Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Second Realm 3.3: The Weight of the World on Her Shoulders

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Staring Into the Abyss

3. The Weight of the World on Her Shoulders

Dora had learned the hard way not to sit down on the beach. After two hours' walking through the ruins of Old Vessit and across the sand, though, her feet were telling her it hadn't really been that bad getting all that sand out of her petticoat. She stayed standing. It would be bad enough getting the sand out of her boots, never mind her underwear.

The sea held the muddy grey colour of wet clay, the sky above it as dreary as the concrete tombstones of the old city at her back. Salt freshness hung in the air, chill and wet to the point of chafing her cheeks. It had rained twice already that afternoon, and out across the bay, the fine black line of the horizon blurred behind the next shower's advance.

There was no solace anywhere between her and the horizon. The twig-like masts of distant trawlers marked the boundaries of a near-blank expanse of water. Something in Dora felt much the same way. She could remember her borders, or where they were supposed to be, but there was very little to fill them.

Only the memory of a delicate golden flower cupped between Keshnu's and her hands offered her anything to tie herself to. It is our child. Nameless, genderless, little more than a tight knot of raw awareness, it was a Wilder, born of the Gift-Giver, but born by and through Dora's actions. Keshnu had promised to take her to see it in the crèche in the Court, deep in the heart of the Second Realm, as soon as her condition had stabilised a bit more. If it ever would.

The world lurched, and for a moment Dora just gritted her teeth, willing the disorientation to pass. It was only when the ground slapped her hard on the bottom of her feet, the shock buckling her knees, that she realised something else was up. A third jerk from the ground caught her, sent her sprawling into the sand. The sea had turned choppy, and Dora spluttered as wind-caught spume pattered across her face.

She managed to roll over, away from the water, as a wave ran up towards her. The ground kicked again, then again, and her mind finally dragged up a name for the phenomenon. Realmquake. They'd been common during the early stages of the Realmwar, soon after the Crash, but there hadn't been a quake in Dora's lifetime.

But if the Realm was splitting apart along the line of the Abyss below the city, that might feel like a quake. Dora pushed herself up to a crouch, staggered up the beach with the ground still writhing beneath her. Soft sand made the footing doubly treacherous, and her ankles ached like blazes by the time she reached the stone steps up to the decrepit promenade.

She slipped once on the steps, sharp pain exploding through her knee in counterpoint to her weary feet. She didn't bother pausing to check for blood; that was inevitable. Ahead of her, the ruins of Vessit rang with the crashes of crumbling stonework. Even with her legs bent, trying to hold steady, the quake threw her around too much to give her a clear look at the tower-blocks half a mile up the coast. It was going to be a long, frightening haul just to get back underground.

By the time she ducked down the tunnel to the black gulf of the Abyss, Dora had a half-dozen other bad cuts and bruises. Most of them came from being thrown against the walls of the tunnels that led down here, but the worrying one, the one that she could feel trickling blood down her neck, had been from a small chunk of falling building. It had been warning enough to get her out of the way of a much larger chunk, but by the way her hair now stuck to her collar, if she didn't get someone to look at it soon, the result would be the same.

She leaned on the tunnel wall with her less-damaged hand, feeling the rock still twitching periodically. She'd done her best, but with the terrain so treacherous, it had to have taken her twenty minutes or more to get down from the beach. She'd seen no-one on the way.

From ahead, Dora made out the sound of a torrent of water. Not the usual faint trickle, lost somewhere in the darkness, but the full-on roar of a substantial waterfall. Voices poked up through the sound here and there, but not high enough for her to catch their words.

It took her all too stumbling long to get down the tunnel to where she could see what was happening. The crowd standing by the lip of the Abyss must have included almost every Wilder in Vessit. They made no attempt to stop Dora, even after she staggered into one of them. The Wilder barely moved under the impact.

The sound ringing in her ears was nothing next to the sight of the white wall of water concealing the far side of the chasm. Scattered rainbows floated in it wherever the torchlight was strong enough, their normal beauty spoiled by the sheen of Second-Realm colour overlaying them. Dora could make out one end of the cascade in the gloom off to the right - the landward side, she thought - but it seemed to go on forever the other way.

Her eyes found a tiny figure hovering against the backdrop of the torrent. Keshnu. She no longer needed eyesight to recognise the father - or mother, as he insisted - of her child. His logic formed a pattern of neatly overlapping chevrons that curled together into a tight-petalled flower, and Dora saw it half the time just by closing her eyes.

Comforting to think of him that way. Less comforting to realise just how far away he was. Had the Abyss always been so wide? The tiny figure, dark grey against the sparkling white water, was taller than she was. A wave of dizziness washed over Dora, helped along by her spreading headache. The blood-loss couldn't be doing her any favours either.

What was Keshnu doing out there? Dora squinted past the coloured blotches blighting her vision, fighting to escape the hypnotic motion of the waterfall. As her eyesight blurred, the image of waterfall and tiny Gift-Giver fragmented into an unintelligible mess of particulate motion.

No, not quite unintelligible. There was a pattern to it, a pattern that had nothing to do with First-Realm physics. Something radiated through the flux, out from Keshnu and up towards the ceiling of the Abyss. For a moment, she thought he was pushing against it, that Rel had been right all along and the Gift-Givers-

She shook the thought away. If Keshnu was doing it, whatever it was, it was no attack on mankind. She'd tasted the Gift-Giver's compassion directly, mind-to-mind. But if he wasn't causing the quake, what was he trying to do? Something to stop it?

Whatever it was, she could follow the shifting, flickering currents of power up into the ceiling of the Abyss. As she balanced the blurring of her vision with the scattered concentration that disrupted her First-Realm Logic, the veil of the cascade faded. A twisted net of shimmering lines that might have been cracks in the rock or the jagged edges of its surfaces sprang into relief behind it.

Dora watched open-mouthed as the filaments of the web slowly began to weave themselves back together. It was a jerky process, inconsistent and unfocussed, but it had to be Keshnu's doing. She squinted hard, expecting to see the grainy texture of his influence building up behind the lines, pressing them together.

Instead, the Gift-Giver's power seemed to vanish into the fissures. They brightened wherever he touched them, pulling together like a stitch tightening. Each stitch, as it closed, bore the weight of the entire Abyss. Every pound of force the Second Realm pressed onto the First went through Keshnu's grip.

No wonder he seemed so tiny. Little more than a man, he wrestled an entire plane of reality. Why were the other Wildren not helping? Dora tried to focus her attention back to them, to rally them to their leader's aid, but her sight seemed caught in the weave of Keshnu's craft. Anger welled up inside, and with the surge of emotion, she felt her Gift stir.

Well, if she couldn't reach the Wildren to convince them to help - and maybe they were staying clear for a reason, or at Keshnu's instruction - she could at least try herself. Her hand didn't shake as she reached for the seal on the Sherim in her head. The Sherim spun apart effortlessly, the motions familiar and comfortable in the face of desperation.

Dimly, she felt the air around her rippling with alarmed communications. Something gripped her at the waist, steadied her as a tremor ran through the world. Cautiously, she let the torrent of Second Realmstuff flow down her arm, balanced it precariously on her fingers. Her injured knuckle stung for a moment, but with a thought she twisted it into the right place.

The pain that flooded through came balanced by the white-cold outrage of the First Realmstuff around her. Fingers of her free hand dancing, she wove it in to balance. She brought her hands together, still not quite understanding - as if anyone could - what she was doing.

Wild Power blossomed, bright and strong in her grip. Her view flattened out, layer on layer of transparent impressions absorbed without the benefit of a spatial frame of reference. Water a white wall, the Abyss black around it. Faint hints of colour from the scattered, inadequate lighting. The Realmlessness a sickening, sucking void far below.

She reached out to grab the sides of the Abyss, to relieve the pressure on Keshnu's stitching, and realised she didn't know how to. Her hands were occupied; how was she going to hold anything without hands?

No, that was stupid. She was so far beyond any logic that required hands for holding things. But what was she trying to get hold of? How was the Abyss splitting? Dora spread her mind out as far as she could, stretching to feel the vast scale of the forces slowly sliding out of balance in front of her.

