Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Second Realm 4.4: Catch Me When I Fall

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The Rabbit Hole

4. Catch Me When I Fall

Chag's head swam as he launched himself out into space. Below, the jagged shape of the Court blurred to a vague dark circle. Rushing air clawed at his hair, and his heart seized. Pevan's shout of joy still rang in his ears. His wings felt like twigs hung with paper. He could feel his feathers leaking air.

He flapped his arms, surprised as ever when they caught the weight of the sky below and pushed him upwards. That took the worst edge off his panic, though his blood was still cold where the wind ran through his plumage. Above, Pevan and the bright golden shape of Atla circled.

The Guide shone, sun-like. Chag had taken his show of nerves at the ledge for a shared fear of heights, but from the way he beat higher and then dipped again, that seemed unlikely. What had he been so afraid of? Pevan's admiration of his wings had seemed to cure him in an instant.

Scowling, his eyes stinging from the speed of his flight, Chag looked down again. Better to face the descent than worry about Pevan's feelings right now. At least his discomfort about the altitude couldn't last too long.

Held straight out like sails, his wings did the necessary work to hold him more or less steady. Already, there was no sign of the promontory from which they'd jumped, just miles of endless sky, roaring in his ears. He missed the insectoid flying technique he'd learned with the Separatists. Bugs flew by forgetting about gravity. Birds seemed to prefer knowing that they were flying.

But as an insect, it would have taken years to descend from this height. Chag flinched as Pevan dropped past him, what seemed only inches from his wingtip. The twitch that ran through him set him weaving in the air, and he barely missed the flashing shape of Atla as the Guide dived down over his other wing.

They levelled out maybe twenty feet below Chag, while he was still struggling to recover his stability. Lazily, the pair of them looped round a broad circle. Chag tried to imitate them, but he knew his path would be crooked and ugly. He could feel it in the way his feathers twisted in their sockets.

Rissad's voice drifted back to him out of time, warning him against thinking too much about the mechanics of a bird's flight. Let instinct do the work. Easy for him to say. He'd been a natural flier, quite apart from having a Gatemaker's gift for getting up very high very quickly.

Pevan rose on slow, strong wing-beats to level with him, her wingtips almost touching his. He managed not to twitch away, just. She laughed, the sound a spray of jewels that sparkled with caught reflections of Atla's plumage. Then she shook her head, let a ripple of motion pass along her wings. Trailing out behind and above her, her body looked as if it had been made for the air. Her coat and trousers clung to her, outlining the strength and toughness beneath.

Chag glared down at Atla. Granted, he was Pevan's age and Chag was a few years older, but the boy seemed so young when he stood - or flew - next to Pevan. Young and a bit dim, for all he clearly knew his Gift. And yet Pevan had offered him an easy, generous trust, gently encouraging him along the journey from Vessit and trusting their lives to him at the Gorhilt Sherim. She'd never been so kind to Chag.

Well, maybe the kid appealed to her maternal instincts, though Chag found it hard to reconcile any idea of motherhood with the fierce, proud woman he'd fallen for. As if to prove the point, she swooped down again, past Atla, close enough to scare him. He peeled away, lost altitude before some quick but undignified flapping stabilised him.

Pevan and the boy were getting uncomfortably far ahead. A slow descent was nice, but he didn't want to be doing it alone, not with Atla having warned that there were Wildren below. Gritting his teeth and wincing, Chag tipped himself forward into a dive. The air hardened and clawed at him, and his gut squirmed, but he forced himself to hold steady, arms - wings - thrown back to keep him stable.

From above, the light brought out the shimmering green in Pevan's plumage, rippling back and forth along her wings with every minor shift. Atla glowed, those of his feathers that actually were golden blazing bright enough to be painful to look at. The lad shook himself, and for a moment the highlights off his feathers dazzled Chag.

By the time he'd finished blinking, he was almost on top of Pevan. He wrenched himself sideways, into an ungainly spiral. Pevan's wild laughter pursued him as he dropped past her, fighting his wings back into something resembling flying order.

