It had been a long time since anyone else had lived in the Black Mare. Melanie had a night of restless sleep, and when she woke up in the morning to the sound of carts and footsteps outside, she had a feeling of unease before remembering that there was someone sleeping in what had once been her bed. She moved quietly as she got dressed and used the bathroom, trying her best not to disturb Chloe. She knew the upper floor well enough to avoid the creaky spots, which she’d always had to look out for when her father was hung over. She made her way downstairs in silence.
Breakfast was usually nothing more than grains boiled in milk, but Melanie hadn’t had company in a very long time, so she decided to use some of her store to make a treat for herself and Chloe. The girl had been traveling for a long time and was twice exiled, presumably without any friends or family if she came to the Black Mare alone. That called for warmth and hospitality. The refrigerator and pantry were both nearly empty given that she’d given food and drink to the refugees the night before, but there were enough scraps to pull together a breakfast. She turned the stove on to cook some scraps of beef while she made the most of the leftovers. Melanie assembled two plates piled high with too much food: toasted butter-crust bread, black currant jam, beef, and fried eggs. Once that was complete, she added cutlery and made her way back up the stairs, hoping that Chloe would wake up before any of it got cold.
Melanie didn’t need to worry though, because Chloe was standing in the small living room. Her head was tilted sideways as she read the titles on the spines of Melanie’s book collection. Melanie shifted her weight on the floorboards to cause a creaking sound, but the other girl showed no reaction.
“I made breakfast,” Melanie said.
Chloe turned from the books and nodded once before sitting down in one of the cramped living room’s two chairs. She took the offered plate and began to eat quickly, intent on her food. It had been the same when she ate dinner last night, as though she expected to have to run at any moment. Melanie tried to imagine it. The desperation of a destroyed home wasn’t uncommon, though it was rare for books to dwell too long on the destruction of a town and the scars that loss left behind.
“There’s a bathroom if you’d like to take a shower,” said Melanie. “We have hot water. And I can loan you some clothes if you’d like.”
“Thanks,” said Chloe between bites. “I can’t repay you.”
“I know,” said Melanie. “You didn’t have anything with the wagons?”
Chloe paused to chew for a moment. Her eyes stayed on Melanie though. “I woke up to the sounds of screaming and ran for the lantern. Everything I had, I left behind.” She frowned. “My mother … didn’t make it.” She fell silent. “Langust fell and there was never a chance to go back for anything.”
“I’m sorry,” said Melanie softly.
“It’s fine,” Chloe replied with a wooden voice. “These things happen.” She returned to her meal, and this time Melanie joined her.
Melanie wanted desperately to ask about the girl’s family, but that line of questioning now seemed closed off. It would be absolutely heartless to launch an inquiry into the girl’s genealogy when she was still mourning the loss of her mother. Melanie noted that there was no mention of a father, which piqued her curiosity, but that too would have to wait for another time. Melanie would have to content herself with the fact that they were both Masters and almost certainly distant relations.
“Do you like books?” asked Melanie, nodding toward her shelf. Money was tight enough that books never stayed with Melanie long; they were traded or sometimes sold as soon as they were read. Her bookshelf was a collection of books she’d borrowed from anyone who would agree to a loan, library books, and books she owned that were waiting for a trade. She could only hope that Chloe wouldn’t judge her on the basis of that collection.
“I don’t really read,” replied Chloe. She glanced briefly at the books, only long enough to confirm that they were of no interest to her.
“Oh,” said Melanie. “And … can you read?”
Chloe glared at her.
“I’m sorry, that was a terrible question, it’s just that you hear so much about what single lantern towns are like, how difficult life is and how little they have,” rambled Melanie. “Books are a luxury and a printing press is one of the last things that anyone would build, so there aren’t really any books if you only have a few hundred people, and besides that you know who everyone is anyway so you could just borrow whatever book you needed. I just thought that maybe it was possible no one had taught you how to read.”
“One lantern towns aren’t like that,” said Chloe. “Early on, maybe, but most one lantern towns aren’t early on, they’re either on their way towards expansion or they’re holding steady and not growing.”