The layered image held in her brain shrank, new areas rushing in at the sides as her awareness expanded. Her mind flowed with the wind across the surface of the troubled ocean, leapt up to the distended blue dome of the sky. She swooped low over fields and forests for hundred of miles northwards, and climbed to the West over the knife-sharp peaks of the Tuani Mountains. Somewhere down there was the Sherim where she'd discovered the extent of her powers. She could feel it, sort of, but not see it; even in its broad clearing, it would be too small to make out from this height.

Pushing South into the tranquil lowlands, she found the sour note she sought. Everything seemed ever-so-slightly off from the right angle. Dora pulled back and back again, the sky fading from blue to black behind her, until the First Realm laid itself out below. It took some squinting of her mind's eye, but she finally made out the line of the crease, running West from Vessit and along the northern edge of the Tuani.

Almost, she thought, it seemed as if the Abyss must have been there before the mountains, so naturally did it follow the line of the terrain. The fold ran all the way to the far side of the Realm, where First Realmspace itself twisted in half a dozen different directions, impassable to humans. The whole picture reminded her of a crumpled ball of paper. If she could just reach out far enough to grab the edges...

A lingering filament of logic reminded her you're thinking about reaching for the edges of the universe. But how else to straighten out the Abyss? The northern half of the First Realm was pinned tight by a dozen Sherim, while the southern part twisted up from the eastern corner because of the hard ridge of a crease beneath it.

Dora managed not to think of how crazy the idea was that she could shift the quarter-million square miles of either half on her own. Pressing down on either end would do no good; the ends were more strongly anchored than anything in the middle, and she might only make it worse. The Realm was like a table, supported by stout legs at both ends but cracking in between. What it needed was a new leg in the middle.

She let herself fall back to her body, buried in the dark by the Abyss. The air around her still buzzed with the non-verbal worries of a dozen Wildren. Out by the cascade, she could feel Keshnu weakening. How long had she taken to work out what to do? Too long, probably. Everything seemed to take too long to figure out these days.

Concentration answered her frustration, banishing the distractions to the back of her mind where they couldn't hurt anyone. She reached down into the Abyss, skin crawling as tendrils of the Realmlessness stroked the lowest edge of her awareness. Somehow, she found purchase on the water-slicked stone, careful to grip both sides, not just one.

It took her a moment to re-engage with the Wild Power still held steady in her hands. In perfect balance, the open Sherim was almost undetectable, the only clue to its existence the heavy-air sense of an impending storm. Gently, Dora slipped one finger ever-so-slightly out of place, traced the resulting leak down and seized everything she found at the bottom.

Every nerve in her body came to blazing life. The sensation was not one of pain. Tension wracked through her in waves, heating her from heart to fingertips, toes to head. An ache of pressure took hold in her gut, and her breath came in clouds of condensed gold, tighter and shorter every time she inhaled. When she opened her eyes again, she could feel the tears evaporating from her cheeks, shimmering from within.

The release as she shoved upward with the power blazing through her was ecstatic. She screamed for joy, head thrown back, the firework-blaze of the sound ringing past the noise of the waterfall, momentarily throwing the descending sea back up the way it had come.

The rock of the Abyss walls absorbed everything she threw at it. Had it even trembled? Dora gasped a breath, wrung-out. Her arms ached, and something in her belly felt wrenched out of place. Something pressed at the back of her skull. Her eyes were streaming again.

She gritted her teeth, the sense of Keshnu's slow, careful, laborious progress still lodged at the centre of her mind. Somehow, he'd managed to keep going. She couldn't let him down. Her Sherim waited, held in place by hands that apparently had their own instincts for self-preservation. She shivered in anticipation, at once hungry and sickened for the unworldly heat of the power that would flow through her.

Dora's sense of self-revulsion restored her caution. Anything so overwhelming could be dangerous, and to feel such pleasure at so desperate a time seemed... unclean. Steadily, slowly, she filled herself with power again, letting it flood and fill out her digits one by one, then her limbs. She felt as if she were a waterskin, inflating as it refilled, bulging out in places, crinkling in others. She stretched out, worked the kinks out of her arms and legs.

Her scalp prickled as she bloated towards capacity, dragging out the seconds until she exhaled honey and amber again. Still, she held herself on the brink of release. A layer of fire blossomed under her skin at the waiting, so close to rapture it was painful. Her single violent outburst had produced no results. Delicacy would be key. She forced herself not to acknowledge it would also prolong the pleasure.

Gently, she loosened her grip, shaping and directing the flood so it flowed into the crags of the Abyss walls, along the intangible lines with which she'd tethered them to her mind. Even with her eyes squeezed tightly shut against tears she could not completely hold, she could feel the stressed rocks beginning to glow.

Hands held in careful balance, she drew on the Sherim again, slacked her grip yet further. She became a conduit for the endless stream of Wild Power. So long as she held the Sherim in balance, the clash between logics would create power from nothing. All she had to do was stay firm. She opened herself yet further and let fire roar through her.

Distantly, she heard herself moan, the sound knitting together with the flow, bearing her out and up towards the indefinable point at which her lifting aimed. The concerns of the Wildren around her fell away, and she rose with the force of a turning season into the rock. The weight settled about her shoulders - where else? - but it was a burden she had refigured herself specifically to bear. With Wild Power filling her, the world became no more than a mantle; a weight to be worn, not borne.

There was a shift, miniscule and trembling, and for a moment Dora almost gave up in bitter frustration. Her skin felt ready to sublimate straight off her, her entire body giving off golden steam. How could she do any more than this?

As soon as the thought bloomed, a cool hand stroked through her, drawing it away. She gasped, recognising Keshnu's will in the touch. The Gift-Giver still floated by the torrent, hundreds of feet away, but his mind reached out to hers in equal parts relief and gratitude. A second wave followed the first, tinged with concern.

Dora sent back the affirmative without thinking about it; yes, I can hold it. For emphasis, she spread herself wider, feeling along the Abyss walls with hands the size of cities for extra, broader purchase. The Realmlessness itself seemed to recede.

Keshnu sent caution, the cool edge of it spreading through her power-fevered mind and drawing her back to focus. Don't push yourself just because you can. There was so much affection in the contact that Dora had to catch herself short from hearing 'my love' at the end of it. Fanciful even to entertain the possibility, never mind arrogant.

She responded with amusement, unchastened. She knew what she was doing. Keshnu needed to watch his own task. Dora could feel her wry smile bleeding out into the air around her. What would the other Wildren make of it? Did her rapport with Keshnu resemble the way they communicated with each other enough that they could understand?

The possibility of something so private being laid bare before strangers was oddly thrilling. That was a dangerous thought. Turning some of her amused exasperation on herself, Dora bent her mind and her back to the task. Keshnu had a lot of work to do yet to get the fissure closed.

Time passed with little change in her sensations. Between her hands, the Sherim stayed just out of balance, flaring occasionally when some eddy in the torrent pouring from it jostled one of her fingers. Simple enough to bring it back into place. The rest of her body and mind saturated with the evanescent residues of Wild Power, but the piquancy of the sensation never dimmed.

When Keshnu's last stitch pulled tight, Dora found herself caught completely by surprise. The last ragged streamers of the white sheet of water simply shut off, their flow disappearing into the depths of the Abyss. Keshnu drifted back towards her, his instruction to close off her Gift losing all its urgency in the face of the languid quality of the light.

Still, he was right. Better not to do more than necessary now. Somewhere back in ordinary logic, she was probably still bleeding, battered from the quake. Bracing for a fight, Dora steadied her hands and shifted them back into alignment.

No resistance materialised. One moment the Sherim was open, the next it might as well not have been there. The stream of Wild Power fled through her every bit as fast as the water had vanished into the Abyss. Dora just had time to release her grip on her Gift before her consciousness came apart to a riot of black-and-white dots. There was a brief rush of weariness and pain, and then sensation vanished altogether.

Dora strode up the tunnel towards Rel's cell, easily keeping pace with Taslin. Since waking up, she'd felt... almost back to herself. She still spent most of her time in the caves under the old city, but the rocks around her seemed stabler. She was getting better at riding down the spells of dizziness that came when high emotions set her logic teetering. It felt good to know that when she really needed to, she could control her Gift again, even if she couldn't really remember what she'd done.

