Thursday, 23 May 2013


What does it mean to say something is natural? Does it mean hills and valleys, wildflowers and singing birds? Are GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) natural? If not, what about seedless fruits? Is contraception unnatural? If yes, what about 'natural' preventative measures?

I see more and more people across a wide range of fields advocating 'natural' products, processes and attitudes as being better than 'artificial' ones, ranging from the peddlers of alternative medicines to anti-industrialists, and from the anti-GMO movement to the controversy over how long to breast-feed for. At base, though we're talking about a lot of different movements, some more rational than others, these views all have in common the idea that 'natural' means 'good' or 'better'. Let's call this view 'naturalism'.

I find naturalism utterly abhorrent, a preposterous distortion of language, culture, and in most cases also science and truth. I'm only going to focus on the part of the problem - language - that I'm qualified to talk about, though necessarily I'll touch on the others as I go.

So what does 'natural' mean? Presumably, it means 'like nature' or 'nature-like'. But what is nature like, besides immensely varied? It's true that from a distance, nature generally seems tranquil, harmonious and beautiful, but I doubt a vole in the claws of a hawk feels that way - and I doubt you'd feel that way with your skin covered in smallpox blisters.

Of course, the problem isn't really what we call 'natural'; it's what we call, either directly or by implication, 'unnatural'. Personally, I think there's no good way of making this distinction (or rather, no useful way of doing so), but even if there is, I don't think 'natural' comes out of it meaning 'better'.

What we really mean when we say something is 'unnatural', of course, is that it goes against (its) nature. Now, the only way to go against nature is by choice - by free will (I'm taking this as a matter of definition - the only other ways a thing can behave are randomly or causally determined, and both of these are fundamentally natural). So if a thing is to be considered unnatural, it must be a product of choice rather than causal law or randomness.

I don't think this is out of touch with how we normally use the term. The things we regard as most 'artificial' - meaning 'unnatural, but not necessarily in a way we hate' - are those which require the most complicated decision-making; the development of modern technologies that take a huge number of detailed individual choices to invent and assemble.

But all the best features of human society are the products of choice. The poetry of Keats, the music of Bach, the philosophy of Leibniz, the physics of Einstein, the biology of Watson and Crick, and so on. Our greatest achievements and inventions are, in this sense, unnatural - flying to the moon, eradicating smallpox, training to the point of running the 100m in nine and a half seconds.

And it's worse than that, too, if we look at what elements of humanity we consider natural. What is human nature? We invoke human nature when bemoaning the selfish, the greedy, the cruel, the small-minded, the hateful, the tribal. When we speak of human nature, we speak of the caveman, the atavistic savage. Or we speak of some of the worst people in our society as 'unable to restrain their base natures', from paedophiles and psychopaths to 'testosterone-addled' bankers.

So if 'natural' is good, human beings are trapped coming and going. Either we behave unnaturally (and thus, according to naturalism, badly) or we give in to our base and horrible natures. We are doomed to evil either way.

This is why I find naturalism so abhorrent. It repudiates or denies all human goodness. Look at the great moral values of human society - justice, mercy, democracy, art and so on. I can think of only two which appear in nature: innovation and compassion, and the innovation of nature is in its arms race; its compassion is purely tribal.

I'm not, by the way, claiming that we shouldn't be more environmentally conscious and conscientious in our actions, particularly at the level of national and international policy. I just don't think that branding 'unnatural' or 'artificial' as 'evil' is a good idea - if nothing else, saving nature from our own worst excesses is going to require huge artificial processes.

And there's a clue here. It's in our interests to treat the environment well because 'nature' is simply the combination of us and our environment. We are part of nature. After all, it's perfectly plausible to argue that free (or at least rational) choice is part of our nature, and if we do this, then our choices are part of nature too.

Nature, like us, can be staggeringly cruel and merciless. It can be destructive and murderous. It knows no fairness, only the rule of might - the strong and the lucky survive, the rest live in fear until they die. Very few human deeds equal the horror of those species of parasite wasp that lay their eggs inside still-living beetles so their young can eat their way out. Few if any human deeds equal the scale of death from smallpox.

Our civilisation, with all its triumphs and terrors, is natural, or at least a mirror to nature. My point is not that we should not worry about morals, or that we should not be ecologically responsible. My point is only that the natural-unnatural distinction is arbitrary, at best unnecessary and at worst pernicious and nihilistic about human culture.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Digital Dandelions

More wonderfulness from Neil Gaiman. Watch it all, but the key point for today's purposes is just after the fifteen-minute mark where he starts to talk about being a dandelion.

Gaiman's idea is that in the new digital landscape, where the problem of monetising creative work is not about getting past the gatekeepers but standing out from the crowd (though this shift might actually be a bit of a chimera), what matters is exposure, and that exposure is best chased by diversification. Rather than committing monomaniacally to one project and frantically shopping it around to everyone who'll listen, you take on as many projects as you can sustain at once, in as many different fields as possible, reaching out to as many people as you can.

This suits me just fine - I'm a gallivanter by preference, and I enjoy having too many things to do with my time. It keeps things varied. Sure, I can focus like a madman when NaNoWriMo calls for it, but not for terribly long; I always find myself wanting to go and do something new after a few weeks, or months at most.

So I've started writing reviews for Liverpool Acoustic, a local music website. This brings me up to being four kinds of writer all wrapped up in one: author, blogger, academic and critic. Actually, depending on what counts, I can count six, since I'm also a lyricist and composer of music. All of which is great, if tiring - and there's a lot of synergy between all these different activities. Each of them is good training, one way or another, for all the others, and it's also feasible that there'll be some transfer of audience between some of them, too.

And this is a profitable business model in the long run (at least, it seems to be working extremely well for Gaiman), though perhaps it's wrong to call it a business model; it's not that complicated. It's just taking every opportunity that comes your way. Trying new things. Doing things because they're interesting, and not worrying too much if they fail to bring in any money.

It sounds, to me at least, like Heaven.

But there is one clarification that's needed. Gaiman contrasts being a dandelion with being a mammal. Mammals, he says, spend a huge amount of time and energy on each child. Dandelions don't care - they scatter their seeds far and wide, and don't worry if ninety or even ninety-nine percent of them fail to sprout. And if you're careful with how you interpret the metaphor, that's fine - the emphasis should be on not caring too much about the failures.

The thing is, I think not caring enough about our products is exactly the accusation being levelled at self-publishers by the trad establishment. The perception of us is that we're unprofessional and inexperienced, and as a result don't put in enough effort and produce work of lower quality. We're accused of generating a vast literary mess which produces very few flowers.

So we have to very careful to only take the best of both approaches. Being a dandelion doesn't mean being careless - after all, the dandelion's floating seed is a miniature triumph of engineering - it means not letting our failures discourage us. We need to be as professional and attentive as mammals, but as energetic and experimental as dandelions.

I can't think of a good metaphor for all that, though, so I'll just say 'Be digital-age writers!' and leave it at that.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Second Realm 4.6: We Have to Go Deeper

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The Rabbit Hole

6. We Have to Go Deeper

The room Taslin had found for Rel to await a verdict in was very definitely not a prison cell. Very definitely, by a very narrow margin, not a prison cell. He didn't need Clearsight to pick out all the ways that it had been carefully designed for exactly the level of comfort and welcome that implied.

He had an armchair to sit in, but the floor was bare boards. The window had an excellent view, out over a courtyard and the top of the outer wall to the mad plains and forests beyond, but in making it narrow enough that he wasn't constantly bombarded with Second Realm logic, they had also made it too narrow to squeeze through.

There was a full-size single bed in the room, neatly made with the sheets already turned down, but the frame was unadorned and - he'd checked, out of curiosity - bolted to the floor. He had a mirror, definitely not glass, and the wall opposite bore an elaborate, abstract mural designed to look like a framed painting.

Taslin had told him there would be a Guard outside the door if he needed attention, but he could read the subtext in that clearly enough. It was, almost paradoxically, a step up from the cell Keshnu had carved for him under Vessit, but he was in it and under guard. The rest, he decided, was leniency for good behaviour.

Marking time was hard with only the Second Realm's sky to go on. He didn't have Pevan's trained knack for it. Hopefully she'd get free of her entanglement with the Separatists soon. If they let her go. Their appearance at the trial, Taslin said, had been their most flagrant act since the Treaty of Peace was signed.

Again, he walked to the window and stared at the view. It made about as much sense as the last three days had. He could still feel the dull weight of logic fatigue somewhere in the space just above his eyes. Whatever Taslin had done to help him sleep safely, it had worked better than he could have expected, but by the Gift-Giver's own admission, it was at best a stopgap measure.

