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

First Episode - Previous Episode - Season 1 Hub - Season 2 Hub - Season 3 Hub - Smashwords (all major ebook formats, pay what you like)



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."

"What?"

"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?"

"What?"

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."

"Non-human..?"

"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."

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Home is where you AREN'T DECORATING

I really hate living with the decorating process. Five rooms in the shared house where I live have been scheduled for decorating this summer, with my room as the fourth. I just finished moving out yesterday so that I can start the actual decorating work today, so I'm coming to you now from the cramped attic bedroom where I and all my stuff will be living for the next two weeks.

It should only be two weeks (he promised himself, in a tone of rising desperation..). My carpet is being fitted on September 1st, assuming nothing drastic goes wrong, and all the painting has to be done by then, for obvious reasons.

And it's not like this rash of decorating wasn't sorely needed; the three bathrooms all had bare plaster on most or all of the walls, the bedrooms have had bare floorboards poorly hidden by ratty rugs, and the less said about the fireplace in my room the better.

Thing is, I was actually happier living with the undecorated mess than I am living alongside the decorating process. Even undecorated, this place wasn't the worst place I've lived during my studenthood. At least here, none of the walls move if you lean on them, and none of the beams are propped up on loose bricks. The damp only gets in in one room, rather than pretty much all of them.

I've found I can live with a degree of comfort in even pretty dilapidated environments provided those environments aren't in flux. If things are more or less static, settled, I can tolerate them. The kind of constant moving around entailed by decorating, though, makes me a little bit crazy. If I'm not worrying myself sick about some task that still needs doing, I'm getting irrationally irritated by one or other of my housemates not acting exactly to my convenience right now. It's to the point that I'm actually going to take a few days out and visit my parents over this weekend, because I'm worried I'll snap if I don't.

All of this is because I'm a very home-focussed person. This is more than just a nice way of saying I'm a hopeless shut-in (though, of course, I am a hopeless shut-in). My comfort zone is limited to pretty much 'being surrounded by my stuff, arranged my way'. It's a safety net, in more ways than one. Knowing I have a comfortable comfort zone to come back to after anything where I go outside my comfort zone makes it a lot easier to try things, particularly since, as a writer, I can leave my comfort zone way behind just by sitting at my computer and pushing my craft.

Once the work is complete, I will have a stronger comfort zone than I do now. 'My room' will be much more mine with my choice of colours on the walls, a carpet, and less dust (if you could actually sell dust bunnies as pets, I would have made an absolute killing yesterday while moving out). For the next couple of weeks, though, I'm on a bit of an emotional tightrope.

Hopefully the most dramatic thing that will happen is publishing the next episode of The Second Realm on Saturday (hint hint).

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Depression

I was going to blog this week about how much I hate decorating (we're in week four of a big four-room job around our house, with at least another three to go), but then Robin Williams died yesterday and my Facebook feed filled up with people talking about depression, and today that's all still on my mind, so that's what you're getting.

It might have been the biggest outpouring of grief over the passing of a celebrity I've ever seen. It was certainly pretty close. Everyone seems to have loved Mr. Williams, and much to my surprise that includes me, despite never having seen any of his films all the way through. I know him mainly from standup and interviews (this one is a particular fave), which are more than enough to understand why so many people are so saddened by his loss.

What's harder to understand is what killed him. One of the bright spots about the outpouring yesterday was how much understanding there was among the people I regularly hear from about depression and suicide, but as I know mainly writers and musicians, there's a lot of first-hand experience to go around. There were still a few questions like 'how can someone who had so much feel depressed?', though.

I can't speak for Mr. Williams, or indeed for any other depressed person. I'm also neither a psychologist nor a pharmacist, so I won't try to speak for the (still contentious) science of depression. I want to speak, perhaps selfishly, of my own relatively mild case. It goes like this:

There are times when I feel, instinctively and deeply, that nothing I can do will improve my mood. That none of the luxuries I have access to - my music, my writing, the internet, video games, the wonderful people I live with - can possibly make me happier. I don't really think of this as sadness, so much as anti-happiness. It's a listless, heavy feeling; nothing like, for example, the cathartic grief of mourning.

It can come on at random, though more often when I look back I'll be able to see something that set it off. The most common cause for me personally is waiting to hear back from someone I've tried to contact, particularly if something I want to do is waiting on their response. It can also be triggered by what I think of as 'purely biological' things, like getting strung out from a few days of poor sleeping, or an illness.

Again, I want to stress: this is my experience and not necessarily anyone else's. It's also a mild case (I have more problems with anxiety than depression - it's anxiety I've had counselling for - though the two are closely related).

I want to draw one more distinction. There's a difference between the causes of individual episodes of depression, which I've already talked about, and the cause of the condition overall. It's a bit like coldsores; you get the virus once and it's with you forever, largely harmless except when something causes it to throw out a sore. My depression is more a case of being prone to episodes of depression than a constant thing.

I have a pretty good idea what it is that made me prone to episodes of depression, which episodes of my life to date have contributed to the condition. They're part of my past, though, facts that nothing in my future can change. Counselling and other therapies can help me handle the episodes, and indeed have already done so, but the episodes will keep coming.

Looking for a causal explanation for any individual person's depression - as some people have already started doing with Mr. Williams - isn't really the best way to grapple with it. Like asking someone who it was they kissed to get their coldsore virus from, it's a little bit invasive, unless you're a medical professional with responsibility for treating the problem.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Character by Any Other Name...

So it turns out the biggest problem with moving on from The Second Realm is that creating a new set of characters for a new story means coming up with a whole bunch of new character names. My next project is a short story with a named cast of four (perhaps five), and I've been hung up on it for almost a week now because I couldn't find a name that fit the lead.

Everything else is ready to go, besides a couple of details that I'm leaving to the flow to sort out. I know how the opening scene will work, down to exactly what the first two sentences need to say, but at least one of those sentences needs to have the main character's name in it, and I've been looking for that for days. Worse, I'm pretty sure I had a good name at one point and it slipped away before I could write it down (we're redecorating the house at the moment - freeing a hand to reach for pen and paper isn't always practical).