“I’m sorry,” Melanie said again. “I was just … I read a lot of stories and the one lantern towns are always so backwards.”
“They’re dysfunctional,” said Chloe.
“Have you been to other towns then?” asked Melanie. “Besides Gossom, I mean?”
Chloe glanced toward the window that led out onto the street and took some time to eat the last of her bread. “How long can I stay here?” she asked.
“That —” Melanie paused. Her question had gone unanswered. “I don’t really know what the long term plan is. I’ll have to talk to Philip. You can stay here until that’s figured out though. We don’t have the spare housing for another few hundred people, I know that much, so it will take some time to get everyone settled.”
“There’s something that you’re not telling me,” said Melanie. She squared herself. “That’s fine. Whatever it is, you can keep it to yourself. But I can’t promise not to ask questions.”
“Can you keep secrets?” asked Chloe.
“Yes,” said Melanie. “I don’t really have anyone to tell secrets to.” The list only had two names on it: Sander and Philip. Sander would (try to) provide a sympathetic ear, while Philip might actually get something done.
“Good,” said Chloe. “Don’t tell anyone that I’m staying here.”
“And … that’s the secret?” asked Melanie.
“For now,” said Chloe. “I need to get the lay of the land. I need to think.” She twitched her hand and clenched it into a fist. “I need to find out what the others are doing. We can talk tonight.”
Melanie nodded. It was infuriating to have a mystery with no clear resolution in sight, but she reminded herself that life wasn’t like the stories and sometimes a person had to wait for ages before there was a resolution to things that had been started much earlier. Sometimes there wasn’t any resolution at all. Chloe was an unrepentant mystery, far different from the surrogate sister that Melanie had been hoping for last night, but Melanie would give her a chance, if only to find out what secrets she was hiding.
With the issue of her unexpected house guest put to the side for the time being, Melanie set about her morning work. Nights at the Black Mare were for cleaning, which left the tavern ready for customers come lunch time. That normally left the morning free for cooking, baking, and restocking her supplies. Last night she’d been nearly cleaned out by the refugees, which meant that the morning would be spent at the market, unfortunately leaving little time for reading. Rogue’s Lantern did have a general store, but the prices were higher than at Chancellor’s, which meant that Melanie was in for a two mile walk each way in order to save some money.
When she opened the door to step outside, Sander was waiting for her.
“Hi,” he said with a smile as he pushed off from the wall he was leaning on. “Are you busy?”
“I’m always busy,” replied Melanie. “I need to get to the market.”
“Well, we can walk and talk then?” asked Sander. “Actually, wait a second — do you want to teleport with me?”
“Sander,” Melanie began, ready to shoot him down. She stopped and thought about it for a moment. “Okay, sure, if it will save me some time.”
“Oh, it won’t,” said Sander. “But it will save you some walking, if I can get it to work right.”
“Sure,” said Melanie. “But I thought that teleportation happened in the blink of an eye?”
“I mean, it does,” replied Sander. “Normally, I guess. Or so fast that it might as well be instant. But my signature is a little bit different, because it adds velocity.” He looked at her face and apparently decided that she didn’t understand. “So, velocity is movement in a given direction. That’s two parameters, right? Say, twenty miles per hour due north.”
“I know what velocity is,” replied Melanie. “Can we start walking in case this doesn’t pan out? I don’t want to lose my morning.”
“Sure,” said Sander. He turned to look down the street. “To Chancellor’s?”
“Walking is actually a great example,” said Sander. “Our velocity before, while we were just standing around, was close to being motionless and directionless, relative to the ground, obviously.” He paused for a moment. “Do you know anything about relativity?”
“Do I need to?” asked Melanie. It wasn’t something she remembered from school, but that had been two years ago. “It’s some complicated math thing.”
“It’s also a complicated physics thing,” said Sander. “Anyway, forget that for now. We’re walking, so we have a speed, which is walking speed, and a direction, which is towards Chancellor’s, right?”
“I guess,” said Melanie.
