Glimwarden, Chapter 6

Sander

It took a thousand hearts to become a glimwarden. Darkling hearts came in different sizes though, so when a person said “one thousand hearts”, that was really just an abstraction for “one thousand hearts of average size”. But that was also an abstraction, because what they really meant was “a certain intensity of the shadow of the bind”. That was the metric that the glimwardens used, because counting hearts (or worse, measuring them with a scale or calipers) was impractical. One of the benefits of the bind was the ability to see its effects on the world around you. The glimwardens could gauge how many hearts a person had consumed just by looking at them.

While it took a thousand hearts to become a glimwarden, anyone with the shadow of the bind on them was expected to help in the defense of the town. It didn’t matter how much or how little you had. If a lantern failed, the Auxiliary was supposed to come and help out with evacuation, defense, or whatever else was needed. The obligation was more than just a social one; if you were in the Auxiliary — if you had any of the shadow on you — and didn’t come running when the alarm sounded, you would face exile, which was as good as death. Failing the town in its time of need was one of the most serious crimes a person could be charged with.

The threat of exile was a convenient excuse for Sander to go where the action was. He was still feeling queasy from the short bit of teleportation he’d done earlier in the day, but a few bites of Melanie’s soup had settled his stomach somewhat. He had only the loaned sword, which he had no practice with, but part of being a glimwarden was making do and thinking on your feet, so that wasn’t really a problem either. So far he had only had small tests of his ability, and only a basic ability to really feel the bind, but that was a fairly minor problem.

Sander and Philip jogged together. It was two miles from lantern to lantern, unless you were going all the way across town, or if you had to cross one of the bridges over the Akim River. Healer’s Lantern and Rogue’s Lantern were adjacent to each other though, so it was a simple run across flat land. As they went, they began to encounter a number of people going the opposite direction, those fleeing from the alarm and moving to somewhere safer. A few people gave them odd looks, but no one stopped them, which was gratifying. Sander had worried that he would have to explain himself.

“Let’s call field strength at the town’s border one unit,” said Sander. “I can’t remember right now what their gliminance target actually is, but let’s say that it’s just one, and that they’re meeting it, or were before the alarm went off. Since the border is a mile from the lantern, and adjacent lanterns are two miles from each other, and power falls off with the inverse of the cube, that means that Rogue’s Lantern is still giving Healer’s Lantern one eighth of its power. The same is true for Chancellor’s and Ranger’s, so that’s three eighths. But then Singer’s and Watcher’s are … uh, root three times side length, three point four, inverse cube, something like a fortieth each? Which means Builder’s does practically nothing at all.” A few seconds of jogging passed as Sander’s mind caught up to what he was saying. “It’s four miles away, so one sixty-fourth power.”

Philip nodded along to this. Philip was a question that Sander could feel his mind trying to steer toward, but Sander had learned long ago that questions about people rarely had satisfying answers.

When Sander had been fourteen and just about to graduate, he’d heard his father talking about an upcoming city council vote about the fishing quotas on Ox Bow Lake. The quotas had to be set low enough so that the lake wouldn’t get fished out, but high enough so that the fish wouldn’t overbreed. The quotas changed quite often, as the city council attempted to keep the lake properly stocked. Sander had seen an opportunity to use his math; he spent a long time working on the numbers, learning about the life-cycles of fish, and making various surveys of the lake life. After two weeks, he presented a formal report at an open session of the city council, laying out a scheme that would revolutionize the quota system and allow the city council to focus on more important things. It would first have segregated the quota by fish species, and second have set the quotas based on a stock assessment and evaluation.

The city council had apparently brought it up in closed session the week after and voted against it nearly unanimously. The only vote in favor had been Gregor Golland’s, for whatever reason. Sander had spent another week trying to figure it out, first thinking that his math was wrong, then thinking that the council’s math must have been wrong. It was with utter dismay that Sander realized that there hadn’t been any math, just specious arguments. To solve the problem, he would have to solve the people, but the people were problems all on their own. He gave up early on, and considered the lesson a valuable one about how to go about fixing things: leave people out of it wherever possible.

So Sander was in no hurry to figure out the answer to Philip. He didn’t even really want to bother with properly defining the question of Philip. All that Sander really needed to know was that Philip was ready to rise to challenges just like Sander was, and they had each others’ backs.

“Wait, my math is wrong,” said Sander. “Field strength is one unit at the border, but that’s not just the power of the single nearest lantern, that’s the summed strength of all lanterns at their respective distances. Rogue’s doesn’t project out to Healer’s with one eighth power, because Rogue’s doesn’t project out to a mile with full power, it’s only with the addition of the other six lanterns that it maintains that level.”

“It’s okay if you’re nervous,” said Philip.

Sander almost stopped jogging. They were nearing Healer’s Lantern and the cluster of buildings around it. “Nervous?” he asked.

“Odds are it’s just a false alarm,” said Philip. “Even if it’s not, we won’t be put directly in harm’s way, since that’s not an efficient use of untrained personnel.”

“I have some training,” said Sander.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” said Philip. “I had thought you were busy with apprenticeships.”

Sander didn’t have a response to that.

It took them fifteen minutes to cross from Rogue’s Lantern to Healer’s. They passed dozens of evacuees fleeing to safety. More than once, Sander and Philip split apart to let a runework cart through; these were laden down with people sitting on top or hanging off the sides. Twice they were passed by glimwardens going towards the failed lantern, moving at speed: Baxter, with his red-hot sword held out in front of him, and Eppie, who seemed to float off the ground. Sander watched them closely for the brief time they were nearby. He could see some of the color of their bind as they ran, primarily at the location where their feet touched the ground. Eppie’s was the color of raw salmon, while Baxter’s was the blue of deep waters.

All the outlying lanterns had similarly shaped settlements around them, owing to a commonality in the organizing principles. Each lantern had three main roads leading away from it, two which went to adjacent lanterns and one which went to Chancellor’s Lantern. Houses and businesses sprung up around these roads, and side roads filled in the acute angles. Believers in numerological significance found it pleasing that the settlements had three arms. The road leading to the central lantern was always the most populous though. It provided access to the most populous part of Light’s Hollow, certainly, but at the back of everyone’s mind was the idea of a lantern failure. In the event that the darklings came storming in, buildings closer to the edge of town would be hit the hardest.

The battle was already taking place in a field of snow peas when Sander and Philip arrived. The darklings had no proper sense of tactics or strategy, but they were focused into a relatively narrow section of land, perhaps a hundred meters across. Their target, obvious just from looking at their movements, was the unlit lantern. Where the majority of the fighting was happening, green plants were stained black. There were more darklings than Sander knew the names for, sinuous shapes and inky blobs that raced in towards the glimwardens. From time to time, Sander would see a flash of colored light from some particularly high-powered attack, but for the most part, the battle was nothing more than men and women hacking away at the darklings with their weapon of choice. The alarm stopped moments after Sander and Philip arrived, though the lantern was clearly not yet fixed, since the darklings were still roaming in cultivated land. It was eerily quiet.

“Over here!” Eppie called to them from near the houses. A small group of people were standing around her, all of them plainly dressed.

“Your father thought you might show up,” said Eppie with a frown. “It’s still early yet. Hopefully we won’t need you. The engineers say another ten minutes, but past experience is that in ten minutes they’ll tell us it’s another twenty minutes. The last outage ran six hours.”

Eppie was short and rail-thin, though her armor was able to hide some of it. She’d taken a gut wound two years ago, one bad enough to do some serious damage to her internal organs. Glimwardens healed faster than normal people, but they didn’t regenerate. Eppie had the worst injury of any glimwarden in recent memory, at least among those that hadn’t been killed outright. Her hair was visibly thinning as well, almost certainly as a result of her injury. Every time Sander saw her, he was reminded of how she’d been when he was eight years old, young, lively, and staying up late into the night laughing with his parents. She was still lively now, but there was something false and strained about it, like she was pulling the strings on a puppet of herself.

“We don’t have use for you unless something goes wrong,” said Eppie.

“I thought we’d be fighting,” said Sander. He tightened his grip around his borrowed sword.

“The day this town has to depend on a sixteen year old boy to fight its battles is the day that it’s fallen,” said Eppie. Her face softened somewhat. “We’ll call on you when there are fires to put out. In the meantime, head to the lantern and wait for orders.”

Sander grimaced as he did what she said.

The last serious lantern failure had been six years ago, not too long after his mother had died. Three glimwardens had died that day. Sander remembered his father coming home from the battle and wrapping him in an enormous, uncomfortable, crushing hug. Sander had wanted to ask questions, but it reminded him too much of his mother’s death, so it was always easy to push the subject to another time. If Sander had known that there would be another lantern failure so close on the heels of joining the Auxiliary, he would have pressed Merry for information. Instead, he was going in blind. Apparently the Auxiliary would sit back and watch as the glimwardens efficiently dealt with the incoming darklings.

“It’s a battle of endurance,” said Sander in a low voice as they walked. He was sure that his voice wouldn’t carry, and even if it did, that it wouldn’t distract the glimwardens from their battle, but it felt wrong to try to hold a normal conversation under the circumstances. “Each glimwarden has a limited amount of charge available to them, which is being depleted faster than even the strongest of them can recover. Meanwhile, the supply of darklings is unending. Earlier today, Merry said that she stayed out for an hour or two each day, which I think must be the limit of what she’s able to physically do with the bind she has. So at a certain point, the glimwardens will be run down, even if they ration. At which point it will be our turn to join the battle.”

“At which point, it will be our turn to die,” said a tall man wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Sander had been talking to Philip and found himself surprised that a response was coming from someone else. The man’s face was familiar, but no name came to Sander’s mind. He and Philip had arrived at the lantern, where a score of people were standing around outside the door.

“Don’t pay him any mind,” said another man. He had on a white shirt and a jacket that he’d thrown over his shoulder. Sander didn’t know his name either. “Rudy has been trying to ruin morale.”

“But … why?” asked Sander.

“Because the system is unjust,” replied Rudy. “Compulsory service with a risk of death —”

“It’s not compulsory,” said Philip. His voice was loud and clear. People had been looking at them since the moment they approached, but now the conversations stopped. “A person chooses whether or not to take in the hearts, and until they do, they’re free to take to the roads as soon as the alarm sounds.”

“The glimwardens want to keep power in their own hands,” said Rudy. “They threaten us with death if we dare to try buying that power from them. If we don’t take the uncertain death of service in the Auxiliary, then it’s exile from the town, a more certain death than a simple hanging.”

“You’re here, engaging in idle conversation,” said Philip. “The glimwardens are fighting for their lives right now.”

“Until, as the chief’s son has said, the glimwardens start to flag,” replied Rudy. “Then we’ll take their place, with a tenth their strength, wheat for the thresher.”

Philip folded his arms. “The town can’t afford to lose its glimwardens.”

“And it can afford to lose me?” asked Rudy with a sneer.

“I won’t speak to the value of your life,” replied Philip. “But I will say that the glimwardens are more important than me. If I had the choice of my life for one of theirs, I would choose theirs. The town can live without me, but it can’t live without its glimwardens and its engineers.”

All at once, right before Sander’s eyes, the puzzle of Philip was resolving itself. Philip was a believer in the town of Light’s Hollow, in its structures and its systems. If not for what they’d talked about over lunch, Sander might have taken it for blind fanaticism, but in context it was something else entirely. Philip had a singularity of purpose that still permitted some level of intellectual examination. It was something that Sander had been searching for what seemed like his entire life, now recognized in another and impossible to emulate.

“Fracture!” came a cry from beyond the houses. Sander and the others were a block away from the field where the fighting was going on, able to see only what was visible between the houses, but the Fracture was tall enough that its head could be seen above the roofs. It was the same sort of darkling that had followed Sander home the day before. His father had killed that one alone, but it had been under the effects of much more gliminance.

Sander felt a hand on his arm and turned to see Philip holding him back.

“If they need us, they’ll let us know,” said Philip. “Until then, we should stay out of the way.” Sander’s feet had started moving of their own accord. The conscious thought to go help with the fight hadn’t even crossed his mind. As soon as he was physically stopped, his brain kicked into gear, its teeth meshing together. Of course Philip was right, of course the proper thing to do was wait, but Sander simply didn’t want to. He had to strain to keep himself from running to help. He had to clench his jaw to keep from creating a principled argument about why he should go from whole cloth.

A beam of green light pierced the Fracture through its head, which staggered it low enough that it was out of Sander’s field of view. A few seconds later, the roof of a nearby house seemed to explode upward with a spray of shingles and wood. Sander saw a blur of dark blue in the center for just a moment before it cleared away to reveal a glimwarden tumbling through the air.

Baxter landed thirty feet away with bits of shingle tumbling down around him. Sander had expected him to land in a mangled heap, but instead the glimwarden righted himself the moment before he touched the ground and landed in a crouch. He looked over to the Auxiliary with a stunned expression that lasted just long enough for the remaining debris to find its way to the ground.

“Is everyone okay?” he asked.

Sander gave a mute nod before realizing that he should check around first. Some of the pieces of broken slate tile had come down around the gathered Auxiliary, but no one was injured.

“Can’t take too many more hits like that,” said Baxter with a strained smile. He looked around for his red-hot sword and found it burning its way through a patch of grass nearby. He snatched it up and jogged back to the fight. Sander stared after him, wishing that there was any way he could justify following along.

The thick door to the lantern opened just a crack, allowing a young engineer to stick his head out. “We’ll have it fixed in fifteen minutes,” he said. “Someone tell the glimwardens.”

“I’ll do it,” said Sander. He started off toward where Eppie had been directing things. He felt a flash of annoyance when Philip followed behind him, but that was irrational and easy enough to quell. Besides, he and Philip were friends now, as of this morning.

When they rounded the houses, Sander slowed down to take in the battle. The ordered rows of snow peas had been torn up by the rapid movement of combat. Sander tried to focus on the individual darklings, picking out their anatomy. There were plenty of Grapnels, but those were being dispatched almost as quickly as Sander’s eyes could resolve them. Some of the darklings took animal shapes, like large wolves or an immense bull, but there were others that were more abstract. One looked like a jet black rope as thick as a man’s thigh. It billowed out black smoke from its tail and slithered across the ground before being sliced through six times in rapid succession by a sword that briefly glowed turquoise. Another stood eight feet tall on ten spindle legs. It seemed to stumble slightly, but the stumble turned into a lurch, and one of the legs extended with a fist-sized claw. One of the glimwardens threw a hand to the side and pushed herself to the side with a yellow blast before dashing forward to make a counter-attack.

“Come on,” said Philip. “We have a message to deliver.”

Sander nodded, but his eyes didn’t leave the dazzling display of the wide open killing field. The moments of light and color were coming faster than they had been when Sander had first arrived. Either the glimwardens were already using their bind to supplement their endurance, or the darklings had increased the pressure. Looking further down the field, Sander could see that more of the black shapes coming.

“Sander?” asked Philip.

“Right,” said Sander. “Thanks.” He walked over to Eppie, who was now standing all alone and watching events unfold. She glanced at him only briefly before returning her attention to the fight.

“The engineers said fifteen more minutes,” said Sander.

“They said it five minutes ago,” said Philip. Philip wasn’t watching the battle. His attention was on Sander and Eppie. Sander found that mildly unnerving, but then a sound of clanging axes and a beam of green light drew Sander’s attention back to the field. That green was his father’s color.

“Their estimates are meaningless,” said Eppie. Her eyes flickered back and forth, tracking the trading of blows. “I asked once what they were doing while we were out here dying, and I got a boring story about replacement parts, diagnostics, and testing cycles. They’re worried about killing themselves when they turn it on.” She turned to Sander. “Thank you for the message, but your father would kill me if I gave you special treatment. Go back with the others. It looks like we’re going to be needing you sooner rather than later. I’ll let you know.”

Sander stayed. If Eppie wanted him gone, without a view of what was happening, she would need more than just dismissive words. Sander’s parents had both dedicated their lives to this, but this was the first time he’d truly seen glimwardens in their element. His eyes rested on his father, with his thick beard and green armor that had somehow avoided being completely covered in black ichor. He had two handaxes, which he wielded like he was a whirlwind, never more than a few seconds between slices. Every so often, he would bring the axes together, slamming the sharp edges together in a way that only runework weapons could endure. The result was a tightly-focused green beam, which packed enough power to pierce through a darkling and hit the one behind it as well.

“Schism!” came a shout from the field. It was a woman’s voice, and it didn’t take Sander long to pick out Merry. She had apparently discarded her pistols in favor of daggers, though her fighting style seemed to be more stationary than seemed practical. Sander peered around, trying to figure out which of the darklings she was talking about. Then he saw it, a black shape on the horizon that was towered above everything else. It was the thirty-foot monstrosity that Merry had described to Sander, a darkling whose type she didn’t know.

“Go get the others,” said Eppie. “This is where we lose someone.”

This time Sander didn’t need prodding. He turned away from the battle and dashed back past the houses to where the Auxiliary were standing around. He nearly tripped over the debris left over from where Baxter had been punched through a building, but in only a few seconds he was standing in front of the Auxiliary.

“They need us,” he said. “All of us, for a second line of defense.” He dashed back to the frontlines without waiting for a response.

When he returned, the landscape of the battle was being drastically altered. Sander’s father was clanging his axes together over and over again in rapid succession, sending out rays of green light that pierced through the darklings further down the field. Gunshots were ringing out from those glimwardens that used firearms. Sander saw a Grapnel explode at the seams in a flash of light blue color, though he had no idea which of the glimwardens had been responsible. The strategy they were employing seemed clear; they were burning through their bind at a fast rate to give themselves some breathing room to deal with what Merry had christened the Schism.

