Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Second Realm 8.3: Ash

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Logic and Reasons

3. Ash

Along the bottom of the valley, the air rippled with what might at first be taken for heat distortion. The stiff breeze off the sea to the east put the lie to that illusion, though. Occasionally the blurring would tear for a moment, and reveal the unearthly battle within.

Pevan's Clearseers had identified twenty-two individual Separatists in the confusing array of alien forms that had confronted her makeshift army. That many Wildren disrupted First-Realm logic and seeded ample Wild Power for her Gifted to use against them. Whether the Realm could sustain such abuse in the long term remained to be seen.

She was winning, and that worried her. She'd expected a hopeless cause, slowly grinding her numbers away; had dreaded a quick rout. Her forces only outnumbered the Separatists three to one, but they were killing a Wilder for every Gifted lost. It was like bracing to lift a full barrel and finding it empty.

The non-combat Gifted caught up in her recruitment – Guides, weaker Gatemakers and Warders - were spread through old Vessit, watching for a second force. If it came, she had nothing to throw against it, but it felt wrong to leave the city unwatched. What would it say about the Separatists, though, if this was all they had?

Pevan held herself as straight-backed and impassive as she could. Ten yards behind her, Wolpan was watching. Keshnu, too, since his return alongside Atla. She'd asked him to fight, but he'd held back. I don't see Ashtenzim on the field. His words had sent a chill through her despite his mild tone.

So she watched the battle, searching for any sign of the Separatist leader and monitoring her own soldiers. Warders made for an uninteresting spectacle, statue-still as they fenced in the crowd of Wildren. There was little space here for throwing Warding bubbles around the way Jashi and Kos practiced in Federas. Few of these Warders would have the spare strength for such aggression anyway.

It was the occasional glimpses of a Clearseer which Pevan cherished; even the weakest of them moved with the unmistakable grace of living a second ahead of everyone else. When one all but cartwheeled out of the fray, the attacks she dodged followed her like ducklings, obediently trailing their mother. The Clearseer landed in a Gateway that appeared just long enough to swallow her, and vanished back into the action.

Despite the fraying edges, the battle had a discernible shape. It swelled and shrank as if breathing; it drifted ponderously along the hillside like a cloud. It had about the average colour of a cloud, too, a cloud that had promised no good news about incoming weather. Now, though, it was shrinking back up the hillside, taking its threat with it.

Like a single seed plucked from the fluffy head of a dandelion, a small patch at one end of the battle pulled loose. Chilled against the heavy sun, Pevan squinted. She made out the figures of at least five Gifted in there, and something writhing in the middle of their ragged circle. They were Warders, steady and implacable.

The Separatist at their mercy flickered and thrashed, its own movements revealing the spherical boundaries of the Wards that pinned it. As the Gifted squeezed, the haze of Wild Power drew back from them, revealing two more that Pevan hadn't made out at first. One reeled as the Wilder flailed at him – or her; some of the southern women among the Gifted wore their hair that short – and for a moment it looked like the trap might fail.

Another Warder took up the slack long enough to field the recovery. The Wilder was thrown back against the far side of its shrinking pen. Pevan tore her eyes away for a moment to glance at Keshnu. The Gift-Giver could not fail to understand what was happening. Would he object? Demand that the Separatist be captured and held, as protocol dictated? Even winning, her army hadn't the manpower for that.

Down on the field, the Warders pressed harder. In the pen, the Separatist's dull silver skin rippled. It lifted off the grass, the Warders rightly unwilling to trust soil to hold it in extremis. If the creature made any sound, it sank beneath the hubbub of the battle.

Then it had no room to move anymore, its shape defined completely by the transparent walls of its prison. Moments later, it was gone altogether. Pevan shuddered. It was a symptom of success – she'd ordered them to only try it if the Gifted truly held the upper hand – but a chilling one. The Separatist had suffered as it died, slowly dissolving against the bounds of the cell.

"An expedient tactic," said Keshnu, his tone cold. She didn't look at him. "I could wish the Separatists had not driven you to it."

How many lives had it cost them? Unless she'd missed one, four of the Separatists were dead, for still only a handful of Gifted. The team of Warders blurred back into the line, then tore free again with another Wilder pinned between them. Pevan watched with a sudden lightness at her heels, and a rancid feeling in her gut. They were winning, but it was hard to imagine the Separatists surrendering.

A Gateway opened on the Separatists' side of the valley and a human figure emerged, behind the tearaway Warders. Pevan drew breath, useless breath, to shout, but Soan – it had to be him – swiped an arm smoothly through the air, and a blade of Wild Power spread from it.

That first, white-light slash cut through human and Wilder alike, breaking only against the fronts of those Wardings that faced him. That spared three of the Gifted; two reacted fast enough to bubble themselves away and block the next, descending blow.

Pevan screamed, waving them back towards the unity of the battle, the only place that looked safe. Whether or not they heard her, one moved. The other hesitated, standing her ground. Soan stepped effortlessly through her Warding, slammed her sideways ahead of her clumsy attempt to dodge, and caught her in a web of Wild Power that ripped her to shreds.

And in the horrible, mathematical moment where the casualty counts were back in proportion, a bronze shape tore through the centre of the battle-line. How many died to Ashtenzim's first strike, Pevan couldn't say; she saw two fall at the spot, a Gatemaker drop away to safety only to be struck through his own Gate half-way up the hill, and a Clearseer spinning free.

The sound of the battle changed pitch. Ice flooded Pevan's veins, and she drew strength from it, rooted herself to the ground to stop from charging in. Dora would have been proud of the edge she put on her voice. "Keshnu?"

"I cannot handle them both."

Down in the valley, the tiny shape of Thia whirled around Ashtenzim, black lashes of Wild Power sprouting from her wrists. The Separatist's tree-trunk swipe broke across someone's heroic Warding, and Thia danced through the gap. Her dark wires wrapped around Ashtenzim, holding back a fluid limb that would have speared half the Gifted left.

Then she faltered, seeing something coming that she could not turn to, and was gone, lifeless body flopping to the ground. Realmspace bubbled in the wake of Ashtenzim's blinding stab.

"Soan is Gifted business." Pevan spoke over the noise of someone behind her throwing up. Keshnu was already gone when she turned to the rest of her command. To the two Gatemakers she'd kept here as runners, both too young for this, she said, "Get everyone you can out of here." Then, to the Warders who shielded this spot, "You four, with me, like in the drills. We trust our people down there to hold, clear?"

Chag and Wolpan would just have to take care of themselves. Even through all the cold, hard armour of battle, Pevan felt something twist under her diaphragm at that thought. Putting the feeling at a distance, she pushed a Gate down into the valley. The far end came out behind the largest remaining clump of Gifted; she put the near end a good few yards from her feet, where hopefully no Separatist could reach her through it.

"Ward it." She indicated the Gateway. An active warding was difficult to squeeze through an open Gate with enough size left to protect anyone, but they could at least make it safe to approach the opening. The army would have to provide the first moment's protection on the other side.

She sent two of the Warders through ahead of her, emerged into the shell of their collective efforts. Here, where Realmspace itself was wrenched out of shape by the battle, the Wardings were visible as spherical gaps in the distortion. Not large gaps, either, compared to what Federas' Warders could do. She managed to find space to stand where she wasn't obstructing the Gate for the two following behind.

The noise of the battle – all human, since Wildren fought silently – was reassuring. Devastating as Ashtenzim's and Soan's attacks had been, there were still a lot of Gifted here. Pevan didn't try to make herself heard, couldn't think of anything to say to those holding the line. Soan was the priority. She pointed up the valley, to where she'd last seen him.

Hunched, heads instinctively ducked despite the Warding, the Warders moved with her. Pevan kept herself on tiptoes, letting her skin crawl with hair-trigger awareness. She felt none of the excitement she normally felt in meeting an incursion head-on, but she still needed that edge on her reflexes.

The flank they headed for was shrinking back towards them. Gritting her teeth, Pevan held her pace. Coordinating Wardings together was hard enough for the inexperienced Gifted around her without making them do it at a run. Even a momentary falter could cost all five of them their lives.

Finally, Soan came into view. He stood, leaning slightly forward as if tensed to pounce, locked in a staring contest with two of Pevan's Gifted. Clearseer on Clearseer, the Gifts they used to guide their combat would be paralysed; each seer's future shaped too much by what the others did, which would shift constantly as the others responded, or tried to, to their own Sight.

The tactic only worked if the Clearseers were allowed space for total concentration. Pevan directed two of her Warders to cover their backs, pushing up a wall between them and the battle. How much the rest of the fighting had been jeopardised to hold Soan here, Pevan didn't want to think.

To the remaining pair of Warders, as quietly as she could, she said, "Ward him." They barely needed telling; the haze of Wild Power around Soan cleared as twin Wardings caught him in their bubbles. It was testimony to Soan's skill that he didn't even flinch. But now, with his Clearsight pinned down and the bulk of the battle's Wild Power beyond his reach, he was just an old man.