Keshnu thought that was probably because her memory was still working on a human logic which didn't have concepts for some of the features of her power. The Gift-Giver had been little short of worshipful the past couple of days, but she'd had no chance to speak to him in private. Even now, he was out by the Abyss, trying everything he could think of to knit it back together. The ground still occasionally trembled.

"Why have you started smiling when you think of Keshnu?" Taslin kept her voice soft, her tone high and inquisitive, but Dora still felt a shiver spread itself across her shoulders. The Gift-Giver had borne her up and steadied her through her efforts at the Abyss, but in the process had been a little too close to Dora's expanded mind. Ever since, Taslin had demonstrated a bit too much insight to be comfortable with.

"What makes you say that?" Dora tried to keep from sounding too sharp, knowing that she couldn't really hide the truth. The thought of telling someone, even someone she trusted as much as Taslin, just felt... Well, it didn't feel like anything. It just didn't want to happen.

Taslin frowned, her face turning hawkish and implacable. Dora faltered a step and stumbled, but managed to avoid leaning on the Gift-Giver to steady herself. Taslin said, "Dora, you know I can see the shape of your thoughts. That's what you look like to me. Normally I can't make sense of it, but when you're thinking of the Second Realm, or one of us, it's completely clear. And lately, every time you think of Keshnu, your mood shifts for the better."

"I-" Dora stopped, hating the way her legs suddenly felt like stilts, her head like fluff too light to fall. She was going to have to stop walking, or she'd trip over her own feet and make a fool of herself.

"It's not a criticism. If anything, I think it's a positive sign." As ever, Taslin mistook her confusion for weakness. "I'd just like to know why. Or how, perhaps. Anything that helps me understand how your kind form attachments and find pleasure in them."

Dora clenched her fists, stopping and turning to put her back to the Gift-Giver. Why was she so afraid? There was no shame in what had happened. She took a deep breath, but her voice still came out ragged and mousey as she said, "Keshnu and I have a child together." The world came apart as she finished the sentence, her emotions surging hot into her cheeks while her hold on First-Realm logic slipped. The rough stone in front of her dropped out of focus and came back as a patch of clay set with a thousand shards of glass, glinting in the distant light.

Sightless awareness of Taslin flooded in, which at least gave Dora the satisfaction of seeing the Gift-Giver's near-perfect performance of humanity falter in shock. If she turned round to look, Taslin's features would seem blurred, maybe even completely blank. Well, the news was beyond what anyone had thought might be possible.

A tingle ran across Dora's skin, and for a moment she fought to keep from twitching at it. But why bother? Taslin would be too shocked to see. She let it come, shuddered as it passed. Then she turned to face the Gift-Giver.

It took a moment for the Wilder to pull her face back to its normal elegance. "A child? You're pregnant?" Dora couldn't tell if the thinness in Taslin's voice was her attempt at sounding shocked or just her still struggling to regain control.

"No, a Child of the Wild. Or, I suppose, half of the Wild." It was a pitiful attempt at levity, but Dora was sure she wouldn’t have even managed that two days ago.

"That should be impossible." Despite the long echoes furnished by the tunnel, Taslin's words hung dead in the air.

"It happened at the Sherim." Dora glanced up and down the tunnel, keeping her voice low. The nearest corners in both directions were a good distance away, but sound travelled well down here, and Rel's cell wasn't all that far. Heaven alone knew what he'd think when he found out. She wasn't ready to face that just yet. "Or... I had my Sherim open, anyway, and my logic was breaking down. I don't pretend to understand it, in either of our logics."

"The child?" Again, Taslin's face drew back into focus, her skin pale, eyes that were normally so incisive held wide open. Even by Taslin's standards, it was a quick recovery.

Dora swallowed. She hadn't seen the tiny, fragile neonate - my child, she admonished herself - since entrusting it to Keshnu. "He took it to the crèche at the Court. We judged it would be safer there."

Taslin lifted a hand to squeeze Dora's shoulder. "You... long for it?"

"I feel like I'm neglecting it." Dora looked down at her hands, managing not to fiddle with the bandage on her injured finger. "It's so different to how I was expecting parenthood to be."

"You were expecting a different kind of parenthood." Taslin smiled, even remembering that a wide, friendly smile made her look demonic and moderating accordingly. Dora wished she could steady her nerves so quickly. The Gift-Giver let her hand trail down Dora's arm, lifting her wrist. "I am happy for you, and very proud."

It was nice, Dora realised, to have a lump in her throat from something other than Second-Gift-induced frailty. She met Taslin's eyes. "Thank you." Her voice wavered, but she pulled herself back together with a grin, taking her hand back from Taslin's grip. "And well done. Pride is a good response, and you showed it well."

Taslin nodded. "I could offer no less than my best, if you are reaching so far as to consider pairing yourself with Keshnu."

Was that what she'd been doing? Dora supposed it had to be, though her head swum a little at the thought. Wildren parental pairings were far more dignified and stately than the chaos of human romance, but it was still a lot to take on board. Would Keshnu even be willing? Or, worse, would he go along with it in spite of some other preference, because it would be good for relations between the Realms?

Well, she'd been wanting a chance to speak to him. Maybe when the Abyss was a bit safer, they'd have the chance to discuss it in detail. Once Rel was dealt with. And she'd been back to make sure Federas was still safe. Pevan and the Sherriff should have been able to keep things under control, but Notia was a new and badly under-trained Four Knot.

Taslin said something. Dora flinched as the edge of caution in the Gift-Giver's emotion went through her. She'd let her mind wander again, despite Keshnu's repeated warnings.

She pulled herself up straight. "Sorry?"

"Are you alright?" Taslin frowned. "The idea didn't offend you?"

"What? No." Dora said, with a breathless laugh. "No, why would it?"

The Gift-Giver looked away, her face pinched in what Dora thought must have been a show of emotional pain. "Rel found the idea revolting. You remember our arrival in Vessit."

Dora rolled her eyes at the memory. Rel sometimes had no sense of humour. She hadn't teased him since, but he still hadn't forgiven her. "That was different. He was thinking of a human relationship with..." Perhaps it was better not to pick out Taslin by name. "He was thinking about human sex, I think, not a Wildren pairing. And not all of us are as close-minded and stubborn as Rel. Even he might soften with time, once this whole mess with his trial is over."

"Are you sure?" When Taslin brought her face back around to Dora, it was blank, almost artificially so.

"I don't find Keshnu revolting, certainly." It felt good to smile, even if it meant admitting that thinking of Keshnu did indeed make her smile. She treated herself to an inward sigh of exasperation. "He's nice. I admire him. I will be pleased to raise our child together."

A voice echoed down the tunnel from somewhere ahead of them, echoes mangling the words to little more than a high-pitched call of alarm. The accent seemed oddly familiar, though. Dora glanced at Taslin, but the Gift-Giver broke into a headlong run before she could speak.

Dora hitched up her skirt and managed a creditable turn of speed despite the rough tunnel floor and her thin boot-soles. Taslin had already vanished around the corner ahead, her leg-hugging dress instantly exchanged for a looser garment that trailed in the air a good few feet behind her. Dora slowed for the corner, not wanting to have to trust her balance if she slipped.

The tunnel beyond was empty, only dim light spilling down from a forlorn torch far ahead. Taslin's footsteps rang from the rocks, but Dora couldn't tell which way the Gift-Giver had gone. Better to check on Rel and let Taslin take care of the pursuit. What if something had happened to him? She'd taken her eye off him for a whole two days, and Rel could attract a lot of trouble in that time.

Her heart was outright pounding, a high, fiery ache in the centre of her chest, by the time she spilled down the side tunnel that led to the Clearseer's cell. The change in the quality of the rock underfoot, rough to smooth, caught her out and she slipped, banging her knuckles on the wall as she reached out to steady herself.

"And here was I thinking you'd given up on me." The sneer in Rel's voice was new, even given how unmanageable he'd been for the last fortnight. Just hearing him speak was enough to set a leaden lump in Dora's gut.

She straightened and turned to face him. Rise above it, she told herself. "Are you alright?" For once, she didn't mind feeling breathless. A hair straggled into her face, tickling her nose, but she brushed it aside.

Rel stood at the wall of bars that restrained him, arms folded, legs spread just a little wide of his shoulders. His face showed none of the childishness that there had been in his voice. He glared down his nose at her, lips pressed flat. Dora drew herself up to match, though Rel looked like he was readying for a physical fight, not a verbal one.