Sander felt a brief sickness as he realized that the glimwardens didn’t know how to fight the darkling that was coming their way. As the sickness deepened, he realized that the feeling was something else, more than he’d ever felt from simple despair. He tentatively tried to feel for his bind. He was surprised to find that it was coating his skin, instinctually wrapping him in a thin protective layer of some kind. Anxiety over the coming battle gave way to panic as he realized that his bind was betraying him, pulling from reserves that he needed in order to keep standing, let alone for fighting.

Calm down, he told himself. Breathe. He looked at the Schism, which had drawn closer to the lantern. It had six long legs that poked down toward the ground and shouldn’t have been able to support it. The bulk of the creature was its mouth, ten feet wide and full of squirming things, like every tooth was a tongue. Its gut was distended and bulging, nearly scraping the ground as it trundled across the green field. Sander could already tell that it was moving with deceptive speed, and even knowing that it was faster than it seemed didn’t help.

Breathe, Sander said to himself. If it was possible for Merry to force our signature by pointing a gun at us, then the bind is at least partly sympathetic. It’s trying to protect us from a perceived threat, like a reflex to flinch. We have to look on the bright side here. Yes, we’re facing an unknown threat on our second day of training to become a glimwarden, we only have a non-magical sword that we’ve never trained with, our admittedly meager power is trying to use up our literal or metaphorical life force, everyone within shouting distance is stronger than us, and why did we think this was a good idea again?

It doesn’t matter. Everything is going to be fine. Sander firmed himself up and corrected his posture. He controlled his breathing and listened to the sound of his heart. Part of his brain was telling him that this wasn’t the proper way to calm down at all, it was just a distraction from the direness of the situation, and a different part of his brain was telling him that results were more important than taking a principled stand against self-deception, but the end result was that calm came over Sander. He began to feel better at once as the bind stopped drawing on his reserves. The moment of crisis passed. Sander began to feel like himself again, ready to take on whatever came his way.

The Schism barely reacted to the first volley that was sent its way. What passed for black flesh reformed almost instantly from the divots that were put into it. A green beam of light tore through one of its legs, severing it, but the creature didn’t even falter. A new leg thrust out from its central mass to replace the old one, liquid at first and then stiff and straight. The darkling didn’t even miss a step. Sander could only see the flashes of color that accompanied an attack using the bind, but there were others as well, arrows from a bow and a few thrown javelins, though nothing seemed to be working. Merry had said that killing a darkling was all about reducing its ability to maintain a cohesive form, wearing down its own sort of bind. The Schism wasn’t showing any strain just yet.

“Hold your position,” Eppie called to the Auxiliary. Sander could see that they were standing beside him, arranged in a loose line. Philip was standing next to him. “We’ll deal with the big one, it’s your job to make sure none of the little ones get through.”

When the Schism was twenty feet from the glimwardens, it flicked one of its pointy legs forward, moving it so fast it cracked like a whip. The tip struck one of the glimwardens, a red-headed woman in purple armor, and sent her flying backward. She crashed into one of the houses and caved in the wall.

“Find its heart!” someone cried. Sander looked and tried to predict where that would be as the darkling lashed out with its forelimbs. Another glimwarden took a glancing blow, angling downward, that sent him tumbling across the ground. Sander tightened his grip on his sword. If it came down to it, he would try to hack at the thing’s legs while avoiding its lightning quick strikes. That wasn’t a good plan, but Sander had no ability to strike at range.

Unless … well, he was a teleporter of some kind, and if his signature worked the way he thought it did, there was a translation of momentum component to it. He’d moved twenty feet in three seconds and come out of the teleportation moving twenty feet per three seconds. If he could change the distance to forty meters and the time to one second, then that should mean that he would come out at forty meters per second. He’d be going too fast to control much of anything, but that still wouldn’t be fast enough. How fast was fast enough? Sander had no idea what the limits of his ability were, but he started making plans for a true worst case scenario. If need be, it was possible that the working of his signature could turn him into a bomb of flesh and bone.

The fight with the Schism was going poorly. Even the glancing blows from its forelegs sent the glimwardens flying, sometimes pinwheeling into the air and other times smashing them along the ground. The hits weren’t fatal, not with the flashes of color as the bind did its protective work, but Sander was certain that the attacks were costly. He watched as Merry dodged an attack by a matter of centimeters and sliced across the limb with a smooth motion of her dagger, but a replacement leg was already forming as she beat a retreat. Every swing of a sword or telekinetic flash of color seemed easy for the darkling to close. Worse, the Schism wasn’t the only darkling taking part in the attack; behind it and closing fast were other, smaller threats. Some of these attacked the glimwardens, distracting from their efforts to kill the Schism, but the bulk of them rushed past and toward the Auxiliary.

Sander held his sword in front of him and assumed a basic stance. He angled the sword so that he could run a Grapnel through, which was how his first battle — only a day ago — had been won. Merry had said to aim for the heart, but Sander had no idea where that was on a Grapnel, aside from being somewhere in the center of its mass. For any other darkling, he was completely clueless.

When the darklings made contact with the Auxiliary, all hell broke loose. Sander swung his sword in the direction of one of the darklings that looked like a bull. His sword sliced into its hide and caught there, pulling him to the ground as he tried to maintain his grip. He rolled on the ground and jumped back to his feet, feeling a jolt of pain in his leg from the wound he’d taken the day before. He swung his sword wildly, trying to keep the darklings at bay, with all pretense of proper form lost. A beam of green light pierced straight through a Grapnel in front of Sander, killing it in an instant, but when Sander thought to look, he couldn’t see his father anywhere.

Sander did his best to hack away at the darklings. He was hit once by a darkling the size of a horse, its claw touching his gut, but his bind — cherry red — flashed brightly as it pushed back against the hit. Sander staggered backward and drove his sword into the ground on accident. When he looked up, the darkling was gone. Sander was feeling sick again, nauseous to his core, but he pulled his sword from the earth and swung it once more, this time hitting a Grapnel in the face. Too much was going on around him, too many screams of pain and too many dizzying motions. He had no idea whether they were winning or not. It was all he could do to bring his sword up in defense as the Grapnel he’d struck swung its claws at him. The parry was ineffective though, and Sander suffered a shock of pain as his sleeve was stained red with blood. The darkling opened its jaws wide and leapt at Sander, but he was saved once again as the darkling was ripped apart in a flash of light blue.

The Schism had reared back onto two legs, making itself look taller than it already was. It closed its mouth and puffed out its cheeks, though the darklings had no need to breathe. In the brief respite from being attacked, Sander steeled himself for whatever was about to happen. The Schism leaned forward and spat, shooting black chunks the size of a person’s head, over and over again at everyone around it. Sander was far enough away that a lunge to the side allowed him to avoid the projectile, but not everyone was so lucky. Where people were hit, they began writhing in pain and screaming, dropping to the ground and letting their weapons fall beside them.

Sander ran to the nearest of the fallen, a glimwarden in brown armor. He recognized her as Helene, one of the ones who had been slammed back by the Schism and into one of the buildings. Sander had seen her come over a few times when he was little, back when his mother was still alive. Now she was screaming in pain and trying to clutch at the black mass that seemed like it was stuck to her chest. Sander was about to grab for it, but he saw her thin fingers sink into it like tar. When she thrashed away from it, her hands were stuck.

It was only the movement in his peripheral vision that gave Sander time to leap to the side and avoid the rush of the bull-like darkling. It was possible that it was the same one he’d sliced into at the start of the battle, but if it was, any sign of the wound had completely vanished. It turned toward him and extended and sharpened its horns. Its head went down to charge, but the eyes stayed where they were, shifting across its face as it moved its head. Sander threw himself to the ground with his sword out in front of him, trying to get the darkling to impale itself. He slipped between the points of the horns and took a hoof to the chest as the darkling trampled over him, which forced the air from his lungs. He lost his sword in the process, and it was nowhere to be seen around him.

The bull-like darkling continued on past Sander, not stopping to finish its work. With horror, Sander realized that it was continuing on to the lantern, completely unopposed. When he looked past the darkling, he saw that it wasn’t alone; the darklings had swarmed the lantern and were crawling all over it.

When Sander turned back to where the Schism still stood towering over everything, he saw a field that had been stained red and black. The dark shapes on the ground were people, either dead or injured. If there were any glimwardens left, they were at the lantern now, trying to tear the darklings from the wall and prevent a breach of the lantern.

The last person standing was Philip. He stood thirty feet from the Schism with his sword held in front of him, looking utterly implacable. Bright red blood and dark black ichor stained his outfit, but he seemed perfectly unharmed. It was a frozen instant, the moment before Philip’s almost certain death.

Sander made a snap judgment and sprinted toward Philip, ignoring the stinging pain in his arm, the ache in his leg, and the queasy feeling that was threatening to make him vomit. He closed the distance quickly and touched Philip on the shoulder just as the Schism began a flicking motion with its foreleg.

One mile, fifteen minutes, thought Sander.

There was a sharp discontinuity as the world changed around them. Sander could see in an instant that what he’d tried hadn’t worked; the Schism was still in view, only further away. He had taken Philip with him and landed in a field more than three hundred meters away, but that wasn’t nearly far enough, not when the Schism had no better targets. That was about all the thinking Sander could do though, because the nausea hit him in a tight, painful wave that forced up his lunch.

Before he passed out, the last thing he saw was the Schism. It appeared to be melting.

Philip

Things hadn’t exactly gone as Philip had planned.

It hadn’t been a false alarm, for a start. That at least was foreseeable and a risk that Philip had been willing to take. He hadn’t thought he would ever see any actual contact with the darklings though. From what he had understood about service in the Auxiliary, it mostly involved helping the engineers and managing some of the damage that was inevitably caused by a prolonged battle near the houses. The lantern failure six years ago had been the most serious one in living memory; it had claimed the lives of three glimwardens, but only a single member of the Auxiliary, and he had been an old man with well-acknowledged heart problems.

Philip had shown up to find a painfully disorganized response to the lantern failure. It was impossible to tell whether this was typical of lantern failures, since this was Philip’s first time, but there should have been clear lines of communication between the engineers and the glimwardens, or at least something beyond someone sticking their head out the door calling for a random person to go deliver a message. The Auxiliary had been stuck away from the battle without clear line of sight for some reason, though Philip couldn’t tell whether that was by intent or just how things had ended up happening.

Lantern failures were, on the one hand, so rare that they were almost not worth thinking about. But on the other hand, lantern failures were so serious that they were vitally important to prepare for. Philip would almost have been angry, if not for the fact that he himself hadn’t prepared for a lantern failure either. He had full access to city hall, and it would have been easy enough to dig up the meeting minutes where such things had been discussed. Unfortunately, he had simply broken lantern failures apart into their political effects, as a total abstraction. He hadn’t dreamed that everyone else had been equally careless, but he should have expected it.

The battle itself was quick and to the point. Some large form of darkling had shown up and laid waste to everyone it encountered with only ineffectual resistance. Philip had no idea what the glimwardens did when they encountered one of those in the wild, but then again, everyone knew that it was a dangerous job, so perhaps the answer was that they simply died. All manner of black creatures, scaled and feathered, with horns and trailing smoke, had swarmed around the Schism and attacked the Auxiliary, whose line had broken instantly.

That had been another annoyance; the Auxiliary were either untrained or self-trained, but there was no reason that had to be the case. Philip suspected that this was simply an issue of inefficiencies in the political process. Since lantern failures were rare and the use of the Auxiliary so infrequent, it had never been worth the political capital to get the Auxiliary running regular drills or defensive courses being taught. This, despite the fact that it would obviously be worth the meager costs.

The fight wasn’t difficult for Philip. The darklings didn’t entirely ignore him, but they focused disproportionately on the others. In the calm moments, Philip suspected that this was because he had never consumed so much as a single darkling heart and had no trace of the shadow of the bind. He was attacked twice, both times by one of the smaller ones. Both times he slashed at them and they went off to find better prey. That was a very useful thing to know about the darklings.

Philip was so busy concentrating on staying out of the way that it took him some time to notice that the battle had moved elsewhere. Everyone around him was dead. There were still darklings coming in from beyond Light’s Hollow, but they were coming more slowly now. The only one left in the vicinity was the Schism, which was staring at him.

Death had never scared Philip. He didn’t want to die, but if it were unavoidable he would let it happen with a sigh, not the screaming, gnawing, thrashing of a rat caught in a trap. This was a matter of disposition, not philosophy. He was facing down a darkling that had destroyed the entire defense of the lantern in the space of a few minutes, but he still wasn’t afraid.

Instead, he started thinking about his outs. It was possible that the lantern would turn back on and either kill the darkling or drive it away. It was also possible that the darkling would take no interest in him and proceed to the lantern with the others. Salvation ended up coming from an unexpected place though; a hand rested on his shoulder and then the world changed.

He was standing in a different field, this one free from blood, ichor, and bodies. Sander, the owner of the hand that had seemingly pulled Philip through space, collapsed to the ground and threw up before going limp. Philip ignored that for a moment and scanned his surroundings. He was perhaps three hundred meters away from where the bulk of the battle had taken place. The Schism was melting, losing its coherence, reverting back to easier shapes that took less effort. It limped away from the lantern, oozing a black trail behind it. Every other darkling in view had died. A quick check of Healer’s Lantern confirmed that the light was on once more.

After he was done looking around, Philip leaned down and used his fingers to clear some of the vomit from Sander’s mouth, then turned Sander on his side. Sander was looking clammy and pale, and he wasn’t conscious, but he was still breathing. Philip sat down beside the limp body and started thinking about how he could use this situation to his advantage.


 

Author’s note: I’m continuing with my three weeks on, one week off schedule, so next chapter will be up in two weeks’ time. Thanks for reading.

 

Glimwarden, Chapter 5

Philip

Technically speaking, there were no laws against the mayor being a glimwarden. The laws of Light’s Hollow stated that mayoral elections were to be held once every nine years, or in a few other special circumstances. Every citizen in good standing was given the vote, including the engineers and the glimwardens, though they made up just a small fraction of the total population. If Philip became a glimwarden, he could still become the mayor. In fact, there were no prohibitions on the other two elected seats either; the engineers were allowed to elect whoever they liked, and no one was prevented from running for the at-large seat on the basis of profession. Yet the fact that there were no laws on the subject was almost meaningless given the weight of tradition. Through the history of Light’s Hollow, the mayor and at-large member had been from more mundane professions, and the engineers had never elected someone from outside their ranks.

It would be difficult for Philip to become mayor if he were a glimwarden, especially because that would result in two of the four seats on the council being occupied by wardens, which would raise all sorts of questions about the balance of political power. If he were a glimwarden, his only real path to a seat on the city council would be to become the chief glimwarden, which could only be accomplished through seniority — in other words, the death of some twenty people who were more experienced at the job than he was. Becoming a glimwarden was therefore at odds with Philip’s medium-term desires, even before he began to contemplate the risk of death inherent in fighting the darklings day after day.

Philip had decided against becoming a glimwarden after the better part of a day spent in the library at city hall, looking through books detailing the history of Light’s Hollow. The fact that there were no restrictions on the council positions was interesting — he wondered whether Seaborn and Linwell were aware of that — but for the most part he had only convinced himself that he would make life more difficult for himself by winning the competition.

The fact that he had no interest in winning didn’t mean that he wasn’t going to enter. The exact details of the competition were still being worked out, but Philip felt confident that it would be a public affair no matter what rules were in place. By entering, Philip would reinforce his place in the public eye, while at the same time giving him some conceptual distance from his father. Entering to become a glimwarden showed a strong spirit of sacrifice and dedication to the town above and beyond what the average citizen was expected to have, and so long as Philip made a good showing of things, he would be lauded for his dedication. Beyond that, Philip expected that the other entrants would disproportionately be important people close to his own age, which meant that he had a good chance of making allies, or at least strengthening old acquaintances.

Philip decided to begin training. He woke up early in the morning and went for a run, something he hadn’t done for quite some time. As he felt the strain in his legs and a burning in his lungs, he made sure to save enough energy to wave at people as he made his circuit of Light’s Hollow. He stopped at each of the lanterns to catch his breath, not only because he was tired, but because there were always people to talk to. None of the conversations went beyond the surface, of course, it was all empty pleasantries and idle chatter. Philip had been trying to work on his idle chatter.

“It’s shocking to me how many people keep their wandering to the domain of a single lantern,” he said to a baker who was loading his runework cart with bread. “Light’s Hollow is so big, yet some people only shuttle themselves from work to home and back again.”

“Oh I know,” said the baker. “Such a shame. The highlight of my day is in deliveries.”

Philip didn’t actually find it shocking that most people stayed within a mile of their homes. Runework engines were expensive. The carts were reserved almost exclusively for businesses and even then shared between several people. The primary way to travel between lanterns was simply by walking, but that meant nearly an hour’s round trip even at a brisk pace. Each of the outlying lanterns had services and shops for the people that lived there, if not to the extent that those were available near Chancellor’s Lantern. The baker had looked happy though, loading his bread up into the cart, so Philip had said what he thought the baker wanted to hear. He had cast the two of them as conspirators, worldly in a way that others weren’t. For whatever reason, people loved the idea of being set apart from their cohorts.

