Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Second Realm 7.3: Three Small Words

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Photo © Hartmann Linge, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by

Innocent and Incomplete

3. Three Small Words

South of Vessit, the coastline bulged toward the eastern boundary of the First Realm. The land was poor, its settlements sparse. Pevan chose the area for her first sweep because it offered maximum time between stops to think of what to say.

Unfortunately, it also offered Chag more opportunity to make a nuisance of himself. When Pevan paused to sight a course inland, abandoning the steadily-more-inhospitable cliffs, he took a long breath and said, "So, am I forgiven?"

A small copse just West of due South offered as good a target to aim for as any. Pevan closed her eyes and reached for it, pulling it through her Gift to a patch of grass just before her feet. The Gateway drilled through and popped into place.

"Pevan?" Chag's voice had risen a notch.

She sighed and turned to face him. "Forgiven for what?"

"Whatever it is... whatever I did that upset you the other day." He looked down, chewing his lip.

Whether or not it was what he thought he'd done, he'd tried to 'cheer her up' by dragging her into bed. She fixed him with a glare. "Not good enough. You haven't even apologised, how can I forgive you? Do you even know what to apologise for?"

"How could I?" He frowned. "You haven’t said what's wrong."

"I shouldn't have to." She folded her arms.

"What, I'm just supposed to read your mind?" For a moment, he turned his shoulder, glancing out over the cliffs and the grey, choppy sea, but then he turned back. "I'm new at this, Pev. I don't know anything about it. If there's a problem, I'm lost. It's probably because I'm lost."

"Okay, let's start with this, then. You keep telling me you love me, but I don't think that's what you mean when you say it." She stepped backwards into the Gate, falling away from his perplexed gulp in response. She hadn't meant the words to sting, but something in her gut had twisted sharply, bitterly, as she spoke them.

She didn't give Chag the chance to recover. Before his feet had even hit the ground on this side of the Gateway, she had another open and was stepping into it. The broad, low sweep of the land here was perfect for quickly placing Gates of decent length; there were no close horizons to cut her view short.

At first glance, the terrain looked a lot like the rolling valleys around Federas, just flattened out. Other senses told a different story. The soil was hard underfoot, and the air dusty. Though the grass was tall, reaching almost to her knees, there was a tough, reedy quality to it that suggested it had fought hard to establish itself here. Everything seemed too dry, drained of colour to match the steely sky. The wind stung with a combination of coastal salt air and inland grit.

There would be no fertile farms here, and she wasn't sure she wanted to meet the goat or sheep hardy enough to graze this grass, never mind any people tough enough to herd and live off such an animal. But there were towns scattered across the rising inland territory; Wolpan had known of a few, and the same southern Gatemakers whose rounds touched Vessit also came out this way.

Pevan managed to keep Chag off-balance for a good dozen Gateways or more, pushing due South as closely as she could reckon it without the sun visible. They might have covered as much as five miles in that time. Eventually, though, she had to stop again and scan the horizon. Somewhere further south were mountains, the Keilan, and if they reached them, or even saw them, they'd gone much too far.

She didn't get much chance to look for smoke plumes, or anything else that would indicate civilisation. Chag followed her out of the Gate and, out of breath, began, "So... if I'm not... forgiven... why bring me... at all?"

"It was that or give Wolpan the pleasure of locking you up again." She turned and let him see her rolling her eyes. "And I'm not kidding about wanting your Witnessings available. It took me long enough to accept that the Separatists are actually going to attack Vessit, and I've met Ashtenzim. How I'd convince anyone else by myself, I don't know."

"You don't think I'll be more of... a liability than an aid?" Chag straightened up, eyebrow raised. "They might be... isolated out here... but everyone else seems to have heard of me."

Pevan turned slightly to look past him, squinting at the gentle undulation of the horizon. There was a blur off to the East that might have been smoke, though it could just as well have been a rain shower. "The thought did occur to me that the Separatists might have got here ahead of us, like at Ilbertin. If they want to stop us raising an army, it'd be the simplest way."

"You think they'd risk it?" Through his pause, Pevan could hear Chag forcing his breathing steady. "Don't underestimate the will of southern Gifted to defend our homes."

"I'd rather believe they'd risk it than believe they consider any army of ours so little threat that they wouldn't interfere." Pevan tried to force some of the tension from her face. It didn't work, so she put her back to Chag. Better if he didn't see her fear. "They can See everything we can do. If they're not interfering, it means we're not threatening their plan."

"Cheery thought." The cynicism seemed to shore Chag up a bit. She turned back and shared his dry, lopsided smile. "At least it should keep life interesting."

She snorted. "Haven't you had enough of keeping life interesting?" It was hard to swallow the surge of anger that accompanied that thought. Chag had been driving the interest factor of life in the North up for three quarters of a year now. She reached for another Gateway. If there was a town to the East, so much the better. If it was rain, they'd just have to get wet.

"I've had far more of life being boring." Face set in determination, Chag followed her through the Gate much more closely than he had before. "You haven't known uselessness until you've been a Witness in a southern town."

She rolled her eyes again and reached for another Gate. "Uselessness and boredom are different things. Uselessness is watching a hero like Temmer die because you couldn't get to her in time." The Gate swallowed her while Chag was still gaping, but by the time he emerged his face had gone a shade of thoughtful she'd learned to be wary of.

He said, "Would you trade places, then?"

Pevan's next Gate fell away uncompleted, fluttering and writhing down the back of her mind like paper in a fire. "No. No, I wouldn't trade. Look, I'm not going to deny that there's a thrill to being a hero, when fate hands you the opportunity. It's an honour and a pride to defend Federas." She half-raised a hand, then wondered what she'd been meaning to do with it. "But don't forget to count your blessings too."

"Will you hold it against me if I'm glad to be part of something bigger?" There was an edge of hope in his expression. She could tell he was wondering if this was something to do with what had made her angry at him.

"No, of course not." She twitched an eyebrow. "Just because you don't understand me doesn't mean I don't understand you." Then, with a deep breath, "For what it's worth, I'm glad you're part of this too. If the Separatists are waiting for us, or have got to any of these towns ahead of us, or something else goes wrong, I know you'll have my back, you know? You might be an idiot about romance, but as a Gifted I'd have you on my squad any day."

She cracked a proper grin at his speechlessness and grabbed another Gate.

The town they finally found, an hour and two showers later, was surprisingly large. It spread wide, with scattered houses on the fringes trailing into the rugged, wind-battered woodland that must have supplied most of their timber. It was called Orossit, and its six Gifted turned out to be all overweight and old. It took Pevan almost two hours to organise them, and she left with a mental note to check back that they'd actually stirred out of their chairs long enough to put her plans into action.

The story was much the same as she and Chag headed West again. Twilight meant they couldn't really refuse to stay the night in the next town, Regost, but at least there, the four local Gifted seemed appropriately alarmed by what Chag had to show them. There was more energy, more urgency, to the way they talked about organising other Gifted they knew, too. Perhaps it helped that the cloud cleared overnight, but Pevan left Regost somewhat more cheerfully than she'd arrived.

They managed two more towns that day, trapped for lunch at the second while another elderly and unfit Four Knot took an hour to find an out-of-date map. The food was good, and eating kept the grinding of Pevan's teeth from getting too obvious, but she was glad to be away. Returning to Wolpan without an army looked more attractive with each stop.

Following advice, they aimed further South, looking for a place called Yunec. Chag recognised the name when it was mentioned; Rissad had had some training there. Pevan took that as a good sign, hoped it meant that the Gifted of Yunec were a bit more devoted than their neighbours. The word that the Warder who'd given the advice had used was 'fanatical'.

It was a hilltop town, standing proud under blazing sunshine. It had clearly bordered a forest once, but now there was a field of long-dead stumps across the hillside and a log palisade at the top. Gnarled oaks with the twisted look of trees that had survived the Realmcrash stretched away to the West, where the jagged peaks of the Keilan glowed in the sun.

The palisade troubled Pevan. She asked the air, "Do they think that will keep a hungry Wilder out?"

