Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Cultural Vertigo

A few weeks back, someone challenged me on Twitter to come up with a New Year's Resolution and I came back with 'Open some of the doors I've got my toe in at the moment'. That's a worthy, if slightly trite, answer, but since then I've come up with a better one.

I'll get back to that at the end of this post, by which time I think it will be obvious what I've chosen. I've had a year, particularly this final third of it, of learning a lot. There are personal and professional elements to that, but where I've learnt most, where I've been most challenged, has been from the Twitter timelines of people I've followed because gamergate targeted them.

Gamergate has been and remains terrible, but in listening to those fighting it, I've received a whirlwind tour of critical gender and race theories on a par with the experience I had a couple of years ago as an amanuensis on a university-level Special Educational Needs/Disability Studies course. It's forced me to reexamine a lot of my preconceptions about games, about feminism and civil rights, about myself as a progressive and a liberal, and about my species as a whole.

And I'm starting to realise that there's a characteristic emotional state that accompanies the best of this learning. It's not a pleasant one. It often hits when least expected - this piece challenging the player-centrism of established gaming, for example, challenged me much more than any number of pieces about how reprehensible gamergaters are (because its critique applies to games I love just as much as, say, Hatred). It involves a slight feeling of nausea, and a stronger feeling of panic, of being overwhelmed by how much change might be needed to accept the argument.

I think of it as cultural vertigo. It's one thing to say 'I support diverse perspectives in art!', and another entirely to actually look down from the cultural pedestal (or out from the cultural bubble) of being straight, white and male and catch sight of those perspectives for the first time. It has nothing, of course, on the terror and hurt that straight white men inflict on others worldwide, but those are terrors that I am unlikely ever to experience the like of.

Cultural vertigo isn't comfortable, but it can be inspiring, and it has been a pretty consistent sign of opportunities to make myself a better person. Since there's a lot of work to do on that front, my New Year's Resolution for 2015 is to seek out cultural vertigo as much as I can stand to.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Idiot Overload

It's been a truism of human society for centuries that it's easier to sound convincing than to be right - 'a lie has run around the world before the truth has got its boots on' and so on. I want to pick out one particularly egregious manifestation of this, something I've only taken conscious note of recently, though it's probably not new. There may be a 'proper' name for it, but for now I'm just going to call it idiot overload.

Idiot overload happens when there are so many errors, inaccuracies and other logical problems with a statement that it's impossible to refute succinctly. 'Succinctly' here means 'coherently and within the attention span of the relevant platform' - to use a pretty blunt example, most tweets are very difficult to refute in the space of a single reply. (Another example would be how hard it is to write a comprehensive reply to something in a blog comment before other commenters get in and move the debate along).

The sole intelligible claim to emerge from gamergate, 'Gamergate is about ethics in game journalism!' makes a pretty good example. As far as I can see there are at least five major objections to this statement:

1: gamergate more or less ignores actual serious breaches of journalistic ethics, like the review embargo on Assaassin's Creed: Unity that meant no reviews were published until 12 hours after release. Sure, maybe some gamergaters shouted about it briefly, but there's been nothing like the sustained campaign of anger directed at gamergate's preferred targets.

2: gamergate has yet to articulate a clear system of ethics of any kind. Ethics are systematic - not just a collection of arbitrary laws, but a coherent framework that allows the extension of those laws into situations unforeseen by their authors (again, unsophisticated example, but the provision of the U.S. constitution for later amendments is a version of this).

3: unethical behaviour in the promotion of an ethical system is hypocrisy, and self-invalidating. If your behaviour is unethical, you are not supporting ethics of any kind, no matter how you shout about it. The ethics of what is and isn't OK in acts of protest are complex, but without thoroughly engaging in a discourse on that topic you have to err on the side of caution - one thing gamergate certainly hasn't done.

4: game journalism is, by and large, critical journalism rather than reporting. It's not purely descriptive. In the early days of gamergate, there were attempts by various gamergaters to codify the journalism they wanted from the games press - focus on facts that could be presented honestly without or in resistance to financial/privileged incentives from the development side of the industry, the removal of opinion. The problem with this is that that's not what game journalism is or was ever for. Yes, factual journalism has always been a part of it, in reports and previews of what's coming up in the near future, and in discussions of hardware, but the majority of game journalism is reviews, and reviews are always going to be a matter of opinion. Want a broader perspective than any one person's opinion? Read a bunch of different reviews.

5: the feminism that gamergate actually spends most of its time fighting is itself ethics. What Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Leigh Alexander et al have been campaigning for is more ethical weight in gaming. I suppose in that sense one could argue that gamergate is about ethics in gaming in that it's about keeping ethics out of gaming, but I don't think that's the claim gamergaters are making.

(sidebar: no, feminism is not 'an ideology', at least not in any sense that implies it isn't ethics. People describing feminism as an ideology are generally trying to paint it as a matter of opinion, when many of the most important concerns of feminism - rape statistics, wage gaps and so on - are matters of clear, repeatedly-proven facts. Just as human rights are an ethical system, not an ideology, so it is with feminism)

So there you go. It took me 473 words to give a (very brief) sketch of the objections to a 7-word statement.  I may be missing some objections outright, I'm certainly missing key details from all of those points (to say nothing of evidence and examples, but this is one blog post and I am only human). It's just not possible to give an organised, ordered summary of the objection to 'it's about ethics in game journalism' (at least, that provides any more detail than 'NO') in a short space of time - human beings don't read fast enough.

I don't have a solution to this one, I'm afraid. Other examples include 'if global warming is real why is winter still cold?' and 'evolution must be wrong, my grandparents weren't monkeys'. When there's just too much to argue against, you have to rely on the general audience understanding enough to enumerate the problems themselves, which has never yet been a safe bet (though of course we can work towards that in the long term).

Thursday, 18 December 2014


No-one who knew me during my first year at university, or to be completely honest at any point in the five-to-eight years before that, would be surprised to hear that I enjoy lecturing. During that time, I lectured indiscriminately and at length to anyone who paused to listen or gave me a reason to open my mouth.

The years (yes, all eight of them) have humbled me somewhat. When my head of department asked me back in August if I'd be willing to do some lecturing this term to fill a gap left by a departing staff member, I was paralysed with something quite a lot like fear. On the one hand, I knew it would mean more money, money I do still need to be quite careful about. On the other, it meant standing up in front of dozens of undergrads - any one of them potentially as uppity as I was at their age - and desperately pretending to be an expert.

I did not feel qualified to be an expert.

I also didn't feel that public speaking could be a strong point of mine. Historically, I've done a much better job expressing myself in writing than verbally (which, long-time followers of this blog will realise, implies some truly horrific moments of verbal misexpression). I'm not good at improvising and I know from long, painful experience that an over-planned lecture, particularly one with a tight, complete script, is a miserable waste of student time.

But in the end I took the job. I arranged my share of the lecturing so I wouldn't have to be the first member of the team to go in front of the students, did my best to prepare, and fretted until it was my turn. I felt certain that I'd panic, or stumble over my tongue and say something completely false, or that I'd do that thing nervous speakers do where they steadily speed up and up and up and turn everything into horrible run-on sentences that go on and on and on forever until you're really desperate for the end of this paragraph right now aren't you?

Suffice it to say, none of that actually happened. My lectures weren't perfect - I flubbed jokes, ran too long in some sessions and too short in others - but I've not seen a catastrophic drop-off in attendance and no-one's made a formal complaint against me, so at the very least there have been no disasters. And it's actually been quite fun. Well, not preparing Powerpoint presentations for each session, that sucks, but the rest of it.

Probably some of this is unhealthy - the gratification from playing the expert for an hour or two a week (sidebar: turns out that compared to people with a decade's less experience of philosophy, I am an expert and don't need to do much pretending) - but unless and until someone complains I'm not going to overanalyse. For the most part, I'm just pleased that I've now been asked to do more lecturing next term - though this does mean I'm going to be just as busy and thus have just as little time for blogging, which is why new content here has been a bit sluggish in recent weeks.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Everyday sexism (that I am guilty of)

I was walking across campus on Monday and it so happened that the person in front of me on the path was female and attractive. I made a conscious effort not to ogle, and yet, when she was greeted by a group of her classmates waiting outside a lecture hall, I still had this weird moment of cognitive dissonance. Suddenly, she was a human being interacting with human beings, rather than a shape taking up a central chunk of my visual field.