“One of the cool things that you can do with velocity is add them together,” said Sander as they made their way down the street and out of the buildings that collectively made up the neighborhood of Rogue’s Lantern. “Like, let’s say that there are two velocities. Velocity one is our velocity right now, which is walking speed toward Chancellor’s. Velocity two is, maybe … running speed toward Healer’s. If you add those two together, you’d get a new velocity.”
“Running speed plus walking speed, headed that way?” asked Melanie, pointing between the road toward Chancellor’s and the road toward Healer’s.
“Well, kind of but not really,” said Sander. “You need head-to-tail vector addition to get the real result, which is pretty difficult to do in your head … or in your tail for that matter.” He smiled at her, not seeming to mind that she didn’t smile back. “You only add the speed parameters together if the direction parameters are the same. But if the directions are opposite from each other and the speeds are the same, then the speeds would cancel each other out. Get it?”
“I don’t understand what this has to do with your teleportation,” said Melanie.
“Oh,” said Sander. “Well when I teleport, there’s a time parameter and a distance parameter, which naturally gives both a speed and direction, which is a velocity, and it adds to my current velocity.”
By Melanie’s estimation, they were a quarter of the way to Chancellor’s already. “Meaning?” she asked.
“Meaning … well, lots of things,” said Sander. “But the big reason I can’t just teleport us instantly should be obvious: near-instant teleportation means very, very high speeds. High enough to kill me. But even at lower speeds there’s a chance for injury, because I’m going from stopped to a dead sprint all at once.”
“So we can’t save that much time,” said Melanie. “That’s disappointing. Can’t you just run in the opposite direction and then teleport?”
“Yes!” said Sander. “Velocity cancellation was one of the first things I thought about. Come on, hop on my back.”
“I am absolutely not going to do that,” said Melanie. “You can hold my hand. That’s how you did it with Philip, isn’t it?”
Sander nodded. “It was, but that’s inefficient. After I finished at the Black Mare last night I did a few experiments. Mass is a factor, but surface area is too, because the bind needs to envelop that extra mass in some way. So basically, if we’re just holding hands it’s going to take me a lot more bind.” He crouched down. “Hop on.”
Melanie frowned at him and he gave her an expectant smile. She almost never touched other people. Her father had cared little for the concept of personal space; he was always lifting her up to move her aside when she was in the way, wrapping her in hugs, or patting her on the head when she had done something well. Melanie wasn’t averse to touching other people, but at some point she became aware that she wasn’t having any physical contact at all. It was one of those things which, once she’d noticed it, couldn’t be unnoticed. Whenever she touched another person, almost always incidentally in the course of serving food and drink, her mind called attention to it.
The Briars Once More opened up on the main character, Lucian, cursing and grumbling his way down a country road. Melanie had immediately thought to herself, Ah, so Lucian is a gruff and cantankerous character who will slowly be changed by the road of trials he does not know lies ahead of him. But as it turned out, she was wrong; Lucian was normally happy and upbeat, and for the first two chapters he had simply been in an uncharacteristically bad mood. That had left a lasting impression on her, because it opened up the possibility that every future story would trick her in the same way. She began to wonder what it was that defined characters, and eventually she began to wonder what it was that defined people. There was a difference between someone who was acting like a jerk and someone who was actually a jerk. Some things were fundamental to a person while others were only transient, and language did a poor job of differentiating between the two. There was a wide gulf of difference between saying that Melanie read books and saying that Melanie was a reader, because one was a thing that she did and another was a thing that she was.
Melanie didn’t touch other people. It had been that way for so long that she wondered whether it was fundamental. When she was serving people, she found herself handing over plates and cups in such a way that her fingers would have no chance of brushing theirs, if only because it would draw her attention to the fact that this was the only physical contact she would get in the near future. When did it change from something that she did to something that she was?
“Thinking?” asked Sander. He was still crouched down in front of her.
“No,” Melanie replied. She climbed onto Sander’s back and tried to keep from making a squeak as he hooked his arms under her legs and lifted her up. He was more muscular than she would have imagined, but she’d heard that those born of wardens were unnaturally fit. She wrapped her arms around him to keep herself steady; it was uncomfortably intimate, and all the more so because she hadn’t even had so much as a hug in the last two years.
