The Mender and the Builder were brothers. For a long period of time, perhaps years, perhaps eons, they lived together in harmony. One day, as they were laying together by the lake, the Builder said to his brother that there was nothing in life that equaled the act of creation. The Mender took offense at that, and proclaimed that there was nothing better in life than to fix that which was broken. The Builder protested that building was the finer art, requiring more talent and tenacity. The Mender responded that the act of creation took little in the way of intellect and likened it to a farmer casting seeds into a field, hoping that a beautiful flower might grow. The argument between the two grew heated, for neither was willing to back down from his position. Eventually the disagreement threatened to become violent, but the two brothers, being civilized men, agreed to settle it by means of a duel. The duel lasted three days without pause, as sword clashed against sword. When the Mender’s concentration slipped, the Builder drove his sword into his brother’s skull, killing him instantly. The Builder felt remorse at once, and tried to make his brother whole, but there was nothing he could do. He cast the swords into the sea and vowed never to harm another soul.
According to Gavin Masters, these were the swords that hung in the Black Mare.
In the thousand-lantern city of Tor Ellsum, far to the east, Ailos was regarded as a master among thieves. With a silver tongue and a black heart, he stole his way across the city, having no higher purpose than the accumulation of wealth. The princess of Tor Ellsum tried to tame him; she polished the soot from his heart to make it shine like a mirror. From that point on, Ailos found it harder to kill, because he saw himself reflected in those he once dispatched without a second thought. He took this in stride though, and began to carry a second sword with him in his travels. When he came across someone that stood in the way of his thefts, he would offer them one of the swords so that they could defend themselves. In this way, Ailos believed that he was giving them a fair chance for their survival and assuaged his guilt about what he was doing. If Ailos handed you one of his swords, it was a death sentence, as there was no better fighter in all of Tor Ellsum. The two swords became the stuff of legend.
According to Gavin Masters, these were the swords that hung in the Black Mare.
There was once a young prince whose bride died in a tragic accident the day after their wedding. Thoughts of how he might save her crowded the young man’s mind. He chased down every likely story he could find, then every unlikely story, seeking out any magic that might help him in his quest. Eventually he found an amulet that would wind back the years and return him to the night just before the wedding, so that he might avert the fate of his bride. When he arrived in the past though, he came across himself as a younger man. He conversed with his past self only briefly, until it became clear that neither was willing to share the bride. They fought a duel with identical swords, drawing from the same pool of tricks and techniques. Eventually, the scales were tipped in the favor of the future prince, and then only because of what they ate for breakfast the morning before. The prince slew his past, buried the body, and prevented the death of his bride. The swords he kept, as a reminder of what he would do for the sake of love.
According to Gavin Masters, these were the swords that hung in the Black Mare.
Melanie’s father had been overflowing with stories. The two swords that hung crossed on the wall were one of a dozen pieces he placed around the tavern. Fishermen used worms, but Gavin Masters used framed coins and multicolored masks. When people inevitably took the bait and asked him about these curios, he would eagerly spin a story for them. He’d once told Melanie that the stories were the primary reason that people came to the Black Mare. The curios gave the place an otherworldly ambiance, but it was the stories that accompanied them that transported the patrons to distant lands.
Eventually, Gavin Masters felt the need to be transported to distant lands in a decidedly less metaphorical way. Melanie found his note only after the caravan had already carried him away. It ran to six pages in dense, cramped writing. Melanie burned it after her first week alone, but she could still quote pieces of it verbatim. Her father only spoke to her directly twice, the first time to tell her he was proud of the woman she’d become, and the second time to explain that the Black Mare was in her hands. Everything else was the story of Gavin Masters, as told by Gavin Masters. He claimed to have been unfairly maligned for his status as a foreigner, denied the praise he so rightfully deserved, robbed of the happy life that always seemed to be just one step ahead of him. He was going to travel the world, to take caravans from town to town, to work where work could be found and start writing some of his stories down.
Melanie hadn’t found out about the debt until the next day.