Up close, it showed, too. His face was lined, anger etched into skin and bone. He was tall, but the hands he raised before his chest were leathery, his wrists narrow. His mop of unkempt brown hair was speckled with grey, leaving it the colour of dry, dead wood.

Before stalemate could freeze the moment solid, Soan's attention jumped over the heads of the two Clearseers. They leapt at him in tandem, just as the ground convulsed. A wave of air slammed into Pevan as her feet left the grass. She, and every other Gifted there, went flying.

Dry grass rasped at her exposed skin as she landed. Her stomach felt like someone was trying to wear it as a glove. Another pulse hit her as she rolled over, and she was able to watch it flow up her body, through her body. Her flesh bulged with it, a bubble of fire rising within her skin. In its wake, it left jelly-like weakness.

Ice and lightning in her blood urged her to her feet, but she stopped as soon as she'd got her head up enough to see the battle. What was left of it, anyway. Gifted lay like broken trees all around, some obviously injured, others curled up with nausea, a few hauntingly still. The Separatists were an incomprehensible mess of shapes and textures, smeared up the hillside away from Vessit.

Between the two shattered armies, Keshnu and Ashtenzim duelled. Quicksilver shone in the sun as the Gift-Giver attacked; dull bronze ate daylight and spat out moody orange dusk as Ashtenzim replied. A rod of dark, fluid Wild Power slammed through the centre of Keshnu's defences, pierced where his still-almost-human form had hung. Silver globules sprayed out from the impact.

Instinct started Pevan scrambling backwards, but Keshnu wasn't beaten; the spreading droplets of his human form swung around in flight and shot back at Ashtenzim, into the centre of one tangled knot of bronze. Another wave of distortion – clearly visible in the air and turf – slammed outward, kicked Pevan hard in the heart.

She flopped forward, gagging, and by the time she righted herself, the duel had changed. It was as if Keshnu had Ashtenzim by the throat, slowly strangling him; while bronze limbs flailed at the grass, arcs of silver reached down from the sky, smothering the Separatist's core. Steadily, Ashtenzim shrank back into itself, just like the Wilder her Warders had crushed earlier.

Finally, when the last wriggling bronze appendage had withered away, Ashtenzim was wrenched from the ground up towards where Keshnu hovered. Sunlight blazed off the Gift-Giver's skin, too sharp to look at. There came the ineffable, Wildren equivalent of final words, and then Keshnu slammed the Separatist against Vessit's Warding.

One last time, the Realm rippled. Veins of crackling blackness spread over the surface of the Warding, hungry fingers thwarted as it held firm. Someone, somewhere nearby, tried to cheer and choked on it.

Keshnu descended, a grey phantom shrouded in sparkling mist, his human form blurred with injuries. Wild Power still shimmered in the air around him, bouncing out toward the huddled Separatists and back again. Then, one by one, he lashed out at them, a single silver tendril each. A moment later, he could almost have passed for human. The far hillside was bare.

Why couldn't he have done that before? Hot anger burned away every other sensation in Pevan's body. She was on her feet, marching through the fallen Gifted – not so easily cleaned away – before she knew what she was doing.

Keshnu turned to face her, his expression indistinct. The battle had clearly taxed him; he couldn't hold to human form, his essence spilling out of his outline. But by Rel's account, the Gift-Giver had been in worse shape than this after their duel at the Abyss. The one part of him that was well-formed was his hand, wrapped around a bunch of metallic flowers that looked suspiciously like the remains of the Separatists.

"Keeping trophies?" Rage made her scornful.

"Captives." Flat and bland, Keshnu's voice emerged from somewhere not quite by his mouth. "They agreed to surrender."

Pevan's gullet locked up. She managed, "And Ashtenzim?"

"Destroyed. With Lienia obliterated by your hand and Delaventrin trapped in its Shtorq, the Separatists are beaten." The Gift-Giver's attention shifted, and though his eyes were only dark gems floating amid grey smoke, Pevan felt them land on her. "If I could have spared your dead their battle, I would have, but I would not have been able to fight Ashtenzim for you as well."

Pevan let herself deflate. Pain seeped back in. Not the bumps and scrapes she'd taken being knocked to the grass, which stung a distant part of her, nor the low burning in her flesh and bones left by the pulsing waves of Keshnu's power. This was pain that a wall of ice had kept at bay, that screwed her eyes shut with damp lashes, gritted her teeth for her and made it hard to breathe.

Somewhere in that, there was a familiar feeling. One that could not encompass so many fallen, but one that she could hold onto. She forced herself not to gasp, to draw a long, unsteady breath. To look Keshnu in the ghost of his face again.

He said, "You must attend to your army, commander. I will see to it that these Separatists are brought to justice at the Court. Soan I leave as a human affair, as the Treaty dictates."

"How fast can you get back?" Pevan kept her voice brisk. They were going to need a Gift-Giver around for all sorts of things, Soan's trial foremost among them. Convincing the civvies that they were still safe with half their Gifted gone would be hard enough even with the benefit of a Gift-Giver's authority, too.

"It will take time to arrange the trial, and I would have you there as representative of your kind, if possible." With so little inflection, it was hard to judge the significance in Keshnu's pause. He went on, "The Separatists can be placed in holding with no great delay, and I need only a few moments to myself in my Realm for restoration. I can return within the day, if you feel I will be needed."

"I could use ten of you, I'm sure." She took another breath, steadier this time. "Rebuilding after this..."

"You have proved yourself more than adequate to the task." Keshnu's smile was something felt rather than seen. "I look forward to working with you on my return."

Pevan nodded. "Safe travels."

The Gift-Giver floated before her a moment longer, then shot off towards the sea, a streak of silver too fast to catch the sun. Hugging herself, Pevan faced the battlefield. There was movement among the fallen, at least; some few had found their feet, others were sitting or crawling. She tried to count the unmoving, but couldn't see clearly enough. Here and there, the air still whispered of Wild Power.

"Pevan!" Chag's shout called her attention up the slope; he was running down to her, the flailing, awkward run that comes from trying to travel downhill at speed on foot.

She decided to be kind, and stepped into his path to catch him. He managed not to tumble her off her feet, spinning around her instead. Holding him tightly, Pevan felt a rush of immense gratitude. His arms closed around her shoulders, his hand coming to rest at the back of her neck. She turned her face in to his hair and just breathed.

The bubble of the embrace couldn't last long. For a wonder, Chag sensed it too and didn't try to hold her when she pulled back. In his face, she saw none of the laughter he usually turned to for relief after combat; but then, she felt no such release herself. Solemnly, he said, "We won, then."

"Yeah. You stayed to Witness it all?" Pevan swallowed, not waiting for an answer. "Idiot."

He turned dry. "Of the two of us, who was in more danger?" Then, more seriously, "Keshnu?"

"Taking his captives back to the Court." Over Chag's shoulder, she could see some of the Gifted drifting nervously towards them. "He'll be back later. We'll need him."

"Why, when we have you?"

For the mix of cheek and loyalty in his face, she could have kissed him. She settled for poking him in the chest. "Then I say we'll need him, and if my leadership really counts for so much you won't argue. There's still Soan to deal with."

Who, it turned out as the afternoon wore towards evening, had escaped. Chag replayed his extended Witnessing and spotted the Clearseer slinking away under cover of Keshnu's charge. Next to the strained business of clearing the field, it felt like a minor concern. Pevan sent out messages warning the nearby towns and got on with organising the care of the wounded.

The Gifted dead numbered twenty-three. One for each Separatist that had taken the field, the quiet mathematician at the back of Pevan's brain noted. Few of the survivors talked of going home. Vessit laid on an evening meal; after some prodding, Pevan accepted the burden of a speech. There was too much fatigue, logical and physical, among the army to allow for cheering.

The meal wound up, the civilians who had attended drifting away. A group of Gifted came to Pevan, asking her to take permanent command of the army. She told them, and the opposing voices, to get some sleep, but no-one did. Keshnu returned, quietly. The sun went down, and torches were found to light the food hall. It was into that room of shaded, weary Gifted that Rissad led Rel and Taslin.

Pevan felt the stir spreading through the gathering before she saw them. Skin prickling, she looked up, half-standing with her legs trapped between bench and table. Even across the room and in the dark, she could read the unease in Rel's stance. There were two strangers with him, both of whom looked even less comfortable.

Other Gifted were starting to react, too. Out of the corner of her eye, Pevan made out Wolpan, extracting herself from some muted conversation with a thunderstorm on her face. Trying to forestall the Four Knot, Pevan called out, "Where have you three been?"

Tiredness made her voice harsher than she'd intended. Rel's face sank further, and it was Rissad who answered. "How long were we gone?"

"Four months." Pevan got her legs free and marched around the table. She reached Rissad just ahead of Wolpan. "What went wrong?"

