Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Second Realm 4.5: The Only Thing We Know is That We Know Nothing

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The Rabbit Hole

5. The Only Thing We Know is That We Know Nothing

Pevan glared at Chag's back as they followed the Separatists and the Court Guard dispatched to find them a room to meet in. The little man had really put his foot in it this time. She hadn't even had a chance to check that Rel was okay after bearing the brunt of Ashtenzim's Second-Realm imprecation. Taslin had been looking after him, but that was cold comfort.

Ahead, the Guard ducked under a low archway and began to descend the stairs beyond. This was a primitive part of the Court, its walls crude shapes cut out of a material halfway between plaster and stone. It was rough to the touch, but the roughness seemed to come away on her fingertips when she ran them along the surface.

They'd left the familiar, stable parts of the Court behind almost immediately on leaving the trial chamber. Either the Separatists had demanded something closer to what passed for nature in the Second Realm, or the Gift-Givers wanted them well away from any other humans. What it meant for Pevan was claustrophobic corridors, uncanny lighting - candles that glowed from within instead of burning, or lamps where the flames hung downwards - and the near-certain sense that at a couple of points their winding path had doubled back through itself.

The staircase ended at a single door. The Guard pulled it open and pressed itself back against the wall. Ashtenzim oozed past, carefully keeping its tendrils well clear of the Guard. Lienia had already had to squeeze itself narrow, its thousands of metal hoops squashing from more or less circular down to long, thin ovals, but now it pulled tighter again to get through the gap. Without the rattle they'd grown used to during their stay in the Separatists' lair, the sight was eerie, as if Realmspace itself was squeezing the Wilder to fit.

Chag started to follow, but the Guard barred his way with a forearm that had to be almost a full yard long. Its wrist wasn't much thicker than an infant's, though, giving the whole limb, even the whole creature, a deceptive air of extreme delicacy. Voice almost as stiff and dry as a Separatist's, the Guard said, "I must wait here. I will escort your return to the Great Hall."

It lowered its arm again. Chag just gave a cursory nod, but Pevan let her relief show and offered the creature a quiet "Thank you." It felt good to do that small kindness in the midst of so much tension.

Not that that was enough to keep her from looking back nervously as the door swung closed on silent hinges. The room within looked for all the world like a small Warding Hall, low roof supported by two rows of four stout pillars, each a single continuous lump of dark grey stone. There were no hooks or cuffs fixed in the pillars, but there was a single-step dais at one end of the room. Had the Gift-Givers picked this room deliberately to spite the Separatists?

Although the dais was better-lit, torches doing a fair impression of burning in sconces on the back wall, the Separatists had halted not far inside the door. Chag seemed to have no complaint about joining them, even though the dimness took his thin face and turned it cadaverous. The bags under his eyes had only grown deeper since his stay in Federas' prison.

Ashtenzim wasted no time on pleasantries, its voice falling into the stillness like stale bread. "We must be brief. The trial of Relvin Atcar, and the Talerssi the Gift-Givers will amass from it, present a potent threat to our interests. If there is anything we can do to forestall them, then we must know soon."

"What does Talerssi have to do with it?" Chag's tone made him sound angry, as if the Separatists had wronged him somehow. It was so hard to make sense of the little man's moods sometimes. "If Rel wins the case, he gets off scot free and can join us then, right? Or he loses and they punish him. Where's the Talerssi?"

"Rel's not joining you of his own accord." Pevan folded her arms. "Particularly not after you tried to lay claim to us all at the trial. It rubbed me the wrong way, and he's a lot more stiff-necked about stuff like that."

"Relvin Atcar is not trying to win the case." Ashtenzim hung still, but vigorous ripples ran through Lienia. Pevan took that to mean it was the latter speaking. "His lack of information was no fault of the Gift-Givers, but it reconciles his actions to the Treaty. The case cannot be resolved. This means Talerssi to the arbitrator. Quilo will not hesitate to use that against us." The ringed Separatist gave a final shake and dropped back into its usual gently-shifting pattern.

