Logic and Reasons
2. Mother of Fate
Rel let himself fall through the Gateway. Rissad's offer to take him to Dora was better than being stranded in the future without any allies at all. Maybe even if it couldn't be trusted. He rose into the gloom on the other side, landed neatly, and instantly recognised the place.
High above, the bare rock walls vaulted together into a cave ceiling that put even the grandeur of the Court to shame. The Abyss gaped below, dropping away into darkness that barely covered the Realmlessness to which it eventually opened. Sounds of falling water still whispered in the air, but more distantly than Rel remembered.
Other differences were more apparent; huge electric lights, some a good couple of feet across, threw their eye-stinging beams hopelessly across the chasm. Even with trickles of moisture glinting from the rocks on the far side, the gloom swallowed all the light eventually. The cave felt dark.
He'd seen the changes to the old Sherim chamber, what had been a research facility before the Realmcrash, on arrival in this time, but somehow, from this angle, they seemed more stark. The Sherim had been a tangled mess of gantries and stairways, but now there were just two straight staircases up to a single platform. Up there, the air twisted with the Sherim, but Rel was able to blink and free his eyes easily enough.
Rissad's feet tapped gently on the floor as he landed from the Gateway. Rel turned to face him, found him smiling. He said, "Care to take another look over the edge, for old times' sake?"
The first time Rel had met Rissad here, the other man had tricked him into looking down into the Abyss with his Gift. He'd taken an unguarded eyeful of the Realmlessness, had almost fallen in from the effect. "I don't see how that's going to help."
"I do actually have something new to show you down there," Rissad shrugged. "But I understand if you're a little short on patience right now."
"When is he not?" Dora's voice rang from the stone walls. Rel spun to face the Abyss, trying to locate her. Last he'd seen her, she'd been a phantom trapped in the chasm, somehow holding the Realm together where it was closest to tearing apart. It took Clearsight to make her properly visible. He reached for his Gift-
Rissad snapped his fingers in front of Rel's face, forcing him to blink. The leading edge of cold that was the beginning of Clearsight melted from his eyes. Rissad said, "Don't. It's rude, remember? And you're looking the wrong way anyway."
Frowning, Rel turned. Dora stood in the mouth of the Sherim chamber, wearing her green Four Knot's robe, her hair a haystack whose outflung wisps shone in the harsh light. It was hard to make out her face through the glare, but he could picture it well enough from her voice. She'd be frowning, but ever-so-slightly lopsidedly, just enough to let him know she was glad to see him.
"Hello, my love." She began to walk forwards, slowly as if treasuring each step. Her greeting stumped Rel for a moment, until she stopped at Rissad's side and he realised she hadn't been addressing him.
Then she did, and even the way her eyebrows lowered, just fractionally, as she opened her mouth made him cringe. "Did you even think to ask what Fate's plan was before storming out?"
"I-" Rel spluttered. The feeling was almost reassuring, like being back in Federas before everything.
And, yes, there was Dora's eye-roll. "I could bring you round to it with just a few statistics."
"Go on, then." Despite himself, he could hear his own stubbornness. Which Dora would call sullenness.
"We have a tenth as many civilian deaths as in your time." Her pause was to make sure he noticed your in place of our. "Despite twice the civilian population and four times the Realmspace."
"That's what Rissad wanted to show you in the Abyss. Maybe you should take a look, actually." She waited for his silent stillness to refuse, then softened a little. "We're rebuilding the Realm, Rel. Back to how it was before the Realmcrash. Most of the rest of the Realm wasn't destroyed, just... put out of our reach."
"So how are you..." He started to ask, then answered, "The Threekin."
Dora gave him a raised eyebrow, her surprise a subtle compliment. "My children." Then she smiled, looking down and a little inward. "The product of what I learned holding the Realm together."
He remembered how she'd looked, tangled through the Sherim to the Lost Realm, hanging from the chasm walls by ropes of Wild Power. What was she getting at? There'd be a lesson for him in everything she said, or she'd be saying nothing at all. And the way she'd brought up the numbers... "What's the problem with the casualty rate?"
"It's not why I'm willing to work with Fate." Dora folded her arms. "The same goes for most Gifted these days."
"We swore to protect the civilians." Rel matched her stance, wondering how the Treaty might have changed in three centuries.
"And we do, but they hardly know it anymore." In Dora's eyes, the caught glimmer of the electric lights hardened. "Twenty million of them in the bay coast area alone, and most of them have never seen a Wilder. They wonder why they have to support us, equip us, feed us, when we do so little for them that they can see."