In the two years since then, she hadn’t made too many changes to the Black Mare. The menu varied based on what was cheap and in season, rather than using any of her father’s eclectic ideas. At first she tried to tell stories like her father had, but they always came out wrong. She would realize later, when she was back behind the counter, that there was a more elegant way to say what she had wanted to. Eventually she stopped trying. This seemed to have little impact on the business, contrary to what her father had said about the importance of stories.
She had sold the curios that adorned the walls one-by-one. Some of them were worthless, like the five vials of colored water that her father had alternately claimed were potions of incredible power or samples taken from the bodies of dead gods. Others had some worth though, like the multicolored masks, or the rare coins from other towns. Melanie hated going to the market to sell those things. Trying to make a sale always felt like begging. Eventually, the walls were stripped bare, save for one exception: the pair of swords that Sander and Philip had taken.
The Black Mare had emptied out after the alarm sounded. Melanie sat behind the counter, reading Flowers of Bone, but her eyes kept wandering over the same paragraph over and over again without actually taking in the words. Flowers of Bone was a dark and brooding book, which was part of the problem, but Melanie didn’t think the problem would be solved by going upstairs to find something happier to read. The alarm could still be heard in the distance, loud enough that it was impossible to simply ignore.
Eventually, people started coming back in. Some of them were strangers to her; Melanie guessed that they were refugees from Healer’s Lantern. She listened closely to the conversations, trying to hear whether anyone had news to share, but they only knew as much as she did. They’d left their homes and businesses behind without knowing how soon they’d be able to return. In the backs of their minds was the thought that perhaps they were about to lose everything. Mixed in with the refugees were the regulars, most of whom wanted nothing more than a place to talk about what was happening and get the news as it came. After twenty minutes had passed, the Black Mare was full of people. Melanie worked as quickly as she could, which gave her little time to think about the spot on the wall that once held two swords.
An hour and a half had passed when an out-of-breath man made his way through the front door of the tavern. Everyone went silent as they waited for the news.
“It was a bloodbath,” he said. “The lantern is relit, but half the glimwardens are dead and not a single member of the Auxiliary is left alive. Most of the houses around Healer’s Lantern have been reduced to matchsticks and rubble.”
Melanie felt her heart drop. Her body tingled as she felt a cold sweat coming over her. Since everyone was talking at once and no one was calling for her, she sat down on her stool and rested her head against the counter.
The problem with having low expectations of the world was that it was all the more crushing when the world failed to meet them. She should have written Sander off the moment he walked out the front door. She should have told herself that he was as good as dead, so if it had turned out that he was alive, it would be a pleasant surprise. She tried to remind herself that he hadn’t really been much more than a pest, showing up where he clearly wasn’t wanted and insinuating himself into her life against her will. That was all true, but Sander had cared about her. He had, against the odds, liked her. When Melanie felt herself welling up, she went into the kitchen and slumped up against the refrigerator.
“I hate this,” she muttered to herself.
She wanted her father to come into the kitchen and tell her that everything was going to be alright. She would have to scream at him for leaving her all alone, but after that he could hold her, comfort her, and tell her that everything was going to be just fine. The world wasn’t so nice a place that it would allow a reunion like that to happen. She was never going to see her father again, just as she was never going to see her mother again.
Melanie cried, but only a little bit. She had gained quite a bit of experience with crying over the past few years. She could at least console herself that she never cried at trivial things; no book had ever brought her to tears. Instead, it was deaths, debts, and abandonment that moved her to tears. The world had simply decided that it didn’t particularly like Melanie Masters, and that was an appropriate thing to cry about.
In the end, Melanie did what she always did after crying. She got to her feet, said a silent curse, and went back to work. The world didn’t like her, but she didn’t like the world either. It would be impossible to burn the whole world down, so the only other option was to carry on as though she weren’t losing a small piece of her soul with every attack the world made against her.
When she came back to the tavern’s main room, it had emptied. The refugees had gone back to Healer’s Lantern, and everyone else had gone with them to gawk at the wreckage (or, if Melanie were feeling more charitable, to help with clean-up). Melanie shuttered the windows and closed the tavern, though it wasn’t even dinnertime yet. Business would be poor for the rest of the day, as people would be helping with salvage efforts at Healer’s, or at least helping to bury the dead. Besides that, she’d somehow run out of horse meat soup, which she hadn’t expected to sell a single bowl of.