"Noncs in the forest." Chag spoke gruffly, deep in his throat, as if worried about being overheard. If she was any guess, he felt too close to home for comfort, with Tendullor only a couple of hundred miles away.

"Noncs?" Not everyone had accepted the Treaty of Peace when the Gift-Givers had appeared with it at the end of the Realmwar. Those who objected most strongly had left civilisation behind and founded their own communities out in the Northern Wilds. What were Noncs doing down here? And why hadn't they died out long ago? It had been sixty years since the Treaty of Peace.

"Sure. You're surprised?" Chag paused, looked over at the forest, turned back to her. "You've seen what life is like down here. Is it any surprise people get sick of the Treaty from time to time?"

"People go and join the Noncs?" Dissent on that scale would be unthinkable in the North. Maybe that explained why the Southern Gifted seemed so resigned to mediocrity and irrelevance.

"Kids, mostly, running away from their parents." Chag managed to shrug disinterest and sneer contempt at the same time. "The Noncs don't let them leave, though, and every time one goes there's a new round of fighting. I guess this place is to Noncs as Federas is to Wildren. I hadn't realised how close to the forest it is."

A horrible thought dawned on her. "Yunec's Gifted... you don't think they got their reputation from using their Gifts against humans, do you?" She'd been sweating from the glorious day and the climb, but now her sweat turned cold as she looked up at the palisade again.

"What do you think?" Something in Chag's voice made Pevan really not want to look at his face. "We're hundreds of miles of well-defended countryside away from the nearest Sherim. I doubt anyone here has seen a Wilder, save for Gift-Givers."

"We can't..." Pevan swallowed. "We should go."

"You weren't so squeamish at Ilbertin." Chag was scowling at her, but she got the feeling there were other forces at play in him. Rissad had been here for a while, after all. "And these might be the best soldiers you can get for your army. I don't particularly want to go up there, either, but do we really have a choice?"

Pevan looked down the hill again. There were a lot of towns on the sweeping plains to the northwest, and somewhere out there were the Gifted whose vigilance kept Yunec's squad free to trample the spirit of the Treaty. On the other hand, perhaps this was the best way to bring such an abuse to light. The town clearly didn't need whatever Gifted it had, and she could probably engineer their reassignment to Vessit as 'punishment'. They deserved Wolpan, or worse.

She set off again, leaning into the hill, jaw fixed tight. Chag started to say something, but it came out as a strangled noise, as she forced him to scurry to keep up. Probably he didn't understand the significance of what was going on here, but there'd be time to sort him out later. If southern culture accepted this abuse of power, change had to start now.

Imposing though the palisade was, its main gate stood open. Pevan did her best not to look too angry. She wasn't here to judge and censure these Gifted; others would take care of that. She just had to get them to a place where their crimes could be exposed.

The gate opened to a rod-straight street that led right up to the Warding Hall door. There was no-one on it, no-one visible at all. Only plumes of smoke, probably from forges or bakeries, suggested the town wasn't abandoned. Pevan stalked down the street, nerves jangling.

She was already reaching for a just-in-case Gateway back outside the palisade when a voice rang out, "Pevan Atcar and Chag Van Raighan!"

The voice had the ring of sharp, masculine authority. It could have belonged to Sheriff Pollack, back home, except he spoke twice as fast. From back by the gate – hiding behind the gate panels, of course­ – came a rattle of sudden movement. A trap, and from the Sheriff's knowledge of her name, one that had to originate with the Separatists.

The Gateway tunnelled through Pevan's mind, drilling down like a whirlpool.

"I arrest you for-"

Up ahead, more movement, guards piling out through the heavy double-doors of the Warding Hall, bows in hand.

"-conspiring with Noncs-"

Reaching back to grab Chag's arm as the Gateway touched the underside of the road at her feet, but up ahead one of the guards wasn't waiting for his commander to finish posturing.

"-against the Treaty-"

Falling forwards into a puddle of glorious blue sky, with Chag's squawk of alarm – finally catching on – following her.

"-o-FIRE! They're-"

She rolled as they came out of the Gate, pulled Chag across on top of her, and the Sheriff's voice jumped a hundred yards away as the Gate snapped shut. Not the best first step, particularly if there was going to be pursuit, but there hadn't been time to get to know the terrain well enough to Gate further. She wriggled and Chag pushed himself clear.

By the town gate, guards were already forming up, readying their bows. Pevan sat up, trying to get her bearings. Chag heaved himself at her in a clumsy bellyflop and knocked her back down. She started to struggle, but he hissed, "In the trees!"

Lying prone with his elbow driving into one of her ribs made thinking quite hard. She closed her eyes, aware of bowstrings slapping with the first ranging shots. The hill would make the angle difficult for the bowmen by the gate, but not for any who were sensibly positioned in the wood.

Where would they not have covered? Pevan dragged her last Gate back into place and rolled through it while the second volley flew. Chag followed with another flop and they were rolling in the rough hardpack of the street. Pevan pushed up to a knee and then lunged upright, slamming into a body stepping out of a side alley right by where they'd emerged. Chag scrambled past at knee-height, almost seeming to float into the shade. Pevan grappled, slapped, lifted a knee to block an incoming jab, and the floor vanished.

Gateway. She didn't need the tingle running up her leg to tell her. Still locked in the grasp of her assailant – he was a big man, chest all hard bones – Pevan fell. One arm came free as the man grunted, and she flailed upwards, above her head, clawing for his face. There were too many arms waving around for just the two of them to account for.

Wherever they'd just fallen into, the man took the full force of the landing. She felt his knees buckle as Chag's weight hit him from on top. Something pressed on the bottom of Pevan's brain from the inside, the feeling of being Gifted too close to Stable Rods. It gave her a bearing – this would be the cell under the Warding Hall, the closest thing there was to a safe place to keep a Gifted.

Just like Chaiya at Ilbertin had tried to do. And this Gatemaker was strong enough to put a Gate in the ceiling of the cell, not the floor. Pevan could do that, of course, but she couldn't name more than a couple of her colleagues who could. Who might the Separatists have recruited?

Chag had the big man pinned, but probably didn't weigh enough to hold him down long. He wasn't wearing a guard's leathers, which made him most likely a Gifted. From the flamboyant red leather of his boots, one who thought rather a lot of himself. His eyes were open, but glazed, and from the way he was lying he'd cracked his head on the wall on the way down.

That wall should have been bars, not that it would have spared the man. Perhaps this wasn't a Warding Hall cell; maybe just one of the Sheriff's cells, coincidentally located near the Warding Hall. That might just, in this desperate circumstance, be an advantage. Not quite believing her own mind, Pevan wondered whether the felled Gifted would be of value as a hostage.

A Gate spun open in the wall to her left, to reveal a short, slight boy – he was two years older than her, she happened to know, but boy was in his face – wearing a lopsided, smug frown. He hadn't changed much since his brief stay in Federas, before she'd been Gifted. He said, "You're a disgrace to Temmer's memory, Atcar."

"One of us is, that's for sure." She stuck him with a glare learned from Dora. "Had a visit from Soan, Mallas?" And inside, she prayed, tell me he's not still here.

Chag had clearly been distracted enough to lose the upper hand against the big man on the floor. There was some grunting, a muffled curse, but Pevan kept her eyes fixed on Mallas'. The boy's face twitched, ever so slightly.

"He said some very interesting things." Mallas' frown flattened out, into genuine puzzlement. "Why'd you leave the Separatists?"

Pevan took a deep breath, picturing the street that ran between the Warding Hall and the gate. No telling where the guards would be by now, but maybe, if Soan hadn't thought of everything and Yunec had no strong Clearseer of its own, she could Gate to the front of the Hall and be out of the line of fire by a few inches.

"Pevan?" Sunlight streamed in over Mallas' shoulder. A rookie mistake, leaving his Gate in place. There wasn't a lot of street behind him, but it was empty.

She smiled slowly as her own Gate began to uncoil. "One of us is definitely a disgrace to Temmer's training."