He began to level out, but a black-green streak whirled past, wind from her passage buffeting him, destabilising him. He had to give up, give in to the dive again. Atla, somewhere above, yelped in surprise, but there was nothing Chag could do about whatever troubled him. Below, Pevan showed no sign of slowing.

Shivers coursing through him, he gave grim chase. There were few advantages to his poor, ratty plumage, but the constant leakage of air through his feathers did give him the edge in speed. Pevan sacrificed some speed, too, throwing herself into a wild roll for, as far as Chag could tell, the sheer hell of it.

The gap closed while the black hexagon of the Court swelled ahead - easier to think of it as 'ahead' than 'below'. Pevan rolled again, giving Chag a glimpse of her face, wide-eyed and gape-mouthed. By the time she'd straightened out, back into the dive, he was alongside, looking past his shoulder at her, squinting one-eyed against the wind. She grinned at him, one eyebrow quirking in challenge.

He shook his head, scowling, but she stuck out her tongue and stretched herself out further, beginning to edge ahead again. Chag swore, the sound barely travelling fast enough to outrun them, but the only answer he got from Pevan was a laugh.

Atla's incandescent frame dropped past, wings folded all the way flat, almost wrapped around his body. The boy caught himself, violently, against the air just below them, and almost as quickly was lifted back out of view. There was another peal of laughter from Pevan - she sounded more like a bird of prey every time she opened her mouth - and she too unfurled her wings. The sky snatched her away like a yo-yo at the end of its string.

Chag cursed again and opened his wings. Fire burst along the tendons in his shoulders, a hot line of pain along his collarbones that left him gasping. It took long enough to stabilise his flight that his gut began to turn cartwheels. He looked around to find Pevan and Atla looping under and over each other as they dived in the opposite direction. The air, or at least the expectation of it, stung his cheeks.

Heeling over, he chased them downwards, biting back grumbles. At least they'd levelled out to muck around this time. He could take a shallower dive and still catch them. That freed him of the icy terror of head-first falling.

He gained easily, nursing the sullen weight of his own scowl, but he couldn't hang onto his displeasure long enough. After all, now that Atla wasn't getting left behind, what was there really to be angry about? It wasn't like he was anxious to get to the Court and its waiting confrontations. Was he just letting Pevan's easy camaraderie with the boy get under his skin? She couldn't really see anything in the green little snip, could she?

As he checked his approach, Pevan beat her wings a few times and rose clear of Atla's gyrations. The lad took a while to notice, while Pevan craned her neck to look back at Chag. Even at thirty feet or more, he could read trouble in her expression. It was her smirk, the one that, over the month since they'd met, had always promised a challenge to his better judgement. His pulse started to race.

She rolled over in the air, and her wings turned back into arms.

Chag's reflexes took over, throwing him into a fresh steep dive as Pevan started to drop away. For a moment, as his every sensation was replaced by ice, Chag thought she'd been attacked or lost concentration, but her face was calm. Was she testing him? Below her, the Court was beginning to look like the castle he was familiar with rather than a distant abstract shape.

The one absolute rule when flying was that you couldn't get your wings back if you lost them mid-air. Inevitable panic at the fall made it impossible to summon the concentration. Pevan had to have assumed he'd catch her, but she was taking a big risk.

Still, what could he do? He could resent her playing games with him, but it wouldn't change the fact that she was right. That same smirk that anticipated his aid also commanded his obedience. He threw himself forward, wings folded tight, hair snapping and flapping around his face.

Below him, Pevan spread-eagled herself, arms wide to slow her fall. Letting him catch up. It still felt like a terribly slow process, but inch by inch, she drifted up to him. She was still smirking. The distance between them came down to a couple of feet, and she made no move to grab on to him. Then it was eighteen inches, then a foot, and still no move on her part.

He opened his wings, just slightly, and let them drag him back to match her speed, so that she seemed to float just inches below him. Almost close enough that they could kiss, but when he met her eyes, he saw only mischief.

She gave him no chance to brace himself, but tackled him, somehow sharply slowing her descent and wrapping her arms around him. She managed to pin his arms to his sides, and her strength told quickly, squeezing his elbows into his ribs, the pain breaking his concentration and robbing him of his wings.