Philip complimented women on their clothing and showed interest towards farmers growing their crops. Farmers loved to talk about the weather, he’d found, probably because there was rarely anything more exciting going on in the fields. Philip found it easy to talk with people, especially when he could get them to do the bulk of the talking. He didn’t have to feign interest in their topics very often. Most of the time he was holding his tongue, because by the time you’d spoken about the same subject for the fifth time that day, you began to know more than the people you were talking to. It was better to let them talk though. People enjoyed feeling like you were growing wiser for having heard their opinion.

Some of the people he met talked to him about his father and the city council, usually with complaints. The city council’s open meetings had taught Philip to expect as much. The problem was that people didn’t tend to think about the city council unless they wanted something from it, whether that was tax relief, an allocation of permits, or the resolution of some dispute. Few people noticed when things were running smoothly. That was one of the reasons that it was important for those in the city council to be seen out and about. If the people wouldn’t fondly remember maintenance of the status quo, then they needed to remember appearances at festivals, grand speeches, or chance encounters during a morning run.

Politics wasn’t about policy. That had come as something of a disappointment to Philip, who loved policy from an early age. He liked looking at laws and civic codes, not just because they were ordered and precise, but because they were an attempt at bringing explicit language and reasoning to a world that seemed largely dominated by implicit understandings. Laws were the imperfect result of imperfect reasoning, created as compromise between people with different values, but they were at least a noble attempt at bringing the world into a state of order.

Unfortunately, no one cared about policy. The average voter didn’t understand the policies that were in place, nor the candidates’ positions on those policies. As a consequence, there was only a very tenuous feedback mechanism between what the city council did and how the people voted. Other people had noticed this and called elections little more than a popularity contest, but Philip wasn’t quite so cynical as that. He believed that people chose their representatives more on the basis of their personal attributes than on any specific policy. The people wanted an honest, hard-working mayor who listened to his citizens, because they thought that this would have a good outcome. With that said, the ability of the average citizen to determine the personal attributes of any other person (whether running for public office or not) was fairly minimal. It was more important for a political candidate to appear as though they had desirable personal attributes than it was for them to actually have desirable attributes.

This was one of the reasons that Philip disliked democracy. Voting systems resulted in candidates who were maximally good at getting people to vote for them, rather than the best creators of policy. The glimwarden’s system of simply having the longest-lived member speak for their interests was also flawed, but it at least had the benefit of being a decent proxy for experience and expertise. Philip’s preference was for a more absolute rule by a single, highly-competent person. There were problems with that as well, since an absolute ruler wouldn’t necessarily be the best at ruling absolutely, only the best at seizing the power of absolute rule, but that was a problem Philip thought that he could work on.

He mulled it over as he ran. It was nearly eleven when Philip rounded his way toward Singer’s Lantern, the most recent of the seven lanterns and thus the smallest of the outlying settlements. There was a general store, but almost any other service would require a two mile trip to Chancellor’s Lantern. Philip had always imagined that it was the least prestigious of the lanterns to work at. He made a note to himself to find a roundabout way of asking the engineers whether that was true. It was possible that working on the newest lantern was some sort of privilege, in the way that a fresh cut of meat was preferred to one that had been sitting in the butcher’s window for three days.

When he saw Sander Seaborn and Merry Myles walking away from the lantern, he waved and called out to them. These were important people, each in their own way. Merry might be the chief glimwarden some day, which would usher in a new era of the city council. Merry Myles was blunt, same as the elder Seaborn, but a glance at her exposed midriff and twin pistols was enough to know she was no conservative.

“Hello Sander, Miss Myles. Sander, do you have a moment to speak?” asked Philip as he drew near them.

Sander looked to Merry and she shrugged her shoulders.

“I need to find your father anyway,” the glimwarden said. “You did well today.” She gave Philip a small, lazy curtsy that bordered on sarcastic. “Tell the mayor I said hello.” She walked off without standing on ceremony, humming to herself as she left them alone.

“How’s your morning been?” asked Sander.

“Good,” replied Philip. “We haven’t talked much since leaving school.”

“We didn’t talk much in school either,” Sander replied.

“You always had your nose in a book, if I recall correctly,” said Philip with a laugh. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

“What did you want to talk about?” asked Sander. He shifted slightly and glanced up at the light on top of Singer’s Lantern. That was often a habit of older people, those who had been through some calamity and needed constant reassurance that the lantern was still working. The alarms would sound if there was ever a problem, and this close to the lantern there would be no missing it.

“They’re going to build an eighth lantern,” said Philip. “They want three more glimwardens to help fuel it, and I was wondering whether you wanted to be one of them.”

“I — yes?” asked Sander.

“So do I,” said Philip. “I’m going to tell you something that’s not quite public record yet. There’s going to be a competition to determine who the glimwardens are going to be, in order to keep the process as purely objective as possible.” He watched Sander closely. The lack of reaction gave away what Philip had already suspected. This was not new information to him, though Philip hadn’t fully expected that it would be. “I was wondering whether you wanted to be partners.”

“Partners?” asked Sander. “I didn’t think things were so set in stone yet. There are going to be teams?”

“It’s not set in stone,” said Philip. “I doubt that there will be formal teams though, because they’re trying to make sure they have the best individuals.”

“So how would we be partners?” asked Sander. His brow was furrowed.

“There might be some forms of competition that allow for two to work better than one,” said Philip. “It might never come up, but if it does, far better to have someone picked out ahead of time so you aren’t scrambling to find someone, or worse, only realizing after the fact that everyone else picked a partner.”

Sander frowned. “But why do you want to become a glimwarden?” he asked. “Everyone says that you’re going to be the mayor some day.”

This was the question that Philip had been waiting for, one that he knew he would have to answer many times in the coming days. This was an opportunity to practice saying something rehearsed and coming off natural. “Glimwardens have a covenant with this town, one that extends deeper than the covenant of civil service or the mayor’s oath of office. My father helps this town to run properly, as do Miss Linwell and Mister Golland, but the glimwardens are the only ones that put their lives on the line. If I don’t end up being chosen to become a glimwarden, I think I can happily while away my life working at city hall in one capacity or another, but so long as they’re opening up the selection process, I thought I might have a go at the ultimate form of duty.”

“Huh,” said Sander. He slowly began to smile. “I think my dad would like you. But I guess you see him every week at the meetings, don’t you?”

“We haven’t spoken much,” replied Philip. “I’d welcome the chance to sit down with him sometime though.”

“I might be able to arrange that,” said Sander. He scratched his head for a moment. “Okay, team members, I think I’d like that. But why me?”

“There are lots of reasons,” said Philip. “The biggest one is that you have a reputation for having a keen mind, and I think that will be an asset.”

That was a lie. Philip had made an ordering of the reasons to approach Sander Seaborn first. At the top of the list was Sander’s father, the chief glimwarden, who represented one quarter of the city council’s votes and a substantial fraction of its raw physical power. Sander was also widely known to be lacking in wisdom, for all that he was supposed to be intelligent; three failed apprenticeships seemed proof enough of that. That meant Sander would have a real need for a partner, but also that he would be easy to steer.

“So who do you want for our third?” asked Philip.

“Our third?” asked Sander.

“There will be three glimwardens at the end of this,” said Philip. “If two can profit by promising to help each other, so can three. With four we might run into problems, since there would be an incentive for betrayal. Besides that, three is lucky.”

“I don’t even know who else is thinking of entering,” said Sander.

“It’s hard to say at this point,” Philip agreed. “We’ll know more once it’s been formally announced and people start talking. Colin Colsum seems like a certainty though, and I think Benjamin Brecker will probably join in as well. We don’t know what sort of requirements are going to be in place either. Unless your father has said anything about that?”

“No,” said Sander. “I haven’t heard anything. I’ll grill him on it tonight and let you know though. Based on the ages of prior glimwardens at induction, I think they’d probably restrict it to between sixteen and twenty-six, which narrows the field down to sixteen percent of the population. If one in ten of those wanted to be a glimwarden, that’s roughly two hundred people as an upper bound.” Sander rattled this off without a second thought. He looked up to the light on top of Singer’s Lantern again. “I’m getting hungry though, so maybe we can talk later?”

“Do you want to have lunch together?” asked Philip. “We are partners now, after all. I’d pay, if you wanted to eat in town. Otherwise my mom could make us something, if you’re headed in the direction of Chancellor’s.”

Sander hesitated. “Have you ever eaten at the Black Mare?”

❧❧❧

Philip had, of course, eaten at the Black Mare before. There were perhaps twenty places that served food within Light’s Hollow, and Philip had eaten at all of them. One of the mayor’s duties was to listen to the people, not just those who made appointments with him or showed up to the open sessions of the city council, but those who barely took an interest in governance. Philip’s father made regular trips all around Light’s Hollow, bringing Philip along with a pen and paper to make notes on names and issues. It hadn’t escaped Philip’s notice that this supposed duty (not spelled out anywhere in the city charter) also helped his father’s public image and increased his odds of re-election.

The Black Mare was frequented by a lesser sort of people. Tenant farmers, manual laborers, and contingent workers all tended to congregate here. It was the only tavern next to Challenger’s Lantern — which everyone called Rogue’s Lantern — so it also drew in some of the more well-to-do people who didn’t want to make the trek into town, but by and large it was occupied by the lower classes. Be that as it may, everyone got their vote, no matter how much money they were worth, so the mayor came to visit with Philip in tow.

Melanie rolled her eyes at Sander the moment he walked through the door, which immediately made it clear to Philip why they had walked two miles just for her food. He had never given much thought to Melanie Masters. She was quite poor, she was a distant relation of Linwell, she’d made a fool of herself at the Moon Rise, and she somehow managed to run this tavern entirely on her own. That was all that he knew of her though. He didn’t know what Sander’s interest in her was, but he expected that it was romantic.

“What’s the soup of the day, Melanie?” asked Sander.

“Horse,” said Melanie. “With onion and homemade noodles, plus some herbs and spices.”

“I’ve never had horse before,” said Sander. “Why horse?”

“Colsum’s horse had to be put down yesterday,” said Philip. “I heard about it on my morning run.”

“I was offered a good price on the meat,” said Melanie.

“Is it any good?” asked Sander.

“You claim to love my cooking,” replied Melanie.

“That sounds suspiciously like you’re avoiding my question,” said Sander. He was smiling, but she was not. “Is it any good?”

“It’s a traditional dish,” said Melanie. “When the first settlers founded Light’s Hollow, they had to slaughter a number of the horses and oxen that had pulled their traveling lantern along. They made noodles from the last of the flour they’d brought with them and used spring onions they found near the river.”

“That … is actually still not an answer,” said Sander.

“It’s horse,” said Melanie. “Do you like the taste of horse?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever tasted horse before,” said Sander. “I just wanted to know whether you liked the soup.”

Melanie pinched the bridge of her nose.

“We’ll take two bowls,” said Philip. “And two cups of something to wash it down with, in case our palates aren’t quite refined enough to appreciate a historically significant dish like this. We’ll be at the table in the corner. Sander and I have a few things we need to discuss.” He grabbed Sander’s arm and guided him away. Melanie gave a small sigh of relief that Sander didn’t seem to notice, though if she felt any gratitude toward Philip, he could see no trace of it.

“Are you sure that we want to be eating horse soup?” asked Sander when they sat down.

“It will be a new experience,” said Philip. “There aren’t too many of those to be had in Light’s Hollow.” This was a safe thing to say to Sander, and it happened to also be true. “There are only nine horses left in Light’s Hollow now, if what I’ve been told is true. It might be that in another generation there won’t be any horses left at all. Or maybe they’ll just be inbred.”

“I’m not even sure why we have horses,” said Sander. “Glimwardens can’t take them out, because they’re a liability in a fight against the darklings. The tractors are all runework these days, no smelly animals required. Most of the caravans have runework engines as well, but the ones that don’t have oxen, not horses. The only place a horse excels is in going over rough terrain, but it can’t even be all that rough or the horse will have trouble.”

“No one owns horses because they’re practical,” said Philip. “Do you know who owns those nine remaining horses?”

“Colsum, probably,” said Sander. “If the horse we’re about to eat was his horse, then maybe he has another. I don’t know who else.”

“Colsum, Framing, and Padgecock,” replied Philip. “The three richest families in Light’s Hollow. They own the horses so they can show everyone that they’re rich enough to own horses. In fact, if horses did more than they do now, there would be less point in owning a horse, because it wouldn’t be clear that it was a waste of time and money.”

“That’s stupid,” said Sander. “Why do they need to show everyone that they have money if they have money? If you’d just asked me who the three richest families were I probably would have said Colsum, Framing, and Padgecock.”

“One school of thought would be that you only know that because they display their wealth with things like horses,” said Philip.

“Why is that even important?” asked Sander. “If they’ve got money, why do they need to tell people that they have money? They already have to show their money when they buy things, which is the whole point of having money.”

“People treat you differently when they know that you have money,” said Philip. He gave Sander a genuine smile. He’d had these conversations with his father, but those had been solemn affairs between teacher and student. Sander seemed to think that this problem was a stupid one that he could solve in a few hours thought. “If a man knows that you have money, he’ll treat you better even if you’re not paying him anything, both for positive reasons, like him wanting money from you, or negative reasons, like him thinking that you could use your money in retribution against him.”

While Sander was pondering that, Melanie arrived with two bowls of soup and two glasses of chilled wormwood tea. When she set them on the table, Sander gave her a wide smile, which she responded to with a roll of her eyes. Sander didn’t seem remotely fazed by this.

“Horse,” said Sander, looking down at his soup. “To historical curiosities?”

“To partnership,” said Philip. “And to trying new things.”

Philip was feeling good about himself. His relationship with Sander was progressing nicely, which meant that entering into the glimwarden competition was paying dividends already. Philip’s past experience was that he did better the less time he spent with people, so he began making a list of excuses in preparation for when it came time to say his goodbyes. He took his first spoonful of soup just slightly after Sander. Sander’s expression was one of puzzlement, so Philip followed suit, trying to look thoughtful.

“She’s covering up the flavor of the horse,” said Sander. “This is my first time having horse, but I still don’t know what the meat tastes like.”

“The soup tastes like onions and herbs,” agreed Philip. He found it easy to agree with people, even if he didn’t agree with them. It wasn’t hard to find both the positive and negative in most things. Philip was always ready with a compliment, if that was what was warranted.

“It’s good though,” said Sander. He turned around, toward where Melanie was reading a book at the counter. “It’s good!”

Melanie looked up briefly and gave them the smallest smile she could manage. It faded away as soon as she returned her gaze to her book.

“How long have you and Melanie been friends?” asked Philip as he took another bite of his soup. It was far from the best thing he’d ever eaten, but it was at least novel. He was skeptical about Melanie’s claim that this was a historical dish, since early documents from the founders were quite rare and didn’t, to his knowledge, include any recipes.

“I haven’t known her long,” said Sander. He’d lowered his voice slightly and leaned in closer to Philip. “I mean, I didn’t really pay attention to her when we were in school. It was just me, Richard, and Wallace, I didn’t really spend time with anyone else.” He frowned and paused for a moment. Philip made note of the weak spot. “Most people like to talk a lot, but Mel is content to stay silent most of the time. She likes reading books more than she likes people.”

“Why is that, do you think?” asked Philip.

“I don’t know,” said Sander. “I’m trying to figure it out, because I think she’s worth figuring out. She showed up to the Moon Rise in a white dress, with every type of flower in her hair. I think it was one of the most compelling things I’ve ever seen. It was like that feeling of seeing stars in the sky on a cloudless night, that expansive emotion that comes from a world that’s larger than you could ever comprehend. Like she was lifting me up into the air by my bones.” He glanced over at Melanie, who was still reading her book.

Philip had no idea what sort of response was warranted. He didn’t even really know what message Sander was trying to communicate. Philip’s experience with people was mostly with their exteriors, the things they said in public and the thoughts they would share with a stranger. Sander seemed to have just revealed part of his interior, without forethought, vulnerability, or shame.

The Moon Rise was always a month after graduation, when the girls of Light’s Hollow had found an apprenticeship or settled into unskilled labor of some kind. It was a celebration of the last night of girlhood and the transition to being a woman. There were usually around seventy girls taking part in the Moon Rise, but there were more than a thousand people in attendance.

Philip had been there, as was traditional for the male counterparts of the graduating class. He had been to every Moon Rise since he was little, and didn’t find much that was new or different about this one. Each girl wore a dress in a single color, with something of a pecking order to who wore which colors. There was meaning conveyed in the solid blue that Sonia wore, or in the deep purple dress of Claudia’s that trailed nearly to the floor. Philip understood little of it, but for once he wasn’t expected to.

Melanie had come late, wearing a white dress. Almost every time Philip had seen her before or since, she’d worn her hair in a tight braid that was pinned up, but on Moon Rise she had it down and flowing freely. Her black hair reached the small of her back. Woven into it were fresh flowers of nearly every color. On one of the nights when Light’s Hollow was most steeped in tradition, Melanie Masters had chosen to be completely unorthodox. People stopped talking to stare at her, and whispered conversations followed in her wake. She ignored the looks and the murmured conversation, spoke to no one, and only stayed long enough to take part in the firelight dance. There was considerable gossip about it after the fact, but that had faded away within a few weeks when nothing more came of it.

That left Philip with the question of what Sander was talking about. There was no good way to ask though, not without exposing himself as ignorant of the message. Philip guessed that this was something romantic, or at least close to that. Certainly Melanie had the kind of features that Philip recognized others would find attractive. Yet he’d never heard the language Sander had used before, which meant that he couldn’t be sure what Sander was trying to say.