The boy yelped as her Gateway swallowed him feet-first. She threw herself forwards, sailing over his head – the temptation was there to lower a knee and see if she could get him in the forehead, but the results would be chaotic at best – and through his Gate. For a hanging moment, anything could have gone wrong, but then she was through, scuffing her elbows on the sandy road surface.

She let her Gate close, hardly checking whether it was clear first. She didn't want to kill Mallas, but losing a leg might cut him down to size a little. Chag would have to trust her for a second while she got her bearings. High-pitched shouting already told her she wasn't far enough from the Warding Hall.

This close to the centre of town, she guessed choice of direction wouldn't matter much as far as getting to the palisade went. Her best bet was to get outside it and Gate back in for Chag. This alley opened to wider streets at both ends; she picked left and ran.

A Gateway let her cross the broader street without being seen, though she stumbled for a few steps on the other side, in another alley where the bare earth clearly didn't get enough sunlight to dry out from the winter. Behind her, shouting receded. She slithered down the alley and caught the end of the house there for a pause to check her bearings.

Mistake. A party of guards stood not twenty feet away, at a crossroads, two of them with bows held ready at their sides. One spotted her, shouted. Time yawned as she jerked back, slammed a Gate into the wall behind her, drilling its other end through to a turning along the street. An opportunistic arrow chopped into shingle behind her as she jumped through the Gateway.

She turned right and broke into a run while indistinct shouts chased around the houses. It was hard to judge where they were coming from, but that was probably a good sign. When it became easy, it would be because the guards were right on top of her.

The alley turned a sharp corner, faced onto another street. Two guards sprinted past without looking at her. Pevan paused, trying to knit her disordered bearings back together. The guards were headed for the palisade, if she was any judge.

They could cut her off pretty easily if she couldn't find an alley leading past them. This one would be no good. She edged to the end and peered out, then jerked back to avoid being spotted. There were guards waiting in both directions. How many did this place have? But of course, if there were regular problems with Noncs...

Her elbow stung. It was bleeding badly enough to drip into the mud. Out in the open, where the ground was dry, she'd leave a trail. She hadn't seen any sign of cover further down the street, just an unbroken terrace of smart, neat housing, running all the way to the end. It might have run all the way to the wall, but she couldn't tell for sure.

How good would these guards be at dealing with a Gifted? In Federas, when they'd been living in fear of Van Raighan's next strike, Pevan and Rel had tried to train some of Sheriff Pollack's men to deal with Gateways and Clearsight, and the guards had been hopeless. Would Soan have had time to be any more effective here?

Praying that he hadn't, Pevan stuck a Gateway in the wall behind her, its far end on the low-pitched roof of the terrace opposite. She poked her head through, only as far as her nose, and squinted to see if the guards noticed. With the extra few feet of height, the breeze was enough to sting her eyes, but it looked safe.

She crawled out onto the tiles, pressing herself as flat as she could, scraped elbow burning with the awkward angle. It wasn't enough. A shout went up, and she scrambled over the peak of the roof. Arrows clattered on terracotta. Head and body bowed, she ran, not much better than staggering.

The terrace did run almost all the way to the palisade, but there was a broad gap, maybe twenty feet, between the last tiles and the spiked tips of the logs. And the two guards who'd been waiting at that end of the street were already moving to intercept her. She wasn't going to be able to jump over the palisade from the roof.

Pevan reached out with a Gate, aiming behind the guards' feet. They weren't thinking right about handling a Gatemaker. One of them raised his bow. She dived sideways, off the roof, letting the Gate snap into place beneath her. There was a curse which jumped suddenly in volume as the Gateway opened.

She rose, hands first, behind the guards, reaching for the top of the wall. Her hands closed around the spikes, and she added her own heave to the momentum from the fall. Splinters stung her palms and fingers. She swung her legs up and over, released her grip as it turned awkward. Sailed over the top of the wall, barely avoiding catching her bleeding elbow on the way.

There was no time to put a Gate under her landing. Her feet struck the turf hard, and she bowled over backwards. Somewhere about the time her back landed, the wind went out of her, but then she flopped heels-over head. She wound up prone, her shin catching on something much harder than grass had any right to be – one of those tree-stumps, dammit.

How long would it take the guards to get a shot at her? With Mallas' help, if she hadn't completely put him out of commission, not long. Grunting something that tried very hard to be a coherent curse, Pevan pushed herself up onto her side and did her best to look around.

Forest stretched away from the bottom of the hill, blessed with shade and broken sight-lines. She couldn't see any guards down by the tree-line. The town couldn't have that many, could it? Pevan squinted, found a likely nook between tree-roots right on the edge of the wood, and put a Gate down. She rolled through and pushed to her feet with a groan.

Limping, wounded arm wrapped around her bowstring-tight diaphragm, she stumbled into the cover of the trees. She only needed to get far enough to be out of sight from Yunec, then she could Gate back, with a little thought, to somewhere on the plains to the North. The floor of the cell where she'd left Chag was lodged in her memory. She could Gate there from five miles away if necessary.

Something fell out of a tree on her, a sack of heavy bones that draped itself across her shoulders, pinning her arms. She almost fell forward, but her weight was caught. Pinned, she struggled, but the man holding her swayed with the motion as if he knew it was coming. Even through the aches and bruises, she could feel her heart sinking.

Only a Clearseer, and a decently strong one at that, could have worked out which tree she'd stumble under. He had the advantage on her in size, too, and probably strength with it. Why couldn't Yunec's Gifted be as indolent as Orossit's? She threw herself sideways against his embrace, to no avail. Mallas and the rest of the town's squad would be on their way.

Pevan went limp, because if nothing else it would keep the Clearseer occupied or force him to drop her. He'd See any Gate she could place coming, particularly if it affected him in anyway. If she could get free of him she could get away, but he wasn't showing any signs of yielding and she still couldn't breathe properly.

She dug in her heels and pushed against the man again. At least this time he had to take a step back. Something red – bright red – caught at the edge of her vision. His boots, Pevan thought, and it took a moment for the rest of the thought to register. Unless there were two large, male Gifted in Yunec with terrible taste in footwear, this was the man who'd grabbed her and Chag before Mallas had Gated them to the cell. It certainly made sense from their side to have a Clearseer make the catch, and Mallas could have got him here from the cell without difficulty.

They'd been so lucky to get the upper hand on him in the cell, but if he was here, that probably meant Chag was now alone. She'd just have to chance that he wasn't also unconscious, or guarded, or... maybe Mallas had been posted to keep watch on him. That would make a degree of sense.

Yunec's Warding fought back as Pevan reached out with her Gift, but even winded and still grappling, she sliced through it with an angry thought. The real question was how to give Chag the drop on the Clearseer. Maybe if she could trick her captor into thinking she was trying to get at him with a Gate instead.

She thrashed in his grip again, side to side, testing his balance. His hold stayed firm, but he did grunt and take another step. Pevan let the Gate snap into place, just wide of his feet. Whatever taunt he responded with was lost beneath her shout of "Chag!"

The Clearseer's sneering became a curse. Pevan swung her weight against him as he tried to move away from the Gateway. Chag's ratty old boots emerged from the opening, and there was a dry slap as one of them connected with some part of the Clearseer. The world reeled. Pevan felt as if she was kicking the planet away, fighting against gravity as much as the man who held her.

Soft mulch cushioned everyone's fall, and the Clearseer's grip finally gave. Gasping, Pevan rolled clear, almost on top of Chag. He surged upward, staggered as he took a share of her weight, and they tangled themselves to their feet. A Gate opened next to Pevan's just as she let hers close.

Lacking time for anything more, she slammed a Gate through the forest to the farthest patch of ground she could see and toppled through it, Chag in tow. Again, the world spun. Swearing voices, one of them unmistakably Mallas', chased them.

Pevan let the Gate snap shut the moment she felt it clear, and heard the glorious noise as whoever had been closest in pursuit plowed face-first into the forest floor where the other end had been. That still meant they were too close, though.

