Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Second Realm 5.1: Wolves at the Gate

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A Light in Her Violet Eyes

1. Wolves at the Gate

The first words out of Quilo's mouth were, "Where is Taslin?" The ancient Gift-Giver's face was stern, lined with a concern that made Pevan's gut writhe. His robes shifted about him like smoke, too ephemeral even to be the layered gauzes he'd been wrapped in at the trial. Had that really only been earlier today? Her head throbbed.

Rel, undaunted, strode forward, the hazy air of the inner Court billowing around him so that even the blank corridor walls seemed to shift at his passage. When he spoke, his voice was fierce, much more like his old self. "We were attacked by the Separatists. I believe Taslin was captured."

Pevan peered at her brother's face, trying to work out why he hadn't mentioned their rescue by the mysterious figure who'd called himself Fate. It was comforting to have Rel around to be the strong one for a while, but the memory of Vessit was sharp in her mind. What if he caused a fresh confrontation with the Gift-Givers here, in the heart of their domain?

"Did you use your Gift here?" In the gloom, it was hard to tell, but Quilo's face might have paled.

"No. Something hit me and made me blink just as I was trying to open myself to it, and by the time I recovered to try again, Taslin was gone." Rel's eyes dropped, his frown turning inward. "I think Taslin might have been the one to stop me. Do you think..?"

"The Separatists would have had no motive for doing so." Quilo spoke stiffly, but not from a Wildren's awkwardness with language. "Back to the Court proper. You will give a full report."

Rel nodded. Quilo spun on his heel and led off, Rel following in the straight-legged march he fell into whenever he felt he was on a mission. Pevan scurried to catch up, a worry beginning to niggle at the back of her brain. Rel would only be so focussed if he had a specific goal in mind, but what goal did he have? Rescuing Taslin? How? And more to the point, why?

Although the route by which Taslin had brought them to the foundations of the Court had been long and winding, it took only a minute or so to bring them out into the Great Hall. They passed through two moments where parts of the building seemed to fold back around them, the arcane geometry of the Court reassembling a stable, safe environment for human logic as they approached. Quilo stayed silent through the trip, and so did Rel.

As they emerged into the Great Hall, Pevan had the sense of a veil lifting from her eyes. The sunlit colours of the Hall sprang into vibrant relief, much more real and immediate than the dreary passageways of the inner Court. Atla stood at the foot of the dais, his face grey with worry. He put her in mind of a lone, windswept tree on an otherwise barren plain, isolated and powerless.

She looked past him and faltered, coming to a stop before her legs could give way. Perhaps a hundred feet away, a crowd of Wildren awaited their arrival. More Wildren than she'd ever seen in one place before, in every colour of the rainbow, and hints of a few others besides. Some of them were the semi-sentient Court guards, but she had to assume that most were Gift-Givers. Taking only the roughest of guesses, there had to be at least a couple of hundred of them.

Chag stood just in front of the audience, surrounded by six guards and with a turquoise-robed Gift-Giver in attendance. The Gift-Giver was one of Quilo's assistants, but she couldn't call up his name. Chag looked no happier than Atla, his attention turned inwards.

The thief's presence raised some complicated questions. Her anger at him had faded as the day wore on, though she could feel it waiting if she wanted to call on it. Why had the Separatists left him behind to be captured? Perhaps after learning the truth about Separation, he'd switched allegiance. Then again, it could just be some fresh twist of the path Delaventrin had plotted through the future.

Either way, he gave very little away, avoiding Pevan's eyes as she glared at him. A tingle ran down her spine, and she realised she was standing alone on the dais, with every eye in the vast hall on her. Rel and Quilo had descended to join Atla. Actually, they'd descended to stand somewhere near Atla - the Guide hung awkwardly behind Rel's shoulder, trying to be included but sticking out like a sore thumb.

She walked over to join the lad, self-consciousness making her legs stiff. He welcomed her with a wan smile, voice even weedier than normal, "Are you... uh, are you okay?"

"No worse than I was when last you saw me." She tried to make the words jocular, but wasn't sure if she succeeded. "None the worse for the excursion, anyway."

"Sorry I couldn't, uh, be more help." He looked down.

Quilo chose that moment to speak, his voice sharp enough to stifle further conversation. "Now, Relvin Atcar, Pevan Atcar, please report as precisely as you can what happened while you were in the inner Court."

Pevan met Rel's eyes. He raised his eyebrows, and she nodded for him to go ahead. He was much better at precise reporting anyway. He took a deep breath, let it out steadily, and began. "Taslin took us first to the Gallery of Liars. There, she..." He paused, his eyes flickering to Chag, then back to Quilo. "Forgive me, Gift-Giver, I feel I should ask before I go on. How freely should I speak of what we saw?"

"Speak freely." Quilo's features, normally mild by Gift-Giver standards, were stony, his voice harsh with restrained anger. "We must make decisions which may affect all present. Secrecy would be dangerous at this point."

Rel nodded. He explained how Taslin had used the Gallery, with its beautiful, eerie monuments to Wildren who'd lied for the greater good and paid for it with their lives, to emphasise her condemnation of the Separatists. He kept glancing at Chag, and Pevan couldn't help following his gaze when he recounted the worst of Taslin's claims. The little man seemed lost in himself, probably reliving his actions at Af again.

The tension drained a little as Rel, his tone clinical, described their brief detour by way of the Gallery of Neonates. Pevan closed her eyes to savour the memory of her momentary glimpse into that Gallery, a rolling ocean of colours far removed from anything she could conceptualise. The room had flat-out glowed with life and warmth. Quilo nodded approval as Rel mentioned the abrupt burst of violence with which Taslin had kept them from getting a better view of the Gallery. Well, if it was where the Wildren stored their young, some protection probably was in order.

Rel looked at her as he went over the ambush, but she shrugged. It had happened far too fast to understand, the hallway vanishing and taking Taslin with it. Pevan had thrown herself to the ground out of reflex, and by the time she'd got back up, they were stranded among the foundations of the Court.

She blinked in surprise as Rel said, "After that, we... talked. About some stuff that, well... uh, it's no business of this court's. It was a personal conversation." Again, his eyes found hers, more definitely tight with pleading this time. "I'd really rather keep it private, with your blessing, Quilo. Please?"

The Gift-Giver nodded, his face stern. "If I decide that the content of your conversation is relevant, you will be obliged to share it at least with me. For now, though, please continue."

"I... uh..." Rel looked down at his hands. Maybe she'd really got through to him this time. Whether or not it would make any difference to his behaviour remained to be seen. "I don't know how long we talked for, but eventually a... well, a man appeared."

"A human?" Quilo's tone sharpened. "In the Founding?"

"I'm not sure he was completely human, but he wasn't a Wilder." Rel almost managed to keep from glancing Pevan's way for support again. "He called himself Fate. He explained that the Separatists had ambushed us and taken Taslin captive, then... well, I'm not sure what he did, but it allowed us to return to the Court."