He said, "I haven't been better since you let them lock me up in here."

"What do you mean?"

"Chag Van Raighan was just here." Rel smiled at Dora's gasp. "He said he could get me out of here, legitimately. All charges dropped, reinstated to full service immediately."

"What?" Dora's belly wriggled. Van Raighan was supposed to be under lock and key in Federas. What was he doing here? And how had he talked Rel into listening to him? Dora took a deep breath, summoning up all the rage she could even if it dizzied her for a second. "What does he want from you in return?"

"Who said he wants anything?" The twist to Rel's mouth might have looked like a wry smile, if his eyes hadn't flashed in the dim candlelight, proud and vicious. In her anger, Dora could see the haze of Rel's contempt for her boiling around his head. Even with everything that had happened since their arrival in Vessit, she hadn't seen him this arrogant since he'd fled his incomplete training rather than bow to Ciarive's discipline. Head held high, he finished, "Chag remembers which side he's on, which is more than can be said for you anymore."

"Which side?!" Anger blasted through her, stripping away the clouds of conflicting logics. She felt the shape of her Sherim rise from the depths of consciousness, waiting in case she needed it. Not now. Not yet. "I just held the entire Realm together on my own wick for four hours! If that's not your side, which side are you on?"

The Sherim's logic made reading Rel's face hard, but she could see the surprise racing through him like ice. All too quickly - when had he learnt such conviction? - the tide turned, bursting out of the Clearseer's face in a torrent of violet emotions. Anger, frustration and bitterness washed across Dora, but she held her ground. Voice pinched high, eyes narrowed to glimmering slits, Rel said, "And why was the Realm falling apart in the first place? Did you even stop to think about that?"

"The Realm is falling apart because you messed with things you didn't understand." Dora spat the words at him. In the air between them, her mind splashed into his, the recoil making them both flinch. It was like slamming her brain straight into a monument to ego and pride. There wasn't even the faintest hint of blurring together. No room for compromise.

"Oh, come on, Dora. You know that makes no sense." Rel came back swinging, fists wrapped around the bars of his prison. "You really think a big door could make a blind bit of difference between that Sherim and the Abyss? If the Sherim were to blame, the Realm would have cracked long ago. This is Keshnu's doing."

Dora squeezed every muscle in her body, trying to ground the tension. From somewhere, she found enough calm to get her voice down and level. "I watched him fix it, Rel. He pushed himself even harder than I did, knitting the fault back together. He's down there even now, working at it."

"How would you know?" Rel folded his arms again, and this time he really did sneer. "You barely understand your own logic anymore, never mind Second Realm logic." He faltered over the last couple of words, the phrase breaking the rhythm of his dismissal.

But for the falter, Dora realised her composure might have shattered. Rel's words cut a little too close to the truth. Dammit, she was not going to let him provoke her to tears again. "I- My Sherim gives me glimpses. More than glimpses, when I'm using it fully. I watched everything he did, Rel. I've been down there since, and he's still doing everything right."

"Oh, for-!" Rel spun on the spot, putting his back to her. "You went to see him first, before coming to check on me? And I'm supposed to think you're still on my side?"

"I never claimed to be on your side," Dora hissed. "You broke the law on the word of a complete stranger and threw us all into danger. I'm on the side of all the people who might die because of what you did."

"I did nothing wrong!" Rel rounded on her, and the ferocity of it literally threw her back against the wall, smashing across her in a wave of raw force. "I've Seen the Realm splitting, Dora. If Keshnu fixed the Abyss, how is that still a possibility?"

Dora put a hand up to her mouth, found blood on her lip. This was getting out of hand. She could feel her Sherim leaking, and the Wild Power from it was reacting to Rel's overwrought state. If she got any angrier, it would do the same for her.

She closed her eyes, ignoring Rel's next salvo. The words came through still, as a sheaf of glowing red daggers, but her mind was well out of range. It took a conscious effort to focus on her Sherim, find the alignment that would allow her to get a grip on it. With her finger tightly bound, she couldn't quite match the tangle of her ashtmer with the ghiten of her Gift, but she was able to give the creaking arrangement a crude shove.

The Sherim jerked shut, the light of the power it spilled into the cell vanishing. Out beyond Dora's eyelids, the glow of Rel's aura faded from solar to almost limpid, a faint yellow sheen over grey stone. She opened her eyes, found Rel glaring at her. If he was worried by whatever he'd felt of her fiddling with her Gift, he showed no sign of it.

Dora folded her arms. "Keshnu never claimed his solution was permanent. How could it be? With the way the Realms are crumpled up together, it'd take a miracle to straighten them out."

"God, listen to yourself!" Rel grabbed the bars, wrestling with them as if he was trying to shake them loose. "'The way the Realms are crumpled up together'? That doesn't make a blind bit of sense. You have to see that, don't you?" His voice rose in desperation on the question.

"I-" Dora cut off as Realmspace twisted in the wall at her back, sending a sharp jag of nausea through her gut. She bent double, gagging, the acrid tang of vomit rising up the back of her nostrils.

"'Ware the Gate!" Taslin's voice echoed from the rocks, harsh and cold.

Dora managed to get herself upright before the Gift-Giver could step through and offer her a hand. She resisted the urge to spit despite the foul taste left in the back of her mouth. At least she'd managed not to throw up. She swallowed awkwardly and turned to Taslin.

"They got away." Taslin's sharp features were held tight in a scowl. Dora could almost hear her jaw creak as she finished, "I'm sorry."

"What happened?" Dora glanced at Rel, whose glare was fixed on Taslin.

"Two humans were here, a man and a woman." The stiffness in the Gift-Giver's voice spoke of deep frustration. "The woman was a Gatemaker, and a good one. I lost them after the second Gate."

"The man was Van Raighan." Dora folded her arms, realised she might appear disappointed with Taslin, and dropped them back to her sides.

"You're alright?" Taslin waited for Dora's nod, then continued. "What was he doing here?"

"Promising to free Rel, apparently." Dora tried to shrug the idea off, but it was hard, over the memory of the certainty in Rel's voice. Had he had a Clearseeing about his release, too? She glared at the Clearseer. "Rel was just reporting on a Clearseeing he's had about the Abyss."

"Forget it." Rel slouched back to sit on his untidy bed. Dora made a mental note to check someone had seen to getting his linens laundered. Again, he turned his glare on Taslin. "I'm not giving her any warning of what I know." He pushed himself back to sit against the wall and closed his eyes.

He'd pulled the act before during his incarceration, and gotten very good at ignoring anyone trying to talk to him. Dora rolled her eyes and shared a heavy glance with Taslin. The Gift-Giver pointed toward the way out of the cell annexe. Dora let her lead the way, throwing one final glance at Rel.

She turned away and joined Taslin in the main tunnel. The Wilder was staring at the stone that now hid Rel, scowling fit to shatter it. Her face softened as she looked up at Dora. "Could Rel have been conspiring with the Van Raighans all along?"

Dora pulled up short, steadied herself against a brief flash of dizziness. The idea made frightening sense. He'd helped Rissad escape; had the younger brother now come to pay off the debt? Dora dragged her mind back over everything she could remember happening since Van Raighan had come to Federas, but there were just too many gaps. Too many opportunities for Rel to have talked to the brothers.

She clenched her fists again as another shiver ran through her. "It's possible, but..." It didn't seem like Rel, or at least the Rel she thought she knew. He wasn't a good liar. And what were they conspiring toward? Everyone assumed the younger Van Raighan had somehow been bought by predatory Wildren. Rissad's goals remained a mystery, and the only reason Rel hadn't been censured already was that no-one had been able to establish the impurity of his motives. And he'd seemed so focussed on stopping Rissad all the way here.

"Dora?" She looked up, blinking, to find Taslin studying her, concern written across the Gift-Giver's tightened brow.

"I don't-" Careful, Dora admonished herself. Answer the most recent question first, or the Wilder could lose the thread of the conversation completely. She managed a smile. "Sorry, I was thinking it through. It's possible that Rel was in league with them, but I can't see what his motive could be. We don't even know for sure that the Van Raighans were working together."