Chag started to say something, and his half-step away from her pulled her off-balance again. She had a Gate in place to catch them both by the time they fell, though, another hastily-grabbed twenty yards. Air rattled out of Chag in what sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

It took longer, this time, to get upright after the Gateway. Every second of it stretched while shouts from the pursuing Gifted bounced around the trees. Pevan held her nerve and took an extra couple of seconds to locate the tree-line to the North. The forest was cover, but it limited her range by sight alone and what they needed now was just as much distance as possible.

With the extra time, Chag was ready for the next Gate. She pushed its width out slightly and got them both comfortably through. It was smooth enough that she landed running. Chag yelped, but gave chase only a breath behind. Squinting for the horizon, Pevan reached as far as she dared and threw out a Gateway that would have made even Temmer jealous.

The Gate hung across her brain like red-hot wire. She really hoped Mallas would try to copy it. She let it go as quickly as she could once they were clear, fell back into a low run. They were out of range of any Yunec archer now, but there was still the off-chance that Mallas would be able to track her Gate.

Behind her, Chag moaned something through gasps. She called back, "One more, come on!" and it seemed to do the trick.

She kept the next Gate more reasonable, only halfway to the horizon, then dragged Chag through another just to be sure. When she turned to look back the way they'd come, she couldn't even see Yunec. Just flat, green plains and the occasional herd of sheep or goats.

Chag sank to the floor, then lay down. Pevan bent double to stretch her legs, then allowed herself to sit next to him. After a moment, Chag's panting turned into hoarse laughter. She cracked a smile. "How was that for keeping life interesting?"

"Hah... you had... all the fun."

"You came back in when I needed you." Pevan reached over and squeezed his hand.

He lifted his head out of the grass to look at her. "I was worried you'd leave me to stew in there for a while."

"I wasn't given much choice." She let him dangle from that for a moment.

"And if you had been?" Chag grinned, face distorted by the odd angle of his neck. "You weren't tempted to ditch me?"

He was fishing for more affection, she could tell. She rolled her eyes at him. "Don't push your luck. Of course I was tempted. But you don't leave members of your squad behind."

With a groan, Chag sat up. He took his hand back, wrapped his arms around his knees. "I'm not going to stop telling you I love you, you know."

Of course he wasn't. "They aren't magic words, Chag. You can't just say that and expect everything to work out like a fairy story." Pevan paused, pushed herself to her feet. Aches coursed up from her calves to her chest and back down again. She looked over her shoulder. "Back there, though, all that counts for a lot. Come on, there are plenty of other towns to visit."

* * *

Next episode

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

'Ownership' of a tragedy

There are at least three major political topics involved in the discussion that has followed the mass shooting last week in Isla Vista, California; gun violence, violence against women, and the link between violence and mental health. This article focusses on the first and last of the three, while this one discusses the second (they aren't necessarily the best articles on any of the points involved, just ones I found on facebook this morning).

All three of those debates are weighty and difficult. They are also very important, but many people are better-placed than me to tackle them in writing. What motivated me to write today is an argument I saw (also on facebook, because that's pretty much my only contact with the outside world) between people discussing the gender dimension of the tragedy and someone arguing that the 'real issue' was gun control.

I have subsequently seen more of this tug-of-war over how we should respond, politically, to the tragedy. You can argue it any of the three different ways, in both directions - from the obvious ones, like whether or not male gun control activists should be 'allowed' to dismiss women talking about sexual violence and the 'men's rights' movement (they shouldn't), to the perhaps-less-obvious, like whether mental health should be blamed (and I stress, people identified as having mental health issues are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators; the media's insistence on blaming psychological problems is hugely damaging to campaigns for rights for disabled people).

But this isn't a zero-sum game. A tragedy is not a pot of political capital, finite in depth, from which different campaigns must compete to draw. Treating it as such cheapens both it and the people doing the treating. For anyone outside the circle of people with an immediate personal link to the event, a tragedy is a lesson, and it is a poor lesson that has only one thing to teach.

Would Elliot Rodger have been able to kill and injure as many people as he did if access to guns in America was more tightly controlled? Almost certainly not. Was his attack driven by misogynistic motives and a misogynistic culture? It seems so. Would he have turned to violence at all if he had had access to better support for his Asperger Syndrome? That's a very complex question, and worthy of deep investigation.

No one group owns this terrible event, except possibly the families and friends of the victims. No one person speaking about this has the right to tell another that their view is irrelevant or wrong (again, except perhaps to ask them to be more considerate of the feelings of those directly affected). No such division should be allowed to get in the way of learning from Isla Vista (and Sandy Hook, and Steubenville, and all the other towns that have lost their names to human disasters).

Saturday, 24 May 2014

You can't be inclusive and have fun, apparently.

So I was going to blog today about how half the political parties listed on the ballot for the European Parliament elections we had on Thursday were one-issue anti-Europe parties (a situation so ridiculously satirical that it has somehow passed out the far side of satire and into actually happening), but then I read this and changed my mind.

The article is a critique of certain remarks by officials at Blizzard Entertainment (who make World of Warcraft) and Nintendo in which, roughly, they argued that their games are focussed on 'fun', and that this is incompatible with presenting ethnic, gender and sexual diversity in a responsible manner. As the article puts it, they "position 'gameplay' and 'fun' in direct opposition to producing socially-conscious content."

And the article does a wonderful job of criticising this attitude, pointing out that it's equivalent to saying that a world where Blizzard and Nintendo don't have to respect other people's lives and lifestyles is simpler or more fun (I'm summarising pretty brutally - seriously, read the original article, it does a much better job of this than I can). Originally, I was just going to re-share the article to boost signal, but then I realised there was something in it I'd like to expand on.

That's the matter of how this dichotomy between fun and inclusive came to be. Why is it that the 'fun' gets spoiled when game developers (or movie studios, or book publishers etc.) try to be inclusive? I suppose there's a risk of them getting it wrong, and producing something that condescends to the groups it attempts to include. Some might think that it would add expense, in the form of making development more complex, but as this follow-up suggests, that's certainly not true for Blizzard or Nintendo in this case.

The truth, of course, is that when you get inclusive, particularly in the videogame world, the douchebags come out of the woodwork. A small minority - far smaller than any of the 'minority' groups which inclusiveness in the media should reach out to - make a big fuss and direct it at the developers, producers and other creatives. Here is one example from a couple of years ago.

And I can well imagine that this does spoil the fun, for the developers. Nobody likes having to deal with these bigots. It potentially spoils the fun for anyone who ends up paying attention to them, too - we all know that youtube comment threads are the new train wrecks, right? You just can't look away, no matter how much revulsion you feel.

But treating such bigotry and hatred as unbeatable is part of the problem. In saying that 'fun' is incompatible with inclusion, developers like Blizzard are surrendering the field without a fight. It's particularly weak of them in respect of World of Warcraft, where they could replace every non-player character with a gay black woman and only one player in a thousand would even notice.

Blizzard bigwig Rob Pardo is quoted in the article as having said of inclusion, "I wouldn't say that's really a value for us. It's not something that we're against either....", but that's not a fence you can sit on. Failing to uphold inclusion as a value is acting against it, because it allows a toxic status quo to persist. Failing to challenge the douchebags is letting them win.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Life choices

My day-jobs both involve working for universities, so my employment year is defined not by the tax year or the calendar year, but by the academic year. Universities operate a pretty minimal version of that, too - I've just finished work for the summer, and don't expect to be in again until the very end of September. Factor in the Christmas and Easter breaks, and I only work six months in the year.

And only part time at that - I average about 12-15 hours per week the 26-28 weeks of the year that I work. That makes for a total of barely 350 hours' day-job work in a whole year's worth of employment. (Disclaimer: I'm not a professor, lecturer or permanent employee of any kind - those people do a lot more work than me). Fortunately for me, my jobs pay well enough, just about, that I can make enough to live on this way.

I'm often heard to complain about being poor, but the truth is I wouldn't choose anything else. The rare periods where I have worked something like full-time (mainly summer jobs as an undergraduate) have been really frustrating for me. I hate commuting, hate having to get up on someone else's schedule every morning, hate having such a large chunk of my life given over to things I'm not doing for their own sake.