"Fate interfered in our return journey." There was a deep fire that could have melted rocks in Rissad's normally-lazy voice. "We don't know why. We got out of the Sherim a few minutes ago."

"I thought you were following Fate's plan." Pevan kept her voice stiff. She wasn't sure whether she wanted to hug Rel or punch him, but it was definitely better not to do either in front of so many other people.

"So did we." Rissad brightened slightly, looking around the room. "What did we miss?"

Searching for words that would encompass it all, Pevan said, "Everything. It's over."

"The Separatists are defeated." Keshnu's voice at her shoulder was a welcome prop. The Gift-Giver's eyes glowed gently in the dark, his face ageless and impassive. Chag stood behind him; Pevan managed to catch her man's eye, tried subtly to beckon him closer. Keshnu finished, "There is much yet to be done to repair the damage of this incursion."

Rel looked around the room, and Pevan could see him re-evaluating what he saw. Quietly, he said, "How many died?"

"Twenty-three." Pevan cleared her tight throat, decided not to try telling him about Thia right now. There had been more to their training together than just training, before he went away, Pevan was sure.

"How many Separatists?" It would have been just like Rel to ask, to seek justification for the losses in a kill count, but the tone was nothing like Rel at all. He sounded on the edge of heartbreak. Did he still harbour some sympathy for the Separatists?

"Eight, including Ashtenzim, died on the field." Keshnu offered, while she was still trying to puzzle Rel out. "The remainder of the Separatist Children of the Wild are in custody at the Court. In fact, the only Separatist still at large is Soan Ialvas."

Why bring up Soan now? Pevan glanced at the Gift-Giver, resenting the implied criticism until she saw that his attention was going slightly over her head. He was watching Wolpan; had taken a step forward and turned slightly. Placid though his expression was, he took on a posture of formal dignity. Setting himself up as arbitrator.

Of course. Wolpan still wanted Rel's blood, and with some justification. Other Gifted were gathering around them now, too. Marit, Vessit's Warder, appeared out of the gloom at Wolpan's side; Bersh, Pevan was glad to see, loitered in the crowd away from them both. A hand brushed Pevan's arm, and she looked round to see Chag taking up what had been Keshnu's space, with Atla beside him.

Pitching her voice to cut the hanging moment loose, Pevan said, "Can you handle Soan? I don't have another Clearseer here who could equal him."

"There aren't many in the Realm." Even focussed on a mission, there was a new patience to Rel. He paused in thought for a moment. "If he's not still working with Delaventrin, I can find him for you. How do you want to handle him?"

"I'm open to ideas." Pevan folded her arms. Rel presumably knew that pitting one Clearseer against another would lock up their Gifts, could construct for himself the tactic they'd almost held Soan with on the battlefield. She wanted to see if he'd suggest something more violent. That would be the old Rel's answer, given free rein.

He put a hand to his forehead, rubbed it as if logic fatigued. "I'd need a Gatemaker to get me to him, maybe a Warder or two if he gets close to a Sherim. And I guess I should have a Witness there, too. Give me those, and I think I should be able to bring him in."

"You want us to put you in charge of a squad?" Wolpan's tone could have flayed a mountain.

"How about giving the mission to Taslin, with me as her subordinate?" Rel offered the suggestion too blandly. Pevan narrowed her eyes at him for a moment while Wolpan recovered from the shock. Had he reached some sort of peace with Taslin? How far did it go? And if, as she'd been denying to herself ever since Ilbertin, he'd somehow fallen for her, where did his loyalty now lie? Taslin she trusted, but only if the Gift-Giver remained unchanged by her experience in the future.

"None of this matters, anyway." Wolpan drew herself up and took a step forward. "You were granted the freedom to make your little excursion on grounds of the claim that you would return with some tangible advantage for us against the Separatists. What have you brought?"

Pevan forced herself to let the question stand. Soan's capture was more important than Wolpan's vendetta, but it possibly wasn't as important as measuring the new Rel's intentions. She watched him master the initial rush of self-righteous anger at Wolpan's attitude. He turned to shrug at Rissad.

The elder Van Raighan acknowledged with a nod, and beckoned forward the two strangers they'd entered with. The man responded immediately, with the woman trailing behind him. Rissad said, "I present Sevitz-Anwar and Mag-Ridon. They're here to free Dora, and take her station in the Abyss. Had we returned in time, we hoped they would make a considerable difference on the battlefield, but it's hardly fair to hold us responsible for Fate's mischief."

Neither of the strangers looked up to any such remarkable feat – in fact, they both looked rather sickly – but Pevan wished she could freeze the conversation in place and study them for a while all the same. No such luck, though; voice dripping with scorn, glare fixed on Rel, Wolpan said, "Small reward for allowing you to avoid justice so long."

"Justice would be none of this having happened." Rel met the Four Knot's anger without flinching. "Not this battle, not anything that I did under your city. If I could take back the last five years of my life, too, I would."

Pevan could have cheered. From the rustle around the crowd, Rel was winning them over – Rel, with the approval of other Gifted! – but Wolpan was unmoved. "Since you can't, the crimes you committed here stand. I'm placing you under arrest."

The collective attention of the army closed around Pevan like a fist made of pins and needles. As far as legal procedure went, this was Wolpan's town, and Pevan had no authority to challenge the Four Knot. If she stood up for Rel now, and the surrounding Gifted supported her, the law would have to change. She took Chag's hand, hoping the gloom would cover the gesture.

"Locking Rel up now will solve nothing." Pevan kept her voice level. Maybe the law needed to change, but what would Dora have thought? "As long as Soan is on the loose, he's a danger to the Realm and the Treaty, and to the civilians we are, all of us, sworn to protect."

She paused, holding the moment by force of glare alone. "As long as Soan is free, the Separatist incursion is not over." Then, picking her words carefully, resting her eyes on the Four Knot, "You agreed, Wolpan, that I should command against the Separatists. I am doing so."

More murmuring from the army, conflicted. Pevan didn't dare take the deep breath she wanted, lest it be seen as a sign of weakness. "Rel, you and Taslin will bring Soan in, as you suggested." She held up her free hand, and by some magic forestalled both Wolpan and her brother. "But there are still questions hanging over you."

Slowly, Rel bowed his head, lining his face with shadows. Wishing against the necessity, Pevan let go of Chag's hand and walked the three steps to stand right in front of Rel. She took hold of his arms just above the wrists and looked up into his face. "As your sister, I want to trust you. You understand that, right?" He made no move in response, but that was telling enough. "But as commander of the Gifted here, which, however briefly, I am, I have to know."

"What are you suggesting?" Rel sounded as if he was trying to swallow a frog.

"You and Taslin will bring Soan in." Now Pevan stepped back again, tried to encompass the whole crowd in her stance. "Chag will go along as my Witness, with Keshnu to convey him and observe as impartially as, I think, anyone can." She turned to Wolpan. "We shall see if Rel has learned from his mistakes. Justice is better served by his spending his life in service to the Treaty than in jail, as long as he's learned what that truly means." For a long time, everyone was still. Pevan's heart seemed to stiffen, a hard lump rising into her throat. Would anyone else see or care how much hung on this one decision? Marit put her hand on Wolpan's shoulder. The Four Knot and her Warder exchanged a look, and then, finally, Wolpan nodded.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

New words

More from the book of 'Things that really irritate Rik':

No, not the first part, the second. The bit about how new words are killing the language. I actually followed this one up to check if Conan really said it, and was disappointed to find that he did - normally I like the guy, but I think his sentiments are badly misplaced on this one.

In fairness, it's not as bad as the normal run of memes on this topic, which tend to suggest that the mere fact of a new word being entered into the dictionary is evidence of the death of the language. It feels like it happens every time new words are added to the Oxford, and every time, it makes my blood boil.

Language isn't sacred. Powerful? Yes. Vitally important? Certainly. But immutable, incorruptible, unchanging? Quite the opposite. The world is constantly changing; to insist that a language not change is to demand that it detach itself from the world. Contrary to Conan's quip, change in language is evidence of good health, not imminent death. Want to see a dead language? Latin, which has been preserved near-perfectly across centuries.

Why was 'selfie' picked as the word of 2013? Because Oxford's research saw its use rise by seventeen thousand percent in that year. Like it or not, many people talked about selfies in 2013, many of them in order to criticise or disapprove. Selfies may be an abhorrent phenomenon (they're actually not that bad, as human innovations go - vanity and self-absorption are hardly the worst of our vices), but if people are going to talk about them, someone had better keep a note of what they mean.

The presence of a word in a dictionary, or even on a list of words influential or important in a given year, isn't an endorsement of what the word refers to. It can (and probably does, in the case of 'selfie') indicate a great deal of disapproval, and since it's quite difficult to disapprove of something you don't have a word for, surely it's better to have the word than be without?

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Taking my own advice.

