Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Second Realm 6.1: Take Me to the Sea

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I Sailed Away

Prologue: A Step Sideways Through Time

He cannot remember time. It feels like the eyeholes of a mask, narrow and constricting. Senses that he can remember, but cannot remember remembering, tell him that this Realm is a dark place, and he moves ahead, to see if the sun will rise.

A flicker of light that he had not noticed does grow brighter, but it is not the sun. It is... approaching, as if space itself were passable. He does not understand this. Time has not moved as expected.

Then, without any intent on his part, time does move, and he falls. The ground is hard and rough, and scrapes the skin off his palms. The stinging, too, is a remembered sensation. He recoils...

The light of the Wildren torches threw flickering shadows up the looming sheet of concrete ahead of him. His trouser leg clung to blood seeping - flowing, probably - from whatever he'd done to the limb beneath. Hopefully the cut was a separate injury to the snapped bone. Pain from his shoulder overwhelmed any attempt to judge how bad the leg was from internal sensation alone, and he didn't dare look back at it.

To avoid putting weight on either injury, he had to prop himself up on his good arm, half-twisted at the waist. Every foot of gained ground scraped skin off the heel of his thumb, and he could already feel the strength going out of him, the bone turning slowly to jelly just below his shoulder. He'd done his best to prepare, but it had still been days since he'd eaten.

He only had to reach the door, open it, and he could hop back to his camp in the old city. The Stable Rod was a reassuring weight in his pocket. Another thirty feet to crawl.

Hard, slapping footsteps cut through the trickling of the distant water in the chasm behind. He twisted, dreading the sight of another Wilder, but the tall, scruffy figure approaching was human. The one he'd been expecting. He let his arm sag, rolling awkwardly onto his back...

He relaxes, regaining something like his balance. Another mind brushes past his own. Another sensation he doesn't remember. Not being alone - he remembers that, though it comes back slowly. In this dark place, there is another being, questing, reaching out tentatively, then receding towards the distant, dancing lights.

He throws himself after the fading awareness...

...to a point where he'll stand, with the aches of age in his joints and his arm around a woman. He will not need to see past her face to recognise her as the other mind. The recollection of now will reach forward to... now? It'll be brighter, the torches all restored. The recollection will reach forward to tickle his memory, and he'll say, "It's now."

He'll turn and look at the woman. Study her face as if seeing it, as he does now, for the first time. Eyes so pale blue as to be almost silver. No, steel. Age will do nothing to soften her there. He won't think of their age, but it will not have taken any of the hardness out of her. She'll be thinner, the skin tight over her bones. The strength of three Realms will sparkle in her eyes.

And she'll smile up at him. Even after ten thousand such private smiles, it will still touch something very deep inside of him. To see all her strength relaxed, unguarded for the simple fact that he'll be there. She'll tell him, "I love you."

The script that he knows they must follow, to complete the last of the loops that will rule the life they will have shared, tears him away. It will only be for a moment, but still, he'll feel the moment's coolness as he takes a step back...

The sense of the twists in her stays with him, catches his attention for a crucial moment, and he's lost. He flounders, searching for contact with a whirl of world-like-but-not-quite sensations. There is nothing to touch here, and a wrongness hovering at the edges of awareness that turns his gut across several eras.

Then, a memory he recognises of a stranger he doesn't. Impressions spin - a golden flower, robed in white silk, smiling with the benevolence of a deity. The promise, that this would become a memory to cling to in the temporal storm of his return to familiar time.

Pain surges through his leg and shoulder again, hotter than before. He can almost feel it sucking at his spirit. It sits about him like a weight. His good arm and leg, too, are flagging. Limping through the stairs and gantries of the Sherim - if that was what it was - was too much. Wherever he has come to, he doubts he will leave.

It is the jumble of words that saves him. A vast spray of webworked letters through which his mind at least can hop and jump as fluidly as he normally could. The paths, somehow, form intelligible patterns, clumsy with First-Realm meaning, but he does not choose alone. His will is overwhelmed by his emotions, and the stranger in white and honey manipulates the course, too.

Fighting, he veers along a question and directs it at the stranger. "Who are you?"

"For now, I play the part of Fate." The web shakes at the name, and he believes the stranger instantly. New paths opened up to reveal the words, with star-flecked glimpses behind of deep secrets that fold away before he can see them. Then they are drilling down through the web. "You will come to recognise me when we meet in ordinary time."