"That doesn't make any sense at all." Chag sounded like he was taking it personally. What had gotten into him? "If the case fails, that's not your fault."

"Talerssi is something you cannot understand, Chag Van Raighan. Few have ever rivalled Quilo's strategic ability with it."

"So what do we do, then?" The strain in Chag's voice had as much fear in it as anger, she realised. It was in the ratty flicker of his eyes, too. Powerlessness, she supposed. Well, things were definitely out of their control.

"Tell us what happened at Vessit." Ashtenzim oozed back into motion, taking control of the conversation again, its voice utterly flat. "How did Relvin Atcar come to be under the Gift-Giver, Taslin's, authority?"

"Keshnu did some trick, made her take his Talerssi or something." Even low and sullen, Chag's voice whispered back from the low ceiling and bare walls in a way Ashtenzim's never could. Odd that the little man should seem so dissatisfied now when he'd been so keen to come along only half an hour ago. Still, she could remember the feeling of sudden icy vertigo that had rushed through her when Keshnu had wormed his way out of the Separatists' trap, and on that point at least she sympathised with Chag's anger. He finished, "Something to do with an interruption."

"You were instructed not to give anyone a chance to interrupt."

"We were instructed in a lot of things." Pevan could feel how close her voice was to a growl, but the Separatists would get the point. "It's time we were informed about something."

Ashtenzim - or it could just as easily have been Lienia, for all Pevan knew - didn't give her a chance to bring up her question. "Human rhetoric is not welcome among us, Pevan Atcar. Please refrain from it."

"No. I refuse." She folded her arms, wondering if the Separatists knew enough about Dora to have learned to fear this pose. Probably too much to hope for. "I refuse to support the Separation until you have answered the allegations that Taslin made about it. How will it affect the First Realm?"

"Shouldn't we give a report first?" Chag shifted uncomfortably from side to side. He'd never looked more like vermin. "None of us has all the information we want. Can't we at least try to start on the friendly foot?"

She glared at him.

"Come on, Pevan. The Gift-Givers aren't going to execute Rel in the next half-hour." He turned to Ashtenzim again. "After I went with Keshnu to free Rel, Taslin told Pevan that for humans, the Separation could be a disaster on a par with the Realmcrash. Is there any truth in that?"

Lienia rattled - with sound, this time, though it didn't echo - and there was a spasm somewhere deep in Ashtenzim's coils. One of them said, "Predicting the exact consequences of the Separation for the First Realm will remain impossible until we have the aid of a human Clearseer." The words fell further apart even than was normal for Separatists. Were the concepts involved really so difficult for them to grasp?

Pevan made no attempt to soften her tone. "Not good enough. I'm not committing myself and my brother to your cause until I have some answers."

Chag bit his lip. "No, it's our turn now. We messed up in Vessit." To the Separatists, he said, "We arrived in the wake of the first of the two big Realmquakes. Rel was convinced that Keshnu had caused it. When he learned that Taslin would only have authority over him for a day or so, he insisted on waiting in case Keshnu... well, so that he could intervene if there was another quake.

"The next afternoon, the really big quake hit. I..." He stopped, his gaze dropping to the floor. "I'm not sure I can explain it in terms that will make sense to you, but I panicked. Badly enough that I wasn't able to make any further contribution. I don't know what happened next. Pevan?"

She rolled her eyes at him. At least he'd been honest. "I took Rel to the Abyss. Keshnu was doing something to it, so Rel attacked him. I took care of the other Wildren there, but then Dora turned up and convinced me Rel had misjudged Keshnu. Taslin said she could stop Rel. The next I heard was the following morning, when she was seen fleeing Vessit, carrying Rel. We guessed she'd come here."

Chag started to say something, but she scowled at him until he subsided, then turned her ire on the Separatists. "Now, what about my answers?"

"Why did you not return from Vessit immediately on Relvin Atcar's release, as instructed?"

Pevan gritted her teeth. "What. Will. The-"

"No." Chag cut across her, his tone altogether firmer, his beady eyes narrow. "Pevan, cooperate, please?" The appeal did not really sound like pleading. "None of us are ever going to get the answers we need if we can't compromise."