I've talked before about how I think Facebook is a bad setting for political debate, and how it's all too conducive to a very unproductive kind of anger. Well, I've strayed a bit lately from the arguments I made in those posts, and on Friday, I got a rather unpleasant reminder of why, whether or not it's a bad idea for most people to air their politics on Facebook, it's definitely a bad idea for me to.

Turns out I'm very bad at it. I shared a link to a Forbes article about  '#gamergate' which I thought made some very good points about the tenor of the debate. A friend of mine followed the link and took me to task over the article's denial that misogyny was at the centre of the issue.

Now, there is a debate to be had over whether the article actually denied that misogyny was at the centre of the issue, or whether the writer was simply trying to put aside the misogyny, on grounds that it had been discussed elsewhere, and focus on another aspect of the controversy, but we didn't get to have that debate. I started going to pieces too quickly.

In my first response to my friend's comment, despite re-reading and checking it over several times, I used an imprecise phrase which made it sound as if I was endorsing the dismissal of misogyny from the debate. Called on that, too, I got flustered and did a terrible job of explaining the mistake. I then sat stewing in my own anxieties for an hour or two before deleting the whole post out of fear of being screencapped while trying to dig myself out of the rhetorical hole I'd gotten into.

As a highly-trained academic writer, I normally pride myself on my ability to express my thoughts in writing, but this isn't the first time something like this has happened on Facebook. (In fairness, as anyone who's been following this blog for a while can attest, I sometimes have a little too much faith in that ability). Something about that environment really makes me feel the pressure of public access.

In this case, I don't think it helps that I mainly know very smart people - I hold the judgement of most of my Facebook friends in very high regard. This raises the stakes any time I put my views on display, because if one of them calls me an idiot they're probably right (and several of them have, at various times, done so and been right). It's possible that the anxiety that causes gets in the way of clear thinking about the words I'm using, though the problem I have is also probably partly due to differences between the academic context for which I've trained and the (for want of a better word) 'popular' context of Facebook.

Whatever the cause, I don't have a solution. I'm not kidding about that re-reading and checking. I spent at least twenty minutes each on two three-paragraph comments, and still came away sounding like a conceited idiot (and yes, while I recognise that this may mean I am in fact a conceited idiot, jokes to that effect at this point in time are not a helpful contribution). For now, though, no more sharing political material for me on Facebook.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

London, and the rest of Britain

I'm looking for some book recommendations. Specifically, can anyone recommend to me a recent (last 20 years or so) urban fantasy novel by a British author which isn't primarily set in London?

I ask because I've read four different urban fantasy stories by three different British authors this year, and all of them were largely based in London: Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere takes place almost entirely within London; Catherine Webb's Waywalkers and Timekeepers trot the globe a bit, but come back to London a lot, and her A Madness of Angels (published under the name Kate Griffin) is quite openly a serenade to the city; finally, I recently tried Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season, and the furthest it gets from London is Oxford, except for one flashback.

Now, sure, London's a big city, especially for such a small country. It's the seventh-largest metropolitan area in the world by population, and by the figure given in that list accounts for almost a third of the British population. Also of interest are its place at 29 in the list of most populous urban areas and 23 in the list of cities proper, according to which it accounts for almost a sixth and over an eighth of the nation's population respectively.

So we should expect a pretty large portion of British authors to be from London and its general region and thus naturally inclined to write about the city. But assuming my sample is random (it's not, of course, particularly since two of the books were forwarded to me by my sister, who now lives in London), who's writing about the other 40-50million Brits?

And when I say that these books are set in London, I don't just mean that they're set in London the way some Hollywood films are set in London - Big Ben or the Tower of London floating by in the background every now and then. I mean that every single one of the books I've listed had at least one moment where I felt like I needed to have a map of the London Underground to hand to understand what was going on.

The Bone Season, which is freshest in my memory, has two lengthy sections, including a chase scene, set in and around Seven Dials. I'd never even heard of the place until I read the book, but the chase scene gives you the name of every street the characters run down (without saying much about which directions they turn). I'm confident I could trace the whole route on a map, but I was completely lost trying to follow the action without a map.

I talked last week about how I tend to underdevelop locations in my books, but I think this problem of too much detail (or the wrong kind of detail) is as bad. I don't remember struggling with Raymond Chandler's L.A. or Tom Clancy's Washington like this, or indeed with the entirely fictional cities in the fantasy novels of Brandon Sanderson and Scott Lynch. In Mark Chadbourn's Age of Misrule trilogy, there's a sequence in Edinburgh which felt much more accessible, about the closest I can remember to what I'm looking for (though I gave up on Age of Misrule not long after, for unrelated reasons).

There's a cultural dimension to the problem, as well, when dealing specifically with London. The city's size relative to the rest of the country means it has a tendency to suck economic and cultural activity towards itself. There are plenty of fantasy novels set largely in rural Britain - by authors like Dianna Wynne Jones and Alan Garner - but the novels I'm aware of about British cities outside London tend to be more of the Trainspotting variety; many things, but not fantasy in the genre sense.

So if you do know of urban fantasy set in a non-Londonish bit of urban Britain, please let me know. Some of the projects I'm working on at the moment are urban fantasy, and I'm interested to see how other cities get represented.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Home Towns

Decorating, for whatever reason, has me thinking quite a lot about 'home'. It's a weakness of my writing that my characters rarely have strong ties to their homes - in The Second Realm, most of the characters either leave home early on or have already left when we meet them, with little looking back. Only two characters who have speaking roles in more than one episode stay close to home in the entire story.

Another side of this is that my characters' home locations tend to be underdeveloped and vague. Particularly with stories set partly in this world, I avoid naming places that characters are from, and tend to brush over describing their home environments. That's not entirely accidental, since I find myself switching off quite a lot when I read books where home towns are prominently featured (especially the obsession of British urban fantasy authors with a romanticised London, a topic for another time), but I do have something of a blind spot for home places, and I think I've figured out at least part of why.

My father's parents were born and grew up in Birkenhead, the town on the opposite side of the river from where I now live, but moved to the Lake District (~60 miles north and rural rather than urban) when dad was three years old. Dad grew up there, went to university in Stoke (south of here) and settled in Manchester (east).

My mother's parents settled just southwest of London (~200 miles south) when they married, having grown up on opposite sides of the capital. Mum moved north for university, where she met dad, and they were still living near Manchester when I was born. I grew up there before moving to Liverpool nine years ago.

The point of all this detail is that I don't have strong family ties to any particular location. My adult life has been spent in a (very) different city to the one I grew up in, my parents' adult lives crossed similar divides from their childhoods. Even visiting my grandparents as a child, I wasn't visiting them in places where they grew up or where they had family ties to the community (my mother's parents moved to the other side of the country after my aunts and uncles had all left home).

It's a result - I won't say 'symptom' - of the way the economy worked for the university-educated middle classes in post-war Britain; actually in some ways a great freeing-up of movement as high-quality jobs emerged across the country (not so common these days, since a far higher portion of the degree-level jobs are in London now). But it does leave me feeling a bit rootless.

I have never been 'a local' anywhere, even in the town of my birth. My accent, particularly, marks me out as 'not from around here' pretty much anywhere I go; to southerners, I speak too quickly and harshly, and to northerners I sound too precise, a little bit snobby. Only once has a stranger ever correctly identified my birthplace from my accent, and he wasn't friendly about it (in fairness, I'd started the argument).

So perhaps it's no surprise that I struggle to tie my characters to their homes. By the time I'd realised how ridiculous the situation is in The Second Realm, it was too late to do anything about it, but I'll be looking out for it in the future (though it has to be said that sometimes I write rootless, alienated characters deliberately, as in a number of the things I'm working on for following The Second Realm - he said, getting his excuses in first).

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Second Realm 8.2: Mother of Fate

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Logic and Reasons

2. Mother of Fate

Rel let himself fall through the Gateway. Rissad's offer to take him to Dora was better than being stranded in the future without any allies at all. Maybe even if it couldn't be trusted. He rose into the gloom on the other side, landed neatly, and instantly recognised the place.

High above, the bare rock walls vaulted together into a cave ceiling that put even the grandeur of the Court to shame. The Abyss gaped below, dropping away into darkness that barely covered the Realmlessness to which it eventually opened. Sounds of falling water still whispered in the air, but more distantly than Rel remembered.

Other differences were more apparent; huge electric lights, some a good couple of feet across, threw their eye-stinging beams hopelessly across the chasm. Even with trickles of moisture glinting from the rocks on the far side, the gloom swallowed all the light eventually. The cave felt dark.

He'd seen the changes to the old Sherim chamber, what had been a research facility before the Realmcrash, on arrival in this time, but somehow, from this angle, they seemed more stark. The Sherim had been a tangled mess of gantries and stairways, but now there were just two straight staircases up to a single platform. Up there, the air twisted with the Sherim, but Rel was able to blink and free his eyes easily enough.

Rissad's feet tapped gently on the floor as he landed from the Gateway. Rel turned to face him, found him smiling. He said, "Care to take another look over the edge, for old times' sake?"