Yes, this is not ordinary time. His surprised understanding ripples back, connecting the now of memory with the now of experience, completing the loop which in the past tied the fish-hook to Fate's line, but is now his own anchor. This is not ordinary time, but ordinary time is nearby. He collects himself and steps sideways...

For the first time, or at least something very like it, he feels the loops twisted around him. Loops of trapped time, endless circles that coil through each other, with hair-fine choices each time they touch. Some few of them are memories, not his, that could be lived endlessly. More, at this point, are futures. Some stretch off far into the distance, but he can tell where they return, tied through this nexus. He begins to understand.

The loops lock away parts of his past, as long as he tries to cheat his way out of navigating them. But he does not have infinite time. Things he should be remembering are important, he remembers that much. The ribbons of time feel like tamed winds, dancing as they wait to be played with. Somewhere in there is the memory he needs.

At the far end of time, where the last loop spears out into the darkness and does not return, is the woman with the steel eyes. He would think of her as a key, but that would be trite. She is a drill, or a sharp pick, to shatter the lock that bars him access to the normal flow of time.

But where to begin looking for her? Some of the swirls are infinite. He raises a hand to touch the nearest one...

"Time bends to our will," he'll say, to the assembled students. Outwardly, they'll look as human as Gift-Givers, but he'll be able to see the swirls of time spilling out of their heads. This time, he'll ignore the tickle of his past self - this lesson is too important.

That's signal enough that this is not the place to start. He tries another...

Lauryle's pretty eyes darkened as she frowned. "I Saw you going through some pretty brutal stuff. Don't think you have to be a hero."

He could hear the possessiveness in her tone. Well, they'd joked a couple of times in the quiet aftermath of passion about settling down together. It wasn't something they could let rule them now, though. She was the fourth Clearseer to have reported frightening and destructive Viewings, and the figure in white and gold who would cause or perhaps already had caused them.

Shared anxiety made the gloomy Warding Hall oppressive. Definitely not a place to think about flirtation. He said, "I'm going to step up my rounds. I'll see about sending a messenger North, too. We don't have enough to go on yet."

"Rissad..." She stepped closer, put her hand up to his face. Her fingers were so fine that his cheek tingled, almost itched, at her touch. She really was gorgeous.

Still, he captured her hand, pressed it briefly to his lips and let go. "This is too big for us, Laur. Even if you're right and we've got 'til Spring, there's a lot to get done."

Her eyes narrowed. "You'd better come back soon."

"I said I'd step up my rounds, didn't I?" He gave her a quick smile. Neither of them really pretended to expect faithfulness from the other. They could make that decision some other time.

He pulls back, finally, from the pleasure of that past moment. Rissad. He knew that, didn't he? At least, he can't remember ever having forgotten. He had forgotten Lauryle, her heart-shaped alabaster face all but swamped in the great black waterfalls of her hair. Will she have settled down with someone else by now? And does he care?

He knows who he wants, now. Thinks he feels her, briefly, spinning around a nearby loop. He reaches...

The Abyss gapes wide beneath them. They are glad they are not a Clearseer, to see the Realmlessness in the distance below. He remembers directing an unsuspecting Clearseer to look over the edge of the ledge. From somewhere in what feels very much like the future - further around the loop, he realises - the thought drifts back that the Clearseer probably deserved it. There's affection in the thought. He's not sure he likes that.

Time here feels like honey, flowing lazily off a spoon. They drift with it, and the clashing logics of three Realms spread the warmth of a mother's embrace across them. He recognises the clue, but cannot summon up the urgency to tackle it.

Well, there is no shortage of time. Languid, they drift forever, awarenesses content to be at rest together. Here, they could choose - do choose, many times over - stillness, but for the sluggish flow of the river. They ignore for the most part the painful memories that the sights of the Abyss bring.

On the ledge, there are dull brown flecks marking where blood spilled from Rissad's leg after his treatment at the hands of the Abyss' Wildren stewards. Closer to the tunnel that leads to the caves, no physical residue marks Pevan's betrayal. Both of them regret the memory of Taslin sweeping Rel into the Abyss, sealing his fall from grace.

They contest, briefly, the issue of blame, but to do so is a distortion. Neither of them rules Rel, though he can tell that she wishes she could. He reaches for her in conciliation...

She stared at Rel. "What?"

"Ciarive won't pass me. So I came back to get Dieni's opinion." Rel shrugged, as if it was the most logical thing in the Realm.

