Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Second Realm 4.2: The Sins of the Brother

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The Rabbit Hole

2. The Sins of the Brother

One glance at the wreckage of New Vessit took the wind right out of Pevan’s sails.

Hardly a building remained standing, and only a single mast bobbed at the wharf beyond. The town had been driftwood from the waist up anyway, but most of the houses had bits of their stonework missing as well as a pile of smashed timber where their roofs and walls should have been. The packed grit of the broad, cold street was spotted here and there with smaller debris, mainly clothing. Vessit was poor by the standards of the South, disorganised and fragile by the standards of the North. She hoped Federas had fared better.

She’d left Chag sleeping off the panic that had seized him during the quake. He’d barely been coherent when she dragged him into the hidey-hole she’d found, in the basement of a long, low building near the shorefront, in the old city. Hopefully he wouldn’t wake up while she was gone – he’d be hopeless if he did.

Early in the morning as it was, the road was deserted. The Realm hadn’t flattened out until the small hours, and probably at that point most of the townsfolk had collapsed from exhaustion where they stood. Lost and alone with Chag in the dark ruins of the old city, Pevan had certainly wished to do something similar.

A stiff spring breeze brought the sea’s cold whistling through the side-alleys and up her sleeves. She’d had to leave too much of their gear stranded up a tower-block to flee the quake, and when she’d tried to get back there, she’d run into a total block. Strong as she might be in her Gift, she couldn’t make a Gateway to a wall that was no longer there. Probably it, and their packs, were pulverised rubble on an old tarmac road surface somewhere.

For warmth, she broke into a jog, past the wreckage of house after house. Her legs weren't happy about running, and the grit of the road felt far too rough underfoot, but she held to the jog as long as she could. Morbid curiosity rose in her, surprisingly powerful. Were there corpses in some of those houses? She cast the thought aside, but kept her ears open. If someone called for help, it was help she could offer, perhaps better than anyone else nearby.

Some of the houses had weathered the quake better than others. Most, at least, looked more salvageable than those right on the outskirts of town. She passed a couple where walls had clearly fallen against each other, the woodwork light enough to stay upright rather than snapping under its own weight. On the other hand, one plot was a charred heap, a soot-blackened tin bath the only thing to show that the ring of stones had been a house the previous day.

Even knowing that this was a poor region, with no natural timber and little but the sea to provide food, the state of the architecture was troubling. The nearest Sherim to Vessit was almost a hundred miles away. Besides feeding themselves, what did they do with their time, if not build decent houses?

After a couple of minutes, Pevan slowed back to a stiff walk, letting her breath recover. Ahead, a boy of about her own age, sandy hair sticking out at all angles, emerged from behind a house that looked more or less intact. He walked slowly, feet shuffling, head down. Concussed, perhaps, or at least in shock. She didn’t blame him.

She called, "Excuse me!" and broke into a run again for a few steps. The boy stopped and seemed to wake up, standing straighter and squaring his shoulders as he turned to face her. He was skinny, scrawny even, still unmistakably a teenager. She’d expected Vessit’s youth to be thick-set, trawlermen types. His coat hung slack on him, slim fingers protruding from too-long cuffs.

He managed a fair impression of a sailor’s gruff response to a stranger, though. "Who are you?" His voice was harsh, clearly worn from his fair share of shouting.

"Pevan Atcar, Gatemaker of Federas," she answered briskly, preparing to get bossy if she needed to. Growing up under Dora's eye was a masterclass in certain things. "I'm looking for your Four Knot."

He flinched. "Um, she's at the Sherriff's." When he wasn't trying to sound hostile, his voice was light and a little weedy. She could still hear the tiredness in it. He pointed back the way he'd come. "Over there, the one with the blue door. But, uh... maybe you should wait a bit. He didn't survive." The boy looked down at his hands, then swallowed and pressed his fist to his mouth.

"The Sherriff? I'm sorry." And she was, too, even if a part of her was cursing the delay. She reached over and squeezed his shoulder. "I felt the quake on my way. It was bad here?" Stupid question, really, but she needed to be able to talk to the locals if she was going to find Rel.