He knew that tone of voice, too; the one he usually only heard after she'd had a row with Federas' Sheriff. If everyone in this new Vessit was like Pollack... Rel wished he couldn't believe it, but even in Federas, where Gifted died every year, where there were incursions every couple of months, Pollack wasn't the only one. Not by a long chalk.
"This is a phase." Rissad cut in before Rel could say anything that would compromise his oath. Gaunt though he was, almost skeletal in the harsh lighting, the elder Van Raighan spoke with deep conviction. "A necessary one, like the Realmwar, like our time. Each step better, safer, more comfortable than the last. Someday there will be enough Gifted and Threekin to build actual understanding between our kinds."
"Can we ever understand each other?" Rel folded his arms. "I mean, First-Realm logic and Second are incompatible, aren't they?"
"Can you understand someone who knows that a hundred Gifted die every year to defend him, and still says we're not needed anymore?" The sting in Dora's voice cut through the sound of the distant waterfall and rang back from the Abyss. "Who scorns memorial services and wants us 'put to work'?"
"Put to work?" He almost choked on the words.
"Just like how Pollack used to use you." Dora might as well have spat the Sheriff's name onto the ground. "Would you rather work with Taslin or Notia?"
Dora's face shifted as she took a deep breath, as if she was inhaling all the anger from the air. "You told me... Well, you haven't told me yet, for you, and don't forget to when you get back, but in my past you've told me about going to the Court with Taslin after Vessit. Working with her and the Gift-Givers to thwart the Separatists when they came for Pevan and Chag."
The fraught journey had taken the better part of a day, and he'd arrived in the Court so fatigued that he'd had to sleep, with Taslin protecting his wandering, dreaming mind from the vicissitudes of the Second Realm. He shuddered to think about it now, the sore on his gum pulsing. But for three days after that, they'd rushed through frantic meetings, manoeuvring the burden of Rel's guilt to make it possible, so he thought, to save Dora.
Then the Separatists had kidnapped Taslin, striking into the heart of the Court. Only Fate's intervention had rescued Rel and Pevan. Their own attempt to rescue Taslin had led to the shambles at Ilbertin. Dora's freedom had been left to others, because of what Taslin had tried... Rel tried to forget the feeling of her lips on his.
"You work that well with me." Dora took a step closer, lifted her hand to Rel's cheek. Her touch sent tingling waves through him, and he had to stiffen up completely so as not to squirm. What was Rissad thinking about this? "And me only, until now. That was enough for the longest time to mean that we'd..." She looked down, hand pulling back half-way. "I still think of it as breeding, not love, when I think about those times. Our training didn't give us a lot of chance to learn the difference."
Rel thought about bringing up Pevan's love life, but decided against it. "What are you saying? That I love Taslin?" Dora wouldn't joke about something like that, wouldn't see it as funny at all. And her tone made it clear that she had no problem with the idea. Why didn't she find it repugnant? It could be something to do with her Gifts, her transformation into... whatever she was now, but she didn't seem changed.
This was the Dora he knew, who'd trained him, who'd guided him through his first encounters with the Second Realm, and pulled him back when misfortune or his own foolishness had tried to strand him there. She was more herself than the erratic, unpredictable creature she'd been between receiving her second Gift and taking up station in the Abyss. Her frustration with Federas' idiot Sheriff and civilians had apparently endured three centuries intact.
"I'm saying that you're closer to Wildren, less human, than you think." She took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes, her face plain, but hard. "You're uncomfortable with Threekin because you think humans and Wildren shouldn't mix too closely. You want them to be two completely separate things, with clear lines between them. You on one side, Taslin on the other.
"But you're already part-way across that line, and so is Taslin. So is everyone, who isn't a Separatist. You, of all people, probably communicate better with Taslin than you would with any ordinary human." The emphasis dripped scorn. "It doesn't matter what kind of animal you are, Rel. It matters what kind of person you are."
Dora paused, stepped back towards Rissad, slipped her hand into his. Her voice settled into a teaching mode. "There are two things that a Wilder can feel, two emotions, which a human can also feel. Two things in our entire logical and conceptual framework that match exactly. One is fear. Can you guess what the other is?"
He didn't need to, but the lump in his throat made saying it difficult. He managed, "Go on."
For once, she didn't roll her eyes at his awkwardness. "They call it loyalty, the bond between two people that goes beyond duty. But what they mean is love. We're lucky, really. If the first Gift-Givers, back during the Realmwar, hadn't spotted that, we'd only have had fear to go on." Dora scowled, the expression that always made Rel feel like he had a couple of spears through his chest. "That's what drove Ashtenzim to kidnap Taslin, what drove Soan at Ilbertin, what drove Chag when he joined the Separatists. And it's what drove you at Vessit."
There was no denying that.