Was this entirely a sexist response? I don't know - it was, after all, Monday morning and I'd just been giving a lecture on semantics for quantificational logic, so I was a bit spaced out, and maybe there's an argument that I was just startled by the intrusion of voices in what had been a quiet environment - but I think I can tell the difference between sensory and cognitive startlement. My point is this: it's that easy (for me as a man) to dehumanise a woman, even despite a conscious effort not to. That's how insidious sexism can be.

Another example, this one perhaps a little less everyday, but more stark. Over the last couple of days, Crash, the dog belonging to game developer and favourite gamergate target Brianna Wu, took severely ill and died. Wu mentioned this on Twitter and was barraged with abuse in the form of mockery of Crash, photos of mutilated dog corpses, and at least one fake account for Crash proclaiming 'lol I'm going to die soon'.

All of which is horrible and reprehensible, but that shouldn't need saying. What does need saying is this: I felt a new level of shock and outrage at this kind of abuse, compared to the 'usual' abuse Wu has been receiving (threats of rape and murder against her, her family and friends, and her business, which among other things drove her from her home).

To put it bluntly: abuse aimed at the dog had more emotional impact with me than abuse aimed at the woman.

Perhaps it's tempting to say something along the lines of 'well, yes, but the dog's innocent, gamergate shouldn't be dragging a pet into this'. That's stupid, though, because it implies that Wu is in some way not innocent. That she deserves some part of what's happened to her, which is bullshit.

My point, guys (and I do mean guys) is this: these subconscious psychological mechanisms don't go away when we decide to try to care about other people. I don't know whether these two responses are things I've learned or are innate in some way, but they're habits of thought so deep that even when trying to be conscious of them I miss them working.

And they are responses I am responsible for. Even if I was born with the tendency to think about women this way, as long as it has the power to affect my behaviour, I am responsible for making sure that it doesn't. I am responsible for making sure that my poisonous habits of thought don't spill out into the real world.

That requires an effort of constant vigilance, regardless of whether it's Monday morning and I've just come from lecturing on difficult logic. And it really matters, because (for example) a huge part of the problem of stopping gamergate, and of taking it seriously as something that must be stopped, is a lack of empathetic understanding of what life is like for gamergate targets - of how damaging harrassment can be.

It's exactly the kind of empathy that I've failed at (at least) twice in the last week which we (men) most need in order to recognise, understand and tackle this problem.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Getting what you wish for

Back in early July I wrote this post, basically bemoaning the fact that video games aren't 'taken seriously' by our culture. Since then some very serious things have happened in gaming (i.e. gamergate), and so one negative element of gaming has come to be taken a little more seriously, but that's not what I'm going to talk about today. I refrain from talking about gamergate primarily because I've yet to think of anything I have to add to the discussion that hasn't already been said - I do, of course, wholeheartedly condemn gamergate itself.

Today, I have something rather more optimistic to offer. I'm now part of the planning process for a university-level 'gaming and interactive media' course (title not final) within the University of Liverpool's School of the Arts (backstory: UoL is my alma mater and now my primary employer; I lecture and teach in the Department of Philosophy, part of the SotA). We had our first departmental discussion of possible modules/topics this morning, and I got clearance to engage in some informal public consultation.

This is exactly the kind of thing I was yearning for when I wrote that post back in July. It's not a technical course - we're not expecting to cover programming, hardware design etc. though we may build links to courses that will - but a cultural/humanities one. The process will put gaming closer to film, television, theatre, literature and so on in terms of serious cultural consideration.

But this is a very new field, and if we're clear about one thing so far it's that we're not clear about much. I'm looking for suggestions of issues that a course like this - a humanities course, one approaching games as cultural artefacts - could or should address. If you're a gamer (either in the sense of 'someone who plays games' or of 'someone who identifies primarily as a gamer') what would you like to see discussed?

Some issues are obvious; for example, there's no clear definition of 'a game' or 'a video game', and phenomena such as augmented reality gaming and the gamification of education make the definitional question profoundly interesting. There are complex issues relating to authorship within videogames, too; who is the author of a narrative which is directed as much by the player (the audience) of a game as its developers? And, given everything that has come to the surface over the last three months, it would be negligent not to discuss feminist critiques of games (along with other dimensions of privilege - race, sexuality, ability etc.).

Not everything need come under the banner of philosophy. Our School of the Arts includes Music, English, Architecture and Communications/Media Studies, and there's a joint meeting in three weeks' time where we'll all be putting things forward. Any suggestions you can offer for what we should cover will be most welcome.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Go watch this. It's not necessarily a perfect sociopolitical model (after all, it's only an 8-minute video), but it's an interesting idea. The claim is basically that automation means that very soon - in the next 20 years or so - no-one will need to work longer than 12-15 hours in a week (note: we're talking about a quite complex notion of 'need' and a conservative estimate of the effects of automation in that sentence - but there's nothing in that to render the claim implausible).

And once you've watched the video - probably well before the end, in fact - you'll immediately be able to hear in the back of your mind the voice of your current political leadership (at least in Britain and America) raising the following complaint:

'Without the incentive to work more and work harder, everyone will just sit around all day doing nothing!'

Now, anecdotes are not data, but I believe I can provide at least one counterexample to that objection. For the last two-and-a-half years (longer, depending on how you account it), I have been in the fortunate position of working an average of less than 15 hours a week, and having living costs small enough and a wage rate good enough to make ends meet.

In that time, I've completed a PhD (including all the thesis-writing and most of the specific research), written well over 300,000 words of original fiction (seasons 2 and 3 of The Second Realm, two NaNoWriMo projects and a handful of short stories/novellas), written and recorded an EP of original music (which you shouldn't listen to because it's terrible but no-one can say I didn't put effort into it), decorated half a house, and studied a huge amount of stuff about the world, from feminist discourse to critical history to the publishing industry.

Perhaps none of that sounds very worthwhile (because it didn't make me any money, perhaps? But then what did I need the money for, if my living expenses were met?), but even the most cynical person could not accuse me of inactivity. And, since all these activities are things I value, no-one could accuse me of not trying to better myself (whether or not you think I'm barking up the wrong tree in terms of what I value).

The other objection to my example would be to suggest that I'm in some way exceptional - that most people in my (again, extremely fortunate) position would not behave the same way. There are two possible responses to that. The first is to take the objection as claiming that I possess some rare intrinsic virtue of productivity - and anyone who's seen me on an off day can tell you immediately that this is a particularly stupid idea. I am possessed of no exceptional will or drive at all, only a rare freedom to express a very ordinary human will.

The second response is to take the objection as making a purely statistical claim, that there is a body of data from which I am the exception. The problem with this is that no such body of data exists - my circumstances are simply too rare. There are very few jobs on which you can make even as much as I do from as few hours as I work, and I have exceptionally low costs of living.

In fact, the only people who work less than I do for more money are the very heirs and old-money institutions most likely to be found making this argument in the first place. So if I am the exception, it suggests that they are, in fact, a bunch of lazy tossers. News to no-one, perhaps, but nice to have it confirmed in their own arguments...

Thursday, 6 November 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014

(Disclaimer: contains shameless self-congratulation and bragging. You are under no obligation to read any further).

When I finished NaNoWriMo 2010 in a little under 8 days, I knew I could do better. I proved that in 2011, by bringing my personal best down to under 7 days. At that point, I foolishly opined that I could complete the 50k in five days, if I had them completely free. That would require me to be able to take time off work, though, which has not really been possible for financial reasons in the intervening time.

I improved my personal best again in 2012, to six days and fourteen hours, despite still having various professional commitments. Last year I was on track to better even that, but my chosen project ran into a thick tangle of character and theme issues which weren't fixable within a NaNoWriMo mindset (it would be fair to say, too, that I neither prepared well nor was quite as committed to it as my ambition required). Having thought at one point that I would break 6 days, I ended up finishing the 50k on the last day of the month, and then only by switching to another project altogether for the last 10-15k.