Philip tried to formulate some response that would be appropriate but found himself lacking words. He was saved from uttering something inelegant when an alarm started blaring in the distance.

The lanterns had lights atop them to indicate that they were burning. If the lantern failed, electricity would fail as well, and the lantern’s light would go out. That system had been in place since the first traveling lantern had come to a stop not far from where Chancellor’s lantern now stood. Yet a simple light wasn’t enough in a town as large as Light’s Hollow, not when people might spend their whole day indoors and out of view of the lantern. The decision had therefore been made to update the system and attach speakers to the lanterns which would let out a loud droning sound whenever the electricity went out. Philip wasn’t entirely sure how they worked, since he would have assumed that electricity was required in order to provide power to the speakers, but apparently the engineers had worked something out. Once or twice a year, one of the alarms would go off without cause, and at the start of every season all the alarms sounded off one by one to make sure that they still worked and that everyone knew what they sounded like. It was a keening wail that rose in pitch until it steadied itself into a droning noise in the background.

“Healer’s Lantern,” said Sander. He was twisted around in his seat. “I have to go take care of it.”

“Let the wardens deal with it,” said Melanie. She was looking at their table, not in the direction of the alarm.

“I’m in the Auxiliary now,” Sander replied. He stood up from the table and fished some coins from out of his pocket, which he hurriedly put down on the table without counting them. By Philip’s estimation, Sander was grossly overpaying for the meal. He also seemed to have forgotten that Philip had offered to cover it. “I have to go.”

Philip had decided long ago that if there was ever an alarm, he would go running headlong toward it in order to help out in any way that he could. The people of Light’s Hollow valued heroism, even if it was ineffectual. Alarm malfunctions were more common than actual problems. Actual problems tended to be fixed quickly, only rarely dragging out for more than half an hour. If Philip heard the alarm and went running, most of the time he would get the credit for quick thinking and heroic spirit without actually having to do anything.

Of course, the other side of his strategy was that sometimes Philip would be running toward actual danger. He would be weaker than the glimwardens, naturally, but also weaker than every member of the Auxiliary. It was also highly unlikely that he would have a weapon of any kind. Philip didn’t mind that too much though. Fighting the darklings was dangerous, but there were other things he could do, like helping with evacuation or assisting with lantern repairs, both of which came with far less danger. If it came to it, Philip had some basic ability to defend himself from the darklings. Coming out of an emergency with a serious wound would only serve to highlight Philip’s heroism. As for death … well, Philip didn’t really fear death. He felt the same way about death as he felt about the darklings. He quietly acknowledged that death was a bad thing, but he felt nothing like what other people described when they talked about not wanting to die.

“I’m coming with,” said Philip. He’d expected either Sander or Melanie to object, but neither of them did; Sander was too focused on the emergency, while Melanie was too focused on Sander. “Do you have any weapons?” Philip asked Melanie.

She nodded behind to one wall, where two swords were crossed. They were one of the only things that spoke to finery in the entire tavern. Sander ran over to them and pulled them both from their slots, handing one to Philip. Philip took it like he knew what to do with it and followed Sander out the door.

Glimwarden, Chapter 4

Sander

Sander was usually the one to make breakfast, but the day after his trip to the forest, he woke to the smells and sounds of frying bacon. Normally this would have been a pleasant surprise, but this morning it was undoubtedly a precursor to a conversation with his father. He debated staying in bed, in the hopes that his father would simply give up, but that didn’t seem like a workable plan. He took his time pulling on his trousers and buttoning up his shirt, if only to delay the inevitable. Before he left his room, he gave himself a look in the mirror, trying to practice keeping calm.

When he came out into the common room, his father was sitting at the table with a plate full of food in front of him. It was a mix of meat and eggs, not just bacon but pulled pork and steak as well. The only vegetables present were fried tomatoes, which seemed more like a garnish to add color than a part of the meal. When Sander entered, his father nodded to him.

“Grab yourself a plate,” his father said with a nod to the kitchen.

Sander moved cautiously and began piling his plate up with pulled pork and scrambled eggs. When he was finished, he sat down at the table with his father and began trying to decide what he wanted to eat first. He wasn’t sure whether his father would wait until after they’d eaten or start talking right away. Sander wasn’t sure which he would prefer. A tense, silent breakfast seemed unpleasant, but it would at least give Sander more time to wake up.

“The worst three months of my life were just before and just after you were born,” said Sander’s father. “When your mother was too pregnant to fight, she was miserable, and when she was recovering from giving birth, she was as impatient as I had ever seen her — and she was not a patient person in the slightest. She ached to go back into the field. I stopped her as best I could, telling her that we could pick up the slack, that she needed to be mindful of her health, not just for her own sake but for yours as well. It would have been better if she had come to that conclusion on her own, so that she could have that iron certainty she always felt about her own ideas, but that was not to be. Once I had said that she wasn’t in any condition to face the darklings, she was determined that she would. She snuck off a few times. She almost killed herself. She almost killed you, before you had been born.”

“I … didn’t know that,” said Sander.

“I don’t want to watch you die,” said Sander’s father. “When your mother died the light went out of my life. Now all that’s left are embers. If I lost you too …” He paused, unable to finish the thought.

“That’s selfish,” said Sander. “You want to put shackles on me for your own peace of mind.” That argument had felt good when he’d said it to Melanie last night, but it seemed to ring hollow now.

“Half of the glimwardens die in their first year,” said Sander’s father. “Do you know what made your mother and I different?” Sander shook his head. “We were lucky. We were trained by the best of the glimwardens, given a thousand hearts apiece before we stepped one foot outside of Light’s Hollow, but it’s a minor miracle that one of us didn’t die. I thought you would go through the records and see how dangerous it was, how imperiled you would be. Didn’t you do that?”

“Of course I did,” replied Sander. He could feel his cheeks growing warm. It was one thing for his father to think that he was foolish and another entirely to be accused of not having done the research. “Half die in the first year, but it’s not so grim after that. If you could figure out why that first year was so bad then you’d be able to mitigate whatever factors are at play.”

“I’m forty-five years old Sander,” his father replied. “Not so old, yet the most senior of the glimwardens. Death is not rare in this profession, even after the first year. Glimwardens do not wish to die, even those with little experience. Did you think that you were the first to consider these issues?”

“Well, sure,” said Sander. “But glimwardens aren’t selected on the basis of their intelligence, and it seems like there are selection pressures in favor of the risk prone, since everyone knows that it’s a dangerous profession. I was thinking that I would be able to make some headway where others had failed.”

“You think we’re idiots,” said Sander’s father.

Sander went quiet and took a few bites of meat from his plate. His father didn’t look angry, but it was always difficult to tell. It wasn’t that Sander thought the glimwardens were idiots, but they weren’t intellectuals and knowledge was decidedly not their domain. They knew how to fight the darklings, sure, but that was the sort of learning that wasn’t too much different from any other trade, as far as Sander was concerned. Learning to swing a sword was something he’d already devoted some effort to, but it wasn’t a test of wits. Sander was smart, above and beyond having read all of the books in Light’s Hollow. He didn’t think it was terribly unreasonable for him to think he could figure out something that everyone else had missed.

“It’s not that,” said Sander. “Thinking about things is sort of what I do. I just … I wanted to help.”

“No,” said his father. “If you wanted to help you wouldn’t need to be a glimwarden yourself.”

This was also true. It was frustrating, how his father seemed able to cut through the meat of a conversation, straight down to the bone. Sander had thought he was prepared, but now he felt foolish. He should never have mentioned wanting to lend his expertise.

“I want to be free,” said Sander. “I want to be able to leave this town, to travel with the caravans, to see more of the world. I don’t want to live in fear of the darklings, needing someone to protect me.”

“You will always need someone to protect you,” his father replied. “There is no shame in that. When we venture into dangerous places, there are always at least three of us so that we can sleep in shifts.”

“That’s not what I meant,” said Sander. “I mean, if I were a tradesman I would be part of this system, dependent on people to buy goods from and people to sell goods to, and I like people, but I don’t want my whole life to be dictated by them.”

“What do you think it is to be a glimwarden?” asked Sander’s father. “We are more tied to this town than anyone else. If one of the lanterns should fail, we have a solemn duty to hold back the darklings while the citizens of this town make their escape. The last time that happened, three of us died. Our lives are dictated by the people of this town.”

“Yes,” said Sander. “But it’s your choice, isn’t it? A glimwarden makes a pact with the town, but a cobbler gets trapped by his work. A runesmith doesn’t make a vow that he’ll lay his life on the line, his life is on the line as a consequence of his profession, not as a terminal end.”

Sander’s father heaved a sigh. “If I gave you a chance to become a glimwarden, a real, honest chance, and if you failed at that chance, what would you do? Would you agree to give up if you didn’t make the cut?”

Sander pondered this. It felt like a trap. He didn’t want to have to make his way to a thousand hearts all on his own though. Accepting his father’s help in exchange for his father’s judgment didn’t seem like too bad of a deal, so long as the opportunity on offer was genuine. Sander had never known his father to lie, at least not directly. Perhaps a son with looser morals might have taken the help with the intent to run off in the event of failure, but while Sander was perfectly willing to disobey orders he disagreed with, he wasn’t ready to commit a betrayal on that scale.

“Deal,” said Sander. “What kind of trials will you be putting me through?”

“There’s to be a competition,” said Sander’s father. “Linwell wants to know that we’re choosing the next three glimwardens fairly and I agreed to the suggestion. That’s your chance.”

“But … I could have done that on my own, without you,” said Sander with a frown. It was a trap, he could see that now, but not like he had expected.

“It’s your moment to strike,” said Sander’s father. “And if you fail, you have agreed that will be the end of it.”

Sander nodded. He had no real doubt that he could beat out anyone else, and he didn’t even have to do that, since there were going to be three new glimwardens, not just one. He could potentially be worse than two others and still gain his father’s approval.

“Do other people know about this competition yet?” asked Sander.

“Everyone who was at the city council meeting yesterday, and anyone they’ve told,” said Sander’s father. “You’re getting a slight advantage on that front. I would suggest you not squander it.”

Sander started eating faster. He felt a faint relief at seeing a small smile from his father, but he didn’t have time to dwell on that. There were plans to be made.

❧❧❧

“I need you to train me,” Sander told Merry.

The second most senior glimwarden stood at the front door of her house with slightly bleary eyes. She was dressed only in a cotton robe, which wasn’t pulled closed quite as tightly as modesty demanded. Sander kept his eyes from wandering. Merry was practically family and fifteen years older than him besides that.

“You woke me up for this?” she asked. She cleared her throat with a growling sound and spit to the side of him, into a potted plant. “Can it wait?”

“I thought that you would be up,” said Sander. “It’s ten o’clock. And anyway, it can’t wait, I need my training to start today.”

Merry gave him a great big yawn and let her face settle into a frown. “Your father wasn’t interested?”

“I didn’t ask,” said Sander. “Personal stuff would get in the way. Besides that, you seemed like you wanted to.”

“Not this early in the morning,” said Merry. “But fine, give me a minute to make myself presentable and I’ll take you into the woods.”

“I didn’t think —”

“Best way to learn,” said Merry. She closed the door before he had a chance to object.

While Sander waited outside her house, he again tried to feel the bind. He’d felt the effects of the bind a few times since ingesting the hearts. The night before, when he’d jumped down from the roof of Melanie’s tavern, something had seemed to cushion the blow. He knew that glimwardens could take some hard hits, but he hadn’t known that it would happen without his conscious will. If he strained, he could almost feel a difference in the way the wind moved the hairs of his arm, but it was difficult to be sure that wasn’t just his imagination.

Merry came out a few minutes later dressed in long pants and a simple vest that left her midriff exposed. She was adorned with weapons: twin pistols at her hips and knives strapped to her thighs. She had pulled her hair back into a practical bun. All traces of grogginess had been swept from her face.

“Now, am I going to get in trouble for this?” asked Merry. “How’d things shake out with dear old dad?”

“He gave some conditions,” said Sander. “I gave some concessions. I think we’re okay, at least for now.”

“Well that’s good,” Merry replied. Her modest house was a mile away from Singer’s Lantern, which she looked to with a critical eye. “You know, I’ve been telling the engineers for years that they should just bite the bullet and put up some more lights so they could give some indication of what sort of state they’re in. I think we’re targeting Singer’s though. You ready to make a delivery with me?”

“Of course,” said Sander. He didn’t have his mother’s sword with him, but he wasn’t about to let that stop him.

“Have you ever fired a gun before?” asked Merry as she unstrapped one of her pistols from its holster.

“No,” said Sander. “Dad doesn’t like them.”

“If Samuel Seaborn had to make a list of all the things he didn’t like, he’d run through the town’s supply of paper before he got done,” said Merry. She offered the gun to Sander butt first. He took it with care. It was colder than he’d expected it would be, and heavier too. “Point it at whatever you’d like to kill, then pull the trigger. Don’t point it at things you don’t want to kill. Keep your finger off the trigger unless you’re ready to fire. Always treat it as if it were loaded, which that one is not. That’s about all there is to it. The bullets I have made for me by one of the engineers, a guy named Kelso Kelly, and they’re not the cheapest bits of metal in the world, so don’t waste them.” From one of the pockets on her vest she pulled out a meager handful of bullets, which Sander took and stuffed into one of his pants pockets. “These bullets shatter on impact, so they do a lot of damage. They’re strong enough to kill one of the smaller darklings in a single hit, if you aim right at their heart.”

“I appreciate this, but … I’m not sure that I want to use a gun,” said Sander.

“Come on, walk with me,” said Merry. She took off towards Singer’s Lantern without waiting for a response. Sander trailed behind her, still feeling hyper-aware of the gun in his hands. “Now, the first thing we’ve got to do before we pick out a weapon for you is figure out what your signature is. Any ideas on that front?”

“No,” said Sander. “I can barely feel the bind.”

“That’s what we’re going to work on today then,” replied Merry. “Your signature determines your optimal weapon, so once we know that we can know what direction to start training you in. No sense in taking up the broadsword when what you really want is a crossbow.”

“But how will I know what my signature is without eating more hearts?” asked Sander.

“We can force it,” Merry replied. She stopped for a moment and looked at the fields around them. Singer’s Lantern was some distance from the heart of Light’s Hollow, and like the other lanterns, it had its own cluster of buildings around it. Between lanterns, there were only roads and farmlands, with the occasional line of trees for a windbreak. Alfalfa was harvested two to three times a year, and it must have been the period between harvest and planting, because the fields were fallow. There were no runework tractors around either, nor any people watching. “Hand me that gun back for a second?”

“What are you going to do?” asked Sander. He hefted the gun for a moment. Its handle had warmed to his touch. He handed it to Merry. After a moment’s thought he fished the bullets from his pocket as well and handed those over.

“I’m going to hit you,” said Merry as she took the proffered items.

“Uh,” Sander began.

Sander had known Merry was fast, but her speed still surprised him. The blow landed in the center of his chest and sent him flying backwards and tumbling into the damp dirt. He felt something at the moment of impact, a vague sense of protection and dulling of pain, but it was gone in an instant. He picked himself up and began coughing. When he had cleared his lungs, he wiped his dirty hands on his pants and jogged back to her. He’d traveled ten feet, but it had seemed like far more than that.

“Well, that was worth a shot,” said Merry with a smile. “Another test then.” She raised her gun and pointed it at his face.

Sander found himself tumbling backward into the none too soft earth again. This time there was no sensation of impact and no pain, but he found himself feeling dizzy shortly afterward. When he started to stagger to his feet, he saw Merry jogging over to him, her gun safely holstered. They were quite some distance from the road.

“You aimed a gun at me,” said Sander. “You said not to do that.”

“Well, I’m a professional,” she replied. “And you, my friend, are a teleporter.”

“I feel sick,” said Sander. His stomach seemed like it was floating around in his belly.

“You were gone for about three seconds,” said Merry. “It had me worried, I can tell you that much. Not sure what I would have told your father if you hadn’t come back.” She moved over him and began patting him on the back, like his mother used to do when he was sick. “But you did come back, about twenty feet from where you’d been standing. Signature by reflex, we call it. The proof of the professional is in the results.”

“I’m going to throw up,” said Sander. He could taste bile at the back of his throat.

“You recall how I said that the bind was like a battery that builds up its charge?” asked Merry. “Well, you drained that battery when I hit you; it will recharge in a day or two. That alone wasn’t enough to give you the queasles, but when you popped out of existence for a few seconds you were overdrawing on your account.”

Sander tried to shake off the sick feeling. His muscles were weaker than they should have been; he was having trouble standing. He tried to focus on the problem at hand. “You can do that?”

“Many a glimwarden does, in their most desperate moments,” said Merry. “Of course, it leaves you weak and helpless after the fact, not to mention drained of bind, but it’s better than dying, and if you don’t have anything to lose, why not?”

“How long is this going to last?” asked Sander.

“Not more than a day,” said Merry. “Perhaps an hour until you don’t feel like killing yourself. Though you’re a neophyte, and I think that makes it a little easier.”

“Wait a second,” said Sander as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Where does the energy come from? You said that the bind was like a cup of water. There’s a constant trickle coming in, refilling the cup when it gets empty. But where does the water equivalent come from when the cup is dry?”