It makes an excellent lifestyle for a writer, as well - I get six months every year in which to focus on my writing. Last time the PhD didn't get in the way, in the 2010-11 academic year, I wrote five novels in thirteen months (and yes, at least two of them were crap, but they were great learning experiences). Even with the PhD in full swing the last couple of years, I've written and published 250,000 words of The Second Realm.

Since finishing the PhD, though, people have started to ask me what I'll do next, and I'm not sure how much longer 'Keep going the way I'm going' will cut it. My mother insists on referring to my lifestyle as 'Bohemian', which certainly isn't an unambiguous compliment. At what point does it become irresponsible or selfish to live like this?

I take no direct financial subsidies from the state, in the form of benefits or tax credits or anything. I'm not currently paying off my student loan (about £15,000 in total), but that hardly makes me unique. I do have some impact on state- and society-funded infrastructure, of course, but it's minimal. As a young and relatively healthy man, I'm not taking very much from the NHS. I have no dependents who I'm failing to support, but by not having a surplus income, I'm not putting any money aside for the future, which is setting up for problems on down the line.

This isn't a question I have a clear answer for. The cultural pressure to 'get a real job' is a very problematic phenomenon, particularly these days when there are so few 'real jobs' at entry-level which aren't totally degrading and exploitative, but it's also difficult for me to claim that I'm a productive member of society when so few people express any interest in my books.

J.K. Rowling lived on benefits for a couple of years while she wrote Harry Potter, and as I understand it this was in part a deliberate choice. It worked out pretty well for her (which really only means 'but there must be thousands of writers who tried that and failed). My question, really, is at what point would she have counted as having failed, if the strategy hadn't borne fruit?

I'm certainly not going to change my approach to life for another (academic) year. My employers have both expressed interest in having me work for them next year, and, God willing, that means I've got another sixteen months or so of living expenses lined up. If I succeed commercially as a writer in that time, great. If not, I'll probably be writing this blog post again, but with a slightly more urgent and distressed tone, next year sometime.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Second Realm 7.2: Burning in the Home Fires

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Innocent and Incomplete

2. Burning in the Home Fires

"We don't think they were at it for very long." Thia pointed to the neat row of pick-marks across the fallen slab of building. At about waist-high, the row wasn't even complete, just a scattering of chipped-out dents. The deepest were probably only a couple of inches into the thick concrete.

Pevan looked up at the block looming over them. There was a gap like Rel's broken tooth where this slab and the one trapped behind it had fallen from. They covered the door that was the only known access point for Vessit's catacombs, a stroke of luck as far as defending Dora went.

The battered old city shone in the sun, the South faces of the buildings too blazing to look straight at. Summer was rising, harsh reminder of how long Rel had been gone. Almost a month now, and Ashtenzim's attack suggested the Separatists knew the plan had failed. Had something gone wrong, or had Rissad been a traitor all along?

She shook the thought from her mind. "We were lucky."

"Rel would have seen it coming." Thia looked down, scuffing one of her elegant, fine-toed boots on the road surface. Then she lifted her eyes to Pevan's, face tight with some hidden fear. "Do you think he's alright?"

How to respond? Something in Thia's expression suggested there was something deeper going on than just professional concern for a comrade. Pevan had been catching hints of it ever since the morning Rel left. Probably it was better not to mention what had happened between Rel and Taslin at Ilbertin. She didn't much like to think of it herself.

"At some point in time, he's alright, I'm sure." It was an attempt at cleverness that probably didn't work, but Thia managed a weak smile in response. Pevan finished, "I worry about him, but there's plenty else to worry about if you want a distraction."

"Ain't that the truth." Thia shrugged. "Have you spoken to Chag since you got back?"

"Yester- No, the day before." A wave of heat rose through Pevan's torso, and she took a deep breath to dispel it. "Right after seeing Wolpan. It wasn't the best idea I've ever had."

"You had a fight? But why?"

Pevan rolled her eyes. "Oh, I... It's hard to explain, I guess. He's so hopeless..."

"How do you mean?" Thia frowned. "He seems so devoted to you."

"That's just it." She folded her arms, trying hold the lingering anger in. "He wants me, but it's all about him getting what he wants. I sort of hoped men grew out of that."

The Clearseer's frown turned pointed, and Pevan braced for scorn. Rel had never approved of her boyfriends, either. But Thia's lips twitched into a wry smile. "Keep hoping. He's a good man and strong in his Gift."

"What does that even mean for a Witness?" It wasn't exactly the most useful Gift to begin with. No, that thought was unworthy. Every Gifted was important, particularly when it came to breeding.

"Don't knock it, Pevan." A gust of wind made Thia turn away, and she stayed looking into the distance up the street. "You and I can fight the battles, but we couldn't build a peace afterwards without Witnesses. Trust is in short enough supply as it is."

"Hm. I like that." Pevan let out a gentle chuckle. "Somehow I doubt Chag will, though. Doesn't sound very manly."

"Wouldn't it be nice if men grew out of that too?" Thia's smile matched the sparkling day. She waved a hand at the concrete. "Seen what you need?"

"Up here, yes," said Pevan. With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and reached back into memory. She could still feel the rough stone of the Abyss wall from months before, lodged at the rear of her mind where she kept all her remembered Gateways. Even though she'd only Gated to the Abyss a couple of times, she could almost reach out and touch it.

The Gate began to twist itself into life. Half-consciously, she lifted her arm towards the concrete. Gripping the surface with her mind, she pushed it down towards the Abyss. It met the other half of the Gateway coming up, the whole snapping neatly into place. It didn't have the head-against-a-brick-wall feeling of Gating near to a Sherim, but there was something funny about it. Something to do with the strain on the fabric of the Realm down there, probably.

She opened her eyes again, pleased to see that the gloom of the Abyss wasn't total – one of Keshnu's strange torches must have survived. She couldn't see the space where Dora was supposed to be suspended, but she could at least make out the crumbling edge of the concrete shelf that faced the trapped Four Knot. If her presence wasn't just Rel's wishful thinking.

"What- the Abyss?" Thia's voice cut through the dark undertone of Pevan's thoughts. "You don't think they got through?"

"Worth checking." Pevan stepped through the Gate, and immediately shivered. Deep underground, with only the torches for light and seawater still dripping through the rock above, the air in the Abyss was icy. Sunlight from behind her threw rainbow glimmers across her condensing breath.

The vast space looked more or less as she remembered it, though. The oversized concrete door to the old research facility made an impromptu wall, cutting off half the ledge and jutting out a few feet over the chasm. Sunlight showed up more of the far side than she'd seen before, grey-black stone glistening with rivulets of leaking water.

Pevan squinted at the haze up near the vaulted ceiling. Rel swore he'd Seen Dora hanging there, and that even without Clearsight, there was a hint of the green robe she preferred in the mist. Pevan didn't buy it, but she strained her eyes all the same. The Separatists had struck here for a reason, after all.

Behind her, Thia made a small, sad noise. "I... is it silly that I was hoping they'd be here waiting for us?"

Pevan looked round, feeling herself frown. "The Separatists?" No, the droopy, distant look in the Clearseer's eyes was for someone else entirely. "Rel and the others?"

Thia met her eyes, face sharpening. "Yeah. I... you really aren't worried?"

"I don't want to think about it." The words came out more curt than Pevan intended, and she looked away, back up towards where Dora was supposed to be. "Can you See her up there?"

There was a pause – Thia reaching for her Gift – and then, "She's still there. As far as I can tell, anyway."

"Good." Pevan let out a long breath. "I wish I could see her too, you know."

A shiver ran through her as Thia's hand landed on her shoulder. "I believe we'll find a way to free her. Or Rel will, anyway."

"We've got to keep her in one piece long enough for him to get back, first."

"You were worried the Separatists might have gotten down here already?" Thia folded her arms. "Actually, why didn't they just Gate down here?"