"I can't believe you're swallowing this." What was wrong with him? "Does what Taslin said really not bother you at all?"

His face darkened, and she could see him forcing himself to relax. "If the Separatists are right, she has a vested interest in the status quo. You can't deny she met us with outright hostility today."

"Gift-Givers don't lie." She folded her arms, then let them fall back to her sides and straightened up when she realised how childish she was starting to look.

"Yeah, except by omission." Chag spread his hands, palms up. "Or wasn't your brother just arguing that if they'd told him more, he could have made a better decision?"

She bit back a surge of anger, at least far enough that she could get her next sentence out squarely. "And 'the exact consequences are impossible to predict' doesn't sound like dodging the question to you?" She rounded on Ashtenzim. "Predict some not-so-exact consequences, dammit!"

"Please refrain from emotive rhetoric, Pevan Atcar." It took all Pevan's training not to hear mockery in the flat voice. "The Realmspace around us is beginning to be affected."

"Sorry, Ashtenzim." Chag had clearly snatched the moment to take a deep breath and calm down. He turned back to her, tucking his hands into his pockets, as if he was an interpreter, and the Separatists' maddening focus a forgotten language that needed translating. "Pevan, did Taslin say the Separation would be a disaster, or that it could be? Because if it's the latter, she could be being just as loose with the truth."

He cocked his head to one side, a picture of reasonableness. She gritted her teeth and stared past him at the torches. What had the Gift-Giver's exact words been? The confrontation had been fraught, and while Dora had certainly taken Taslin's warning for truth, Rel had said that Dora's judgement was impaired. That she was becoming a Wilder, or something. That could mean she was capable of telling whether Taslin was lying, but it could also mean she'd adopted whatever Taslin's motivation was for the deception.

Finally, she had to shrug. "I can't remember. That doesn't mean I'm happy to let the question rest."

"Can you at least let it rest until we've got through this report?" He took his hands out of his pockets to spread them again. "You still think the Separation's a good idea, right?"

Did she? If she remembered one thing from that jarring encounter by the Abyss, it was Dora saying, Are you prepared to give up your Gift? She'd woken with that question ringing in her ears the next morning. It felt like a long time since she'd used her Gate for more than getting from A to B, but she hadn't forgotten the sensation of floating that came from catapulting herself a hundred feet straight up and letting gravity net her short of the sky.

She looked down, scuffed her feet on the bare stone floor. "I don't know, Chag. I like being Gifted. I don't think I should be the one to make the decision."

His face fell. If he'd looked hollow-cheeked and half-starved before, he looked soulless now. Mouth hanging listlessly open, he turned to Ashtenzim. When he spoke, he did so in the muted, hopeless tones of a depressive. "We didn't return straight away because Keshnu sent search parties out after us. At least some of them could definitely feel Pevan's Gateways, and we feared that if we headed North they'd be able to pick up our trail and catch us up."

"They had no grounds on which to arrest you." In a way, Ashtenzim's voice - or Lienia's, if it made any difference - was like Chag's, expressionless and monotonous. But the Wilder sounded too inorganic, as if its vocal cords were steel wire rather than flesh. What had prompted the change in Chag? He knew she'd been having doubts about the Separation.

He droned on. "I wasn't sure whether they might have been able to seize me on grounds of human justice. I didn't think to ask before we left whether my exemption as your bearer of Talerssi would apply to purely First-Realm crimes." The little man's eyes never lifted from a point in the air just slightly in front of Ashtenzim's shifting form. Pevan might as well not have been there.

What had she said that was different? That she liked her Gift? She could see that upsetting a Witness, but he had to have known anyway, didn't he? She made no secret of it. And despite her best efforts to keep him at arm's length, they'd gotten to know each other pretty well over the past month. Maybe she'd put him in mind of his brother for a moment. Rissad was probably even keener on his Gift, and that couldn't have been easy on Chag, growing up.

Ashtenzim's voice - maybe it was easier just to think of it as the Separatists' voice - cut through her musing. "Your explanation earlier implied that you felt you could have returned, but Relvin Atcar insisted you stay. Why did you humour him instead of obeying your instructions?"