There was a knock at the door. "Rel? It's Taslin."

His heart seized, chills flooding through him. It could only be his verdict. No-one had said what the punishment would be if his defence had failed. He took a deep breath and turned to put his back against the wall by the window. Only when he was settled did he call, "Come in."

Her smile told him the answer even before she'd finished stepping into the room. Her blade-like face still made her row of perfect teeth look predatory, but a light danced purple in her eyes. Somewhere in the hours since he'd last seen her, she'd exchanged her formal, flowing, gauzy dress for a low-necked one of shimmering white, stitched with patterns of violet thread that got thicker and thicker towards the cuffs and diagonal hem.

A gem of stunning agate, red enough to be edging out of lavender towards deep pink, hung from a fine silver chain at her neck, and drew his eye remorselessly to her ample cleavage. Her hair was held by a tiara that seemed little more than two pieces of wire weaving through a network of small rubies.

She said, "The case is stalled. No Talerssi has accrued from your attack on Keshnu, and your ignorance is held blameless in the eyes of the Second Realm." A shadow flitted across her features, but was gone in a moment. "There remain things you must answer for in the First Realm."

He nodded. "I will face that in due time. What happens now?"

"Quilo is marshalling his Talerssi through colligation. It will be days before it can be applied to the Separatists." Taslin took a small step forward, the motion beyond tentative and into outright dainty. It was so unlike the Gift-Giver that Rel missed what she said next.

"Sorry, say again?" He blinked, glanced down then back to her. It was good to be able to talk to a Wilder without having to worry about formulating his sentences correctly, but it was making him lazy.

"We have that time to rest and ready ourselves." Again, she took a step forward. She almost looked nervous to approach him. Her voice stayed calm and businesslike, though. "If we can, we must guess the Separatists' next move."

Rel slouched a bit against the wall. "They were trying to recruit me because they wanted a human Clearseer, Chag said. It might be that as long as I'm with you, they don't have a next move." He frowned, "Or they could go after one of the others. Soan of Ilbertin is probably their best bet, or the new lad from North Edda that he's training, Horvin. Dora said she'd had good reports of him."

"That is definitely something we must stop, then. The Separatists have never had a Clearseer, nor should they." Taslin's brow lowered slightly, and her whole face darkened as a result. "We have always been careful to keep the Gift out of their clutches."

That didn't make sense. Rel rubbed his forehead. "Sorry, I don't understand. Your kind have to be Gifted Clearseeing the same way I was?"

"Yes. It is not a matter of common knowledge, obviously. We have not yet found a way to explain the true nature of the Gift to your kind. It was easier to allow the assumption that it arose as a natural mutation." She softened, then a worry pinched wrinkles around her eyes. Say what you like about Wildren in general, Taslin was scrupulous almost to a fault in displaying her emotions. "You don't consider that another insufficient information problem?"

He shook his head as Taslin edged closer again. Her body seemed to be at odds with her face as to what was going on. He put it out of his mind and said, "I can't see a problem it's causing, at least at the moment. Though in this case, spreading the truth could only lower suspicion of your kind in general. I've known a number of humans who were uncomfortable with the idea of me prying into their futures, never mind Wildren."

"Would it really allay doubts?" She was now standing only a few feet away, her eyes level with his. This close, her irises looked like nests of crystals, cut finer than any human hand could manage, laid next to each other with perfect precision. Long, glittering lashes flickered as she went on, "If so, it might be easier to explain that there hasn't been a new Clearseer among my kind since the Treaty of Peace. We have tried to make that known before, though, and your kind were generally sceptical."

"They would be," he growled. "You really haven't created any new Clearseers in that time? Why not?"

"Our supply of the Gift is limited. The decision was made that your kind needed it more than mine." She nodded as Rel's eyebrows shot up. "It seems an extreme decision to me, but many decisions were made and codified at that time that I do not fully understand, even without looking at those involving First Realm logic."

"You weren't party to the planning? Dora said she thought you were young, forgive my saying so, but-"

"Rel, I wasn't born then."

"What? But..." Well, Dora's guess had been right, then. He supposed there was a youthfulness to Taslin that wasn't just the vanity of her appearance. But still.... "How old are you?"

She flinched slightly, her eyes flickering away from his for a moment. "As close as can be reckoned, I'm about Pevan's age. Seventeen."

It took him a moment to recollect his wits. His jaw dangled open like a dropped puppet's. Seventeen? She put all his training and expertise to shame, despite his extra years. A thought popped up, offered some consolation. "You mean seventeen years since you Named yourself?"

That brought a short, sharp chuckle out of her, the refractive depths of her eyes shimmering. "No, seventeen since the neonatal shear that created me. Do you measure your age from your first word? It's more like fourteen since I took a name."

Fourteen years. To learn a whole language and, from what Rel had seen over the last month, almost a whole alien logic, not to mention all the skills and powers of a Gift-Giver. He swallowed. "I think we must be teaching our children the wrong way."

Again, Taslin laughed, her face open and joyful. The guilelessness of it triggered old, instinctive suspicion, but he brushed it aside. "Knowledge acquisition is easier under our logic than yours. The process is not complicated by physics."

Shaken, admiring the Gift-Giver in a completely new light, Rel clawed back the lost thread of the conversation. "Still, couldn't you just ask the Gift-Givers who drafted the treaty to explain?"

"They all died long before I was born." Her face turned sombre, almost fast enough for the change to seem unnatural.

"God, I'm sorry." Rel managed to speak despite the sudden twist of ice in his gut. "It must have been a terrible disaster to lose them."

"A disaster? I don't follow."

He was starting to lose her in his tangle of First Realm logic. A deep breath bought him time to get his thoughts together. The only thing we know is that we know nothing. What conclusion was he jumping to that was causing the confusion? He cleared his throat, trying to shake off lingering tightness, and said, "How did they die?"

"The end of their natural life-spans. Old age." Taslin paused. "Except for Nirlok of the Realm-Finders, who was taken by a Ragehound. His loss could be called a disaster, I suppose."

"Old age? All of them?" It seemed a very striking coincidence, if that was all it was. There was something else he was missing.

Taslin leaned forward slightly, and when he managed to fight his gaze out of her cleavage, he found a look of concern on her face. That baffled worry bled through into her voice. "Why are you so surprised? They were among the most senior in their factions, and it has been over sixty years. Few enough of my kind are alive who remember any of the Treaty-Drafters. The last who had a name when the Treaty was signed died almost two years ago."

He thought of Keshnu's subtle, patrician wrinkles and silver hair; Quilo's short, stooped form. Senior Gift-Givers both. When he finally got air past his windpipe, his voice emerged at a whisper. "I thought you lived for centuries. I've met humans who were alive when the Treaty was signed. Grandma-" He choked off.

"Ah, I see. This is an assumption your kind seem to make almost automatically." A brief look of amusement crossed Taslin's face. "On the rare occasions the matter comes up, we correct the perception, but it has not seemed to be worth the effort of disseminating the information more widely." She lifted her arm - he hadn't noticed, but she wore white gloves that sparkled with diamonds across the backs - and rested it on his, just above his elbow. "An average lifespan among my kind is a little shorter than that among yours, something like fifty-five years."

Rel's head made a hollow sound as he let it flop back into contact with the wall. The sound seemed appropriate. Thoughts zinged around the space between his ears, far too fast for him to catch one. Did he feel duped? Should he? Had the Gift-Givers gained anything? Would he have treated them differently if he had known they were not ancient and wise? More of their wisdom had survived the Realmcrash. Did it matter whether it had been stored in Wildren minds or in whatever they used for books?

Taslin watched him, her face still set with gentle concern, unmoving. Finally, a single worry fought its way to the surface. He pieced his question together slowly. "So, if there have been no new Wildren Clearseers since the Treaty, and there are none of your kind alive today who were alive then, there should be no surviving Wildren Clearseers. Right?"

"There are none." Taslin's eyes narrowed.

He gave a slight shake of his head. "The Separatists have a Clearseer."

"You said they were looking for a Clearseer." The Gift-Giver's expression slid off her face. "Among your kind."

"Yes, to work with their Clearseer, Delaventrin."

Taslin's face and form actually blurred, her jewels and eyes ceasing to sparkle, the intricate embroidery on her sleeves melding into a smooth gradient. Even the basic shape of her face seemed to shift. Her skin lost its texture, until it looked painted-on. Only severe and deep-cutting shock could cause such an extreme lack of self-control in a Gift-Giver of Taslin's talents.