The lad shrugged, tucked his chin down to his chest, and covered his eyes. His voice a sob, he said, "We thought he might make it, if he could just survive the night. But... I dunno."

Something in his stance cut through Pevan’s impatience. Automatically, she gathered him into a hug. It was what she'd needed most when Temmer had died. The boy shook, but didn't resist. How close had he been to the Sherriff? He seemed too young and fragile to be a guardsman, which meant he was probably a relative. His head felt like a furnace against her shoulder.

It didn't take him as long as she'd expected to pull himself together. He straightened, rubbed his eyes on the back of his hand and sniffled. When he looked up at her - they were the same height, really, but he just seemed shorter - his eyes, though red, were intent, direct. "Why are you here? What brings you to Vessit?" Maybe he was a guard, after all.

"I'm looking for my brother. Relvin?" She stepped back, let him stand on his own. Let him work, stop him dwelling. "He came here a while back and we haven't heard anything from him."

The lad's face darkened. "The Clearseer? The, um, the Wildren were holding him, but he got away... yesterday? Maybe the day before. We were out looking for him when the quake hit." His eyes flickered across her face. "Maybe I had better take you to Wolpan."

Inwardly, Pevan breathed a sigh of relief. The boy hadn’t heard of her, didn’t know the role she’d played in Rel’s release. Something trickled cold through her gut as she thought through what might have happened if he had known. She could handle the boy, but the townsfolk were her only potential lead on Rel. Fortunately, her face had fallen blank, rather than tensing. The lad’s frown spoke of clearer perception than a boy his age had any right to. Voice steady – another legacy from Dora – Pevan said, "I can find my own way, if you're needed elsewhere..."

He shook his head and swallowed. "I should be getting back. I just... needed some fresh air. But I should be in the meeting anyway."


"Yeah, Wolpan wanted to speak to the whole squad. About..." He paused, a puzzled frown on his face. Then he stuck out his hand. "Sorry, I'm Atla. I'm a Guide. Um, up from Lefal for training."

That explained it. He didn't look local, but he called the Four Knot by her first name. Rel hadn't spoken highly of Wolpan, but she sounded like the kind of person who'd rub him the wrong way. Pevan broke off that train of thought, trying not to let his judgement lean on hers. Atla was still staring at her expectantly, something pointed in his regard. Playing it blithely, she shook his hand. "Lefal... that's down South somewhere, right?"

"Um, more East from here." He gave an awkward chuckle. "But I guess it all seems like the South to you, right?" His hand lingered on hers a bit longer than felt right, but she nodded as amicably as she could. He mumbled something, then started to walk back towards the side-street he'd indicated. "Come on."

She fell into step with him. The Sherriff's office, when she looked ahead, was obvious. It was the only stone-built place on the road, still intact though the remains of a wooden porch were piled beside the blue door, and what looked like an old sail had been thrown across the roof, probably covering quake damage.

As they approached, the door opened and four figures stepped out. Three women and a man. The woman in the lead was speaking, loudly, but the wind took the definition out of her words. Probably the Four Knot. Vessit had a female Clearseer, Pevan knew, and one of the other two had to be the Guide responsible for Atla's training. The last would be a Warder, in all likelihood. Probably the man. He had the doughty physique of a blacksmith, a mite less windswept and wild than a seaman.

It was the shortest of the women who spotted her and Atla walking up, and waved. Pevan quickened her pace, then slowed again as Atla failed to match her. He was staring at the ground, his step reduced to a shuffle. She rolled her eyes. "Come on, they're waiting for us."

The boy looked up, face pale, but at least he did start moving again. She half expected to see his bottom lip trembling. Mind you, from the look on Wolpan's face, he might have some reason for fear. The Four Knot looked like she'd been chewing rocks.

Better to lead by example. Pevan strode ahead, heard Atla's boots pattering on the road as he hastened to catch up. The four Gifted had stopped talking to watch her approach; her step hitched as their attention landed on her. She took a deep breath and fixed her eyes on Wolpan. This was a conversation she could not afford to lose control of.