There are some writers, I'm sure, who'd shout at me for getting stuck on something like this. It's something I struggle with fairly often, after all. Atla, in season 2 of The Second Realm, took a long time to come together just because in most of my planning he was '[season 2 new character]' (more often '[noob]' for short). I do a lot of planning work with unnamed characters, and a lot of pages of my plans have 'NTFC' at the top (it stands for 'name these characters'; I'll let you work out the 'F' for yourselves).

But I can't start writing with placeholder names. I'm not good at rough first drafts generally - I fuss over every sentence enough as it is. There's something almost synaesthetic about the right character name, too; it's not just that it's appropriate to the setting, and the character's demographic within that setting. The right name just feels like it encodes something about the character.

This is, of course, completely irrational. This lead character needed a feminine-sounding name, loosely renaissance in feel, built around 'o' and 'l' sounds. To me, those are the sounds of her toughness and ingenuity, and those are the characteristics of hers which drive the story forward. Experience suggests that if I try to work with the wrong name, I'll stray and lose focus, and in a story this short there really isn't room for that.

I do now have a name, and I might go and get at least those first two sentences down once I've finished this post (there's still decorating to be done, so I don't have a lot of time for writing right now), but it's been a tough ride. Fortunately, working out this one name gave me enough to work from for the other character names - the characters are all from the same region, so their names need to fit a single style, and one of them is the lead's father, which gives him an even stronger tie. Hopefully the story will stick to just these four characters...

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

That 'hit by a truck' feeling...

I finished the first draft of The Second Realm on Monday. Well, actually, by the time I finished it was the small hours of Tuesday morning, but as far as I'm concerned it's still Monday until you go to sleep. After the better part of three years working on this story, the end of the drafting phase has hit me rather hard.

That's not to say that there isn't a lot more to do - editing, polishing, publishing, re-editing for the collected editions, preparing for print etc. - but now, at least, the whole story exists on (digital) paper. Every scene of it is now stored somewhere besides in my head, pinned down in words.

And I felt rather out of sorts all day yesterday as a result. It didn't help that I didn't sleep well - the problem with finishing a story at two in the morning is that you can't really jump around and shout a lot to work off the rush of joy and relief, so I went to bed buzzing and got only fractured sleep at all.

I woke up, though, feeling like I'd actually spent the night at a wild party (I assure you that, once upon a time, my life was interesting enough that I can still remember what that feels like). My eyes were gritty, my head ached, I had a couple of mild dizzy spells. A substantial breakfast, rehydration and a shower seemed to be the important parts of the cure, as well.

Tired as I was, I spent most of the day in a cloud. It was the first day in almost three years where I didn't have some part of The Second Realm either to write or to feel guilty about not writing. There was stuff I could have usefully done, but not Second Realm stuff.

I still feel weird today, not in a medical sense, but in a things-aren't-as-they-usually-are sense. I feel like my life is actually significantly different now, like I'm a different person to the author who drafted The Second Realm. Perhaps that's an effect of working on something for so long; previously, the longest I'd spent on any one project was about six months, and I did a lot of other things as well in that time.

Maybe it'll pass with time, as I sink back into the story for editing and stuff, and I'm sure I'll be reevaluating this moment in a few months when I publish the last episode (October 18th, all being well). I'm going to save any kind of retrospective analysis of the project until then, because it hardly seems fair to act as if it's over for me while anyone reading the thing (and thank you all, by the way, for making last week the best week yet for downloads) still has months to go.

Still, there is a sense in which I'm different now. The voices of Rel, Pevan, Taslin and the rest will start to fade towards the back of my mind as other characters and stories come forward. They'll stay with me, I hope, but I also hope they won't clamour for my attention quite as noisily as they have done for the last three years.

I owe big thanks, of course, to a lot of people for helping me in various ways with The Second Realm (particularly Lynne Hunt, my long-suffering and indomitable beta reader), but again, I'll wait until the project really is complete to do proper acknowledgements.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Second Realm 8.1: The Future I Saw

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Logic and Reasons

1. The Future I Saw

The glare from the electric lights stung Rel's eyes. It was like a constant case of mild logic fatigue, the same sense of something pushing steadily against his forehead. Following the conversation grew difficult; the light seemed to fill up his brain. Rissad was chatting genially with Bayliss, the leader of the local Gifted.

Bayliss puzzled Rel. She and her second, a Guide named Imtaz, had been waiting on the outskirts of the city, clearly forewarned of exactly where Rissad would lead. Despite her position, and the way her straight-backed sternness reminded him of Dora, she wasn't a Four Knot, but a Witness. He got the uncomfortable feeling that she hadn't let go of her Gift since greeting them.

Their arrival had been carefully managed, too. They'd met no-one besides the two Gifted. Bayliss had called this building a safe-house on the way here; it had been dark when they arrived, the door locked by some electronic device. Probably chosen as much for the fact that Rel and his companions would have no idea how to operate it as anything else.

Taslin had taken the whole affair in stride, following silently and blending near-perfectly into the night. Now she sat at the table that held the centre of the room, right under the lights. She'd left a few empty seats between herself and Bayliss, and could have been a statue for all she moved. When her long, dark robe shifted, the light struck faint midnight-purple shimmers from it.

At least this room was preferable to the hallway. When Bayliss had first turned the lights on, Rel had been so dazzled he'd walked into the doorframe trying to get inside. Here the furniture and the fittings broke up the glare a bit – the wood was stained dark, with a broad grain that certainly didn't come from anywhere near Vessit, at least in Rel's time. Well, three centuries was plenty of time even for grand trees to grow.

Bayliss' voice brightened. Rel lifted his head, blinking still. What had she said? She'd clearly called an end to her conversation with Rissad. He now stood straight-backed, attention slowly swinging between Rel and Taslin. The door was open, Imtaz' stout form keeping most of the light in as he leaned on the jam. The Guide had been away running errands – when had he got back?