“Dunno,” said Merry. “Maybe it’s like … let’s say that you had a few pails full of water, one for cooking, one for cleaning, and so on. When you’re taking a hit, or powering up a sword, or using your signature, that’s all drawing from the same pail. Let’s say that’s the pail of water used for cleaning. But if you really wanted to, say, clean your floor, you could take one of the other pails and use that instead. It’s like, maybe, taking your drinking water and splashing it down onto the tile? You’d get your floor clean, but you’d be thirsty after you were done.”

“That’s just an analogy,” said Sander. He was too sick to think properly, but this sounded exactly like one of those things that the glimwardens should have put serious effort toward figuring out centuries ago. If you could use more bind than was supposed to be available to you, maybe it was possible to skip over eating all the hearts in the first place.

“The real question is what sort of teleporter you are,” said Merry. “Teleportation is just the categorization, it doesn’t describe the signature itself. You’re probably not up for a second jaunt across the aether today, but we need to figure out what the delay was all about. You were completely gone for three seconds, no trace to be seen with even my considerable senses.”

“I didn’t have a problem with it,” said Sander. “Let’s see, I fell down when the transition happened, because I was moving sideways and didn’t have my footing. I took three seconds to cross twenty feet, so I transitioned from being stationary to moving five miles per hour. That means … well, I don’t know, I’m going to need to test it.”

“Like I said,” replied Merry. “It’s going to have to wait until tomorrow. Just keep in mind the sensation of it so that next time you can do it voluntarily. Now, what sort of weapon are we going to use for you? I’m thinking something small and quick, so you can pop in and go to work right away, then maybe pop back out if you’re in danger. It’ll be some weapon that favors speed. Daggers? Short swords?”

Sander shook his head, which caused another wave of nausea. “I came through moving, almost at jogging speed. I’d want something that can leverage the change in momentum.” He paused. “I want to use the biggest, heaviest sword you have.”

“That I personally have?” asked Merry. “Well, first off, I’m already doing you a favor by revealing the secrets of the universe to you, even though you’re not a glimwarden yet. You’re welcome, by the way. Second, I’ve never had a taste for swords. So you’ll need to ask your father to borrow from his armory, which is more extensive than my own. If you manage to get your thousand hearts, you’ll get a smith to forge one special for you, and a runesmith to enchant it, which will take more hearts.”

“Skip it for now then,” said Sander. “I’ll need a backup, something that I can use if my big sword isn’t practical.”

“We’re not doing combat training today,” said Merry. “You’re looking too drained for that anyhow. I’m rethinking taking you into the woods today.”

“No,” said Sander. “We’ll go. You need to collect hearts for Singer’s Lantern, right?”

“The more I think about it, the more I think it would be easier if I’m not dragging you along,” replied Merry. “But I suppose I did agree to train you. Come on, let’s go.” She walked back to the road and toward Singer’s Lantern, and Sander trotted after her.

❧❧❧

The lanterns were all built the same, both for reasons of tradition, and because the design had been perfected long ago. The internal machinery which surrounded an enormous sphere of combined hearts was, of course, standardized, since efficiency in repelling the darklings was of paramount importance, but the buildings themselves had a like appearance as well. They were rounded, the better to serve as defensive structures of last resort, built with thick slabs of stone reinforced with iron. They had no windows on the ground floor; all the light came in from nearly twenty feet up, and from the light bulbs that circled the inside. In the event of an emergency, a rope could be pulled that would close all of the windows against intrusion.

Entrance to the lantern was through two large double doors, made of thick lacquered wood with iron rivets. These were kept open just enough for a person to slip in, most of the time, though they could be pulled wide in order to facilitate the comings or goings of large equipment. In times of emergency, the doors would be sealed shut while the glimwardens fought outside. On top of the building were two things that distinguished each lantern from its sisters and brothers; the first was a bright, colored light — Singer’s color was amber — and the second was a statue. Singer’s showed the singer herself, carved in marble and strumming a stringless harp.

“I’ll be making a delivery in the next hour or two,” Merry said to the chief engineer of Singer’s Lantern. “Try to have your act together this time.”

The chief engineer was an aged man, clearly no longer involved in the actual heavy lifting of equipment, which in Sander’s experience was left to apprentices. “We’ll be ready,” he replied. “You know, the glimwardens and the engineers used to get along.”

“That’s none of my business,” said Merry. “Just make sure that you’re ready when I come to deliver the hearts.”

Sander looked at the lantern itself as they talked. In the center of it was a solid ball of hava, the combined mass of thousands of darkling hearts, but that was obscured from view. Covering it were removable casings through which the internal workings of the lantern could be accessed, and one or two places where tightly coiled wire could be seen. The principle behind the lanterns was quite simple; a magnetic current was all that was necessary to slow the process of evaporation and emit the glimlight that kept the darklings at bay. That this also produced a strong electrical current across the surface of the hava was a boon, without which the lanterns wouldn’t be possible. The electricity was fed through coiled wire, which produced a magnetic field, which in turn meant that the process was self-sustaining so long as the lantern was regularly fed more hearts to compensate for what was burned each day. Because the lanterns produced more electricity than they consumed, the excess was used all around Light’s Hollow, in electric stoves and light bulbs, for heating in the winters and for cooling in the summers.

Sander had taken an apprenticeship as an engineer. From the time he had been a young boy, that was what he’d wanted to do. Still, he had known within the first week that the work wasn’t for him. No one was interested in making improvements to the lantern, nor were they interested in defending the way things were currently done. Sander wasn’t quite so arrogant as to think that he would stroll into an apprenticeship at fifteen years old and have some brilliant insight that would change the lanterns forever, but he had at least expected that someone would tell him why he was wrong. Instead, he was met with silence or dismissal. Eventually he had been taken aside by one of the senior engineers.

“What’s important is that the lantern keeps running,” engineer Plemont had said to him. “If the lantern fails, the darklings will be on us in an instant. People will die. The lantern must run every minute of every hour of every day of every year, in perfect perpetuity. The methods we use have been tested over the course of centuries. If we add in a secondary regulator, as you suggest, or replace the electromechanical regulator we’re currently using, we run the risk of death. I haven’t made a study of why we use one instead of the other, and I think that your idea has some merit, but what we have now has survived, Sander, through decades. We cannot risk change.”

Sander had seen that this was logically sound and displayed a fair amount of wisdom, but he had also seen that he wanted no part of it. The lanterns had been built, all according to the same design. Men were a part of that design. Sander had no interest in being a gear in an assembly, averse to even the slightest bit of risk.

“Time for us to go,” said Merry as she nudged him.

“Right,” replied Sander. As they left the lantern, Sander thought about a more complacent version of himself, who might have ended up here, tending to the lantern. The lanterns were dangerous in their own right, thanks to the extreme amount of current. They required constant maintenance, almost always with the lantern still on, and constant adjustments to keep an engineer occupied. In the end, it was simply an uninteresting piece of machinery with no mystery to it. A different Sander might have trudged through it, doing nothing with his life but keeping the lantern running.

“He’s right, it wasn’t always so terrible between glimwardens and engineers,” said Merry, interrupting Sander’s train of thought. “Even twenty years back it wasn’t so bad. They tend the lanterns, we kill the darklings, everything is copacetic between us. The problem is that runeworkers were hanging like a wart off the arrangement, begging for leftover scraps. Once Linwell brought them into her flock, maybe it was inevitable that we’d start having some friction.” She paused for a moment and then grinned at Sander. “The bad kind of friction, mind you.”

Sander blushed. “It wasn’t just the runeworkers,” said Sander, eager to move on from Merry’s lewdness. “There were always engineers working on things that weren’t the lanterns, setting up home lighting or making radios. Or bullets, for that matter. The lantern workers look down on them, but since the professions and knowledge base tend to be similar it’s hard to separate the two. Engineers would retire from lantern work to do something less stressful like building or maintaining air conditioners, and new lantern workers were pulled from the ranks of the engineer-laborers who already knew all about the lanterns. It was natural for Linwell to try to get everyone under one roof.”

“I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that you’re informed on the topic,” said Merry.

“Well, I was an apprentice engineer,” he replied. “And an apprentice runesmith. And my father is the chief glimwarden.”

“Oh come now, like your father ever discussed these matters with you,” said Merry. “You’re not Philip Phandrum.”

“Okay, true,” said Sander. He looked at the border ahead of them, where the white bollards were waiting. “Can I ask the obvious question?”

“Go right ahead,” replied Merry.

“Why play into it?” asked Sander. “I saw the dismissive way you talked to the head engineer. Why even bother?”

“Last time I came to Singer’s Lantern with a delivery of fresh darkling hearts, they were in the middle of some realignment process that delayed the delivery by twenty minutes. Normally they have a small lantern set up that does nothing more than keep the hava from evaporating so fast, but that was out of commission for some stupid reason or another. I’m not sure how much waste there was, but I’d risked my life and they couldn’t even be bothered to be ready.” Merry was frowning at the woods ahead of them. “So far as I’m concerned that’s a perfectly legitimate complaint that has nothing to do with whatever the groups are saying behind each others backs. But of course when I tell them to do their jobs this time, they have to interpret it as this tribal thing, like wanting to keep my hard work from going to waste is part of this pissing match.” Merry sighed. “Your father tried to stay out of it, for what it’s worth, but if only one person is participating in a pissing match, that means that their would-be competitor is usually the one getting pissed on.”

“So what’s the solution?” asked Sander.

“Some problems don’t have solutions,” said Merry. “It’s your father’s problem anyhow, but since I’m next most senior, it might become mine at any time.” She glanced at Sander’s expression. “Not to be morbid, but that’s the truth. Most likely, we just need Linwell to choke on some food and die. She’s made sure she has no immediate successors. But that doesn’t mean that the animosity will go away, just that the initial catalyst will be gone. Now, are you ready to watch me kill some darklings?”

“I’m still feeling a little sick,” said Sander. “But I suppose I don’t need to be well if I’m only going to be watching.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Merry with a smile.

They walked past the border and into the woods, where the deer had worn a trail into the undergrowth. Merry followed it easily, humming as she walked, and Sander moved behind her a little less gracefully, trying to keep his clothing from getting snagged on branches. He held the pistol in his hand, careful to keep it pointed toward the ground where it wouldn’t go off without him willing it to.

“The darklings hate us,” Merry said. “Jonas and I used to have a game, which we called ‘see how far you can walk away from Light’s Hollow before you are attacked without provocation’. Not very catchy, I know. I believe I set the record before we stopped trying to best each other, with a distance of two miles.”

“Why’d you stop?” asked Sander.

“Oh, Jonas nearly got killed,” said Merry. She hummed a few bars of a song Sander didn’t know. “The darklings attack without you having to do anything in particular, but one of the glimwarden’s rules is to kill every darkling as soon as you find it. If you don’t, sometimes they’ll circle around you, waiting for a moment of weakness, and while that’s happening, a second or third comes along. Jonas wanted to beat my record, so he let a darkling stalk him. A second joined the first, then a third, until he had no less than seven tailing him, not quite attacking.”

“So what happened?” asked Sander after a pause.

“Eventually a Fracture showed up — that’s one of the big ones, like the one your father saved you from — and those are a hard fight even if they’re all on their own.” Merry sighed. “Jonas nearly lost his life. He took a cut across the belly that took ages to heal. Your father found out about our game and told me that I was an irresponsible blah-bitty-blah, I’m sure you know the drill.”

“But you’re still his second-in-command,” said Sander.

“Because I’m good at being a glimwarden, and because I’m the one that’ll take up the mantle of chief,” said Merry. “Now, have you spotted our friend?”

Sander looked around. They weren’t that far into the woods. He wished that he had a sword, and more than that, he wished for his mother’s runework sword. “No,” he said. “I don’t see him.”

“It, not him,” replied Merry. “Four legs, trying to be a dog, probably the same kind you killed in the woods yesterday.”

“I see him,” said Sander. The darkling was further away than Sander thought it would be, barely visible between the trees and standing more than a hundred yards away.

“That’s a Grapnel,” said Merry. “Smallest of the lot, cowardly, fast, fangs that hurt like hell, but easy enough to kill in a single stroke.”

“Okay,” said Sander, thinking of how much trouble he’d had in his first encounter. His leg still hurt, though it was fading. The darkling had clearly seen them, but it was standing stock still, mostly obscured by the forest. “So what do we do?”

Merry raised her pistol at the darkling, thumbing back the hammer with her finger and closing one eye to squint at it. There was a loud bang as she pulled the trigger, accompanied by a whiff of smoke that stung Sander’s nostrils. The darkling didn’t seem to be affected by the hit; it began sprinting toward them, occasionally pushing off the trees with its claws as it went by for more speed. Sander had thought that it would die from the pistol shot; he stepped back with his borrowed pistol drawn. For her part, Merry had drawn a dagger and seemed unconcerned by what was happening.

The darkling leapt at her, but she barely moved, turning only slightly and extending her blade toward it. The darkling collided with her. For a moment Sander thought that she had somehow failed, but she flipped the darkling over and laid it gently on the ground. She had stabbed it through straight to the very core and killed it in the instant that it jumped at her. Even as she removed her dagger from it, it was losing its form, black ichor sloughing off and landing on the ground in melted chunks. Merry reached in and snatched up the heart from within it, holding it up to the sunlight briefly to inspect it.

“And that’s how it’s done,” she said with a smile.

“That didn’t really clarify anything,” said Sander.

“I follow the show-then-tell method of teaching,” said Merry. She placed the darkling heart in a small pouch at her side. “Now, we need to kill about thirty more of those before we have a ball of hava large enough to bring back to Singer’s, and we need to do it fast before we lose too much to the wind’s share.”

Sander frowned. “So are you going to give me instruction?” He looked down at the gun. “Can these actually kill a darkling?”

“They’d be pointless if they couldn’t,” replied Merry. She began walking through the woods again, humming lightly to herself. Sander followed after her. “Penetrating power falls as distance increases, and accuracy suffers as well for a number of reasons. But if you’re within five meters and can aim right for the heart, a pistol shot — at least, one from these beauties — will kill a Grapnel outright and do some pretty heavy damage to the bind of any of the others. One of my proudest moments as a glimwarden was emptying both pistols and getting a kill with every bullet.”

“Is that a function of training or just your level of bind?” asked Sander. “Will I be able to move as fast as you do when I have a thousand hearts in me?”

“I was given my thousand hearts by the glimwardens that came before me,” said Merry. “That was when I was sixteen years old. The city council has declared that the hearts should be split three ways, with a third going to the wardens, a third going to the lanterns, and a third sold by the city to the people of Light’s Hollow for general use, though between you and me I would say that I take more like half for myself. Let’s say I collect thirty hearts a day, every day, for the past eighteen years. I assume you’re still fantastic at math?”

“98,550 hearts,” replied Sander, nearly automatically. “So you’re about a hundred times as powerful as a beginner glimwarden?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Merry. She scratched at her scalp. “Maybe the numbers are wrong. The last induction was Traverse, and in his first day after he’d been — wait, there’s trouble.”

Sander scanned the horizon, trying to see another Grapnel.

“No,” said Merry. “Listen.” She hadn’t been looking at Sander, only staring off into the distance with a glazed look in her eyes.

Sander listened. It was the sound of trees falling somewhere in the distance.

“Another Fracture?” he asked.

“No,” said Merry softly. She looked around them for a moment. “There are two other Grapnels coming toward us, call out to me if they start coming close. I’m going to climb this tree for just a moment to see what it is.”

Sander nodded and leveled his pistol. Merry clambered up the birch tree, breaking branches as she went and moving with a speed that Sander’s eyes didn’t quite accept. Sander had no clue where the darklings were. The creatures hunted, in a manner of speaking, and he worried that they would encircle him. He spun around, hoping only that he wouldn’t get ambushed by the creatures. The woods were thick here, blocking his view. The sound in the distance was the creaking groan of falling trees. It seemed like it was getting louder.

He had just spotted one of the darklings slinking its way toward him when Merry dropped twenty feet down from the tree to make a perfect landing. She leveled her pistol at the darkling and took it down with a single bullet. The shot echoed across the forest and sent birds flying.

“We need to cut our trip short,” she said with a frown. “There’s something big out there, I’m not sure what. Bigger than a Fracture, six needle-thin legs, gaping maw, and a big old gut. Perhaps you didn’t pick the best time to join the troupe.”

Merry killed five more Grapnels on their way back home, all with little effort on her part, but her mood had fallen and her earlier bluster was nowhere to be seen. That, more than anything, left Sander worried.

Glimwarden, Chapter 3

Melanie

Melanie Masters was running out of books.

Such a thing hadn’t seemed possible when she’d first started reading. The town library had seemed cavernously large, its selection not so much robust as it was daunting. She had started with suggestions from the librarian, a stooped old woman Melanie felt some affection for, but that had lasted her only two weeks. From there she had expanded her scope in other directions, first by getting recommendations from other people and then by using the books themselves to guide her. In The Cafard’s Contradiction the heroine Odessa was smitten with a book titled Eden’s Waltz. Melanie had loved The Cafard’s Contradiction, so she had sought out a copy of Eden’s Waltz, on the theory that if her favorite author had loving that book as a central character trait of the heroine, it must be worth reading. (It was with some dismay that Melanie realized Eden’s Waltz was an overly sugared coming-of-age story mired in its own unreality. The author of The Cafard’s Contradiction was using the book to say something subtly unkind about Odessa’s naivete.)