“Okay,” said Sander as he turned in place, back toward Rogue’s Lantern. “Based on my experiments last night, I can go about a mile and a half at my maximum.” He started to jog back towards the lantern. “I can run about three times faster than I can walk, it takes me about forty minutes to walk between lanterns, and we want to come out at just under running speed in the opposite direction, which means … five minutes?” He started picking up his pace, until he was practically sprinting with Melanie clinging to his back. She finally did squeak, just as the scenery changed around them.
Sander gripped her tight as he slid along the road, killing his speed with the friction of his feet. Rogue’s Lantern was far away now, and they were skidding along the cobblestones away from it. Sander nearly lost his balance, but he managed to recover just as they came to a stop. Melanie untangled herself from him and smoothed down her dress as he turned to look at her with a grin on his face.
“There,” he said. His smile was infectious, and Melanie found herself smiling back at him despite herself. “That’s a forty minute walk reduced down to five minutes, so I guess we did end up saving quite a bit of time. I should have done the math before we set out.”
“Are you okay?” asked Melanie. She looked him over. “You’re not going to faint?”
“Nope,” said Sander. “I’m stronger than I was at the battle for Healer’s. Though I have to say that you’re a lot heavier than you look.”
“Sander, that’s rude,” Melanie replied, as though she were talking to a child. She felt a flush creep into her cheeks. She was offended, certainly, but she didn’t imagine that Sander had actually intended any offense.
“No it’s not,” said Sander. “If anything, it’s a compliment, right? I’m saying that you don’t look heavy.”
“No woman wants to be called heavy,” said Melanie. “It’s not a good adjective.”
“I didn’t call you heavy,” said Sander. “I said that you were heavier than you look. You’re still quite light, if I’m on talking about the spectrum of how much people in general weigh. Though I guess I haven’t picked up that many people.”
“Sander,” said Melanie. She tried to put as much warning into her voice as possible.
“All I’m saying is that you can be either heavier than you look, lighter than you look, or weigh as much as someone would think you do when they look at you,” Sander continued, unabated. “I don’t know why one of those would be preferable to the others, because they’re all relative terms.”
Melanie sighed. She could see the direction that the conversation was heading, with no clear resolution in sight, which meant that one of them would have to simply drop it — and this was the sort of thing that Sander could be incredibly obstinate about. She had once listened to him give a long monologue about how stupid fishing quotas were, which he’d delivered with the same sort of tone. “Okay. I have to get all this shopping done so I can start on lunch.”
“I’ll come with,” said Sander. “We still need to have a talk.”
Melanie started walking toward the market and Sander fell into step behind her. “About what?”
“The competition,” said Sander. “I was thinking that we would game it ahead of time. All we really need to do is to figure out what sort of things will be asked of us, so that way we’ll be able to prepare. You’ve read lots of historical accounts, so maybe there’s some precedence?”
“I don’t know,” said Melanie. “You just want to know how glimwardens are chosen?”
“In other towns, if they don’t do it like here,” said Sander. “I went looking for a comparative guide to selection processes, but didn’t find anything. I can’t imagine that someone never wrote one, but apparently it never made its way to Light’s Hollow.”
Melanie could easily imagine that. There were demonstrable gaps in what the libraries and personal collections held, many of which she’d discovered by trying to use the books she was reading to track down other books. “I’m not sure how much help I’ll be,” said Melanie. “It’s hard to know what’s based in reality. I read a story once where new glimwardens were chosen by fairies, which I’m pretty sure don’t actually exist. But if we’re not talking about the fantastic or improbable … maybe we’d be asked to run a race? Or fight each other? Or hunt darklings?”
“I don’t know,” said Sander. “It can’t be anything too dangerous, and it probably won’t be anything where the bind helps too much, because otherwise someone like me who’s in the Auxiliary has too much of an advantage. But I don’t really know what they want from a candidate.”
As they walked past the tall buildings that surrounded Chancellor’s Lantern, they began to hear the buzz of a crowd. The market was only another two blocks away, but on impulse Melanie changed course to go toward the voices. Sander followed without comment, as he had started in on a rather boring description of how he personally would select the next glimwardens, a scheme which apparently involved rewriting (or simply ignoring) a substantial number of laws and completely changing what it meant to be a glimwarden.