Then she tipped them over, so that she was above him, and they were falling not far off head-first. The firebird shape of Atla flashed across Chag's field of vision, far above. Pevan's grip was so tight that he could barely breathe, and it felt like the air was rushing past too quickly for him to get hold of it.

"Hold on, you muppet!" Pevan had to shout the words, and a shudder went through Chag as he felt them buzz past his ear. What was she playing at? His arms needed very little encouragement to wrap themselves around her rod-straight, stone-sturdy body, even without the threat of impending doom.

No sooner had he got a good hold on her than her grip on him vanished. For a moment, there was a rush of cold, but it cut off sharply, replaced by the punched-diaphragm sensation of deceleration. Despite his best efforts, Chag's arms jerked half-way loose.

He wrapped his fingers in the folds of Pevan's blouse, hoping to find the reinforced straps she'd sewed in there for exactly this kind of purpose. The terrifying pops of seams letting go, one stitch at a time, told him he'd missed. He tried to link his hands, form a ring of bones around Pevan's chest, but still the slipping, slipping-

Pevan beat her wings, and the shock jerked him loose. His veins just had time to freeze completely, and then the wind went out of him as he slammed into hard ground. He heard and felt Pevan's landing rather than seeing it - her back foot must have missed his forehead by all of an inch. Gasping, he lay on the floor, staring at the distant, circling shape of Atla, sharply distinct from the deep azure sky.

"There, that wasn't so bad, now was it?" Pevan drawled the words, her smirk still singing through them. He twisted to look, just in time to meet her eyes as she finished, "I still can't believe you don't enjoy flying."

Still tight for breath, he could do nothing but burst out in hoarse, gasping laughter. Pevan joined in, and the only mercy was that she didn't sound much better off. The paroxysms that came with the mirth didn't help with the task of getting up, but she leaned down and offered her firm but kindly support. Atla settled into a neat landing a little way away as the madness wore off.

They were on the walkway atop one of the walls of the Court, a yard-wide strip of black stone with a low parapet on one side and the drop to the courtyard on the other. Chag's stomach turned over when he looked down into the yard, so he fixed his gaze on the monolithic Court building beyond. It towered over the wall, the peak of its steep roof seeming almost as high as the points of the spires at either end of the walkway. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of narrow, white-framed windows notched its surface like the seeds on a strawberry.

Voice even weedier than usual, Atla said, "How did you get your wings back? I thought that was supposed to be impossible."

"That's just if you panic." Pevan shrugged, grinning. "I'm used to having to not panic when falling from high up."

Something writhed, deep in Chag's bowels. "Please tell me you've done that before?"

"Get my wings back midair?" She shot him that smirk again. "Not specifically. But it's no different than trying to plan three Gates ahead while dropping from a hundred yards up. Come on, let's go and meet the welcoming committee." She waved down at the courtyard.

It was all Chag could do not to throw up as he contemplated the drop, but the yard below was so neatly real that for a moment he found comfort in it. This yard - and the Court had dozens around its perimeter - was laid out as a simple formal garden, a path weaving across an immaculate lawn to the fountain at its centre.

By the fountain stood a figure who added a very different flavour to his churning unease. Hair like scarlet silk framed a knife-like face, and the unmistakably feminine form of the Gift-Giver was clothed in violet, skirt and sleeves so long that the dress looked more like a cloak. He didn't need to make out any more to recognise her.

"Taslin." Pevan's tone was grim.

"You know her?" Atla piped up, voice high and tight. His eyes were wide.

Pevan turned to him, and Chag walked up to join her, keeping his eyes on the Gift-Giver and trying not to let his knees wobble. In a voice that would do nothing to restore the Guide's confidence, Pevan said, "If anyone knows what's happened to Rel, she does."

Without another word, she turned and headed for the staircase that clung to the inside of the wall. Chag shared a worried look with Atla, then moved to follow. At least this set of stairs had a handrail, flimsy though it looked. The rail was probably all that stood between him and a heart attack, so badly did his heart pound as they descended.