Some half-seen motion out of the corner of Pevan's eye drew her attention to Chag. Rat-like and beady, his eyes were fixed on Rel. Where his stance had been half-melted, there was now tension in his every joint. She studied him, trying to penetrate the strange mix of anger and fear on his face. Could it have been anything but the mention of Fate that had set him off?

She took a step forward, past Quilo, and said, "What do you know, Chag?"

He jumped out of his skin, the movement sudden enough that two of his Guards leapt into ready stances. The thief glared at Pevan for a moment, then turned back to Rel. When he spoke, he sounded like someone was strangling him. "This Fate... what did he look like?"

The question seemed to settle Rel's nerves. Voice back to its usual disciplined clarity, he said, "He was tall, with dark hair down to his collar. His eyes were yellow, and he seemed to have an aura of a similar colour. His face reminded me a little of your brother, but his accent was northern. He wore white. You've met him before?"

Chag let out a tiny squeak, struggling to get words out. "Looked like Rissad?" He bit at his lip, swallowed noisily. "Yeah, that might have been it."

"Where do you know him from?" Rel's tone made the question a demand.

"He... uh... he helped me out of a tight spot, a while back." Chag squirmed, meeting no-one's eyes.

"You were the human who raided the Wards of Gifting last Autumn." Something about the tone of Quilo's voice sent shivers wriggling up and down Pevan's back. There was nothing human in the harsh sound of the words.

The ring of Guards around Chag shifted into mist and then into constricting bands of solid colour, binding his chest, arms and legs. The little man made no move. He didn't need to. Now that she knew, she could see the guilt written into every twitch he'd made since the first mention of Fate.

Quietly, without meaning to and to no-one in particular, she said, "What happened?"

Quilo delivered his answer like a hammer driving nails into a coffin lid. "Fate and Chag Van Raighan somehow infiltrated the Wards of Gifting without our notice. We have not been able to ascertain why. They were spotted while fleeing, and four Guards and a junior Gift-Giver were killed in the effort to stop their escape."

Pevan just stared at Chag, her mind a void too still even to echo. Tightly held by what remained of his Guards, the little man didn't turn to face her. Rel said, "The Wards of Gifting... Would that be where Gifts of Clearseeing come from?"

"It is where you received your Gift." Quilo spoke stiffly, carefully, picking his way around the problem. As if he was trying to work out whether his secret was still secret without giving it away.

Rel picked up on the implicit question. "I... we... Forgive my saying so, Quilo, but you will need to brace yourself for a shock. I would have reported this to you sooner, but I only learned the significance of the fact today, just before we were alerted to the Separatist threat." He made a strangled noise, as if trying to swallow and finding his throat too tight. "There is a Clearseer among the Separatists. A Wilder."

The Gift-Giver's face flickered blank, just a flesh-coloured blur. For that matter, so did the faces of many of the on-lookers, still arrayed in their silent dozens around the front of the hall. Quilo's features returned, his face a pinched mask of rage, well before any of the others. When his gaze fell on Chag, the little man finally showed some sign of life, straining back against his bonds. They didn't give an inch, solid as stone.

"Did you steal a Gift of Clearsight?" Air rippled around Quilo's voice, and for a moment a cold fist squeezed Pevan's heart. The ripple stopped short of Chag's face, but not by a very long way. It was not supposed to be possible for anyone to get angry enough to shake the Realmspace of the Court. Just how much had Quilo's emotions escaped his grasp?

"Fate gave it to me to carry." Though it started steady, Chag's voice broke as he went on, "I didn't know what was going on. It was the first thing I did for the Separatists, and it wasn't what they sent me here for. They told me you were preventing them talking to us. What-"

"Enough!" This time, the Court really did shake at Quilo's word. Memories from Vessit surged back, and for a moment Pevan was seized by visions of a Realmquake shaking the Great Hall, smashing its roofless walls against each other, slabs of stonework hundreds of feet across toppling inward to crush them all... But the shaking died away quickly, leaving a weak, sick feeling in her knees. From the looks on their faces, Rel and Atla felt the same way.

Chag hung limp in his bonds. It was hard to tell whether he was even still conscious. Equally, there was no sign of pain on his face, as there surely would have been if Quilo's shout had struck him. Outside the word-safe, stable Realmspace of the Court, getting hit by careless, angry words would kill every time. Here, that wasn't supposed to happen at all, but Pevan wasn't going to take it for granted anymore.

"Do you have any idea what you've done?" Quilo had himself back under control. His voice was silky smooth, angry but still genuinely curious.

From somewhere, Chag found the nerve to look up, to meet the Gift-Giver's eyes. That simple act of courage surprised Pevan, though she could tell it was all the little man could manage. She'd seen people in logic burnout who had more wits about them.

Still, he'd responded to the accusation in Quilo's tone with a gesture that could only be interpreted as accepting responsibility. Pevan swallowed. Would that count for anything? Could a Wilder, even one as clever and sophisticated as Quilo, recognise what Chag's pose meant?

The Gift-Giver pressed his point, curiosity replaced by an odd, flat, deadened tone. "The power of the Realm-Finders lay solely in the Clear-Seers' mastery of the future." Pevan tore her gaze away from Chag, and read fatalism in the grim set of Quilo's face. "If the Separatists have half a year of advantage on us, we are as good as lost."

It was only when Rel didn't protest that Pevan let the implications hit her. She looked over at her brother, found him looking back. His face was hard, harder even than Quilo's. His eyes flicked briefly to Chag, and then to the Gift-Giver, where they stayed, heavy as a tombstone.

"Not lost." Chag spoke in a mumble, his fear and his lazy southern accent robbing his words of any clarity, but she could make them out, just about. "Delaventrin couldn't understand what it saw of the First Realm without help. I was able to clarify some of what he Saw, but not much. Without a human Clearseer, we were little better off than without the Gift at all."

"The successes won thus far seem telling enough." Quilo's tone was... there was a fruit that grew in the southernmost parts of the South, that once, on a message run, Pevan had been tricked - dared - into biting into. Inside the thick, waxy, tangy skin, the flesh had been bitter enough to leave her in tears. Quilo's voice sounded like the juice of that fruit, running along the blade of a knife, promising that the wound to come would bring indescribable pain.

Again, Chag met the Gift-Giver's eyes, his face white. Rel was still scowling at Quilo. As Pevan watched, through the deadly stillness between Chag and the Gift-Giver, Rel folded his arms and slouched slightly to one side. A muscle rippled in his jaw.

Impatience. He stood like that when Dora had told him to calm down and wait before rushing into action. When he looked at Pevan, she found herself halfway to telling him to calm down and check things over before she even knew what she was doing. He looked as if he was waiting for her to say something, but she had no idea what.

Fortunately, his patience wore out without him exploding. Voice dry, he said, "It can hardly be said to have been the most efficient route to what they wanted, Quilo. And they still don't have me, despite six months of planning."

The storm of tension, felt but not seen, in the air between Chag and the Gift-Giver vanished as Quilo turned to Rel. That put his back to Pevan, but his stance had lost some of its tension. He said, "You are right. Though what it means for my kind in the long run is not something I want to contemplate."