"Do you have any idea what the last week and a half have been like?" She put enough venom in her voice to poison a small town, but Rel barely flinched. "Every Gifted from here to Katrel has been out looking for you! I've had six insulting messages from Ciarive alone about your note."

"The man's a stubborn ass." Rel's face hardened. He'd been expecting more support, she could tell. Maybe he had been away too long. "All discipline, no sense. And not half the Gifted he thinks he is. I should have trained with Dieni."

Which said nothing of how proud he'd been to be sent to Ciarive when he went. He-

The memory melts away as she senses the unfamiliar presence. Rissad feels the hot rush of shame and fear, unsure if it is his for snooping or hers for failing to control her Clearseer. So closely synchronised are they in the tangled skein of their shared time that there may be no difference. He sees just how deeply this cuts her, still.

She lashes out at him with the emotion. He can offer nothing but apologies. It was not his intention to pry. They are too close for her to deny the honesty in his appeal, but his concern for her puzzles her. Do they know each other?

They have drifted through this gentle figure-eight of time timelessly. He tries to offer her the memory of it, but it is not hers. Her memories are of stitching herself into the fabric of the Realm and slowing her awareness to preserve herself. Time may well be her enemy.

Automatically, he finds himself vowing to free her. His fervour disturbs her enough to draw words from her, her accent harsh and northern. "Are we fated to this, then?"

He can barely suppress a bitter laugh at the thought of Fate's role. Who knows? But he senses behind her words that she too has seen them together at the end of time. With a gesture of mind, he encompasses the whole tangle. "You could still choose a different path."

"Does time really work like that?" Her voice gives the tiniest of wavers on the last word, and he knows that this is, in real terms, the first time she has ever let her guard down.

He thinks of all the explanations he could offer, but says, "Yes, I promise."

"Then it means something." It is relief, not wry teasing, that he hears in her tone, a quiet pleasure at finding her fears unjustified.

He says, "Yes," and lets her slip away around the loop that will send her back to brush past him as he was flailing his way back to the First Realm. The sense of her presence fades, and with it his connection to the knot of her. He stands in the darkness of the Sherim chamber beside the Abyss, the almost-comically oversized concrete door blocking his access to the caves. His memories file themselves back into order, far from quiescent but at least now rational.

He has returned home. For a moment, he waits, staring up at the faint, ghostly blur over the Abyss that is Dora's temporally diluted presence. She is unlikely to feel his smile, he knows, but he sends it to her anyway. Then, having to think a moment longer than usual about how to, he spins a Gateway in the floor and jumps away, back to the old city above.

1. Take Me to the Sea

Atla's Gift was trying to whisper to him again. It seemed to be growing weaker, as they neared the end of their trek to Vessit, but it was also growing more desperate to get through. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, forcing the sensation - like a sheet of fine paper sliding between the vertebrae of his neck - away. There were no Wildren nearby, except Taslin, and they were almost a hundred miles from the Second Realm. His Gift ought to be completely dormant.

Around the fire to his right, Chag and Pevan seemed absorbed in each other, silently huddled with their heads touching. They'd had little chance to enjoy their new happiness, with the mood over camp each night so frosty and sullen. Taslin, stubbornly maintaining a facade of business-as-usual, was sorting through their meagre remaining supplies, packing stuff away for an early start come morning.

Rel lay wrapped in his blanket beyond a low shrub break, apparently happy to sleep in the cold. Since Ilbertin, he'd refused to share a fire with Taslin, and had treated even his sister as an enemy for tolerating the Gift-Giver's presence. Atla still didn't know what had happened between them, but the real mystery was why Pevan wasn't siding with her brother.

Tomorrow, in theory, it ceased to be his problem. He'd go back to his training in Vessit and leave the wild adventure behind. If Pevan was as good as her word, and remembered to pass on a good report to Bersh, he might be finished with training soon, too. Then he could go back to Lefal. Home. It would be good to see his family again. The Separatists' looming schemes rose to mind like bubbles of swamp gas. Even if he did finish training soon, there might not be time to get home before they struck.

He blinked and looked up from the fire to find Taslin's eyes on him, their faint purple glow cutting through the firelight. She could tell something was amiss with his Gift, he was sure. He wanted to take her continued silence on the matter as evidence that there was no danger in... whatever had happened, but that seemed too good to be true. More likely she wasn't saying for incomprehensible Wildren reasons.

