Oh,” said Sander. “Kelso Kelly is an engineer, he invented a new type of gun that’s … beautiful would be under-selling it, though I still want to see how it performs. Anyway, we got to talking about sulfur and I suggested that we pump it out of the ground by melting it first. Kelly seemed to think it was a good idea, which made me feel great, especially since it’s been a while since I put my mind to engineering.” His excitement dampened somewhat. “Of course, actually building the pump will take some time and I don’t know much about drilling, but I’m hopeful that something will come of it.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t demand to be his apprentice,” said Melanie.

Sander shook his head. “I’m going down a different path now, remember? I’m going to become a glimwarden. If I’d met Kelly when I was an apprentice engineer, I have a feeling he could have introduced me to some new and interesting problems … but at the same time, a lot of it is probably tedious machining work to get the parts right, and he doesn’t seem to be well-respected — not that I really need respect, but it seems like he must deal with grunt work if the other engineers don’t give him the resources he needs.”

“Oh,” said Melanie. She hadn’t forgotten that Sander was trying to become a glimwarden, but she had never seen wardens as being terribly intellectual, and the match still seemed odd to her, even with Sander’s proclamation that he was going to bring his brain to bear on the power of the bind. “But wait, why did Philip have to leave? This engineer is building the brimstone pump quickly?”

“No,” said Sander, shaking his head. “There are people coming in. I saw them when I was flying.”

Melanie paused for a moment, at a loss for words. “When was it you woke up?” she asked.

“Uh, earlier today?” Sander replied.

Melanie pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. One of the frustrating things about Sander was that he seemed to do more in the span of a single day than she did over an entire week. He had been laying in a hospital for six days, during which she’d accomplished little but turning raw ingredients into profitable meals, and when he woke up he’d raced right on ahead of her. He did this sort of thing constantly; it was how he’d burned his way through three apprenticeships in record time.

“Okay,” said Melanie. She waited for him to fill the silence, as he always did, but when she opened her eyes, he was just looking at her and chewing on his lip. “What?” she asked.

“Well, I was just about to tell you about how I flew, but then I thought that you might not like it,” said Sander. “I was … have I ever told you about how people are like equations?”

“Yes,” said Melanie. “At length.”

“Well, I have a partial Melanie equation,” said Sander. “I mean, a real person’s full equation would be impossibly complex — I mean, not impossibly, because people are real, but implausible to work through even if you had months with a pencil and paper. But for all the important people in my life, I try to keep a partial equation that I can plug numbers into so that I can see what the results will be.”

“And you do this with actual numbers?” asked Melanie.

“I tried it for a while,” said Sander. He shrugged. “I was young and naive. I thought maybe people were simple enough that you could narrow them down to a few hundred variables. The more I read about brains, the less I thought that was true though. So the partial equation is more based on intuition.”

“So you’re treating me like I’m a character in a book,” said Melanie. It wasn’t what she’d particularly wanted to hear, but she couldn’t deny that there were some similarities to how she sometimes tried to frame the world.

“Sort of,” said Sander. “I mean … stories are just stories and it’s about figuring out how a person would respond, not sticking people with stereotypes and then treating them like they’re in a plot.”

“That’s not how stories work,” said Melanie. “Or at least it’s not how good stories work.” She waved a hand. “Anyway. You were saying that I wouldn’t like that you flew.”

“Right,” said Sander. “I mean, technically it was more falling than flying, but birds aren’t always flapping their wings, right? They’re falling, but we call it flying. I guess the distinction would be that they’re still producing lift.”

Melanie shrugged.

“My signature is teleportation-based,” said Sander. “So I just teleported myself straight into the sky.”

“And then teleported back down to the ground?” asked Melanie. “Godering did that in The Skywarden’s Plight.” If Sander had actually read all the books in Light’s Hollow, he would have known that, but really, he wouldn’t know a story if it hit him in the face.

“Oh,” said Sander.

This was one of those moments when Melanie was expected to say something to reassure Sander that he really was clever, but that sort of thing always took far too much energy. She was about to let the moment pass in silence, until she remembered that she had thought he was dead and cried in the back room thinking about all the regrets she’d had in how she’d dealt with him. Sander wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, and she was lonely enough that she didn’t really want him to.

“What was it like, being high in the sky?” she asked. Too much time had passed for this to be a deft conversational gambit.

“Wonderful,” said Sander. His voice was soft. “You look at maps of the region, but seeing it from above in all its glory, spread out … I wish there were a way to bring the image back, so I could show it to you.” He paused for a moment. “Actually, it’s possible that I could take you.”

“Teleport me?” asked Melanie.

“Sure,” replied Sander. “I can take my clothes with me, so there’s no good reason I couldn’t take a person. Or if there is a good reason, no one has told me yet. We could travel into the sky together.”

“I’d like that,” said Melanie. She hesitated and looked at the door of the Black Mare, where her notice had been posted. Had Sander seen it when he came in? “I hope that my signature is something interesting like yours.”

“Your … signature?” he asked.