"It's going to make getting Taslin back difficult, that's for sure." Rel let go his pretense of levity. His face fell, forlorn. Why did he feel so strongly about Taslin? What could she have that he needed? Or had he just plugged the Dora-shaped hole in his life with the Wilder? That was an unsettling thought.

"What chance do we have of that?" Bitterness, old and mournful, rose in Quilo's voice. "We can hardly expect them to take her to your Realm. We would be walking into a perfect trap."

"So, what, you're just going to leave her to them?" Rel's eyes narrowed. "If Delaventrin struggles with our logic, he must find us hard to predict as well. Atla, Pevan and I can get her back, with your help. Is there a way to track them?"

The air around Quilo seemed to cool, and Pevan took an involuntary step back. Some of the sternness came back to the Gift-Giver's tone. "No. The risk is too great. We must do what we can to counteract the Clearseer. We must prevent the Separatists from gaining the ally they seek from among your kind. Taslin is lost to us."

"No!" It was Rel's turn to shake the Court. Quilo actually had to raise a hand and sweep the ripple of Rel's shout out of the air, just in front of his face. "I will not give her up too. Don't we need her to recover Dora?"

Pevan found herself praying, hard enough that her lips moved, that Quilo wouldn't say-

"Calm down, Rel." The Gift-Giver's affable tone belied what might well have been his first ever mistake. He was about to speak again when Rel turned and stalked off.

Automatically, Pevan started after him, but Atla grabbed her sleeve. She half-turned, to shake him off, but he said, quietly, "I'll go."

"What? Why?"

The boy's eyes fled, leaping around the room, from Quilo to the crowd of still-recovering Gift-Givers to Chag. He swallowed. "I, uh... I'm not going to be any use here. But, well, someone needs to work out what to do about, um, Van Raighan. I'm sure I can stop your brother doing anything too rash."

"Chag deserves what's coming to him." Pevan put her weight behind the words, then realised she hadn't actually raised her voice. Why didn't she want Chag to hear that?

"Does he?" It was hard to tell if Atla's innocent tone was an act. It could be, but the lad certainly believed in his point. "It sounded to me like he didn't know what he was doing."

She clenched her jaw, feeling the muscles swell and pulse. Not knowing what he was doing shouldn't be an excuse, not for a Gifted, but Chag was a southerner, and a Witness with it.

"You're the people person." Atla met her eyes squarely for a moment, and she was surprised to see how afraid of her he was. "I think I could handle the law side of it, but you can get the truth out of him."

Despite herself, she looked over at Chag. He was still hanging in his bonds, but every other pair of eyes in the Hall was on her hushed, huddled conversation with the boy. Well, every other pair of eyes except Rel's. She could hear his footsteps, sharp on the marble floor, fading into the distance.

Somehow, Atla managed to lower his voice another notch. "He has more information on the Separatists than anyone else alive. Doesn't he? He may be able to help if you can get through to him."

Where had this string of insights come from? Atla watched her uncertainly for a moment, then seemed to take her silence for approval. He turned and left at a jog. Still off-balance, Pevan turned to Quilo, then to Chag.

Quilo said, "Will your brother do anything rash?"

"He won't attack the Court." Her voice felt leaden. "Beyond that, no promises. He might have changed a bit since Vessit, but..."

"We must proceed without him, then."

Pevan felt a flicker of déjà vu as she stepped into the annexe where Chag was being held. Though the stonework was white marble rather than the dark limestone she was used to from back home, the cell was just like the one where they'd held the thief in Federas. Chag certainly didn't do anything to diminish the resemblance, sitting slumped on the edge of his cot, eyes downcast.

A row of stout black bars divided the space down the middle, though here in the Second Realm they wouldn't be iron. There was no door or gate in them. Quilo would probably just wave a hand and they'd vanish when Chag was due to come out.

There was no seat, so she lowered herself slowly to sit on the ground, back against the wall. Only as she settled into place did Chag actually glance at her, and his gaze fell away again after a moment.

She frowned at him, wondering if he could feel it without looking up again. "Why didn't you leave with the Separatists?" The question had nagged at her since the half-formal trial the previous evening, and now nestled with the heavy lump of fatigue at the front of her brain. She hated having to sleep in the Second Realm, but there had been no question of going back to the First overnight.

The question finally seized his attention. "You're that desperate to get rid of me?"

"I want to know why you stayed." She forced the tension out of her voice. "Having second thoughts?"

"At this point I think I'm onto at least third. Maybe fifth." A corner of his mouth lifted, but you couldn't call it a smile.

"Where does that leave Vesta Fentin and Oris Laith?" The two who'd died at Af, one a girl of fifteen and the other a trainee Warder. It was cruel, and Van Raighan took the words like a blow, but those were the deaths on his head. Two people, dead because Chag loved Pevan, and that was to say nothing of the Gift-Giver and Guards he'd killed in his earlier theft.

Without looking up, he muttered, "The town was supposed to be safe."


"The Separatists secured the Sherim. Lienia waited on our side to make sure nothing came through while the Ward was down." Finally, he held his head up, met her eyes. She was surprised at the weight in his bitter stare. "The Wilder at Af was already in the First Realm when we put the plan in motion. The town hadn't issued an alert."

"You think that excuses you?" She could tell he didn't, but the heat in her needed an outlet.

He stood, sharply, as if to come to the bars, but then turned his back instead. "I don't know what I think. Are you dead-set against the Separatists?"

"I can't make this decision for you, Chag." Looking up at him from the floor made him seem a long way off.

"Why not?" The edge of petulance in the little man's tone made her roll her eyes. "You're the expert, aren't you?"

Pevan said nothing, instead easing herself to her feet. Then, feeling awkward just standing there in the cold, hard, white room, she walked up to the bars. Chag picked up on some scuff or rustle that she made and turned. The lines pain had etched in his face made him look as ancient as Quilo.

It was hard to find anything like mercy for the thief now. Holding her voice low, she said, "If you're not going to be on my side because it's the right side to be on... If everything you do is for me... How can I respect that?"

"I love you." He said it like a prayer, as if the words made the air around them holy. As if it was the answer to everything.

She found herself grimacing, fighting back a rush of something that might have been tears or anger. "You killed people for me! How do I live with that? Where will you draw the line?"

"No-one was supposed to die." The look on his face was probably a mirror of hers. "Delaventrin Saw no deaths. If he had, I wouldn't have done it. I swear it."

"You were willing to help the Separatists even though it meant another Realmcrash. Just because it meant a path that led to me."

"I- No... I- " His mouth kept working silently for a while before he stopped and looked down at his hands. "You really don't think Separation is worth the price?"

Pevan felt a place inside her go calm, like a wind suddenly dying. Inside that place, thought was clearer. "Can we risk it, with the Abyss like it is? Even if we can trust the Separatists, and you're right that people can prepare for Realmquakes and we don't have to worry about electronics and all that stuff, the First Realm is falling apart. Can it take the shock?"

"Okay. But it's right overall, isn't it?" There were tears in his eyes. "I mean, we're better off without the Second Realm, if it can be done safely, aren't we?"