What if Bersh could tell? Neither Pevan nor Rel had said anything about it, but though they were strong Gifted and probably could sense his Gift at least vaguely, they weren't Guides, so perhaps they didn't know what a Guiding should seem like from the outside. Bersh, though, knew Guiding better than anyone south of the Tuani. Maybe it wouldn't matter-

Now Pevan was looking at him, concern and curiosity on her face. Atla could tell he'd done something to draw her attention, though she hadn't disentangled herself from Chag. Probably he was getting twitchy with the fear of discovery, and giving himself away. She turned back to Chag after a moment, but Atla didn't doubt she was still worrying about him.

In the late-evening gloom behind, Rel shifted. Atla's Gift had registered him as a dense, white-hot ball of emotions too tightly-held to burn for the last week. It was hard just to stand near him when he was awake. Now, Atla couldn't tell if the Clearseer was doing a bad job of feigning sleep, or genuinely struggling to rest.

What he could tell was that Rel blamed himself for some bad call or other at Ilbertin, never mind the series of terrible misjudgements that had led to it and given the Separatists such an advantage. Atla couldn't do much for the others, was barely part of their idiosyncratic, fractious squad to start with, but maybe that meant if he offered Rel an olive branch, the man wouldn't be too proud to take it.

Holding his blanket around his shoulders like a cloak, Atla stood. Pevan started to say something, but he waved a hand vaguely and turned away, and that seemed to satisfy her. As quietly as he could, in case Rel really was asleep, he walked around the bush and sat again, just a few feet from the Clearseer.

After a fraught, cold moment, Rel's eyes opened, and he muttered, "What do you want?"

"I, uh..." What did Atla want? He didn't want anything from this conversation really, except possibly to have started better. "Well, I thought... I mean, maybe we shouldn't sleep quite so spaced out? Uh, not that there are Wildren about or anything, but there might be wolves or whatever."

"And you want to know what happened at Af." Rel built the sentence like a wall, one heavy brick after another.

"No, I mean... well, if you want to say... uh, I mean, I'm not going to deny I'm curious, but..." He bit his lip, forced himself to stop. Pevan scolded him all the time for stammering. "Is it any of my business? I mean, if it's something to do with Wildren, shouldn't all Gifted know? I... uh, I know I don't really count yet, but Pevan said, well..."

Rel's eyes narrowed. "Did she put you up to this?"

"No. I... well, no, she didn't. I'm here on my own initiative, uh, whatever good that does me, heh?" Atla tried to lighten his tone a bit, as he finished, but the result just sounded pathetic. "I'm sorry, I'll, uh, I'll go."

"You ask the right questions, kid." Rel's tone was still hard, but it sounded a little less angry than it had. He pushed himself awkwardly up to sitting, blanket across one shoulder. "You're right, you ought to know what happened. Most of it, anyway. We're fighting a war here, and you need to remember who the enemy is. You especially."

"Me?" A chill slipped along Atla's veins. "Why?"

"Your Gift is a Wilder, remember?"

"What?" Rel had said it with such certainty, but... what? His Gift a Wilder? That didn't make any sense, however much his Gift protested to the contrary, writhing and bubbling at the bottom of his brain. Wildren were complex creatures, intelligences in their own right. How could one be a Gift?

"You didn't know?" Consternation in Rel's voice. His gaze dropped to his hands for a moment, then came back to spear Atla again. "I assumed it was just something Guides didn't talk about. The Separatists told Chag, apparently, and Taslin... well, I guess she could have been lying as well."

At the back of Atla's head, his Gift reared up, hissing and trying to cry out. He fought it back, unable to hide the shiver that ran through him. Had Rel seen? The Clearseer seemed preoccupied, working his knuckles against each other. Atla watched him, dreading what he might say next.

When Rel spoke, he did so without looking up. "We walked straight into a trap at Ilbertin. Just like we did at the White Cave, and the Court, and Vessit. And when Van Raighan came to Federas, I guess. They've had the edge on us all this time, and now they have a human Clearseer to help. I don't know if we can stop them now."

Quiet and mournful as they were, Rel's words slid through Atla like daggers of ice. Doubt was the one emotion he'd never expected to see in the Clearseer, particularly not behind all that anger. His Gift thrashed again, sending a chill down his spine, but this time he managed not to twitch. He exchanged a single, short, grim glance with Rel and then, almost as one, they lay down. Atla had to squirm quite clumsily to get his blanket covering most of his body.