“I’m entering the competition,” said Melanie. She tried to prepare herself for the moment when Sander would inevitably disappoint her. Sander stared at her for a moment with his mouth slightly open.

“That’s great!” he said. “Philip and I were looking for a third, or at least we were when I … when the lantern failed.” He shifted in his seat.

“There aren’t teams,” said Melanie.

“No, but there are probably going to be opportunities for us to help each other, even if it’s only a little bit,” said Sander. “And there are three slots open, and three of us, so I think it will work out well.”

“Five slots,” replied Melanie. “At least, that’s what —” my aunt told me “— I heard.”

“Either way,” said Sander. “We can help each other out. I don’t think it will be hard to talk Philip into it. That’s what friends are for, right?”

“Right,” Melanie replied. She even managed to give him a smile, even though her thoughts had turned in the direction of her split loyalties. “Speaking of Philip, you didn’t tell me where he went off to, just that there were people.”

“I was scouting,” said Sander. “There’s still probably a Schism out there somewhere, but I couldn’t see it. What I spotted instead were a few hundred people coming from Gossom.”

Melanie felt herself stiffen at the mention of that. Every time a caravan came into Light’s Hollow, she thought about her father. There was a small part of her that she’d tried her best to extinguish, a little girl that lived inside her and wanted nothing more than to see her father come back home, no matter what he’d done. In the first year, she’d closed the Black Mare every time a caravan came in and rushed to see whether her father had returned home, even though he’d left no doubt about whether he was gone for good. She didn’t rush to the caravans anymore, though she hadn’t stopped wanting to.

She blamed the stories for teaching her the wrong lessons. In a story, if a child was left on the doorstep at the beginning and became the protagonist, it would be a crime against storytelling for him to never find out who his parents were. If a child’s mother went missing in the woods, no sane author would conclude the story without her being found. Even apparent deaths couldn’t be trusted, because it was fairly common for parents to come back from them, even if it was sometimes as a phantasmal spirit. Melanie knew, logically, that the world didn’t work like that. Even if she could have figured out a way to follow in his tracks, she was never going to see her father again. Yet that didn’t stop the small part of her that believed she would see him again, as illogical as it was.

“Hundreds of people,” said Melanie. “Did something bad happen?”

“I have no idea,” Sander replied. “They were too far away to make out all that much, except for the guy in red armor.”

Melanie itched to find Philip and wait for the caravan, but there was always — always and forever — the Black Mare to think about. There was a pot of root vegetable stew going, ready for the influx of patrons that came at dinner time, so it wasn’t just a matter of the lost sales of sagewine and ale, the stew would need to be kept until the next day. There was also some question about whether her patrons would come back the next day if she shut down; if they came to the Black Mare and found it closed, they would pursue other avenues to slake their need for drinks and company. It was possible that they would be slow to come back.

What she really needed was an employee, but she had only very recently gotten to a place where she wasn’t exclusively putting her money into necessary purchases. She had almost half of the next payment ready long before it was needed, and there was so far nothing that she needed to spend that money on. Having someone work for her, even if it was only part time, would erase all that. And yet … she had so little time to herself. There were moments when the business was quiet and she could read a book, but even then she was chained to the Black Mare, unable to leave and subject to interruptions.

“I can watch the tavern for you if you want to go,” said Sander.

“What?” asked Melanie. “Why would you say that?” There were stories where glimwardens had frightening signatures, ones that could reach into heads and pull out thoughts. She knew Sander’s signature wasn’t like that, but if each signature was, in theory, a learnable technique —

“You’re thinking about your father,” said Sander. “You don’t do a lot of talking, most of the time, but you have very distinctive silences. The caravan made you think about your father, which … I can’t describe it, but there’s this look you get. You want to go to the caravan, like you’ve done before.”

Melanie watched him closely.

“Am I right?” asked Sander. “Like I said, I only have the partial Melanie equation.”

That was Sander, through and through. Most of the time he seemed perfectly oblivious, content to wander through life without worrying about what other people were thinking or how he was perceived by them. Yet in contrast to that, there were these moments of vulnerability where he bared his heart without even seeming to realize how much he’d exposed of himself. And there were moments of insight into other people, though they were few and far between, and almost always about people he was close to. Melanie had often worried that if he got to know her too well, he would pull her apart like a flower and expose every dark crevice of her mind.

“It’s stupid,” said Melanie. “There’s no point in me going.”

“If it will make you feel better, it’s not stupid,” said Sander. “I have no idea how to run a tavern in the long term, but in the short term I think I can handle it. Consider it payback for the cake.”

“I won’t be gone long,” said Melanie, before she could change her mind.

❧❧❧

There was another reason for Melanie to go meet the new arrivals, beyond the faint hope that her father would somehow be there. Gavin Masters had come to Light’s Hollow as an outsider, which had caused him a fair amount of grief and hardship. Melanie was an outsider by proxy, especially following her mother’s death and her later rejection by the Linwells. She had never met another Masters before, but she held some hope that she would.