She was finishing her cleaning when there was a knock on the door. When she went to answer it, she saw an unpleasantly familiar face: Nathan Norwood, one of Colsum’s men.
“I have five more days,” said Melanie. The answer was a reflex; she was always aware of how many days it was until her next payment was due. In truth, she already had enough to settle that month’s debt, but Melanie had every incentive to keep Colsum from knowing that.
“Colsum wants to meet with you about a different matter,” said Nathan. “He said you would know what it was in regards to.”
The Colsum manse was a long building on the outskirts of Chancellor’s Lantern, with one side facing the fields and the other turned in towards the city. There were stories Melanie had read about vast, palatial estates segregated from their towns by large fields of manicured grass, but none of the richest families in Light’s Hollow had gone quite that far. The house was still imposing though, stacked five stories tall, each slightly smaller than the last until the top, where a pleasant garden with apple trees could be seen from the ground. Melanie had never been up there, but she’d often imagined it; she envied Colsum his view of the city and the solitude of being so high above everyone else.
She and Nathan took a runework carriage, one of the ones that Colsum owned for his own personal use, unattached to any business. Melanie had never been in one before. She had only ridden the carts, and then she’d been sitting in the back as it moved at a sedate pace. Nathan drove the carriage quickly, speeding down the road and kicking up dust as they went. If Melanie’s mind hadn’t been on the upcoming meeting, she might have found the experience exhilarating, but instead she found herself mired in thought for the entire trip.
She was led up into a sitting room, where books covered every wall. Colsum sat in one of the two chairs, staring at the heater on the wall. A red hot wire was shaped like flames, radiating heat across the room. Melanie had never seen a fireplace before, but that’s what the heater was trying to evoke. Behind the hot metal was a slowly circulating fan, which blew hot air across the room. Melanie found the whole thing unbelievably tacky.
Carter Colsum was an old man, in his late seventies. He had a hunched look to him, which was accentuated by the poor posture he displayed in the plump red chair he was sitting in. His hair was long and gray, lanky in a way that Melanie never expected from a man with his means. His face was dominated by a large, ugly nose, which only served to heighten how sunken in his eyes were. His mouth was wide and his lips were thin, revealing gray teeth when he spoke.
She sat down across from him and waited for him to speak. Colsum was looking at the heater. He picked up a pale white nut from a bowl beside him, cracked it with his teeth to reveal a green seed inside, then ate the seed and put the shell into a second bowl, which was already partially filled.
“Why are there so few glimwardens?” asked Colsum. When Melanie didn’t immediately answer, he looked to her for the first time.
“I don’t know,” said Melanie.
“It takes a thousand hearts to make a glimwarden,” said Colsum. He cracked another nut with his teeth and talked as he chewed. “That’s a fair amount, but even a novice glimwarden can capture three hearts a day. A glimwarden can make another glimwarden in the span of a year. Two glimwardens could then make another two, then four for four.” He paused and looked at her. “So why are there so few glimwardens?”
“They die too often for that to work,” said Melanie.
“No,” said Colsum. “Think about it. The hearts are divided three ways, with a third to fuel the lanterns, a third auctioned off by contract to the people of the city, and a third to the wardens themselves. The town’s third, almost all of it spent on runework, could be diverted to create more wardens. But even if the hearts were evenly split between the sides, the wardens could still make more of themselves. They’re able to rebuild when a large fraction of their number are wiped out. They did it six years ago, they’ll do it again after what happened today. They have more hearts than they need for simple replacement. So why are there so few glimwardens?”
“I don’t know,” said Melanie.
Colsum cracked another shell with his teeth and briefly held the green seed between his teeth. Melanie knew all of the nuts and berries that could be found in Light’s Hollow, but whatever he was eating was unfamiliar to her. She wondered how far away it had come from, and how much it had cost.
“Do you know what makes you strong?” asked Colsum.
“No,” said Melanie.
“Spite,” said Colsum.
Melanie didn’t respond. She still didn’t know why she had been brought here, or what Colsum wanted with her. She doubted that it was just to ask her questions that she didn’t know the answers to.