"At a guess, they didn't have anyone left who was good enough with Gates." Looking down, Pevan realised she was wringing her hands. "Lienia was their specialist Gatemaker, and we- I killed her." It had been in the wild first moments of the storming of the Separatists' Second-Realm lair, but Pevan still couldn't quite convince herself she'd made the right call. The Separatist had been shredded by her first blast of Wild Power, intended only as a warning shot.

Another pause, longer this time, pulled Pevan's attention back to Thia. The Clearseer was watching her, face set hard with an awkward mix of emotions. Her voice, when she spoke, had a squeaky, broken edge to it. "I wish I had your combat experience."

"Heh." Pevan couldn't help the twinge of bitterness. "Fun times. May you never need it."

"That seems unlikely." The little woman's tone suggested she didn't think too much of Pevan's blessing. "I could wish we had ten of you and still wish for more."

Pevan allowed herself a deep breath. "If we knew when the Separatists were going to strike next, I'd be wishing the same. There's no telling where those Gifted will be needed, though."

"You don't agree with Rel's prediction, then?"

"He's been wrong about Vessit and Wildren before." A painful subject to bring up, for both of them, but to her credit, Thia showed no sign of a flinch. Pevan finished, "But actually, I do believe him. I just don't believe they'll only strike here. We don't know what their plan needs, but I doubt it's only to kill Dora."

Mentioning Dora's name was a mistake. A chill ran down Pevan's spine. She shrugged, trying to dislodge it, and turned to the Abyss. Technically, she supposed, they were talking about Dora while in her presence, and the Four Knot would have hated that. Might actually be hating it right now.

"Pevan, you alright?" Thia stepped closer, tugged her sleeve. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

Voice low, Pevan replied, "I might be about to try talking to one." She took a few steps forward and turned her face up towards where she hoped Dora was. "Dora?"

Silence. The muted hiss of falling water swallowed any echo before it could get started.

"Dora..." The Four Knot would have no time for awkward expressions of sympathy. "Rel has identified you as a prime target for the Separatists." Would he have told her when he came through here with Rissad and Taslin? No, he wouldn't have been willing to speak up in front of them. "They've already tried to get in once that we know of. They don't seem to be able to get a Gateway in here, but if there's anything you can do to protect yourself, please be wary."

Thia squeezed her shoulder. She gave the other woman a quick glance of appreciation. Turning back to the Abyss, she froze part-way, looking down at her tangled fingers again. Then she forced her hands apart and looked up. "If there's any way to get you down, we'll do it, I swear. We need you."

"She's not the only one we need."

Pevan turned to see Thia rubbing her face. The other woman froze, both hands still pressed to her forehead. She made Pevan wait a long, hanging moment before lifting her head. "Pevan... I'm not up to this. I'm not command material."

Vessit had no Gatemaker; it fell to Thia to direct the town's Gifted during an incursion. Pevan took a deep breath. "What are you saying?"

"Take over as combat commander until this is over." Thia swallowed. "You've got the experience, the skill. The right Gift."

"Seriously? Wolpan would never allow it."

"It's not her call. I'll back you, and so will Bersh. Atla's used to taking orders from you." The Clearseer looked around, as if scanning the cave for something to convince Pevan. She took a step closer, grabbed Pevan's hand. "Please? I don't even know how to start planning for something like this."

"And I do?" Pevan pulled free. "Marit will go with Wolpan, and there's no point without a Warder on board. You'll smash your squad's morale."

Thia paused, frowned. When she pulled herself back together, it was with a soft chuckle. "You led the Federas squad through all that stuff with Rel and Dieni's death, and you're worried about managing morale? Marit might be closer to Wolpan than the rest of us, but she's a good Gifted. As long as you lead well, she'll follow."

Despite herself, Pevan turned back to Dora. Rel had been pretty disruptive in the first few months after fleeing Ciarive. But it had been Dora who had reined him in, not Pevan. When it came to combat, he'd gone where she wanted only when she hadn't left him time to argue. It had been exhausting, frustrating, gut-wrenching. Only their continuing success had earned her his trust.

And that was the crux; no civvies had died. Only two Gifted, too, and both deaths had been inescapable bad luck. "Have you talked to Bersh about this?"

"Heh." Thia's laugh sounded forced. "I talked to Bersh about not feeling up to the job. He was the one who suggested letting you take over."

Pevan gave the Clearseer a raised-eyebrow look she'd learned from Dora. "Okay, if we make it through this, and I go home and you take charge again, rule one of good leadership is to never let somebody you're in charge of question your competence so openly."

A more sincere laugh rose from the other woman. "You didn't see how hard I had to plead to get the suggestion out of him. I suspect that did more to challenge his faith in me than any aspect of my actual leadership."

Neither of them mentioned Rel's Viewing of Thia's death in the coming battle. Pevan looked past the Clearseer, out to the glare of the Gateway. "Okay, let's go and see if we can find Marit."

The Warder didn't even speak before looking to Wolpan. The two women had been together when Pevan and Thia had spotted them walking towards the waterfront. Pevan had insisted, over Thia's objection, on getting the confrontation out of the way, but as she watched Wolpan's face, her guts started to clench with the desire to take the decision back.

Wolpan mastered the obvious flash of anger, but when she spoke her voice was cold. "Actually, I feel I've a better idea for how you might help us."

A gnawing sensation, like a full day's hunger, blossomed under Pevan's diaphragm, but Thia spoke first. "What do you have in mind?"

"Your visions of the future show a battle, yes? Dozens of us against dozens of them?"

"Rel's Viewings do." Thia's eyes narrowed, an edge of steel creeping in as she lowered her voice. "Mine show a confusing mess of fragments of nothing very much."

Shadows from the harsh daylight hid something in Wolpan's face, but Pevan could see enough to tell it was unpleasant. The Four Knot's tone matched it. "You backed the boy before he left. Having second thoughts?"

"No. I just want to be clear who we owe our information too." Somehow, Thia managed to sugar-coat the daggers in her words. Pevan met Marit's eyes through the crossfire. The Warder stood slightly hunched, face bland but for a slightly-raised eyebrow. Perhaps passing the question on to Wolpan had been meant as a test?

The Four Knot sniffed. "Whatever. My point is this; if we are to put dozens of Gifted in the field against the Separatists, or even one dozen, we must recruit a great many more Gifted than we presently have. The girl is best-equipped to do our recruiting. She knows the best Gifted across half the Realm."

It took Pevan a moment to realise Wolpan meant her. "Your attempts to get rid of me are getting less and less subtle."

"Don't be petulant, child." The Four Knot snipped the words short, dismissing Pevan with a sideways glance.

"Wolpan, I can't command an army." Thia's voice wavered slightly. Pevan looked around; it would be unfortunate for any of Vessit's civilians to see their Gifted breaking out into a row in the street, but there was no-one else visible. Wind rattled the rickety boards of a nearby house. "If you want Pevan to recruit a bunch of strangers, you're going to have to give her command of them."

Wolpan lifted her chin. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Pevan, you'll depart as soon as you can pack. I don't anticipate you needing to take very much."

"What?" It took Pevan a few attempts to assemble even a thought in response. It was true that the army, if they were going to gather one, had to be recruited by someone, but... Could she really just let Wolpan push her out of Vessit like this? Would any other town's Gifted take her seriously if she turned up with news of a war coming? "How am I going to convince an army's worth of Gifted that there's an invasion on its way when we're not even sure we believe it ourselves?"

"You know these people, don't you? I thought all northern Gifted kept in touch. You work it out." Wolpan started to turn away, then paused. "Just get them here. The Separatists could be here any day and it doesn't look like your brother is going to be any use before then."

Thia started to say something, but Pevan rode over her. "Hang on a minute, you want me to strip the North of Gifted with an actual invasion coming? Are you insane?"

When Wolpan returned to facing Pevan, her face was stony. "I'll thank you not to take that tone of-"

"My tone of voice should be the last of your worries," Pevan snapped. "I will not render the North defenceless for you. Even if the Separatists only attack here, what about ordinary incursions? What you're suggesting is lunacy. Can Vessit even support an army? Your town is still half-collapsed!"

"Pevan-" Thia sounded worried, but Pevan stole a glance at Marit's face. The Warder looked almost completely disconnected from the argument.