Melanie found the refugees — as that was clearly what they were, just from looking at them — standing around at the outskirts of Rogue’s Lantern. There were hundreds of people, though it was difficult to count how many, and it was clear that many people from Light’s Hollow had come out to discuss or gawk. Some relief had already been brought out to the refugees in the form of water barrels, but for the time being no one was making a move to provide anything more substantial. No one who lived in Rogue’s Lantern had the supplies necessary to feed hundreds of people with no notice. That lack of notice appeared to be the subject under discussion as Melanie drew closer. Philip, naturally, was at the center of it, though he was accompanied by one of the town’s glimwardens.

“We have an agreement that mandates three day’s notice,” said Philip. He was speaking to two men. One was tanned and fit, in the way that glimwardens often were, with two swords at his hips and a knife in a sheath on his leg. He had a strained smile as Philip spoke. Melanie was fairly sure that she had seen him before, acting as a guide for caravans from Gossom. The other man wore red full plate armor and stood seven feet tall, towering over everyone else around him. His weapon was a spear whose tip was adorned with feathers and a sharp, gleaming bit of metal. There was no skin exposed and no movement of the armor; Melanie would almost have believed that it was simply a suit of armor. Everyone seemed to be paying him as little attention as possible.

“We tried on the radio, right at the usual time,” said the tanned man with a wide smile. “We can only be asked to try, can’t we? If you don’t respond, what are we to do, assume Light’s Hollow has fallen?”

“We’ve been dealing with a lantern failure of our own,” said Philip. “We can find a place for the refugees, but without any advance notice it’s going to be quite difficult.”

“We lost five glimwardens,” said the female warden standing next to Philip. Melanie tried to recall the name, but came up with nothing. She was dressed provocatively, with her midriff exposed and her arms completely uncovered. “Both of those responsible for checking in via radio died. We’re obviously so, so sorry that it slipped through the cracks.” She didn’t quite spit out the words.

“Five?” asked the tanned warden. “Is that a blow you can recover from?”

“Of course,” she replied. “You might understand how we wouldn’t welcome distractions though.”

A man stepped forward from the crowd. He was better dressed than the others, though his clothes showed signs of wear. Melanie had no idea where Langust was — or had been — but if these people were coming to Light’s Hollow by way of Gossom, she guessed that it was quite distant, at least by the appearance of his clothes.

“Who is in charge here?” he asked with a deep voice. His face was lined with wrinkles and his gray hair was slicked back. He had a familiarity to him that it took Melanie a moment to place; he reminded her of Colsum. “Certainly not the boy, and certainly not the woman.”

“Now you, I think, aren’t going to be coming into this town unless you learn to show a little respect,” said Merry.

“Glimwarden Myles is the second most highly ranked of our wardens,” said Philip. “As I said to your wardens, my name is Philip Phandrum and I act under the authority of the mayor’s office. What’s important now —”

“You have the authority to tell us where we’ll go or what we’ll do?” asked the old man. “You can give us the food, water, and shelter we require? Find jobs for us?”

Philip frowned. “I apologize, I didn’t get your name.”

“Clement Farrell,” he replied. “I would prefer to deal with someone who has some measure of power.”

“As I said,” Philip repeated, “I speak with the authority of the mayor’s office and will act in his stead until he is notified and arrives to treat with the survivors of Langust. Citizenship is guaranteed to all who enter Light’s Hollow, so long as you declare that you intend to take up permanent residence here. Is that your intent?”

“Our intent was to take up in Gossom,” snorted Farrell with a look toward the tanned glimwarden.

Melanie watched the reactions to that. The tanned glimwarden winced and Warden Myles stiffened up. The hulking red suit of armor didn’t move at all. For his part, Philip stood firm and impassive, as though he had known this all along and was entirely unconcerned with the fact that Gossom had, apparently, forced these people to become a problem for Light’s Hollow.

“What do your people need in the short term?” Philip asked Farrell. “Were you sent away from Gossom with sick and wounded?”

“Oh come now,” the glimwardern from Gossom interjected.

“We will need to speak with you about the circumstances under which this happened,” said Philip. He folded his arms across his chest. “Our two towns have enjoyed a mutually beneficial arrangement which I think entitles us to at least an explanation for your behavior.” His look softened somewhat as he turned to the refugees. “Of course, I’m only here to see to the immediate problems. The city council will have to convene in order to determine what resources can be spared, but be assured that we will do our best to integrate you into the city, if that is your wish.”

“There’s one other matter,” said Warden Myles. She turned to confront the seven-foot tall suit of armor with a spear at its side. On looking at it again, Melanie was unnerved by the fact that there wasn’t a single bit of skin showing from beneath the articulated plate. “The man in red. You’re from Langust?”

“Yes,” the man in the armor replied. The voice was deep and sounded off in a subtly unpleasant way.

“We can deal with this later,” said Philip.

“You’re a glimwarden without a town,” said Warden Myles. “If you mean to stay here, you’ll need to make your pledge to Light’s Hollow. Until that time, drop the spear and start stripping down.”