Eventually Melanie had hit her first wall. The library had thousands of books, but it contained only a small fraction of all books. Following trails often led to her frowning at two books like Frea’s Adventures in the Realm of Dust and Freedom from Death, thinking that if the alphabetization were any good The Freckled Fox should have been right between them. There were other books within Light’s Hollow, those held in private hands, and sometimes Melanie was able to borrow from those collections, especially when it became known that she read at an incredible speed and returned books both quickly and in good condition. It was still the case that Light’s Hollow contained only a small number of the total number of books that existed in the world. Worse, there were some books which had once existed but had fallen into obscurity, their authors long-dead and the last copy of the book eaten through with worms some hundred years ago. The supply of books was sadly limited, and it grew smaller with each one consumed.

In a way, work at the Black Mare was a blessing in disguise, because it meant that Melanie was spending time not reading. While this was not her preferred state of affairs, it meant that the dwindling supply of available books (and more importantly, books worth reading) would last much longer. She still brought books down from her room above the Black Mare, of course. There were long periods of time when the demands of the tavern were few and she could splay a book out over the bar with few interruptions.

William Wright was one of those interruptions.

“What are you reading?” he asked, a few minutes after she’d poured him a mug of sagewine. He’d given her just enough time to starting reading again. The question he’d presented to her was, in her opinion, one of the most annoying things that one person could ask another.

“It’s a turnabout,” said Melanie. “Vultures of the North.” She looked back down at the book, hoping that William would take the hint but knowing that he wasn’t the kind to stop so easily.

“What’s a turnabout?” asked William.

Melanie put a finger on the line she’d been reading to mark her place. “A turnabout is one of the elemental genres,” she said. “Someone gets into trouble, then gets out of trouble.” She paused slightly, weighing the choice of elaborating further or inevitably fielding another question from William. She took the lesser of two evils. “In this particular case, Larkspur is a cobbler who gets cast out of his city following an altercation with their mayor and ends up wandering through the wilds, until presumably gathering enough strength to come back and get justice against the mayor. But I say presumably because I haven’t finished it yet.”

“Does that appeal to you?” asked William. “Stories about glimwardens?”

William didn’t care about the answer. William only cared about her, and his questions were only his way of obtaining some of her attention. She wasn’t entirely sure whether he believed that this was a precursor to courtship or whether he simply enjoyed speaking with her, but his affections were most assuredly not mutual. Unfortunately, William came from a family of moderate wealth, and that was a fact worthy of some consideration for Melanie.

Stories had a way of making financial hardship seem exciting. When a pauper appeared on the page, he was inevitably full of pluck and ready to make a name for himself, which he inevitably did. There were exceptions to this rule, especially within the pitchover genre, but being poor was usually easily escaped through dashing heroics. Melanie had not found poverty to be so exciting. She held an enormous debt to the Colsum family, courtesy of her wayward father’s efforts to keep the Black Mare afloat. Barring a stroke of incredible fortune, she would be paying off that debt until the end of her life.

William’s family had money, more than most of her tavern’s patrons. Beyond that, a marriage would lessen her obligations by half. That meant the sensible thing to do would be to chatter away with William and convince him that she was a girl worth marrying despite the debt. Of course, she could wait to tell him about the debt until after they were married, but she didn’t think she could stomach doing that to him.

“Larkspur isn’t really a glimwarden, he’s a cullion, because he isn’t pledged to a town, at least not so far. But he’s not a bad cullion,” said Melanie. “So far he’s spent most of the book meeting various people in the wilds, either caravans or runaways or magical people. More than you’d expect, really. But generally I don’t like stories about the glimwardens, not unless they’re fighting each other. You can only read about the glimwardens making some heroic stand against the darklings a limited number of times before you have to put the book down and find another. I like conflicts between characters.”

William nodded along to this, though Melanie doubted that he cared about what she was saying.

“I’ve heard that they’re going to induct some new glimwardens in preparation for the eighth lantern,” said William. “I was thinking that maybe I should float my name.”

“What do you mean by induct?” asked Melanie. “I thought that anyone could become a glimwarden just by eating enough hearts. That’s how Larkspur does it.”

“Well, sure,” said William. “But that’s dangerous, going out on your own and trying to get lucky enough for long enough to obtain real power. It happens in stories, certainly,” he waved in the direction of her book, “But in Light’s Hollow new glimwardens are created by the existing glimwardens. They take you out into the woods with them and feed you the hearts themselves, so there’s no risk at all. All for free, if they decide that you’re worth having, so you don’t have to put in an order for the hearts like the runesmiths do.”

Melanie frowned. “Then how are you going to get them to accept you?”

“Well, the first thing I’ll do is let them know that I’m interested,” said William. “Then I think I’ll go track Sander down and talk to him for a bit, maybe at home where I might be able to meet his father.” He beamed at her with a look like a puppy dog seeking approval.

Melanie looked down at her book. She was well aware of the differences between stories and reality, but the problem was that her experiences accumulated from books dwarfed what she had learned from the world. She had never been properly courted and only knew a handful of married couples, but she had seen thousands of men and women come together under all sorts of circumstances in her books. It was only natural to defer to fiction in those situations where she had no worldly experience. Aside from running the tavern and being burdened with crippling debts, she had practically no experience with the world at all. Didn’t it pay to at least see what hundreds of authors had to say about such matters, even if they were only trying to entertain their readers?

In the stories, William would almost certainly have been a villain. Heroes didn’t seek out power, they had power thrust into their hands by a mysterious old man who had suffered a mortal wound. Or if they were seeking power, it was to fulfill some grand quest, not just because they wanted it. There was a world of difference between seeking the Elder Blade because you wanted to have it for yourself and seeking it because there was a tyrant that had killed your family and needed to be put down. But in the real world, maybe that was just how things went. Maybe most people got to their position in life simply by setting a goal for themselves and pursuing it, rather than because there was some strong compulsion placed on them.

Normally, Melanie cast herself as the heroine. She wasn’t pretty enough to be a traditional heroine, given that her eyes were too small and the hair on her arms was far too thick and dark, necessitating long sleeves to hide it most of the time. In one of her books, these aesthetic deficiencies might have been forgiven, as she was an orphan saddled with an enormity of debt by her wayward father. Part of the draw of stories was that things always got better for people like her.

In these particular circumstances though, Melanie recognized something unheroic in what she was doing. She had no interest in William, aside from the possibility of marrying him and thereby sharing (if not actually reducing) the debt she owed to Colsum. A shrew trying to marry someone for their wealth was an archetypal villain, usually of a small drama. That wasn’t to say that in the real world people never married for pragmatic reasons and learned to love each other afterward, but Melanie’s experience with stories eclipsed what she knew about common marital arrangements in Light’s Hollow. She felt a tug of wrongness at the thought that she might be doing something villainous.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to your book,” said William. There was something pained in his voice. Melanie realized that she’d been absently staring at the front cover of the book while thoughts were circling her head. That was a bad habit, but one that most people readily forgave.

There were things Melanie could have said to William, but she went back to her book instead. William left soon afterward without saying goodbye, but by then Melanie was too wrapped up in the adventures of Larkspur to notice.

It was nearing dinnertime when her aunt Linda came through the tavern doors.

“Melanie!” cried Linda. She had long gray hair and a wiry look about her, like one of the machines she had once done work on. She still had a slight hunch to her from years spent over a workbench. “Still with your nose in a book?”

“Hello Aunt Linda,” Melanie replied. She put her finger down to mark her place. “What brings you here? An early dinner?”

“If I eat, it will only be because I love the smell of your cooking,” replied Linda with a wide smile that made Melanie uncomfortable. “Can an aunt not visit her niece?”

In truth they were second cousins on her mother’s side and none too close. The Linwell clan had never liked Gavin Masters, partly because he was from a far away town and partly for reasons that Melanie had never probed too deeply at. Once Melanie’s mother had died, the Linwells began seeing her as nothing more than Gavin’s daughter. After her father left, she’d made one disastrous attempt at getting aid from them. Now Melanie had no one she considered a friend on that side of her family. Linda was the one exception, but she was friendly with everyone. The woman collected friendships like she meant to exchange them for something.

“Would you like some soup then?” asked Melanie. “It’s fiddlehead and river shrimp in a chicken broth today.”

Linda waved a hand. “Oh, don’t bother. I’m here because there’s something I think you might be quite interested in.” She leaned forward. “I’ve been talking to Colsum about your debt.”

“It’s my father’s debt,” said Melanie, almost automatically.

“Yes,” said Linda. “Of course, but you’re stuck paying it unless you want all this to go away.” She waved a hand to encompass the tavern and everything in it. You’re stuck paying it, unless you want to be homeless and jobless. “That’s just what I wanted to converse with you about.”

“You’ve gotten some leniency from Colsum?” asked Melanie.

“Well, in a manner of speaking,” replied Linda. “He agreed to lower your monthly payments a small amount to give you some breathing room, if you’re willing to do something for him — for us, really.”

“Go on,” said Melanie.

Linda leaned forward further and placed her hands flat on the counter. “You’ve heard that there’s to be an eighth lantern, yes? Well, I managed to get a very important concession from the chief glimwarden. I’ve just come from a meeting where we’ve agreed that the next glimwardens will be chosen by open competition rather than the arcane and opaque processes of the glimwardens. It seems likely that any young person who has any interest will be in the running. Colsum has expressed some enthusiasm for supporting a few likely candidates. And of course should you become a glimwarden proper, Colsum would offer some monetary compensation by way of congratulations.”

“You … want me to become a glimwarden?” asked Melanie.

“It’s in your blood, after all,” said Linda. “Your grandfather on the paternal side was chief glimwarden of Scinan, if I recall, and you the last of his line? It’s practically foreordained that you should follow in those footsteps.”

The cynical side of Melanie — a rather large side, truth be told — immediately saw this as a play for power. Aunt Linda rarely came bearing unconditional support, or at least no support so great as to cost her anything. Moreover, Linda was in league with Colsum, who held the debt that sat like a noose around Melanie’s neck. It would be useful for Linda and Colsum to have leverage over a glimwarden.

“Let Colsum know that I accept his offer,” replied Melanie.

Linda clucked her tongue. “It’s a pity no one taught you how to negotiate,” she replied, but she seemed happy all the same.

Melanie shrugged. “I made up my mind. I imagine if I tried to negotiate with a man like Colsum I would come away worse than if I accepted his first offer.”

“Well,” said Linda. “I’ll negotiate on your behalf. I’m afraid that with this little arrangement some deception might be required, if only to keep Seaborn and his cronies from prejudice against you. Better this relationship is kept secret. The competition is supposed to be fair, that’s the whole point of it, but I imagine that they’ll have their tricks. I also imagine that I’ll come up with some of my own.”

“I understand,” replied Melanie. Her mind was already elsewhere. She had no illusions about the glimwardens being beacons of goodness that selflessly fought against the darklings, not in the real world, but she had been offered a way out from under the debt, even if it had its own costs. As was her habit, she fell back to the stories of the glimwardens and the darklings, trying to find some handle on the new situation.

❧❧❧

Melanie had been promised to the Black Mare from an early age. If everything had gone according to plan, she would have worked under her father, taking over the business with her eventual husband at the age of thirty or forty, after which she and the tavern would grow old together. Because things did not go according to plan, she was wed to the Black Mare early, at the age of fourteen, only barely old enough to take on her father’s responsibilities. At the time, there hadn’t seemed to be any alternative.

The Black Mare was now a prison, and Melanie’s marriage to the tavern was an unhappy one. She ended every day feeling drained by the work and woke up with a nervous dread that only new stories could cure. This was one of the reasons that she read during lulls. Her only true free time was at the end of the day, after the last patron had stumbled their way out the door and the chairs had been put up on their tables. That was always the nadir of her depression, because it meant that tomorrow was a new day, when it would all have to be done over again. Melanie stayed up late more often than not, reading by the flickering light bulb in her room that she couldn’t afford to have fixed.

Tonight was different. A path had opened up in front of her, one that was valuable mostly because it promised a change of pace. She wanted desperately to dive back into her books, but there was too much fresh thinking to do. She had never been one to shirk duty because there were stories to read and now was not the time to start. She went up to her room on the top floor of the Black Mare, then went out the window to sit on the tiled roof and think.

The story of Pater John and Lillis was about a man given a sword by a handsome devil. Pater John was instructed by the devil to kill a witch in the woods, but when he reached the witch he instead found that she was a beautiful woman. She convinced Pater John to use the sword to kill the devil, which he did, but after that was accomplished she devoured Pater John whole, sword and all. That had been the first story that Melanie had thought of. If she was Pater John, then Colsum and aunt Linda were, collectively, the handsome devil, and the darklings (or perhaps service to the glimwardens) were the witch. Of course, no one wanted to be Pater John, who was just a patsy for two evil people, but Melanie was having trouble thinking of how to prevent herself from facing the same fate. It wasn’t like Pater John would have been safe if he had only kept to his deal with the devil.

In the story of The Reclamation, Lysander was forced into stealing a mythic dagger from an expansive vault in a duke’s manor. The dagger eventually made him so powerful that the men who had forced him into stealing the dagger were mere pests to be swept aside with a wave of his hand early in the second act. Colsum and Linwell were big enough forces that they couldn’t ever be discounted, even if by some miracle Melanie were to become the chief glimwarden, but it was an attractive fantasy all the same.

Then there was the story of Counting Promises, which —

“Mind if I come up?” called a voice from the ground.

Melanie looked down to the dark street, where Sander Seaborn was standing in the dimly-lit street. He was looking up at her with a grin on his face and his hair hanging down so the curls of it ended just above his eyes. Melanie frowned at him, but she had no idea whether he would be able to make out her expression in the dark. It crossed her mind to object to his company, but she didn’t have the willpower for it, not at the end of a long day.

“Sure,” she replied. “I’ve locked up for the night though.” The city had gone dark and quiet, save for Sander.

“That’s no problem,” replied Sander. He ran to the side of the building, where there was a drainpipe, and began climbing up it, using the mountings as handholds and footholds. Melanie began to worry that something would happen, that he would break her drainpipe and fall to the ground, leaving her with an expense she didn’t have the money for, but soon he had a hand on the roof and heaved himself up. He brushed the dust from his pants and smiled at her, then sat down next to her and looked up to the sky.

“The stars look nice tonight,” he said.

“You always say that,” replied Melanie. She looked up at the stars for a moment, then leaned back until her head was resting on the tiles of the roof.

“Maybe I just come by when the stars are looking particularly nice,” said Sander. “Is there a reason you’re not reading?”

“Yes,” replied Melanie.

“Ah,” said Sander. He shifted around and took his eyes from the stars to look at her. “Well, if you don’t want to talk about it that’s fine. Did you want to hear about my day, or did you want to just sit here in silence? I might be able to distract you from whatever you were thinking about, if it’s something that you don’t want to be thinking about.”

“Sure,” said Melanie. “Go ahead. My thinking wasn’t going in productive directions anyway.”

Sander turned to look at the stars again and leaned back so his position mimicked her own. That was something she’d noticed about Sander; he often acted as her mirror, sitting how she sat and adopting whatever pose he saw her taking. She doubted that it was intentional, but it irked her slightly for reasons that she didn’t entirely understand.

“I fought a darkling today,” said Sander. “Went off into the woods with my mother’s sword and slew it. It wasn’t quite how I imagined it would be, but it felt good all the same, there was a rightness that my apprenticeships never had. My father was furious, naturally, but there’s not much that he can do about it. On top of that, when he came back from the city council meeting he said that they were going to go ahead with a new lantern, which means that I might have a shot at being fed the hearts instead of having to gather and eat them all myself.”

“You left Light’s Hollow?” asked Melanie. She was feeling more awake now and watching Sander more closely. He hadn’t taken his eyes from the sky.

“Just for a bit,” he said. “Only long enough for a darkling to come find me. I thought that I would be more frightened than I was, but I came away with just a scratch.” He rolled up his pant leg to show her what seemed to be a black wound in the dim light. Most likely it was just bloody.

“You can’t go doing things like that,” said Melanie. “Life isn’t like the stories.”

“Does that sort of thing happen in stories?” asked Sander.

“Well … yes, of course it does,” replied Melanie. She had told herself, when she’d heard him call up to her, that she wouldn’t let herself get flummoxed by him. “The Mulberry Millions, Specter’s Languish, The Payment of Abigail Long … if it wasn’t the stories that got in your head, what on earth made you think that you wouldn’t meet with your death?”

“Oh, well I got to wondering,” said Sander. He settled himself in. “The glimwardens are part of a system. New glimwardens are created by old glimwardens with a gift of a thousand hearts, or in some rare cases the purchase of a thousand hearts.” He moved his hands when he spoke and took on an animation that Melanie had rarely seen in anyone else. “However, if that’s the case, it really makes you — or at least, me — wonder who the first glimwardens were. By definition they couldn’t have been helped along by those who came before them. So they must have gone out and killed the darklings on their own, without any special abilities, right?”

“It seems a tenuous conclusion to pin your life on,” said Melanie.

“Oh, I was just giving the short version, of course I spent a lot more thinking time on it than just that,” said Sander. “Actually, it was partly that I was trying to get to the heart of a different matter, which is what people did before the lanterns, if there was ever a time before lanterns. There are all sorts of scholarly theories on what the world was like before them, sometimes even positing a time before the darklings, but it’s all just speculation, all hard to prove. At any rate, I came away fairly confident that people once fought the darklings without the benefit of the bind. Maybe going out there wasn’t wise, but I think the results speak for themselves.” He looked down at his leg. “Well, maybe they don’t speak for themselves as loudly as I’d like.”