She shook her head slowly, sadly. "I don't think so, Chag. I might not be in the majority in this, but I am what I am, and without the Second Realm I wouldn't be that. Do you really think people are that unhappy with the Treaty? Down South, I mean?"

He took a short, shallow breath, half-way to a sob. "Shouldn't they be, though? I don't think people think about it. But the Second Realm is dangerous. You know that. How many people die in Federas every year to Wildren?"

"None," she snapped, a flash of heat racing through her veins. "We haven't had a civilian casualty in almost fifty years."

"What about Gifted?"

"That's different." Her answer was automatic, but then she had to look away, her mind feeling like it had run into a wall as she looked for justification.

"Really?" Chag's tone took on an edge that suggested he was recovering fast. "You don't care that Temmer and Dieni are dead? How many Gifted have you lost, Pevan?"

"They wouldn't have changed things." She spoke through gritted teeth, trying not to give ground. "Death is part of the job."

"I don't remember swearing that in my oath." He held steady, eyes dark.

"Oh, come on." She put as much heat as she could pull up into the words, trying to cover up the hollow sense that he had a point. The oath didn't actually say that you pledged your life. Everybody knew that was what it meant, though. Didn't they? "Things can't be that different in the South. We take the risks so the civvies don't have to. That's what we're here for. Given the dangers, how could swearing to uphold and defend mean anything else?"

"No, it's... I..." He deflated.

More gently, trying not to sound too mocking, she said, "You knew what you were getting into when you swore. Do you really expect me to believe you weren't a little bit excited?"

The thought actually seemed to pain him. He looked at her, face pinched.

"All Gifted feel the same." She frowned, then tried to turn it into a sardonic grin for Chag's sake. "Well, maybe not all. A few women who get Gifted maybe don't want to be heroes. Jashi's a bit like that, it's what makes her so good. The rest of us, though... you remember when I saved you from those Noncs? Back when we first met?"

His frown didn't vanish, but it changed shape. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"The first thing you did after we landed was burst out laughing. Remember?" Pevan knew the feeling well, had understood it instantly; a rush of fierce joy and relief. It was the same sensation as you got when pushing off a cliff-top, just as your wings first bit into the air and defied the inevitable death-plunge. "You did the same when we got here, yesterday."

"That was hysteria. Wasn't it?"

She leaned forward, resting her arms along two of the bars, one eyebrow raised. "The laughter had to come from somewhere." She felt the first fingernail-stroke of a fresh uncertainty. Had she been wrong? Could Chag really not have felt, as he spoke the carefully-chosen words of the oath, that moment's pride, the heat of conviction... the Rel-ness of being Gifted, really. If there was one way in which her brother was the perfect Gifted, it was that.

Maybe the shadow of Chag's brother had held him back. By accounts, Rissad was a Gatemaker worthy of the North, Pevan's equal. Maybe that had smothered Chag's pride. And yet, when he talked about Rissad, it never seemed to be outright envy in the little man's voice. He spoke about his brother as if he were a standard to aim for, a totem, a rival to beat, not an untouchable monolith.

He seemed about to speak, but she cut him off. "You liked that it put you on level footing with Rissad, didn't you?" The question came out sharp rather than teasing, but the way his face hardened suggested he wouldn't have found it amusing.

"I should never have tried to compete with him." There was lead in his tone.

"Really?" She kept her voice hard, not wanting to let him slide into self-pity. "Or should you just have thought through what you did to compete a bit more?"

His eyelids flickered, just once, the faintest of cracks in his stony mien. He crossed to the bars in short, shuffling steps, his motions so studied and careful, so fragile, that it seemed a performance. Still leaning forward, Pevan found herself less than a foot from his face, studying his eyes and the rough, stubbly skin of his malnourished cheeks. His arms came up half-way, and she thought he might be about to reach through the bars and slide his hands around her waist. Instead he took hold of the bars, his hands just below her elbows. A shiver ran through her all the same.

"You don't blame me for wanting to compete with him?" He asked, voice halting and muted.

"Of course not." She made the words taut rather than cheerful, feeling his need for dignity. She softened, though, as she continued, "It'll make you a better Gifted. It keeps me and Rel on our toes all the time."

Face still eerily, mournfully blank, Chag said, "I made some terrible decisions."

"So unmake them."

"How?" He shook the bars, or rather shook himself against the bars. The total effect of the gesture was a lock of his hair sliding lower on his forehead. Pevan, leaning on the same bars he held, felt nothing. Voice stinging, he went on, "You may have noticed I'm not in a position to do very much."

"Do what you can, then." She couldn't keep all of her irritation out of her tone. "And stop being so petulant about it."

"What can I do?" He threw up his hands.

"Where have the Separatists taken Taslin? What do they plan on doing next? If we go after them, will we walk into a trap?"

"I don't know!" He started to turn away, then caught himself. He met her eyes again, something desperate and fearful in the lines of his face. "Would you trust my answers, anyway?"

The question settled on her like a heavy coat. She looked down, but that placed her eye-line at an unfortunate level, so she half-turned to one side. Picking her words even more slowly than she needed to, she said, "I trust you to stop me if I'm walking into danger. The rest you're going to have to earn."

He nodded. "I don't think they took Taslin to the white cave. They still think they can win Rel over, though."

"Then they're fools." She straightened, folded her arms.

"Fools with a Clearseer." His tone was grim. "If Rel's going to rush off again, you can bet there'll be a trap waiting."

Pevan felt a rush of heat, old reflex urging her to defend her brother. She mastered it, though. "If he's rushed off and got himself into trouble again, I'll-"

"You'll what?" Chag cut her off.

"Probably do something very rash and thoughtless." She threw him a grin, saw his face lighten in response. "Which means there's no point thinking about it just yet. I'm going to go and check on Rel. Wait here."

"What else am I going to do?" His question followed her out of the annexe.

Minutes later, she was gasping for breath as she pelted down the hall towards the cells. She'd managed to hold to a stiff walk the whole length of the Great Hall, just, until the doors hid her from Quilo. She couldn't be sure he wouldn't have some other way of knowing, of sensing that she was about to act, but she'd done her best.

She burst into the annexe and stood, panting, as the door bounced noisily off the wall. Chag shot to his feet, face grey. He said, "He's gone?"

"Of course he's gone, you ass." She couldn't keep the anger out of her voice, but Chag seemed to sense it wasn't really directed at him. "Atla, too."

"The kid can take care of himself. He's good." Chag's tone matched his face, firm but calm.

"And if the Separatists kill him?" Pevan's gut writhed. Breathing felt like trying to swallow a rasp. "They don't want him for anything."

The little man gave a slight shake of his head. "If they killed him, the Gift-Givers would have to act. It would be a breach of the treaty."

"The Gift-Givers won't do anything. Quilo as good as wrote Rel off for dead."

"And you?" Chag folded his arms, one eyebrow mirthlessly raised. "Surely you have more faith in your brother. He has Clearsight on his side too, remember."

Pevan reached out to grab the door and slam it shut. "As he's very fond of reminding me, it's next to useless to try to See the Second Realm."