Pevan let the anger roll. She poked a finger in Wolpan's direction. "If we're going to use Rel's Viewings now, which is frankly more than you deserve, then we'll do it right." Inspiration rose just as the sentence started to flag. "We took an oath to the whole Realm, Wolpan. Not just Dora, not just one town. I'll move no Gifted here until we know the Separatists are coming. No, shut up and listen. The army you want already exists, all that's needed is to gather it when it's needed."

She pulled back, straightened, pulling Dora's finest moments out of memory. "Here's what I will do. I will make a tour of every town and village in a hundred miles or so. I'll explain the situation and make sure they're all on board. I don't know off the top of my head how many Gatemakers there are in the region, but there will be enough. I'll set up assignments so that they can bring us the Gifted we need when the Separatists come. I'll bet I can organise it to get the whole lot here in a dozen hours."

"Half a day?" Marit spoke for the first time, and though her voice was as nasal and piercing as ever, she didn't sound as alarmed as Pevan expected. "Will we have that much warning?"

Pevan narrowed her eyes, flicked her gaze to each of the other women in turn. "That brings me to point two. I told you a month ago that Atla was ready for promotion. If he hadn't proved that already, he did so four nights ago. With Thia's Clearsight blinkered – forgive my saying so – he's your best chance of sensing them coming. He's the first soldier in your army." She stopped short of explaining what she knew of his altered Gift. There would be time to confront that later; this was a time to count blessings, not question them.

"That's for Bersh to decide." Wolpan folded her arms. On anyone else the gesture might have looked stern or serious, but here and now it gave the Four Knot the air of a snubbed child.

"Oh, come on." Pevan poured scorn into her tone, relishing the way Wolpan blanched. "I know you talked him out of it last time, and he knows Atla's ready. Are you this obstructive with all your trainees?"

She let Wolpan draw breath to speak, then cut her off again. "Atla promoted. We need his specialty either way, and it's only fair that we treat him as one of us if we're going to use him as such. And one last thing."

Wolpan waited. Pevan couldn't tell whether the woman was actually speechless yet, or just giving way this time.

She pushed harder. "I'm taking Chag with me when I go recruiting. I'll need his Witnessings to convince some people, I'm sure." Sweet smile, but with teeth showing. "And I wouldn't want you to have to waste manpower keeping him locked up, after all."

The Four Knot twitched, as if swallowing something large and only half-chewed. Out of the corner of her eye, Pevan thought she saw Marit and Thia exchanging a look, but she didn't want to risk taking her eye off Wolpan to try and read it.

When no further noise emerged from Wolpan, Pevan judged the matter settled. She turned to show Wolpan her shoulder and said, "Come on, Thia, I have some ideas I'd like you to try." The Clearseer followed crisply as she turned and marched away.

Atla stepped up to the dais opposite Wolpan. She had the good grace not to show him her usual sneer, though the gloom of the Warding Hall made her exact expression indistinct. Someone had supplied candles, but only enough for a couple of stands on the dais by the Stable Rods, leaving the Gifted in an isolated puddle of light.

Not that anyone else had turned out to stand in the darkness behind where Pevan and Thia stood. Apparently Vessit did not think the passing of a new Gifted an occasion worthy of celebration. Perhaps it was just lingering bad feeling from the previous week's disaster, or that Atla had few friends among the locals. Pevan gritted her teeth. The lad deserved better from the town he'd helped save.

Standing straight for once, he said, "I pledge my Gift to uphold and defend the Treaty of Peace. Let every creature of both Realms know that I stand for greater understanding, for the safety and for the harmony of all."

"I witness the oath of Atla Colber, now Gifted of Vessit." Wolpan's attention seemed to be on a point just past Atla's shoulder.

Chag, poised to one side of the dais where he could see both faces, straightened up. "Witnessed." The fixed quality lent by his Gift faded from his expression as he spoke. Since no Gift-Giver was on hand to attend the ceremony, Chag's Witnessing would be presented later as surety. Possibly Wolpan's awkwardness was just the Four Knot trying to pretend she wasn't standing quite so close to the man.

He looked over at Pevan as she, along with the other Gifted, said their own, "Witnessed." Pevan managed to keep her sigh turned inward. She still hadn't spoken to Chag since their row three days before, though Thia had told him he'd be accompanying her recruiting drive. Pevan hadn't seen the Clearseer's romantic streak coming. It would be interesting to see how Rel would react when Thia turned her full attention on him.

If he ever returned. Pevan dodged Chag's gaze, broke out of the frozen moment by stepping forward and clasping Atla's shoulder. He turned, and she wrapped him in the warmest hug she could muster. "Congratulations, kid."

"Th-thank you." His stutter made her roll her eyes for a moment, until the thought hit that it might be more because of how tightly she was squeezing him than his usual awkwardness. She released him and stepped back, only to be replaced by Thia. If anything, the Clearseer's embrace was even tighter. Pevan couldn't help a chuckle at the sight of Atla's half-strangled expression.

Bersh was next, offering the lad a handshake and a clap on the shoulder that forced him in to a half-step sideways. The big man's voice seemed needlessly vast in the rumbling, resonant Hall as he said, "Well done. You've the makings of a great Guide and it's been my pride to train you." He paused, spread his arms slightly. When he spoke again, it was to the whole squad. "It's good to have something turn out well, isn't it?"

"Damn right." Marit stepped around Bersh's bulk and gathered Atla into her arms like a mother welcoming home a proud toddler. Wolpan appeared at her elbow and ruffled the lad's hair, the vaguest hint of a smile on her face for all that she studiously avoided looking at Pevan.

Behind the Four Knot, Chag was moving, edging around the back of the group. Skulking as usual. He sidled all the way round and up to Pevan, and was about to speak when she hissed, "Aren't you going to congratulate the man of the hour?"

"Wha-" He caught himself, lowered his voice. "Don't we need to talk?"

Pevan rolled her eyes and sighed, making sure he caught the gesture. "This isn't the time." If he said anything more, the others would notice them talking and a conversation that needed to be as private as could be would become uncomfortably public. A glance out of the corner of her eye told her he wasn't going to shut up.

She took a step forward and slightly to the side, carefully putting her shoulder in front of him. "I hate to put a damper on much-needed happy news, but there's a war on, and if I'm to command here I'd like to have a word with our newest full comrade," – she shot Atla a smile to take the sting out of her intrusion, and he smiled back - "about what he brings to the team." She moved her attention to Thia. "Privately, if possible, please?"

For a miracle, the Clearseer took the hint and the others all followed her lead. Even Wolpan barely looked sour as she filed outside. Chag lingered, but Pevan shot him a glare that wilted him clean out of the Hall. She turned back to find Atla drawing himself up with a deep breath.

He swallowed noisily. "You're... worried about Caelni?"

"Worried?" She laughed. "I think Caelni has proved her- It is... well, does it identify as gendered?"

"I think of her as female." The lad's gaze turned inward for a moment. "She hasn't objected yet, though I guess... well, she might not understand too well."

"Either way, she's proved herself well and good." Pevan closed the gap between them and put her hands on his arms just below his shoulders. "This town owes a lot to your Gift right now. So do I, for Dora and what she means for Federas."

Atla's face twisted as if several different expressions were fighting over it. Predictably, he settled on uncertainty. "So... what's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong. Well, you might not think so when you hear what I have in store for you," she narrowed her eyes, just enough to appear mischievous. "You're a full Gifted now, and I intend to put you to work as such."

"What... uh, wh-what do you mean?"

She folded her arms and turned away, letting the atmosphere turn serious. "Were you actually awake at whatever godawful hour of the morning it was that you raised the alarm, or did your Gift wake you?"

"I woke up. Caelni was... thrashing about like mad." Atla looked down. "I think it was the most scared I've ever been. All I knew was that something had scared her that much."

"Did you feel Ashtenzim approaching, or was he already in the old city by then?"

The lad took a few seconds to answer. "I don't... remember being aware of any movement. But, uh, it was a while before I could tell exactly where he was."