“There are people who, when put to the challenge, will simply lay down and die,” said Colsum. “Your father, he was the type to run from his problems, which is almost as bad, but I can respect that in a way, even if it raises my ire. Now, some people will take that challenge and rise to it with a smile on their face, happy to have some way to prove themselves to the world. Some will soldier on forward because they know that’s the only thing to do. You though, you passed my test because there’s a deep, cold hatred that runs through your veins.”
“Alright,” said Melanie. The word ‘test’ stabbed at her.
Colsum smiled at her with his gray teeth. “I do believe you’d sit there taking any sort of abuse I could throw at you, never budging an inch. That’s an impressive skill all by itself. But spite, that’s your true power. You’ve spent two years running that tavern by yourself, doing the work of at least three people, and you did it because it was your way of spitting in the face of everyone who didn’t love you.”
Melanie didn’t reply. The debt to Colsum had eaten away at her sanity in the first few months. Even now it left her with trembling nerves when she thought about it for too long. Colsum was trying to reduce her down to a single aspect, but it wasn’t true. She felt spiteful, but spite wasn’t what motivated her to get up in the morning.
“You hate me,” said Colsum. “That’s fine, I expect that. I turned the screws on you. But right now, it’s unbecoming, and you and I can’t have a proper conversation if you’re going to continue acting like a child.”
Melanie straightened herself in her chair. The room had grown uncomfortably warm, and she was sweating. “You didn’t do me the courtesy of explaining why I’m here.”
“It’s about the competition,” replied Colsum. “You know that.”
“Half the glimwardens are dead,” said Melanie. “There’s not going to be a competition.”
“Half?” asked Colsum. He shook his head. “There were four wardens dead.”
Melanie stared at him, trying to tell whether he was lying. “How many Auxiliary?”
Colsum shrugged. “Irrelevant. Twenty, forty, a hundred, the only people who join the Auxiliary are desperate or fools.” He cracked another nut between his teeth. “You know why you’re here. You know why we have to have a conversation. Stop speaking in monosyllables and give me your attention. Why are there so few glimwardens?”
Melanie met his eyes. She didn’t want to play these games. “It’s better to have the power concentrated in fewer glimwardens,” she replied.
“Is it?” asked Colsum.
“I don’t know,” replied Melanie. “It was a guess.”
“Tell me why it should be the case that it’s better to have fewer wardens with more power rather than more wardens with less power,” said Colsum. “You’re smart enough to figure it out.”
Melanie wasn’t sure that she was. “The wardens … they die from time to time. If they have more power, then they die less. It’s about attrition. Or maybe … when the power is concentrated, it feeds off itself, making them stronger.”
“How might we test that?” asked Colsum.
“I —” Melanie stopped herself from saying that she didn’t know. Colsum knew that she didn’t know, but for whatever reason, he wanted her to guess. This was all for his amusement, so if she was going to debase herself, it was better not to drag her feet. “We could have them lift a weight.”
“Indeed,” said Colsum. “We could do that. In fact, fifteen years ago I proposed a similar thing, though we would have used a spring, not weights. The wardens said that such a demonstration of their power, if done in full, would drain them of the power they needed to gather the hearts. I said that naturally, I would stagger the tests so that only one warden would be spent at a time, and, seeing their next objection, I said I would pay handsomely to make up for the hearts that they wouldn’t be able to collect. Do you know what happened?”
“They never ended up doing the test,” guessed Melanie. “They —” she tried to think of what a conniving politician would do, from one of her books. “They said that … that the hearts were vital to the town above and beyond the material costs. Spending money for a display of power would be the same as buying hearts and then throwing them away.”
“The chief glimwarden — eight chiefs ago, much more savvy than this current one — framed me as being too rich for my own good. He said, in fact, that I was too rich for the good of this town. He spoke through implication and made everyone believe that I cared nothing for Light’s Hollow.” Colsum shook his head sadly as he cracked another shell with his teeth. “But of course none of that was true. I wanted to know whether or not glimwardens got more powerful in strict proportion to the hearts that they ate. Because if they didn’t, why were there so few glimwardens?”