He could tell he was going to regret moving away from the fire tonight.

Only the stiff wind blasting up from out of the bay kept the sun bearable as they crested the hill and sighted Vessit for the first time. The climb - latest in a too-long series of hills - had been a slog, but Rel refused to use either Taslin's or Pevan's Gateways, and they refused to leave him behind.

Still, the town was a welcome sight. The scars from the recent Realmquakes were still obvious, the towers of the old city cracked and crumbled, a half-dozen new houses still under construction. But there were masts on the horizon, new trawlers already at sea to replace those lost a fortnight earlier. Probably work hadn't even started on houses until the ships were built.

The hillside was carpeted in dandelions and buttercups, fairly glowing in the glorious spring weather. There were showers in some of the clouds north of the bay, but above them the sky held only a few tufts of white. It was likely to be the only welcome home he was going to get. Bersh would be glad to see him safe, but none of his companions would be greeted kindly.

Sweat earned climbing the hill cooled as he descended, for all that he found himself hurrying to keep ahead of the others. Maybe if he could get to Wolpan first he could at least get her to listen to Taslin. Four Knots were supposed to always give a Gift-Giver fair hearing.

Atla's heart almost stopped when he made out a row of figures at the bottom of the hill. Too distant to recognise them, but there were seven, clearly waiting for someone. He squinted, trying to ignore the chill in his gut. If Thia's Clearsight had predicted their return, what would Wolpan have planned for them? And the town would have a new Sheriff, too. Who would that be?

It was the Gifted. Or at least, there was no mistaking the mismatched pair of tall, bulky Bersh and tiny Thia. Marit and Wolpan would be the two next to them. A small but significant gap between them and the next two figures meant those were probably guards - the new Sheriff and a deputy. Some tensions were instantly recognisable. Who would the last man be?

Chag, of all people, burst into a run, sprinting past Atla straight at the waiting Gifted. Atla shared a perplexed glance with Pevan, then stumbled to keep up as she followed her lover. Maybe Rel and Taslin would follow, maybe they wouldn't. He put it from his mind and tried to make out Wolpan's expression. It might be all the warning he got.

The Four Knot's attention was focussed on the stranger, the seventh man. A Gift-Giver himself, maybe? No, Atla's Gift told him he'd be able to feel if there was another Wilder present. The stranger was tall and gaunt-cheeked, weathered but far from old. Of the waiting group, he was the only one with a smile on his face.

Chag ran up to him and stopped dead at arms-reach. "Rissad?"

Atla could see the family resemblance, sort of. Rissad was much taller than his brother, almost comically so, but had the same wiry quality, the same sharp features. He stepped forward and pulled Chag into an awkward bear hug. "Good to see you, spud."

Time seemed to freeze around the embrace for a moment, as Wolpan's glare stopped Pevan in her tracks. Atla pulled up short, too, feeling suddenly isolated. Thia threw him a quick wave, followed by a wink. It took an effort of will to draw breath.

Heavy, dull footsteps announced Rel's arrival at a run. Rissad disentangled himself from Chag and stepped forward to intercept the Clearseer with an outstretched hand. Rel gaped at him and received a jovial clap on the shoulder.

To Pevan, Rissad said, "I hope my brother hasn't worn too much on your patience."

She laughed. "Give him time."

"There will be time enough." Rissad raised his voice. "Welcome, all of you. Before everything collapses into recriminations, I would like to call a truce. We're embroiled in matters that are bigger than any of us, bigger than any one town or loyalty. We all need information others present have." His face hardened, already-narrowed eyes glinting like dark gems. "I can offer you some hope for the future, but only if you can all work together."

The words hung in the air. Though the wind still fluttered waves in the grass on the hillside, it felt as if it must be passing them all by. It was a heavy stillness, reflected in the faces on both sides. Only Thia seemed happy about anything, but she was always pretty upbeat.

Atla looked back to Rissad to find the man's eyes on him. Had his sternness relaxed a little? He gave Atla a gentle nod.

"How did you know we'd be here?" Atla let the question out before it could smash through his teeth. They'd stopped briefly in a couple of towns on the way here, but neither had had a Gatemaker who could have sent a message on ahead. That had been a deliberate choice. Had Thia been scanning the future for signs of their return?

No, from the look on her face as she glanced at Rissad. Her expression registered... exasperation? Amusement? Either way, she seemed inwardly pleased. Probably something to do with Wolpan's ever-stormier scowl.