Taslin's face darkened. "That's true, I suppose. Have you any idea why they didn't just Gate Rel out of the cell?"

"Perhaps they were bargaining? His release in exchange for... something?" Dora folded her arms and glanced over her shoulder at the tunnel down to the cell. What was it Rel had said? All charges dropped, reinstated to full service immediately. Van Raighan couldn't do that, could he? If the rogue Witness so much as showed his face in Vessit, he'd be arrested instantly. But Rel had seemed so sure... "Rel seemed to think Van Raighan could do more than just get him out of the cell. Maybe even get the charges against him dropped."

"That should not be possible." Taslin narrowed her eyes, her violet irises shading to a dark, smoky amethyst in the distant torchlight. "Keshnu would never let the matter go so simply."

A trickle of chill ran down Dora's spine. "Might he have some leverage on Keshnu? Some blackmail material?"

"Blackmail?" The Gift-Giver's face flicked suddenly from angry to curious, her eyes widening, her head tilting to one side. "I've heard the term, but never learned what it means."

"Second Realm logic might well not have the concept. Your kind seem much more sensible than ours, sometimes." Dora rubbed a hand across her brow, lining up her explanation carefully. "If you know something that someone doesn't want made public, you can blackmail them - threaten to reveal it unless they do something for you. Is there anything like that among the Children of the Wild?"

Taslin's face twitched back into a frown, the jump seeming all the more unnatural - though typical of Wildren in general - for the Gift-Giver's usual fluency in human emotion. "There are... forms of Talerssi which work like that."

"Talerssi?" The word was obviously a Second-Realm term, but Dora had never heard it before.

Taslin started to answer, then her face went flat. She spun on the spot and broke into a run, and it took Dora a moment to realise that her footfalls made no sound. If she was neglecting basic details like that, it had to be important. Dora set off after her, wincing as the rock floor punished her already-battered feet.

They pelted down through the tunnels towards the main caves. Less bound by First-Realm logic, Taslin built up a lead even before the first scramble in the caves separated them. The Gift-Giver leapt six feet of near-vertical rock without breaking stride. Dora had to climb it, broken finger throbbing badly enough to leave her gasping. By the time she gained the top, Taslin was all but gliding down the sharp slope where the next cave dropped away into the one beyond.

Dora paused, panting. Every bruise she'd taken during the quake seemed to have come back doubled. There weren't a lot of caves between here and the Abyss, but it was going to be a painful trip. Was there any chance Taslin had gone somewhere else? Well, nowhere else in this direction would be any easier to get to. The chambers where Keshnu's subordinates made their quarters were past the Abyss. Never mind that the first thing that Taslin would do with any serious problem would be to report to Keshnu.

Dora let her breath return and began the clumsy business of clambering after the Gift-Giver. The Wildren were all under strict orders not to use Gateways near the Abyss, but Dora wished Taslin had thought to Gate them at least part of the way. Well, Second-Realm logic had no concept of shortcuts.

By the time she came to the top of the tunnel down to the Abyss, her head was pounding almost as hard as her heart. It took every ounce of willpower and concentration she could muster not to fiddle with her battered finger. She could feel the joint was out of place again. She was lucky the scabs at the back of her head hadn't pulled open. There was a new, painful scrape down her arm, red and angry.

With the aid of the wall and her less-injured hand, Dora made it down the tunnel without stumbling. Taslin stood with Keshnu by the towering concrete sheet of the door to the old research facility. The air bent around them with the flashes of Second-Realm communication, blurring their faces as if Dora peered at them through thick, poorly-blown glass.

She could feel the anxiety spilling out of both Wildren. Whatever Talerssi was, they were deeply worried about it. Dora locked her jaw closed, resisting the urge to interrupt and ask for an explanation. Even with the help of the Second Gift, she doubted she could understand enough to be any use, and she might only slow them down by distracting them.

Peering closer, Dora tried her best to follow the exchange, at least to work out precisely how they were each feeling. With the Realmlessness gaping somewhere deep beneath her feet, she didn't want to resort to breaking out of her First-Realm logic unless absolutely necessary. It limited her to little better than guesswork, but just thinking of the Realmlessness made her feet squirm despite their aches.

Taslin was a jumble of fright and rising alarm. Whatever possibility she'd thought of back in the tunnel, she clearly saw it as dangerous. By contrast, Keshnu seemed more angry. Each time the tide of communication turned to run from him to Taslin, it came tangled with eddies of uncontrolled fringe emotion, sure sign the senior Gift-Giver was off-balance. They didn't seem to be moving any closer to a conclusion or a plan.

"I come as bearer of Talerssi for Ashtenzim of the Separatists!" The voice echoed back from the Abyss so strongly that for a moment Dora couldn't tell where the speaker was. His accent was southern, all low tones and careful spaces. Dora spun around until her eyes fixed on the scrawny man now standing by the wall behind her. Black hair spilled in untidy curls down his cheeks, and his face pinched narrow toward his nose. He put her in mind of a rat, but maybe only because she knew he had to be Van Raighan.

Next to him, of all people in the Realm, stood Pevan, Rel's sister. She looked almost exactly as she had the last time Dora had seen her, but for her mousy hair being wind-ruffled and out of place. She shared Rel's features enough that the look of determination on her face was painful to watch, too reminiscent of her brother's stubborn rejection. She was wearing trousers again, too, though given that she was here and keeping company with the most wanted man in the First Realm, that was probably a lesser sin.

While Dora gaped, trying to grapple with too much surprise, Keshnu's voice swooped gently past her face, refined and surprisingly calm. "You cannot. Your logic lacks the capability."

"I claim Talerssi for the falsehood." Van Raighan... it wasn't a smile, exactly, but Dora could see the flare of his aura, and the sense of grim satisfaction that reclined in the lines of his frown. "I nominate Lienia of the Separatists as my colligator."

"I come as bearer of Talerssi for Lienia of the Separatists." Pevan snapped the words the instant the thief finished, the rhythm of her speech even faster and harder than normal.

Keshnu sent a vicious curse rippling through Realmspace, and Dora staggered as it slammed into the back of her knees. She forced back the surge of bile and focussed on Pevan. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Who were the Separatists? The names sounded more Wildren than human.

Pevan flinched, at least, but before she could answer, Van Raighan put a hand on her arm. She glanced at the thief - they were the same height, or near as made no odds - and swallowed. Then she looked back up at Keshnu. Reflexively, Dora followed her gaze, turning to find the Gift-Giver only a few feet behind her, his face set in the thickest scowl she'd ever seen on him.

Pevan swallowed again, and, voice far less sure, said, "As bearer of Lienia's Talerssi, I stake Lienia's claim. Let Ashtenzim's claim be heard."

Keshnu's eyes, shining silver in the darkness, never wavered, but Dora saw the ripple of his appeal to Taslin. Would Pevan? Taslin's reply, in the frustrated negative, sent a shudder through Dora. Keshnu said, "Make your claim."

Van Raighan folded his arms, slowly and awkwardly, as if he was thinking about each part of the motion. It made him look like an inexperienced Wilder, and Dora got the impression it was deliberate. When he spoke, his voice came out clipped and precise, slower even than what had seemed his natural accent. "The Clearseer, Relvin Atcar, is to be released from your authority."

"State your grounds." Somehow, despite the Gift-Giver letting his voice sit flat and lifeless, Dora could hear the snarl behind it. Well, she could see the anger unfolding in Keshnu's logic. Perhaps the fraying of her own logic was translating that image to sound.

"Ashtenzim stands on Talerssi accrued from the removal of fourteen boons granted in the First Realm." Again, Van Raighan held his voice sharp-edged and cold, enunciating every syllable. He sounded like a Wilder struggling with the language. Maybe that was the idea. But why? He continued, "Ashtenzim offers to stand surety for the communities of Polten, Fosket, Af, Veliar, Edarrin, North Edda and Labrelet."

Frantic communication scattered back and forth between Keshnu and Taslin. Pevan exchanged a grim glance with Van Raighan. Whatever was going on, they'd clearly practiced it closely. How long had they been working together? Would Keshnu be able to decipher their plan? Dora hugged herself, trying to shrug off the tension in the air and failing. Sparks danced on the faint breeze, leaping from the auras of everyone present.

Keshnu said, "I cannot accept."