Taslin made them come to her, not moving from the fluid, abstract stonework of the fountain bowl. Angular buildings, both ten or more stories in height, framed the ends of the yard, but they had nothing on the Gift-Giver's monumental presence. Dim memory reminded Chag that a Gift-Giver welcoming humans to the Court was supposed to wait for them, but he was sure they weren't always so rigid about it.

How Pevan found the courage to lead them right up to her he had no idea. He could almost feel Atla's trembling. His own blood roared in his ears. It didn't help that Taslin towered over them all by the better part of a foot.

Pevan drew breath, but Taslin cut her off. "It is considered extremely bad manners for Separatists to come to the Court unannounced." Her tone was sharp enough to cut sunlight, but there was nothing of a Wilder about it. She sounded like an irate Four Knot dressing down a recalcitrant squad. "Were you of my kind, your Talerssi would be very great indeed. What are you doing here?"

Pevan twitched, and Chag watched with some small awe as she fought back whatever violent urge had hit her. She couldn't match Taslin for tone, but her voice was flat with anger as she hissed, "Greetings, Gift-Giver. I am Pevan Atcar, Gatemaker of Federas."

All the expression went out of Taslin's face, except for the faintest glint of anger in her eyes. She turned her glare on Chag so hard he almost cringed. He cleared his throat, found his mouth almost too dry to speak. "I'm Chag Van Raighan, Witness of Tendullor."

Atla handled himself rather better, pulling himself up and staring through the Gift-Giver as her attention fell on him. Only the faintest swallow spoiled the act. "Um, I'm Atla Colber, candidate Guide of Lefal, training under Bersh of Vessit."

Chag watched Taslin's face, but could read nothing there. She had to be wondering whether they'd abducted the boy. It had been a mistake to bring him. The Gift-Giver somehow managed to make her voice warm, though none of that warmth made it to her eyes. "Welcome to the Court. I am Taslin of the Gift Givers."

Again, Pevan drew breath, but Taslin's glare returned full force. The Wilder raised a single finger under Pevan's nose, her fingernail long and deep, sparkling purple, as if she'd painted it. Pevan went white, muscles in her jaw rippling.

Taslin said, "Now that charade is out of the way, I'll ask again. What do you think you're doing here? And with a coerced trainee Guide? You and him" - Chag flinched as her finger snapped round to point at him - "are under warrant for arrest for more crimes than I care to count."

Atla stepped forward, started to say something, but Chag waved him back. Better to keep the kid out of this as much as possible. Whatever Pevan had done to recruit him, it wasn't anything to do with Separatism.

Somehow, against the terrible force of Taslin's silence, Pevan found courage to speak. Her voice held, quiet and steady. "I've come seeking information about my brother, last seen being carried away from Vessit by an unidentified Child of the Wild for unknown purposes."

"Your brother is under my personal authority, as you well know." Taslin let her arms fall back to her sides, but somehow managed to scowl even more deeply. "He was put under my authority in your presence, and you directly aided him in committing the offence for which I arrested him. Why should I not arrest you too?"

Pevan bit her lip and took a deep breath. Again, Chag had to wave at Atla to keep quiet. Less steady now, Pevan said, "My crimes, whatever they are, are for human justice to decide on. As Gatemaker, if one of my kind is in danger in the Second Realm, I am entitled to bail for the purpose of transporting a rescue or relief mission."

In the moment that Taslin took to make a show of speechless anger, while Chag was distracted watching her, Atla spoke. "Won't Relvin also be entitled to human witnesses to the proceedings?"

Chag gaped at him. Where had that come from? Pevan, too, turned to look at the lad, a new level of respect in the set of her eyes. She said, "You're right, you know. I hadn't even thought of that. Well done."

Atla looked like he might say more, but then his eyes flicked to Taslin, and he seemed to lock up from within, adam's apple bobbing. A line of ice shot down Chag's spine, and he found himself turning very slowly to look up at the Gift-Giver, eyes narrowed.

"Very well." There was no anger in Taslin's face or voice at all. Somehow, that was even more frightening than the rage she'd greeted them with. "The Separatists have clearly trained you well. Come with me."