The crowd was gathered around the hospital, and standing on some sort of elevated platform in front of the double doors was the old man from Langust, Farrell, who Melanie had seen the day before. He was dressed in finer clothing than he had been, and appeared to be giving a speech. Melanie shushed Sander so she could listen without distraction.
“These people worship fractured gods, but we must not disparage them for their heresy,” said Farrell. “They live decadent, manicured lives, but we must not disparage them for their excess. They live under mob rule, their leaders selected on the basis of mere popularity rather than divine guidance, but we must accept that the divine light of the gods does not come easily. We live now among heretics, but we must make peace with that heresy, lest we find ourselves thrust onto the dangerous path of pilgrims once more.”
“What does any of that mean?” Sander whispered to Melanie.
“It means they don’t like us,” Melanie whispered back. The speech was giving her a queasy feeling. She looked at the people that were gathered around him. They were all refugees, dressed in dingy clothing and with a battered look about them.
“We have been beaten,” Farrell declared. “We will be stronger for our scars. We have been broken. We will be stronger for having mended. We have been exiled. We will be stronger for our journey. There is an old story about the Diplomat, from whom I so gratefully take my name. He came to a large town, much like this one, to speak with them about a structured trade agreement by which all might prosper, as was common before the darklings were so bad as they are today. The people of the town found him to be too foreign and shut him away in their jail, where he could see their town only through a small window to the streets outside. Yet the Diplomat was perfectly content with this arrangement; he waited and listened, gathering what information trickled in. When three days had passed, he learned enough to convince the guards to let him go, and with another three days after that he was able to bring the leaders of the town to heel. His confinement was no punishment. His disadvantage was not just inconsequential, but a blessing in disguise.”
“Come on, let’s go,” said Melanie, though Farrell was continuing to speak.
Sander followed after her. “Are you allowed to just give speeches in front of the hospital like that?” he asked. “What if someone needs emergency care? There had to have been a few hundred people there.”
“I can see why Gossom kicked them out,” said Melanie. The speech was still going on in the distance; Farrell was repeating a story that Melanie had heard before, about the Chancellor and the King coming to terms with one another after the Chancellor beheaded his own wife. “I wish Philip were here.”
“Why?” asked Sander.
“Because he would know what that was about,” said Melanie. “He was insulting us.”
“Maybe he’s just a jerk,” said Sander. “People can be jerks sometimes.”
“He wasn’t just talking for the sake of talking,” said Melanie.
Sander shrugged. It was as though he had already forgotten it. Melanie could tell that there was something dangerous about Farrell though, an unpleasant intensity that was looking for a target. He was, to all appearances, their leader. The truth was, there were too many things happening in Light’s Hollow, and they were happening all at once. A lantern failure, an influx of immigrants, talk of expansion, and all of the usual things that always went on. The town had troubles in the past, but they came one at a time, which allowed for time to adjust and recover. She couldn’t shake the terrible feeling that something bad was going to come of all of this.
For lunch, Melanie made a large pot of shredded chicken in a fragrant squash broth. It wasn’t her best work, but it was quick enough and the squash — the first harvest of late summer — had been quite cheap owing to some discoloration. Sander had offered to stay behind and help her with the cooking, but she had spent more than enough time with him for one day. For once, he listened to her and didn’t attempt to force himself into her company. The remainder of their morning had been pleasant, for the most part. Sander did most of the talking, and she let his words wash over her like a wave. She was growing more accustomed to the idea that Sander was a friend, rather than someone trying to be her friend. At the very least, he would be an ally in the upcoming competition.
Lunch service was slow at the Black Mare. Construction was still ongoing at Healer’s Lantern, which was pulling in a lot of labor from around Light’s Hollow, and she was certain that the refugees were pulling in their own share of attention, which left Rogue’s Lantern more sleepy than it normally was. One of the worst parts of running a tavern was trying to account for the ebb and flow of customers. Melanie didn’t normally care for keeping her ear to the ground, but that was almost a necessity if she wanted to be able to predict how busy she was going to be.