The first time Rel had met Rissad here, the other man had tricked him into looking down into the Abyss with his Gift. He'd taken an unguarded eyeful of the Realmlessness, had almost fallen in from the effect. "I don't see how that's going to help."

"I do actually have something new to show you down there," Rissad shrugged. "But I understand if you're a little short on patience right now."

"When is he not?" Dora's voice rang from the stone walls. Rel spun to face the Abyss, trying to locate her. Last he'd seen her, she'd been a phantom trapped in the chasm, somehow holding the Realm together where it was closest to tearing apart. It took Clearsight to make her properly visible. He reached for his Gift-

Rissad snapped his fingers in front of Rel's face, forcing him to blink. The leading edge of cold that was the beginning of Clearsight melted from his eyes. Rissad said, "Don't. It's rude, remember? And you're looking the wrong way anyway."

Frowning, Rel turned. Dora stood in the mouth of the Sherim chamber, wearing her green Four Knot's robe, her hair a haystack whose outflung wisps shone in the harsh light. It was hard to make out her face through the glare, but he could picture it well enough from her voice. She'd be frowning, but ever-so-slightly lopsidedly, just enough to let him know she was glad to see him.

"Hello, my love." She began to walk forwards, slowly as if treasuring each step. Her greeting stumped Rel for a moment, until she stopped at Rissad's side and he realised she hadn't been addressing him.

Then she did, and even the way her eyebrows lowered, just fractionally, as she opened her mouth made him cringe. "Did you even think to ask what Fate's plan was before storming out?"

"I-" Rel spluttered. The feeling was almost reassuring, like being back in Federas before everything.

And, yes, there was Dora's eye-roll. "I could bring you round to it with just a few statistics."

"Go on, then." Despite himself, he could hear his own stubbornness. Which Dora would call sullenness.

"We have a tenth as many civilian deaths as in your time." Her pause was to make sure he noticed your in place of our. "Despite twice the civilian population and four times the Realmspace."


"That's what Rissad wanted to show you in the Abyss. Maybe you should take a look, actually." She waited for his silent stillness to refuse, then softened a little. "We're rebuilding the Realm, Rel. Back to how it was before the Realmcrash. Most of the rest of the Realm wasn't destroyed, just... put out of our reach."

"So how are you..." He started to ask, then answered, "The Threekin."

Dora gave him a raised eyebrow, her surprise a subtle compliment. "My children." Then she smiled, looking down and a little inward. "The product of what I learned holding the Realm together."

He remembered how she'd looked, tangled through the Sherim to the Lost Realm, hanging from the chasm walls by ropes of Wild Power. What was she getting at? There'd be a lesson for him in everything she said, or she'd be saying nothing at all. And the way she'd brought up the numbers... "What's the problem with the casualty rate?"

"It's not why I'm willing to work with Fate." Dora folded her arms. "The same goes for most Gifted these days."

"We swore to protect the civilians." Rel matched her stance, wondering how the Treaty might have changed in three centuries.

"And we do, but they hardly know it anymore." In Dora's eyes, the caught glimmer of the electric lights hardened. "Twenty million of them in the bay coast area alone, and most of them have never seen a Wilder. They wonder why they have to support us, equip us, feed us, when we do so little for them that they can see."

He knew that tone of voice, too; the one he usually only heard after she'd had a row with Federas' Sheriff. If everyone in this new Vessit was like Pollack... Rel wished he couldn't believe it, but even in Federas, where Gifted died every year, where there were incursions every couple of months, Pollack wasn't the only one. Not by a long chalk.

"This is a phase." Rissad cut in before Rel could say anything that would compromise his oath. Gaunt though he was, almost skeletal in the harsh lighting, the elder Van Raighan spoke with deep conviction. "A necessary one, like the Realmwar, like our time. Each step better, safer, more comfortable than the last. Someday there will be enough Gifted and Threekin to build actual understanding between our kinds."

"Can we ever understand each other?" Rel folded his arms. "I mean, First-Realm logic and Second are incompatible, aren't they?"

"Can you understand someone who knows that a hundred Gifted die every year to defend him, and still says we're not needed anymore?" The sting in Dora's voice cut through the sound of the distant waterfall and rang back from the Abyss. "Who scorns memorial services and wants us 'put to work'?"

"Put to work?" He almost choked on the words.

"Just like how Pollack used to use you." Dora might as well have spat the Sheriff's name onto the ground. "Would you rather work with Taslin or Notia?"


Dora's face shifted as she took a deep breath, as if she was inhaling all the anger from the air. "You told me... Well, you haven't told me yet, for you, and don't forget to when you get back, but in my past you've told me about going to the Court with Taslin after Vessit. Working with her and the Gift-Givers to thwart the Separatists when they came for Pevan and Chag."

The fraught journey had taken the better part of a day, and he'd arrived in the Court so fatigued that he'd had to sleep, with Taslin protecting his wandering, dreaming mind from the vicissitudes of the Second Realm. He shuddered to think about it now, the sore on his gum pulsing. But for three days after that, they'd rushed through frantic meetings, manoeuvring the burden of Rel's guilt to make it possible, so he thought, to save Dora.

Then the Separatists had kidnapped Taslin, striking into the heart of the Court. Only Fate's intervention had rescued Rel and Pevan. Their own attempt to rescue Taslin had led to the shambles at Ilbertin. Dora's freedom had been left to others, because of what Taslin had tried... Rel tried to forget the feeling of her lips on his.

"You work that well with me." Dora took a step closer, lifted her hand to Rel's cheek. Her touch sent tingling waves through him, and he had to stiffen up completely so as not to squirm. What was Rissad thinking about this? "And me only, until now. That was enough for the longest time to mean that we'd..." She looked down, hand pulling back half-way. "I still think of it as breeding, not love, when I think about those times. Our training didn't give us a lot of chance to learn the difference."

Rel thought about bringing up Pevan's love life, but decided against it. "What are you saying? That I love Taslin?" Dora wouldn't joke about something like that, wouldn't see it as funny at all. And her tone made it clear that she had no problem with the idea. Why didn't she find it repugnant? It could be something to do with her Gifts, her transformation into... whatever she was now, but she didn't seem changed.

This was the Dora he knew, who'd trained him, who'd guided him through his first encounters with the Second Realm, and pulled him back when misfortune or his own foolishness had tried to strand him there. She was more herself than the erratic, unpredictable creature she'd been between receiving her second Gift and taking up station in the Abyss. Her frustration with Federas' idiot Sheriff and civilians had apparently endured three centuries intact.

"I'm saying that you're closer to Wildren, less human, than you think." She took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes, her face plain, but hard. "You're uncomfortable with Threekin because you think humans and Wildren shouldn't mix too closely. You want them to be two completely separate things, with clear lines between them. You on one side, Taslin on the other.

"But you're already part-way across that line, and so is Taslin. So is everyone, who isn't a Separatist. You, of all people, probably communicate better with Taslin than you would with any ordinary human." The emphasis dripped scorn. "It doesn't matter what kind of animal you are, Rel. It matters what kind of person you are."

Dora paused, stepped back towards Rissad, slipped her hand into his. Her voice settled into a teaching mode. "There are two things that a Wilder can feel, two emotions, which a human can also feel. Two things in our entire logical and conceptual framework that match exactly. One is fear. Can you guess what the other is?"

He didn't need to, but the lump in his throat made saying it difficult. He managed, "Go on."

For once, she didn't roll her eyes at his awkwardness. "They call it loyalty, the bond between two people that goes beyond duty. But what they mean is love. We're lucky, really. If the first Gift-Givers, back during the Realmwar, hadn't spotted that, we'd only have had fear to go on." Dora scowled, the expression that always made Rel feel like he had a couple of spears through his chest. "That's what drove Ashtenzim to kidnap Taslin, what drove Soan at Ilbertin, what drove Chag when he joined the Separatists. And it's what drove you at Vessit."

There was no denying that.

"Act out of love, Rel." Dora's face softened again, and again there was that small, contented smile. "You've done more than enough out of fear."

He stood, staring blankly at her. His mind felt like a wall, plain stone smoothly finished, featureless. What happened now? All the shivers and nausea were gone from his body. Unsure if Dora or Rissad wanted anything more from him, he waited. There didn't seem to be much to say. An apology at this point would be trite to the point of insult.

Finally, Dora looked up at Rissad. "Fate will smooth things over with Bayliss. You two should head back."

Rissad kissed her on the forehead. "I'll see you again before we go back."

"And after." Dora's eyes sparkled.

Disengaging his hand from hers, Rissad waved a Gateway into existence. Dreary daylight fountained in. To Rel, he said, "Come on, we've still got to stop the Separatists, and get Dora out of the Abyss in the first place."

That, at least, Rel could get behind. He nodded. Turned to Dora to say... something? But she just smiled and waved him on. He jumped through the Gate without looking to see where it was taking him.