“Come on now Merry,” said Gossom’s glimwarden.

“No,” replied the man in the suit of armor.

“He cannot remove the armor,” said Farrell. For the first time, he had a smile on his face. “He is a spirit, the spirit of Langust himself, bound into the holy red as our protector.”

Melanie watched carefully. There were stories about such things, but she’d never thought that they were real. A few books had described automatons, beings of clockwork, while others had posited a soul bound into either armor or statuary. Either way, that would make the suit of red armor a being of immense power.

“I can see the shadow of the bind creeping out from that armor,” said Warden Myles. “It’s got a hue like a cloudless sky at noon. Don’t try to pull one over on me, there’s a person in there.”

“The spirit comes and goes in times of need,” said Farrell. “He saw us safely across the wretched wilderness, then again during our exile. He will not bow to the likes of you.”

“The likes of me?” asked Warden Myles. She dropped her hands to her hips, where they rested on a pair of pistols. “Well I can see why Gossom didn’t want you. But I’m afraid I must insist that your hulking glimwarden strip down.”

“No,” said the voice in the suit of armor.

“It is customary,” said the tanned glimwarden.

“I think that in light of the circumstances we can dispense with custom,” Philip said quickly. “These people have lost their homes and it would do us well to be sensitive to their unpleasant situation, one which has been exacerbated by Gossom.”

“The armor cannot be removed,” said Farrell. “It is bound to the spirit, as old as Langust himself. There is no person to see beneath it.”

“Bullshit,” said Warden Myles. “You’re with us, in which case you can take the pledge now, or you’re stripping down. There’s such a thing as the rule of law.”

The suit of armor, whether there was a man in it or not, turned and began walking away, back down the road they’d come in on. Warden Myles tightened her grip on her pistols, but made no move to stop him as the crowd parted for him.

“Where’s it going?” she asked.

“The spirit will return in our time of need,” said Farrell. “It is Langust’s legacy, its strength, unable to be opposed by mere laws. Where it goes and what it does is not the concern of mortal men, let alone mortal women.”

“Let the darklings take it,” muttered Warden Myles, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Philip turned from the gathering and walked over to Melanie. She was startled by his sudden approach, rooted to the spot under the scrutiny of his gaze. When he was only a few feet from her, he leaned in and spoke in a low voice.

“How much food and drink do you have in the Black Mare?” he asked.

“I — enough for the next few days,” replied Melanie. “But I can’t feed these people —”

“You would be compensated,” Philip replied. “The city would pay you as much as your customers pay, with an additional sum for the inconvenience.”

Melanie looked into his pale blue eyes. He was offering her a substantial sum, but she didn’t know whether this was a personal favor or simply a necessity of expedience. Either way, selling her entire stock of food and drink at a profit would be an incredible boon, especially since she was planning to close the store in the near future.

“Sure,” she said. “Now?”

“If you’d please,” said Philip. “There’s no need for you to host them, but I don’t want this to turn any uglier than it already is.”

“Thank you,” said Melanie. She paused slightly. “If you find anyone who shares my last name, can you let me know?”

“Sure, since you’re doing me a favor,” replied Philip. He gave her a smile and slipped back toward Warden Myles, who was having a low conversation with the tanned glimwarden.

❧❧❧

Melanie was putting up the chairs for the night in preparation for sweeping the floor when there was a knock on her door. She frowned in irritation; cleaning up the Black Mare every night was something she often sped through so that she could get some reading in before bed, and she’d been lost in thought trying to work out what the ending of Lamplight Delight would be. She was clearly closed, but on occasion someone would knock on her door in order to plead for just a little drink.

When she unlatched the door, she found a pale, redheaded girl looking at her with sunken eyes. They were the same age, to all appearances, though Melanie considered herself exceptionally bad at divining ages. The girl’s clothing was stained with sweat and dirt; her hair was tied up in a bun, but also clearly in need of washing. Melanie had been prepared to say that the Black Mare was closed, but it felt like far too rude of a thing to say.

“Can I help you?” asked Melanie.

“I was assigned to you for housing,” said the girl.

Melanie looked her up and down again. “I’m sorry, I didn’t agree to let anyone stay with me.”

The girl shrugged. “I was told to come here.”

Melanie bit her lip. There were two bedrooms above the Black Mare, one small and the other large. The small one had been hers; she had waited two months after her father had left to switch from the cramped room beneath the eaves to the master bedroom. She had often thought about renting one of the rooms out for more money, but it was so tightly integrated with the tavern below (it had no kitchen of its own and it was difficult to sleep while there were patrons in the bar) that she didn’t expect the income to be worth the effort.

“Do you run this place?” asked the girl. “Or can I talk to who does?”

“It’s mine,” said Melanie. She held out her hand. “Melanie Masters.”

“Oh,” said the girl. Her handshake was limp. “Chloe Masters.” She shifted on her feet. “So can I stay?”

“You’re a Masters?” asked Melanie. “Did Philip send you?”

“Philip?” asked the girl.