She spun on her heel, the long, gauzy skirt of her dress billowing out and then floating in her wake. Pevan looked at Chag, face white. He stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder, trying to guide her with him, before Taslin changed her mind. Pevan resisted at first - he could feel her trembling - but then turned and picked up her step, leaving him behind.

All three humans were a little unsteady as they made their way across the yard. Pevan hung well back from Taslin's trailing hem, her fists clenching and unclenching as she walked. Chag let Atla go next, in case he needed to catch the boy. He was weaving as if drunk.

Walking straight towards the looming central keep didn't help. Maybe Taslin had chosen this route, across the lush grass, for that reason. Chag had never felt so small, and yet in some ways, he still felt too large, too noticeable, in the open courtyard. A shiver coursed through him every time something moved out of the corner of his eye, but no matter how he looked round, he saw no watching, stalking Wildren.

Etiquette said that the Gift-Givers would never use their natural ability to blend with the terrain in the Court. They were supposed to meet humans half-way here, to always maintain roughly human form as a gesture of goodwill. But how much of their goodwill did he still have any claim on? Perhaps they would hold back out of mercy for Atla.

He wished himself back in Tendullor, back at home with nothing more to deal with than the Sherriff's tedious requests. Rissad was supposed to be the keen one, and it wasn't supposed to be Chag's job to clean up after him when he overreached himself. He gritted his teeth. If Rissad ever did get back, they were going to have words, though knowing his brother, he'd probably come back with some revelation that would justify everything.

Taslin brought them to a portico-framed door. Its pillars had a twist that distorted the otherwise careful and fascinatingly-detailed engraving. It was as if they'd been built and carved straight and time had warped them. The door opened silently and smoothly, though.

Inside, they found themselves in a dim hallway, inadequate and dying candles spread thinly along the walls. There were more doors on each side than he could quickly count, spaced unevenly, and none of them directly paired with one opposite. The floor had a chessboard pattern, but his eyes rebelled against following the lines of it. None of them seemed to be straight, even though every tile was square.

Again, the thought occurred that Taslin might have chosen this route deliberately. Most of the Court, or at least the bits of it that Chag was familiar with, was much easier to deal with than this. The only things he could look at comfortably were Pevan's, Atla's and Taslin's backs, and the imposing door at the end of the hall.

In the gloom, Taslin's skin seemed to glow, a nimbus rising and falling as she passed each candle. The fabric of her dress fluttered far more extravagantly than any real material could. It seemed to weigh no more than dandelion seeds, floating even in still air. Another attack on their logic? Or a gesture of some other subtle significance? By way of contrast, the Gift-Giver's bodice was stitched tight against her skin, picking up every feline shift of her back and shoulders.

She was beautiful, no question about it, but it was a beauty of contrivance. A good six feet behind her, Pevan walked steadily, evenly, energy conserved and no attention wasted for irrelevant details. Probably Pevan wasn't even bothered by the uneasy reality of the corridor. There was no sign of the fear that had gripped her after the confrontation in the courtyard. Taslin might be beautiful, but Pevan needed no beauty at all.

Of course, she didn't need him, either. He hadn't even considered how the Gift-Givers might react to his arrival. The Court was supposed to be a friendly and welcoming environment for humans, but maybe he didn't count anymore. Pevan must have foreseen that his arrival would have caused problems, and she'd made clear that she felt no great attachment to him.

Yes, Rel was entitled to a Witness present, if he was to stand trial before the Wildren, but Pevan clearly wanted more than that from this trip. Did she expect Chag to help her rescue Rel? He couldn't see how they'd get an opportunity. Last time he'd tried to escape the Court against the wishes of the Gift-Givers, he hadn't been much use to anyone at all.

Taslin flung open the door at the end of the corridor, and Chag's train of thought ground to a halt. The room beyond was bright enough, after the dim hallway, to leave him blinking, and Atla too by the look of it. Pevan didn't even flinch.

They followed Taslin into the light, which turned out to come from a mountainous chandelier high among the vaults of a peaked roof. The room was larger, though not by much, than any house or Warding Hall in the First Realm, but it extended upward so far that the only thing his mind could compare it to was Vessit's Abyss. The chandelier didn't seem to have candles, it was just a tangled, elegantly symmetrical webwork of crystals, glowing from within.