"His intent will be as much a mystery to Delaventrin." Chag's face hardened. "I thought you didn't want to do anything rash."

She bit back a surge of anger and approached the bars. "I can't just do nothing."

"What can you do?" He stepped up to face her. "Even if they've lured him to the white cave, can you get there from here?"

"I..." Her jaw clamped shut, frustration pulling tight through her. She wrapped her hands around the bars, fingernails digging into the balls of her thumbs. "You know he's going to do something stupid. There's no Dora or Dieni to bail him out this time. It's me or nothing."

Chag covered her hand with his own, sending a tingle through her fingers. When he spoke, his voice hovered somewhere between pained and exhausted, and somehow it was just right to massage some of the tightness from her eyes. "I know, I know. I don't like the thought of sitting around waiting for bad news either, but what else can we do?"

It was surprisingly easy to ignore his touch. She met his eyes, dragging up enough fire for a quirked eyebrow. "We, huh? You're just going to waltz out of there, are you?"

"Do you want me to obey the Gift-Givers or not?" There was an edge to the words that took some of the humour out of them. "Bad things happen when I don't."

"Yeah, when they're right about stuff." A thought struck her. "Wait, when you were here with Fate... You took the Gift back to the Separatists, didn't you?"

His face changed, cheeks falling, frown fading. His eyes left hers, and a chill in her fingers told her he'd lowered his hand. "I wasn't 'here with' Fate. He was waiting for me when I got here. He took me back to the cave once he was done getting me into trouble."

"You didn't come here with him?"

"No, I said that back in the Hall. Didn't I?" He shrugged. "The Separatists sent me here to spy on the Gift-Givers. Fate intercepted me on my way in, somehow."

"They sent you here?" Pevan's heart leapt again, the rush half fear and half hope. "So you know a way back to them?"

"Don't make me do this, Pevan." Pain in his tone. Would he refuse to tell her? How would she get it out of him? He said, "How can I ever go back home if I run away now? We'll be outlaws for good."

The question caught her off-guard. It was hard to remember that, apart from her, he hadn't seen a friendly, human face in half a year. And yet... She smiled. "You aren't worried about how I'm getting us out of here?"

Some subtle tension ran through him, not quite a shiver, not quite a swallow. "I'm serious. I want to go home someday. I'd rather not add any more to the justice I'll face when I do."

"And if the Separatists destroy the First Realm?" She put venom into the words. "We have to do everything we can to disrupt them. If they get a human Clearseer, that will be the end of us all. There's a chance Delaventrin won't understand that we've switched sides. We have to act now."

"You're going to get us both killed." There was grim resignation in Chag's tone.

"Oh, like you'd want to live on without me anyway."

"Insufferable woman." He glared at her, then sighed. "Can you really get us out of here?"

"We'll find out soon enough." She rolled her shoulders, stretching them loose. "Where does your route set off from? Can you Witness it?"

He raised his hand, palm up. The bubble of the Witnessing slid into reality above it, colours flickering in its depths longer than seemed normal. For a moment, Pevan felt a chill finger of dread stroking through her guts, but then the image began to resolve. Chag said, "You know this is a bad idea."

"Shut up." She fixed the view of the Court in her mind as best she could. It looked like it was somewhere up on one of the spires, but being able to picture it should be enough to get a Gate to the right place. If Gateways could even be made to work in the Second Realm. The Court was supposed to be like the First Realm, at least.

Before she could worry about that, though, she had to get Chag out. She grabbed hold of two clear patches of floor, one either side of the bars, and tried to spin a Gateway between them. Alien Realmspace - it had the texture of undercooked mushroom - resisted, bouncing back as if she hadn't got the Gates aligned properly. She gritted her teeth and fought harder, until the floor wobbled under her feet. Chag made an awkward, throaty sound.

Scrunching her eyes closed, Pevan forced the two mouths of the Gate together. The world reeled, throwing her sideways, but the Gateway snapped into place. She could feel Chag passing through it as a lump that squeezed through the centre of her mind, and then he was catching her, and they were stumbling into the wall, shoulders first. Somehow, he kept her head from bouncing off the stonework.

The room sprang back into place as she let the Gate go, and they bounced off another surface that might have been a wall but was more likely ceiling. Only Chag's weight on top of her told her that she'd hit the ground first. Skinny as he was, his bones dug into her all over the place.

She groaned and shoved him off her. The movement seemed to be enough to pull him back together, and he was on his feet a second after her. With grim humour in his face, he said, "Don't do that again."

"I don't fancy having to run for the walls." She glared at him. "Unless you think whatever that was went undetected?"

He didn't even bother to shake his head, instead stepping closer and taking hold of her arm. For a moment his approach made her spine tighten, but she let it stand, turning her focus to the matter of the next Gate. Were those footsteps she could hear in the corridor outside the annexe?

The memory of Chag's witnessing was waiting for her, along with a tidal surge of logic fatigue that fuzzed her vision to spots. She let the rush fade, waiting until her mind cleared to drive her will down into the floor, and into the wall of the distant tower. She had to fight the instinct to cringe as she connected to the two patches of Realmspace together. Who knew how violent the Gate would have to be to get through this time?

Tensing every muscle she could, Pevan lashed out, smashing the two parts of the Court against each other. The room spasmed, and the door crashed open. Light in colours too nauseating to look at fountained out of the Gateway as it opened, and between them, Pevan and Chag managed to stagger into it. He wrapped his arms around her desperately as they fell. The last thing she saw before crossing the threshold was a Court Guard standing paralysed in the doorway.

As the Gate took her, Pevan's head came alive with fiery pain. It spread out in jagged rifts until she felt like her brain was tearing apart. The rags of grey matter folded back through themselves, and through themselves again, turning her inside out and back in again. Seconds dragged in a gravity-less limbo, flecks of colour and light rushing past.

Pain of a more mundane sort - the thump as her lower back struck the low rampart of the staircase - announced their exit from the Gateway. It took a long moment of frantic scrabbling before Chag pulled her upright and put an end to their teetering. She lost control of the Gate, felt it slipping out of her grasp.

It was as if someone had fired a slingshot at point-blank range into the bridge of her nose. Her head snapped back hard enough to stab pain down her neck. She grabbed Chag's shirt for balance just as he spread his arms in a burst of feathers. He leapt at her, and somehow she got a good enough hold that he carried her with him, up and away.

The thousand-foot spire of the Court swung back and forth behind them as Chag fought them aloft. Pevan buried her face in his shoulder, gritting her teeth against the shudders of her battered Gift. Black feathers trailed in their wake, shaken loose by Chag's frantic flapping. She would have to drop and take her chances with her own wings before long. She hung on, a shiver running through her.

* * *

Next episode

Thursday, 27 June 2013

When is a Radical Religion Not a Radical Religion?

This is a fascinating article and you should read it. It's the first article of its kind - a negative description of Iranian culture (as opposed to the Iranian regime) from a liberal within Iran - that I've read, and it is equal parts frightening and revealing. What interests me today, though, is the author's attribution of all, or at least a great deal, of the sins of his culture to the religion of Islam. His contention is specifically that Islam is a 'more radical' religion than others, where 'radical' in this case means something along the lines of 'extreme, reactionary, socially conservative and violent'.