Taslin and Pevan spoke at once, their voices mixing too tightly for Dora to make out the words despite Pevan raising her voice till it rang from the ceiling. Taslin finished first, leaving Pevan to bawl, "-for the hidden communication before me."

Keshnu must have understood more, because this time the Second-Realm edge on his curse drove Dora to her knees, then bent her over, gagging, to press her forehead onto the cool concrete. She felt as if she had rats in her gut, fighting for freedom. Shivers raced across her every which way, up and down her back, across her shoulders, through her face. She sneezed, then gagged again. Her own mucus reeked of bile.

The spasm passed, and Dora looked up to see Pevan a half-step closer, Van Raighan's hand tight on her arm. As if she'd tried to come and help, and the thief had stopped her. Nice to know the girl's instincts hadn't been completely corrupted. Still, the way she turned to face Van Raighan, nodding in humble apology, suggested she was heavily under his influence.

Taslin's arm settled over Dora's shoulders, the Wilder's compassion smoothing away the psychic taint of Keshnu's anger. She could do nothing for the taste in Dora's mouth, but at least the relief enabled Dora to sit up and breathe again.

Dora put a hand up to push the hair out of her face and turned to Taslin. "What's going on?"

The Gift-Giver glanced up at Keshnu, then toward Van Raighan. "I can't explain right now. I'm sorry." Dimly, Dora felt the tingle as Taslin sent another weary message at Keshnu.

"I offer Talerssi for the interruption." Keshnu's voice opened up in tone, whispering back from the Abyss. "Taslin of the Gift-Givers will stand as my executor."

Van Raighan glanced at Pevan, for the first time looking worried, some of the tightness draining from his face. Had they expected this? Dora put her hand on Taslin's shoulder, steadying herself to push back to her feet, but a look at the Gift-Giver's face made her think better of it. Taslin was watching Van Raighan as a cat might watch a snake, equal parts fear and ferocious need to attack.

The air blurred with a haze of blue-white sparks as the moment dragged. Dora blinked the impression away, but not before she saw the flow of the tide against Keshnu. The Gift-Giver's composure was beginning to fray. Stiffly, he said, "I renounce authority to Relvin Atcar."

Van Raighan let out a long, slow breath and turned to Pevan, but the girl's attention was fixed on Dora. Dora glared back as best she could.

"Taslin." The humanity came back to Keshnu's voice, authority balanced perfectly with parental gentleness.

Taslin found Dora's gaze for a moment, and behind her eyes, Dora saw an appeal for patience. She nodded. Taslin pushed to her feet, facing her superior. Not wanting to risk disrupting the moment, Dora held to her crouch.

"Keshnu." Taslin matched him, tone for tone, warm but formal.

"I stand on Talerssi accrued for your interference in the exchange with Ashtenzim and Lienia of the Separatists." Was that regret in Keshnu's voice? His tone had grown throaty as he spoke. It had to be deliberate, but for whose benefit? Van Raighan watched askance, his eyes narrowed, his skin pale. Taslin just nodded. Keshnu said, "You are to take the responsibility of surety for Relvin Atcar."

"Gladly." Taslin's smile was hard, her eyes dark gems.

"Hang on, what does that mean?" Pevan stepped forward, every contour of her face standing stiff with consternation. "Rel goes free, right?"

"Yes, Rel goes free." Keshnu's voice seethed with frustration, though the Gift-Giver held his face steady. "But Taslin will have the authority to censure him should he take any action she deems threatening to the peace. At her sole discretion."

Pevan glanced back at Van Raighan. He muttered something that didn't carry, and Pevan nodded in response. The thief stepped forward, his voice dropping back into its usual lazy drawl. "Very well. I was instructed to oversee Rel's release."

"Come with me." Keshnu's tone could have cut rocks. Would have, if Dora's Sherim or the one in the old research facility were leaking Wild Power. "The Gatemaker stays here."

Dora took the opportunity to push to her feet. She caught Pevan's eye and glared, hard. To her immense relief, her voice came out steady enough to match. "Yes, Pevan, you're going to explain what on Earth you're playing at."

"No, I have to go with Chag." Pevan swallowed, her face set with tension. "T-to oversee Rel's release." Dora resisted the urge to smile. At least one of her Gifted still respected her.

"No such obligation exists." Keshnu's voice burrowed through the air like a drill made of ice. "You are not the bearer of Ashtenzim's Talerssi. Your part in the exchange is finished. I suggest you do as your Four Knot bids you and explain." The Gift-Giver turned his scowl on Van Raighan. "Come."

"She's not my Four Knot anymore!" Pevan's voice actually quavered.

"I am getting deeply sick of hearing that from people." Dora took a step forward, then another. Pevan shuffled back a little way, glanced quickly over her shoulder. She looked so like her brother when guilty and afraid of retribution. It brought back memories of stabler times. Dora drew strength from the rush of satisfaction and continued her advance. "Do you think I've forgotten what I learned in five years as Federas' Four Knot? You owe me your life half a dozen times over. The very least you could do is give me the truth."

Keshnu patted her on the back. The touch caught her by surprise, spreading a tingle across her shoulders and around her ribs, but she didn't flinch. His support steadied her from within as he walked past, headed for the tunnel up to the caves. Taslin stepped up to Dora's shoulder, and Dora needed no contact to feel her loyalty and the pride in it.

Van Raighan looked from Keshnu to Pevan and, incredibly, his face tightened in pained concern. Though he still drawled, the indolent, confident tone had gone from it. He sounded like his heart was breaking. "I have to go, and I don't think we can risk a fight."

"Go. I'll catch you up." Pevan sounded like she didn't believe it. Van Raighan nodded and set off after Keshnu's retreating back. Pevan pulled herself up, squared her shoulders, and glared at Dora.

She lasted a bare handful of seconds before beginning to blink. Dora took another step forward, stopping a couple of yards short of where she might stand for a normal conversation. Pevan would either have to come closer herself or endure the uncomfortable feeling of being in breach of the norm. Keep her off-balance. It was all coming back to Dora, and again, she had to smother a vindictive smile.

She clenched her jaw, narrowed her eyes, and said, "Explain."

Pevan's mouth opened and closed silently a couple of times. She swallowed, then met Dora's eyes again. "The Separatists want to recruit Rel. They won't come to the First Realm, so they sent us."

"Who are the Separatists?"

"I- They..." Pevan's eyes flicked to Taslin. Dora didn't look round, but she could feel the Gift-Giver's anger. Pevan said, "They're a group of Children of the Wild. They want to separate the Realms. Like, literally. Not just an end to us and W- Children of the Wild cooperating, but freeing the First Realm from the Second completely."

"They are rebels and treaty-breakers." Venom dripped from Taslin's every word. Dora half-expected to see knives flying past her shoulder. "Fools, too."

"Think about it, Dora." Pevan's voice turned wheedling. "No more constant vigilance, no more fighting with monsters that could kill you with a touch. Life could go back to how it was before the Crash."

"And how was that?" Dora poured scorn into the words. Pevan made it sound tempting, but Dora had spent too much time in the ruins of Vessit, wondering if the old city had made sense to its occupants. And she remembered the Gatemakers in Nursim, effortlessly shifting quarried stone around, doubling the output of the quarries. "Are you prepared to give up your Gift, Pevan?"

Pevan flinched, opened her mouth, but Taslin spoke first. "It is irrelevant. The voice of the Separatists was heard when the Treaty of Peace was drafted, and again when it was ratified. They agreed to peace and collaboration. Their crimes against that treaty will not go unchallenged."

"Shouldn't we have had a say in that decision?" Pevan's voice rose in pitch and volume, echoes racing away into the darkness of the Abyss.

"Don't be stupid, Pevan." Dora folded her arms, set her shoulders just so, the pose she'd perfected to show impatience with childish, petulant Gifted. Particularly childish, petulant Gifted of the Atcar family.

Thinking of Rel was a mistake. The thought set her off on what he might do on his release. Still, she needed to finish her point, or Pevan would just be offended, not corrected. "Humans ratified the treaty just as much as Wildren."

"Did anyone know that separation was a possibility?" Pevan tilted her head slightly, recovering her nerve enough to set her face hard in defiance.