“Can I say that I don’t know yet?” asked Melanie.
Colsum grinned. “Ah, there she is.” Melanie hadn’t realized that a faint — very faint — smile had come onto her face, but with Colsum’s words, it vanished. “And there she goes.” Colsum cracked another shell between his teeth. “But the answer is no, you can’t say that you don’t know. Instead, tell me what you would do to find out whether the glimwardens are behaving rationally.”
“I’d make my own glimwarden,” said Melanie. “Someone on the inside.”
“Hrm,” said Colsum. “And how would you do that?”
“I …” Melanie paused and tried to think before giving her answer. This was more social interaction than she’d had in a long time, excluding the perfunctory interactions with patrons at the tavern. She was flagging. It was the only extended conversation she’d ever had with Colsum. He was less odious than she’d thought, though she still got the sense that he was playing a game with her. In contrast, her conversations with Sander — her mind hiccuped at the thought of him. Sander was dead and gone forever, only a memory now. But if the news about half the glimwardens dying had been wrong, then it was possible some of the Auxiliary survived, and it was possible that Sander was among them. His father would have protected him, wouldn’t he?
“You?” asked Colsum.
“I’d buy hearts,” said Melanie. “But obviously that’s not the solution, because you haven’t done it.”
“Do you know what happened to my sons?” asked Colsum.
Melanie shook her head. “No. Or, they … moved.” The word didn’t feel right. The same word couldn’t be used for both crossing town and leaving Light’s Hollow entirely, not if words were to have meaning. Her vocabulary was failing her.
“Do you know why?” asked Colsum.
Melanie shook her head again.
“They wanted to be glimwardens, both of them,” said Colsum. He stared at the glowing red wires of the heater. “It was foolish. I counseled against it. But they went anyway, begging Killian, the chief glimwarden of the time, to join the ranks. They were refused. They were determined boys though, and I had given to them too freely, so they decided that they would buy their way in. A thousand hearts for each … it was a high cost, but one that they were ready to pay. They were refused.”
“Refused?” asked Melanie. She hadn’t heard this story before, but she could tell it was something of a tragedy.
“The hearts come from the glimwardens,” said Colsum. “It is within their power, if not their explicit authority, to prevent someone from obtaining a heart. They exercise this power very rarely, because they know that it rankles. It’s in the same way that the town’s glaziers could, if they wished, collude with one another to prevent a new building from having windows, thereby stalling construction entirely. The thing that prevents it is public outcry. In the case of my sons, there was none of that, because what they were attempting to do was unprecedented and screamed of privilege.”
Melanie stayed silent, because that was exactly what she had been thinking. She had read stories where only the rich were glimwardens, and assumed that it was likely the case in other towns, but the concept had always made her uneasy. Colsum already held a considerable amount of power by dint of his money. If he were to buy up hearts, he would have physical power on top of that. There were signatures that frightened her, ones that almost always belonged to villains in the stories that described them: mind control, mind reading, or the ability to reach into a person’s head and change their emotions around.
Colsum seemed to remember where he was and turned to look at Melanie. “I’ll tell you now that I have reason to believe the wardens aren’t acting in the best interests of Light’s Hollow. I’ve looked into the paltry records that have been kept over the years. I had Linwell institute new systems of record-keeping for the engineers. From everything I can see, the answer to the question of why there are so few glimwardens is that it serves the wardens to have it be so. Why is power concentrated in so few hands? Because it’s their hands.”
“You want the power to be in your hands instead,” she said. “That’s why you want me to join the competition.”
“No,” replied Colsum. “I could never trust you.” He smiled at her. “The debt doesn’t buy your allegiance to that extent, I’m not so stupid to think that it does. What I need is information. You’re to be my spy.”
Melanie watched his sunken-in eyes. “And if I join the competition and win a spot, you’ll wipe away my debt?”
“Yes,” replied Colsum. “While you’re in the competition, win or lose, I’ll suspend the need for payment on the debt.”
“No interest accrued either,” said Melanie.
Colsum waved his hand, not caring about the money. “You understand my intent? You understand that I’m not an evil man? You owe me a debt, but that’s no fault of mine.”