"Act out of love, Rel." Dora's face softened again, and again there was that small, contented smile. "You've done more than enough out of fear."
He stood, staring blankly at her. His mind felt like a wall, plain stone smoothly finished, featureless. What happened now? All the shivers and nausea were gone from his body. Unsure if Dora or Rissad wanted anything more from him, he waited. There didn't seem to be much to say. An apology at this point would be trite to the point of insult.
Finally, Dora looked up at Rissad. "Fate will smooth things over with Bayliss. You two should head back."
Rissad kissed her on the forehead. "I'll see you again before we go back."
"And after." Dora's eyes sparkled.
Disengaging his hand from hers, Rissad waved a Gateway into existence. Dreary daylight fountained in. To Rel, he said, "Come on, we've still got to stop the Separatists, and get Dora out of the Abyss in the first place."
That, at least, Rel could get behind. He nodded. Turned to Dora to say... something? But she just smiled and waved him on. He jumped through the Gate without looking to see where it was taking him.
A curtain of fine, clear rain smothered his face for a moment, and he wiped his eyes before looking around. He was in the street outside the safe-house, or at least a street very like that one. It was patterned after the streets in the old pre-crash city, a wide strip of black tarmac with paved walkways along either side. The few people out walking seemed to stick to the walkways, but there was nothing visible to explain why.
There were funny looks from a couple of passersby as Rissad emerged from the Gateway to stand beside Rel. Well, they'd been warned against using their Gifts, and Gateways were pretty conspicuous. No-one actually raised a complaint.
Rissad walked over to the safe-house and tried the door. The handle didn't turn. He muttered something under his breath and turned to Rel. "I'd hoped Bayliss would come here. I don't fancy trying to get back into that other place, do you?"
Before Rel could shake his head, there was a clunk from the door, and it opened. Imtaz stood in the opening, his face blank. "Come on in, before you make yourselves any more visible."
"We went to see the Abyss, that's all." Rissad did as bidden, though. The house's entrance hall was gloomy, not much warmer than outside, though at least it was dry.
"Bayliss would have been here, but she's in a meeting." Imtaz led them into a back room. There were couches along two adjacent walls, a long way from what looked to be a fake fireplace in the third. Imtaz went on, "It was hard enough to schedule breakfast."
Effort that Rel had put to waste. Feeling a moment's sudden chill, he asked, "Are the guards unharmed?"
"Bumps and bruises." The Guide didn't sound angry. "Your control does you credit."
"Control would have been not attacking them in the first place." Rel shrugged awkwardly. "Please pass on my apologies."
"It's hardly your fault. Bayliss pressed her call button out of reflex when you stormed out." Imtaz folded his arms. "She hadn't done that, they wouldn't have been in your way at all. She sends her apologies for that."
"Call button?" The phrase meant nothing to Rel.
Imtaz gave a short, low chuckle of chagrin, then ran a hand through his thinning hair. "Sorry, it's easy to forget how different your time is. She carries a device that allows her to summon her bodyguards, if there's an emergency or a sudden threat to her."
"Oh, something electrical?" Rel frowned. "I didn't know electricity could carry messages."
"Now's probably not the time for a science lesson." There was a grin in Rissad's voice, but when Rel threw a sideways glance at him, the Gatemaker's face was dead straight. "So, we're all square? Everyone forgives everyone?"
"Yes. There's still the matter of Fate's plan, though." A frown appeared on Imtaz' craggy face as he turned back to Rel. "Fate seemed to think you would come around. Is there anything we can say to convince you?"
Rel took a deep breath, looked away. "I don't know what to think. You and Bayliss and Tem... Temuiran-Mebo, you all have a lot invested in this. And I don't trust Fate, I never have."
"Few do." Imtaz' voice was almost a growl. "The way he explains it, his plan relies on keeping us in the dark, so that we do what comes naturally to us rather than worrying about following a script. He springs too many surprises on us all. But I do trust his underlying motivation. He's available, if you'd like to speak with him again. Tembo, too."
"Do I have to decide now?" Rel still didn't want to meet the Guide's eyes. Did it matter when he made up his mind? They could leave this future at any point and return to the time they left, or at least so Rissad had said.
"Fate insists your participation is important, but I understand he also doesn't want you spending too long with us before going back." Imtaz' scowl slackened slightly. "He may decide to press on without you if you wait too long."
"I still don't know what he actually wants me to do."
"We're going to take a couple of Threekin back to Vessit." Rissad cut in. "To get Dora out of the Abyss. And to help against the Separatists, I guess."
"Only two?" Would they make any difference at all? Dora's release was a worthy goal, and it didn't seem like much of a commitment to any grand scheme.