"Hmmm." She'd been hoping for more than that. Was there some way Atla could hone this new skill without more incursions? "Well, anyway, until this is all over, you and I are going to be living in whatever habitable building in this town is nearest to the caves. When I'm not away rounding up this army, anyway. When I'm away... I guess it should be Marit. Maybe we should just move all the Gifted over thataway for now."

"You really... trust me with this?" Atla was almost exactly her height, but when he lifted his face and met her eyes she felt she was looking down at a knee-high and particularly eager puppy.

"It worked once." She smiled. "Your Caelni might be the biggest blessing we have in what's to come."

Wolpan was waiting outside the Warding Hall. So, for that matter, was Chag, though he was loitering some way up the street. Pevan tried to take a surreptitious deep breath, steeling herself for confrontation. At least there was no way the two of them would come at her at once.

Atla excused himself with a mumble. The kid had always had a good sense for people, and the way the air had frozen would have tipped even Rel off that something was up. The daylight that had seemed so gently warming before the ceremony now felt watered-down and underwhelming.

But Wolpan's expression wasn't her usual one of contempt. Pevan watched her shoulders rise and fall in a slow sigh. Voice wistful, the Four Knot said, "I'm not happy about any of this, you know."

It was a funny way to offer an olive branch, but Pevan wasn't going to waste the opportunity. "About having your town turned into a battleground for the future of the Realm? Who would be?"

"I-" Emotions played across Wolpan's face. After a moment, they disappeared. "You understand that the protection of Vessit has always been my first priority."

"Of course." Pevan kept darker thoughts to herself. Had that been completely true, Wolpan would never have annoyed Dora enough for Rel to notice, but he'd said Dora held Wolpan in very low regard. "And I understand how I might have seemed a threat to that at times. When I first came here..."

Wolpan straightened, frowning. "Do you retain any sympathy for the Separatist cause?"

Where was she going with that? It was entirely possible that a woman in Wolpan's position might start to wonder about a world without Wildren. Equally, she might just be questioning Pevan's loyalty. Not knowing which made the question a minefield.

Still, Pevan knew where she herself stood. "I was misled. I was more bothered about understanding what Chag was up to, so I didn't ask some questions that I should have. Wildren might not be able to lie, but they can sure as hell leave things unsaid when they want to."

"A lot of misery came to Vessit because of that lapse."

Pevan held her nerve, forced herself into something resembling a grin. "Without wanting to nitpick, most of the misery was Rel's doing, and that was between him and the Gift-Givers. It's true that the Separatists wanted him released, but if they'd had their way we'd have been miles away by the time the second quake hit."

"Is that any better from where you stand?" Wolpan's sniff suggested she thought otherwise.

"I'm not my brother." This was the crux of it, really. Vessit's Four Knot was big on guilt by association. "And for all that he's an excellent Gifted, you and yours aren't the only ones to have suffered from his mistakes. I've spent my entire adult life trying to fix problems he caused." She narrowed her eyes. "That's not a cause I intend to lay down for your peace of mind or anyone else's."

Wolpan waited a long moment before replying. "And Van Raighan?"

"Is an idiot, but I'm working on him too." Had the Four Knot really had such little faith in her? "Look, Wolpan, the one thing all four of us have in common, you, me, Chag and Rel, is that every decision we've made, everything we've done, we've done because we thought it was in the best interests of the Realm. Of our people and the Treaty."

"Even Af?" Wolpan pitched the question sharply, but not as sharply as it could have been pitched.

"I think there's a lot more story there than anyone yet knows. Even Chag, maybe even the Separatists." How to put it best? Pevan closed her eyes for a moment. "Chag will be living with that question all his life, however long that is. I've watched him sleep often enough to know how much it haunts him."

When she opened her eyes, it was to an expression on the Four Knot's face that she'd never seen before. Normally Wolpan looked at Pevan as if she'd just bitten into a whole lemon, but now her cheeks were flat, her forehead free of wrinkles. Her eyes seemed wider, too. She said, "Do you love him?"

There was something unsettling about the other woman's curiosity. Pevan shrugged. "He's earned the chance to win me over. I don't really expect anyone else to feel the same way, but in this of all things I'm not going to answer to anyone but myself." It wasn't anyone's business, anyway. There was nothing wrong with Chag as a match for her, if she chose to live in the shadow of his past.

"I envy your determination." Wolpan spoke quietly, turning away as she did so. Pevan found herself craning her neck, trying to get another look at the Four Knot's face. Why did she sound so sad, so suddenly? When she spoke again, the emotion had vanished. "You'll understand if I find it difficult to forget how you first came here, I hope. But I will trust my Gifted to you, and I will back your decisions when the Separatists come. Even I never questioned the competence of Federas' Gifted."

Which was false and slightly self-serving, but Pevan could let it slide. Had let worse slide, she had to admit, in people she knew and liked better. "I never asked you to like me. I don't even want you to agree with me all the time. If we do this right, we hardly need tread on each others' toes at all."

"Marit said I'd underestimated you." Wolpan turned back, arms folded, a frozen twitch at the corner of her mouth which might have been the start of a smile. "I'm sorry for that, at least."

"Heh. I'm sorry I lapsed long enough to set a bad first impression." Pevan glanced over the other woman's shoulder. Chag was still waiting there, and she really wasn't ready to deal with him. She turned to show him her back, putting herself alongside Wolpan. "Anyway, I want to station Atla as close to the old city as possible, give him whatever edge we can in detecting the Separatists. Do you have a minute to help me choose a spot?" The Four Knot nodded and linked Pevan's arm through her own. "Good idea. I'm sure we can arrange something."

* * *

Next episode

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Things that confuse me: clothing

How and why do you choose what to wear? I don't pretend much interest in fashion, but I'm weirdly obsessed with this question. I think I've blogged about it before in the context of a discussion about gender, but this time I want to tackle it in as gender-neutral a way as possible, because it's still interesting to me independently of any of the things that make the topic an important part of gender discourse.

It took me a long time to go from asking the general question (normally as a writer, when trying to work out what my characters would have on in a particular scene) to examining my own process of getting dressed in the morning. Not being a morning person in the slightest, getting dressed passes in something of a haze for me at the best of times, so looking back at it isn't very productive. I'm sure I do actually make decisions of some kind, but I'm not sure what they involve. It feels like there's a logic there that just doesn't translate into the fully-awake world.

I'm a little bit limited in this regard, too, by the fact that I don't own a terribly wide choice of clothing. This is partly laziness, partly having other things I'd rather spend money on, and partly cowardice. Some years ago, I figured out a way to look more-or-less acceptable across a wide range of situations (including at work at both my jobs and in pretty much any social situation I'd actually like to be in), and haven't really dared push that envelope ever since. My choices in the morning tend to come down to more or less which colour shirt to wear (dark red, dark purple, or black), and what's in the wardrobe rather than the laundry basket.

But even within that, there are some choices. I have a couple of 'lucky' t-shirts, for example. There's no statistical evidence that either of them is actually lucky, but something in the primitive hindquarters of my brain does push me to wear them on any day where I'm worried about some big event or other. Whether I wear a shirt that needs to be tucked in (and thus look a bit more grown-up and square) or one that can be worn loose (which is scruffier and - I dare to hope - a little bit louche) is another.

And clearly there's a world of choice that I'm completely disconnected from. There's a whole industry built up around providing choice (or arguably the illusion of it) in what to wear. Many people I know will change outfits multiple times in a day, sometimes for purely aesthetic reasons - one outfit for lazing around at home, one for going to classes, then another for going out in the evening - and if it seems weird to you that I'm surprised by this, you have some idea of how perplexed I am by the whole thing.

I'm not so much talking about choices that are set by social rules or norms - even I can manage to wear a suit for a wedding (though give me the slightest chance to get away without doing so and I'll take it...). It's any time where you can choose what you look like - what do you think about? Is it more about how you think other people will see you? Do you try to imitate a particular style? What, if anything, are you conscious of as factors in the decision?

I'd ask if I'm over-thinking this, but I think at this point that's a given...