That actually gave my writing confidence quite a hit, and this year I've been going back and forth over whether to do NaNo. The biggest question was what project I was going to write; with the Second Realm over, I was having all kinds of trouble deciding what to work on next anyway, and choosing a project suited to the intensive, relatively research-and-planning-light NaNo process just made that question more difficult.

I settled on a plan whereby I'd only do NaNo if I could finish last year's project before November, so that I could get on with its sequel this year (that series remains almost uniquely suited to NaNo, as far as my ideas go). I failed utterly to get last year's project finished on time, though I did at least make some progress.

So I thought I wouldn't write something new for NaNo. I figured I could get on with one of the many bits of editing I need to do. Then I discovered that reading week for the courses I teach on falls this year on this week, the first week of NaNo. Since this entails not having to do anything this week for what this year is the much more significant of my jobs, I was gutted that I didn't have a proper NaNo project. I started to think about some way to make the 'edit things' plan more concrete.

Then life dropped another heavy hint. My current client for my other job turned out to be on a field trip from last Friday through this Wednesday (i.e. yesterday). Since that meant not seeing him until Friday of this week, the first week of November was now completely free. I gritted my teeth and tried to pretend I'd never bragged to myself that I could do it in five days if I had them completely free. I told myself I'd get through an entire editing pass on the season 1 collection of The Second Realm instead (no mean feat given that's currently around 125,000 words). I prepared accordingly.

And then the powers that be got sick of dropping hints altogether. I woke up on Thursday morning from a dream about the tail end of a horror movie scenario, the heroine finally escaping and burning down the haunted house, to realise that I had been given the seed of a new idea, well-tuned to address a theme I've been keen to address for some time.

Even then, I prevaricated somewhat, hemming and hawing over whether I had a setting I could write in, an ending I could write towards, a selection of characters which befitted this commitment. The muse, or whatever other vengeful god it is that sees to it we are required to make good on our outrageous boasting, obligingly answered my every question.

I wouldn't speak in such mystic terms, but seriously, it is sometimes pretty hard not to be superstitious. An entire novel plan fell into my lap in the space of about thirty hours right on the cusp of the best writing opportunity I've had in about three years.

So I wrote the damn thing. Well, in honesty, I wrote about half of it, padding frantically and egregiously. It's NaNo, there isn't time to stop and think about whether what you're writing really serves your final goals. The last day's progress included some pretty big I'm-definitely-editing-this-out-later moments; the main character's mother turned into an appauling comedic stereotype in the midst of an otherwise serious narrative about haunting and harassment, and I took a couple of thousand words to just tell a random unrelated ghost story mid-scene, for example.

But as of about 11:30 last night, I'd written my 50,000 words, in five days flat. Strangely, it's been physiologically the least debilitating NaNoWriMo I've ever done. I planned better, was careful to always get enough sleep, to take regular breaks, to make sure at least some of my snacks were healthy (cherry tomatoes are god's gift to the compulsive snacker). Today, apart from a slightly sore wrist, I feel great.

Whether that feeling will persist once I go back and look at what I've written remains to be seen. I do intend to finish a first draft this month, though I'm taking a couple of days off first. If you want to see me actually writing in real time, you can follow me on Twitch.tv, where I've been live-streaming most of my writing for the past few days (disclaimer: at the moment, it's just my Word doc, no webcam or anything, and I've no idea whether it's interesting to watch).

In the meantime, I'm off to look up the definition of 'month'.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014


My books are not very diverse. In all my published work and in my trunk novels, I have never written a black character. I've never written an openly gay character, or one who is not cisgendered. I briefly approached disability as a topic with Dora in the first season of The Second Realm, but fell into at least one common failing of mainstream disability narratives - the disability-that-is-also-a-superpower (think Daredevil).

I could give narrative reasons for at least some of this, but that would be to paper over a genuine personal and creative blind spot. It's a problem I've been growing aware of for some time, but I think it's finally reaching the point of jumping from 'aware of' to 'actually not giving myself a free pass anymore'. (Even the fact that I could be aware of my problem without feeling motivated to deal with it is a symptom of the problem).

#Weneeddiversebooks has appeared prominently on my Twitter feed recently, with the launch of a new Indiegogo campaign, raising money to fund grants for authors, classroom campaigns and other activism in support of diverse authors and books. I've just donated, because part of the problem is that I very seldom encountered diversity in the books I read growing up.

But throwing money at other people won't fix my books or my writing. That would be Medici thinking - buying my way out of past sins. I need to learn how to write outside my own demographic.

For that, I need diverse books. There are no black characters in my books because I have carelessly, lazily imitated patterns established by the books I have read, which in my genre are overwhelmingly about white people, with other races either sensationalised or rendered as primitive savages (sometimes both at the same time). The same goes for disabled and LGBTQIA people.

It's not enough for me to contribute to the funding of diverse literature. I need to seek out whatever diverse literature exists and read it. I have (ballpark) twenty million words of epic fantasy on my bookcase, in which I can think, off the top of my head, of perhaps two well-written, non-stereotyped, non-sensationalised characters outside the straight, white, able, privileged norm. That's a big imbalance to redress.

And, of course, I need to fix the imbalance in my own work. That doesn't necessarily mean meeting some arbitrary quota of 'diverse characters', nor does it mean centering my storytelling on people whose lives I do not know from the inside - it's not my place to tell other people's stories, and doing so runs the risks of appropriation and misrepresentation. But I've got to stop writing worlds where the only race is white, the only sexuality is straight, and no character is disabled.

Fantasy novels present a reality that is not necessarily our own, but they are inescapably part of our reality - not necessarily presentations of it, but always representations of it. Diversity exists in our reality, so it must be represented in fantasy (the question of how is complex, interesting and difficult, but a topic for another time).

I don't know if I can fix The Second Realm, which I'm in the process of re-editing for a collected edition at the moment, and I'm not willing to abandon it outright (either by unpublishing it or leaving it in its current state), but I'll be choosing my next project very carefully. And, of course, following #weneeddiversebooks intently for everything I can learn.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

New Realms and Old

So, it's done then. The Second Realm is complete.

What the hell do I do now?

Actually, before I get to the future (...he said as if he wasn't entering it right now), I'd like to take a moment to look back over the series and what it's done for me.

I never actually wrote a blog post at the start of the project laying out my aims for it (though somewhere in the past three years I've convinced myself I did). In October of 2011, I'd just published Heaven Can Wait (which I might finally get around to republishing soon, but I'm not sure), and was two years into my PhD, with the hard part very much still ahead of me.

I wasn't sure how much attention I'd be able to give to my writing and platform-building over the coming couple of years, a concern that proved well-justified. I'd made what felt like a good start, joining a warm, passionate and very active community of authors spread out across social networking and the blogosphere, but it was very early days - this blog, for example, enjoyed less than a thousand pageviews in the month that The Second Realm launched (this month is on course to be the first to break 50k).

I felt a bit like I was trying to kindle (see what I did there?) a fire in a high wind. Constant attention would be needed to maintain progress, during a period in which I would have little attention to spare. A serial looked like a good option - a way to write, publish and promote in small chunks scattered through my otherwise busy life.

This wasn't just about promotion and platform-building, by the way. It was also about practicing and developing my craft. In the thirteen months November 2010-November 2011, I wrote five whole novels, and I knew I wasn't going to be able to do that again any time soon. My technique had improved markedly over the time and I didn't want to start back-sliding.

So The Second Realm had two purposes, really; to keep me writing and to keep me publishing. It wasn't, initially at least, intended to make any money. Episodes went out completely free (except for the few that I pushed onto Amazon, where I couldn't set 'free' as a price), and I'm not convinced that my introduction of pay-what-you-like mechanisms from season 2 onwards was a well-thought-out strategy.

Given those goals, I think I have to consider The Second Realm a success. I finished the thing, so I must have kept writing. Indeed, my writing has definitely benefitted, not just from repeated practice, but also from regular, robust feedback. As a writer, I've not degenerated, I've advanced.