Far be it from me to gainsay the author's description of the culture he lives in - if even half of what he says is true, then that culture is flat-out horrible. My question is simply whether we're talking about Islamic rather than Iranian or Arabic culture - should we be identifying the religion as the problem? It's a question that's complicated, of course, by how intertwined Islam is with the culture and politics of Iran (and, indeed, most of the rest of the arab world).

How should we approach this question? Well, if Islam is intrinsically more radical than other religions - if the extremism we in the western world have been told Islam possesses is an essential feature or automatic consequence of the religion - then it should show up in every Muslim and in every Islamic community, and it certainly doesn't (or at very least, it shows up in wildly varying degrees). I have known Muslims as peaceful and liberal as any of the atheists I've known, and they saw no conflict between their sociopolitical attitudes and their religion (remember, the traditional Islamic greeting 'Salaam Alaykum' - apologies for anglicised spelling - means 'peace be with you').

The question, really, is over whether there is anything in the religion of Islam which is more conducive to extremism than anything in other religions. Islam certainly has its share of extreme stories and myths (but then, it co-opted many of them from Christianity and Judaism, since Islamic scripture includes versions of many Old Testament myths), and violent or dramatic practices (I can't remember the details, but there's a pretty brutal festival of self-flagellation in the Shi'a tradition, I think).

There's really only one honest answer to the question 'is Islam more conducive to radical behaviour than other religions?', and that's 'Well, it depends.' Like any large religion, Islam varies greatly from culture to culture. I would argue that what makes the Islamic culture of Iran so problematic is the cultural environment, not the religious one. If Islam appears generally more radical, it is because the areas in which it is most prevalent have more problematic cultures for other reasons.

At the risk of reducing it all to economics, think about the geographic distribution of Islam versus the geographic distribution of Christianity, particularly across Europe, Africa and the Americas. In central Europe and North America, Christianity dominates far and away the largest tracts of fertile farmland in the world. Islam, by contrast, has spread mainly through deserts around the Mediterranean and into Africa. There are roughly similar numbers of people on both sides, but far, far less wealth (in a purely bread-and-butter sense, and ignoring the question of how oil wealth really works) in Islamic areas. That spread is a matter of a couple of historical accidents (Christianity coming along first, Christianity getting the Romans on its side, to be very loose about it), and nothing to do with the contents of these religions.

That alone would be inconclusive. But if you look at levels of radicalism purely across the Christian world, you see more of exactly the problematic kinds of culture and behaviour discussed in the article I linked above whereever Christians are poorer. The middle-class British Christianity which I grew up with, if not in, is almost completely gentrified (though the culture that it resides in undeniably has its own problems). The Christianity of the US deep south - a much poorer area - is much more radical.

When people are driven to extreme behaviour, I do not believe it's the ideologies they espouse doing the driving. Rather, it's the emotional states which led them to those ideologies which we must blame for their behaviour. This is why one occasionally sees outburts of violence and radicalism without any structured ideology at all - as in the 2011 summer riots in the UK (again, mainly in economically poorer areas and cultures). The emotions involved - fear and anger in equal measure - are the results of cultural pressures; the erosion of long-held values, new challenges to established power and hierarchy etc.

There is, always, a question to be asked about the role of violent rhetoric in doctrinal texts (not exclusively the domain of religious texts - see for example Mein Kampf, Nietzsche's The Gay Science, or The Communist Manifesto), but it's one best answered by a scientific, psychological study, not philosophical analysis. For today, my point is that we should be very wary of blaming a religion for a community's faults just because it is the religion of that community.

Monday, 24 June 2013

The War on Traditional Publishing

I haven't heard this particular complaint in a few months (I've been busy), but it's a popular refrain among the suffering trad-publishing mid-list that self-publishers are 'out to destroy' or 'waging war on' traditional publishing. We normally reply along the lines of 'Of course we're not, we just want more options for authors'. Then something like this bullshit happens.

Well, you might say, that's just someone getting angry about the standard of self-published work, isn't it? I mean, OK, they're making wildly inaccurate, baseless, sourceless allegations, but it's just so much hot air. Isn't it?

No, no it isn't. The implicit purpose of rants like that one (and I'll admit, it's a particularly extreme example) is to stop people reading self-published work. It's written to make readers not want to read our books, to make them pass us over without a second thought in favour of 'real' authors and 'proper' publishers. It's designed to put us out of business.

What I'm getting at is this: there is a war on here, but we self-publishers didn't start it. Trad authors like Kozlowski up there and their corporate shills like Scott Turow denigrate, belittle and insult us constantly. They rush to man the walls between the gates they keep, no matter how badly those walls are crumbling. Our business practices are 'corrupt' and 'predatory'; theirs are 'literary' and 'legitimate'. And they control, pretty much by definition, the mainstream media - they control the narratives and with them the attitudes of the majority of readers.

They can charge £9 for a paperback, pay authors maybe £1.50, and then give us the excuse that they've got businesses to run - businesses that pay needless rent on offices in one of the most expensive commercial districts in the world. They can reject an author as dedicated and talented as Joe Konrath 500 times, but publish two ghostwritten 'autobiographies' of Justin Bieber, and then accuse self-publishers of flooding the marketplace with crap. They can engage in an actual crime to force a (bad-for-everyone) pricing model on distributors, then accuse Amazon of 'monopolistic' practices.

So yes, we're fighting a war, in self-defence if nothing else. But there's a difference between fighting a war and aiming for the destruction of traditional publishing. When Britain declared war on the Nazis, or America on the Japanese Empire, we weren't out to destroy Germany or Japan. We were trying to force them to back down, to stop attacking us. The ultimate aim of war isn't destruction; it's peace.

Indeed, Germany and Japan have gone on to be immensely powerful nations, nations that now stand side-by-side with their WW2 enemies, nations whose strength is grounded in economic and cultural ties to former enemies. No-one wants the truly grand traditions of traditional publishing to die out. Traditional publishing has strengths that should not be wasted, and employs a huge number of immensely talented editors, designers and marketers, people whose skills this industry needs more now than ever before.

But until the vicious attacks on self-publishers stop, until the power of the traditional war-machine is broken and the marketplace evened out, until the only thing that matters is the quality of your product and the integrity with which you present it, this is a war, and we ought to be fighting it. We don't want to put anyone out of business. We just don't want to be put out of business ourselves.

Thursday, 13 June 2013


There's a shill line that comes up every time a privacy or government snooping scandal breaks, that only people who have something to hide get angry about invasions of their privacy. I want to be very clear: I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that I have never personally felt afraid or angry about the government having information about me. For some reason, I don't have the strong emotional response that most of my friends, and particularly some of those whose political views I most respect, have. And it worries me that I might be missing something.

I can completely understand not trusting politicians, of course, but only in the sense that we need better politicians. The rhetoric I hear from what I'll somewhat clumsily label the 'pro-privacy lobby' suggests that they consider privacy a basic human right on a par with freedom of speech. Now, I take it as a fundamental principle that there should be a reason for any basic right, and I can't see one for privacy.