Rissad's mouth spread into a wide, satisfied smile. "I have stumbled into a way to test the future independently of Clearsight. It will help us circumvent the Separatists' Clearseers. Your arrival today was one of a number of predictions I offered to back my claim when I reported to Wolpan three days ago."

While Rel gaped, and Pevan glared sceptically, Taslin moved. She crossed to Rissad in strides that flowed over the grass, fast as the wind, and seized his head. Her grip was hard enough to bring a flush to the gaunt man's cheeks, and Pevan shot out an arm to keep Rel from leaping to Rissad's defence. Rissad made a gurgling noise as if trying to speak, then waved an arm as if to warn everyone off.

After a moment of squinting into Rissad's eyes, Taslin straightened and released him. Her voice came softly and reverent. "The touch of the Lost Realm is on you."

He nodded and stepped back. When he spoke, it was past Taslin's shoulder. "You'll all have learned by now that Gifts are fragments of the Second Realm, right?" Atla flinched, drawing a sharp look from Rissad. "It's true. You should listen to your Gift a bit more." The weight in Rissad's glance sent a shiver through Atla. No doubt, whatever his future-sight was, it had revealed Atla's secret.

Atla could almost feel Rissad's attention leave him. He hugged himself, trying to break the wind that seemed suddenly to have found every loose stitch in his clothing. Rissad went on, "Among Gifts, Clearsight is unique. No Gift of Clearsight originated in the Second Realm."

"The First Realm is not the first Realm to which the Second has been attached." Taslin took up the thread of Rissad's explanation as if they had rehearsed it, her tone precise and formal. "Long ago, what you would reckon as thousands of years before the Realmcrash, there was another First Realm to which ours was Second. For reasons lost to memory, the link was broken, and our Realm was set adrift in the Realmlessness.

"Our earliest histories record little of the Lost Realm. Children of the Wild treated with the inhabitants of the Lost Realm, but as helpless infants before titanic powers. Like your Realm, the Lost Realm had four dimensions, but unlike yours, three of the dimensions of the Lost Realm were temporal. A traveller who left my Realm and journeyed through the Lost Realm could under some circumstances return to my Realm in their past, or even deep into their future.

"The inhabitants of the Lost Realm generally frowned on such behaviour." Taslin paused and stuck Rissad with a glare that even he had to cringe at. "I take it that you won their favour somehow?"

"I..." Rissad's confident smile failed to reappear. "I am not sure I met any. The creature I met introduced itself as Fate, but I got the distinct impression it... he was human."

"Fate again?" Rel's tone stung. "I do not trust him."

A raised hand from Rissad forestalled Chag's agreement, but the younger Van Raighan's expression left his view in no doubt. Voice stiff, Rissad offered, "You don't have to trust him. But without him, I would never have learned to navigate the Lost Realm."

"How does that help us?" Rel again, clearly unconvinced. Though maybe he was just objecting because Taslin had turned to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Rissad.

Rissad raised an eyebrow. "Seeing the future is enough to make you the most powerful Gifted in the First Realm. I can take you to visit it. If I've earned any foundation for your trust, trust this: the solutions we need are there."

"This is stupid!" Rel looked around the gathering, from the frosty, silent faces of Wolpan and the Sheriff, to Thia's and Bersh's stalwart patience, and finally to Pevan. "We can't afford any more wild ideas. If we run off to visit the future now, there may not be a now to come back to!"

Taslin started to say something, but clammed up at a wave from Rissad. The rapport between them was uncanny. It sent a tickle down Atla's spine as Rissad said, "You don't have to take me at my word now. The truce holds, on my guarantee, until you've had a chance to rest and get a proper meal or two. Sleep on it. By all means ask me for more information. You may find something to convince you." Rissad's eyes flicked to Atla and back again, so quickly he almost thought he'd imagined it, but something about the gesture was too deliberate.

You should listen to your Gift a bit more
. Despite Rissad's words ringing in his ears, it was evening before a hot meal and a wash lent Atla the courage to face the... warning? Advice? His cot in the back room of Bersh's house didn't offer anything like the privacy he needed, and the town stayed bustling well past dark with the effort of recovery. For solitude, he had to make his way up to the edge of the old city, where he could perch on the concrete above the beach without being in the way of the trawlermen working at the new docks.