“I understand,” said Melanie, because she thought that was what he wanted to hear.
“Very well,” said Colsum. He seemed satisfied with himself. “Our business is concluded here then. Ready the Black Mare for an extended closure, once this business with the lantern failure is concluded and the competition starts. I want you at the top of your game.”
The mention of the lantern failure returned Melanie’s thoughts to Sander. Before she could return home, she had to make sure that the world was as terrible of a place as it seemed to be.
Light’s Hollow had three outlying clinics, which were little more than a lone physician and a nurse or two, but any serious injury or sickness was dealt with in the hospital very near to Chancellor’s Lantern. Chancellor’s was the center of governance, but it also served as a redoubt; a single lantern might fail, or even fall, but it would take two failures for the heart of the city to be in any danger. The hospital was in a constant state of readiness for whatever calamity might fall. Any survivors would be taken there.
Melanie had visited the hospital often, while her mother was in the process of dying. She read books by her mother’s bedside and tried to drown out the sound of shallow breathing. She hadn’t wanted to be there, but that was her duty as daughter, a duty made all the more important by her father’s refusal to accept her mother’s inevitable death. Once Melanie’s mother had finally died, she had avoided the hospital as much as possible, sometimes even taking a longer route if it meant she didn’t have to see the tall building and its elaborate front doorway with a bas relief of the Healer beckoning the sick inside.
Now she found herself walking through the front doors again. The place was quieter than she’d thought it would be. It didn’t strike her as a good sign. She walked up to the reception desk, where a weary nurse was making marks in a ledger. The nurse marked her place and folded the ledger closed just as Melanie made it to the desk.
“I had a, uh, friend who went to the battle,” she said. “Do you have a list of the deceased? Or survivors? I just wanted to know … it’s Sander Seaborn.”
“The chief glimwarden’s son,” replied the nurse with a slight frown. “Room 203. You’re free to visit him, if you’d like.”
Melanie felt a wave of relief wash over her, followed closely by a trickle of annoyance. Of course Sander would go running off to give up his life for no good reason, and of course he would somehow manage to come out of it just fine when others had died. It would embolden him to take bigger risks, until eventually one day he would end up dead because he thought he was better and more capable than he really was. Unless … well, it was possible that he’d suffered a grievous wound that he wouldn’t recover from. Melanie opened her mouth to ask the nurse, but she had already gone back to her ledger.
It would have been easy to slip out. Sander would never have to know that she’d cried over his death. To let him know that she, in some sense, cared about him would only exacerbate his belief that they were friends. You didn’t need to be someone’s friend to mourn their passing, nor to visit them in the hospital, but she was certain that distinction would be lost on Sander.
Still, something Colsum had said was lingering in her mind. He had said she was a creature of spite. Her interactions with Colsum had been limited, but he had a great many people who worked for him. Had one of them told him that she was spiteful? Thinking about it bothered her. She wondered whether she had been too unkind to Sander in the past, for all that he annoyed her. He was oblivious in certain ways, casually arrogant in others, and often downright boring when he got to talking about the things that were of interest to him and him alone. He did care about her though, and even if he was largely unsuccessful, she could tell that he was often trying to lift her normally sour moods.
Melanie took the stairs up and found his room, doing her best to avoid looking down the hall to where her mother had drawn her final breath. She hesitated at the door, listening for any conversation that would give her an excuse not to go in, but there was only silence. She knocked softly, wondering whether he was asleep.
“Come in,” said a man’s voice. It wasn’t Sander.
Melanie slipped into the room and saw Sander laying in a hospital bed with his eyes closed. There were bandages on his arm and leg; he wore only loose-fitting shorts, displaying a body that was more muscular than Melanie would have imagined. Sitting in a chair beside the bed, to Melanie’s complete surprise, was Philip Phandrum. She realized with a start that she hadn’t given much thought to Philip. She felt guilty for not having asked the front desk whether Philip was alright, but her shame was lessened significantly by the fact that Philip seemed perfectly unharmed.
“He’s going to be out for a few days,” said Philip. “He overdid it, and he suffered some injuries, but he’ll be fine.”
“You’re okay?” asked Melanie.