Recognising the silence wasn't an answer, Bayliss said, "Rel, is everything alright?"

"Sorry," he mumbled, pushing to his feet. "I was in another Realm. What'd I miss?"

"The part where it's the middle of the night." Bayliss smiled. "We'll adjourn 'til morning. This house should have everything you need."

He almost protested that they couldn't waste time sleeping, then caught himself. There was no rule saying they couldn't return to exactly the point at which they'd left their own time, except for Rissad's warning that it was a bad idea to meet yourself coming. They could stay in the future for years if necessary. He nodded.

"Good. Well, I'll let you fight over the rooms, if there's any difference worth fighting over." Bayliss walked around the table to join Imtaz as he stepped outside. Before leaving, she said, "It's probably for the best to keep the number of people who know you're here to a minimum. You'll find yourselves so swamped with questions about the old... your time, you'd never get anything done. I'll assign someone to show you around tomorrow, carefully. Good night."

She left, and Rel looked to Rissad. The Gatemaker's lips twitched in lazy amusement. "Someone didn't think about time-lag."

"Time-lag?" Rel frowned.

Rissad perched on the edge of the table, one foot on the seat of the chair he'd been using. "Feel tired?"

"Uh..." Rel rubbed his forehead. "More like logic fatigue, I guess. It might just be these lights."

"We went into the Lost Realm not long after lunch. Came out well after sundown. When you're in the Lost Realm, too, your body doesn't really feel time passing in the normal sense." Rissad shrugged. "Biologically, you still feel like it's the afternoon. The confusion you feel is just your brain not understanding that it's night here. You'll probably be best off trying to sleep anyway."

Rel opened his mouth to speak and lost the moment to a cavernous yawn. "Maybe. It doesn't affect you?"

"I've done this before. It gets a bit easier, but I'm feeling it." Running a hand through his hair, Rissad finished, "I don't sleep well at the best of times, though. Time to go and stare at a ceiling for a while." He turned and walked out.

Taslin hadn't moved, didn't seem to have acknowledged Bayliss' departure, nevermind Rissad's. The fatigue, or time-lag or whatever, dulled Rel's voice as he asked, "Do you get it too?"

"Not exactly." She didn't look round, her gaze fixed on some speck on the pristine tabletop. "There are consequences to travel in the Lost Realm for my kind, but they are less debilitating. You are not going to follow Rissad's suggestion, are you?" There was very little question in the Gift-Giver's question.

"In a bit." Rel tried not to sound sullen. "I want to see how much Bayliss trusts us." Did the safe-house's front door unlock from the inside? He'd only seen the outside part of the mechanism.

"What do you mean?" A little of Taslin's usual animation returned. He turned his back to her as she started to twist to look at him. Her question hung in the air, drifted gently behind him as he stepped out into the hall.

Mercifully, the light here was off. The hall was a patchwork of shadows and the light spilling out of the front room and down from the top of the stairs. The front door was closed, the lock a metal box below the handle. On the outside of the door, there had been a square of numbered studs on the mechanism, but on this side there was no such thing, just a small latch that looked like it slid vertically.

Rel knelt, bringing his head closer to the lock. There was no writing on it to indicate what the latch did. The metal casing had an almost Second-Realm look to it, too smooth and finely-finished to have been crafted by human hands. You saw work like that sometimes in materials salvaged from old Federas and Vessit. Maybe this was the same technique, but something about it made Rel reluctant to reach out and touch the surface.

Instead, he reached for his Gift. A film of ice crept up under his eyelids and around to the backs of his eyeballs. His brain lightened as the cold seeped in. The smooth grey-silver metal began, very faintly, to sparkle, as the subtle imperfections in its finish were brought into relief. There were tool-marks on the surface, rows of faint circles an inch or so across, layered over one another. The head of some powerful polishing device, he supposed.

The mobile part of the latch – he could tell it moved by the faint wear-lines poking out from under its two lower corners – was less well-finished than the casing. Miniscule lumps and bumps, the kind that the un-Gifted eye normally ignored, made any fingerprints indistinct, but, squinting close, Rel thought he could see traces of the hands that had operated it previously.

His Gift peeled back the top layer of sight and rendered the interior of the mechanism like a child's flick-book. He could make little of what it showed him; there were interlocking blocks of metal and springs that probably did the mechanical work of preventing the door opening, but the electrical connections to the outer panel were too intricate to follow.

"Are we locked in?" Taslin's voice caught him off-guard, and he jumped.

Gritting his teeth, he muttered back, "I can't tell. I have no idea what I'm dealing with here." Then he blinked his Gift away and turned to look at her.

She was leaning in the doorway to the meeting room. Some trick of her clothing outlined her in droplets of light; her face was a silhouette only. "I doubt Bayliss feels any need to hold us here."

"You heard her, didn't you?" Rel sat back on his haunches. "She didn't want us walking around unattended."

"Do you have any reason to do so?" Taslin's tone prodded at him.

"I just want to know how much it matters to her." He let a long breath whistle through his broken tooth. "I wouldn't mind a breath of fresh air either, I guess."

"Can you open the door, then?"

Rel shrugged and pressed the latch down. It resisted slightly, then clicked into the lower position. Something inside the door gave a hefty metallic clunk. He stood and tried the handle; the door opened smoothly to the chill night. Closing it again – there was no point risking discovery yet – he turned to Taslin. "Looks like they did lock us in."

"Are you sure?" The Gift-Giver straightened up, took a few steps towards him. "I detected no deceit or ill intent from Bayliss or Imtaz. The lock seemed too easily opened, too. To think that it would hold us, they would have had to assume we wouldn't touch it at all."

"They might have thought we'd be completely lost with anything electrical." With a shrug, Rel turned back to the door. "If the latch doesn't lock it, what does it do?"

"Try it and see."

