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."

* * *

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