Dora glanced back at Taslin. She couldn't help it. The Wilder might know the answer; Dora was too young by a matter of almost four decades. Taslin's eyes darted to Dora, then back to Pevan. "The point is moot. If you knew what separation might cost, you would not be so enthusiastic."

"What do you mean, what it would cost?" Pevan finally took a couple of steps forward, but not enough to close the distance.

"You didn't ask what the catch was?" Dora rolled her eyes, beyond anger. Pevan had switched sides and joined Van Raighan of all people, without asking even the most basic of questions? "Has nothing I ever taught you stuck?"

Pevan's expression wavered for a moment, but her eyes stayed fixed on Taslin. She couldn't match the Wilder for hawkish intensity, her eyes seeming milky by contrast, but it was an impressive effort. Placing each word with precise, heavy force, she said, "What cost?"

"The Separatists have no interest in the well-being of humans or the First Realm." Taslin spoke little above a whisper. "Their method of separation would be as disruptive as another Realmcrash, and might not even restore the First Realm to the way it was before the Crash. They care only for rebuilding the Second Realm."

Pevan opened her mouth, then closed it again, her shoulders sinking. She turned to Dora and more or less repeated the gesture. Dora resolved to let her stew for a moment. Unlike her brother, Pevan could usually be relied on to see reason on her own. Again, anger and a sick feeling in the pit of Dora's stomach answered her thought of Rel, but she pushed them aside.

She turned to Taslin. "Why did Keshnu go along with it? What is Talerssi?"

"We have yet to find a concept in First-Realm logic that matches it even closely." Taslin frowned at Pevan, than let her face soften as she turned her attention to Dora. "It is a thing bound up very closely with the structure of implication in Second-Realm logic, and your concept of material implication cannot capture important structural features of Talerssi."

"Some actions for Children of the Wild have consequences that we can't understand, basically." Pevan spoke to a point on the floor somewhere behind Dora, eyes and head lowered, but her mumble came across clearly enough.

"Is there no human concept at all like it?"

Taslin's frown turned inward. "'Commerce', 'pride' and 'justice' all have elements of the right structure, but we have been given to understand that there is little common ground between them in your culture."

Dora scrubbed at her untidy hair. "Well, they're all social..."

"Indeed. And Talerssi is not. Within the Second Realm, it is an absolute, every bit as concrete to us as foodstuffs and building materials are to you."

"Within the Second Realm?" Pevan's voice brightened. "What about here?"

"We endeavour to act in good faith." Taslin's face tightened as if she'd just sucked on a lemon, her eyes narrowed and drilling into Pevan. "Unlike your patrons, I might add."

"They don't come to the First Realm."

"Nor do they act in good faith. Humans have no bearing on Talerssi at all. It is one reason the Separatists fear your kind so much. For them to send you as bearers is a perversion that makes mockery of their principles."

"Hang on." Dora took a half-step forward, turning to face Taslin. Keeping Pevan on edge be damned, there was a puzzle here that she needed to understand. "If humans have no bearing on Talerssi, how could the Separatists claim Talerssi for Van Raighan's crimes?"

Taslin gave a weary sigh, more than a little overperformed. "Because both Separatists and Gift-Givers were signatories of the Treaty of Peace."

"So..." Dora cocked her head to one side. "Are the Separatists holding Keshnu in breach of the treaty?"

"In a way, but putting it that way falls well short of capturing the complexities."

Dora turned to look at the Abyss. The darkness felt as if it was worming its way into her gut. A hollow, tense feeling, like trying to cross thin ice.

Taslin said, "Don't trouble over it so much. It is a Wildren thing. You should not need to understand."

"I need to know the limits of your authority over Rel, though." Dora flicked a glare at Pevan, then looked up at the Gift-Giver. "So I can keep him within them."

"It's only temporary, I'm afraid." Taslin's face darkened. "I will watch him until the Talerssi I accrued is dissipated, but after that Keshnu's obligation to Ashtenzim will prevent me getting involved."

A shiver ran through Dora. "How long?"

"Ninety-seven thousand, six hundred and eighty-nine seconds." Taslin's eyes flicked to Pevan, then back to Dora. "A little over a day and three hours."

Dora's stomach gave a sudden lurch, and she staggered into Taslin. It was only as Pevan started to disappear into the floor that Dora realised the wave of nausea wasn't caused by the thought of Rel's imminent freedom. Well, that was a plus, but-

She tried to reach out and grab the escaping Gatemaker, but Taslin held her back, one arm tight around her waist.

"Wait." The Gift-Giver hissed the word, but Dora could feel there was only urgency and not anger in the instruction.

"But a Gate this near the Abyss-" Too late to stop that, she supposed. "And she'll warn Rel."

The Gateway snapped closed. Power flowed out of Taslin and into the concrete where the oval opening had been. She smiled, "Keshnu planned this. Are gateways still a problem for you?"

Dora nodded, her mouth dry. "Let's go. You can explain later."

Her gut heaved as Taslin waved open a Gateway. As one, they stepped through. Dora bit her tongue, hard, but she couldn't hold back a yelp as gravity upended and sent her head spinning. Her toes struck the floor, fouling her landing, and Taslin's grip tightened painfully around her ribs as the Gift-Giver lowered her to her knees.

Cold stone greeted her, and she let herself fall forwards, trying to ease the spasms running through her stomach. Relief was slow in coming, and Dora found her breath short and weak. Her head swam. Tremors ran through her, driving tears up and out onto her cheeks. She grimaced, trying to force her composure back together. God forbid if Rel was still here, seeing her like this.

Above her somewhere, Taslin sent a wave of communication at Keshnu, received an immediate, relieved echo. Keshnu sent a second ripple, and Dora's mind cleared enough to catch the drift; Rel, Pevan and Van Raighan gone, Keshnu having lingered to make sure he collected Taslin's Talerssi.

The world reeled again as the two Gift-Givers left, through separate Gateways. Dora tipped over, landing hard on her side, her vision clouding with spots that shattered the image of the empty cell in front of her. She moaned, and watched the sound seep upward through the air, slowly sheeting her vision in a murky shade of purple. Her shivers turned to sobs as her gut convulsed again, and she curled her knees up to her chest. Well, there was no-one here to see her. Rel was gone, and at the mercy of Taslin's justice. Dora couldn't tell whether he'd fare better or worse than he had under Keshnu's. Would Taslin want her help? She had very little left to offer.

* * *

Next episode (Season finale)

Monday, 17 September 2012

Trust Your Readers?

"The only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust."
- Henry L. Stimson

'Trust your readers' is one of the most important rules of the writing craft. Publishing a book is like handing your newborn baby to complete strangers in the street. You have to trust that they'll treat it with the care and respect it deserves.

In fact, the need for trust is stronger than that. A novel is a structure, scenes and actions and people, and you rely on the reader to put their own experiences and memories into that structure to fill it out into a complete world in their head. You try to point them in the right direction, but you have to let them do the filling in themselves. If you tried to cover all those details for them, you'd end up with over-written, tiresome, directionless drivel.

The best fiction (by which I mean Janny Wurts' The Wars of Light and Shadow, just so we're clear) requires at least as much work from the reader as from the author. Just because a book should be easy to read does not mean it should be indolent to read. A great book is one that makes you want to work just as hard at the world as the author did (and again, Janny Wurts. If you don't like her work, you're not working hard enough at it ;D).

And trust is great. It's one of the most important forces in human society. It's the fundamental basis for all healthy social relationships, and healthy social relationships, more than any other single thing, are the root of happiness. So it's no surprise that trust turns out to be fundamental to art.

But I don't think we go far enough, really. I think we, as writers, trust readers artistically or literarily, but not commercially. Yes, this is going to take some explaining.

Let me start with a detour. Corporations are incapable of trust. Trust is a thing people do (or individuals, anyway - I'm sure there are some animals, if there's even a clear people/animal divide anymore, which are capable of trust. As for aliens? Well, we consider ourselves people too, thank you very much ;D).

Furthermore, we can't expect corporations to somehow miraculously develop the ability to trust. Their only interest (as laid down in law and backed up by at least a couple of hundred years of consistent behaviour with very rare exceptions) is the bottom line. To serve the bottom line, they need up-front, single-unit, fixed pricing. They have to be able to shift money around their complex internal structures clearly, efficiently and tracably. Their basis for decision-making is the financial performance of different products.