Taslin's tone made it an order, but she had a point. It was harder to lift the latch back into place than it had been to drop it, the metal wiggling slightly before clicking. There was no sound from the mechanism. He tried the handle, and again the door opened without protest.

Voice altogether more kindly, Taslin said, "Perhaps we are completely lost with anything electrical."

He turned to find her standing much closer. The shadows in the hall couldn't completely hide the smile on her face. In proper light it would probably have seemed like a patronising smirk, but now it almost looked gently humorous. As if she felt the joke was on her as well. Rel held his voice as neutral as he could. "Well, I'm going for a walk. I'll be back in a bit."

"Wait." Taslin caught his sleeve as he turned away. He shook her off, but stopped moving. She said, "The mechanism may be more like a bolt. To control whether the door can be opened from outside."

Rel stepped around the door, turned the outer handle. The dark metal tooth of the catch vanished back into the door, poked its head out again as he released. "Looks okay."

"Well, if you come back and it's locked, just knock."

He shrugged. As a Wilder, she didn't exactly need sleep, so it wasn't like she was making much of a sacrifice for him, but he didn't like the thought of spending the night on the doorstep if he did get locked out either. "Thanks."

"And don't get lost. This isn't the Vessit we know." Taslin took the door's inner handle, pulled it wide for him. He rolled his eyes at her and stepped through.

Immediately, he was glad of his coat. It had been chill when they first arrived in this time, and the night had only grown deeper since. A breeze had come up, carrying with it a faint hint of the sea, fiddling at the hems and seams of Rel's clothes.

At least the streets weren't completely dark. Electric lights on high poles made bubbles of a soft orange glow, spaced just far enough apart to be lonely. They were markedly different to the glaring white lights indoors, but their isolation resonated with him too well to draw any comfort from.

Where was the sea? This new Vessit was much larger than the town he knew, larger perhaps than the old city as well. They'd approached it from inland, lights in high windows scattering the horizon so that he hadn't been able to get his bearings at all. The moon was little help, without knowing what time of night it was. If the moon even moved as it did in Rel's time.

A figure crossed in front of one of the street-lights on the other side of the road, heading his way. Rel narrowed his eyes against the wind, instinctively reaching for his Gift. As the figure passed back into the gloom, his outline shimmered into Clear view. In the same moment, he paused and looked up, straight at Rel.

Rel blinked, cleared his Gift away, thought about reaching for the door handle. The man, now approaching at a stiff, brisk walk, was small, but something about him put Rel on edge. The moment's Clearsight had revealed a ghost floating just behind, or perhaps around, his shoulders. There was no question that he'd felt Rel's Gift on him. A Wilder?

Again, a street-light carved the man out of the night, and Rel revised his estimate of his age down; this was a boy, still a teenager. He was very thin, hollow-cheeked, and the night's shadows haunted him. It was his hunched, worried walk that had made him seem older. Now, though, with his dark eyes fixed on Rel, the worry was gone.

He marched up to Rel, stare never wavering, and stopped. For a long moment, they just looked at one another. Rel tried to look as neutral as possible, all too aware that he had no idea what he was dealing with.

"Are you friend or foe?" The boy's voice had a slight echo, a fraction too fast to have seemed real even if they were in a place that could have produced echoes. In the open night, the effect was profoundly disquieting.

So was the question. Rel frowned. "To what?" There'd been no evidence of active conflict, but then how would he even tell?

"The Treaty, of course." There was an odd sound, as if the echo had cleared its throat. The boy leaned forward slightly, head canted to one side. "What time are you from?"

"What?" A stone turned over in Rel's gut. How did this not-quite-human stranger know he'd come from a different time? And would he be able to tell if Rel lied? Rel took a deep breath. "I shouldn't say anything about where I'm from."

The boy's eyes narrowed for an instant, but then the intensity faded from his face. He offered his hand. "I'm Olark-Sura." From the inflection, that was all first name. "Most people call me Oz."

"Relvin. Rel." As their hands closed, a ghost stroked the top of Rel's thumb. In spite of himself, he jerked back. "What-? Uh, forgive me... what are you?"

Olark-Sura frowned, and where the shadow of his brow should have hidden his eyes, Rel could see him blinking. When the boy spoke, he did so slowly, every word a jigsaw-piece carefully placed. "Your name is Relvin, and you've never seen a Threekin before. I think I know exactly where you're from. Or when, anyway."

Rel waited.

"Well, I shouldn't be wandering around at night either." Olark-Sura held up his hands, turned them back and forth in the light as if seeing them for the first time. His skin shimmered, left Rel aching for his Gift, to get a better look at what was going on. "Except that I should, since I'm here because of something Fate said."

"Fate?" Again?

"You're surprised?" The boy stopped. His attention turned inwards, his eyes flickering. He smiled ruefully. "I should start at the beginning. You're Relvin Atcar. You're here with Rissad Van Raighan and Taslin of the Gift-Givers looking for help fighting the Separatists during the Great Incursion."

Rel realised his mouth was open. His teeth clicked as he closed it.

Olark-Sura gave a small laugh. "I'm sorry. I doubt Commander Eren explained much."

"Commander Eren... you mean Bayliss?"

"That's her first name. Not many people get to use it around her, of course." The expression on Olark-Sura's face shifted, a blur of moods like a Wilder unsure of how a human would respond. "The date and time of your arrival have been known for centuries. The Commander kept your itinerary secret, though. As far as she's concerned, you're here to meet Fate, get what you came for, and go home again."

"I've met Fate before." Rel tried not to scowl too obviously. "I'm not hugely keen to do so again."

"That's between you and him." The boy shrugged. "I can only speculate, really, and that won't help. I can tell you about Threekin, though."

"About what you are?" Rel swallowed. The question felt rude in his mouth.

"Technically not quite yet." He looked down, stroked a hand along his own arm. There was something tender and lonely about the gesture. "I should synchronise any day now. Take a look at me with your Gift."