Chag brought his gaze back down and surveyed the room at his own level. A row of benches sat along the wall to their left, a Court Guard standing to attention at either end. The Guards - there were a pair on the opposite side of the room, too, by the sole other doorway - stood what had to be eight feet tall, though some of that was in the almost comical heels on their jewelled boots, their vaguely-human forms stretched out to an unsettling thinness. They wore no clothes, but their skin itself blurred the more intimate contours from their bodies, shifting about them like fine mist.

It was hard not to stare at them, but there were three other figures in the room who demanded more attention. Rel stood in the centre of the floor, looking back over his shoulder to watch Pevan enter. The Clearseer's face was... very difficult to characterise. He no longer gave off the air of total conviction that had persuaded Chag and Pevan to stay in Vessit to wait for the quake. His expression of horror and shock couldn't hide new lines around his eyes that spoke of some deeper tension.

Beyond Rel, a pair of Gift-Givers were watching the new arrivals. Both wore robes of a style that echoed Taslin's flowing, formal dress, one in green and the other turquoise. Green-robes was bald, his face lined with the appearance of age, but his eyes un-hooded and bright. The other looked younger, more alien, the high protrusions of his cheek bones just a little too wide. He had hair almost the colour of Taslin's, but pulled tight behind his head.

Rel's eyes went to Taslin, who walked over to stand behind his shoulder. Her voice, stiff but not loud, actually echoed slightly, the ambience striking after the Second Realm's usual deafness. "Pevan Atcar, Chag Van Raighan and Atla Colber have come to witness the trial of Relvin Atcar, in accord with the treaty."

The older Gift-Giver gave them a slow, shallow bow. "Welcome, Pevan Atcar, Chag Van Raighan, Atla Colber. I am Quilo, standing as arbitrator."

Face unmoving, the other Gift-Giver said, "I am Loget of the Gift-Givers, standing as inquisitor. Please be seated." He raised an arm to indicate the benches.

Pevan bowed, much lower than Quilo had. Chag started to mimic her, but stopped when he noticed Atla hadn't. The kid seemed to know what he was doing, or at least he had so far. It would only be a minor mistake, surely, if he was wrong. Chag followed him over to the benches, surprised when he made space for Chag to sit between him and Pevan. What did that indicate?

Quilo turned to face them. "Your timing is fortuitous. We had only just initiated the proceedings when your approach was detected. Will it trouble you if we do not repeat the formal invocation, and instead proceed to the charges?" He spoke with the precision and clarity of a Wilder, but the tone of his voice was very human, the rich baritone of a professional singer. Chag had known only two other Gift-Givers capable of such accurate mimicry - Keshnu and Taslin.

The Gift-Giver waited for Atla and Chag to nod, even after Pevan had spoken for them. Then he turned to Rel. "You stand under the authority of Taslin of the Gift-Givers, by right of Talerssi after your exemption from human justice by the Separatists. On this authority, you are required to explain your attack on Keshnu of the Gift-Givers at the Abyss under Vessit yesterday. I understand you also wish to account for a number of actions you took while under the authority of the Treaty of Peace?"

Chag exchanged a worried look with Pevan, a stone settling in his stomach. Rel simply nodded and said, "Yes, arbitrator." His voice was calm, even weary.

"I must ask you to confirm that you understand that the case by which you might defend these actions in a First Realm court cannot succeed here."

"I understand, arbitrator." It almost looked as if Rel were under Coercion from Taslin, except that no true case of Coercion had ever been so subtle. Had Taslin developed some new power?

"Very well. What are these additional actions?"

Rel glanced to Taslin, who nodded, ever so slightly. She said, "Relvin Atcar twice allowed or enabled wanted fugitives to escape First Realm justice. He attacked and seriously injured Ismur of the Abyss Guards. He conspired with Rissad Van Raighan in actions which caused an irreparable disturbance to the Abyss under Vessit. While in custody at Vessit, he withheld information gained from Clearviewings from agents of the Treaty of both kinds."