As a platform-building exercise, the analysis has to be a bit more complex. On Smashwords, episodes and samples have been downloaded a total of over 9000 times, but while the persistent growth of that number over time entails continuing (and even growing) interest, it's not clear how much of that represents people actually reading my words. The same goes for the traffic on this blog, which has shot up over the last year - there's a lot of page-viewing happening, but not much visible sign of engagement (I get over a hundred spam comments a day, but that hardly counts).

Still, my storefront on Smashwords has 32 book covers on it, and the number 9000 is a pretty good calling-card. Money has trickled in, though not yet enough to justify the expense of getting a passport so I can apply to the US IRS for tax treaty status and actually collect my earnings.

The test will be whether there's significant carry-over into whatever I publish next, and that requires me to publish something. Which brings us up to date. I have several options, and would love nothing more than to go for all of them (I can't, after all, out-compete myself), but the demands of earning a living make that infeasible right now. When I make up my mind, you'll all be the first to know.

One thing that can't be underestimated is the value to my self-esteem and self-perception of having finished this thing. I don't feel like I have to cringe anymore when someone asks me 'yeah, but are you really an author, or are you just saying that?'. I can give them a link. Hopefully soon, I'll be able to hand them a physical copy of (at least part of) The Second Realm, or maybe hit them with it if they get really uppity about it.

Thanks for taking this journey with me. Here's to the next leg!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Second Realm 8.4: Rain That Doesn't Fall

First Episode - Previous Episode - Season 1 Hub - Season 2 Hub - Season 3 Hub - Smashwords (all major ebook formats, pay what you like)

Logic and Reasons

4. Rain That Doesn't Fall

Late in the morning, Soan's trail ran into rocky ground that had been rinsed by dew and baked dry by the sun, and vanished. Rather than waste time scouring the stone with Clearsight, Rel tried the future. Where he'd expected Soan's Gift to resist him, there was nothing.

With the lurching sensation of a footstep slipping on unseen ice, Rel's Sight fell through to a tree-lined vale, resplendent in summer greens and dappled shade. Soan sat on the grass between the knuckles of two roots, his back against their parent tree. His face was slack, with none of the fixed attentiveness of Clearsight.

Why had he stopped running? With Taslin's help, and Chag and Keshnu following as Pevan's observers, Rel had been chasing the old man since first light. Soan had headed purposefully northwest, towards his home at Ilbertin, diverting only to avoid the scattered towns on the way. Why give up now?

Perhaps fleeing through the night, after the battle, had exhausted him. In the Viewing, his craggy face did seem pale, worn. He lifted his head, and turned to look directly at Rel's vantage. Across time and space, their eyes met, and slowly, Soan nodded.

Blinking, Rel pulled back from his Gift. Taslin reappeared as his eyelids opened; she was watching him, resplendent in a violet dress chased everywhere with silver embroidery. She'd promised to eschew her protection from his Gift, but hadn't had time yet to make the complex adjustment. He took a moment to catch his breath. Sunburn was starting to dig in to the tips of his ears, the back of his neck.

"He's waiting for us." Rel let the words hang in the heavy air, worry stalling further thought.

"Where?" Taslin folded her arms. "Have you recovered the trail?"

"No. I got a good look at where he's waiting, but not how to get there from here. I didn't want to get trapped like last time I Saw him." Internally, Rel probed his Gift, measuring his logic fatigue. It was under control, more or less, but lingering time-lag made his head feel bloated. "I can go back in in a minute and try another approach."

"You're sure we won't lose ground?" As if sensing his discomfort, Taslin pressed a cool hand to his cheek. Rel glanced automatically at the observers, surprised to see them both impassive. Keshnu probably approved, but he had no idea what Chag would be thinking. Taslin physically pulled his attention back onto her. "It could be a trap."

"There'll be a trap of some sort, sure," he said, grimly. "But I think he wants to confront us." He caught her hand, kissed her fingers, and a thought occurred to him. "Could you take an image from my mind and use it as a Gateway target?"

Her eyes blurred for a moment, as if he'd said something difficult for her, as a Wilder, to understand. Then she blinked, back to herself. "I could learn to, but not quickly." She smiled. "Your emotions, your character, I can see quite naturally. That's why Keshnu makes a good observer on your sister's behalf. But to pick a whole, coherent thought from your mind, I would have to spend far longer in deep communion with you than I have, learning the structure of your mind."

"We should start learning as soon as we can, then."

"It's not something to rush into, Rel." A hint of a frown crossed her brow. "And it's... intimate. I don't want to do it just for this kind of work. It has to be for us."

"Well, okay." He took a deep breath, preparing to let go of the moment. "But when it's time..."

Taslin rose up on tiptoe, bringing her face to his. He kissed her, then remembered the two watchers again. Her eyes shone as she pulled back. "When it's time."

Rel returned to Clearsight, looking for the route that connected Soan's glade to this outcropping. He couldn't track his own movements, and Taslin and Keshnu were both shielded enough to be difficult targets. Chag was another matter. Strangely, Rel found he wanted the little man there, wanted Pevan to have her Witness.

The scene he sought was almost too easy to find; Chag, pensive, standing in the shade of a tree that matched Soan's valley. Keshnu was a ripple-edged hole in the air beside him. Rel pulled back before his Sighted awareness could expand to include the confrontation itself. The trees matched closely enough; he didn't need to check any closer, particularly if Soan was indeed lying in wait.

Holding the image of Chag against the back of his mind, Rel worked down towards the present like a rope spooling out down a cliff-face. The little man bounced backwards across the landscape, appearing for one moment at a time between Keshnu's Gates. Hidden though the Gift-Giver was, his Gateways weren't, and each betrayed a hint of where it came from, a subtle twisting of Rel's mental image to represent the distortion in the Realm.

Soan wasn't far away, only a mile or two. Keeping his Clearsight active as much for the cold it spread through his brain as for vision, he gave Taslin the heading and followed her through the resulting Gate. After the first, he checked back to see if Keshnu's Gate matched the one he'd Seen, but he took that as confirmation enough for the rest.

Ten minutes saw them to the ridge overlooking Soan's woodland hideaway, while the sun went from high and hot to truly blazing. Beyond the mouth of the valley, haze smeared out the horizon thickly enough to confuse even Clearsight. Rel held at the top of the slope, wary of traps.

For a moment, he thought about trying to pick a spot for Taslin to Gate to, closer to Soan, but decided against it. Clearsight could only do so much; ferreting out another Clearseer's traps was best done at short range, where it could be done most thoroughly. Rel led into the wood, one cautious step at a time.

The ground crawled with life, ants and caterpillars and greenfly in their hundreds exploring the grass and the bluebells. Birds flittered around the branches, giving the invading humans and Wildren a wide berth. Rel kept his attention sharp, focussed on one small patch of ground at a time. Any sign that Soan had stood near here, and he'd choose a different route.

There were none, and Soan's voice caught Rel by surprise. "That was impressively careful."

Rel looked up, found himself almost on top of the other man; the walk hadn't felt long enough, but there he was, still sat under the same tree. A quick survey with Clearsight gave no hint of any danger around Soan. Picking his words slowly, Rel said, "I was expecting traps. Are you giving yourself up?"

"Everywhere I could think to try running, I Saw you getting there first." Soan pushed himself to his feet, his movement ponderous and steady. "It was fight or surrender."

Rel found himself looking just slightly up at the man's face. "I'm not here to fight." How would that look to Wolpan? Either coming back beaten and empty-handed, or dragging Soan in physically broken. Gifts or no, a fight would be brutal, and the Four Knot would take any excuse to argue Rel had provoked it. Or, worse, that he'd decided to take matters into his own hands again.

"It's my choice, not yours." Heat rose in Soan's tone. He blinked a couple of times, and his Gift locked, vice-like, around Rel's.

In spite of himself, Rel felt his body tense. He shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, hunched forward. Unless Delaventrin had taught Soan some trick previously unknown to human Clearseers, this was stalemate. At the trailing edge of the future, right where it met the present, Soan's outline appeared to vibrate.