After lunch there was a lull, which happened on most days. Since there were no pressing matters, that meant it was a time for reading. Melanie buried herself in Shadows in the Lantern Light, which lasted her until it was time for dinner and the copious amounts of drinking that always followed it. Melanie had expected Chloe to make an appearance at some point during the day, if only to grab a bite of food, but there was no sign of the other girl at all, not even after most of her customers were finished with their dinners and halfway drunk. The Black Mare was always most crowded after dinnertime, as it swelled with people looking for a place to be social. Melanie found it annoying, but the margins on drinks were better than on anything else she served, while also requiring the least amount of work from her.
It wasn’t until closing time, as Melanie was encouraging the last stragglers to leave, that Chloe came through the door. She watched the room closely for a few moments before striding in and, without a word, going up the stairs that led up to the living area. Melanie suppressed a frown at that, but she cautioned herself that she shouldn’t have expected too much from the mysterious girl. If Chloe was in bed and asleep before Melanie finished cleaning up, then, she decided, she would have a right to be frustrated.
When she came upstairs though, Chloe was sitting in one of the chairs, waiting patiently.
“How was your day?” asked Melanie. She tried to keep the annoyance from her voice. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Did you tell anyone that I was here?” asked Chloe. She was fidgeting in her seat.
“No,” said Melanie. “Not that I talk with people all that much. Though if you wanted to keep it a secret, you should have waited until the tavern was properly closed.”
Chloe shrugged. “People might talk, but they don’t know who I am. No one does.”
“And who are you?” asked Melanie. She realized that might come off as combative, so softened it immediately. “I mean, I don’t know anything about you, or who you’re hiding from.”
Chloe frowned. “I’m in over my head,” she said. “I need more power. I need allies. I need information.” She hesitated. “Does the word ‘vicissitude’ mean anything to you?”
“It’s a fancy way of saying a change,” replied Melanie. She stopped to think for a moment. “It comes up in stories sometimes, but it’s usually the bad sort of change.” It was a rare word, one that she’d learned from context rather than from looking it up.
“It’s a philosophy from far to the west,” said Chloe. “Some people believe that hardships are the only way that we can become better than we are. A change in circumstances forces a change in the self. My mother …” She paused. “If you mount an attack against someone, they’ll be forced to learn defense. If they’re not challenged, they become lazy and decadent. People only grow when they have no choice but to grow. It’s a way to be cruel and pretend it’s an act of kindness.”
Put a woman under a mountain of debt and claim that you were helping her grow, thought Melanie. “I don’t understand what this has to do with your secrets.”
“The lantern failure in Langust was a vicissitude,” said Chloe. She spat the last word. “It was a challenge they were meant to rise to, and if they didn’t … then they weren’t worthy of their survival.”
“How do you know this?” asked Melanie.
“I saw the man responsible,” said Chloe. “He was an illuminator, with an aura as black as pitch.” She clenched her fist until her knuckles were white. “When he saw me, time stood still, an effect of his signature, I think. He spoke a single word, using it as an apology, an explanation, and a challenge.”
“Vicissitude,” said Melanie.
“Wait, you saw the shadow of the bind on him?” asked Melanie. Which would mean that she herself was a glimwarden — or a cullion.
Chloe flushed. “I need your discretion, for now.”
Melanie hesitated. “Okay,” she said. “But if you need power, allies, and information, I can’t do anything for you.”
“You know people,” said Chloe. Her eyes were intense and searching. “Philip Phandrum is the closest thing that this town has to a crown prince.”
“He —” He has an office, you can just go there and talk to him yourself. Melanie had, of late, been trying to be a more pleasant person, so she stopped herself from saying that. She had never thought of herself as someone with connections, but she supposed that was part of who she’d become. How Chloe knew that was another matter, one question to add to the pile. “Yes, I can help you talk to him. I can’t promise that he’ll be receptive, not without proof, but he’s very reasonable.”
Chloe nodded and sat back in her chair with her eyes closed. “The survival of Light’s Hollow might be at stake,” she said. “Maybe the stone has already been thrown. Vicissitude … it might be visited upon you.”