With painful slowness, she refocused herself. Rel found he couldn't look away, despite the uncomfortable taste of voyeurism he found in the back of his mouth. Her dress stayed plain, the purple patterns on the sleeves becoming dye rather than needlework, the jewels nowhere to be seen. Her face rose out of haze, her complexion a shade too pale, the intricate crystalwork of her eyes lost in the depth of their colour.

Eventually, her voice stilted and fitting only awkwardly around the sounds she made, she said, "This is very important information. It explains how they were able to navigate and plan the path they sent Chag Van Raighan on."

Speaking seemed to help her, though Rel could think of nothing to reply with. The thought of going up against another Clearseer, one whose Viewings were not bound by human logic, one who could have plotted out the long terror of the winter, left rocks grinding against each other in his gut. Taslin's colour improved, and a moment later a rush of emotions cascaded over her face.

She settled on one he decided to interpret as urgent focus, all the lines of her face hard. Reaching forward, she took one of his hands in both of hers, held it up in the space between them. The diamonds on her gloves were back, and so, when she met his eyes, were those amazing crystal irises.

"Rel, this is really important information." Her voice was breathless, but it wasn't quite urgency, or at least not an urgency that had anything to do with the Separatists. "I want you to know, though, that even if we hadn't stumbled on this, I'm very glad you're free to challenge the Separatists with me. It means more to me than I can express to work with you."

For the first time, he could see what Dora meant about the Gift-Giver's youth. The conversation just laboured through must have played a part, but she did genuinely seem younger now. He gave her fingers a squeeze, searching for the right words. "Um... thank you, I guess. I'm glad to have you as an ally too."

A knock on the door made him jerk backwards hard enough to bang his head on the wall. The lump of fatigue where the front of his brain should have been bounced around his skull a few times. Taslin stepped back carefully, swallowing once before she turned to face the door. Rubbing the back of his head, Rel pushed himself upright and called, "Who is it?"

"Pevan. I need advice." A lie, since Pevan would never ask his advice about anything, but a lie that she would know he would know for a lie, chosen because of what it would tell him. She wanted to talk about some job they needed to do together, probably something that needed to start with a Clearviewing. His head pounded at the thought, but he needed to figure out how to handle the conflict between his sister and Taslin.

If she was there because she wanted to know the verdict from the trial, she'd have asked if he was alright. If she thought he was out of line over something - which usually meant something she thought he'd promised to do when he hadn't, like join the Separatists - it would have been 'We need to talk'. They'd never agreed to have a code like this, it was just what happened when you worked and lived so closely with someone.

The trick was not really reading her intent - probably her own discomfort with the Separatists had come to a head at her meeting with them. It must have lasted a long time, unless she'd gotten lost in the Court. The problem was trying to work out how she might interpret whatever he answered with. He needed some way to warn her about Taslin's presence.

He settled on, "Is it urgent?" If it was, she'd come in and take her chances, which would be her best bet if she was actually fleeing the Separatists. If not-

"Sort of," was the answer, the words muddied by the thick planks of the door. She wasn't sure, she was relying on his judgement. That meant she wouldn't blurt out anything the moment she walked in. Probably.

He walked past Taslin to the door and opened it. On the other side, she started, standing up sharply from where she'd been leaning on the panel. Their eyes met, and he glanced down and to his left, pressing his head against the doorframe to help hold it still. She nodded in acknowledgement of the signal. The skin around her eyes was puffy, he noticed.

Behind her stood the scrawny Guide trainee who'd brought her and Van Raighan to the Court. She saw his suspicious glance at the lad and said, "He's a good guy. Helped me get my head screwed back on straight."

That settled it. He stepped back from the door, saying, "Come in, both of you."

Taslin had settled herself smartly in the armchair, her dress back to its full resplendence, though a fan of lace now rose from her neckline, just thin enough to show the glittering stone in the necklace beneath. Rel turned in the middle of the room and opened his arms, and Pevan grabbed him tight enough to bend ribs.

When he grunted, Taslin actually started to lean forward, as if about to come to his aid, but he shook his head at her. Pevan's forehead was hot against his chest, and for a moment he thought he felt a tremor run through her. Unlikely, even given the upheaval she'd clearly been through. He let his arms settle about her shoulders.

"She's a Separatist," hissed Taslin.

"Not anymore, I'm guessing." Rel bent his head, pressed his cheek to Pevan's hair. A stray strand of it prickled his nose.

She gave him another squeeze and pushed away, turning to Taslin. There was a light of defiance in her eyes, but also, however impossibly, the gleam of tears. When she spoke, her voice had an unsteady edge that didn't quite seem faked. "I want to return to my station as Gifted. I know I was foolish, but I only went to the Separatists because I believed their ends better served humanity."

"As Gifted, you are sworn to uphold the Treaty of Peace." The Gift-Giver affected a sternness that would have melted most humans where they stood. Pevan held firm. "Not serve the ends of humanity."

"Taslin!" Rel snapped, barely holding back stronger language. He got himself back under control as Taslin turned to face him, her expression an awkward mix of surprise and alarm. "We've all made mistakes. Pevan's hardly measure up to mine, and anyway another ally or two can't go amiss. If nothing else, she may have a better idea of the Separatists' plans to guide us."

Pevan was staring at him, mouth hanging open. When he met her eyes, she blinked, and her face turned suddenly to a mask of sardonic amusement. "Who are you, and what have you done with Rel?"

He shrugged. "I, uh..."

"Had she done as instructed in Vessit," Taslin's tone stayed hard, her face like an axe, "Dora might not have wandered so far from her body."

Rel looked from the Gift-Giver to his sister and back again. Pevan had fallen back into herself, head bowed, shoulders slack. The Guide, still standing by the door, looked completely lost. A lump settled in Rel's gut, not quite cold, but hard and sore. He'd been dimly aware of Pevan's presence before Taslin joined the fight at the Abyss, unable to see what she'd done after taking the other Wildren elsewhere. Her demeanour said she knew she had something to answer for.

She mumbled something. It was hard not to look at Taslin, but however much he'd agreed to follow her lead, she couldn't be allowed to control this conversation. Trying to make his voice as gentle as possible, Rel said, "What happened?"

Pevan looked at Taslin, who said, "I told her to find some of my kin and bring them to the Abyss to support Dora. She never returned."

He met Pevan's eyes, saw more tears there, her cheeks and eyebrows tight with remorse. She whispered, "I didn't know who to believe. Whether the Wildren would help Dora or not."

"I-" Heat surged through Rel, just for a moment, an instinctive response to Pevan's betrayal, but he stamped the reaction down. A heavy breath settled him. "You probably have me to thank for that too." He reached over and squeezed Pevan's shoulder. To Taslin, he finished, "My point stands. Without me, Dora wouldn't have needed help in the first place. We all screwed up. Let's focus on getting things straightened out."

The Gift-Giver stood, her eyes still locked on Pevan, who cringed as if before a physical assault. "Where are the Separatists?"

"I dunno," Pevan mumbled, glancing at Rel. "I left them in the... that room we were meeting in, the one that looked like a Warding Hall."

"How long ago?" No mistaking the way Taslin's tone sharpened. She sounded like she'd picked up that particular inflection of anger bitten back behind intense focus from Dora. Rel started to step forward, to put himself between the two women, but Taslin stopped him with a brief glare.

Pevan looked around, biting her lip. "I... um, half an hour? I don't know."

Taslin rolled her eyes - that had definitely come from Dora - and folded her arms. "You should be doing better than this, Pevan."

It was Pevan's turn to give Rel a stay-out-of-this look. From somewhere, she found the fortitude to pull herself up straight. Her voice steadied, too, as she said, "I wasn't operating at my best, I'll admit." She swallowed. "If time is important, shouldn't we better get going?"

"Yes, in a moment." Taslin turned to the Guide. "You will have to wait here. We cannot tolerate the risk of your Gift damaging the Court's foundations."

The lad's face went pale. "Wait? But, uh..."

Rel bit back instinctive criticism. The kid was a trainee, he couldn't be expected to measure up yet. Pevan went over and took the Guide's arm. For a moment, Rel thought she might hug him, but she just stood there, frozen on the brink of further reassurance.

Somehow, it still seemed to have the desired effect. The Guide swallowed loudly and said, "Is, um, is there anything I can d-do?"