Did she really have to explain even that? Chag didn't seem to fancy trying. She said, "Rel identified a threat to the Realm. As Gifted, we were obliged to investigate and respond to the best of our understanding."

"You are not Gifted. You belong to the Separatists now."

"I don't belong to anybody." Again, heat filled her. Ashtenzim was not making it easy to be reasonable, and there was scant hope of any support from Chag. At least his head came up a little at the sharpness in her tone, but he didn't meet her eyes. "And I will not abandon my duty or my Gift. If the Separation is a good bet for my kind, I'll work with you, but I won't leave human beings suffering and the First Realm in danger to do so. Rel said there was a threat. I trust him. We stayed."

"His belief was incorrect. You should have returned."

She rolled her eyes. "Well yes, as Rel was trying to explain when you burst in, we had no way of knowing that. Knowing what we know now, I wish we had returned straight away, even if I do still want answers about the Separation. This should all be irrelevant. Do you still intend to pry Rel away from the Gift-Givers?"

"We must, to forestall Quilo's tactics if nothing else. However, we should not conduct further planning in the Court. Even if the Gift-Givers find no way to spy on us directly, we may leave impressions they can trace later." As the Separatists' voice paused, Pevan found herself checking the walls, looking for scratches or marks that hadn't been there before. A foolish idea. Ashtenzim finished, "You will return to the white cave with us."

The Wilder started to drift towards the door. It took Pevan a moment to realise that he meant they were going right now. "Stop!" she shouted, and when Ashtenzim did not, she moved to block his path. "You haven't answered my question."

For a moment, she thought Ashtenzim might actually walk into her. Her gut tightened and she braced for the agony of contact, but he stopped just short. With adrenaline coursing through her system, it was actually faintly sickening to peer so closely into his writhing, bronze-skinned form.

She shuffled backwards a step and managed to fight her breath back under control, using the few seconds that bought her to formulate her question precisely. "I want to know what kind of consequences the Separation is likely to cause in the First Realm."

A shudder ran through Ashtenzim, then seemed to spread out through Lienia as well. "There may be some Realmquakes and local physics disturbances."

Pevan felt as though someone had just thrown a bucket of cold water over her. Every muscle in her body tightened, until she felt like she'd implode under the strain. She forced air into her lungs and leaned slightly to look past Ashtenzim at Van Raighan. The thief's face was hanging slack again, like a particularly stupid puppy's. At least he had the decency to look shocked, though she couldn't believe it was a surprise to him any more than it was to her.

She said, "Does that sound like another Realmcrash to you?"

"No, I..." His mouth opened and shut a few times, his hands tracing vague, meaningless gestures.

Pevan stepped around Ashtenzim, but the Separatist didn't resume its path to the door. Instead, like a parody of a child's mobile, it rotated on the spot to follow her movement. She ignored it, kept her attention on Chag. Her throat caught as she tried to speak, but she pressed on. "Ninety-nine out of every hundred people in the world died in the Realmcrash. You can't be happy with the idea of having that again."

The little man's voice squeaked as he answered. "It won't be anything like as bad. We don't depend on electronics the way pre-Crash society did. Lots of people died just because their machines didn't work anymore." He swallowed. "We just had two Realmquakes, and they weren't too bad, were they?"

"You didn't go into Vessit yesterday." The strength was coming back into her voice, but she knew she sounded cold. Well, Chag had earned it. If Wolpan had been here she'd probably have flayed him where he stood. "Don't you think I'd have brought more than starvation rations back if the town had them to spare?"

He stood his ground, face twitching in a whole range of different little ways. "We can prepare people, it's not like it will just happen overnight. No-one has to die."

"We should be doing that before starting to make plans to actually carry the Separation out." He cringed, and she piled on extra pressure. "And if there are that many lives in the balance, we have to let other people decide."

"No, we can't do that. People always decide in favour of the status quo." He walked up to her, tried to take her hand, but she shook him off. Hand held to his chest, he went on, "You see that, don't you? The Gift-Givers are actively trying to stop us approaching people. How could we persuade the whole First Realm?"