Clouds had blown in from the bay, leaving sea and sky a black, featureless hole in the world in front of him. The wind bit at his cheeks, exposed between his turned-up collar and the folded wool of the hat he'd borrowed from Bersh's rack. The day's warmth had long since scattered.

Atla closed his eyes, the difference barely noticeable, and wondered how to begin. His Gift lay supine, somewhere at the bottom of his skull. Barely noticeable, as it should be while he was in the First Realm. For the first time, that worried him. It had stopped struggling for his notice. Had the journey, and the distance from its natural habitat, weakened it? If his Gift was alive, could it die?

Out loud, but quietly, he said, "Are... are you there?"

A sudden swell rushed up and swallowed him, turbulent water smashing his poise. He flailed his arms, tumbling, the surge ephemeral, exerting no pressure on his limbs. Only when hot joy followed the leading edge of chaos and drove a burst of mad laughter out of him did he realise that this was not the sea down beyond the beach, thrown up by some new disaster to seize him.

In the Second Realm, when he searched for Routes through his Gift, it felt like this, like his mind swam with impunity through a world that was all ocean. Sometimes, it felt as if some vast creature stirred in the depths, in agitation, or sometimes anger or fear. Now, that creature recognised itself in his regard, shook its long, shimmering body in pleasure.

He reached for it, instinctively, to brush a hand - inside his mind? - along its scales. The creature spun in a circle, around his wrist and up his arm, then darted away. Teasing. Playing. He reached again, let it slip through his fingers. The water flooding through him carried the creature's delighted hiss. Its exuberance was infectious. Atla could feel a fool's grin on his face.

Could this really be a Wilder? It left him with no cold sense of menace, such as always came when his Gift warned him of hostile Wildren nearby. It felt like a puppy, full of energy and guileless excitement. Where it drew back from him, it was only in play; it made no pretence of fear, gave no support to the idea that humans and Wildren were irreconcilably different. Whether or not there could ever be peace between the Realms, this creature offered hope.

Laughing, Atla let the Gift swirl around him. It wasn't just the half-felt eel, squirming and wriggling. Its awareness encompassed the water that suffused him, too. Small and simple as the creature was, its survival-trained senses were its foremost asset. Its joyous soul and straightforward character would, in its natural habitat, have laired at the centre of a network that resonated to the unpredictable currents of the entire Second Realm.

Here, ensconced in safety inside Atla's skull, the creature knew its good fortune, to have been asked to accompany him, half-hidden, as Guide. Revealed at last, it embraced him in gratitude. It knew him, sat closer to the seat of his being, in some ways, than he did. Like a puppy, it viewed him as master, parent and brother all wrapped into one.

And, almost before his thoughts could stumble over the awkwardness of having no name for the Gift, it sent one; Caelni. Even those Wildren who were only half-sapient, aware but not thinking, named themselves. Unable to touch Caelni physically, Atla stroked with his mind, wrapping his arms around himself as a poor surrogate.

The Wilder's response touched off the missing sensations anyway. Warmth filled the empty space caught in the circle of his arms, and what felt like warm, dry wool brushed his cheek, at welcome odds with the tides still surging through him. He felt Caelni wriggling, still playful, as if to climb up his shoulder. Tickled under his ear, he yelped and squirmed, hearing laughter as he almost slipped off the promenade to the sand below.

Concrete roughened his palms as he steadied himself. He owed Rissad thanks for encouraging him to seek this discovery. If he'd understood the older Gifted's hints correctly. If he still, in fact, held true to his oath to serve human interests. If Rel was wrong that Atla had something to fear from Caelni. The Gift's vigorous shake at that thought held a tinge of anger. He soothed it with a touch. Rel had to be wrong. There could be no harm in this, surely?

Atla took a deep breath and forced himself to knock on the door. Another minute in the gloom of the boarding house's first-floor landing wouldn't make him feel any less nervous. Caelni brushed a tingle down the outside of his arm again; she'd discovered in the night that the occasional illusion of touch would drain a little of his anxiety. His mood distressed her.

The latch clunked just as a yawn caught him. Pevan's face appeared at the crack of the door, her features almost hidden by the glare from open curtains in the room behind. Belatedly, he found himself worrying whether she was alone. What if she'd shared a room with Chag? Would they have done that? They'd slept curled up together all through the journey, but maybe - hopefully - they'd decided it would be improper now they were back in civilisation.