“Nevermind,” said Melanie. “So we’re family then?”

The girl shrugged a second time. “I guess.” She swayed slightly on her feet.

Melanie had questions, but it was clear that Chloe was in no state to answer them, especially while standing outside the door in the cold. A quick look at the girl’s shoes showed that they were threadbare, almost more like slippers, and Melanie felt a pang of discomfort at the thought of walking in them. She had to assume that Philip had pushed this girl in her direction, but that still left the question of why she was coming over so late. Melanie felt a sharp pang of pessimism come over her. It didn’t quite feel right that she should ask for something from the world and get it with no strings attached, not after the day had already gone so well. She pushed her feelings aside as story-thinking not suited to the real world.

“I have a room for you, yes, but I’ll need to prepare it,” said Melanie. “In the meantime, I have a small bit of cheese and meat left over, in case you’re hungry.”

The girl’s eyes lit up, and she followed Melanie into the Black Mare.

The Astronaut’s Lament

Three mages stood in the center of the crowded stadium. Fentwick hadn’t wanted to watch even before it became a big media spectacle. The plan had been to do the casting on a tarmac with some bleachers around it, but instead they were at the Grand Central Arena, where games of blankball normally took place. Instead of a small group of technicians, with perhaps some of their friends and family, there were literally thousands of people, most of them cheering and screaming while the mages and support team went through a series of complex checks before actually casting the spell. He had no idea what it was the spectators thought was going to happen here. When the spell was cast, the mages would simply vanish with little fanfare.

Fentwick’s role in it was done. He wasn’t a mage, didn’t have the Talent, but he was proud to be among the top spell writers in the entire world. There was nothing for him to do now. Though he could run through the whole procedure blindfolded (all of the spells being cast in sequence by the ground crews, all the couplings and subspells that needed to be cast as groundwork) he would have been just as useful and half as anxious watching from home. Clara had insisted though, and so Fentwick sat in his seat next to the other movers and shakers on the project.

There were nearly two dozen all-seeing eyes hovering between the first and second shielding layers, each one dynamically linked to millions if not billions of watchers. Fentwick was sure that at any given time he’d be in view of a substantial fraction of them, and equally sure that none of the viewers would care or even know who he was. Yet somehow, being observed still produced a nervous knot in his stomach. Fentwick had written a substantial fraction of the primary teleportation spell, and directed the others in writing their own parts of it. This was Fentwick’s performance as much as the three mages, but he knew he would only be acknowledged if there was a failure. He could imagine the commentators pulling up a recording of his face falling, replaying it over and over again for their viewers while discussing his faults in detail.

With ten seconds left, he wanted to run away and bury his head between his legs until someone told him one way or another that it was over. The ground crew had cleared the area, ten layers of shielding were up, and the three mages acted in perfect synchronization. That was the result of a particularly brilliant subspell which Fentwick had invented and which would surely make the company gobs of money when it was monetized. When there were five seconds left, their tongues took on the speedshape, and they spoke faster than a person ever could, a single monolithic spell that Fentwick had crafted during a series of eighty-hour workweeks. Their speech was under the power of the kemberstones now, and nothing could stop the spell  from finishing.

In the last second before the spell was finished, the shields bent outward under some invisible pressure. By all accounts that should have been impossible. Then the three mages exploded in a shower of flesh and blood, their liquefied remains splattering the insides of the many shields.

Fentwick bolted.


He hadn’t been able to escape, of course.

Now he stared at a screen, trying to keep his mind off the eyes of everyone else in the silent conference room. They were all staring at him, and he could feel it.

“Well?” asked Clara frostily.

She had been the one to grab him from the corridor, gripping him painfully around the waist with a giant, invisible hand, nearly choking the life from him as she delivered a long, loud stream of invective. It was clear that the blame had to fall on someone, and he was the obvious choice. She’d left her mood macros running, giving her veins an unearthly red glow and projecting phantom horns from her head. It was a frivolous use of the Talent, to give physical form to your feelings, but Clara was management, and management seemed to revel in frivolous displays.

It had only been a half hour since then. They sat in a large room off the side of the stadium. The spell writers had their screens pulled up, and the management watched them intently, sometimes talking amongst themselves, sometimes ducking into the other room to see how the global conversation was taking shape. Clara wasn’t talking to anyone. She had brought a chair right next to his, and stared at him while he tried to work.

Half an hour was nothing. If Fentwick could figure out what the problem had been in half an hour, he would deserve to be executed. They didn’t do that anymore, or at least hadn’t in several decades, but Fentwick had put in hundreds, maybe thousands of hours on this project, had run a whole suite of QA, had made other people run QA, and worked with a team of a dozen other people and if they could figure out in a half hour why they’d just killed three men, then he well and truly deserved to have Clara point a lightning bolt his way and pop his head like a grape.

“Well?” she asked again, louder, as though he just hadn’t heard her.

“It should have worked,” he said weakly, for what felt like the fifth or sixth time.

“Then why the fuck didn’t it!” screamed Clara, her face close to his, breath hot against his skin.