Equally, I don't have a clear argument why it shouldn't be. I could argue, I suppose, that governments need information to base their decisions on, but most of the information they need can be harmlessly anonymised. I could argue, too, that people who are willing to share their personal lives on facebook (and with any number of other private corporations who are far more likely that governments to be evil rather than just incompetent) don't get to complain about violations of privacy, but that's trite and ad hominem.

Perhaps the most compelling argument is that governments aren't really likely to be able to use the information they gather, never mind that they're not really interested in the kind of stuff we generally care about keeping private. There's a legitimate question of whether a phone recording being stored in a machine somewhere where no human being will ever actually listen to it constitutes a breach of privacy, or the breach only occurs when an actual human being tunes in. It's a variation on the 'if a tree falls in the forest' question, I suppose.

But none of these arguments really satisfies me. They're interesting points, worth discussing, but I've discussed them at length with various people before. What interests me here is purely the psychological disconnect I'm experiencing. Why, at an emotional level, am I not scared of the recent story about NSA snooping (apart from the fact that it's mainly about the US - I'm a one-world kind of guy, after all)?

Okay, I'm British and thus don't have quite the level of automatic distrust of government that seems hard-wired into all US political activism, and I grew up in a very trusting and trust-worthy family environment, but it can't be that simple, can it? I have friends with very similar backgrounds who are fiercely pro-privacy.

So (and this is probably the only time you'll ever hear me say this) scare me. What am I missing? Why is there a strong right to privacy?

Monday, 10 June 2013

Why George R. R. Martin is wrong about killing characters

I'm going to begin by taking my share of the public moment of smugness that everyone who's read A Storm of Swords felt last week after all the fuss about the Game of Thrones episode (you know the one). You know how all along, those of us who've read it have been saying 'You ain't seen nothing yet'? Well, now you have.

Aaaaanyway, smugness aside, today I want to talk about why George R. R. Martin is a terrible writer and you should read someone else instead. And yes, I'll be retracting at least half of that sentence in due course. I'll try to avoid anything too much in the way of spoilers, but the biggest spoiler in GoT is that everyone dies, and you all knew that anyway.

Martin's theory (in the first two minutes of that vid) is that when the hero of a story is in danger, it should feel to the reader as if he's in danger - that is, it should feel like he could die. Joss Whedon said the same thing about a particular character death in the movie Serenity. It sounds reasonable enough - after all, it's certainly true that in most fiction, and particularly fantasy, we take the survival and triumph of the hero for granted - but it's always bugged me, and I finally figured out why.

The problem is that survival and triumph in themselves aren't generally the sources of the interesting tension in these kinds of stories. As such, making the reader feel like the characters could die or fail doesn't add very much. I take it as axiomatic that what's really interesting in any story is how the characters change. Fear of death or of losing a loved one can change us, but it certainly doesn't always.

I actually gave up on reading A Song of Ice and Fire at the end of A Storm of Swords, but not because of what happened in last week's episode (it might happen in this week's, so I'll keep quiet for now). But one of my favourite parts of that book was the storyline with Jaime Lannister. Now, spoiler alert: he gets his sword-hand cut off. The thing is, as a knight, that's basically everything he knows how to do and his entire place in the world gone.

Does fearing for his life create any interesting tension? No, because you know that actually, death would be a kind of relief for him. All the tension in his story comes from him being determined to stay alive, to keep his place in the world and his prominence, to maintain the relationships that matter to him. For him to die would be a terrible waste of an interesting character. Something similar goes for Arya Stark, the other character whose story I really enjoyed.

By contrast, the main story in the first book, Ned Stark's, was bland as hell. It's just 'Ned is noble and just - Ned is noble and just - Ned is noble and just - and now he's dead'. Nothing that actually matters about him changes at all. He just goes from being alive to being dead. The storylines where a character has reasons to welcome death are all far more interesting.

And of course, GRRM knows this. He actually is an excellent writer, really great at twisting the screws that make Jaime's and Arya's lives miserable. The whole thing about killing characters is a smoke-screen, really, because the bits that are really painful to read don't come from character deaths at all (while I can't pretend to have enjoyed Sansa's story much, the whole arc of her puberty and marriage was far more painful and powerful than any of the character deaths, and will stay with me a lot longer).

My favourite fantasy author, Janny Wurts, very rarely kills her characters. Some of her major characters are functionally immortal, and others have prophecies or blessings of very long life. She kills huge numbers of bystanders, soldiers and civilians, of course, because you have to in high fantasy, but very few characters. And her books are laden with exactly the kinds of tension, fear and surprise Martin claims he's trying to create.

It's not that you fear for the lives of her characters - you fear for their choices. For their pride and integrity. For their reputations. Their relationships and passions. The tension that comes from 'will this character die?' is a very poor substitute for the tension that comes from 'how will this character go on living?'.

So, if you like Game of Thrones for anything other than the sex and murder, you should read Janny Wurts. You should also, of course, read The Second Realm, because I promise not to kill any major characters in that series at all. I'll just make you wish they could receive the sweet relief of death ;)

Go on, give it a try - it's my birthday on Thursday.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Flow, Happiness and Snot

Somebody linked me to this ages ago, and I thought 'That's very interesting, I should totally blog about it', and then couldn't think of anything to say that the video didn't already. And now, finally, with a little help from my hayfever (it's about time it did something for me), I have.

The talk in the video rambles a bit, though it's all interesting, but the basic idea as I understood it was that when you do high-difficulty tasks to which your skills are adequate - when you're both challenged and engaged by something - your consciousness doesn't have the bit-rate to worry, fret, stress or otherwise dwell on misery.

The guy in the video (who's earned the rare distinction that I won't even *try* to pronounce, spell or replicate his name in any way) calls this state of focus 'flow'. His claim is that happiness consists in regular experiences of flow - that we should seek out the things that get us into this state. For artists and creative types, this is their art or creative process, but he points out that something similar happens to scientists pursuing new insights and athletes in training too.

I have to admit I was sceptical at first. The thing I do which seems to me the most natural place in my life to look for flow is playing piano. I play almost exclusively the rags of Scott Joplin, pieces which require a very high level of technical precision; pieces which can really only be played by developing a degree of 'muscle memory'. I joke sometimes that I'm not a good pianist, but my C7 vertebra is. When I'm playing in this semi-automatic way, I do feel a kind of flow, but I often also find myself - the conscious part of me rather than the piano-playing part - dwelling on whatever negative feelings are at large in my life at the time.

The problem I'm running up against, of course, is that it's very hard to notice when you're truly in flow. In flow, you're lost in the moment. You're not paying attention to things like the passage of time, or the way you feel, or anything besides what you're doing. So the times when I'm sat at my piano and brooding, I'm not really in flow - I'm not engaged. And the times when I am experiencing flow, I'm not normally noting the fact. Just now, as a very unrigorous experiment, I tried, while playing, to focus enough to consciously move into flow and it did seem to help, but it was a delicate balancing act.