"Don't underestimate what Threekin can do." Rissad's smile was humourless. "I don't want you to have any misconceptions, either. When we go back, when we get Dora free, we'll be fulfilling the next step of Fate's design. That design leads to this future."
Rel whistled through his broken tooth. At least Rissad was being forthright. "Give me some time. I want to talk to Taslin."
Rissad cleared his throat, raised an eyebrow. "Not sure I believed you'd ever say that again."
"She asked to be shown around the city," Imtaz offered. "I imagine she'll be back here later."
"No clever device to track where she is now?" All of Rissad's lazy southern drawl came back in the question.
"Tracking one Gift-Giver in this city is a little bit beyond me." Imtaz matched Rissad's sardonic tone. "If you want a tour yourselves, I can set something up."
Rel looked out the window. "In this weather?"
"Do you have a better idea for killing the time?" Rissad barely looked at him before turning back to Imtaz. "Can we get something to eat along the way?"
It had been perhaps an hour since breakfast. Rel said, "You go ahead if you want. I'm going to stay here, I've got a lot of thinking to do."
"Suit yourself. See you later." Rissad gestured for Imtaz to precede him out.
Rel sat alone in the dreary back room for a long time before Taslin returned. He heard her say something to someone outside, but she came in alone. Her black robe was gone, replaced by clothes presumably cut to fit this future; the fabrics were too fine to have come from Rel's time. Her skirt hugged the tops of her knees, but seemed to stretch with her step. Her colours looked washed-out, grey and navy instead of silver and purple, except for her cherry hair, now tied up in some complex clip.
Though she hadn't hesitated between entering the house and the back room – had Rissad told her Rel wanted to see her? – she paused on the threshold. Rel struggled to start the conversation, eventually settled for waving a hand at the other couch. Where a less-gifted Wilder, even a lesser Gift-Giver, might have struggled to interpret the gesture, Taslin went straight to the indicated seat and perched primly on the front edge of it.
Rel hauled himself up out of his slouch. There were so many things to talk about, the avalanche of thought overwhelmed him. Olark-Sura's questions vied with Fate's plans; memories of Dora fought the lurking spectre of Ilbertin. He let his gaze fall away from Taslin, down into his lap where his hands twisted together of their own accord.
"I find this future as bewildering as you do." Taslin's voice was quiet. When Rel didn't look up, she went on, "I know you dislike my reading your emotions, but sometimes they are impossible to ignore."
Confusion wasn't the half of it, though. He couldn't even figure out what to be confused about. Searching for an anchor, he found Olark-Sura's arguments rising to the surface. "The Threekin I met, Olar- uh, Oz, said that more Wildren die in human incursions to your Realm than humans to Wildren. In our time, I mean."
"I think you must have misunderstood." For a moment, Taslin's air of contemplation persisted, but when she spoke again her tone was crisp and clear. As if she was relieved to be on familiar ground. "Humans make very few incursions into our Realm, unless one counts trips to the Court. While it is true that feral and sub-sentient Children of the Wild are sometimes killed by Gifted travelling to and from the Court, this is generally either by accident or because those killed attacked Gifted who had been trained to defend themselves."
"So Olark-Sura was wrong?" Rel looked up, frowning.
"As I said, I think you must have misunderstood." There was no hint in Taslin's face of her true, inhuman nature. Only the impossible colour of her hair tested her illusion. "It is true that more Children of the Wild are killed by incursions into our Realm when one includes non-human incursions."
"Yes. Common animals living in the areas near Sherim often stray into our Realm. Since their minds tend to consist of little more than basic need-fulfilment desires, they manifest in the Second Realm as concentrated bursts of hunger, fear or sometimes lust. These are profoundly dangerous to my kind, though in the final analysis the casualty figures can partly be attributed to poorer organisation of defences on our side."
"Common animals... you mean sheep and things?" No farmer in Federas let his sheep graze near the Sherim.
"It's rare for a domesticated animal to stray that far." Taslin leaned forward. "But wild crows, field-mice, squirrels and so on – these are the Wildhawks, Lentu, and Reknarf of your Realm."
It had been a pack of Lentu which had killed Marba and Seff, both of them strong Gifted honed by years of service in Federas. How could a squirrel be that dangerous? "How do they even get across the Sherim?"
"The difficulty of crossing a Sherim is proportional to the complexity of the mind making the crossing." Though her tone hadn't changed, there was something maddening in the way Taslin held her calm. "Full sophonts such as ourselves have far more internal barriers to break down. Feral creatures, those without advanced consciousness, may not even notice the transition. This is why most incursions into your Realm are by creatures which are harmless to my kind."