It was the tension between their Gifts, the deep training that gave them the reflexes to use Clearsight in combat. Any twitch Soan made would provoke a counter-twitch in Rel, and vice versa. Never enough to bring them to blows, since the first to move would cede all the advantage to the one who waited. Between them the future trembled like a harp-string.

Stuck like this, the duel could last until one of them hit logic burnout. Rel fancied his chances if it came to that – Soan had been fleeing all night, after all – but he had enough of a headache from his time-lag that he couldn't be sure. Either way, it gave him time to try to talk Soan round.

The old Clearseer's face was a blur. His eyes, though pinned wide with his own Gift, flickered so rapidly around the clearing that his irises were just dark smudges. In endless combinations of speaking and not speaking, his mouth looked smeared with grey-brown paint, the ghosts of his thin lips.

Speaking was about the only safe option to speed things up. Here in the First Realm, miles from the nearest Sherim, their words could hardly be weapons. Facial movements couldn't provoke the same violence as bodily gesture. If he couldn't read Soan's mood too clearly, well, Taslin had taught him to look deeper than appearances.

Voice held level by the tension running through him, Rel said, "Do you still believe you're honouring your oath?"

"Do you?" The words came drenched in contempt.

"Did Ashtenzim ever admit to you what Separation would do to the First Realm?"

"Is this any better?" Soan ground out through a jaw that barely moved. "Our whole lives ruled over by them, even while they kill us?"

Would Taslin answer that? Rel didn't dare wait too long. Fumbling for words, he managed, "They don't... Not all Gift-Givers... it's not the Gift-Givers who kill humans. When we die... those are feral Wildren. It's no different than being attacked by wolves, or whatever."

"Wolves don't kill. Only if you're foolish and go looking for them."

"Wolves kill plenty of Wildren. They stray into the Second Realm and kill there. Just like Ragehounds do here." The shimmering edges of the future cleared, as Soan's emotions coalesced in hurt and hatred for a second, and Rel kicked himself. Of course Ragehounds would be a touchy subject with this man. He'd lost his entire squad to one less than two years before. Awkward again, he managed, "I'm sorry, but the point stands."

"I don't give a damn about your point!" Soan snarled. "The Second Realm kills people. People we swore to protect."

"Like the Gifted you killed yesterday?"

"I was trying to protect those you can't." Hard lines smudged across the old man's forehead as his emotions tangled up again. His voice came lower, hotter. "For as long as Wildren can come to our Realm at will, no human will ever be safe. No Gifted will ever be enough to save them all. Not even you, with all your arrogance. If you'd seen what they can do like I have-"

"Do you think I haven't?" Rel found inspiration in anger. "Which of us has been to more funerals, Soan? And do you not think Wildren mourn, either?"

"How would I know how they think? Do you? Your training really was incomplete if you believe that."

Refusing to rise to the barb, Rel said, "You could ask them."

"And trust what they say?"

"I've seen what happens to Wildren who lie." Was he getting through at all? Without the benefits of Clearsight, Soan's bitterness was hard to read. Rel pressed on, "Ask a direct question, you'll get a straight answer. This whole mess could have been avoided if I'd asked a few more direct questions."

Soan spat back, "Could you have saved Natyl and Trellie? Shendo? Ivis?" Rel recognised the names. He might not have been able to call them up from memory without prompting, but now that Soan had, he could place their Gifts. Four Knot, Warder, Gatemaker and Guide respectively; the old Ilbertin squad.

Putting aside the argument for a moment, Rel bowed his head in respect. He couldn't risk taking his eyes off the other man, but some memorials were sacred. "No, not them." He'd been back in Federas by that point, under the full, dark cloud of his unfinished training. Waiting on a message to reach Soan, to request his arbitration between Dieni and Ciarive in respect of Rel's status; a message that had been lost in the chaos following the Ragehound's attack.

"And what about your own?" Soan pitched his voice to sting. "Could you have saved Dieni and Temmer?"

"Okay, you've made your point." It was getting harder to hold his nerve. "I meant what happened with the Separatists."

"That doesn't matter. People are dying, Rel." A tremor went through the old man, some savage gesture ruthlessly repressed. Even so, reflexive reaction almost smashed Rel's balance and poise. "Separation would put a stop to that."

"Yeah, if there are any people-"

"Let me finish! I want to know what you offer instead. Things are never going to get better your way." Seniority and scorn made Soan haughty; he spoke as if to a snivelling underling.

Rel forced some of the heat out of his chest with a long breath. "My old way, yes." Confession made him awkward. "Fearing the Second Realm, fearing the Gift-Givers. I was ruled by fear. I thought it kept me sharp, to always remember not to trust them."

"Ciarive trained you well."

"You didn't see Vessit after the Realmquakes." The old city had still been shaking a month later. Fighting his voice steady, Rel said, "That's Ciarive's training for you. The one thing I ever agreed with him on turned out to be the one thing he was truly wrong about."

Soan's anger cooled sharply, to a deathly chill. "You still think you can pass judgement on him?"

Skin prickling, Rel scrabbled to take back his rhetoric. "His father's eldest brother was a signatory of the Treaty of Peace. Ciarive told me what it was like when he was young." Then he rallied. "His attitude suited that time just fine, but times have changed, and they'll change again. That's my way."

"So we should just trust them?" The old Clearseer didn't need to indicate Taslin. He wouldn't have forgotten she was there, even if she was still shielded from his Gift. "Why? You can't trust her just because she kissed you."

Fire rushed through Rel, a wave of clenched muscles that he managed to hold short of violence only by driving his fingernails into his palms so hard his fists cramped. Even in the shade, it was too hot a day to handle this kind of provocation. The wind was dying, or perhaps just shying away from the tense air between the Gifted.

Every motion a conscious effort, Rel opened one hand. Slowly, slowly enough not to provoke Soan, he reached to take Taslin's. "I trust Taslin because I've seen her throw everything she is against threats to our Realm, time and again, even when I was the threat in question. I trust her because she's done a better job of my job than I have. I trust her because she's not afraid to stop me when I need stopping." He couldn't look at her as he spoke, but she laced her fingers through his, and he took that as a good sign.

Trying to relax, to let just a little of the desperate tension go, he lowered his voice. "Come back with us. What other good option do you have?"

"That's a good option?" Soan snorted. "What are you even going to do with me if I do? It's not like any squad would accept me after yesterday."

"You could, uh... You could still train people." Would Pevan approve that? Federas taught its Gifted to spare no advantage, and Soan had more experience training Clearseers than anyone else living. "I mean, no-one denies you know Clearsight. That shouldn't go to waste."

"Train kids? From inside a prison? Could Ciarive have trained you in a prison cell?"

In fact, Ciarive had insisted on doing everything outside, to get Rel used to holding his eyelids open in all weathers. An uncomfortable prickling told him the heat was beginning to dry his eyes out. Soan would have the same problem, but it was going to make every extra minute of this painful. Rel said, "No, I mean they'll have to let you out for some things anyway. Why not training as well?"

"Don't be an idiot. They'll never go for that." And Soan's tone turned... almost proud, as if being smarter and more cynical than Rel was all he needed. "It's a fool's argument. You're no peacemaker, Rel."

"Well, I'm new at this." The heat under Rel's collar had nothing to do with the sun.

The old man leaned forward fractionally. "It'll come to blows in the end. We're not good for anything else, you know that."

Feeling as if he'd suddenly been handed a very fine, very delicate glass vase, too big to hold comfortably, Rel lowered his voice again. "What will you do if you win? Go to Ilbertin?"

"They haven't forgotten the War there."

Nobody living remembers the war, Rel almost snapped. Fighting his instinct to fight, he slid out words like daggers. "Did you forget recruiting a Separatist to defend the town against us four months ago? And do you really think Pevan won't come for you there? Do you think you can stop her?"

Soan's face probably held his silent answer, but Clearsight blurred it beyond Rel's grasp.

He pressed on. "Or will you go back to Delaventrin? Cower in whatever's left of the white cave until the Gift-Givers come for you?"

"Why not just kill me, then?!" The old man's cry seemed to rattle through the woods, a last spasm of the dying breeze. "You don't want to face them any more than I do. Fight me, and let fate decide!"