Slipping into Clearsight seldom came so readily. All it took was an instant, and Rel's eyeballs iced up. He almost blinked trying to hold them in. Dust motes in the breeze sprouted trails of not-quite-light against the dark background. The windows of the buildings opposite surrendered the secrets of the rooms behind them, even through heavy curtains whose pleats Rel could have counted clearly.

Olark-Sura's motion drew Rel's attention. He was running his fingertips along his arm, and a shiver went through Rel in sympathy. Was the boy's skin not tingling fit to peel off? Except it wasn't quite his skin. There were two beings stood there, inside each other, and one of them was stroking the other. It took Rel a moment to place what it reminded him of; one of the times when, Clearviewing for the safety of Federas, he'd stumbled on an image of Pevan with one of her boyfriends, back before she'd been Gifted.

"Olark was born Olark Kimo, in the village of Teralle in Varta province." Only one of the two was speaking; one set of lips moved, the other stayed closed. Rel couldn't tell which was the phantom. They switched round, a subtle inflection changing in the voice that emerged. "Sura was a neonate in the Court of the Gift-Givers."

He looked up, met Rel's eyes. Icy water trickled down Rel's spine, pooled in his gut. In perfect unison, Olark and Sura said, "Forgive me, it's difficult to think about my internal differences now, and it endangers my synchronicity to do so. I stood out as a candidate for the kin in both my childhoods. I have been growing together for almost eight years."

Rel recoiled, the twitch just too large to conceal. His shoulders stiffened against shuddering. He swallowed. Blinking his Gift away did little to help; now he knew what to look for, he could clearly see the Wilder, Sura, hovering around Olark.

"Threekin are a form of connection between your kind and the Children of the Wild." Olark-Sura seemed oblivious to Rel's disgust. "Perfect synchronisation allows us to do far more than the Gifted you are familiar with, but is much harder to achieve. There are hundreds of you for every one of us, and soon that will be thousands."

"How old were you, when..." Rel couldn't bring himself to think it, let alone say it.

Two pairs of eyes snapped up, suddenly alert again, and skewered Rel. The hybrid creature's face fell through a few different forms of anger and back into sadness. "You imagine that this was forced upon me." Sura's voice led, Olark's the too-fast echo. "That I was fused together at first meeting by others – the Gift-Givers, the Gifted, other Threekin."

Olark-Sura turned his back. When he spoke again, Rel couldn't separate the two voices or beings. "Many make the same mistake, in both Realms. Olark was eight years old when he and Sura met, in a crèche at the Court. Children make no judgements except on their own observations. I was too young for prejudice. Olark invited Sura to Vessit, to show him what a 'real' horizon looked like.

"From that point on, Olark and Sura were seldom apart. I never feared coming together. Sometimes I had to be reprimanded for rushing into it." He hugged himself.

There was a hard lump in Rel's throat. He couldn't tell if he wanted to speak or to throw up. "You don't sound happy about it."

"My human parents never understood. They thought as you do. They felt that the Gifted, or the Threekin, or the Gift-Givers, or finally Sura, had stolen Olark from them." Olark-Sura spun, eyes flashing Second-Realm colours. "But I love myself. Do you understand how few people can say that?"

"But you're both male..." Rel's voice squeaked as he forced it out.

"Would you be less disturbed if one of my childhoods had been female?" The Threekin's eyes narrowed again. "Because that happens too. Not that gender means anything like as much to a Wilder as to you."

The wall of the safe-house blocked Rel from backing away any further. Olark-Sura threw his words like weapons, as if they were in the Second Realm. Every time the creature opened his mouth, Rel braced to be stung by the assault.

The hanging moment straggled out towards a minute before Olark-Sura's anger shrank away. "Forgive me. You come from a very different time." His hands tangled with each other. "The forced breeding that you know as normal is an almost-forgotten memory now. And only those who neither know nor understand the Second Realm fear it."

"That's foolish." Rel kept his face stiff. "I don't care how much you cooperate with the Gift-Givers, the Second Realm will always be dangerous for us."

"And you aren't dangerous for the Children of the Wild?" There was a hidden edge on the boy's tone, like a knife sheathed in silk. "How many have you killed, in your time?"

"We aren't supposed to keep score." Nine, in one-on-one encounters, counting the one at Ilbertin. Almost thirty, if you counted all of the incursions he'd helped defend at Federas, but most of those kills were more Jashi's or Dieni's. How many had been killed during the breakout from the Separatists' white cave? Surely they had to count for Pevan or Chag, though. "I've helped defend against twenty-two incursions. Well, maybe more depending how you count what the Separatists are up to."

Olark-Sura's face told Rel he was fooling no-one. "And how many humans, Gifted or otherwise, have Children of the Wild killed on your watch? Just in and around Federas, mind."

Rel looked away, past the street-light and into the darkness. First Dieni, not long after Rel had returned from his training. Then Marba and Seff, then Temmer. "Four. But dozens of Gifted die every year to incursions."

"And how many do they kill?" There was nothing Wilder in the Threekin's manner. He took a deep breath. "I shouldn't be the one to give you this lesson. You should ask a Gift-Giver from your time. They will know their side of the numbers at least as well as you know yours."

What could Rel say to that? The only Gift-Giver on hand was Taslin, and he wasn't about to go and ask her. The house seemed an extension of her presence, pressing uncomfortably at his back, blocking any escape from Olark-Sura's interrogation. The boy had fallen silent, but his eyes were still on Rel.

Finally, he said, "Just remember, only those who are ignorant of the Second Realm fear it any more than the First. Good night." Before the sting in his voice could fade from the air, he'd stepped backwards into a Gateway and vanished.

Rel faced the safe-house and tried the door-handle. It turned, but the door wouldn't open. After a moment, Taslin opened it from inside. She stepped back to allow him in. "You didn't walk very far. Who were you talking to?"

How many Wildren die because of humans every year? Rel brushed past the Gift-Giver and headed for the stairs.