He almost missed her curt, "Come in." She stepped back, pulling the door open as she did. Once his eyes adjusted, her room was revealed as poky and bare, with only a small cot bed and a washstand. The cot was immaculately made, as if it hadn't been slept in. Pevan looked more or less as she had the previous morning, except that her hair was yet unruffled by the wind, her clothes slightly less rumpled. Early though it was, she'd clearly been up for some time.

When her eyes found his, Atla spotted the cost of that. The slight squint of her glare couldn't hide the hints of red at its corners, nor the swelling of her eyelids. He opened his mouth to ask if she'd slept, but she beat him to it, weariness blunting the harsh edge of her northern accent. "Rissad said you'd be coming to see me. Predicted, even."

Atla's mouth ran dry. Rather than risk speech, he nodded.

"Are you alright?" Pevan's attention sharpened. "He's not... forcing you somehow?"

He shook his head. "I think we can... should trust him. I..." and there he froze up again. How did you break a subject like this? Caelni gave a frustrated shake at the bottom of his mind.

"You're going to have to give me something more than that to work with, Atla." Pevan folded her arms. "You look like hell. Are you sure you're okay?"

Not that he'd been trying to hide it, but hearing her point it out suddenly made the tiredness overwhelming. He screwed his face up, put a hand up to massage his eyes. His voice came heavy in his own ears. "I didn't sleep much."

When he didn't say more, Pevan took a step closer and reached up an arm to squeeze his shoulder. "I'd say go back to bed, but somehow I think we need to have this conversation before that's a possibility, right?"

The hint of wry humour in her voice brought his head up. Again, though, it was all he could do to nod.

Gently, she said, "What convinced you to trust Rissad? Something he said?"

Caelni wriggled, excited. Buoyed, Atla said, "He said I should listen to my Gift more."

"It told you something important?" Head tilted to one side, Pevan frowned.

"She-" Atla's breath caught, a painful clench in his throat. He forced himself onward, though his voice came out very small. "She told me her name."

"What?" Pevan's puzzlement sent chills through him. "She? Who?"

"My Gift." Atla shivered as Caelni embraced him, but the admission did strengthen him. "Caelni. Uh, Rel said Chag told you that Guiding... the Gift is a Wilder, right?"

Pevan's eyes shot wide. "And it... she talks to you?"

"Not, uh, exactly." He made a vague gesture with both hands, trying to shape a thought that wouldn't quite go into words. "I don't think she has quite as, uh, complex awareness, I guess, as a Gift Giver or whatever... Uh, I guess it's a bit like having a really clever tracker dog?" Low in his mind, Caelni gave a shiver of pleasure for the compliment.

"And Wildren do choose their own names..." Abstracted for a moment, Pevan's attention sharpened. She gave him a wry smile. "We probably shouldn't tell Rel about this. It might convince the others, though."

Cold fingers seized unpleasant parts of Atla's gut. "Convince? No, I mean... uh... you want to tell everyone?"

"We have to give them some reason for trusting Rissad."

"But what if..." The night's fears surged back, over Caelni's indignant thrashing. "What if this is some sort of trick? What if I'm actually, uh, compromised somehow? I, uh... I didn't really come to you to speak for Rissad." He took an awkward, thin breath. "Someone should keep an eye on me, uh, in case I... you know..."

Pevan's face hardened. She turned away, walked over to the window. "What should I look for? I can't see your Gift, can I now?"

He bit his lip. "Just... if I start acting strange or anything. Maybe don't let me stand watch for anything alone."

"Heh." The sting in Pevan's chuckle wasn't pitched to hurt. "Anyone else, I'd suggest this was an elaborate ruse to get out of the midnight shift. You're really worried?" She turned, eyebrows raised.

"I..." Atla frowned. "There's nothing in my training to prepare me for this."

"You say that as if you think I'm any better off." She smiled. "Your Gift is in your head, Atla. If it- if she has complete access to you, you probably have the same to her. You're probably best-placed to judge if anything's amiss."

Caelni surged up, the bow wave of her appreciation for Pevan racing to the front of Atla's mind. Grudgingly, he nodded. "Keep an eye on me all the same, though. Please?"

Face and tone stern, but not unkindly, Pevan said, "I will. And I'll keep your secret for now, as best I can. We are going to have to trust Rissad, though."

Atla nodded again. Shivers rippled up his arm as Caelni danced around him. "Relax." Pevan's smile, this time, was straightforward and open. "Just because all Wildren are dangerous, it doesn't mean they're all the enemy. Even now."

* * *

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