"You know nothing of Fate." Rel reined in his bitterness. "I'm just here to bring you in. It's not up to me or Fate what happens to you. And for what it's worth, I do want to face our comrades. How else could we ever make amends?"

Soan's face cleared as the old man fell still, thoughts of fighting fading from the front of his mind. Below his jaw, though, not a single muscle relaxed. Not fooled, Rel kept himself on edge. When the moment finally broke, his legs were going to turn to jelly.

Assuming it didn't come to violence, anyway. Sun-warmed, Rel's calves seemed to float atop his ankles, effortless with adrenalin. Invisible at the periphery of his vision, Taslin squeezed his hand. Soan had to stand down, but if he didn't, the Gift-Giver would be there.

The pained lines of the other Clearseer's face fuzzed again for a moment, a sudden thrill of desperation as he contemplated lashing out. Rel rode down his own instinctive response, tingling fingers racing across his back and shoulders. He flinched less the second time Soan's tension pulsed.

If the visible clues were gone, he could still feel where his Gift locked with Soan's. It wasn't just the faint sense of additional pressure at his brow, or the deeper-than-normal chill of his eyes. He felt as if his heart was teetering on the edge of a cliff, with logic burnout pushing from behind and the gut-clenching seizure of trying to See his own future below.

And still Soan vacillated. His face scattered and resettled like sand on a drum. Rel could almost see the ghosts of the old Ilbertin squad standing behind the old man's shoulder. Perhaps, too, the faces of the Gifted he'd murdered on the battlefield. Small wonder he'd asked Rel to kill him.

Just as Rel was thinking it, Soan made up his mind. There was almost no warning. He hissed, "Stop acting so high and mighty."

Rel squeezed Taslin's hand.

Soan lunged; Clearsight flooded with recursive chaos. It was all Rel could do to navigate a sidestep.

His hand emptied except for the lingering sense of Taslin's touch.

Mid-leap in the dragging moment, a million Clearseers piled in. Fire exploded down the middle of Rel's skull as his logic overloaded.

He blinked, seeing Soan do the same. Amethyst stars flashed in a midnight-purple cloud. The world whirled as gravity caught up. Grass too dry and reedy to be much comfort hit him, and for a moment his head swam.

Getting back to his feet was a long and complex process that started with working out which one was which and ended, incomplete, in the crouch that allowed him a first check of Soan. The old man's face poked out of the top of a cocoon of seamless purple silk, lying on the ground a few feet away.

If, in that frantic instant, he'd thought of, or known of, the trick Thia had developed to counteract Taslin's attack, he hadn't used it. Voice thready, chest tight, Rel gasped, "How long can you hold him like that?"

The cocoon rose into the air and hovered, upright. Taslin's voice came from somewhere near its head. "Long enough to get him back to Vessit. The Warding may present some difficulty."

"If need be, I can assist." Keshnu spoke from behind Rel. "You've done well, both of you."

Standing up, Rel nodded acknowledgement, his attention still on Soan. The old man glared back, silence his only weapon against the indignity. Was he struggling within the cocoon? If so, Taslin held him so tightly that it didn't show. Wildren were capable of exerting that much physical force, but Rel hoped it wasn't needed now.

Satisfied that Soan was held, Rel turned to Keshnu. "You know, I still don't understand why you didn't do that to me at the Abyss."

The Gift-Giver raised one eyebrow, gently. "I wanted to give you every chance to back down."

"Even to the point that I almost killed you?" Some of the relief from the confrontation's end bled through into Rel's voice, made him sound more incredulous than he intended. "That was more chance than I deserved."

"I think you just proved otherwise." With the stately slowness of a flower unfurling, Keshnu smiled. "Shall we be getting back?"

Rel glanced at Chag. "Got everything?"

"Yeah. If... if that's all?" He frowned. "I don't know... I'm not sure what Pevan wanted, sending me here."

"Let's let her worry about that, for now. Our job is done." Rel finished with a gesture for Keshnu to lead on.

The return journey passed much faster than the morning had. As they neared the sea again, the breeze returned and took some of the heat out of the air. Rel's muscles stiffened up, and by the time they sighted Vessit he was ready to lie down and wait for tomorrow.

Taslin did request help moving Soan through Vessit's Warding. Keshnu stretched out into a long silver ribbon and wound himself around the cocoon, and it seemed to do the trick. For a moment, realising the arrangement meant the two Gift-Givers could discuss him without his knowledge, Rel felt a pang of discomfort. He rode it down, though. He'd endured Pevan and Dora trading whispers about him before; this was really no different.

Pevan ordered Soan confined in the cell under Vessit's Warding Hall, with the maximum justifiable number of Gifted on hand to keep a constant watch. Thinking of the possibility that he'd soon be sharing the cell, Rel didn't protest.

For his own trial, they convened in front of the Warding Hall rather than inside it; a courtesy to the Gift-Givers that left Rel feeling profoundly exposed. Gifted and civilians alike accumulated, but Pevan at least managed to keep the front row of the crowd at a few feet of respectful distance. Rel stood between her and Wolpan in front of the Hall door; Chag, Keshnu, Taslin and Vessit's squad, less Thia, faced him within the circle.

Thia's absence gnawed at him, set a leaden lump in his gut. There was only one possible explanation; even severely wounded, she'd have been here, leaning on Bersh or Atla. Perhaps it was for the best that he didn't have to try to explain about Taslin to her, but the gap between Bersh and Keshnu, where she would have stood, was hard to ignore.

The only other Gifted missing was Rissad, who had gone with the Threekin down to the Abyss to free Dora. He'd sworn to emerge only for sustenance until she was released. Rel didn't know if anyone had invited him to the trial, though his absence would probably simplify things with Wolpan.

Chag replayed his Witnessing of the confrontation with Soan, while Keshnu summarised what had been said. Watching silently, Rel was struck by how dull the scene looked. Two men, one old and one young, arguing in a wood. The elder angry; the younger frustrated, tired. Seen from a distance, both looked quite afraid. How had he not seen that in Soan at the time?

The Witnessing finished, and with it Keshnu's dispassionate narration. Everyone waited, expecting more even as Chag let the bubble of his Gift pop and dissipate. Glancing from one side to the other, Rel tried to measure Pevan's and Wolpan's reactions. He wished he'd faced them instead of the crowd, but it was too late for that now.

Wolpan clearly wasn't happy with the positioning either. She took a couple of steps forward, into the centre of attention, and turned to face him. "Can we really trust that you've changed so much?"

"That wasn't an act." Rel waved a hand, vaguely, to indicate the Witnessing. Did Wolpan think he'd ever actually meant to be a traitor? Chag had tried to recruit him for the Separatists, but he hadn't gone with them. "I've been rash, but I always believed I was defending our kind. Or the Treaty. Both, I suppose."

"Can we trust that you are wiser now?" The Four Knot's tone made every word pointed.

Rel shrugged, conscious that the gesture would satisfy no-one. "What do you want from me? I'd take back everything I've done if I could. I'm trying to learn... how to not make those mistakes again. I mean, if that's not enough, then..." What more was there?

The same thought seemed to stall Wolpan, and most of the crowd. The civilians among them had plenty of reason to hate Rel, but looking around, he realised many of them wouldn't even recognise him. Had never seen him before. To the assembled Gifted, he was probably most infamous for fleeing his training.

Keshnu said, "Studying the mistakes of the past can only take us so far. The decision you face concerns Rel's future, not his past."

While Rel scrutinised the Gift-Giver, Pevan spoke up. "You don't think the two issues are connected?"

"Of course I do." A hint of a smile crossed Keshnu's face. "But what are the options? You can imprison him, if you so decide. At the other extreme, Rel goes back to his regular duties as Federas' Clearseer unhindered. A duty, it must be said, at which his record was impeccable until the beginning of this year."

Rel felt his frown deepen. Of all possible advocates, Keshnu was almost the least expected. It wasn't that he thought the Wilder would bear a grudge, but he wasn't ready for outright support.