Taslin's face actually seemed to soften a bit. Probably she sensed something in the lad that wasn't obvious to human eyes. Her voice stayed harsh, but he didn't cringe as she said, "Go to the Great Hall and find Quilo, or someone who can lead you to him. Ask him to put the Guard on alert for Separatists."

The boy fled, diving for the door almost before Taslin had finished speaking. Pevan stared after him for a moment, then turned to Rel with a look halfway between puzzled frown and sardonic exasperation on her face. Rel returned a grim nod, searching for something to answer her with. Taslin gave him no more time to think, though, heading straight for the door herself.

Rel followed, letting Pevan take the rear. Taslin set her usual stiff pace, leaving little breath for talking. Immediately, she led them away from the central areas of the Court, to a narrow door which opened onto long, descending stairs. The bottom was shrouded in gloom, but Taslin gave them no time to pause in trepidation.

Over her shoulder as she descended, Taslin called back, "Absolutely no talking until I say otherwise. Parts of this Route are not word-safe."

That sent a tingle of nerves down Rel's spine. Myth and rumour spoke of secret ways in and out of the Court, and the Gift-Givers had never trusted humanity with a complete map of the complex. Was Taslin fleeing, rather than heading for a confrontation? What might the Separatists have been able to do?

And would it be preferable to face them or to flee before whatever they could have done to the Court? Wildren had built the Court, while the First Realm was still wracked by the chaos of the Realmwar. Presumably Wildren could destroy it, though whether the two Separatists could overcome the power of the Gift-Givers wasn't clear. If there were still only the two of them. What if they'd opened a back door for an invasion?

The stairs began to turn, a wide, smooth curve that tightened steadily until they were spiralling around a central column. Steps that had been carpeted stone lost their softness, became a lattice of torn, dark fabric and then gave way to black iron grille-work. The air seemed to darken - not quite a lowering of the light level, but the faint sense that something was starting to come between them and the nearest lamp or candle.

For what seemed like a long time - a little voice at the back of Rel's mind told him to stop fretting, that it hadn't really been that long at all - the oppressive atmosphere grew heavier, until Rel almost thought he could feel it dragging at Pevan's step as well as his own. Then, between footfalls, the gloom was gone.

Rel almost faltered in blinking surprise, but managed to force himself forward before Pevan could ram into his back. This was not a staircase to fall down. Through the gaps in the metal stairs, there was no sign of a bottom to the stairwell, and the steps themselves were getting steeper and narrower. He was just starting to turn around so he could climb backwards, using the stairs as a ladder, when Taslin seemed to leap sideways through the wall.

It was no easy thing to slide down to the step she'd been on - the step he hoped she'd been on - and throw himself at the wall, but he managed. The stone swallowed him without sound or sensation, and he found himself in a claustrophobic, unlit anteroom. An empty doorframe on the far side - really only a few feet away - opened into some brightly-lit hall. Taslin stood in front of the doorway, her eyes shining in the gloom. The other side of the room, where Rel had just come from, had only a flat, grey wall. Pevan stepped through it effortlessly, though, looking more bored than afraid.

Taslin's eyes flickered as she nodded, just once. Then she turned and stepped through the doorway. Rel followed, watching the Gift-Giver's motions closely. If he'd missed some cue in her behaviour on the stairs, it could have killed him. He'd been more than a little careless. Fatigue ran a fat, heavy thumb along the inside of his forehead as he crossed the threshold.

Beyond, the Great Hall towered over him. The dappled, organic quality of the light marked the familiar space out from everywhere else in the Court. Rel relaxed, looking around for the Guide or Quilo. Why had Taslin taken them by such a roundabout route? He opened his mouth to ask, then had to swallow hard and painfully against the words as Taslin waved a frantic danger gesture at him.

Without turning around, she pointed down at the floor, her finger directed unerringly at Rel's feet. He looked down, eyes narrowed. What was he supposed to be looking for? From the way his headache pulsed again, something was definitely wrong, just outside the outlines of his boots.

He leaned sideways, trying to get a fresh angle on the troubling sight, and almost stumbled in shock. The streaky marble moved under his feet without any sensation of sliding or friction. As if he wasn't standing on it, but hovering just above. And he didn't have half the shadow he should have had, either.

Taslin gestured, arm held up and out to one side, so Rel could see it without her having to turn around. He missed the first part of the signal, but when she finished by pointing to herself, he took the obvious guess; follow exactly. Duly chastened, he repeated the gesture back for Pevan's benefit and made a careful study of the Gift-Giver's posture.

The floor of the Great Hall was laid in tiles of about a foot square, and Taslin stood with her long, narrow, heeled boots pointing along their diagonals. Rel concentrated on those tiles as Taslin stepped off them. She moved in an awkward pattern, right leg forward two tiles and right one, then the left moving to the tile one left and one forward from her right.

Clumsy though the uneven stride made him feel, it could have been worse. Not falling over - heaven alone knew what the consequence of that would be - took enough of his attention that he didn't have time to fret about the Separatists, or this strange secret route through the Great Hall. Their footsteps made no sound, but he could hear Pevan's occasional grunts as her balance tipped. Ahead, Taslin might as well have been a ghost.

The Gift-Giver changed the pattern, incorporating a right-foot step back one and left two, so that for a moment in each cycle she had to cross her legs quite painfully out of shape. When Rel tried to imitate the step, though, he found the crossing came naturally - so naturally that he felt for a moment as if he was going to fall back into the normal hall.

They were steadily approaching the stepped dais at the head of the Hall. Apart from two neat rows of plain brass candle-stands and a plush red carpet, the dais bore no furniture or ornament, a testament to the Gift-Givers' humility. The vaults of the roof shaped the space around the dais to exalt nature and the Realm, not individuals.

Rel finally stumbled as Taslin shifted stride again, to a simple two-forward-one-sideways pattern, while he was still admiring the architecture. His foot landed across the border of two tiles, and the ground - or lack of it, whatever invisible surface they were on - twisted beneath his boot-sole. A sharp, hot tingle shot up his leg, but he gritted his teeth and managed not to slip further.

The tingling told him he'd been lucky. The stumble would not be fatal, though from the feel of it it was a close-run thing. He flapped his arms for balance and managed to throw his other foot forward and back into step without sliding out of the route altogether. It was still a heart-squeezing moment's straining before he could stand upright again, and his legs felt like jelly underneath him until he'd got his breath back.

Pevan squeezed his shoulder, and he reached up to cover her hand with his own for a moment before continuing. He didn't dare risk turning around, but his sister's fingers felt so thin and cold that the reassuring sense of her strength at his back dimmed. He gave her a squeeze for reassurance, trying not to picture her crying, then let go and picked up Taslin's trail.

Only a few strides later, he found he could follow the Gift-Giver's step without paying attention. The tiles were just right for his gait. He relaxed just in time for something ahead to catch his eye, alarm bells ringing up and down the inside of his skull where logic fatigue was slowly replacing his mind.

Realmspace seemed to be fragmenting, in some ninth-half-dimension way he had no frame of reference for. It was as if each ray of light reaching his eyes existed in a long, narrow universe of its own, all of them running in rough parallel to produce a disconcerting composite that fell just short of homogeneity. The strands writhed, never crossing, never tangling, but twisting past and against one another all the same.

His foot landed on the carpet of the dais. Looking at the rippling walls made him feel like his eyes were watering, badly. He squinted, but that only made it worse. Distorted light assaulted him, and his fatigue headache pulsed in time with its irregular motion. Caught in the midst of the madness ahead, Taslin was a watery blur of purple and satin white.

Colours flowed up and down along the spectrum, the marble and dark wood shades fragmenting and spreading out. Rel couldn't help ducking as all the greens of the leafy ceiling seemed to swoop down around him. Ochre reds and a purple so deep it was almost obsidian joined them, and suddenly the eye-straining haze and thumping behind his forehead were receding.

Surrendering to the relief, Rel squeezed his eyes shut and forced his mind forward. A wave of vague sensation washed over him, almost like stepping out of a Sherim's embrace, and when he opened his eyes, the scene had stabilised.

They were in a forest, walking towards a building that was, by First Realm standards, large and ornate. After the grandeur of the Court and the Great Hall, though, it seemed demure - not small, but modest. It had a peaked roof of terracotta tiles, black gables and white walls. A tower rose from the front of the building, its high-pointed roof reaching up what had to be sixty feet from the ground.

A tingle by Rel's ankle reminded him of the instruction to follow Taslin exactly. He looked down to see his boot ever so slightly out of line with the Gift-Giver's footprint. Ahead, she was stamping hard with every step, the almost-childish force of it at odds with her usual grace. Still, it was working; her trail was clear in the dry leaf-litter covering the ground.