In spite of everything, he slept. Dreamt of a field littered with the bloody, headless corpses of sheep, and eventually woke to remember that was what he'd seen the morning after fighting the Axtli alongside Taslin, on the way to Vessit. Visible, tangible casualties of the war. From the window, wan morning sunlight suggested a season later in the year than the one he'd left in his own time.

Rissad, Taslin and Imtaz were waiting for him when he came downstairs. Rissad looked as if he hadn't slept at all, his face almost grey. Mugs of a dark tea that smelled like leaf mulch and hit Rel's face like the first gale of winter were passed round, but apparently breakfast was to be a meeting with Bayliss and other local leaders, so there was no food. Rel's stomach grumbled quietly as he drank.

Before they left the house, Imtaz said, "Rissad already knows this, but the commander asked me to repeat it. We frown on the use of Gifts in social environments. That goes for Wild Power, too. Save your weapons for actual fighting." Which explained Olark-Sura's reaction to Rel's Clearsight the night before. Rel kept quiet, wondering whether the Threekin's Gateway would have been seen as less problematic.

Leaving the safe-house was like stepping into a sneeze. The wind carried ragged scraps of sea mist, harsh and salty, stinging Rel's eyes when he didn't blink fast enough. Even if he had wanted to ignore Imtaz' warning, this weather would have made Clearseeing difficult. It wasn't raining, but by the time Imtaz led them into shelter there was a drip on the end of Rel's nose.

The building they came to was a small hill of interwoven arches, its walls irregular but elegant panels of glass. From the outside, it looked as if there couldn't be a level floor in the place. The interior seemed designed to confuse the eye; every surface was either glass or a mottled stone polished to a reflective sheen. The low sun scattered fragments of rainbow chaotically across the walls.

From the cavernous lobby, Imtaz led them up half a dozen flights of stairs, past two reception desks and a pair of scowling guardsmen, and into, of all things, a sitting room. Bayliss was waiting for them with two men who stood as they entered. Rel recognised one; he wore a white robe, and his irises were tiny golden flowers. Fate. And the odd familiarity Rel remembered in the man's face-

"You said I'd recognise you in the First Realm," said Rissad, voice hoarse.

"I did." Fate smiled, ancient eyes glinting. He stepped forward, his high-cheekboned face like a mirror held up to Rissad's, and spread his arms. "Father."

Rel gaped. Rissad awkwardly accepted the offered embrace. Then he cut it short, his hands on Fate's shoulders, pushing him back a foot or so. There was no violence in it, but Fate's face shifted, for a moment deeply and profoundly human.

When Rissad spoke again, he sounded as if he was being strangled. "That's not the full story, though, is it? I've seen what you can do."

Eyes narrowed, wishing for his Gift, Rel scrutinised Fate. "You're some sort of Threekin, aren't you?"

Fate stuck him with a glare, one eyebrow raised. "That might be the first good call you've made without your Gift since you got it."

Bayliss offered a throaty cough, indicating the other man present. "Relvin Atcar, Rissad Van Raighan, Taslin of the Gift-Givers, this is Temuiran-Mebo, my counterpart among the Threekin."

The man – or not, if that wasn't the correct term – was broad-shouldered, with a high-domed, bald head. There was no sign of a Wilder hovering about his shoulders, and no phantom second thumb when Rel shook his hand. He spoke slowly, with a sense of immense, unstoppable weight behind every word. "I normally go by Tembo. Welcome to our time."

"Has Fate already introduced you to the nature of Threekin?" There was a hidden accusation in Bayliss' tone, but she directed it around the room, not just at Rel.

He struggled for an answer, and Fate got there first. "I arranged for him to meet one of Tembo's younglings last night."

"Oz..." Temuiran-Mebo's sigh filled the hanging moment before he, Rissad and Bayliss all turned on Fate with angry questions.

Fate stepped back from his father, hands upraised. "Might we attend to the matter at hand? You agreed long ago to follow my plans, and they have not changed. How could they?"

Rel decided that pointing out he'd agreed to nothing wouldn't help matters. Even Bayliss seemed to grudgingly accept Fate's lead. Eyes glowing, the stranger – there was no better word for him, really – took another step back.

"Whether or not I am truly Threekin is a semantic debate of interest only to the most finicky of historians. I had an almost-human childhood as Refan Van Raighan, son of Rissad Van Raighan and Dora Thrice-Gifted. I was a neonate in the Court of the Gift-Givers, sheared from Keshnu of the Gift-Givers by Dora Twice-Gifted, and took the name Eetei. I cannot remember a time when I did not live with myself. I synchronised eight years after Refan was born."

Fate's face sharpened again, a hint of orange colouring his eyes like fire. "And that is quite enough of my personal biography for now. As you can see, only one of my parents could be considered a normal example of his species, and there was nothing ordinary about Keshnu."

"Dora..." Rel's murmur carried in the silence. Twice-Gifted? Thrice? Rissad had spoken of loving Dora and of knowing they would be together in the future. And Dora had been given a second Gift, Taslin had explained that at their first meeting.

"Shall we eat?" Bayliss spoke with brittle brightness. "It's still early and I for one am hungry."

She turned and pushed open a panel in the far wall. As Rel followed her through, he saw that it wasn't quite a concealed doorway; one would have to stand quite close to spot the shallow frame and thumb-sized latch, though. The room beyond was plain, but in quite an elegant way. The walls were a shade of yellow milder than lemon, the floor tiled in intricate patterns with a sandy wood. A table along the middle of the room, set for six, could have seated a few more people, but only a few.

It was the smell of hot food that really made the room welcoming. Rel took an end seat, with Rissad to his left and Temuiran-Mebo opposite. Bayliss was the last to sit down, having paused as if about to say something. Hunger got the better of her, though, and for a few minutes no-one spoke. Rel helped himself to bacon, sausage and a toasted bread so light as to be almost sweet. There were four different teas, each smelling stranger than the last, but he settled for plain water.