"What about Ragehounds? And that Axtli?" Temmer and Dieni had earned their reputations as the First Realm's greatest defenders by killing a Ragehound that had threatened Federas. It had taken them four days, and cost the lives of two – only two – of their then-comrades. Rel had been eleven, confined indoors like every other child in Federas for the whole incursion. And when he and Taslin had encountered the Axtli, it had been her fear which had warned him just how dangerous it was.
"Your wolves make a good analogy for Ragehounds. An unarmed human who happened to draw the aggression of a wolf would be unlikely to survive unharmed. Wolves remain a significant problem for the defence of my Realm. At least Ragehounds never travel in packs." Taslin took a deep breath, or at least made a show of doing so. Rel let it cover a shudder. A pack of Ragehounds?
"As for Axtli," Taslin went on, "we believed them extinct. None of their natural habitats survived the Realmcrash. In that, and in the danger they present to my kind, they are like your lions or elephants."
"Where did it come from, then?"
"There are lions caged on display here, in this time. Live lions." Taslin's artificial smile patronised Rel. "Recovered at considerable expense and risk from areas of the First Realm that the Threekin have opened up. I imagine that what happened with our Axtli was that Dora's Sherim made contact with a region of the Second Realm folded away from the part we know, a region still populated by Axtli. We were very lucky indeed to defeat it."
Rel thought of the dead sheep strewn across the field around the ruined croft where they'd slept that night. The Axtli had consumed the head of every animal. Squeezing each word past a strangle-tight throat, he whispered, "Is it like that every time a wolf strays into your Realm?" Let her read his mind if she didn't know what he was talking about.
At last, Taslin let some emotion show, her edged tone cracking as she said, "Not every time. If a whole pack crosses, it can be much worse."
"Why don't you tell us?" The question exploded out of him, but he was too hoarse to shout. It came out as an awkward, squeaking gasp. He'd lived his life on the belief that Wildren had the better of the Realmcrash. How might he have seen things differently at Vessit if he'd known... this? Fate's glare came back to him; he couldn't excuse his fear with ignorance. But things would have been different.
"Fear." Taslin drew a shaky breath. Nothing of the lecture remained in her tone, and Rel found himself wondering just how much control she had over the appearance she presented. "Fear of how you would react to the knowledge. Fear of what you might do if you perceived weakness in us. That's not just mistrust, I promise; we also feared that you might lose faith in our value as allies."
"So you lied." Except that Wildren couldn't lie outright. Rel's jaw clenched, but he forced it loose. "Or misled us, anyway. To keep us afraid of you."
"We were never asked." Now Taslin's voice shrank, sadly. "Some of us – many, over time – wished you would ask. Just as with our age, your kind have a strange tendency to assume our vast superiority in power. There have been many times when we prayed for your aid in the defence of our Realm, and it never occurred to you we might need it."
"Because you never told us!" Rel pushed to his feet, went to stand at the window. Outside, a silent, silver curtain of rain fell across the uninspired garden. He leant on the windowsill, leaning forward until his breath fogged the glass. Up close, he seemed to have two reflections, and it took him a moment to work out that there were two panes of glass, back to back, in the plastic frame. What was that supposed to achieve?
In reflection, his eyes were distorted, his eyelids baggy, his cheeks hollow. He looked almost as bad as Rissad had since his ill-ministered captivity at Vessit. Speaking as much to the world outside as to Taslin, he said, "If we don't know, we can only fear. You can't expect us to trust you when we're still as lost as this."
"After everything you've learned, do you really still believe we're any less lost?"
"You act less lost!" Rel drove his fist into the windowsill and regretted it. Flecks of his spittle beaded the glass. "Every time you come to us, you talk as if you know everything, as if you're holding all the cards. And I know that's an appearance you control, you've said as much yourself. What do we have to go on, except what you show us?"
"And do you not also put on a brave face when you come to visit the Court?" While he'd been shouting, Taslin must have stood and crossed the room. Her voice came from not far behind him. "If you could see as a Wilder sees, you would see much deeper."
"Well, I can't." A heated breath did nothing to carry away Rel's anger. He let bitterness take hold. "I guess there's no point trying, then, since there's no way we can ever actually understand one another."
"That's one thing we never created any deception over." Taslin's tone stiffened. "From the very first negotiations that led to the Treaty of Peace, we said it openly, and as often as possible. There are too few points of contact between your logic and mine for true understanding to flourish."
"Fear and love aren't much to go on, huh?" In the Second Realm, where words took form, Rel's would have dripped from his mouth like poison.
"Fear we understand all too well. The deep personal bonds that we call loyalty and you call love are altogether more complicated." Taslin paused. When she spoke again, it was with a wise old smile in her tone. "But neither fear nor love directly appears, in your Realm or mine. Go beyond what you can see, in me and my kind just as you do with your own kind."