"Good morning." She nodded to the Four Knot, whose glare didn't waver. Pevan offered her hand to shake. "I'm Pevan Atcar, Gatemaker of Federas. Sorry, I know this is a bad time for me to show up."

Wolpan left her hanging. "Relvin's sister." There was no ambiguity in her tone; she thought anyone connected to Rel was bad news.

"Is he still here?" Pevan narrowed her eyes slightly. Wolpan's stare was barely a shadow of Dora's, but Pevan was tired and the sea breeze was stiff. "Atla said he'd gone, but I need to catch up with him. I'll be out of your hair as quickly as I can."

"Your brother is an escaped criminal, and this town wants a reckoning from him." Wolpan folded her arms as Pevan lowered her hand back to her side.

She had to be careful not to give too much away. Trying to buy a little time, she swallowed. Her throat was a little too tight to try playing the innocent card. Instead, she frowned. It wasn't hard to summon up exasperation. "Criminal? What did he do this time?"

That, at least, seemed to crack Wolpan's hostility, just a touch. Pevan tried to put on a face that said you’ve only had to deal with him for a month, I’m seventeen. When the Four Knot spoke, though, her voice was still hot and harsh. "Look around you. All this is his fault."

Wolpan waved her hand at the ruins, and Pevan’s gut clenched. For a moment, she struggled for words, to try to say otherwise, but the Four Knot was right, probably more right than she knew. What could Pevan say to that?

"Be fair, Wolpan." The man spoke up. Atla had gone to stand behind his shoulder, so maybe he was the Guide. He looked like a Warder, though. Guides were normally smaller. He spared a quick, weak smile for Pevan, keeping his voice cool and benign. "The Clearseer played a part, to be sure, but we don't know what happened down there yesterday."

Pevan, who did know, bit her tongue and looked down at her hands. She tried to encompass the whole squad with her shrug. "He's always been reckless. I'm sorry for his part in this. We really need him back in Federas, though. We can't afford to be without a Clearseer."

"The boy's a liability," Wolpan spat.

"That's uncalled for." The tiny woman spoke up. She barely came up to Pevan's chin, but her eyes were wide and attentive, the set of her face intent but not hostile. Up close, everything about her screamed 'Clearseer'. When she turned to glare at Wolpan, the roundness went out of her cheeks. "The poor girl's not her brother. Didn't their Four Knot come here with him, too?"

Pevan looked around the group again. The third woman - she had to be the Warder, though she looked a little precious for that role - slouched with her arms folded, a lopsided frown broadcasting her scepticism. The Guide and Atla both offered Pevan sympathetic looks, but Wolpan held their attention.

Well, at least they weren't all trying to melt her the way Wolpan was. Pevan said, "Not technically, but Dora's replacement wasn't properly trained before she left."

"A habit Federas could do with getting out of." Wolpan actually sneered at her.

Pevan tensed, heat rushing through her. What did a provincial Four Knot know about the North, and-

She held herself back, remembering how Dora would deal with Rel. A deep breath let her relax enough to get her voice back down and level. "Really? That's a cheap shot, Four Knot. If you want rid of me that badly, just tell me where Rel went." She turned, deliberately moving her feet around so that she had her shoulder to the Four Knot. It wasn’t good politics, but it was the best she was going to manage. Hopefully her cheeks were rosy enough from the cold to hide the hot shame flooding her veins.

The snub stunned Wolpan enough that the Clearseer got in first. "We don't know where he's gone. You can appreciate he's not been top of our priority list since he got away. We've not heard from any of the Wildren who were holding him, either."

"Actually, Ton said he thought he saw a Wilder heading East at speed after the quake last night, with a couple of bodies in tow." The Warder spoke up, her voice prim and high.

A lump of ice settled in Pevan's gut. "Bodies?" Shame vanished, taking its heat with it. If anything could kill Rel, it would be two Gift-Givers.

"Could have just been carrying them so they could travel faster," the Clearseer said, quickly. "I've seen Wildren do that before." She reached over, past Wolpan, to pat Pevan on the shoulder. "Our Sherim's about four days' travel East. She might have taken your brother to the Court for trial."