A curtain of fine, clear rain smothered his face for a moment, and he wiped his eyes before looking around. He was in the street outside the safe-house, or at least a street very like that one. It was patterned after the streets in the old pre-crash city, a wide strip of black tarmac with paved walkways along either side. The few people out walking seemed to stick to the walkways, but there was nothing visible to explain why.

There were funny looks from a couple of passersby as Rissad emerged from the Gateway to stand beside Rel. Well, they'd been warned against using their Gifts, and Gateways were pretty conspicuous. No-one actually raised a complaint.

Rissad walked over to the safe-house and tried the door. The handle didn't turn. He muttered something under his breath and turned to Rel. "I'd hoped Bayliss would come here. I don't fancy trying to get back into that other place, do you?"

Before Rel could shake his head, there was a clunk from the door, and it opened. Imtaz stood in the opening, his face blank. "Come on in, before you make yourselves any more visible."

"We went to see the Abyss, that's all." Rissad did as bidden, though. The house's entrance hall was gloomy, not much warmer than outside, though at least it was dry.

"Bayliss would have been here, but she's in a meeting." Imtaz led them into a back room. There were couches along two adjacent walls, a long way from what looked to be a fake fireplace in the third. Imtaz went on, "It was hard enough to schedule breakfast."

Effort that Rel had put to waste. Feeling a moment's sudden chill, he asked, "Are the guards unharmed?"

"Bumps and bruises." The Guide didn't sound angry. "Your control does you credit."

"Control would have been not attacking them in the first place." Rel shrugged awkwardly. "Please pass on my apologies."

"It's hardly your fault. Bayliss pressed her call button out of reflex when you stormed out." Imtaz folded his arms. "She hadn't done that, they wouldn't have been in your way at all. She sends her apologies for that."

"Call button?" The phrase meant nothing to Rel.

Imtaz gave a short, low chuckle of chagrin, then ran a hand through his thinning hair. "Sorry, it's easy to forget how different your time is. She carries a device that allows her to summon her bodyguards, if there's an emergency or a sudden threat to her."

"Oh, something electrical?" Rel frowned. "I didn't know electricity could carry messages."

"Now's probably not the time for a science lesson." There was a grin in Rissad's voice, but when Rel threw a sideways glance at him, the Gatemaker's face was dead straight. "So, we're all square? Everyone forgives everyone?"

"Yes. There's still the matter of Fate's plan, though." A frown appeared on Imtaz' craggy face as he turned back to Rel. "Fate seemed to think you would come around. Is there anything we can say to convince you?"

Rel took a deep breath, looked away. "I don't know what to think. You and Bayliss and Tem... Temuiran-Mebo, you all have a lot invested in this. And I don't trust Fate, I never have."

"Few do." Imtaz' voice was almost a growl. "The way he explains it, his plan relies on keeping us in the dark, so that we do what comes naturally to us rather than worrying about following a script. He springs too many surprises on us all. But I do trust his underlying motivation. He's available, if you'd like to speak with him again. Tembo, too."

"Do I have to decide now?" Rel still didn't want to meet the Guide's eyes. Did it matter when he made up his mind? They could leave this future at any point and return to the time they left, or at least so Rissad had said.

"Fate insists your participation is important, but I understand he also doesn't want you spending too long with us before going back." Imtaz' scowl slackened slightly. "He may decide to press on without you if you wait too long."

"I still don't know what he actually wants me to do."

"We're going to take a couple of Threekin back to Vessit." Rissad cut in. "To get Dora out of the Abyss. And to help against the Separatists, I guess."

"Only two?" Would they make any difference at all? Dora's release was a worthy goal, and it didn't seem like much of a commitment to any grand scheme.

"Don't underestimate what Threekin can do." Rissad's smile was humourless. "I don't want you to have any misconceptions, either. When we go back, when we get Dora free, we'll be fulfilling the next step of Fate's design. That design leads to this future."

Rel whistled through his broken tooth. At least Rissad was being forthright. "Give me some time. I want to talk to Taslin."

Rissad cleared his throat, raised an eyebrow. "Not sure I believed you'd ever say that again."

"She asked to be shown around the city," Imtaz offered. "I imagine she'll be back here later."

"No clever device to track where she is now?" All of Rissad's lazy southern drawl came back in the question.

"Tracking one Gift-Giver in this city is a little bit beyond me." Imtaz matched Rissad's sardonic tone. "If you want a tour yourselves, I can set something up."

Rel looked out the window. "In this weather?"

"Do you have a better idea for killing the time?" Rissad barely looked at him before turning back to Imtaz. "Can we get something to eat along the way?"

It had been perhaps an hour since breakfast. Rel said, "You go ahead if you want. I'm going to stay here, I've got a lot of thinking to do."

"Suit yourself. See you later." Rissad gestured for Imtaz to precede him out.

Rel sat alone in the dreary back room for a long time before Taslin returned. He heard her say something to someone outside, but she came in alone. Her black robe was gone, replaced by clothes presumably cut to fit this future; the fabrics were too fine to have come from Rel's time. Her skirt hugged the tops of her knees, but seemed to stretch with her step. Her colours looked washed-out, grey and navy instead of silver and purple, except for her cherry hair, now tied up in some complex clip.

Though she hadn't hesitated between entering the house and the back room – had Rissad told her Rel wanted to see her? – she paused on the threshold. Rel struggled to start the conversation, eventually settled for waving a hand at the other couch. Where a less-gifted Wilder, even a lesser Gift-Giver, might have struggled to interpret the gesture, Taslin went straight to the indicated seat and perched primly on the front edge of it.

Rel hauled himself up out of his slouch. There were so many things to talk about, the avalanche of thought overwhelmed him. Olark-Sura's questions vied with Fate's plans; memories of Dora fought the lurking spectre of Ilbertin. He let his gaze fall away from Taslin, down into his lap where his hands twisted together of their own accord.

"I find this future as bewildering as you do." Taslin's voice was quiet. When Rel didn't look up, she went on, "I know you dislike my reading your emotions, but sometimes they are impossible to ignore."

Confusion wasn't the half of it, though. He couldn't even figure out what to be confused about. Searching for an anchor, he found Olark-Sura's arguments rising to the surface. "The Threekin I met, Olar- uh, Oz, said that more Wildren die in human incursions to your Realm than humans to Wildren. In our time, I mean."

"I think you must have misunderstood." For a moment, Taslin's air of contemplation persisted, but when she spoke again her tone was crisp and clear. As if she was relieved to be on familiar ground. "Humans make very few incursions into our Realm, unless one counts trips to the Court. While it is true that feral and sub-sentient Children of the Wild are sometimes killed by Gifted travelling to and from the Court, this is generally either by accident or because those killed attacked Gifted who had been trained to defend themselves."

"So Olark-Sura was wrong?" Rel looked up, frowning.

"As I said, I think you must have misunderstood." There was no hint in Taslin's face of her true, inhuman nature. Only the impossible colour of her hair tested her illusion. "It is true that more Children of the Wild are killed by incursions into our Realm when one includes non-human incursions."


"Yes. Common animals living in the areas near Sherim often stray into our Realm. Since their minds tend to consist of little more than basic need-fulfilment desires, they manifest in the Second Realm as concentrated bursts of hunger, fear or sometimes lust. These are profoundly dangerous to my kind, though in the final analysis the casualty figures can partly be attributed to poorer organisation of defences on our side."

"Common animals... you mean sheep and things?" No farmer in Federas let his sheep graze near the Sherim.

"It's rare for a domesticated animal to stray that far." Taslin leaned forward. "But wild crows, field-mice, squirrels and so on – these are the Wildhawks, Lentu, and Reknarf of your Realm."

It had been a pack of Lentu which had killed Marba and Seff, both of them strong Gifted honed by years of service in Federas. How could a squirrel be that dangerous? "How do they even get across the Sherim?"

"The difficulty of crossing a Sherim is proportional to the complexity of the mind making the crossing." Though her tone hadn't changed, there was something maddening in the way Taslin held her calm. "Full sophonts such as ourselves have far more internal barriers to break down. Feral creatures, those without advanced consciousness, may not even notice the transition. This is why most incursions into your Realm are by creatures which are harmless to my kind."

"What about Ragehounds? And that Axtli?" Temmer and Dieni had earned their reputations as the First Realm's greatest defenders by killing a Ragehound that had threatened Federas. It had taken them four days, and cost the lives of two – only two – of their then-comrades. Rel had been eleven, confined indoors like every other child in Federas for the whole incursion. And when he and Taslin had encountered the Axtli, it had been her fear which had warned him just how dangerous it was.

"Your wolves make a good analogy for Ragehounds. An unarmed human who happened to draw the aggression of a wolf would be unlikely to survive unharmed. Wolves remain a significant problem for the defence of my Realm. At least Ragehounds never travel in packs." Taslin took a deep breath, or at least made a show of doing so. Rel let it cover a shudder. A pack of Ragehounds?