He made his way forward more carefully, ears pinned back for any shout of alarm or pain from Pevan. If his mind could wander and almost lead him into danger, hers certainly could. There wouldn't be much he could do if she did put a foot wrong, but there was no way he was going back to Federas without her as well as Dora.

Outside the door to the building, which was apparently a single plank of almost-black wood, Taslin paused. Without looking back, she lifted her right hand, fist clenched, out to one side of her head. Somewhere along the journey, her purple-streaked sleeves and white gloves had disappeared, and the perfect right-angle of her pale-skinned elbow robbed her flesh of any humanity. Slowly and precisely, she moved the fist around a tight circle, then splayed her fingers wide, clenched her fist, splayed and clenched again.

Rel froze for a moment, chills spreading out across his shoulders, head pounding again. The gesture meant gather close - I'm changing the environment. Occasionally, particularly dangerous or complex routes required such drastic measures from a Guide. He didn't want to think too much about what obstacle might demand it from a Gift-Giver.

Still, he crowded up behind Taslin as best he could, his toes to her heels, his head turned sideways so that he wasn't breathing through her ponytail. Her hair tickled his cheek all the same, a blur of red, fiercer and more fluid than blood, at the corner of his vision. She had no scent, or there was no air here to carry scent to his nostrils, but he felt as if he was breathing her in all the same. He kept his breathing shallow, trying not to inhale too much.

Where her neck met her shoulder, Taslin's dress looked loose, translucent, insubstantial. It moved over her prominent, delicate collarbone as she breathed, and Rel was sure it would slowly slide down, baring ever more skin and graceful muscle. He shook himself back to the present, trying to glare at his own imagination, and repeated the changing environment gesture for Pevan's benefit.

No sooner had he lowered his hand back to his side than something brushed chill fingers over the back of it. He started, then realised the fingers were actual fingers, not some quirk of the Realmspace; Taslin had reached back to grasp his hand. Her skin was cool, but not cold enough to be uncomfortable. The way she held him, across the back of his hand with her thumb along his index finger, though, pinched at his knuckles - the Gift-Giver's grip was strong and firm.

Pevan's arrival, right behind him, her head pressing gently against his back, robbed him of the opportunity to make any private enquiry about Taslin's touch. At best, he might be able to reach forward and tap a message to her, but he realised that if he did so, he'd be tapping on her hip, through the gauzy fabric of her skirt, and just the thought of that made him swallow. Dora would no doubt scold his ears off at the idea.

Behind him, he could feel Pevan's unease - she, too, was breathing shallowly, and Rel didn't think it was anything to do with the fact he hadn't washed properly in days. He couldn't match Taslin's hand-holding exactly, but he reached back with his free hand. It took him three attempts to find Pevan's fingers, but she didn't pull away. Hard though it was to resist the urge to cling tightly, he managed to relax. Pevan's hands always felt like fragile porcelain, her fingers girlish and terribly slender.

Taslin let the moment drag out, tension building. It was strange to be prisoned between the two women, very different to his encounters with the team of Dora and Taslin, back in Vessit. Pevan was no substitute for the Four Knot, but her presence, the awkward combination of the fire in her eyes and the vulnerability in her hands, came with its own demands. He had to get her safely back to Federas.

That thought made him impatient, suddenly. Why wasn't Taslin doing anything? Or perhaps she was, imperceptibly combing through the structure of the Realmspace around them, preparing it for whatever change she was about to work. She could even be making the change already, never mind that Rel could see no evidence of it. He resisted the idea of Clearseeing again, choking off the thought before it could rough up his fatigue.

He was beginning to string together the sequence of taps that would ask what the delay was when Taslin reached forward and gripped the handle of the door. She squeezed his captive hand as she did so, almost as if involuntarily. It couldn't be, of course - how could a Wilder make sense of the subconscious link between a human pair of hands? - but it was a fine simulacrum of it.

Then she opened the door, and concentrated analysis reeled right out of Rel's head, drunk on a rush of thumping pain as his headache flared. The walls of the building stretched outward like a pullover being turned inside-out, swooping overhead and closing around them so that the forest became an overlarge, empty hall, white-walled and bare-floored.

For a long moment, jagged shivers of hot pain darted up and down the middle of Rel's mind. His vision doubled and watered as the two images - forest and room - overlaid themselves on one another and fought for reconciliation. Tickle or no tickle, he turned to bury his face in Taslin's hair, but the Gift-Giver chose that moment to step forwards, and he found himself stumbling after her.

The doorway swallowed them in welcome relief. Beyond was a plain, straight corridor, floored in what looked like bare concrete, of all things. The walls were similar, but with countless irregular lines pressed into them, roughly in parallel. Though the space was only moderately dim, there were no torches in evidence; if this was still a part of the Court, it was a deep and primitive one.

Pevan shook her hand free of his, and despite himself, Rel turned to look at her. She returned a wan smile, then rubbed her forehead. He found himself mimicking the gesture as he turned back to Taslin. The Court was supposed to be less freakish and illogical than the rest of the Second Realm. He could feel his logic fatigue already growing problematic.

Taslin took a couple of short steps forward and turned. "We should be word-safe here. Speak."

"Uh..." Rel's brain stalled as he peered past her down the corridor. "Where are we?" The words made no impression on the Realmspace at all.

"Deep in the heart of the Court. These are some of the earliest chambers constructed." The Gift-Giver's eyes narrowed. "Humans have not stood down here since before the Treaty of Peace, because there are things down here to which your very presence is a danger."

Rel swallowed, thoughts dragging back to him. "Barrit told me once that Hurshu swore that the dais in the Great Hall was denser than was spatially possible." He blinked, remembering Taslin's age. "Hurshu was Federas' Guide before Barrit."

"I know who Hurshu was." There was a new sharpness to Taslin's tone, and in the gloom her eyes flared subtly. "He should not have been Guiding in the Great Hall, however much he was a hero in his own way."

A chill spread through Rel, and from the muffled sound of Pevan swallowing, something similar had to be going through her too. Just how precious were the things the Wildren kept down here? And how fragile?

Her voice trembling, Pevan said, "Hurshu took up service almost fifty years ago. Not that long after the Treaty..."

"Be that as it may, we are all fortunate his misdemeanours caused no damage and went undetected." Some of the humanity had gone out of Taslin's voice, her words flattening out and clipping off short. Either her attention had moved elsewhere, probing for fifty-year-old damage, or she was so furious that her concentration was slipping. What did they keep down here?

He didn't ask. Instead, past a tight chest and a new wave of chills spreading across his shoulders, he said, "Why have you brought us down here?"

"If there are Separatists in the Court, then they may attempt to penetrate this area." The Gift-Giver's face came back into focus, her expression now stern rather than sculpted. "The Justice-Traders did not leave the Crash Caucus until after these early structures had been built, and the surviving galleries transferred here."

"Justice-Traders? Who are they?" Pevan still sounded nervous, but at least she'd moved out from behind him.

"They were the antecedents of the Separatists. The name is an approximation." A soft, deep glow, like sunlight through darkly-stained glass, rose in Taslin's eyes. She seemed to be taking a long time to recover her composure. "Before the Crash, they were modernists and reformers, struggling against the tight controls established by the Clear-Seers and Realm-Finders. The discovery that humans were not bound by Talerssi turned them against your kind, though. The Separatists would see my kind back to the days before the Crash, whatever the cost."

Rel nodded slowly, scanning the walls for any signs of movement. The Court was supposed to be built in such a way as to reveal Wildren whether they wanted it or not, but this part of it was primitive. Not that his search would mean much without the benefit of Clearsight. He said, "Shouldn't we get moving, then?"

"Only with extreme caution." Taslin's voice came lowered, its tone like a cat stalking mice through wolf territory. "You two must keep your thoughts trapped under iron. If you become a danger to any of the things in this place, I will Negate you instantly."

It took a moment for the words to sink in. Taslin's tone hadn't changed at all, but the threat was unthinkable. Rel's gut froze solid, the cold so deep that his earlier chills were reduced by comparison to nothing more than the stray streamers of a spring breeze. He exchanged a look with Pevan, whose face was grey.

There could be no doubting that Taslin was capable of Negation. All Gift-Givers were, and she was powerful even by their standards. She had said outright, only that morning, that if she hadn't needed Rel's help against the Separatists, she would have Negated him at the Abyss. And unlike some Wildren, Taslin knew exactly what the threat entailed for a human. Even when put in the total stasis of Negation, a Wilder could simply wait to thaw out. By the time a human recovered, his body would have given up waiting for a mind to return to it.