And (despite my general suspicion of corporatism) I have to acknowledge that there's a place for that. Maybe even in the publishing world (and I stress, maybe).

But corporate publishing requires trust from readers - trust that the marketing is true, that the price is backed up with quality - without offering trust in return. To offer trust, you have to offer choices. What choice does a fixed-unit-price product offer? The simple question 'Do you want this enough to pay this much for it?'

I, as a self-publisher (I'm starting to fancy the term 'digital frontiersman' ;D), can offer something different. Thanks to Smashwords, I can make my works available on a pay-what-you-want model, and offer readers the choice 'How much do you think this is worth?'

It's a slim difference in some ways, but I think it's a subtly powerful one. Pay-what-you-want isn't just In Rainbows anymore. Look at the Humble Bundle's performance. Look at Bandcamp (and keep looking, because hopefully in a few weeks' time I'll have an EP up on there).

Now, I'll admit that as a consumer I'm a huge fan of pay-what-you-want, and not just because I'm poor. In fact, based on the pay-what-you-want  purchases I've made, I'm more likely to pay more if given the choice to pay nothing than I am to pay at all if there's a price floor or fixed price.

For example, I've bought two things on Bandcamp recently, Sam Jones' 'My Friends' and Sam Hart's 'Ink' (both excellent, by the way). 'My Friends' has no minimum price, 'Ink' is a minimum price of a dollar. I paid a dollar for each.

Now, Sam Jones is a buddy of mine, and I love his music, but I had five of his albums already. On the other hand, 'Ink' is Sam Hart's first release, but I've been into his music from his Youtube videos for three or four years, absolutely gagging to be able to buy some of it. I seriously considered shelling out for the CD copy (with autographed photo of his cats! (It's a thing, don't think too hard about it...)). And yet, I only paid the minimum price. Why? Because when I saw that minimum price, my thought was more or less 'well, that's what he thinks it's worth, and he made the damn thing, I'll trust him on the point'.

When I saw that I could get 'My Friends' for any price at all, my thought was 'Well, I don't have a lot of money right now, but I want to show that this music is worth something to me'.

See the difference? Maybe I'm psychologically unusual (certainly, seven years of academic philosophy has made me very sensitive to semantic nuance), but the distinction is there, definitely. And, in all honesty, the way I write fiction I think is directed most closely toward people with a similar level of attention to semantic detail.

I've been hinting for a while now that I've got a new non-Second-Realm release coming up. It's finally starting to approach readiness for publication now, and I'm hoping to be able to put it out in early October, mid-way between the next and next-but-one Second Realm episodes. Well, I'm going to put it up using Smashwords' pay-what-you-like feature, and we'll see how it does.

(Sidebar: For now at least, The Second Realm remains free. When season 2 starts, probably in December, I may change it to pay-what-you-like, but the monthly episodes will always be available for free.)

If the trust I'm putting in my readers turns out to be justified (in my sole estimation - but I'll explain my decisions here on this blog as and when I make them), then I'll keep trusting. I believe very strongly in this model (and the closely-related crowd-funding model), for a lot of reasons which I'll get into another time.

If you want a sneak peek at the new release, by the way, I'm doing Cara Michaels' Character Matters series this Wednesday. You should definitely check it out.

Friday, 14 September 2012

The Two Industries?

"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?"
-C.P. Snow, 'Across the Great Divide'

In The Two Cultures, a 1959 lecture, C.P. Snow argued that the academic community was splitting into two distinct strands, one literary, the other scientific, and that these two strands were increasingly struggling to communicate, and to recognise each other's standards of value. This, he claimed, was a product of the complicated revolution in science which took place in the first half of the 20th century - the advent of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the dawn of the 'nuclear age', even the earliest computers.

There's no doubt that it did get harder for someone to be both culturally and scientifically literate during that period - the bar for scientific literacy shot up, until one needed to understand complicated bits of maths and physics to qualify. Becoming truly fluent required a greater amount of time, so scientists had far less time for the humanities.

Perhaps things have stabilised since. Snow certainly later backed off from some of his arguments. Despite being a student of the humanities throughout my academic (indeed, my adult) life, I can communicate with my friends who are scientists. I can even understand the basics of what they say about their own studies.

But I think we have come to recognise that the modern scientific revolution has created distinct pockets of expertise (or perhaps just exponentially deepened them), and that there will always be knowledge on each side of the divide - significant, important knowledge, like how quantum electrodynamics works, or the significance of modal realism - which will go unrespected by the other.

I've just finished the first draft of my PhD thesis, which among other things attempts to cross this divide. I discuss in detail the arguments of John Foster (a philosopher so technical and complicated that he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page), and I relate them to Einstein's original thought experiments on special relativity. It kinda worked, but it was really hard. There is quite definitely a science/humanities divide, though I think most intellectually astute people these days have gotten over the need to be partisan about it.

Anyway, I was thinking over all of this, and I noticed something oddly similar happening right now. We've had another revolution since the scientific one which Snow discussed, this much is obvious; call it the digital revolution or the internet revolution (I prefer 'information revolution'), but it's happened, and it's actually still happening.

More importantly, it's causing a similar kind of schism, between those who have benefitted from the revolution and those who haven't. The schism this time is industrial rather than cultural, but it's the same phenomenon. It's happening at different times in different media industries, and at the moment it's mainly hitting book publishing. It's already happened to film, newspapers, TV and sequential art, and arguably to music as well.

Look at it this way: is YouTube part of the same industry as a TV channel or movie studio? Most importantly, do consumers approach YouTube the same way they approach their TV or the cinema?

Are most webcomic consumers also regular readers of 'print' comics? Do people see blogs as an extension of the newspaper and magazine industry, or as something separate?

My question is as much one of consumer psychology as it is of actual business practices. There have been attempts from the pre-revolution industries, ranging from the clever and successful to the tragicomically clumsy, to operate in all these new mediums. And in consumer-viewpoint terms, I think there is a clear difference.

We think of Youtube as offering far greater choice and convenience than a cinema or TV channel, at the expense of having to wade through a morass of crap and goatse to find quality content. Webcomics don't leave you dependent on what your local comic shop (if you still have one) stocks, nor do they require you to leave the house. With blogs, you get one article at a time, not a whole sheaf of articles on a huge range of topics, only some of which you're interested in.

Maybe I'm starting to sound partisan, and that's not my intention. The new model has more content, more access to content, and can probably keep pace with the times much better because there are fewer stages in the production chain. BUT the new model produces a lot more noise to go with its signals. Personally, I don't trust the filters currently used by the old model - they appear to me-as-a-consumer to be reactionary and cynical - but having filters, provided they're good filters, remains useful.

What's the relevance of this to us as authors? Well, I think we're still busily engaged in trying to treat digital self-publishing as part of the same industry as 'traditional', corporate publishing. Those of us who are pursuing self-publishing worry endlessly about getting readers to see self-publishing as 'just as legitimate as' trad publishing, but what we really mean is showing that it's the same thing.

And it isn't. No-one (or at least no-one with any sense) tries to pretend that putting a video series up on YouTube is the same as a TV company putting a show on your TV screen or schedule. I think a lot of the confusion and strife we're seeing between self- and trad-published authors and industry figures is traceable to this same confusion.

I think that those of us with an interest in digital publishing (and even if your ultimate goal is the traditional system, you should be using digital publishing as a stepping stone - it's a tool, and a powerful one) need to abandon this trend. We need to look at what digital publishing can offer that trad can't. We need to show to consumers that while we're just as good as trad publishing from their perspective, we're as different from it as YouTube is from a cinema, or as XKCD is from Superman.

We can offer far lower prices. We can offer short fiction without having to bundle it into anthologies or magazines. At the risk of sounding like I'm just blowing my own horn, we can do regular serials easily. We're not bound by whatever restrictions shape the ordinary paperback to its particular sizes and limit bookstore shelf-space. We don't have to ship our products in trucks.

If there is a schism between the information-age and the pre-information-age industry, it's a good thing. It means more options for consumers and producers alike. We need to stop both trying to heal the divide and slinging mud across it (in both directions). We need to welcome the divide, make it work for us, and work out how to demonstrate to consumers that it is there, and that they can benefit from that fact as much as we can.