Fate was the first to finish eating – had he even eaten at all? Almost certainly he didn't need to. Taslin's plate had stayed bare, though Temuiran-Mebo was eating enthusiastically. Fate stood, carefully tucked his chair under the table, and placed himself in the corner of the room.

His opening question took in the whole table. "How many of you are familiar with the Grandfather paradox?"

"If it is a paradox, it is likely to be beyond me." Taslin spoke without inflection.

"I believe I can explain." Fate smiled. "You have seen that travel through the Lost Realm can allow you to jump back and forth along the linear sequence of time in the First Realm. Imagine that instead of travelling into your future, you had travelled into your past. The possibility exists, if you were careless, to prevent your parents, or your grandparents, ever meeting. To prevent your own birth."

"Yes, I believe I understand." Though her tone stayed devoid of emotion, the rhythm of Taslin's speech stuttered, sure sign that she was struggling with human logic. Rel concentrated on his food as she went on, "The strict linearity of First-Realm time means that without one's parents meeting, one could not have existed in order to prevent their meeting."

"Quite." Fate's smile shifted slightly, and Rel couldn't help thinking he looked a little smug now. "The Lost Realm invalidates that reasoning completely. Rissad has yet to father me, but I could kill him now and go on existing just fine."

Next to Rel, Rissad lowered his fork, still laden with curled-up bacon. A long, slow breath whistled through his nostrils as he raised his head to look at his son. Rel stopped chewing. If Fate made good on his threat, would there even be time to react? It only took a second to activate Clearsight, but the chair and table would impede Rel's movement more than it would anyone half-Wilder.

Fate's attention slid sideways, onto Rel himself. Rel met the sunflower stare by freezing in place. He could understand, in a way, Fate being hurt by Rissad's instinctive suspicion earlier, but why would he transfer that anger to Rel? Fate could hardly be called insane, but only because for what he was, there was no baseline of sanity to work from.

"Describe what it's like when you peer into the future, Rel." Fate's voice became again the unfathomable calm of a Wilder's. "You start by grasping a future you want and then trace a path to it, yes?"

The food in Rel's mouth had turned to cardboard, flavourless, dry and obstructive. There was no way he was going to speak around it, and swallowing would be an interesting challenge, too. He nodded.

"The Lost Realm is to the real future as Clearsight is to visions of it." For a mercy, Fate stopped smiling. "When a Clearseer identifies a route to some desired future, that route must be followed closely. Just so, when one finds a desirable path through the Lost Realm, one must do a great deal to ensure it is followed."

In slow steps that were almost hidden by the flow of his robe, Fate moved to the head of the table. "At first I was motivated only by ensuring my own births. None of you will begrudge me that, I hope?" This time when he smiled, he looked altogether more human, but the expression still made Rel's skin crawl. "From my perspective, everything you will do between now and my synchronisation is history; a path I know. Your future selves have all told me stories of how I came to be.

"But as you now know, I have been an actor in some of those stories." His attention returned to Rissad. Rel could see muscles in Rissad's jaw pulsing. Fate went on, "I led Rissad to the Separatists and to Vessit. When Chag followed him to the Separatists, I helped him steal a Gift of Clearsight from the Court, to give to Delaventrin."

Rel forced himself to swallow. The mouthful went down like a chunk of gravel, but at least he could speak. "You admit it, then?"

"I also saved you and your sister when the Separatists trapped you in the Founding of the Court." Fate raised one eyebrow. "And taught Rissad the route that brought you here."

"But the things that could have been avoided if you hadn't..." It had been easier to accept that they'd been dancing to Delaventrin's tune – the Separatists' tune. At least the Separatists' goals were clear. Af, the Vessit Realmquakes, the Separatist attack on the Court, Ilbertin... "Why would you choose this path for us?"

"What do you know of the alternatives?" Fate scowled for a moment, folded his arms. "I confess that at first I believed the path fixed. That my existence was proof that all the terrible things you know of and many that you don't were inescapable. I learned better, in time, but I stand by my choice."

"Why?" Rissad's voice shook even on a single syllable. He reached for his drink, but didn't pick it up. On the other side of the table, Bayliss and Tembo might as well have been statues. Rel got the impression that this was well-trodden ground for them.

"The analogy between Clearsight and the Lost Realm is precisely accurate." Face stiff, Fate held his attention on Rel. "I know this path, in detail, and it leads to a future in which I believe strongly – in which all of you believe or will come to believe. Just as with Clearsight, once one commits to some particular future, finding alternatives, and particularly preferable alternatives, becomes difficult. How many times have you managed it, Rel?"

"Three." Fine-tuning a vision took days and days of Clearsight, and long spells at the Court. "I might have had a fourth, but I hit burnout."

"Dieni had seven to her name, I believe?"

"Ciarive had eight, if you want the record." Rel unclenched his jaw.

Fate folded his arms. "Over a rather longer career, though. My point is made, either way. My own existence served as the strongest kind of tie to this particular future. Given how well things have worked out, on the bigger picture, can you fault my choice? Or do you disagree that this future is desirable?"

Rel couldn't help glancing at Temuiran-Mebo. The glare he got in return dared him to put into words his discomfort with the Threekin. It was the same anger he'd seen in Olark-Sura the night before, polished by age like an old stone step under too many feet. Which loved ones had resented the theft of Temuiran from them? Or Mebo?

And yet... "Could you have prevented what happened at Vessit?" Rel glared at Fate, conscious that his eyes were prickling. "What I did..."

"Would you feel any better about it if I took the blame?" The part of Fate that was Dora's progeny shone through for a moment. Gentle as the words were, they left Rel feeling as if he was walking on hot coals. "Your actions were the product of what you knew and how you thought at the time. Nothing I can say will make you feel less responsible."

There was a pause. Rel blinked a few times.

"If it's any consolation, I happen to know you're overestimating the damage the Realmquakes caused." Somehow, Fate managed not to sound patronising. "The damage you saw in Vessit was by far the worst of it."

"What about Vesta Fentin and Oris Laith?" Taslin voice was quiet as she named the two who'd died to the Separatists' machinations at Af.