Perhaps for a similar reason, neither Wolpan nor Pevan broke Keshnu's pause. He went on, "Twenty-three Gifted are dead. Soan, it appears, will not change his position, and thus cannot continue his service. A number of other Gifted at Ilbertin and Yunec must face questions about their loyalties and intentions. In the final accounting, the Separatists may have cost the First Realm two score of its defenders."

"Relvin has had quite enough stays in the name of expedience." Wolpan scowled at Keshnu, then turned the force of her glare on Rel. "You have admitted your guilt, and I will admit that you seem sincere. Should that factor into your censure? You cannot evade justice entirely."

Holding his peace, Rel braced for more. When angry, Wolpan was seldom short-winded. He clenched his jaw. What would she ask for? And was she waiting for him to agree? The thought of living in a cell while other people fought to defend the Realm was repulsive, but there had to be some kind of punishment.

"What purpose would censure serve?" Keshnu spoke up again, this time with a little more animation. He sounded... confused? But a Wilder who was truly confused just acted less human, the confusion interfering with their ability to project the illusion of humanity. He had to be making an act of it, but why?

The Gift-Giver continued, "This is a subject of some consternation among my kind. For us, the kind of social contentions you call matters of justice are handled through our system of Talerssi, and that is not a system whose rules we choose. It is a part of the nature of the Second Realm, much as the physics of light, or gravity, are of the nature of the First.

"Retribution, vengeance, these we understand after a fashion. They are emotional responses, and if they are not responses we experience, we do at least know what it is to have an emotional response when confronted with harm to others. Retaliation is a manifestation of those emotions. But as it has been explained to us, your concept of justice relates to the best interests of the community. How is it that censure against Rel serves this end?"

Rel searched the inside of his suddenly-empty skull while the question rustled around the crowd. Parts of Keshnu's speech were familiar – Taslin had explained Talerssi to Rel, as much as it could be explained – but the answer to his question lay in unexplored territory.

"Wrongdoing must have consequences, mustn't it?" Wolpan voiced the thought Rel was approaching, but she sounded no more certain than he was.

"Haven't Rel's wrongs had consequence enough?" Again, the faint ghost of humour flitted across Keshnu's face. Was the Gift-Giver manipulating the trial? Rel started to dismiss that thought as his old paranoia, but realised he'd have felt the same about a human being acting like this. Sober again, Keshnu said, "You cannot claim that Rel needs any further reminder of the harm he has done."

"So we should just let him go?" It wasn't quite a shout, but Wolpan's voice had definitely risen a tone or two.

"It's not exactly a life of idle luxury, in case you'd forgotten." Pevan put herself squarely opposite the Four Knot. Her eyes flashed. "We're going back to the most dangerous posting in the Realm. And we are going back. Keshnu's right. I don't know about the Realm at large, but Federas can't spare Rel any longer. If you want to punish him, it's got to fit around that need."

Rel fought down the sudden, desperate urge to ask for news of his hometown. Pevan was here, so it couldn't be that bad. Could it? Now he thought about it, they'd been without Pevan and Dora, too, for half a year now.

"That's ridiculous. What could fit around that and still be meaningful?"

Pevan snorted. "You should have seen what Dora could do to him with a frown." Somehow, her lighter tone did what all Wolpan's stiffness couldn't and silenced the crowd. "Look, he's a good man when he's not being an idiot. It used to be that only Dora could keep him in line, but I've been learning." Out of the corner of one narrowed eye, she shot him a lopsided glare, then glanced quickly at Taslin. "And I think I'm not the only one."

Had anyone else spotted the gesture? A few of those around the circle looked to be enjoying Rel's discomfort. Well, a humbling was the least he deserved, and Pevan probably wouldn't let the cat out of the bag about him and Taslin. Not here and now, at least.

"We'll go back to Federas, and Rel will do what he's good at, which is protecting people. I'll keep an eye on him, Jashi will keep an eye on him. Heaven knows, Notia will keep an eye on him. And if he gets big ideas again, we'll tell him he's being stupid." Pevan turned to look at him, openly sardonic. "And perhaps this time you'll listen? Before doing anything dramatic?"

This time, the stir that ran around the crowd had a definite undercurrent of scattered chuckling. Rel's jaw felt like it was about to burst, he was clenching it so hard. Voice creaking, he managed, "Is that really enough?"

"What, you want us to lock you up?" The way Pevan rolled her eyes came straight from Dora. "We'll all get our share of your blood, sweat and tears if we just let you do your job. I know that's what you actually want to be getting on with right now."

"But... really?" He swallowed, looked around the circle, then back to his sister. Quietly, not caring whether his voice carried, he admitted, "I don't trust my own judgement anymore. How can you?"

"You got some bad ideas in your head. I'm hardly innocent of that. Which of us is?" Pevan turned to take in Chag, the crowd, Wolpan and finally Rel again. "You used to trust yourself above all the rest of us. Well, except maybe Dora. There's nothing wrong with doubting yourself, if you're willing to trust others occasionally."

"That's it?" It was a stupid thing to ask, but he couldn't think of anything else to say. Wolpan's silence was a good sign – the Four Knot was studying the backs of her hands as if they were mirrors – but...

"Your problem was overconfidence." Smiling with a sweetness that only Rel could hear the teeth in, Pevan finished, "A little self-doubt will do you good."

While Rel was scrabbling for a barb to throw back, something about how she was enjoying this more than she should, Keshnu stepped forward. "There is still the matter of choosing someone to serve as the First Realm's senior Clearseer."

"Oh, no." Rel held up a finger, not quite pointing it at the Gift-Giver. "No. No way."

"Officially, the post has been empty since the death of Ciarive Dekanis. Though he took on the duties of the role for the interim, Soan Ialvas clearly cannot continue in that capacity." Deliberately, disingenuously bland, Keshnu's eyes bored into Rel. "If you will not take the position, you are at least best-placed to nominate an alternative. Who would you suggest?"

Who could he suggest? With Soan off the table, the strongest Clearseers Rel knew were all fresh. Soan's trainee, Horvin, was the most promising, but he'd sided with the Separatists at Ilbertin, and hadn't even finished his training. Few of the older generation – those who'd trained alongside Dieni or Ciarive – were still alive. Out loud, but mumbling, Rel found himself saying, "But I can't take it. I'm not ready."

"Your predecessor said something similar to Quilo when she insisted the post pass to Ciarive." Keshnu folded his arms, smiling benevolently. "At the time, it was almost unthinkable that the senior Clearseer not come from Federas. But Dieni Tofarn was still technically a trainee when Storand Coberin died."

Dora's grandfather, and technically some sort of distant cousin of Rel's. He remembered the old man, vaguely, and the funeral more clearly. Of the procession of Gifted funerals that had punctuated his childhood, it stood out; Dieni had taken him aside afterwards and asked him how he felt about being a Clearseer one day. She'd told him Storand had picked him out years earlier as a potential candidate for the Gift.

Keshnu was still speaking. "Quilo witnessed her oath, but she would not be persuaded to take office. She insisted that the position go to someone more experienced. Perhaps she was right, but perhaps not."

When the power of Rel's Gift first became apparent, there had been no question – he had to train under the serving senior Clearseer. Ciarive, hardened by a quarter-century on the border of the Northern Wilds, and before that a childhood that went back almost to the Realmwar, had taught Rel to be a soldier.

And Rel couldn't claim that was why he'd left the man's strict regime. He'd left because Ciarive hadn't been willing to promote him early. He'd carried the poison of all that hatred and fear back with him to Federas. Dieni and Dora had tried to tame it, but it had still led him to Vessit.

"None of which excuses your lapsed training." In Keshnu's narrowed eyes, blade-silver irises gleamed. "But it is certainly time to consider it at an end, and more. Perhaps the added responsibility of seniority will cool your temper a little."

Never mind cool, Rel's blood ran outright cold. Taslin caught his eye, gave him a slow nod that did little to reassure. She'd keep him straight about the big picture, but he'd never even trained another Clearseer. How was he going to decide on training assignments for others? Or who should be posted where?