The Gift-Giver either saw or outright felt their discomfort. Her face softened, though the glow in her eyes never shifted. "I say that as a warning, not a threat. It is a deeply ingrained reflex in my kind."

"What..." Pevan barely got the word out, shallow and hoarse, before her throat closed off. She gave a loud swallow and tried again. "What is it that you're... protecting?"

Taslin's expression flickered. In the dim light, it was hard to make out the rapid sequence of expressions, but Rel had seen her do something similar before, usually while trying to bridge the gap between Second- and First-Realm logic. After a long moment, she said, "The Gallery of Neonates, the Gallery of Liars, The Gallery of Narcissists and The Gallery of Desperation."

"What are they?" Speaking quietly made him sound less confident than he felt. The threat of Negation was a frightening one, but Taslin trusted them enough to bring them here. And it wasn't like he hadn't fought Wildren capable of Negation before.

"I will show you the Gallery of Liars." Again, Taslin's face wavered. "For the rest, you can wait."

He nodded. "Lead on."

"Rel..." Pevan's fear choked off her speech, and he shot her a frown. It wouldn't help, of course, but this was no time for her to lose her nerve.

Taslin spoke before he could. "There is no need to follow exactly, but do not touch any door you see, and where possible stay to the middle of the corridors. Keep your speech to a minimum." The Gift-Giver's voice warmed slightly. "Both of you are here under my protection. I intend to see you safely back to your kind."

Pevan gave a mute, stiff nod, and for a moment Rel thought she'd frozen. When Taslin set off into the dim, ancient haze that hung along the corridor, though, Pevan fell into step with Rel, eyes fixed on a point just behind the Gift-Giver's ankles. She normally only drew inward like this - silent, pinch-faced, eyes distant - when grieving, or remembering dead comrades. Probably the mention of Hurshu had triggered it. Neither of them had known the old Guide, but you couldn't think of him without thinking of Temmer.

Rel let the walls and decor derail that train of thought. The hallway was almost ordinary, provided you didn't look too hard at any point where more than two straight lines met. The walls were covered in faint swirls and spirals, barely more than scratches in the surface, giving a sense of age to the place that it couldn't possibly truly have. The Court, even this part of it, was only seventy years old. The stonework looked as if someone had tried to make it look like a thousand-year-old ruin.

He managed to suppress the urge, just in time, to reach out and run a finger along the designs. For a moment, he paused, hand half-raised, eyes tracing one long, slow spiral. It would be a nightmare to try using Clearsight down here - the etchings would suck attention away like a whirlpool. Maybe that was the point.

Ahead, Taslin paused at an archway, standing on the far side of it with an arm raised to guide them through. When she spoke, her voice was soft with awe. "The Gallery of Liars."

Her tone held Rel at bay on the threshold long enough for his eyes to take in the room beyond; and his eyes told him he wanted to go no further anyway. Grey space, framed by high grey walls and a bare grey floor, stretched away into an impenetrable, murky distance. By the standards of the Court, it was not a wide or high room, but it gave off the same resonant feel of vastness that came to one in the Great Hall.

And in two neat rows, facing each other, separated at twenty-foot intervals, were the Liars.

No two were exactly alike in shape or shade, but all were roughly the same. Lumpen, like boulders, they towered over the aisle between them. They seemed to be made of lightning, or perhaps evening sunlight, trapped in thick grey storm clouds. Deep in the heart of each, the light - whatever it was - flickered constantly, as if in there somewhere thunder still raged.

He turned, wordlessly, to Taslin. The Gift-Giver said, "You have heard that my kind do not lie in our own Realm." It wasn't a question. "This is what becomes of one who does. Their Talerssi to all my kind overwhelms them."

"Why keep them?" Pevan whispered. "A warning?"

Violet flashed in Taslin's eyes. "Not these. These are the Liars whose lies preserved life, or furthered the noble and right causes among our kind. A very few, in the thousands of years since the Gallery was first assembled, have recovered, so the remainder are kept here for their safety. One who lies otherwise is left for the predators."

She drew a deep, unsteady breath, an exaggerated and obvious performance of nervousness, but the way she caught Rel's eye, just for an instant at the top of the motion, said she knew he was thinking that. Dora, always the teacher, would have lavished her with praise for the combination. Rel tried to look complimentary, or at least keep the instinctive flash of anger off his face.

When she spoke again, the performance continued, faultless, in the faltering of her voice. "I bring you here, show you this... I show you this so that you understand that I am not lying - that you can trust me - when I tell you this: the Separatists would destroy your kind in an instant if they had the means. They see no value in the continuance of the human species. Their vision of separation is of cutting you off completely, without regard for the damage it will do to you." As she spoke, her voice steadied, then grew heated. "The Gift-Givers wish for an altogether different kind of healing, a healing in which we grow together, not apart. A healing that eventually leads to one united Realm, greater than First or Second alone."

"Lies of omission don't accrue Talerssi in the same way, I take it?" Pevan's whisper, somehow both afraid and sharply sceptical, cut through the awed, echoing silence in Rel's mind. It was a fair question, but for a moment, by God, he'd wanted to-

Well, he didn't. Instead, he watched Pevan's suspicion slide off her face as Taslin turned to glare at her. In her heart, he could tell, she knew the Gift-Giver was telling the truth. Whatever the Separatists had told her, they clearly hadn't told her anything that contradicted Taslin's words. After a moment, she looked at him, desolate. He swallowed and held his ground, knowing she wouldn't want to appear so weak that she needed him for support. She wouldn't, after all, need his help dealing with her own mistakes.

He turned his attention to Taslin. "What do you mean by a united Realm?"

"Something too far off to be a concern for us." The Gift-Giver looked away, back along the Gallery of Liars. "Before the Realmcrash, most of those who became Gift-Givers were Realm-Finders. They believed that other Realms existed, that we could benefit by interaction with them. They did not foresee a Realmcrash. The men who built the laboratory and Sherim at Vessit may have been equivalents among your kind, working in secret."

Rel bit back a stab of pain, thinking of Dora and Rissad. He closed his eyes and bowed his head, and when he looked up again, he found Taslin two steps closer, her hand half-raised toward a tentative gesture of comfort. In the dusty gloom, her skin looked like polished bone, and the air seemed to whisper in reverence.

For a long, long second, he held her gaze, and then more urgent concerns drifted back. Waving a hand at the Gallery, he said, "The Separatists... would they attack this?"

"Here? Never. Some things are sacred to all. There are Separatists and Justice-Traders both among the Liars. The same is true for the other Galleries, unless-" Her face went blank, features turning to haze for a second.

A chill trickled down Rel's spine. "Unless what?"

"Unless they knew of something they could not know of." There was a fresh sharpness in her voice, and Rel exchanged a worried glance with his sister. Taslin finished, "Something I am not at liberty to reveal."

"Even with a Clearseer?" Unpleasant as the idea of an enemy with that kind of perception was, Rel found it hard to believe any secret was safe from a Clearseer as powerful as the Separatists'.

"No Clearseer could have seen this." The slight hitch in Taslin's speech, the oddly-placed pauses, betrayed a very real, Second-Realm unease.

"Better to check, all the same."

"Follow me." Taslin spun sharply on her heel and set off at a stiff-legged march.

It took all Rel's breath and remaining energy to match her pace, which at least kept his eyes from being entrapped by the finely-patterned walls. His head, still tired and fatigued, began to pulse in time with his steps. Pevan grunted occasionally. By the time Taslin stopped at another archway, beads of sweat were trickling down Rel's spine.

This time, Taslin didn't step aside to show them the Gallery, and Rel almost ran into her. Over her shoulder, he caught a glimpse of what looked like a hillside carpeted in wildflowers, before something slammed into his belly and sent him flying back down the corridor. Pevan landed beside him, handling the impact with far more grace, rolling half-way back to her feet.

Rel struggled up beside her, twisted to look behind in case there was another attacker. For a moment the beauty of the view into the Gallery reached out of memory and wrenched away his flagging breath - the flowers had made a tapestry more beautiful, more vibrant, than any cloth pattern, and the light had glowed, brighter than life - but he forced his mind back to the corridor. It was empty.

Pevan gave no shout of alarm, but stayed in her ready crouch as Rel spun, braced to join her. Ahead, Taslin stood in the radiance from the arch that opened into the Gallery. For once the aggressive, stark contrast of her violet-and-ivory appearance softened into the dreary background. The light from the Gallery seemed to hold an individual promise of joy from every single one of the countless flowers within. Beside that, even Taslin's ferocity melted.