That certainly made sense. She couldn't think why Taslin might cart Rel's corpse all the way to the Second Realm, but that didn't mean much. At least it gave her a lead to follow.

"When was the last time you ate, love?" The Warder stepped forward and took her arm, interrupting her moment's reverie.

Pevan shook her head, her forehead loaded with the weight of the last couple of days. Besides the sudden weakness in her neck, she felt only the cold of the wind. "Um... before the quake, yesterday. After that I came here as quickly as I could."

Stiffly, Wolpan said, "Get her some food, Bersh, but come back straight away. Atla can look after her. Thia, Marit, you have your tasks."

The Four Knot turned on her heel and stalked off down the street. The Clearseer patted Pevan on the arm again before leading the Warder off in the same direction. Pevan nodded to the two Guides and let herself be led back towards the waterfront.

The Guide deposited her in a warehouse on the fringe of the old city that had been taken over by the townsfolk as a refuge. Partitioned down the middle, this half had been laid out with crude planks-on-bricks benches and trestles. At one end, a handful of women whose exhaustion had turned them ghostly or cadaverous staffed a bench, passing out rolls and cups of water. Every so often, someone would come through from the other half, with slack cheeks and grey eyes, and just lean on the partition. Most had blood on their clothes; that would be the hospital, then.

The looks on the faces of those taking sustenance at the tables around her were little better. Most of the motion she could see was automatic, mechanical. The only exceptions were where people moved around, into or out of the warehouse. They came in pairs, always, one, injured, leaning on the other – the lucky one.

After only a minute or two tearing at her own ration, Pevan lost her grip on the cold private shock of Rel’s possible fate. As a feeling, it was in too much good company. Vessit as a whole felt like that hard patch in the gullet that makes you desperate to cry but lets no tears past. Seeing the buildings had been bad enough, but the people showed too clearly that most of those buildings were homes.

Atla, propped up on his elbows, his chin resting on interlocked fingers, was clearly no less affected. He alternated between staring at her bread – had the lad had anything to eat during the vigil for the Sherriff? – and staring at her face, and if his eyes held their unnerving directness, his eyelids were tight, leaving a narrow strip of white at the top and bottom of his irises.

She took another bite of the roll – plain fare, but welcome – and lowered it to the table. Atla’s eyes followed it down. After a moment, his head dropped too, into his hands. He was trembling, and for a moment Pevan took it as a sign of crying, but no tears fell to the bare plank under his elbows. Down the other end of the trestle, a broad-shouldered man of about Rel’s age glanced at the Guide, his face sickly.

Pevan leaned forward a little, so she could keep her voice low. "Chin up, Atla." Even at a murmur, she made the words forceful. The boy’s head came up sharply, and she wondered if she’d misjudged, but those wide eyes of his clearly saw something in her face that checked him. He waited, and, still keeping her voice down, she explained, "You're Gifted. These people need to know you're keeping them safe. Sometimes, all that means is not looking beaten when you feel you are."

He looked around, flinching away from actually looking directly at anyone at all. When he spoke, his tone was sullen. "You weren't here."

"But I do know my job." She took a sip of water, trying to pretend it wasn’t brackish. The kid was so green. "It's hard, I know. And sometimes it feels like it can't make a difference. These people need you, more than they realise." Hard though it was, she forced herself to crack a lopsided smile. "It's okay to doze, everyone knows you were up all night. But prop your head up when you do it."

"I can't do much for them as a Guide." Atla bounced a fist very softly off the tabletop.

"So?" Pevan ripped another bite from the roll, spoke around it. "Do what you can for them as a person."

He looked around, head up and neck straight, like a puppy alert to a strange new sound. His eyes settled on something behind Pevan and before she could turn to see, he was half-way out of his seat. The fellow at the other end of the table, and his similarly-sized companion, turned to look, even as Pevan hauled Atla back down.

She used his moment of bewilderment – again, like a puppy knowing it’s done something wrong, but not what – to get the first word in. "Okay, lesson two." A chunk of bread threatened to catch in her throat for a moment, but she coughed it clear. "Wolpan told you to stay with me for a reason. What was it?"