"It bears saying," Keshnu continued, turning to the crowd, "that the way Gifted are organised could use some rethinking. My kind as well as yours have much to learn from what you all achieved yesterday. But we must have appropriate senior Gifted to tackle the question, and to administer any changes that are decided upon. Do any of you present object to Relvin Atcar as senior Clearseer?"

The assembled Gifted and civilians rustled an indistinct negative, the sound rolling around the circle and drawing all attention toward the silence of Vessit's Four Knot. It was Pevan who said, "Wolpan?"

Wearing a frown that still seemed more conflicted than angry, Wolpan looked up. Speaking past Rel, to Pevan, she answered, "You're the commander." There was no bitterness in her voice. Rel almost thought he could hear relief in it instead. Some sort of self-directed surprise, perhaps.

Pevan nodded solemnly. Then she raised her head and her voice. "Keshnu's right. There are things we can do to prevent any of this happening again. Our communication has been too scattered, our pride too territorial. We've been miserly with our trust, except when we've been careless with it.

"There will always be carelessness, and bad luck, and danger. We've all seen what those can cost us. We've all sworn to pay that price when it comes due.

"The price of distrust, though – the twenty-three who died yesterday, the squads at Ilbertin and Yunec in whom Separatism took root, and too many other disasters to count – that is a price we need not pay again. If true understanding between the two Realms is not possible, we will understand what we can and trust our counterparts for the rest."

A breeze whispered through the listening crowd while Pevan gestured to the crumbling towers of old Vessit. "Both Realms have shaken from the power of our fear. It's time for a better way. If we can find peace here, now, in spite of old wounds and grudges, we can build a true peace that will keep our descendants safe and unafraid for generations to come."

Pevan finished. For a moment, Rel thought of Dora's description of the civvies in the Vessit of the future, but it was a challenge from another time, for another time. Into the waiting silence, he brought his hands together in the loudest clap he could muster.

The crowd didn't need much encouraging. Bersh and Taslin were the first to join in, then Chag, Atla with his ever-present mask of confusion, Keshnu. Applause spread out in a wave. Someone shouted Pevan's name, and cheers answered.

Bersh and another big Gifted who Rel didn't know snuck up on Pevan and hoisted her onto their shoulders. Laughter mingled with the cheering at her embarrassed attempt to free herself; her demand to be let down disappeared under the racket. Rel threw her a wave and a wink, and she stuck her tongue out at him.

He turned away to find Taslin at his elbow. She wore a smile much broader than it was wry, the light in her eyes brighter than ever. Leaning close to keep her words to his ears only, she said, "Not feeling overshadowed?"

Rel let out a single chuckle, a mix of chagrin and relief. "It's for the best and you know it."

Something like a dance, or maybe a procession, was emerging within the chaotic swarm of people. Pevan bobbed along on top of it like a branch in a stream, already drawn away from them. Taslin leaned closer and kissed Rel's cheek. "I don't intend to let you forget that."

"Then we might just be alright." He slid his arm around her back, and thought again of the future he'd visited. The future he was helping to build. There was something incongruous about this mingling of Gifted and civilians. He said, "Come on, I bet we can get a few minutes to ourselves while they're having fun."

Epilogue: Another Day

The Abyss was still dark and cold, but someone had at least installed a few more torches on the ledge. Probably Keshnu; the Gift-Giver was waiting in the gloom when Rel stepped through Rissad's Gateway. Pevan and Chag followed, then Rissad himself. Taslin, constrained by Gift-Giver protections, stepped out of her own Gate alongside Rissad's, a moment behind.

Rissad had interrupted the tail end of a much-needed lunch; Chag still held the last couple of mouthfuls'-worth of a sandwich. The elder Van Raighan hadn't needed to say what brought him; hadn't said anything, in fact. A week had passed since the trial, and the waiting had grown like toothache. They'd moved as one, without hesitating.

Up in the darkness, over the vast drop, a patch of summer-field green – clearly visible – rippled and shimmered. Squinting, Rel made out the glint of metal on what would soon return to being Dora's stylised Four Knot belt buckle. He stayed well clear of his Gift, a courtesy to Sevitz-Anwar and Mag-Ridon which still took more force of will than it should.

They drifted over to join Keshnu. Rel took Taslin's hand, enjoying the privacy of trusted company. Chag and Pevan, who'd maintained a conspicuous distance in any public place for the last week, seemed to have the same idea. He had an arm around her shoulders, and hers was at his waist.

Chag said, "How long..?"

"She's... talking, for want of a better word, to the others." Rissad shrugged. "Mostly business, I think. Something of a tradition, but she's free to come down whenever she's ready."

Rel looked up again at the coalescing shape of Dora. To the left of her, there was no sign of Sevitz-Anwar; whatever sight lingered of his black hair and clothing was swallowed by the darkness. To the right, though, a faint streak of red was the afterimage of Mag-Ridon's sash belt. He resisted the urge to wave in thanks.

For a minute, they watched, and listened to the low sounds of the chasm. When Dora moved, she drew every eye. She didn't descend, so much as surfacing. Her fluid outlines straightened and grew still, until she stepped through the curtain of her Gifts and onto the ledge.

Rissad went to her first, his step hesitant. He moved as if he thought Dora might break if he looked straight at her, then jerked back as she threw herself at him. The result was an embrace that almost took him off his feet, and from the look of it made breathing rather difficult, too.

He'd barely recovered enough to put his arms around her when she pulled back, just enough to give her room to put a hand to his face. She murmured something, lost to Rel's ears beneath the whispering of distant waterfalls that was the voice of the Abyss. Her face flickered with amusement while Rissad's mouth opened and closed soundlessly.

Dora extricated herself and approached the waiting group. Nothing in her gait was out of place. She walked like that, had always walked like that in Federas, when she had somewhere to be, even if it was only the other side of the room. It was almost a march, except that it was impossible to be in front of Dora when she really marched and not cringe slightly.

She went to Keshnu, looked up into his face. "Our child?"

Rel glanced in surprise at Taslin, whose brief, dark look told him to leave the question for later. Keshnu answered, "Safe and well. I'm afraid your visit to the crèche may have to wait for a few months yet, though. The Court is still healing."

She took his hands, and if her smile fell away it was only because she didn't need it to communicate with a Gift-Giver. "I can wait. There's a lot of time to play with, after all."

"As for you two..." Dora's tone shifted as she turned her attention to Rel and Pevan. Rel's spine straightened out of reflex. That tone of voice only ever picked out errant Gifted of the Atcar family. Dora didn't relent as she went on, "I don't know that I can swear that your parents will be proud of you, or your mentors for that matter. But I am."

She moved away from Keshnu, to brief them just like in the good old days. "I sort of know the stories you're going to tell me, the things you've done, but I'm looking forward to hearing all about it. You'll tell it well, I promise."

Then her attention shifted again, and the clearest sign of where it landed was in Chag's involuntary half-step back. Rel watched Pevan's arm tense as she held him in place. To the air somewhere around the little man's head, Dora said, "Why do I suspect that you're going to be a bad influence on my Gatemaker?"

"I'll... I'll try not to be?" The squeaks in Chag's voice cut the distant water's roar enough to echo.

"You'll watch her back and be a good Gifted." This time, when Dora smiled, it was the deliberate expression she used to put strangers at ease. As much as she ever could, at least. Chag didn't seem to be able to tell the difference.

"Taslin..." Lifting a hand to her stiff, tangled hair, Dora turned finally to the Gift-Giver. "Thank you."

"It has been my pleasure."

"Then I hope it continues to be so." The hard-edged mien of ordinary life as Federas' Four Knot settled on Dora's face. She spread her arms to herd them all in, towards the wall where Keshnu was already opening a Gate. "Come on, you lot. We need to figure out how this family is going to work."

"Family?" Rel spluttered over the word.

"You hadn't thought about it yet, Rel?" Any other time, he'd have chafed under her disapproving tone. "We'll all be in-laws."

Keshnu with Dora with Rissad, brother to Chag, with Pevan, his sister, and he with Taslin. Rel looked around the group. "Frightening thought." Dora laughed. That was new, a hint of the future Dora. When she spoke, though, she was new and old as one. "Get moving, or I'll show you frightening."

* * *

Acknowledgement. And thank you for reading!