Fentwick turned to the side and puked.


After a week had passed, and the investigation had hit roadblock after roadblock, help was called in. Fentwick barely slept a wink in that entire time, chewing on kola root to stay awake. The ground crew had been cleared of suspicion early on, the castings checked and rechecked, the visuals from the all-seeing eyes played over and over. There was no way fault could lay with the three mages who had lost their lives, not only because of how disastrous that would be to a company whose stock was in tailspin, but because there was simply nothing that they could have done. Mages didn’t really cast spells anymore, they cast through a kemberstone or something similar, all skill and imagination removed by the powerful suites of rote spellwork crafted by spell writers. The mages had their duties on the other side of teleportation. Mostly, they had just been square jaws and broad shoulders that looked good on camera.

That left Fentwick, the architect of the spell.

His eyes were bleary, and the spell was losing its meaning to him. He’d stepped through every line of it, like a scholar trying too hard at coming up with an original thesis statement on some long-combed over work. Clara was saying something, and Fentwick only slowly looked up. Standing in front of him was a mountain of a man, with a long grey beard and unfashionable pleated trousers.

“Who?” Fentwick asked, having missed most of the introduction.

“Gavin Tanse,” said the man with a wide grin, holding out his hand. Fentwick took it, too tired to feel stunned. Gavin Tanse, the man who invented spell-writing nearly from whole cloth, whose system of glyphs and sigils had allowed mages to increase efficiency a thousandfold, who had made obscene amounts of money and disappeared from the world stage more than ten years ago. Gavin Tanse, that Gavin Tanse, was standing in Fentwick’s workshop. He was the man who had essentially cemented the tradition of people without the Talent working on writing spells.


Gavin was a genius. Fentwick was smart, perhaps one of the most accomplished spell-writers of his generation, but Gavin had put the whole puzzle together back when there was no hint that there were even any puzzle pieces. Gavin was two or maybe even three times older than Fentwick was, but it didn’t show at all in how he moved about. He made expansive hand gestures and laughed loud and hard at the slightest provocation. His personality filled the room.

After two days of working together, after Fentwick had actually gotten some sleep, Gavin had found the answer. The solution was arcane, and even after going through it three times Fentwick wasn’t sure he understood it. Mercifully, Gavin offered to do the talking.

“It can’t be done,” he announced to the collected managers, mages, and executives.

“What do you mean it can’t be done?” asked Clara. “We sent probes, we sent animals, we tested it thoroughly. It can be done.”

“No,” replied Gavin firmly. “It can’t be done. Not with anyone who has the Talent. Mana generates at a constant rate, and slowly fills a mage. You’re violating light speed with the spell, but it still counts as a full year from the standpoint of mana generation. A whole year of mana, released all at once, and that gets you a sizable explosion at either end, though I take it you haven’t confirmed that at the destination site. I built the original protocols for teleportation from the basest blocks of reality up, so when I tell you that it’s impossible, I mean it, full stop. No way around it.”

Fentwick braced for shouting and screaming of the kind that was usually directed at him, but instead they were low murmurs among the gathered crowd of managers. For a long time, no one spoke to either of them. Clara looked worried, and whispered to the woman next to her.

Finally, Clara stood up. “We have sunk millions of dollars into this project. The prize for reaching Tau Ceti is the only way to recoup costs. The Heshler Group opted for light-speed limited travel, and will arrive in three months. Are you now telling us that we are going to lose to them?”

“You must not have been listening to me,” said Gavin with a smile. “I said that it can’t be done by anyone who has the Talent. The problem comes from mana accumulation within the mage. To fix the problem, we simply send someone without the Talent.”

The room burst with voices all at once, until Clara cast a quick spell macro that snapped silence down over the room. Her voice was pure as crystal in the still air.

“How long will it take to make the change?” she asked.

“Two months at eighty percent confidence,” replied Gavin.

“Do it,” she said.


Fentwick went over the spell, again and again. Modern spells were written in layers, and for his entire life, Fentwick had only dealt with the highest of the layers. The lower layers were there, and Fentwick had a passing knowledge of them, but no serious spell writers actually dealt with them. A single sentence at the highest layer translated into a series of hundreds of unintelligible glyphs at the lowest layer, and that in turn translated in a mage’s speech. Few of those with the Talent even knew the mage’s speech anymore; instead, they carried their kemberstones, laden with prewritten spells, and used them through an interface that would twist their tongues into uncomfortable shapes for them, as quick as could be.

While Gavin concentrated on making the change to their teleportation spell, Fentwick dove into the lower layers, looking through the libraries of glyphs that the higher layers depended on. They were a week away from the second launch when he finally decided to talk with Gavin about what he’d found.

“You lied to them,” said Fentwick. He tried to make it an accusation, but it came out like a question instead.

“In what way?” asked Gavin, not looking away from his screen. They were the only ones in the office, with no risk of being overheard.