The air was rapidly cooling, which left Melanie room to bid Sander farewell for the night. She found herself staying her tongue though. There was something grating about Sander and the easy way that he spoke to her. Melanie wouldn’t ever push him off the roof, but she’d read farces where that sort of thing happened, and she could understand it better now having experienced such visceral annoyance. It didn’t seem to matter that she gave him little in their conversations, or that she never encouraged him. He had simply decided that they would be best friends. No, worse than that, he had decided that they already were best friends, that it was a done deal, accomplished and final.

The sad fact was that in deciding that he would be her best friend, that was what Sander had become. There was no one else who looked forward to seeing Melanie, no one whose face lit up quite like Sander’s. There were regulars at the tavern and a vanishingly small number of suitors, but Sander was the only person she was able to call a friend, just as her aunt Linda was the only person that she could call family.

“Is your father terribly angry with you?” asked Melanie.

“Hrm?” asked Sander. He’d been looking at the stars again. “Oh, we haven’t even talked about it yet, that’s how bad it is.” He shivered slightly as a breeze swept over the rooftops. “When my mom and dad fought, he would stay silent for hours, then let loose some thought that he’d been brewing. Mom was more of a flash-in-the-pan type. She would roar at him until her face turned red from yelling, then after a few minutes she’d lose her steam and settle down, until she forgot all about whatever they were fighting about, right up until dad brought forth whatever thought he’d been working on. They ran in cycles like that.”

“I’m sorry,” said Melanie. This was exactly the sort of vulnerability that no one but Sander ever showed her. It was irritating, because she had never done anything to earn that from him, but it was also endearing, and all the more irritating because it was endearing. “I never knew that things were so unhappy in your home.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that,” said Sander. “We were happy, by and large, but I think that being glimwardens put some strain on their marriage. Dad always wanted her to be safe, always wanted her to take as few risks as possible. I don’t know if you remember it, but when we were about eight years old they took a traveling lantern to the mine radial thirty from here. Mom wanted to be one of the glimwardens accompanying it, but dad forbade it, and he wasn’t even chief glimwarden then, so he didn’t have any more authority than that of a husband over his wife, which mom had never believed in in the first place. That was a fight that lasted for weeks.”

Melanie said nothing. What was there to say? What did Sander want to hear from her, if anything? Was this the time for her to express some sympathy, or to unload some of her own problems onto him in a show of solidarity? There was a part of her that wanted to talk about her own parents, one dead and the other gone, or the debt that she had taken on her shoulders, or the family that had abandoned her. Yet that would have been the same as admitting that Sander really had wormed his way into her confidence.

“Anyway, dad and I haven’t had our fight yet. He’s still stewing, but that’s what he does,” said Sander. “And I do understand where he’s coming from, he lost his wife to the darklings and doesn’t want to lose his son as well, but doesn’t that seem a little bit selfish? I can’t let the course of my life be determined by my father’s fear of me getting hurt or killed. At the same time, it’s hard to tell someone that you empathize with them but are going to go ahead and defy their wishes anyway. It feels disingenuous. Maybe it is.”

“Why do you want to be a glimwarden anyway?” asked Melanie. “Why is it so important that you’re willing to have this fight with your father? Why risk your life?”

“I ran out of books,” said Sander.

“You … what?” asked Melanie. The conversation had taken a turn in an unexpected direction, as it often did with Sander. This wasn’t the first time he’d said something to catch her off guard. Thinking back, it wasn’t even the first time that night.

“I ran out of books,” Sander repeated. “My mom always pushed me toward them, since she and dad weren’t intellectual themselves. She figured that if I wanted to wield a sword or fire a pistol they would have an easy time showing me how to do those things, but everything else I would need to learn from somewhere else. So she got a bunch of books for me and taught me to read early, to make up for the fact that it was one of their weak areas. And I loved it, I just absolutely loved it. The books had all the answers. They knew why the sky was blue, why lemons taste sour, how the trees grow, on and on until I was teaching myself calculus and going through Mr. Pellin’s book of human anatomy.” He paused. “Sorry, I’m talking too much.”

Sander let the silence linger. Melanie was supposed to tell him that he wasn’t talking too much, but she wasn’t sure whether that was true or not. This had been one of their better times together, in part because it seemed that Sander had real things that he wanted to talk about. It was alright if he talked.

“You don’t mean all the books,” said Melanie. “You mean … just the science books.”

“Well, in a manner of speaking,” said Sander. “Science is a little bit narrow, I mean math and engineering too.”

“Practical texts,” replied Melanie.

“Yes,” said Sander.

“It’s funny how different we are, don’t you think?” asked Melanie.

“Why do you say that?” asked Sander. “I’ve always thought we were two of a kind.”

“Nevermind,” said Melanie. If he couldn’t figure it out, she wasn’t about to tell him. Perhaps he thought that books were one of the things that made them friends, as though there was any similarity at all between the things she read and the things he read. “You were explaining to me why you risked your life,” she said. “And for some reason you started talking about books. I have some work to do in the kitchen tomorrow morning, so I’ll probably turn in once I’ve heard your explanation.”

“Hrm,” replied Sander. “What are you making?”

The problem with Sander — or at least one of the problems — was that he wasn’t just bad at taking hints, he was also bad at understanding her when she was being quite direct. She had met with him enough times now to know that he would spiral a conversation out until he had simply run out of things to talk about, then continue staying there until they were sitting in silence together.

“I’m baking plum bread,” replied Melanie. “Now tell me how you decided it was a good idea to go into the woods by yourself. You had run out of books.”

“I had run out of books,” Sander agreed. “There was nothing left for books to teach me. I don’t mean that to sound cocky, like I know everything that there is to know, but it’s hard for me to explain it without giving that impression.” He glanced at Melanie. “Right, so I had delved into the books. I raided the libraries of anyone who would listen to my pleas. I got done with all the books that Light’s Hollow had to offer. But I had loved the process of learning, that feeling of new understanding clicking into place, and I wanted more. So I started an apprenticeship, thinking that surely I would be going through a process of learning there. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be, since apparently apprenticeships are filled with processes more than they are with proper learning. When I was an apprentice runesmith I spent half my time filing away the flash on freshly cast runes or cleaning out molds. There was learning to be had, but most of what I was learning was how to be perfect at small, physical skills. It was all rote, even engineering.”

“But being a glimwarden isn’t,” said Melanie.

“No,” replied Sander. “For a start, you have a signature, an ability that’s unique to only you. There’s no one that can teach it to you, no one that’s gone over all the possibilities a thousand times before, it’s yours and yours alone.”

“I’m not so sure that’s true,” said Melanie. “In Bakers and Bollards it’s a plot point that any sufficiently skilled or powerful glimwarden can duplicate the signature of someone else. Iguro uses it to frame his brother. And in The First Liar, there are twins with identical signatures. There are other stories as well, but those are the examples that spring to mind.”

“Alright, maybe,” said Sander. “But those are just stories, so it’s hard to know whether the author did any real research. That just brings me to my other point, which is that there are practically no books on the glimwardens. It’s all knowledge passed down from glimwarden to glimwarden, very rarely written down for posterity because there’s always going to be someone to take up the mantle. Maybe it’s that a town without veteran glimwardens is quickly swept from the map by the darklings, or maybe the job just doesn’t attract strong intellects, but there’s so little to be found in books that they’re barely worth reading.” He paused. “I read them anyway, of course.”

Sander didn’t read stories. He looked past the books about the glimwardens like they didn’t even exist, all because they laid out their information in a way that he was unaccustomed to, or perhaps even actively disliked. Despite having two glimwardens for parents, Melanie was fairly certain that she knew more than he did. Yes, some of what she knew came from authors who had embellished or outright fabricated their details, but she had read enough that she felt she could make up for that.

“It’s getting late,” said Melanie.

“I know,” replied Sander. He stood up and looked out over Light’s Hollow, with a quick glance at each of the colored lantern lights that were in view. They shone on, into the darkness, marking a safety that he had decided to forsake — as had Melanie, now that she thought of it, if she really was going ahead with trying to become a glimwarden. “Thank you for talking with me,” said Sander. “I think it helped me straighten some things up. And hopefully I at least helped to distract you from your problems?”

Melanie gave him a noncommittal shrug, but the truth was that he had. She had forgotten about the debt, at least for a time. Normally that was a feat that only the best of books could accomplish.

“Well, I have to get going,” said Sander. “I’ve got a fight with my dad to prepare for.” He stretched slightly, then jumped down from the roof without another word.

Melanie stayed where she was, even though the cold night air was starting to get to her.

 

Glimwarden, Chapter 2

Philip

The city council had four members, but because four was an unlucky number, it was usually referred to as three members and one officiant: the mayor. It was that extra member of the council that Philip clerked for. The council members were technically equal, but the mayor represented the city of Light’s Hollow as a whole, rather than any individual faction. Philip was expected to be mayor some day, not just because he was the mayor’s clerk, but also because he was the mayor’s son.

Light’s Hollow had never been a particularly political town. Philip had read a number of his father’s books which described how governance and commerce were handled in the wider world. He often wondered what it would be like to have to keep track of so many things. In other cities there were elaborate voting systems designed to balance a variety of interests, long-standing coalitions of aligned interests, and different governmental bodies split out for different tasks, sometimes acting in opposition to each other. In Light’s Hollow there was only the city council, with four members who made every decision worth making.

This wasn’t to say Light’s Hollow was completely devoid of politics. There were, after all, eleven thousand people, most with their own opinions about how the city should be run. During open sessions, the city council had to hear the complaints and requests of the most opinionated citizens, and of the four members, only the chief glimwarden, whose position wasn’t elected, was truly insulated from the ravages of public backlash. Any proposed change to taxes, fees, licenses, or laws was hotly debated. For all that, there were no real political parties and the elections were few and far between.

This week’s session was closed to the public, which meant that only the council members and their aides were present. They gathered together in a large meeting room that looked out on the Chancellor’s Lantern, at the heart of Light’s Hollow. The lantern was the oldest building in the city, built of worn gray bricks that had been pulled up from the land itself rather than pressed from clay like most of the shops and houses around it used. Before the meeting started, Philip Phandrum took a moment to look at the white light perched on top of the lantern, a reassuring reminder that the hava was still burning brightly within. He had lived his whole life within the invisible light the lantern cast, protected and safe. He had paid enough attention to his elders to know that the world outside was hostile. He held little fear for the outside world, only a practical appreciation for the pleasures of not being eaten alive.

He turned back to the meeting room and the notepad in front of him when Samuel Seaborn came in through the thick double doors. The chief glimwarden’s armor was visibly stained with thick black gore. He strode to his seat with purpose and sat down without saying a word. Unlike the other council members, he never brought any aides with him, nor did he take any notes. If it had been anyone else, Philip would have taken this for showmanship, meant to impress upon others just how stoic and strong he was. Glimwarden Samuel Seaborn wasn’t just pretending to hold the council as at arm’s length though, he was being true to himself. He had the position on the council for reasons of seniority, and would doubtless have handed the duty off to someone else if he had been one to shirk his responsibilities. In Philip’s opinion, that sense of duty was one of the most useful levers by which the chief glimwarden could be moved.

“Are we starting?” Samuel asked a few moments after he sat down. His voice was low and gravelly, like Philip imagined a bear would sound if you woke it from hibernation. Samuel was almost always the last to arrive and usually the first to leave. He sat through the meetings like he had somewhere else to be.

“I suppose so,” said Mayor Phandrum, Philip’s father. They had the same pale blue eyes and angular features. Philip was proud to look like his father, and he knew that if he was ever called to take over the position, the physical similarity would be an important asset for the election. The mayor had often remarked in private, when he was simply a father, that people cared more about the person than the policies. You could talk all day about crop yields and tax rates, but when it came to a vote, the masses would go with the man they trusted. It was a naive view of politics expressed in an empty platitude, in Philip’s opinion, but the senior Phandrum was given to those. Philip tried not to hold that against his father. At any rate, Philip had seen the currency in their resemblance and had worked to enhance it; they shared a tailor and a barber, and though Philip was only sixteen, he had often heard people remark on how adult he looked. He was his father’s aide and took the official minutes from the council meeting, which was a small duty that nonetheless kept him in the public eye. Philip was undeniably being groomed for a position of power, which, in Light’s Hollow, meant one of the four seats at the city council.

“I hereby call to order this closed session of the city council of Light’s Hollow,” said the mayor. He gave his gavel a perfunctory tap that echoed around the room. Philip suspected that was his father’s favorite part of the job. “The first order of business is the matter of fishing quotas,” said the mayor, looking down at his notes. His father didn’t need the notes; the day before the weekly council meetings was spent reviewing the agenda and trying to find the lay of the land, an exercise that Philip had been involved in every week for the past two years.

“We should skip ahead,” said Sam. “We can talk about quotas in the open session, if we really have to. The closed session needs to be for things that aren’t public. What are we doing about the eighth lantern?”

Linda Linwell had raised the topic of the eighth lantern two weeks ago. It wasn’t a new item that was added to the agenda, but instead an offhand comment during one of the open sessions when a tenant farmer was complaining about the allocation of land and the burdens of working rented land. Linda had said, “Well perhaps when we construct the eighth lantern you might be able to find some land of your own.” That had caused some murmuring among those present. More questions were immediately posed on the matter, sidetracking the farmer’s question about remediation. The city council hadn’t discussed a potential eighth lantern in the slightest, of course, and the mayor said as much in a more diplomatic way, but the match had been struck and the kindling had caught fire. Now it was only a question of whether the fire would start up in earnest or peter out.

“I’ve made my feelings on the matter clear,” said Linda. “Land is the most valuable asset in Light’s Hollow. The lanterns are what allow land to be farmed on, what allow a place for houses and businesses, what gives us space to breathe, live, and play. Every problem this city has relates back to a lack of space. There have been five deaths from the darklings in the past year, all healthy people struck down in their prime because they felt compelled to take risks and go beyond the safety of the lanterns. The marked increase in crime, the unrest among the tenant farmers, the overfishing of the lakes, all can be attributed to a simple lack of land. It is our duty to rectify that.”

Sam leaned forward and laid his hands on the table in front of him. For a moment Philip thought that the chief glimwarden would dismantle the argument piece by piece. Overfishing had been a problem since time immemorial, there was nothing recent about it, so there was no reason to expect that adding another lantern would correct it. There wasn’t really unrest among the tenant farmers, at least not that Philip could see, there had only been a single complaint at the earlier city council meeting, and that was a question of Carter Colsum’s greed. If the new land was auctioned off as it had been in times past, there was no reason to think that Colsum wouldn’t end up with the bulk of it. That left the increase in crime and the question of those who had died to the darklings, both of which were too complex to be simple evidence in favor of adding more land. Samuel Seaborn could have brought up any of those points, but then he wouldn’t have been Samuel Seaborn.

“That’s trumpery,” was his simple reply. “You want to line your own pockets.”

“I’ve spoken at length about the conflicts of interest inherent in my position,” said Linda. “The point stands. People need room to breathe and grow, and with every new member of the community, we require more land, not only for farming, but so that people can find some quietude away from each other. Land leads the way to peace and prosperity.”

“And how much will the engineers demand from Light’s Hollow in order to have that lantern built?” asked Samuel. His voice was a low growl. “How many glimwardens will die defending that structure while it’s built, or gathering the required hava? We’d have to be lucky to escape without injury.”

The mayor tapped his gavel once. “Control your tone,” he said to the chief glimwarden. “You have two good points. The first is that there is a cost associated with the building a new lantern. It is our duty as city council to make a careful consideration of how the wealth of our citizens is spent. While Glimwarden Seaborn’s comment wasn’t courteously phrased, we must still have an answer. At the same time, Glimwarden Seaborn has a legitimate concern about the strain that an eighth lantern would place upon the glimwardens, both during the lantern’s construction and in terms of ongoing costs. We should not be discussing whether to build the lantern or not, we should be discussing the merits, risks, and costs instead, before we arrive at the question of whether or not to do it. Speak about the problem first before seeking a solution.”

Gregor, the fourth member of the council, coughed into his hand and cleared his throat, readying himself to speak. He was the oldest person sitting at the table, with hair that was nearly pure white. He had been slipping for the past two years, speaking less than he had before and not adding much to the conversation. His grandchildren were his aides; they said little at the council meetings, which only served to call attention to his deteriorating condition. Philip wasn’t quite sure why the other council members hadn’t taken any action to remove him, but it was possible that they all really believed that it was better to wait another year for the next election. Philip knew that his father had spoken to Gregor in private, but the old man had shrugged off the suggestion of an early retirement.

“Eight is unlucky,” Gregor said. “One is fine, that’s the number of unity. Three is good, the trinity of the natural rulers. Four is three and one, a trinity and a unity, just like this council, so long as the parts are three and one it’s no problem. Six is the hexagon, the number by which we divide the working classes. Seven is just six and one again, the hexity and unity bound together, one surrounding the other, our current configuration. Two and five are the ones left out. It was during those times that Light’s Hollow lay unstable, when the greatest tragedies of our city occurred. Famine, drought, war, executions with blood running red down the streets. Those numbers, two and five, have always been portentous, to be avoided if at all possible. Eight is worse than them though. We cannot have eight, not as our foundation. Doom would follow.”

The room was silent for a long moment following this.

“Gregor, do you mean that we should build an eighth and ninth lantern concurrently?” asked the mayor. This was the first time during the meeting that Philip was in disagreement with his father. There was no sense in listening to the senseless. Gregor Golland had been a pillar of the community for a long time, but when a pillar began to rot out, only a fool kept it around out of sentimentality.