What really convinced me of this flow concept, though, is hayfever. I get it pretty bad at about this time of year, and it struck at the weekend. I spent most of Sunday and Monday sniffling, sneezing and generally feeling wretched. The thing is, it's basically impossible to maintain any kind of flow (except the flow of snot) when you have to stop every two minutes for a huge sneezing fit. There's almost no common sensation which is more attention-hogging than the need to sneeze.

And sure enough, I realised, every time I have a bad allergic flare-up, the pleasure gets sucked out of all the things I normally do for pleasure. Every time I start to build up some flow/momentum, my streaming nose will drag my attention back to mundane discomfort. Monday was a very miserable day. Today, with nasal matters starting to settle down, everything seems much more fun.

So how does one achieve flow? It's a combination of challenge and skill. Skill, and I think particularly the kinds of skill that are conducive to flow, is built by devoted practice. Want to learn to play piano? Play every day. Want to run marathons? Run every day. That's easy, or at least simple. Finding challenges sounds like it could be harder, but it actually won't be. Effective practice requires the finding of new challenges anyway, but as you learn a skill, you will come to understand what to look for in a challenge and how to find it.

If you want a relatively accessible example of this, by the way, look no further than the Guitar Hero games. They are perfect for flow. They give you a skill which seems relatively simple at first, and a ladder of challenges which has been fine-tuned to give a smooth increase in difficulty. As you master songs and get comfortable with them, you will find yourself getting tired of them and wanting to move on to harder material. The trance-state you have to develop in order to master the hardest tracks in the game is also one of the purest forms of flow I've ever experienced, which may explain why I spent so much of my final year as an undergraduate playing Guitar Hero (don't tell my lecturers...).

Monday, 3 June 2013

How to Visualise Your Success a non-self-helpy-buzz-wordy sort of way.

Being something of a nerd (you'd never guess ;) ), I keep detailed statistics on the performance of The Second Realm. This involves a huge 5-page spreadsheet, most of the content of which is obscure and unhelpful. What it actually boils down to is a handful of graphs, and I thought it might be useful to talk a bit about what they are and what I use them for.

The Most Important Graph:

This shows the running total across all (currently) 17 published episodes of The Second Realm. It's not actually very useful for telling me about how individual episodes are performing, or anything else really (though you can spot a few good weeks here and there). Why use it, then?

Well, the effect is psychological. This graph exists to take the sting out of bad weeks by showing how insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things - can you even spot the most recent bad week? It's not the dip in early January, it's the tiny little blip at the start of April. What this graph shows, more than anything, is that whatever momentum I have managed to establish isn't really diminishing at all.

In an ideal world, this would show an upward curve, indicating growing momentum, but I'll settle for what I've got for now. The reason this one is so important is that it keeps me going when all the other graphs turn discouraging.

Weekly Traffic:

This is probably the one I use most (and you've seen it before, a couple of times). The blue line is the number of total downloads across all episodes for a given week, and thus tracks overall performance on a weekly basis. The red line is a four-week rolling average (the total for the current week and the preceding three, divided by four), and the green is a twelve-week version of the same.

The red line is a bit obsolete now, but the purpose of the two averages is to even out the big spikes in the blue line (most of which represent the release of a new episode). What they reveal is that the end of last year went badly for me, but things have been picking up since the nadir in mid-February. It's worth noting, too, that the actual traffic nadir will have been earlier than the dip in the green line - this is the disadvantage of the rolling average measure.

The usefulness of this graph comes from the limit it places on what might be going on. A flat green line would mean steady traffic - losing as many readers as I gain. Crucially, it would also mean that my reach - the number of new readers trying out one of my stories for the first time - wasn't growing.

The slight upward trend means one of three things; growing reach (more readers trying me out), growing conversion (more reached readers coming back for another episode), or growing devotion (regulars coming back more often). Since all these cases indicate growing interest, they're all good things. Now, last time I made any predictions about the performance of The Second Realm, I was proved wildly optimistic, but I remain quietly content this time. We'll see how the rest of the summer plays out, which brings me too:

Traffic per Episode:
This is where things get a bit complicated. This is a graph of the total from the first graph, above, divided by the number of published episodes at the time. It's a slightly crude measure, because I didn't publish an episode at the end of November (some of the drop-off from then onwards is due to the effect of that artificial peak being spread thinner as time moves on). It also completely hides the massive jump (visible on both previous graphs) at the end of August last year, when episode 3.2 inexplicably brought in a massive slew of traffic. I still don't know why that happened...

Anyway, the red bars are basically the bars from the last few weeks superimposed on the equivalent weeks last year, which will in theory allow me to compare this year's performance to last year's. Hopefully this will allow me to start identifying seasonal effects (i.e. do people just download more free short stories in the summer? Is there a key popular time of year?), though obviously with only two years' data to draw on there's a limit to the conclusions I'll be able to draw.

As far as reading this graph goes, the important thing is the angle of the slope within a given segment. Each jag represents a new episode, and the angle of the slope tells me how well that episode did at generating new traffic for the series as a whole. There is a caveat to this, which is that because it's an average, as time goes on and more and more episodes appear, each individual download of an individual episode becomes less significant. I haven't quite worked out how to compensate for that yet.

A steady upward trend (such as appears for about the first third of the graph) would indicate that the increase in traffic each month was keeping up with this effect - and would actually be equivalent to a significant upward curve on both the previous graphs. Clearly that's not happening, but much of the drop-off in the last six months doesn't actually represent a lack of growth, just growth that's not keeping pace with the appearance of new episodes.

And finally, just for kicks, a graph that isn't useful at all:
I mentioned this one when talking about blogging as promotion last month, but didn't actually show it because, well, just look at the thing. It's a bit... chaotic, no? The blue line should be familiar, where it's visible at all - it's the same blue line as was on the second graph, above. The red and green lines here, however, are completely different.

What they actually measure is my activity on this blog (i.e. number of posts per week) as a proportion of my average activity (total number of blog posts divided by total number of weeks). The key lists them both as percentages, but the green line is actually per-fifty rather than per-hundred. Basically, towards the right-hand end of the graph, you can kind of see a trend line curving gently downwards - that represents weeks where I actually blogged twice. spikes above it mean three or four posts, below means one or two. The red line is just crazy and should be ignored.

What I was looking for was evidence that activity on this blog translated into traffic for The Second Realm, because I'd developed the conviction that whenever I had a week away from blogging, traffic really dipped. If that conviction had been correct, though, there'd be a consistent correlation between dips in the green line and dips in the blue, but for every week that appears to validate the belief, there's one that refutes it. I keep the graph going these days mainly out of aesthetic curiosity and chagrin.

Anyway, that's a few of the perks and pitfalls of maths for tracking your progress as an author. Don't feel you need all (or any) of these graphs, but if you think you'll find them useful, excel makes things fairly simple (although, apparently, too complicated for Harvard economists) to implement. Just make sure you've got plenty of data to draw on - the more data you have, the less discouraging an individual bad point will be.

I should add - these are very simple measures, and I'm no statistician. There are all sorts of other techniques I could use, except that I have no idea how to set them up or what they'd mean.