There was no-one behind her, not even the kind of half-seen, menacing shape that a Wilder might take in a less regulated part of the Second Realm. If the attack hadn't come from the Gallery - and who could believe that it could have? - then it must have come from the Gift-Giver. Rel's sweat turned cold. Had he just escaped Negation by Taslin's will alone?

It seemed a long time before the Gift-Giver moved. As she stepped away from the Gallery, the light seemed to dim. The effect was as of a figure stepping out of a faded painting and into reality, half-forgotten colours flowing to new brightness. Her face, though, was as white and hard as marble. In a voice that matched it perfectly, she said, "I apologise. That was terribly close to a terrible mistake."

Rel swallowed, managed to get some moisture back into his mouth. "The Gallery is okay?" Beside him, Pevan was still struggling for breath, one hand pressed to her chest.

"The Separatists have not been here. We can proceed."

"There's no chance we drew their attention on the way?" Something deep in Rel's spirit rebelled against the idea of a threat to the marvellous Gallery beyond the arch, and he felt a pang of something close to nausea.

Taslin glided smoothly over to them, bent down to help Pevan up. "The Court should have damped any trace of our passage. I am beginning to get a feel for where the Separatists might be."

"Lead on." Rel stepped aside to let Taslin past. Behind the Gift-Giver's back, Pevan gave him a look that begged for comfort, and he opened his arms to offer her a hug. She all but collapsed on him, and he was glad that Taslin didn't look back until the embrace was over. Brother and sister picked up their step sharply to catch up to the Wilder.

The dreary corridors continued, silent and in their own strange way stifling. Doors grew less and less frequent as they followed Taslin. They never saw a window. Dust seemed to collect in clouds in the corners of every room they passed through, leaching away the sharpness of vision until the Realm itself seemed to grow hazy.

So it was that Rel completely missed the moment that the hallways ceased to be straight. By the time he noticed something amiss, they were making their way along a curving, grey-brown tube that couldn't possibly have been anything in the First Realm, natural or man-made. Though there was no dry taste of dust in his mouth, the haze hung thicker than ever in the air.

Besides Taslin and Pevan, the only definite object his eyes could hold onto was an archway a few hundred feet ahead. He squinted at it, hard, and quickly realised that something was amiss. His head throbbed as the thought of trying Clearsight ran through it, so instead he peered closer using his normal vision, crooking his neck to consider the arch from slightly different angles.

The shapes of the stones shifted as his perspective changed. It was a subtle effect, but glints of colour flowed along the outlines like sunlight on steel, highlighting the changes. It was an effect that had no place in the Court, where everything was supposed to more or less conform to human, First-Realm norms.

Taslin glanced back at him and raised a finger to her lips-

The tunnel vanished. A flicker of motion in darkness sent Rel scrambling to one side. Pevan shouted a curse. Rolling hills made out of stars whirled as Rel dived headlong to escape a fresh attack. Ice began to seep into his eyes as he reached for his Gift, but something smothered his face for a moment. He blinked and coughed, concentration broken.

Muddy ground embraced him, took the worst out of his landing. Still half-choked, he rolled onto his side and curled up. A row of flashes cut through the night's landscape, amethyst, then copper, then amethyst again. Then, stillness.

It was a cold moment before he could roll onto his back and look up. His eyes resolved the vast, dark shape up there and panic made a vicious grasp for his heart before he realised the Court wasn't actually falling on them. It was just hanging in the air up there, supported by vast but ephemeral pillars of... something. They flowed out from a glittering knot a little way away. It looked sort of like a four knot, but twisted and strained somehow, as if not quite finished.

Things crawled through Rel's veins and across his back and arms as he sat up. The world focussed itself; grey ground that looked like pitted and cratered stone, but felt like fine-ground flour under his hands, a night sky above the tightly-curved horizon. A few feet away, a stream of what looked like liquid pearls flowed past, towards the hovering knot that held up the Court.

Pevan knelt in her ready crouch, further away than he'd expected. Either they were on the curved top of a small hill, or - more likely, here - this patch of Realmspace formed a globe just big enough to have recognisable horizons. Pevan's feet were tucked away below the horizon. There was no sign of Taslin.

The archway that had spat them out into this strange limbo stood facing the knot, as incongruous and solitary as the door that marked Federas' Sherim. There was no wall meeting it at either side, just the fine and oddly fragile pillars of fitted stone, bending over to meet at the top. The whole looked as if the faintest breath of wind would topple it. Certainly it didn't look like it would get them home, or even back to the Court.

Cautiously, still not wanting to risk Clearsight, Rel eased himself to his feet. Pevan stood more smoothly, the look on her face one she normally reserved for marching to battle against Wildren encroaching on Federas. As one, they headed for the arch.

It held only air. They peered carefully through from both sides, silently hoping that some familiar quirk of Second Realm logic would have preserved its connection to the Court. Though the archway gave off the familiar, rippling, not-quite-real aura of all fixtures formed by the imposition of human concepts on Second Realmstuff, no amount of trying new perspectives made the passage reappear.

Rel let out a careless, frightened yelp as Pevan, shrugging, stepped through. While the sound whisked past her ear, Rel clapped a hand to his mouth. Pevan singularly failed to disappear, and instead turned to look at him through the archway. She made no attempt at a half-serious remonstration, sure sign that she was badly shaken.

She turned her palms upward and shrugged, the sign for What now?

He swallowed, shook his head slowly. No idea. Realmspace seemed to pick up his uncertainty, the not-air around them wavering for a moment. He considered the idea of trying to use his Clearsight to navigate a path back to the Court, but every Clearseer knew that Clearsight and Guiding were not equivalent powers. It would make an acceptable last resort, but not a good idea overall. He pressed three fingers to the inside of his right wrist, then formed his thumbs and index fingers into an awkward diamond. Wait for help.

Pevan nodded, face drained of all emotion. Rel hovered on the verge of pulling her into a fierce embrace - God knew, they both needed it - but she walked a little way away from the arch and sat down, facing away from him.

Guided by a need for contact so suddenly powerful as to be almost painful, Rel followed her, his boots leaving deep, sharp prints in the mud. He sat down with his back against hers, and she leaned her head back until it met his. The impact of skull on skull sent a jab of pain through the dull ache of his fatigue, but it felt good to lean there and close his eyes. He reached back a hand and found her fine, delicate fingers.

Seated like this, they could talk, provided they kept it calm. But what to say? "Atla and Quilo..."

"Chag." If there was an emotion in the human spectrum that Pevan didn't manage to squeeze into the single syllable of the thief's name, Rel couldn't think of it. He could feel her bitterness and resignation - after all, if this was some sort of Separatist trap, surely Van Raighan would have been involved - but there was hope there too, and longing.

And at least one question he didn't know the answer to. He let the silence hang, playing back visions of the little man on the insides of his eyelids.

Eventually, quietly, Pevan said, "He did it all for me."

"You trust him?" Rel let the words come as they wished. In a situation like this, Pevan would see through any false politeness, and anyway there wasn't much point in dishonesty.

"I really do." She wriggled her fingers in his. "Whatever else, he loves me."

Rel's throat tightened, just slightly. "And you?"

"I wish I knew." The words fluttered around their heads, in and out of Rel's field of vision. "If he hadn't done all this... If I'd gone to Tendullor on a mission and met him there, maybe. The Separatists did a good job of selling us our own hopes."

"You think there might have been some Coercion?" He squeezed her hand gently. The skin on her fingers tingled against his, and the faint hint of his own sweat at the points of contact made him grimace.

Pevan's voice stayed gentle, wistful. "No. They just phrased it all carefully. How they knew to do that, I don't know."

"We all make mistakes." The words felt like ash as he spoke them, worthless and shallow. Carried out into the air by his breath, they crumbled like dry leaves.

"Even you?" Pevan's smile, old and wise despite the light that would be dancing in her eyes, rang through her words.

It was a fair question, really. "Me more than most these days, it seems."

She didn't answer immediately, shifting against him as she took a deep breath and let it out again. Though the sound she made was undeniably a sigh, it seemed a peaceful, painless one. Rel found tears in his eyes, his teeth clenched tight together. He swallowed, sniffled a breath, letting his head drop forward. Pevan's head, still leaning on him, came to rest on the back of his neck. A few of her hairs slipped inside his collar and tickled his back.