He didn't look at her. "I'm a Seer, in case you'd forgotten."
"You're more than your Gift." Her failure to sound stern, to scold him with his own blindness, wrapped a fist around his heart. Her voice stayed gentle, impossibly tender. "You existed before it, and that person is still a part of you."
Was it, really? He could barely remember his life before his Gift, except for the terrifying days when Wildren threatened Federas. He remembered every incursion, could list the Gifted who'd gone in defence, and those who had come back lifeless, or not come back at all. "What am I, then, besides the Clearseer of Federas?"
"There is, or there will be, more to your life than this war." Her hand settled on his back, just behind his shoulder. "And you'll have to work that out for yourself. I can only tell you what I've seen of Rel the soldier, all the parts of Rel the Gifted that you can't have got from your Gift."
He turned, hoping to dislodge her hand. It fell away, and he shivered, suddenly cold. The contact had warmed him, just slightly. Now he had to face Taslin in isolation. Her futuristic outfit was gone; in its place, she wore a violet gown much like the one she'd worn when he'd first seen her, leading Dora to the Second Realm to receive her second Gift.
Now as then, the Gift-Giver seemed pasted on top of reality, the purple of her dress and the red of her hair too bright, too crisp to be real. Amethysts glowed in her eyes. Her skin was pale, as smooth as the glass at his back, except that he knew if he touched it it would be soft and forgiving, not brittle or fragile. Tiny jewels studded her bodice, a star-map of the body underneath.
Voice a strangled whisper, Rel said, "What do you see in me?"
"Just as you, in the Second Realm, are not blinded by the familiar, by patterns of appearances, so it is with me in your Realm. What you think of as my reading your mind is really just how I see." She paused, and Rel let her eyes bore into him, let her see into him. "When you held back the Axtli with raw will and bare hands, when you fought Keshnu, believing you fought for the fate of the Realm, when you defeated my captors at Ilbertin without drawing a drop of blood, I saw the naked determination to do right, whatever the personal cost.
"When you do not feel lost – when you do not let confusion distract you, even if perhaps sometimes it should – when you act from conviction, it is never hubris, nor hateful prejudgement. When you fight, your only motive is your belief that in doing so you defend." She lifted one porcelain-fine hand to his cheek, brushed her fingertips up towards his ear. "It is the value you place on the life and safety of others that drives you. How could I not wish to be valued so highly?"
Tingling waves of warmth rushed out from her touch, all through his body until he could barely hold himself steady. His head reeled. Taslin stepped forwards out of the world as if it were a faded painting. Her hands slid around the back of his head; he found his at her waist. The fabric of her dress shimmered to his touch just as it did to the light.
Her lips came up to his, strong, warm and dry. He could barely see, felt as if he was drunk or crying, or both. Closing his eyes, he pulled her closer, filling himself with heat borrowed from her body. His skin felt cold only where furthest from her touch.
The... the rightness of it crested, his arms unclenching just enough to allow her to pull back. Their faces were perhaps two inches apart; he could have counted every pore on her cheeks, or the microscopic facets of her jewelled irises. For all that, he could not read the expression on her face. How did he look to her?
Taslin's breath tickled his lips as she whispered, "We won't have to hide it forever."
"For now, though..."
By tacit agreement, they sat apart until Rissad and Imtaz returned. They let Rissad sit between them, too, made him symbolically the leader of their delegation, at dinner that evening. There, Imtaz and Temuiran-Mebo introduced them to Sevitz-Anwar and Mag-Ridon, the Threekin who had been chosen for Dora's rescue. Keeping silent didn't help the tickling sensation at the base of Rel's spine that told him everyone around the table knew everything that had transpired during the afternoon, but there didn't seem to be any reason to say anything. Threekin could hardly claim any right to be disgusted by it, anyway.
Fate made no appearance at the meal, or later. Imtaz took them back to the safe-house and sat with them in the back room for a while, while their conversation quietly turned over the future and the past. At the Guide's urging they agreed to begin their return journey in the morning; he assured them the two Threekin were ready and eager to accompany them.
Time-lag and the previous night's poor sleep began to settle on Rel's brain as the discussion tailed off. He made his excuses and headed for his bedroom, heard Imtaz leave as he was getting ready for bed. Cold as the evening had been, he kept his trousers and shirt on, just leaving his coat and belt over the back of the chair.
He heard Rissad come upstairs, footsteps ghostly on the thick landing carpet. The Gatemaker seemed to move around a lot before finally falling silent. Rel lay, staring at the ceiling, time-lag a wet sandbag across his forehead.