"As for Axtli," Taslin went on, "we believed them extinct. None of their natural habitats survived the Realmcrash. In that, and in the danger they present to my kind, they are like your lions or elephants."

"Where did it come from, then?"

"There are lions caged on display here, in this time. Live lions." Taslin's artificial smile patronised Rel. "Recovered at considerable expense and risk from areas of the First Realm that the Threekin have opened up. I imagine that what happened with our Axtli was that Dora's Sherim made contact with a region of the Second Realm folded away from the part we know, a region still populated by Axtli. We were very lucky indeed to defeat it."

Rel thought of the dead sheep strewn across the field around the ruined croft where they'd slept that night. The Axtli had consumed the head of every animal. Squeezing each word past a strangle-tight throat, he whispered, "Is it like that every time a wolf strays into your Realm?" Let her read his mind if she didn't know what he was talking about.

At last, Taslin let some emotion show, her edged tone cracking as she said, "Not every time. If a whole pack crosses, it can be much worse."

"Why don't you tell us?" The question exploded out of him, but he was too hoarse to shout. It came out as an awkward, squeaking gasp. He'd lived his life on the belief that Wildren had the better of the Realmcrash. How might he have seen things differently at Vessit if he'd known... this? Fate's glare came back to him; he couldn't excuse his fear with ignorance. But things would have been different.

"Fear." Taslin drew a shaky breath. Nothing of the lecture remained in her tone, and Rel found himself wondering just how much control she had over the appearance she presented. "Fear of how you would react to the knowledge. Fear of what you might do if you perceived weakness in us. That's not just mistrust, I promise; we also feared that you might lose faith in our value as allies."

"So you lied." Except that Wildren couldn't lie outright. Rel's jaw clenched, but he forced it loose. "Or misled us, anyway. To keep us afraid of you."

"We were never asked." Now Taslin's voice shrank, sadly. "Some of us – many, over time – wished you would ask. Just as with our age, your kind have a strange tendency to assume our vast superiority in power. There have been many times when we prayed for your aid in the defence of our Realm, and it never occurred to you we might need it."

"Because you never told us!" Rel pushed to his feet, went to stand at the window. Outside, a silent, silver curtain of rain fell across the uninspired garden. He leant on the windowsill, leaning forward until his breath fogged the glass. Up close, he seemed to have two reflections, and it took him a moment to work out that there were two panes of glass, back to back, in the plastic frame. What was that supposed to achieve?

In reflection, his eyes were distorted, his eyelids baggy, his cheeks hollow. He looked almost as bad as Rissad had since his ill-ministered captivity at Vessit. Speaking as much to the world outside as to Taslin, he said, "If we don't know, we can only fear. You can't expect us to trust you when we're still as lost as this."

"After everything you've learned, do you really still believe we're any less lost?"

"You act less lost!" Rel drove his fist into the windowsill and regretted it. Flecks of his spittle beaded the glass. "Every time you come to us, you talk as if you know everything, as if you're holding all the cards. And I know that's an appearance you control, you've said as much yourself. What do we have to go on, except what you show us?"

"And do you not also put on a brave face when you come to visit the Court?" While he'd been shouting, Taslin must have stood and crossed the room. Her voice came from not far behind him. "If you could see as a Wilder sees, you would see much deeper."

"Well, I can't." A heated breath did nothing to carry away Rel's anger. He let bitterness take hold. "I guess there's no point trying, then, since there's no way we can ever actually understand one another."

"That's one thing we never created any deception over." Taslin's tone stiffened. "From the very first negotiations that led to the Treaty of Peace, we said it openly, and as often as possible. There are too few points of contact between your logic and mine for true understanding to flourish."

"Fear and love aren't much to go on, huh?" In the Second Realm, where words took form, Rel's would have dripped from his mouth like poison.

"Fear we understand all too well. The deep personal bonds that we call loyalty and you call love are altogether more complicated." Taslin paused. When she spoke again, it was with a wise old smile in her tone. "But neither fear nor love directly appears, in your Realm or mine. Go beyond what you can see, in me and my kind just as you do with your own kind."

He didn't look at her. "I'm a Seer, in case you'd forgotten."

"You're more than your Gift." Her failure to sound stern, to scold him with his own blindness, wrapped a fist around his heart. Her voice stayed gentle, impossibly tender. "You existed before it, and that person is still a part of you."

Was it, really? He could barely remember his life before his Gift, except for the terrifying days when Wildren threatened Federas. He remembered every incursion, could list the Gifted who'd gone in defence, and those who had come back lifeless, or not come back at all. "What am I, then, besides the Clearseer of Federas?"

"There is, or there will be, more to your life than this war." Her hand settled on his back, just behind his shoulder. "And you'll have to work that out for yourself. I can only tell you what I've seen of Rel the soldier, all the parts of Rel the Gifted that you can't have got from your Gift."

He turned, hoping to dislodge her hand. It fell away, and he shivered, suddenly cold. The contact had warmed him, just slightly. Now he had to face Taslin in isolation. Her futuristic outfit was gone; in its place, she wore a violet gown much like the one she'd worn when he'd first seen her, leading Dora to the Second Realm to receive her second Gift.

Now as then, the Gift-Giver seemed pasted on top of reality, the purple of her dress and the red of her hair too bright, too crisp to be real. Amethysts glowed in her eyes. Her skin was pale, as smooth as the glass at his back, except that he knew if he touched it it would be soft and forgiving, not brittle or fragile. Tiny jewels studded her bodice, a star-map of the body underneath.

Voice a strangled whisper, Rel said, "What do you see in me?"

"Just as you, in the Second Realm, are not blinded by the familiar, by patterns of appearances, so it is with me in your Realm. What you think of as my reading your mind is really just how I see." She paused, and Rel let her eyes bore into him, let her see into him. "When you held back the Axtli with raw will and bare hands, when you fought Keshnu, believing you fought for the fate of the Realm, when you defeated my captors at Ilbertin without drawing a drop of blood, I saw the naked determination to do right, whatever the personal cost.

"When you do not feel lost – when you do not let confusion distract you, even if perhaps sometimes it should – when you act from conviction, it is never hubris, nor hateful prejudgement. When you fight, your only motive is your belief that in doing so you defend." She lifted one porcelain-fine hand to his cheek, brushed her fingertips up towards his ear. "It is the value you place on the life and safety of others that drives you. How could I not wish to be valued so highly?"

Tingling waves of warmth rushed out from her touch, all through his body until he could barely hold himself steady. His head reeled. Taslin stepped forwards out of the world as if it were a faded painting. Her hands slid around the back of his head; he found his at her waist. The fabric of her dress shimmered to his touch just as it did to the light.

Her lips came up to his, strong, warm and dry. He could barely see, felt as if he was drunk or crying, or both. Closing his eyes, he pulled her closer, filling himself with heat borrowed from her body. His skin felt cold only where furthest from her touch.

The... the rightness of it crested, his arms unclenching just enough to allow her to pull back. Their faces were perhaps two inches apart; he could have counted every pore on her cheeks, or the microscopic facets of her jewelled irises. For all that, he could not read the expression on her face. How did he look to her?

Taslin's breath tickled his lips as she whispered, "We won't have to hide it forever."

"For now, though..."

By tacit agreement, they sat apart until Rissad and Imtaz returned. They let Rissad sit between them, too, made him symbolically the leader of their delegation, at dinner that evening. There, Imtaz and Temuiran-Mebo introduced them to Sevitz-Anwar and Mag-Ridon, the Threekin who had been chosen for Dora's rescue. Keeping silent didn't help the tickling sensation at the base of Rel's spine that told him everyone around the table knew everything that had transpired during the afternoon, but there didn't seem to be any reason to say anything. Threekin could hardly claim any right to be disgusted by it, anyway.

Fate made no appearance at the meal, or later. Imtaz took them back to the safe-house and sat with them in the back room for a while, while their conversation quietly turned over the future and the past. At the Guide's urging they agreed to begin their return journey in the morning; he assured them the two Threekin were ready and eager to accompany them.

Time-lag and the previous night's poor sleep began to settle on Rel's brain as the discussion tailed off. He made his excuses and headed for his bedroom, heard Imtaz leave as he was getting ready for bed. Cold as the evening had been, he kept his trousers and shirt on, just leaving his coat and belt over the back of the chair.

He heard Rissad come upstairs, footsteps ghostly on the thick landing carpet. The Gatemaker seemed to move around a lot before finally falling silent. Rel lay, staring at the ceiling, time-lag a wet sandbag across his forehead.

Some minutes passed. Then, silently and darkly but in some way that he could still sense, the oval hole of a Gateway opened in the wall. Taslin stepped through. It occurred to Rel that if any other Gateway had opened into his bedroom, in any circumstance other than this, he would already be out of bed and leaping to attack. Here, he knew, there was no need.