Again, Chag glanced at Pevan. He hardly understood half of what the Gift-Giver had said, but Pevan nodded grimly. Under her breath, she said, "Sounds like Rel. Particularly the last bit."

Quilo said, "Do you dispute any of these descriptions?"

"No, arbitrator."

"Then you may begin your explanation." The Gift-Giver held up a hand. "With the Inquisitor's permission, I have a personal request: please would you begin by explaining the connection between these two sets of charges? Besides the location at which you performed the actions in contention, there seems to be little similarity among them."

Rel blinked, clearly surprised. Still, he nodded, glancing at Loget. "Do I have your permission, Inquisitor?"

"Yes." By contrast with Quilo and Taslin, Loget's voice was every bit the flat, cold tone of a Wilder, though probably in any other context he'd have sounded rather more fluent.

"I performed all the actions in contention while labouring under misconceptions born of incomplete information." Rel spoke with equanimity, though some of his words seemed to stick in his throat, as if he was not comfortable with the precision required.

Some twitch from Atla brought Chag's attention round to the Guide. The lad's mouth was working silently, until he saw Chag looking. He whispered, "It's been a long time since an incomplete information defence was successful."

"How do you know so much about this stuff?" Frustration made Chag's voice louder than he'd intended. Just being fresh from training couldn't explain Atla's expertise.

"Bersh encouraged me to take a look at it. Guides end up at Court a lot. It's-" He cut off as Pevan hissed at them, gesturing to shut up.

Rel was speaking again, describing the sequence of events as he'd arrived in Vessit. Chag picked up the thread easily enough - he knew most of it from the Separatists and Delaventrin's Clearviewings, and much of the rest from Rel himself. How he'd come to be in the tunnels alone, despite travelling to Vessit with Dora and Taslin, remained a mystery - either he hadn't said, or Chag had missed it.

The Clearseer grew more animated, arms spread before him. "The key point as I see it is that when Ismur confronted me, I was operating only on the basis of my own Clearviewing. I knew there were W- Children of the Wild in the caves under Vessit, and that they were holding and abusing Rissad Van Raighan."

It was Atla's turn to look curiously at Chag. He opened his mouth to explain, but Pevan thumped him on the leg.

Rel continued. "I did not know that Keshnu's contingent were known to the Four Knot of Vessit, and there by agreement. I did not know the nature of the Abyss. I also did not know that your kind knew of the Sherim in the pre-Crash facility by the Abyss. When Ismur confronted me, I had no way of knowing that his presence was as a legitimate guard and not as a sentry for an invading force. Do you understand this concept?"

Quilo and Loget chorused, "I do."

"Knowing that Rissad was badly injured, I had little time to make a decision on whether to trust Ismur's word. He refused to offer any credentials for his presence, and did not indicate that the Four Knot in Vessit had consented to it." Rel paused and bit his lip, glancing to Taslin. She patted him on the shoulder, and Chag frowned at how tender the gesture seemed.

When he resumed speaking, there was a slight hitch to Rel's voice. "I could not see - think of - a reason why Ismur would not have told me to ask for confirmation in Vessit, unless such confirmation was unavailable. From this, and the fact that I knew Rissad had received treatment which was explicitly against the letter of the treaties, I judged Ismur to be predatory and a threat not just to my own safety but to Rissad and the people of Vessit, whom it is my obligation to protect.

"At the time, as far as I knew, the nearest Sherim was a hundred miles away, so an attempt to return Ismur to the Second Realm was impractical. Furthermore, I judged Rissad's need pressing in the extreme. Lastly, the confined space of the tunnel where Ismur confronted me limited my options for getting past him. There seemed to be little chance that I could reach Rissad without incapacitating Ismur." Rel paused and looked down at his hands, his eyes half-closed. "I used my Gift to anticipate Ismur's first attack. I did not strike until attacked."

Silence stretched out. Pevan was leaning forward on the bench, her jaw clenched. Atla fidgeted, picking at a seam in his trousers. All three Gift-Givers stood stock still, and only Rel's twisting hands made the tableau seem alive.