Fate's face creased as if he'd been stabbed. For a long moment, he stood with his eyes screwed tightly shut, breathing unsteadily. "You ask me to choose between blaming Chag and taking responsibility. I could tell you all the ways that the question is more nuanced than that, but like with Rel at Vessit, it would change little. Yes, I chose this future with their lives as the price." He glared at each of them in turn. "I believe it's worth it."

Rel couldn't hold Fate's stare. He looked down, tried to hide the finger he had to use to dry the corner of his eye. Staring at his half-full plate, he whispered, "Why?"

The silence that answered pressed down on him. He couldn't look at the others around the table. Temuiran-Mebo's feelings were clear. Rissad's hopes had been pinned on this future, and Bayliss was its leader. Taslin seemed no happier with Fate's choices than Rel was.

A chair scraped. Movement at the corner of Rel's vision told him it was Temuiran-Mebo getting to his feet. In a voice heavy with the patience of the old, he said, "Perhaps I had better take over from this point, Fate."

No-one objected. Tembo went on, "You've lived on a war-front all your life, Relvin. Surely you see the value in the peace we have achieved?"

Rel looked up, glanced from Bayliss to the Threekin. "If this is peace, why do you still need Gifted at all?"

"That's short-sighted." Bayliss' tone stung. "Even were there no Children of the Wild, we'd still need guards to keep the wolves from our flocks. Feral Wildren still stray into the First Realm often enough, particularly near the frontiers."

How many have you killed, in your time? Olark-Sura's question rang in Rel's head again. He ground his teeth, forced it aside. "Then why are things any better now?"

"The Threekin represent the fulfilment of everything we wished for in proposing the Treaty of Peace." Taslin, too, stood. "Can't you see the value in greater understanding between our kinds, Rel? At all?"

He didn't like the way she was looking down at him, over Rissad's head. Playing for the time he needed to find words, he slid sideways out of the chair and pushed steadily to his feet. Memories from Ilbertin and before assaulted him. "I know your feelings about greater understanding a little too well, I think."

A few steps back from the table would give Rel a clear path to the door, but Rissad was already pushing back his chair, starting to stand. Which side would Rissad choose? Rel had to make his point fast. "The Separatists also told us their future was worth sacrifices. I was wrong about them and they were a lot more convincing." He turned as much of his anger on Fate as he could. "I'll have no more part in your scheme."

"Rel-"

Rel walked through Rissad's appeal, wobbling as he swung around the taller man. He had to pause to yank the door open, straining his wrist when it came more freely than expected. Someone's hand landed on his shoulder. He shrugged it off and stepped into the sitting room.

He threaded between the low table and the couches that flanked it. The far door was already opening. Behind, Fate's voice cut curtly across Bayliss', and there was a sharp rap of wood on wood. Who was arguing to let him go, who to call him back?

One of the guardsmen who'd been outside moved into the doorway. His expression indicated puzzlement, surprise; not a threat, but he was big enough to block the way just by standing there. Rel couldn't afford to pause and speak, or they'd catch him from behind.

The guard's eyes widened as Rel's sweeping kick wrenched the door out of his hand. Rel caught his jacket as he stumbled forwards, and a swift tug sent him sprawling over one of the couches. No need to incapacitate the man.

Rel accelerated into his next step, leaned forward and shouldered into the other guard's chest as he, too, moved to bar the way. This one was readier, and grappled as Rel lifted him. His grip closed in Rel's coat, pulling it tight around his chest. Rel's charge carried them a couple of steps, then he had to let the guard down.

Clearsight beckoned out of reflex, but here that would be crossing a line. He only wanted to get outside, and no-one here was attacking him out of anything besides a misunderstanding. Instead, Rel squeezed his eyes tightly shut and twisted in the guard's grip. He didn't need his Gift for wrestling.

Voices rose behind and ahead. This was the room with the two receptionists' desks, along the left and right walls. Female voices shouted back and forth in alarm. Things were getting out of hand, but he was only one door away from the halls that led outside, and all he had to do was break this one hold.

The guard had him well-held, but from above. Rel's struggles were supporting a good chunk of his weight. If he could drop the guard without falling over himself, he'd be free. If the guard's grip gave before his coat tore.

Rel pushed his foot forwards, forcing himself lower under the guard, searching for the tiniest bit of slack in the other man's arms. It came, just for a moment, and he threw his weight sideways, freeing an arm to catch himself on one of the reception desks.

Cloth tightened and strained, hard enough to bruise his ribs, but the coat held. The guard didn't. He grunted as he slipped down Rel's flank and thumped to the carpet. Rel straightened to see the door on the far side of the room opening. More guards, presumably, and this time ready for combat. He'd taken too long.

"Rel!"

Rissad's voice. A Gateway opened in the floor, dreary sky beyond. Light rainfall bubbled in through the opening, turning back on itself after a few inches. The new guards were advancing, and neither of the two he'd already handled would be down for long. Where would Rissad take him? Why would the Gatemaker help at all?

Rel threw himself at the opening, splashed through and let momentum carry him upright. No traps sprung. He was in the street outside Bayliss' building, the lumpen shape of it crouching over him. The Gate flickered, and Rissad emerged feet first, flipping over midair to stand across from Rel. He snapped the Gate closed before anyone else could follow.

Then he looked Rel straight in the eye. "That could have gone better."

"Why change your mind? About Fate and his plan, I mean." Rel managed not to pant.

"I haven't." Rissad grimaced. "But I don't think that lot were going to convince you."

"You think you can do better?" Rel glanced over his shoulder at the building. There were people moving about in there, quite possibly running after him.

"Me? I know someone who can. The one person you've always trusted." Rissad flicked a hand at the road surface, and a Gateway opened. The other side held the peculiar darkness of an indoor space too large to light properly. "Remember what I said in the Abyss just before we set off?" Remember, if one thing unites us at all, we all want to help her. Rel took a step towards the Gate and swallowed. "Dora."

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