She whispered, "This may be our last chance to be... close. For some time, at least."

Awkwardly, he pushed himself back against the wall to make room for her. "Until the end of the war, I guess."

"That could still be a long time." The covers lifted, and Taslin slipped in alongside him. She fitted herself perfectly into the crook of his arm, her head on his shoulder. The fabric of her nightgown was almost as soft as the hair that tickled his chin.

Rel kissed her forehead. "If all else fails, we'll just get Rissad to bring us back here for a holiday. Time has a rather different meaning now."

He slept, deeply, and woke with an aching shoulder, his back still up against the wall. Taslin was gone, but the rumples in the sheet reassured him she'd been there. Imtaz was waiting when he went downstairs, to escort them back to the refectory for breakfast. Rel half-recognised the route, but the city's buildings were too much alike for him to feel like he knew where they were going. The locals seemed to cope, but he couldn't tell how.

No-one spoke very much over the meal; without the bustle of the previous evening, the food hall was too much the domain of silence. Morning at least revealed the intricate glasswork that made up its roof, more like something from the Court than ordinary First-Realm construction.

Taslin sat opposite Rel, wearing the plainest dress he'd ever seen her wear. Though still purple, the material was recognisably linen, and the cut would not have stood out among the housewives of Federas. He stole glances at her, noting the fine bones of her shoulders and the hidden curve of her sharp jaw. Just once, their eyes met, and in the shy half-smile she gave him, he saw she must have been stealing glances at him too.

At Imtaz' insistence, they returned to the safe-house before Rissad made a Gateway to the Abyss. The official entrance, he said, could not be accessed unobtrusively. His gruff parting words, "Good luck. I'd tell you to trust Fate's plan, but you're not fools," hovered at the back of Rel's mind as he followed Taslin through the Gate. Rissad came last, leaving Imtaz behind.

Dora, Fate and the two assigned Threekin were waiting on the other side. Rissad's Gate had brought them out actually inside the Sherim chamber, and though the enormous room ate light, there was enough left to make out faces. Without a hint of a smile, Dora said, "We'd better keep this quick. You would not believe how hard it was to keep everyone else away."

"Is there much to say?" Rel matched her, tone for remorseless tone.

She rolled her eyes at him. "To you? You know what you need to do, and the rest will be obvious when it comes." Then, to Taslin, she smiled, "Keep him out of trouble for me?"

"There's a first time for everything." Taslin didn't look round, but her fingers brushed the back of his hand, taking some of the sting out of her words. "I promise you this: I will take care of your kin."

Sevitz-Anwar seemed to take that as a signal. He moved from Dora's side to Rissad's, hesitating when Mag-Ridon didn't immediately join him. His awkward throat-clearing cough echoed, and he might have spoken but for Rissad putting a fatherly hand on his shoulder. Mag-Ridon picked up the cue, finally, and joined them, leaving Dora alone with Fate.

Even stood side-by-side, it was hard to see any resemblance. Fate wore his inhuman nature openly, his robe glowing faintly to complement the steady candleflame-burn of his eyes. He stood tall, stiff-faced and hawkish. Dora was small and drab by comparison, and yet the subtle hardness of her expression bore a wisdom that Fate could never aspire to.

His voice ringing back from the walls, Fate said, "You are leaving to begin a new chapter of history, for human and Child of the Wild alike. I cannot say much, of course, about what real fate has in store for you, but so long as you act out of courage, and the best interests of both Realms, you will not go astray."

Quietly, Dora said, "Ready to meet me for the first time?" It was only when Rissad chuckled that Rel understood the question. She finished, "Good luck. Remember everything you've learned."

With that, Rissad turned and led the way up the stairs to the Sherim. Dora and Fate watched them climb, but when Rel turned to wave from the gantry, they were walking back towards the Abyss.

The Sherim was unrecognisably altered from the one Rel had left his own time through. That one was tangled up with the walkways that accessed it, so that it had no clear boundary. Here and now, the Sherim was an unseen presence beside a gap in the catwalk's handrail. The divide between the First Realm and the Lost could not have been more stark.

Mag-Ridon cleared her throat. Rel looked at her, expecting her to speak, but all her attention was on the Sherim. Her eyes were bulging out, eyelids held wide and unblinking. A sympathetic chill went through the centre of Rel's skull. This was Threekin Clearsight at work. Sevitz-Anwar wore the same fixed expression.

Rel swallowed and reached for his Gift. The cold that claimed his eyeballs spread deeper into his head, more quickly, than he was used to. He could feel the surface of the Sherim swelling towards him, pulling him towards it as well.

As on the journey here, he could not see the Lost Realm, per se. But in some way he could sense its geometry, almost disappointingly simple and familiar except that it was a geometry of time, not space. Sight still told him about his companions, enough that he could almost understand Rissad's idiosyncratic, un-Gifted interface with the Sherim, but everything on the far side blurred into non-colour.

The two Threekin deferred to Rissad for the route, the discussion a tangle of overlapping sentences that covered more metaphysics than Rel could follow. He waited quietly with Taslin, the moment oddly private for how little attention came their way.

The move into the Sherim surprises him. It is like slipping slowly into deep, cold water, almost seeming to peel his skin away. His Gift spreading throughout his body, or perhaps replacing it. The Lost Realm's physics lock his body in place; this is not a Realm where physical motion is possible.

Drawing on memories that are suddenly tangibly available, Rel lets his awareness render the alien Realmspace as an array of boxes. These are individual moments, tightly packed in three dimensions, and every possibility is just a path through them.

Follow me. Rissad's instruction comes to Rel like one of his own thoughts assembling itself ready for speaking out loud. His reflexive attempt to inhale rams painfully against the restriction on physical movement, but he masters his panic. Rissad slides into an adjacent moment; Rel, balancing carefully to keep from spreading out into multiple paths, follows as bidden. The others move with him, though 'with' is a loose term, not meaning either physically next to or at the same time as.

Still, they find a comfortable pace. Rel manages to avoid trying to rationalise the journey in First-Realm terms, and their progress stays smooth. It is a far cry from the fear-edged tension of their first trip, where he had to spend every moment fighting his Gift's natural tendency to spread across multiple futures. He clamps down on the memory before it can draw him away from Rissad's route.

Counting the moments they passed through proved beyond him; his awareness stayed timeless. The interruption arrives when it arrives, with no way of telling how far they have come from their point of departure. His first thought is that it is like a tree, ancient and gnarled, that has somehow appeared in the middle of their road.

Seeing, or at least feeling-with-his-eyes, closer, Rel reevaluates. The obstruction has long and tangled roots, vast branches spreading out overhead, but its body is not a unified trunk. It is a braid, its roots the threads of a million pasts running up to now and then fraying out into futures above. Instincts welling up from Rel's Gift assign it colours of honey and pearl.

I am so very sorry. Rel's thought rises from the deep base of his mind in Fate's ostentatious tones. Before the spasm that seizes his diaphragm with the urge to speak can pass, the Lost Realm whirls away. Dizzying nausea overwhelms thought, and some impact slams the wind from him.

The first thing he took in when the nausea began to relent was that it was darkness filling his eyes, not the lightlessness of the Lost Realm. Then, coughing and a groan, neither of them his own. Beneath him, the floor was hard, cold concrete. A weak orange glow, with the unmistakable flicker of torchlight, revealed hints of the room he was in.

It was the Sherim chamber by the Abyss under Vessit. Exactly where they'd been aiming to end up. From the erratic, spiralling layout of the staircases and gantries above him, this was his own time, too. Moisture hung in the air, and the roar of a distant cataract rolled along the chasm outside.

Coughing a couple of times to reassure himself he wouldn't throw up, Rel said, "That was Fate, right?"

"Believe so," Rissad grunted. He'd managed to pull himself up to sitting, his pale skin catching just enough torchlight to reveal his position. "Everyone here?"

There were guttural sounds from both Threekin. Mag-Ridon was on her knees, one hand on the floor and the other wrapped around her belly. She had thrown up, the smell of it just now reaching Rel's nostrils. Sevitz-Anwar crawled to her side, put his hand on her shoulder.

Rel let himself flop onto his back and found himself looking up at Taslin. She was kneeling at his side, apparently untroubled by the rough transition. When she spoke, it was with crisp distaste. "If that was Fate, what was he doing?"

"Throwing us off our course." Sevitz-Anwar sounded as if he was still fighting off the effects of the attack. "I can't really judge how much by."

"That doesn't make sense." Puzzlement turned to anger as Rissad went on, "He taught me this route. If he wanted us to arrive in a different time, why not just give me a different route?"

"This looks like the Abyss we left." Rel pushed himself up to sitting, waved a hand at the spiralling Sherim. "Well, he did apologise, before whatever-it-was he did. I didn't imagine that?" Rissad rocked himself forward onto his feet and stood, waiting for a nod from the Threekin. "Nothing for it but to go find out when we are, I guess."

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