The boy glared at her, jaw set. Then he looked around, noticed someone looking back from the next bench, and his cheeks reddened. He lowered his eyes to the table, bit his lip. When he spoke, he took a long time over it. "She... thinks you’re a danger to us? To Vessit?"

Pevan grunted, smothering a chuckle with another drink of the too-warm, stale water. In Atla’s eyes, probably everything Wolpan did indicated some threat or other. The Four Knot was definitely of the angry stripe. Small wonder Rel and Dora hadn’t thrived here. She frowned at the trainee Guide. "Wolpan doesn’t like me much, but she’s smarter than that." Keeping the gesture small, she indicated the rest of the room. "You’re here because to everyone else, I’m a stranger. At a time like this, that makes people nervous. You’re not here because Wolpan thinks I’m dangerous, whether or not she actually does. You’re here because she knows the civvies will worry if I’m not watched."

That gave him pause. While he fiddled with his hands and tried to look around the room again without moving his head, Pevan took another bite of the roll. The water was grim, but the bread wasn’t bad, all things considered.

She felt Atla’s eyes land on her despite the fact she was peering into her cup at the time. His attention was powerful, unsettling, but without a hint of threat or anger in it. He said, "You aren’t angry about what she said?"

What did she say? More importantly, which of several possibilities did Atla have in mind? At least he was looking less beaten now. It couldn’t hurt the weary mood of the town to see the lad holding his own against her. She let herself frown, puzzled. "What do you mean?"

He swallowed, but she let him get away with it. The uncertainty didn’t carry into his voice. "What Wolpan said... I know she doesn’t like your brother very much."

"I don’t like my brother very much, some of the time." Pevan rolled her eyes. "I’ll be living with his reputation the rest of my life. He doesn’t bend his neck easily. I don’t like it when Federas gets a bad name because of... because of what happened." Better not to try saying it out loud, really. She’d end up defending Rel more than he deserved. Instead, she moved on. "No, Wolpan’s a fair judge of character and she knows her job. I’m sure she’d like to never see an Atcar again, but she doesn’t have to like me to see that I get what I need."

Atla ran a hand through his hair. Quietly, he said, "I don’t think she likes me much, either."

"She trusts you." Pevan put some effort behind the words. She could almost see the result play across the little Guide’s face. Nothing specific, but he seemed a little healthier. "At least, she thinks the civvies will trust you, and she believes you can hold that trust."

"I... really?" He looked around again, those relentless eyes studying other faces intently.

As if he was looking for some visible sign of trust, she realised. No-one had said a word to him in greeting, or even given him a wave of recognition, since they’d come in. She’d taken it as a sign of how traumatised everyone was, but maybe he hadn’t integrated well. He was a long way from home for training, which spoke well of his Gift, at least. Well, she was going to need a Guide if she was going to follow Rel to the Court.

"You think so?" Atla’s voice drew her out of the beginnings of a plan.

She nodded, bought time for more thinking by burying her face in her drink. It was so unpleasant as to be almost rancid, but she choked down as much as she could. No-one in Vessit was going to have any time for working on Atla’s training for a few days, and she needed a Guide to get her to the Court. The resident Guide would be needed here, or at least not off chasing Rel, since the townsfolk would almost certainly take that as a sign of Rel’s guilt. There was precedent for Gifted in training to have a stand-in mentor, for a few days or even longer if necessary.

It wasn’t going to be possible to get the grimace off her face when she lowered the cup, but she couldn’t drink any more. Hoping to cover, she stood as sharply as she could the moment the cup was back on the table. She fixed Atla with the glare she used back home when taking charge of incursions. "Come on, I want to speak to your mentor. What was his name?"

"Bersh." Atla got to his feet, stepping over his bench and catching a toe on it. He flinched, glanced at the men at the far end of the table, who’d lost interest, and turned back to her. His face was pained. "His... his house collapsed in the quake. This might not be the best time..."

A detail from the confrontation with Wolpan surfaced. She’d set the Clearseer and the Warder to tasks, but left Bersh at a loose end. A cold fist curled around her waist, and she could feel the shape of her frown changing. To Atla, she said, "His family?"

