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.”
“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.