"If you can't persuade them, it could be because you're wrong about what people want." She clenched her fists to keep from seizing his shirt and shaking him. "How many people would accept the trade-off, anyway? One in every hundred to live. No-one is going to go for that, regardless of what the Gift-Givers do to you."

"That's my point." There was a wildness in his eyes, now, desperation in the imploring look he threw at Ashtenzim. The Separatist remained impassive. "Think how much better life will be if we don't have to fear the Second Realm all the time! We could live in peace and rebuild. No Sherim, no incursions, no Gifts."

Pevan forced herself to take a step back. "What's so bad about this life? If you're right, I've got a lot more to complain about than you. I grew up nearer a Sherim than any other child in the Realm. I've been Gifted for a year and a half, and in that time we lost Dieni and Temmer. I've seen and fought off more incursions than you've known in your life, probably." She poked him in the chest, hard. "If you think I'm going to trade hundreds of the civvies in my town, or even a handful of them, for your vision of peace, you're a fool. And you deserve your reputation."

He took her last words like an arrow to the gut, staggering backwards. When he looked up at her again, tears glistened on his cheeks. "No... No, you have to see. You have to see."

Something about the way he said it, like it was a slippery rope he was clinging to, kicked something at the back of her mind awake. It had been her affirmation that she liked her Gift that had toppled his mood earlier. It fit too well with this pleading.

Whispering, almost to herself, unable to believe it, she said, "This has nothing to do with the Separation, does it?"

His head snapped up to look at her, eyes wide as a snake's hypnotised prey.

She said, "It's about me. You really are in this for me."

Dizziness rose over her, her head going light. Her vision clouded, and she was turning, stumbling for the door. Chag reacted too slowly; the Separatists not at all. She heard the bang as the waiting Guard slammed the door after her, and then he - it? - was lowering her to sit on the staircase.

For a moment, his awkward voice buzzed in her ears. She shook her head and regretted it as a fresh wave of coloured spots bubbled across her eyes, but her hearing did straighten out. He'd asked her what assistance she needed.

She almost retched when she tried to speak. Curling to ease the spasm in her gut, she managed to pull herself most of the way to standing. Her voice rasped against her dry tongue, but she got the words out. "Just get me back to the Great Hall."

He lifted her, one of those delicate, unearthly arms under her back and the other under her knees. Bony and stiff as the support was, it gave her something to focus on through the whirl of not-quite-logical stairs and doors and hallways. The only thing she was sure of, as they passed through galleries and colonnades that were full of something like daylight, was that this was not the same route by which they had descended to the strange basement room.

Before long, the haphazard and ugly styles of the old, foundational parts of the Court fell away, to be replaced by the familiar mix of black and white marble. She asked the Guard to set her down, and was pleasantly surprised when he complied without protest. Her legs were unsteady, but she found her footing after only the length of one hall.

From there, it was just a pleasant stroll through some of the less well-travelled areas of the Court. They passed occasional Guards, patrolling or standing at post in courtyards, but she only once caught a glimpse of a Gift-Giver, robed in what looked like a very pale green or pink, turning a corner far ahead.

She needed to come to some sort of a decision about the Separatists and what to do about them, but she could tell from the surge in her blood at the thought that she wasn't ready to do so quite yet. Dora would have been able to kick her into shape in short order, and even Rel might have been useful, except for the fact that Taslin probably wouldn't let him out of her sight. That left Atla. Perhaps she could at least steady her nerves by talking to the boy. His grasp of the bigger picture was dim at best, but she couldn't fault his character.

He was waiting in the Great Hall when she got there, just staring up at the leafy ceiling. If you spotted the Hall building while flying down from outside the Court, it looked just like the rest of the place, dark slate and black gables, but somehow, from the inside, the Gift-Givers had managed to preserve this one magnificent piece of Second-Realm strangeness. The walls looked like they had been designed to open the space to the sky; branches laden with every shape of foliage and several colours of bloom spread across the opening, shimmering where sunlight fell through them.