"Enlie – his daughter – is fine. Vanna broke her arm." The lad’s eyes flickered away, and he folded his arms. It took him a moment to pull himself together, but he nodded toward the partition. "They’re in the infirmary."

Not too bad, then. But for a Gifted used to his family being safe at home... Well, with any luck, Bersh would want Atla out of his hair all the more. Pevan glared at the table for a moment. If Atla hadn’t adjusted well to the town in general, how had he gotten on with the Guide’s family? He’d have been living with them. Maybe it would help keep his mind off it. She nodded once, curtly. "Alright. Take me to him."

"Um..." Atla glanced around. Well, people were starting to stare at them, upright and unmoving in the middle of the room, and the kid was obviously self-conscious. Twitching muscles in his jaw and neck betrayed his nerves, but he found the will to face up to her. "What’s this about?"

Something better discussed without anyone else in earshot, that was for sure. Time to work on his discipline rather than his public relations. Growing up with Dora had made everything a lesson, one way or another. Rather than answer him, she set off, briskly enough that she heard his boots scuff through a couple of skipped steps to keep up.

She looked back at him as they left the warehouse, amused to see him ducking under the wide roll-up door despite the fact his head had several feet of clearance. Trying to keep laughter from her voice, she said, "How long have you been in training?"

He actually stumbled at the question, meeting her eyes only clumsily. Self-conscious didn’t begin to cover it. She let him catch up, matched her step to his. Even then, he spoke slowly, cautiously. "I, uh, I came to Vessit last autumn."

"Gifted back in the summer?"

The question seemed to scare the boy for some reason, and he flinched away before mumbling, "Um, yeah."

Better to press on than give any more rein to his nervousness. If she was going to take on his training, even for a few days, the one thing that needed more work than anything else was his confidence. Remind him of what really counted. "You've had some time in the Second Realm, then. Any actual incursions?"

"There was an incident not long after I arrived. But... um, I wasn't involved." He looked away, cheeks colouring. She recognised the expression; she'd felt the same way half a dozen times during her training, when Temmer had ordered her to stay home.

"Chin up," she said again, and reached over to squeeze his shoulder. "I need a Guide, and Bersh is needed here. He's not going to have much time for looking after you with his family in a bad way."

Atla's eyes widened, then narrowed again, sharply. For once their penetrating directness was reversed - she could watch opportunity and suspicion fight within him in near-perfect clarity. Predictably, the result was uncertainty. He said, "I don't know if I'm..."

"You'll be fine." Pevan made the words as firm as she could. No point getting Bersh on-side only for the boy to go to pieces from fear. "I just need to get to the Court and check some things. Nothing fancy. You can't tell me you don't feel a bit useless here at the moment."

"I-" His hesitancy was endearing, if a little irritating. Still, he straightened a little before finishing, "Yeah. We'll see what Bersh thinks, anyway."

"That'll do. Lead on." She waved him forward. Atla picked up his step, though whether through enthusiasm or just the wish to not linger amidst the ruins any longer, she couldn't tell. It was more than a little sobering to follow the trainee she was all but plotting to abduct through the battered town. There were some blocks where so many of the houses were flat that she could see the next street.

She saw no other people, though, until they reached Bersh. The Guide stood statue-still by the ruins of his house, hands clasped atop his head, face pale. Pevan found a hitch in her step as she approached. He'd seemed warm, the friendliest of Vessit's squad, earlier. What change might seeing his ruined home by daylight have wrought?

Atla fell behind, unease clear on his face - well, the place would have been his home, too, for the last half-year or so - as Pevan approached Bersh. She moved as gently as possible, trying to be only a quiet presence in the big man's awareness. She couldn't afford to seem bluff or insensitive to his suffering. Still, before she could be accused of sneaking around, she stopped short. Her voice tried to flutter slightly against sudden unease, but she held it steady. "Excuse me, Guide?"

It was the correct formal address, but the flicker of a frown across Bersh's face told her it wasn't something he was used to. Probably still preferable to the presumption of using his name though. He blinked his way out of reverie quickly enough, at least. "Hm? Oh, sorry. What's up?" His voice was hoarse and stiff, with none of the resonance his barrel chest should have supplied.