Then her hand tightened on his, and he knew she was close to crying herself, contentment at his admission or no. It was in her voice, too, when she said, "Why did you leave Ciarive?"

The great Clearseer of the North, the only person Dieni ever acknowledged as superior. Rel's mentor, until he'd fled his training while it was still incomplete, unable to bend himself to the old man's harsh discipline. Officially, that training remained incomplete and uncertified, but with Dieni and Ciarive both dead, there was no-one who knew Clearseeing better than Rel to pass him.

And yet... "Does it matter, now?"

"It mattered to Wolpan." Pevan's voice seized up on the Four Knot's name, and all the heat drained out of Rel's body. Carrying messages and warnings all across the North, Pevan had probably met more Gifted than anyone else alive, and everyone knew about Federas' rebel Clearseer. He'd been proud of that, once.

He swallowed again, realised that Pevan had lifted her head away from his. He managed, "Is it always bad for you?"

A dozen feet away, shimmering amber flowed in a stream whose subtle turns had the kind of elegance only nature could produce. Rel stared at it, letting it slide past his eyes. His dry eyes. The tears that he had no right to had fled, leaving only a faint, prickling discomfort. The limpness of Pevan's grip where their hands clasped weighed on his arm like a brimming water-bucket, despite the fact that his knuckles rested in the soft ground.

After a long time, Pevan shifted against him again, and as one they leaned back until their heads met again. This time, there was no painful knock. She whispered, "And I had to pick the only man in the First Realm with a worse reputation than you..."

"You've picked him, then?"

"Boys are stupid." Most of the venom in her tone was a joke. "I don't know. You're supposed to be the one with the answers."

Since Dora wasn't around to do it, he rolled his eyes. "That worked out well."

Pevan squeezed his hand.

Rel sighed, letting his eyes fall closed. "I... Thank you for giving me the chance to apologise. Sorry it took so long to get round to."

"We'll make it right again." The words embraced him, forgiving and kindly. He relaxed into them, into shared silence with his sister.

Much later, at least as it seemed, a human voice intruded, bright and crisp. "Sorry to spoil the moment."

Rel blinked, head snapping around to face the sound. Pevan, always faster from a cold start, spun and coiled into a ready crouch, her fingers wrenching at his as she pulled free.

A white-clad man stood by the floating knot, limned in warm honey light that melded almost perfectly with the streams twisting past him. His face had a hollow-cheeked quality that momentarily put Rel in mind of the Van Raighans, but the new arrival was tall, broad, majestic in a way that even Rissad was too rangy to approximate. His hair, black and long enough to rest lightly on his collar, was straight and glossy.

Rel rose to his feet as smoothly as he could, and Pevan matched him. He said, "Who are you?"

The man took a couple of steps forwards, his aura fading. "For now, I play the role of Fate. It is my intention that you should not die here, nor fall into the hands of the Separatists again."

"You're not a Wilder." Pevan made the sentence an accusation, not a question. The words shot out at Fate and shattered inches from his face. He didn't even blink.

He smiled, eyes mournful. "That's mostly true. As such, I recognise that you have little reason to trust me. Nor can I risk telling you anything which might give you grounds for trust, since I cannot afford to take liberties with my own history. The business of absolute control over time and destiny is surprisingly limiting."

A sudden constriction in Rel's throat made him frown. "Do you... What happened here? Where's Taslin?"

Fate waved the twisting, dancing shapes of the words aside. "The Separatists ambushed you. They have taken Taslin of the Gift-Givers captive, and are long gone, though the Gift-Givers are searching the inner Court for you at the moment. Do you know what this place is?"

Pevan started to say something, but fell silent. Rel looked past Fate to the knot, then up at the looming Court. "It's... the foundation of the Court?"

"It would be as accurate to say it was the founding of the Court, but yes. It is from here that the building's stability flows."

"We're outside?" Pevan's voice wavered.

"It is not easy to describe in human concepts." Fate shrugged, and there really was absolutely nothing inhuman in the motion. "If nothing else, this is where work on the Court was begun. The passage you arrived by was a late addition so that the founding could be checked for wear, and fortunately it was only this that the Separatists attacked." His voice began to drift, more distant with each word. "They must have decided their vision of Separation supersedes even their feud with the Gift-Givers. They could have destroyed the whole Court from here."

An unpleasant thought crawled through Rel. "Or they see Taslin as so great a threat that they'd pass up anything to get her."

"Such loyalty." Fate's tone was amused. "But it is possible. In many ways I am no better equipped to take a guess at their logic than you."

Pevan, clearly recovering some of her equilibrium, folded her arms. "How do we get back to the Court, then?"

Fate blinked. "You trust me that easily?"

"You're Fate, aren’t you?" Pevan glanced at Rel, and he could tell that his expression did nothing to reassure her. They only had the stranger's word that he was Fate, after all. Perhaps Pevan saw something in him that Rel didn't. She finished, "If you say we're going to get back to the Court with your help, how would we have any choice in the matter?"

"Perhaps it would be easiest if I let you believe that." Fate turned his gaze on Rel. His eyes, Rel noticed, were yellow. "But I would rather not lie to you. I have no idea how much choice you have in the matter. Should you choose to resist..." He put a hand to his mouth briefly, a puzzled frown on his face, then went on. "I can predict the course of events if you accept my help to a high degree of accuracy. If you do not, if you deviate from the course I know about, then I know very little about what might happen."

"Like with Clearseeing?" It was Rel's turn to frown in consternation.

The man - or God, or whatever - smiled. "Precisely. The future has only one structure, after all. My perception works on a very different principle to Clearsight, but I see the same things you do."

"Then I could, in principle, check your claims." Rel swallowed as a burst of logic fatigue pulsed through his fore-brain.

"Not about your own future." For a moment, it seemed as if Fate would move closer, and Rel found himself tensing, but the stranger stayed put. "And unfortunately, my nature is such that I rather confound Clearsight. Even I avoid encounters with my own future wherever possible."

Pevan turned to face Rel, actually putting her shoulder towards Fate. Not the kind of thing she'd do unless she was more or less convinced. Quietly enough to exclude Fate from the conversation, though not so quiet that she sounded secretive, she said, "What do you think?"

Good question. Rel made another study of Fate. The cut of the man's garb resembled a Gift-Giver's robes, but this was not a Realm where appearance counted for much. There'd been so little threat in the conversation, though, not even the slightest attempt at coercion. Given the opportunity, even, he'd dissembled with every appearance of honesty. It was possible that he'd worked out that this would be the most effective way to win them over, but Rel recognised that for the pathway to paranoid madness that it was.

Rel said, "There's an old logical puzzle in here somewhere, but it's a First Realm logic puzzle. I think the upshot would be that we're going to end up going with him regardless. I certainly don't fancy getting into a fight in a place like this."

"We could wait and see if the Gift-Givers find us." Pevan was definitely only saying that because someone had to.

"Not a good bet, without more information about whether they're looking for us at all." Rel turned to Fate again. "We'll go with you." Pevan turned and stepped up to Rel's shoulder, backing him up with a nod.

Fate's gentle smile faded and he gestured to the archway. "I can't explain the process in terms that you could grasp. If I tried, your personal logics would resist too strongly. Just walk through the arch and keep walking straight. Try not to flinch or falter. It will be best if you go together, touching in some way."

A stiffness settled into Rel's shoulders, and he swallowed. Awkwardly, he offered his arm to Pevan. She shot him a look that was an odd combination of affection and glowering impatience - one of the few stern expressions she had that she hadn't learned from Dora - and took his hand. Her grip put the lie to her outward calm, and sent a shiver through him.

They shared a glance, and started forwards. Despite the gap between their heights, they fell into step easily, and somehow that meant they could drag each other through the archway without breaking stride.

As the stonework passed them by, some part of them stopped, left behind, frozen in time. The alien, monochrome landscape vanished, replaced by a space absolutely neutral in every respect, save a dark spot in the distance which might have been the mouth of a tunnel. Pevan started to turn to look back, but Rel squeezed her oh-so-delicate hand and she stopped.

The not-brown absence of stimulation around them flickered, for an instant black and silver again, and again there was the impression of selves left behind. This time, it was Pevan's sharp squeeze, pinching at Rel's fingers, that kept him moving. Before long, the formless, blurry shapes of the walls squared off. The dark spot ahead became a tall rectangle that was at least a doorway of some sort. Pevan released his hand and picked up her step. He couldn't resist the urge to follow suit. He was just about to turn and ask what they should do next when Quilo appeared in the doorway and threw them a friendly wave, relief plain on his face.

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