It was nourishment for the soul, though Pevan wondered idly if Chag felt the same way. Atla seemed to sense something amiss as he turned and walked towards her. His smile of relief shrank and fell, his brow pinching in worry. He said, "Is everything alright?"

She took a deep breath. "Anybody ever try to impress you with actions you disapproved of?"

His frown turned puzzled, and he stared at her.

"Never mind." She waved the question away. "In some ways, I guess I shouldn't talk about it. Some of it ought to be private. Let me ask you a different question. Do you like being Gifted?"

"I... uh, well, I think so?" He cringed back a little, apparently from his own answer. Pevan chose to suppress her almost automatic eye-roll. Still struggling to see his thoughts through, he went on, "Do I count? I mean, uh, I'm not qualified... It's a big job, and I don’t... well, I don't know if I can really say yet."

She let herself chuckle. "Apart from the stuttering, you've done alright by me so far. What we've done today... this is what you can look forward to for the rest of your life. Are you happy with that?"

"Um... well, I-" He caught himself, gave her a sheepish look. "Sorry."

At that, she did roll her eyes. The apology was worse than the stammer. "I was joking. The question stands. What have you made of the day?"

"Is this a test?" He frowned again, wringing his hands. "I mean, uh, why are you asking?"

"Call it curiosity." She shrugged. "I love my Gift, I wouldn't give it up for the world. Chag feels very differently, and I'm only just starting to realise that." That thought made her pause, turning to look up at the ceiling. She'd assumed that people wouldn't be willing to trade some of their loved ones for peace, but... More folks lived in the South, where Chag and Atla were from, than up North. What would she think - how would she feel - if Atla agreed with the thief?

When he spoke, though, his voice trembled. "Are you and he, uh..?"

It took her a moment to figure out what the other end of that sentence was, and another to summon up the right level of laughing scorn. "I hope he didn't tell you we were. There's a Clearviewing that shows us as lovers, but it belongs to a path that I think we've diverged from."

"You're not... uh, there isn't someone else?" His voice dropped even closer to a mumble.

She caught herself short of answering, seeing the approaching disaster. It was so hard to remember that Atla was her own age. The boy - and he was a boy, a child, however much Pevan was a fully-developed adult - was just so adolescent. Of course he'd be fascinated by the mysterious stranger who'd swooped down out of the legendary, perilous North to carry him away from his humdrum life.

The question was how to let him down gently. She needed him functional, not heartbroken, and however stout he'd been on the journey, it was hard to imagine he'd been in love before. There was no time to cozen him, either. She smiled, as broadly and gently as she could. "I have a bit too much on my plate right now to worry about it, don't you think? Chag, Rel, the Abyss, the Separatists. I'll have to make some decisions soon, obviously, but as Gifted it's best to be businesslike about it. Something you'll have to think about, too."

He looked down at his hands again. "Yeah, I guess."

"There's no childhood sweetheart waiting for you back home in Lefal?" She put a little levity in the words, hoping to see him blush, maybe even bluster some adolescent brag.

Instead, he frowned. "No. I thought maybe, when I got my Gift, but... No."

Pevan raised her eyebrow, surprised. The Guide's face was by lengths more mournful and distant than should have been possible. Whatever his story was would have to wait for another time. In place of a searching question, she laughed gently. "It's not an attractive thing, being Gifted. The air of danger's all well and good, but take it from me," she reached over to clap him on the arm, "a lady wants someone who's not likely to die before forty. Some men like a Gift in a woman, or at least so I fervently hope. Something to do with not wanting to have to look after a shrew as she withers, probably, but a lady'll always go for the man who'll care for her."

Atla managed a grin, and if it was a little on the wan side, it looked genuine and simply conflicted, rather than false.

"You didn't answer my other question," she prompted.

"Huh? Sorry?"

"Today." She let her voice stiffen just a touch. "Does it bother you that this will be your life?"