“You made up all that stuff about mana accumulation and discharge,” said Fentwick. “I’ve been looking through the lower layers, the stuff you wrote decades ago, and inside the teleportation protocols well, at first I thought that you’d made an error in your summation, but the more I looked at it, the more I saw it wasn’t just a mistake. It was deliberate. It’s hidden, hidden deeper than anyone would ever care to look, but it’s there. I found it. The protocols themselves cause the problem. You knew that. You could have fixed it in a handful of days, but … but you were the one who put it there in the first place. It’s an exponential function, one that doesn’t do anything when a person teleports around a planet or even a solar system, but one that’s lethal over light-years.”

“And?” asked Gavin, not seeming all that concerned.

“You killed three men,” said Fentwick. “But I can’t understand why.”

Gavin turned to look at him. “Do you know why those with the Talent are almost never spell writers?” he asked.

“No,” said Fentwick. “They just don’t like it as much, I suppose.” He was having trouble seeing where this was going.

“It’s not that,” said Gavin. “They have the Talent, and that opens them up to an enormous amount of opportunity. Most go directly into a field where they can focus on the use of magic, to better leverage their skills. Writing spells, in contrast, is something that can leverage your brain, and there’s no real benefit to having the Talent, save perhaps the ability to test your own spells which can be lethal to a cocksure spell writer with the Talent who’s just starting out. The Talent gives you this power, the power to build, to create, to perform, and it would seem a waste to spend your life on something that the Talent doesn’t benefit at all.”

“You’re going to answer my question?” asked Fentwick.

“We live in a stratified society,” said Gavin. “Those with the Talent are at the top, paid handsomely for their use of magic, or born into money made by parents and grandparents that used the Talent. Clara isn’t in charge because she has some special aptitude for management, she’s in charge because of an accident of her birth.

“And that’s how the society would remain, those with the Talent on top, and those without on the bottom, save for the fact that we can teleport across the vastness of space, and they cannot.”

Fentwick rubbed at his forehead. “But that’s not true.”

“It is so far as anyone but you or I know,” said Gavin. “This was the plan, decades ago. Eventually we would crowd the earth, and look to the stars. Spaceships are all well and good, but teleportation is more attractive by a wide margin. They would try to send mages, of course, and they would find that it fails. A savant might have been able to figure it out, to reach down into the depths of things written long ago and see what I had done, to peer past the obfuscation I’d put in place, but who would that savant be but another man living beneath the oppression of the Talented?”

“You want my silence,” said Fentwick. He felt sad and hollow.

“Think of it,” said Gavin. “It will be people like you and I that set up colonies on other planets, circling other stars. The Talented can have the earth. They can cloister themselves here and reap the rewards of our mining and farming, but the world of exploration, or expansion, that will belong to our people.”

“You’re talking about a revolution,” said Fentwick.

Gavin nodded. “A slow one, one that will be generations in the making.”

“And if they find your treachery?” asked Fentwick. “If someone else is motivated to see through your deceptions?”

“Then they’ll hang me,” said Gavin with a shrug. “And it will have still been worth it.” He turned back to his screen. “There’s a reason you came to me alone, instead of holding a meeting with Clara. You know that. If you’re going to turn me in, I only ask that you do it quickly. I think we both know what your decision will be though.”


The second launch was less ostentatious than the first, and done on a tarmac that the company had rented out. Fentwick had wanted to avoid it just as much as he’d wanted to avoid the first one, but for different reasons. Clara had insisted, with venom in her voice.

Three men stood inside a circle, and three mages stood outside it. The men had spells cast on them already, the better to survive the adverse conditions. A second spell, the reverse of the first, would be used to pull them back after they’d collected the samples and planted the company’s flag. The Heshler Group would arrive in two weeks, and find that the prize had already been won by a group of men for whom interstellar travel had been a day trip instead of a matter of three long years stuck in a cramped metal can. Gavin was certain that teleportation would be made the dominant mode of travel in the coming centuries.

The spell went off without a hitch, and the three men vanished. Fentwick let out a breath he’d been holding in. There was muted cheering among the spectators.

Gavin had laid out a dream of escape, of normal humans once again becoming the dominant form of life, but Fentwick wasn’t so sure. He’d burned his notes and done everything he could think of to give himself plausible deniability, just in case the treachery ever came to light.

In the deep core of his being, he felt a glimmer of hope.

The Randi Prize

Peter could make coins disappear by snapping his fingers.

It seemed to follow some rules. One snap of the fingers made one coin vanish. The first test he’d done, after discovering this ability, was to set coins out in front of him and repeatedly snap his fingers to watch what order they were vanished in. Higher denomination coins went first. Coins that were closer to him went first. After getting out a ruler, Peter found that “close” was mostly determined by how far away the coin was from his heart. He tested snapping upside down, and on his back, but that didn’t seem to matter. He tested to see what happened when a higher denomination coin was more distant than a lower denomination, and eventually found out what governed it; a penny would be vanished if it was more than five times closer than a nickel, and a nickel would be vanished if it was five times closer than a quarter.