“An eighth lantern will cost lives,” said Sam, barreling right on ahead. “We need more glimwardens in advance of the lantern being built. That means we need a greater share of the hearts we bring in. I’ve talked about that time and again, I know where everyone stands on the matter. If this council won’t increase the warden’s share, we’ll be stretched too thin.”

“Do you know where I stand?” asked Linda. She steepled her fingers. “If we were to agree to an eighth, I would be willing to make concessions. I fully admit that we would need another glimwarden to keep the extra lantern fed —”

“One glimwarden?” asked Sam. “That’s the paltry offer? We have twenty men and women for seven lanterns right now and that’s barely enough to keep us stable when one of us takes an injury.”

“There are another hundred men and women in the reserve,” she said. “Not equipped or trained as well as you and yours, not as full of the bind, but capable all the same, should the need arise.” She held up a hand to halt his objections. “But if we were to agree on three glimwardens, raised up to power through a portion of the city’s share of the hearts, I would need concessions in turn, like some say in who is to be selected for the honor.”

“Eight is unlucky,” Gregor repeated, slipping his words in.

“Absolutely not,” said Sam, not missing a beat. “No one knows the battle against the darklings like those who are already fighting it. I won’t take on someone who’s a burden because you crave power.”

“The glimwarden have long had a stranglehold on who joins their ranks,” said Linda with a frown. The language was harsher than she normally used.

“I will remind the two councilors that we have not yet decided to build an eighth lantern,” said the mayor. “By the time the next closed session comes around, I would like some reports on likely costs so we can make our decision. Perhaps the matter can be conducted another day, or given some time to explore —”

“We could have a competition,” said Philip. He wasn’t supposed to speak at the meetings unless spoken to, but his suggestion wasn’t immediately put down, in part because it begged for questions to follow.

“I won’t sully the name of the glimwardens with a game,” said Sam with his arms crossed in front of him.

“Not a game,” said Philip. Sam was the one to convince, the one most likely to use the power to say no. “You said that you don’t want to take on someone who’s a burden, right? You don’t want Councilor Linwell to have the power to put whoever she wants in the new position.” He turned to Linda. “And you don’t want the new glimwardens, whose power will be provided in part by the city’s share of the hearts, to be the beneficiaries of nepotism, bribery, or something else untoward.” He turned back to Sam. “Not that they would be, of course.”

“Of course,” said Sam. Philip could tell that the man’s pride had been wounded, which was exactly the idea. Hitting a man’s pride was a dangerous thing, but Philip hoped that in this case it would provide some motivation.

“If you owned a shop and were thinking of taking on a new worker, you get to know them first, and you do a trial if you could,” said Philip. “All I’m suggesting is that Light’s Hollow might benefit from something similar. If you set the criteria that are important to you in a glimwarden, then you can evaluate all the candidates on that basis. It will be more fair to them and more likely to get a good result.”

Sam Seaborn grunted.

“Well I think it’s a marvelous idea,” said Linda, which was such a disastrous thing to say that Philip wondered whether it was calculated as such. But no, Linda had always been easier to read than she thought she was. This was true excitement at the prospect of interfering with the glimwardens.

“I’ll think about it,” said Sam, to Philip’s surprise.

“We can schedule a private meeting in my chambers,” said the mayor. “I agree that a spectacle would be unbecoming, but my aide’s idea had some merit to it, by my estimation.”

Philip kept himself from smiling.

❧❧❧

The ink had barely dried on the meeting minutes when Philip set out for the edge of the city. His father would need help, Philip was certain of that. Over the course of the next few days a number of conversations would take place between the mayor and the other members of the council. Linwell and Seaborn hated each other and rarely spoke outside the meetings, which meant that any actual agreement would have to be mediated by the mayor, especially given the recent decline of Golland, who had shouldered some of the burden of peacemaking in the past.

The founders of Light’s Hollow had structured their city council to favor the status quo. A tied vote always broke in favor of inaction and Philip suspected that the entire reason to have four sitting members instead of three was to ensure that deadlocks were common. The founders might have believed that deadlock was a valuable tool to ensure a conservative approach to governance, but it was difficult to know as they hadn’t left much in the way of explanation. This system of voting had two common outcomes, the first of which was three people teaming up to push through some change over the objections of the fourth, and the second of which was a dissenter trying to convince a single one of the other members. Linwell needed to secure the votes of Philip’s father and Gregor Golland if she wanted her eighth lantern, while Seaborn only needed to convince one of them. This had been their pattern for going on three years now, with the outcome most often being decided in Linwell’s favor. Philip knew that his father leaned toward the building of an eighth lantern, even with all the controversy it would surely bring. That left Gregor Golland, whose mental health was obviously poor. It was entirely possible that Golland would have to be replaced, which would mean a new election ahead of time and all the headaches that would come with that, especially with the question of the eighth lantern hanging in the air.

Philip’s father would need help, but that had to come later. Today was the day for radio.

City hall was next to the central lantern of Light’s Hollow, with the white light of the Chancellor shining on top of it. The Chancellor’s color was supposed to be gray, but the engineers had long ago given it up as nearly impossible with the chemicals that they had access to. The same was true of Rogue’s Lantern, whose light was supposed to be a dark brown but instead shone almost orange instead. It was that lantern that Philip headed towards, taking the miles slowly and trying to put his thoughts in order.

Taking over Light’s Hollow would be easy enough. He had been born into a position that removed much of the work that would otherwise be involved with that. At the age of sixteen, Philip was better suited to become the next mayor than anyone else in Light’s Hollow. Mayor of Light’s Hollow was currently as high as a citizen could climb, offering the maximal amount of authority over other citizens. Philip’s rule wouldn’t be absolute at first, but that could certainly change. The founders had laid down an ironclad, unchangeable document, a set of laws that was to guide the town through the ages. That document was only as powerful as people allowed it to be, and only as ironclad as anyone cared to enforce. Becoming the dictator of Light’s Hollow would take a few years from the time Philip assumed the mayorship, perhaps less depending on whether useful allies could be easily maneuvered into the remaining council positions.

But what would the point be? There was nothing that Philip particularly wanted to accomplish with political power like that. The problem of taking power was an interesting one, but the end result — actually ruling — was not. He might take the opportunity to write up a better founding document that had none of the problems or loopholes that the existing one had, but he didn’t actually need any amount of power just to write something like that. Again, it was the problem that interested him, not the solution. The problem could be worked out on paper, or perhaps theorized about with a few close friends, if Philip had any of those. There just wasn’t much pleasure to be had from replacing a fairly competent document with a masterful one.

What Philip wanted was a challenge. If it was the problems that interested him, then it seemed like the solution was to go find more and better problems to put his mind to. To some extent this could be accomplished by simply creating the problems himself, but he knew that there would be something false in that, and it would be not only morally wrong but politically dangerous as well. Unfortunately, it seemed the Light’s Hollow would never be so interesting as Philip wanted it to be.

Philip arrived at the Rogue’s Lantern and the buildings that surrounded it, then continued down the road that went to the edge of the lantern’s light. The white marble bollards that marked the edge of safe territory were already visible. If Linwell got her way, those bollards would be moved back and new ones would be quarried and finished as more land fell under the dominion of man, taken from the darklings. It was a happy thought for most people, but Philip had seen nothing to suggest that the addition of another lantern would substantially change anything.

When Philip heard the distant bells marking two o’clock, he hurried forward, not wanting to be late.

Philip strode right past the bollards, walking another twenty feet onto soft grass before he knelt down to fiddle with the radio. So far as Philip was aware, the radio had first been invented to measure the strength of the lanterns. The engineers still used something similar, not much more than a row of tiny bulbs with miniature filaments that lit up to show how intensely the lanterns were emitting. If you translated it to sound, you would hear the persistent hiss of the lantern, which is why it was necessary to go beyond the bollards in order to have a clear conversation with anyone outside Light’s Hollow, though static still plagued the transmissions between towns.

Philip began unfolding his antenna, keeping one eye on the open field around him, looking for darklings. The bollards marked a cutoff, but it was really a slope. Past experience had shown that few darklings would approach this close. Philip wouldn’t have wanted to spend the night so far from the lanterns, but for a brief portion of the afternoon it was perfectly acceptable. Still, it wouldn’t do to suffer an unlucky death when there was so much left of his life. He finished setting up the antenna, then connected a wire from the battery to the radio proper. Static immediately began flowing from the speakers, but it was quiet enough to talk over.

“Wind’s Voice to all who would listen,” Philip spoke into the microphone with a thunk and click of its button.

There was only static from the other end for a moment. ‘All who would listen’ was really only a matter of courtesy. The number of radios was quite small, they could only be effectively used outside the lanterns’ full protection, and he was speaking on a specific frequency at a specific time. Talking to someone over radio required arrangements ahead of time, either through caravan mail service or through prior radio conversations. It wasn’t the sort of thing that anyone would just randomly listen in on. There would only be one person who would receive his message.

“Legal Multiplier receiving,” came a voice from the other end. “How was your meeting?”

“I offered a suggestion that was well received,” he replied. “Linwell likes it, and I think that Seaborn is going to come on board in the near future. It’s a stepping stone that people will remember, so long as it goes well, but I think it will play well with the public even if the measurable outcomes are poor. How are things going on your end?”

Philip didn’t know the name of the woman he was communicating with. The fact that it was a woman was obvious from the voice, but aside from the call-sign of Legal Multiplier, Philip knew practically nothing about her. She was full of interesting information, but very little of that information was personal in nature. She lived in the city of Gossom. It was some thirty miles away, with only three lanterns, but Gossom had significantly more trade than Light’s Hollow, which meant that Legal tended to know more about the wider world. Philip suspected that she had other radio partners as well, but she’d never admitted to it. For the most part, she was an ideal conversational partner; she listened well and spoke intelligently, and because she was so far away, there was practically no risk of any information shared with her leaking back to Light’s Hollow. Philip never told her anything too sensitive, just in case.

“Do you have an up-to-date map of the region?” asked Legal with the persistent hiss of static behind her.

“Not with me,” said Philip. The button made a deep thunking sound as he pressed it.

“Well, there was a town called Langust about fifty miles away, radial thirty-two from Gossom,” said Legal. “The operative word there is was. Only one lantern, but it had made it through the early years. The caravan came in three days ago with six oxen hauling a traveling lantern and what was left of the town huddled around it. There were about three hundred survivors and we had a mad scramble to find temporary housing for all of them. Their total mortality rate, including both the initial collapse and their journey over here, was seventy percent. They had ten glimwardens when they left and only two when they got here. I don’t know how eager any of them are to move, but it’s likely that Light’s Hollow is going to get some of the overflow with the next caravan we send over.”

Philip mulled that over. “Any word on the cause of failure?” he asked with a click of the switch.

“The lantern went out,” said Legal. She had a soothing voice, but Philip could feel her numb horror, which she was trying to cover up by sounding clinical. Philip enjoyed insights like that, because it meant that he was coming to know her. “It happened at two in the morning and wasn’t noticed right away. Their alarm system hadn’t been tested in a long time and failed for some reason, but they never managed to investigate that because all their engineers were woken up and put to work getting the lantern shining again. The darklings had killed a few dozen people before the town started to wake up. Everyone moved to a fortified position in the center of their settlement after that, with more deaths along the way. The glimwardens formed a defensive perimeter against the darklings, trying to buy the engineers time with the lantern, but here the story starts to diverge depending on who’s doing the telling. The traveling lantern was brought out at some point and filled with what was left of the heart from the lantern. At some other point, either before or after that, some of the hearts were consumed to make more glimwardens. Most of the new wardens died in the fighting. Three days after the lantern went out, they decided that they needed to leave if they wanted any hope of survival.”

“They should have been able to use the traveling lantern indefinitely,” said Philip. He was lost in thought, trying to imagine what it had been like. Legal hadn’t described the loud conversations that the people of Langust must have had with each other, but that was all that Philip could focus on. The decision to use the traveling lantern would have been a difficult one, but cannibalizing a portion of the hava to make new wardens … who had decided on that? How had they been chosen?

“They couldn’t have used the traveling lantern indefinitely,” said Legal. “Perhaps their glimwardens could have harvested enough hearts on a consistent basis to keep it going, but eventually they would have run out of food. I agree that they could have had more time, if they’d wanted it, but the problem with the main lantern appeared to be intractable. It’s unclear how much they had stored in their granary. Either way, after a full day had passed the darklings were tearing into houses and ripping up crops on the outskirts. Perhaps they could have gotten the lantern working again, given a week or two, but they would have been close to starving by that point. They would only have reclaimed a destroyed town. Come winter, most of them would have starved.”

“Better for them to go early than late,” said Philip with a nod. He looked out at the green grass and swaying trees beyond them. It was peaceful here, but the darklings were always laying in wait. “So how did the rest of them die?”

“You caught that, did you?” asked Legal. “Langust started with a thousand and ended with three hundred. Their stories don’t account for it. We think that perhaps there was some infighting, but it would have to have been ferocious to leave so many dead. There’s something that they’re hiding. We’ll get to the truth soon enough, but no one here wants to interrogate people who have lost so much so recently.”

“Your people would prefer being polite to being secure,” replied Philip. He shook his head.

“A strong argument,” said Legal. “But it would mark you as callous, even if you’re right.”

“I would be careful of my phrasing,” said Philip. “I’m always careful with my phrasing.”

“Am I the only one you’re not cautious with?” asked Legal.

“You, and my father,” Philip replied.

“That’s not true,” said Legal. “You only pretend to be honest with him. You’ve said as much, I read between the lines. For all I know, you’re only pretending with me as well. Turning those gears while pretending you care.”

Philip looked at the speaker and frowned. “I apologize if I’ve given you the impression that I’m insincere,” said Philip. For a long moment the sound of the button clicking down echoed in his ears. Legal was supposed to be an ally, someone he could bank on if he ever wanted to venture away from Light’s Hollow. Gossom would just be a stop-over, but it would be better if he had a contact there.

“I’m sorry,” Legal replied. “I’ve had a lot to do here with the refugees coming in. I should probably end our conversation here so I don’t say something foolish.” There was a long pause from the radio. “I’ll talk to you again next week, same time?”

“That sounds good,” replied Philip. He tried to keep the strain from his voice. “Wind’s Voice out.” He shut off the radio before waiting for a response.

People liked Philip. He kept a neat appearance and carried himself like an adult. He was intelligent and, more importantly, diligent. He was always willing to lend a helping hand to those in need, and he took it upon himself to offer aid even when it wasn’t requested. While he had thought about how this behavior would reflect on him and help or hinder his chances to fulfill his desires, and while he had come to the conclusion that helping people was to his benefit, he didn’t think that it would be fair to say that he was kind and helpful only because he thought there was something in it for him. No one had ever levied that accusation against him, but he worried that someday they would, and there would be no way to prove otherwise.

Philip didn’t like people. He didn’t hate people, not as a general rule, but he just didn’t feel the warm glow of affection that others claimed to. There had been a time when he’d thought that everyone else was like him. It was conceivable that no one felt a warm glow of affection towards others, that it was all just a pile of motivated lies meant to deceive others. After all, Philip faked his way through plenty of conversations, giving practiced smiles when social conventions dictated that this was necessary, so why shouldn’t it be the case that everyone else was engaging in mere signaling as well? This theory didn’t hold up under scrutiny though. For one thing, many people were terrible liars. To suppose that there were faking their interactions was to suppose that they were competent liars, or that they were good at one sort of lie but bad at others, or that their transparent lies were just another, more complex form of signaling something. But if that were true, then it meant that Philip knew even less about other people than he thought he did. He had reverted back to a simpler hypothesis; he was unique in some regard, at least among the population of Light’s Hollow. Social interaction did not come naturally to him, so he studied it, and in studying it, became better at it than anyone else seemed to be.

That was why he spent so long in confusion over Legal Multiplier’s rebuff. They had known each other for months now. She was aware of the sort of person he was. She was of a cynical disposition herself, always ready to take the dim view of people or to pick apart their motivations in gory detail. Philip didn’t believe that she was like him, but she was the closest that he had found thus far. He had said nothing that was too far outside the norms of their relationship though. Perhaps she was right that she was under some strain from the refugees, but it seemed likely that instead of the strain causing her discomfort with him, it instead served to expose some underlying problem with their relationship.

If it had been a windy day, Philip might not have seen the darkling. Since the grass and the leaves weren’t rustling, its movements betrayed it. It was black as jet, the color of a night without stars, and what passed for its head was turned towards Philip.

Philip didn’t blink. It was unusual for the darklings to come so close to the border, but the border wouldn’t have been where it was if darklings coming this close was unheard of. Philip felt no fear at its presence; it was a good hundred yards away from him, and it cost the darklings something to come even that close. He didn’t think about the darklings often. They were a feature of the landscape, a constraint that organized society operated under, the same as the need for drinking water and adequate food. There were lanterns to keep them at bay and glimwardens to keep the lanterns fed, which resulted in two of the largest grips on political power.

Soon, if Philip got his way, people would be competing for the right to one of those grips. Most wouldn’t be motivated by politics, they would seek personal pride, material wealth, or social standing. Yet political power was there for the taking as well, if anyone wanted it. Philip watched the darkling with unblinking eyes as he idly touched the knobs of his radio. There was going to be a competition for the new glimwardens. He could enter it himself. Philip mulled over the merits of the idea as the darkling turned away to disappear back into the woods.