"No." The answer seemed to surprise him, or maybe the speed of it did. His attention turned inward for a moment, then he looked up at the ceiling. She followed his gaze, enjoying her share of the moment. Quietly, without bringing his eyes back down, he said, "No, this is alright." Then he did frown at her. "I mean, bits of it were a bit scary, and it's not easy, I'm not taking it lightly." He waited for her to nod. "But I feel... um, I guess it's the feeling that I can make a difference. It matters that I can do this."

She ruffled his hair, drawing a brief scowl. "Good. That's the first step on the way to being a good Gifted, rather than just an able one." He smiled, but a stone dropped suddenly into the pit of Pevan's stomach. Her tongue and lips drying as she spoke, she said, "You felt powerless before?"

The thought troubled him. She tried to wet her palate while she waited for his answer, but nothing came. By the time he spoke, she felt as though she could barely move her tongue at all. He said, "I wouldn't, uh, put it quite like that. It's not so much powerlessness that bothered me, just... well, I guess it comes down to not really having a place in the village."

"What do you mean?" She tried to keep from sounding too incisive, but the net result was that her tone became teacherly, patronising in its sing-song happiness.

"I have four brothers." He shot a strange mix of frustration and longing at the middle distance. "All older, none of them Gifted."

"Ah." Coliter, the youngest of the Webberat sisters back in Federas, shared some of Atla's insecurities, though there was no way Coliter would ever make a good Gifted. Pevan gave the lad another kindly smile. "Hand-me-downs, the small bed, and not much room left in your father's workshop for you to learn?"

It was hard to characterise the sharp change in Atla's features. His eyes became startled, dark pits, the tension etched hard around them. "H-how did you know?"

"Happens in every village, I expect." She patted him on the arm again. "You're lucky, and it's probably to the benefit of your family, too. They haven't made it hard for you?"

"No." He shook his head, but his face began to droop into sadness. "I miss them."

"Chin up, remember?" She let her tone do the work of recapturing his focus. "Especially here. This whole place is about making the effort to present yourself well, remember."

When he stood straight and put on his serious face, he piled on maturity. The transformation was striking. He even spoke more surely. "It's hard, being Gifted. I mean, I can be a Guide, Bersh's training's been great for that. But I hadn't even thought about all this other stuff..."

"Likely Bersh hasn't either." Pevan shrugged, studying the boy's face. "It's no criticism, really. Probably he's never needed to be a Gifted before. Most Four Knots are all the authority most towns could need. But there's no reason not to understand how to play the role. You'll find yourself working with strangers a lot, people who need to trust you at a first impression."

He nodded, face as fixed as a statue's.

"Okay, let me ask you another question." She paused, waited for him to nod again. This was the question she was really worried about, and it almost stuck in her throat. "If I- If you could make the entire Second Realm disappear right now, so you never needed to use your Gift again, and neither did anyone else, would you do it?"

Atla spoiled his appearance of maturity by chewing his lip for a second, but when he met her eye there was no doubting how seriously he took the question. His voice dropped a few notes, his intonation as even as a Wilder's, though more gruff. "What's the catch?"

She grinned despite herself. "Top marks. If I'd thought to ask that, we might not even be here."

"Ask it?" His face went wide, and he lent back just a tiny little bit. "Of who?"

"The Separatists." She hugged herself, broke eye contact to watch a pair of Gift-Givers crossing the Hall, half-way to the far end.

"That's what they mean by Separation? It's not just not going to the Second Realm anymore?" He waited for her nod, and continued. "So what's the catch?"

She rolled her eyes, scowling. "Reports vary. Taslin said it would be as bad for us as another Realmcrash. Chag reckons the Separatists have the right of it, and it'll be a lot more benign than that. Just a few localised physics disturbances and some Realmquakes."

"Realmquakes?" The face that had seemed so fresh and innocent only a minute before had hardened to the point that the widening of his eyes made him look as much angry as afraid. "You mean like y- two days ago?"

"That's what I thought. I'm inclined to believe Taslin's account, from how cagey the Separatists were." She folded her arms and looked back along the hall, suddenly uncomfortable looking Atla in the eye. His tone when he spoke justified the discomfort. "So, we're going to stop them, right?" It was easy to imagine that Dora might have sounded like that as a trainee.

* * *

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