Some minutes passed. Then, silently and darkly but in some way that he could still sense, the oval hole of a Gateway opened in the wall. Taslin stepped through. It occurred to Rel that if any other Gateway had opened into his bedroom, in any circumstance other than this, he would already be out of bed and leaping to attack. Here, he knew, there was no need.
She whispered, "This may be our last chance to be... close. For some time, at least."
Awkwardly, he pushed himself back against the wall to make room for her. "Until the end of the war, I guess."
"That could still be a long time." The covers lifted, and Taslin slipped in alongside him. She fitted herself perfectly into the crook of his arm, her head on his shoulder. The fabric of her nightgown was almost as soft as the hair that tickled his chin.
Rel kissed her forehead. "If all else fails, we'll just get Rissad to bring us back here for a holiday. Time has a rather different meaning now."
He slept, deeply, and woke with an aching shoulder, his back still up against the wall. Taslin was gone, but the rumples in the sheet reassured him she'd been there. Imtaz was waiting when he went downstairs, to escort them back to the refectory for breakfast. Rel half-recognised the route, but the city's buildings were too much alike for him to feel like he knew where they were going. The locals seemed to cope, but he couldn't tell how.
No-one spoke very much over the meal; without the bustle of the previous evening, the food hall was too much the domain of silence. Morning at least revealed the intricate glasswork that made up its roof, more like something from the Court than ordinary First-Realm construction.
Taslin sat opposite Rel, wearing the plainest dress he'd ever seen her wear. Though still purple, the material was recognisably linen, and the cut would not have stood out among the housewives of Federas. He stole glances at her, noting the fine bones of her shoulders and the hidden curve of her sharp jaw. Just once, their eyes met, and in the shy half-smile she gave him, he saw she must have been stealing glances at him too.
At Imtaz' insistence, they returned to the safe-house before Rissad made a Gateway to the Abyss. The official entrance, he said, could not be accessed unobtrusively. His gruff parting words, "Good luck. I'd tell you to trust Fate's plan, but you're not fools," hovered at the back of Rel's mind as he followed Taslin through the Gate. Rissad came last, leaving Imtaz behind.
Dora, Fate and the two assigned Threekin were waiting on the other side. Rissad's Gate had brought them out actually inside the Sherim chamber, and though the enormous room ate light, there was enough left to make out faces. Without a hint of a smile, Dora said, "We'd better keep this quick. You would not believe how hard it was to keep everyone else away."
"Is there much to say?" Rel matched her, tone for remorseless tone.
She rolled her eyes at him. "To you? You know what you need to do, and the rest will be obvious when it comes." Then, to Taslin, she smiled, "Keep him out of trouble for me?"
"There's a first time for everything." Taslin didn't look round, but her fingers brushed the back of his hand, taking some of the sting out of her words. "I promise you this: I will take care of your kin."
Sevitz-Anwar seemed to take that as a signal. He moved from Dora's side to Rissad's, hesitating when Mag-Ridon didn't immediately join him. His awkward throat-clearing cough echoed, and he might have spoken but for Rissad putting a fatherly hand on his shoulder. Mag-Ridon picked up the cue, finally, and joined them, leaving Dora alone with Fate.
Even stood side-by-side, it was hard to see any resemblance. Fate wore his inhuman nature openly, his robe glowing faintly to complement the steady candleflame-burn of his eyes. He stood tall, stiff-faced and hawkish. Dora was small and drab by comparison, and yet the subtle hardness of her expression bore a wisdom that Fate could never aspire to.
His voice ringing back from the walls, Fate said, "You are leaving to begin a new chapter of history, for human and Child of the Wild alike. I cannot say much, of course, about what real fate has in store for you, but so long as you act out of courage, and the best interests of both Realms, you will not go astray."
Quietly, Dora said, "Ready to meet me for the first time?" It was only when Rissad chuckled that Rel understood the question. She finished, "Good luck. Remember everything you've learned."
With that, Rissad turned and led the way up the stairs to the Sherim. Dora and Fate watched them climb, but when Rel turned to wave from the gantry, they were walking back towards the Abyss.
The Sherim was unrecognisably altered from the one Rel had left his own time through. That one was tangled up with the walkways that accessed it, so that it had no clear boundary. Here and now, the Sherim was an unseen presence beside a gap in the catwalk's handrail. The divide between the First Realm and the Lost could not have been more stark.
Mag-Ridon cleared her throat. Rel looked at her, expecting her to speak, but all her attention was on the Sherim. Her eyes were bulging out, eyelids held wide and unblinking. A sympathetic chill went through the centre of Rel's skull. This was Threekin Clearsight at work. Sevitz-Anwar wore the same fixed expression.