She bowed her head. "Sorry, I know this isn't a good time. Atla mentioned your lady was injured." Still looking down, she wrung her hands together at her waist, trying to seem as awkward and apologetic as possible. A niggling tickle of unease somewhere just under her diaphragm made the act easy, but speaking just that little bit harder. "I need to make a trip to the Court, um, to see if Rel's there. I was hoping I could borrow Atla. Take over his training for a few days, if you like."

Now she did look up, not wanting to seem too shifty. She missed meeting Bersh's eyes, though, as the Guide turned to frown at his apprentice. There was no sense of chill in the air between them, though, except for the wind. Bersh frowned at her, just slightly, and said, "He's got a way to go before I'll pass him."

"I can't let the trail go cold, and I can't ask you to leave your town and family at a time like this." She didn't need to pretend any of the compassion she put into her voice. A half-step forward, on the other hand, was a calculated gesture of camaraderie, and she could see the slight shift in Bersh's cheeks as he relaxed. Pressing the gain, Pevan rolled her eyes and finished, "Besides, as people will insist on reminding me, I have some experience of working with unqualified Gifted."

That drew a dry chuckle from the Guide, and Pevan wondered if he could see the tension flooding out of her. Some of the warmth came back to his voice as he said, "Sorry about that. Wolpan's under a lot of strain right now."

"I can sympathise with that." Pevan smiled, leaned forward a little. "Let me tell you a little secret, something only Gatemakers travel enough to realise." She glanced back at Atla, jerked her head for the boy to step forward. Wouldn't hurt to let him feel included with the grown-ups. "Four Knots are as territorial as tomcats."

At that, Bersh outright laughed, close to roaring. Only the slight gasp at the end of the sound betrayed his exhaustion. "I'll take your word for it, lass."

"It's true." She straightened, folding her arms. "Dora's the same."

"Well, she and Wolpan definitely didn't get on." The Guide's face sobered, rounded edges flattening out, as he turned to face Atla. "Are you up to this, lad?"

Another unfortunate test. The boy really needed something to prop him up a bit. He cringed before answering, "I... uh, I hope so?"

Better not to let him stand on his own confidence just yet. Pevan shifted her feet slightly, moved a little way towards interposing herself between mentor and student. "I trained alongside a Guide, sir. I can look after him for a quick trip to the Court. The experience will do him good, don't you think?"

Bersh raised one eyebrow, and there was very little humour in the gesture. "It's your risk, love."

"I'll take full responsibility." She put a bit more weight into the words, let her gaze go distant, poking through the Guide. "I'm not messing around. We could all do with learning what Rel's been up to."

When she met his eyes again, she had him. He looked from the ruined house, to Atla, then back to her. His voice, when it came, was gruff, tightly-held emotions shifting in its depths. "True enough. True enough. Good luck to you both."

He didn't immediately turn away, so Pevan offered her hand. He shook, and she said, "Thank you. Best wishes for your lady, too."

At that, the conversation was over. She could tell by the way Bersh's attention went back to his house, leaving behind most of the brief burst of humour she'd drawn from him. Pevan shared a glance with Atla, and they withdrew as gently and silently as feathers on a breeze. As soon as they were far enough away for it to be polite, she accelerated, dragging the boy along in her wake.

She kept up the sense of urgency while badgering bread and a canteen of water out of the lady who was managing the town's food. The faster she went, the less chance Atla had to raise an objection or lose his nerve. As it was, he stayed quiet, simply nodding in mild bewilderment when people looked at him for confirmation that she wasn't a thief.

It was only as she asked for blankets that she realised Chag would present a problem. The stout, stone-faced woman in the refectory accepted the excuse of wanting a third for wrapping the food up in, even though Pevan floundered for a moment before coming up with it. The woman's eyes drilled into her as she left the old warehouse with the 'spare' blanket tied into a sling across her chest, bread and water tucked carefully inside.