By the end of the first day, Peter had blown through thirty dollars in change. His change jar was empty, and his thumb and middle finger were both sore. He had no idea where it was the coins were going. There were more questions beyond that, like what would happen with Canadian coins or the coins from the car wash, but Peter had a bona fide superpower. The only thing left to do was turn it to his advantage.

James Randi was a skeptic, who established a prize in 1964 which would go towards anyone with the ability to demonstrate a supernatural ability. Currently, the prize was a million dollars. Vanishing coins with a snap of the fingers didn’t seem to be all that useful, and it didn’t need to be something kept secret, so trying for the Randi Prize first (before anything else) seemed to be the way to go. Peter carefully filled out his application, got a signature from his (completely shocked) brother Kris who worked as a physicist, sent it off through the mail, and got his response back a few days later.

The protocol was carefully agreed on. Peter had snapped away more than a hundred dollars by now, many of them in Kris’s lab under close observation. The biggest practical application seemed to be in waste disposal; if it was possible for the power to recognize nuclear waste as a coin, perhaps by having it minted, then Peter could slowly clear the world of it. The largest coin in the world weighed a ton, and Peter was fairly sure that he would be able to vanish it just as easily as a simple penny. If the United States could declare their nuclear coins to be worth a trillion dollars each, then he might even be able to vanish them from the safety of his home. (Peter’s own knowledge didn’t seem to enter into it. They’d done double-blind tests.)

On the day of the preliminary test, Peter was stunned to see that Randi himself had shown up. He had a thick white beard and large glasses; at age 86, it was a surprise to see him out and about. Peter shook his hand, and Randi smiled.

“I won’t interfere with the protocol,” said Randi. “I won’t touch the materials, or offer any objections. We’ve read what you claimed, and seen the video evidence, so all that’s left is to prove it for real. If you’re the genuine article, we’ll know soon enough.”

They had cordoned off a field, at Peter’s expense. Everyone attending — about a dozen people in total — had taken away all of their coins. Peter had been out in the field snapping his fingers earlier in the day, to make sure that there were no coins buried underground or laying in the grass. He’d run through the protocol six times before Randi and the proctor had shown up.

The proctor came forward and placed a single quarter on a small black table. The table had been examined beforehand. The quarter had been brought by the proctor from a bank, and there were many more outside the cordoned area as replacements or backups.

Everyone stared at the quarter. Peter raised his hand slowly. He had to work to keep it from trembling. He snapped his fingers, and nothing happened.

He snapped his fingers again. The quarter remained in place. There were a million dollars on the line. Peter had already begun spending the money in his head. He snapped a third time, and a fourth, and kept going until Kris stepped forward and told him to stop. They had a brief conversation as they tried to figure out what the problem might be, but the only thing they could think was that there were other, valuable coins too close by. Peter resumed snapping again, and got as close to the quarter as the proctor and the protocols would allow, but after a hundred snaps, the test was marked as a failure. Randi left, and Peter was left wondering what happened.

The power never came back, no matter how long and how hard Peter snapped his fingers. The brief few days of magic seemed almost like a dream. Peter might have been able to believe that it was a temporary delusion, if not for the videotapes.

Weeks later, Peter got a knock on his door. When he opened it, James Randi stood in front of him, with his thick white beard and a black suit with a red tie.

“I wasn’t a fraud,” said Peter. “It really was happening.”

“May I come in?” asked Randi. Peter nodded, and they moved into the living room. Randi sat down in a chair and massaged his knees. “Peter, do you know how many people have come to me over the years?”

“Uh, three hundred and sixty?” asked Peter. “That’s what the internet said. I tried to cover my bases. But I had a real power,” said Peter. “It wasn’t all in my head. Other people saw it too.”

“Do you think that you are unique?” asked Randi. “In the history of the world, do you think that you are the single person to have ever displayed or discovered a supernatural power?”

“I … no,” said Peter. “I suppose not. But then why has the prize been around for so long? Why hasn’t someone claimed it?”

Randi pulled a quarter from his pocket, balanced it on his thumb for a moment, and then flicked it into the air. It spun around, making a shimmering sphere as it traced a parabolic arc. When it reached the apex, Randi snapped his fingers, and the coin disappeared.

“Three hundred and sixty tests,” said Randi. “None of them passed. The common denominator was me.” He smiled, revealing his teeth.

“How?” asked Peter. “*Why?*”

“I’ve never been able to explain how,” said Randi. “The why should be obvious though. If you could take that power from someone, why wouldn’t you? The prize draws them in like moths to a flame. All it takes is a shake of the hand.”

“I’ll,” Peter began. “I’ll expose you. You stole from me!”

“You haven’t been listening,” said Randi. He stood up slowly. “Psychics come to me, and I take their powers. Do you understand why I’m here? It’s not to gloat. This is cleanup.”

And then Peter was alone. He was feeling sad, and tried to remember why. The videotapes, that was it. He’d carefully edited them to make it seem like a coin was disappearing. It had taken hours of his time, and all for nothing. Why had he thought that he could cheat Randi like that?