Rel swallowed and reached for his Gift. The cold that claimed his eyeballs spread deeper into his head, more quickly, than he was used to. He could feel the surface of the Sherim swelling towards him, pulling him towards it as well.
As on the journey here, he could not see the Lost Realm, per se. But in some way he could sense its geometry, almost disappointingly simple and familiar except that it was a geometry of time, not space. Sight still told him about his companions, enough that he could almost understand Rissad's idiosyncratic, un-Gifted interface with the Sherim, but everything on the far side blurred into non-colour.
The two Threekin deferred to Rissad for the route, the discussion a tangle of overlapping sentences that covered more metaphysics than Rel could follow. He waited quietly with Taslin, the moment oddly private for how little attention came their way.
The move into the Sherim surprises him. It is like slipping slowly into deep, cold water, almost seeming to peel his skin away. His Gift spreading throughout his body, or perhaps replacing it. The Lost Realm's physics lock his body in place; this is not a Realm where physical motion is possible.
Drawing on memories that are suddenly tangibly available, Rel lets his awareness render the alien Realmspace as an array of boxes. These are individual moments, tightly packed in three dimensions, and every possibility is just a path through them.
Follow me. Rissad's instruction comes to Rel like one of his own thoughts assembling itself ready for speaking out loud. His reflexive attempt to inhale rams painfully against the restriction on physical movement, but he masters his panic. Rissad slides into an adjacent moment; Rel, balancing carefully to keep from spreading out into multiple paths, follows as bidden. The others move with him, though 'with' is a loose term, not meaning either physically next to or at the same time as.
Still, they find a comfortable pace. Rel manages to avoid trying to rationalise the journey in First-Realm terms, and their progress stays smooth. It is a far cry from the fear-edged tension of their first trip, where he had to spend every moment fighting his Gift's natural tendency to spread across multiple futures. He clamps down on the memory before it can draw him away from Rissad's route.
Counting the moments they passed through proved beyond him; his awareness stayed timeless. The interruption arrives when it arrives, with no way of telling how far they have come from their point of departure. His first thought is that it is like a tree, ancient and gnarled, that has somehow appeared in the middle of their road.
Seeing, or at least feeling-with-his-eyes, closer, Rel reevaluates. The obstruction has long and tangled roots, vast branches spreading out overhead, but its body is not a unified trunk. It is a braid, its roots the threads of a million pasts running up to now and then fraying out into futures above. Instincts welling up from Rel's Gift assign it colours of honey and pearl.
I am so very sorry. Rel's thought rises from the deep base of his mind in Fate's ostentatious tones. Before the spasm that seizes his diaphragm with the urge to speak can pass, the Lost Realm whirls away. Dizzying nausea overwhelms thought, and some impact slams the wind from him.
The first thing he took in when the nausea began to relent was that it was darkness filling his eyes, not the lightlessness of the Lost Realm. Then, coughing and a groan, neither of them his own. Beneath him, the floor was hard, cold concrete. A weak orange glow, with the unmistakable flicker of torchlight, revealed hints of the room he was in.
It was the Sherim chamber by the Abyss under Vessit. Exactly where they'd been aiming to end up. From the erratic, spiralling layout of the staircases and gantries above him, this was his own time, too. Moisture hung in the air, and the roar of a distant cataract rolled along the chasm outside.
Coughing a couple of times to reassure himself he wouldn't throw up, Rel said, "That was Fate, right?"
"Believe so," Rissad grunted. He'd managed to pull himself up to sitting, his pale skin catching just enough torchlight to reveal his position. "Everyone here?"
There were guttural sounds from both Threekin. Mag-Ridon was on her knees, one hand on the floor and the other wrapped around her belly. She had thrown up, the smell of it just now reaching Rel's nostrils. Sevitz-Anwar crawled to her side, put his hand on her shoulder.
Rel let himself flop onto his back and found himself looking up at Taslin. She was kneeling at his side, apparently untroubled by the rough transition. When she spoke, it was with crisp distaste. "If that was Fate, what was he doing?"
"Throwing us off our course." Sevitz-Anwar sounded as if he was still fighting off the effects of the attack. "I can't really judge how much by."
"That doesn't make sense." Puzzlement turned to anger as Rissad went on, "He taught me this route. If he wanted us to arrive in a different time, why not just give me a different route?"
"This looks like the Abyss we left." Rel pushed himself up to sitting, waved a hand at the spiralling Sherim. "Well, he did apologise, before whatever-it-was he did. I didn't imagine that?" Rissad rocked himself forward onto his feet and stood, waiting for a nod from the Threekin. "Nothing for it but to go find out when we are, I guess."
* * *