The problem, though, was going to be explaining Chag's presence to Atla. Fingers of ice probed tentatively through the tangle of her guts as she wondered how the lad would react. Would he assume Chag was responsible for the catastrophe of the previous day? Try to turn them in? He had little enough foundation for trust, though he didn't protest when she led him into the old city rather than West towards the Sherim.

He didn't protest, either, when she didn't use a Gate to spare the mile or so of walking to reach the building where she'd left Chag. A clear sign of the boy's inexperience - anyone who'd worked with a Gatemaker regularly would have complained. Chag certainly did when she made him walk anywhere. Still, the walk bought her time to think.

It also justified the decision to pick up blankets as well as food. Along the unsheltered shorefront road, the wind tore in off the bay, laden with salt and cold mist, and even with a blanket pulled tight around her as a crude cloak, she could feel the heat being leeched out of her. Her cheeks and eyes began to sting, which only made it harder to think about broaching the subject of Chag with Atla.

Finally, the sight of the low row of gutted shops where Chag would be waiting brought her thinking time to an end. She stopped, and Atla, half a pace behind, froze instantly. There was fear in his voice as he said, "Is- uh, is everything alright?"

She took a deep breath and, despite herself, looked around before answering. Not the way to seem trustworthy, but there was something disquietingly attentive about the battered, lumpen, leaning towers of the old city. Meeting Atla's eyes was no more comfortable - the boy had definitely sensed something amiss. How to put him at his ease?

"I haven't told you everything yet." She held her voice steady by force of will, knowing it made her sound constricted and tense. Atla started to reply, but she shot up a single finger in the space between them and he paused. "I haven't lied, mind. We're going to the Court to find my brother and try to figure out what happened with the quakes. But, well..."

He stepped round to stand facing her, frowning. His eyes disappeared into shadow, which made it easier to press on. Trying to ignore how panicked she sounded in her own ears, she said, "There are factions among the Children of the Wild. Rel's caught up in a feud between two of them, and either one of them could have caused the quake." True enough, one way or another. She gave in to the tension that was pushing her words faster. Let Atla think she was afraid; in all fairness, she probably was. "At the moment, I just don't know enough to know which faction is on our side, if either of them are. We could be walking into anything at the Court. I was working with one of the factions, but now I'm not sure about them, and, well, I'm here with a... a colleague."

For once, to his credit, Atla didn't flinch. He did grow noticeably paler, though. "A Wilder?"

Now that she'd stopped speaking, it was hard to start again. The wind sucked away what little moisture was left on her tongue, and she almost gagged before she managed, "Worse. Chag Van Raighan."


"Caught up in the feud," she cut him off, somehow thrusting the words past her half-closed throat. Atla waited, ashen and slack-jawed, while she swallowed and licked her lips. "I'm not asking you to like what Chag's done. I don't and neither does he. But if you're going to be a Gifted, even this far South, you need to remember that dealing with the Second Realm is never simple. Until we get to the bottom of everything that's happened, I want you to treat Chag as a victim of Coercion. Understood?"

He didn't nod. Instead he swallowed, his gaze beginning to waver. "But..."

With the truth out, it was easier to summon up a glare. "If necessary, you can consider it an order." Atla blanched at the words, or maybe her tone, and she forced herself to soften, slouching just a little and folding her arms. "Look, I'm not asking you to like it. Give the man a chance. Right now, we need his contacts more than justice."

The words had the desired effect on the boy, but a vision of Dora's face rose in Pevan's mind. If she'd said the same in the Four Knot's presence, she doubted she'd have survived. If Chag turned out to be wrong, if Dora's judgement of the Separatists was fair, if Rel had almost destroyed the Realm, what then? How would Wolpan greet Vessit's next guest from Federas?

She almost missed Atla's muted, "Okay." He turned to look along the shorefront. "We're meeting him here?" Concentrate on the task at hand. Don't think too hard about facing Dora again, wherever she was. Pevan suppressed a shiver, nodded in the direction of the old shopping arcade. "Over there. Come on." She set off, jaw fixed tight, face tensed against any sign of inner doubt. Atla needed a leader far more confident than Pevan felt.

* * *

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