“Perfectly fine,” replied Philip. “Sander saved my life.”
Melanie looked at Sander’s still form. She watched his breathing. The rooms at the hospital were all built the same, so it didn’t even matter that this wasn’t the room her mother had been in, it was bringing back unbidden memories all the same. Her mother had slept most of the time while on her path to death. Looking at Sander, it was hard to accept the assurance that he would get better with time.
“Would you like some privacy?” asked Philip.
“No,” replied Melanie. “If he’s not going to wake up, I should just get going.” She looked to Philip. “Did his father make it?”
Philip nodded. “Yes.”
“Good,” said Melanie. She and Sander had both lost their mothers. Sander didn’t deserve to lose both his parents like she had.
“I have your swords, by the way,” said Philip. “I didn’t bring them with me, but I’ll drop them by the Black Mare as soon as I’m able.”
“Oh,” said Melanie. She had forgotten about the swords. At least now they would have one true story to go with all the false ones her father used to tell. “Thank you. Would it be terribly rude for me to ask how things went?”
Philip twitched his lips. “Do you want the short version or the long version?” he asked.
“The short version,” replied Melanie. “I’m fairly certain that I’ll be overhearing the long version for the next several months to come.”
“There was a new type of darkling,” said Philip. “It was more powerful than the wardens were prepared to deal with. The Auxiliary were called in to form a fall-back perimeter, but what ended up happening was pure chaos that left many of us dead. At some point, the glimwardens beat a retreat to the lantern proper in order to ensure that no darklings would break in and start killing the engineers, which left the remaining Auxiliary in an even worse position than they were in before. I didn’t make terribly good use of that sword that you gave me, but I managed to kill a few before I was one of the only ones left alive. I was seconds from being torn to shreds when Sander teleported us away. That was about when the lantern came back on. Sander was passed out and choking on his own vomit, so I cleared his airway and got him breathing again.”
“You saved his life,” said Melanie. She had never paid too much attention to Philip. In school, he had seemed to melt into the background. Even now, he sounded dispassionate about all the death and destruction he’d seen, though Melanie supposed that was to be expected in the aftermath of it all. Sometimes people came out of tragedy feeling numb. It happened in her books all the time.
“Sander was a hero,” said Philip. “He fought more ferociously than I did and risked his life to save mine. What I did for him was what anyone would have done for him. Failure would have cost me nothing.”
“He won’t see it that way,” said Melanie.
“Perhaps not,” replied Philip.
Melanie shuffled her feet. “Well, I should get going. But … you’re on the city council, aren’t you?”
“I’m not on the city council, I’m an aide to the mayor,” replied Philip.
“But you’re part of the meetings?” asked Melanie.
“Yes,” replied Philip. “Why?”
“There was going to be a competition to see who the new glimwardens were going to be,” said Melanie. “I was wondering whether you thought that was still going to happen. Is the eighth lantern still going to be built? It’s — I was going to try out.”
“Ah,” said Philip. He looked her over and Melanie tried to act naturally under the uncomfortable weight of his evaluation. “First there will be an inquest. We’ll see what happens after that.”
“An inquest?” asked Melanie.
“It’s a judicial hearing to determine the facts of an incident,” said Philip.
“No, I know what the word means,” replied Melanie. “I just don’t understand what the purpose is.”
“So it will never happen again,” said Philip. He narrowed his eyes at her, focusing on her face for a moment, then shrugged. “Of course, what’s really important is giving the appearance of making sure that it will never happen again. I’ve read all the notes from past inquests that were held after lantern failures like this, and it’s quite common for the reactions to be underfunded or underplanned and never come to fruition.”
“The reaction to the failure isn’t actually about stopping the failure from happening,” said Melanie. Low expectations of the world were almost always justified. She noticed Philip looking at her more intently than she really liked.
“I should get going,” she said. She took a last look at Sander, who was still out like a light, and then turned to the door.
“Melanie?” asked Philip. She turned back to face him. “The competition to find a new glimwarden, if it happens, won’t be about finding the best potential glimwarden. It will be about power and who holds it. Remember that.”
Melanie nodded, but that, at least, she’d already figured out.