Loget said, "The information you claim ignorance of was available to you through the Four Knot in Vessit. For your case to succeed, you must explain why you did not avail yourself of this source."

Chag bit his lip. He could hear Atla swallow beside him. Rel lifted his head and met the Inquisitor's eye. "The Abyss at Vessit is, as we have seen in the last three days, a danger to the entire First Realm. The existence of an eighteenth Sherim, even if it does not connect to the Second Realm, is similarly significant information. Had I had access to that information at the time of my original Clearviewing, I would have been able to make better decisions about how to approach Rissad's rescue. If I may ask a personal favour, please could you explain why the information was not widely available?"

Loget and Quilo exchanged a glance, and presumably some hidden, Second-Realm conversation. Chag considered leaning back to ask Atla if that was legal, but thought better of it when he saw the scowl on Pevan's face.

Quilo said, "Keshnu reached agreement with Wolpan Fullus that the presence of his contingent would be kept secret until the Abyss was better understood. It was feared by both parties that rumours about a Realm-spanning fault or a large contingent of Children of the Wild taking up residence in the First Realm could cause widespread fear or individual overreactions which might have ultimately been damaging to the Treaty of Peace."

Taslin stepped sideways, away from Rel, and turned to face him, putting her back to the bench. "My only instruction about the question of Vessit was to prevent any rumour starting that the Abyss presented a threat to human civilians."

Pevan shot Chag a worried glance. He patted her shoulder, and she all but slapped his hand away. She turned back to the trial before Chag's face tightened in response. He'd only been trying to offer a little comfort.

"I accept the general point." Rel didn't sound as if he was accepting final sentencing, but he waited for a long time before continuing. "However, I am one of the most strongly Gifted Clearseers among my kind. Given the broad danger posed by the Abyss, and the frequency with which I have in the past made far-reaching Clearviewings, it was inevitable that eventually I would have stumbled across some part of the future which touched on the Abyss. Had I and others of my Gift known of it, our talents may also have been useful in foreseeing problems related to the Abyss. We might have been able to aid Keshnu's investigation."

Rel's shoulders rose, slowly, then fell again. He was about to speak when Quilo held up a hand. On the far side of the room, by the internal door, the Court Guards stepped forward from their posts and turned around, as if expecting the door to open. Quilo said. "Please excuse us a moment."

To Chag's surprise, Rel looked straight at him, and there was outright fear in the Clearseer's eyes. Then he, too, turned to face the door. Taslin stepped in past him, to stand so that her body half-shielded his.

Chag turned to Pevan. "Should we-?" She shook her head before he could finish.

The door vanished. Ashtenzim stood in the opening, most of its long, willowy tendrils dangling like legs from its knotty core. A couple stroked along the lintel, moving enough that it didn't look like the Wilder was hanging from them , but not enough that they didn't seem stuck to it.

A fist tightened in Chag's viscera. Maybe that was why Rel had been so troubled to see them. What was Ashtenzim doing here? The Separatist spokesbeing drifted into the room, making even less of an attempt to look like it was walking than it normally did. Behind, the tangle of rings that was Lienia scrunched itself narrow to fit through the opening, then widened out again. The rattle of metal on metal that Lienia's appearance made Chag anticipate never came. It was almost as if they had chosen to rub their inhumanity in the Gift-Givers' faces.

When they'd sent Chag to spy on the Gift-Givers, the Separatists had told him that they could not do the task themselves because the Court by its nature was inimical to them. If this visit was part of Delaventrin's plan, Chag had never been told of it. Could things really have gone so drastically wrong?

Ashtenzim and Lienia took positions facing the trial. From the flickering expressions on Quilo's face - Chag concentrated, trying to impress as much detail on his memory as possible in case he needed to Witness it later - invisible communication was flying back and forth between the factions.

Pevan tugged on his sleeve and pointed to Rel. With a hand tucked behind his back, the Clearseer was repeating the same three gestures, over and over; circling one finger vertically, shaking a hand, held flat, horizontally, then a clenched fist. Situation not under control. Chag nodded to Pevan, then glanced at Atla. The Guide was white as a sheet, transfixed. Beyond him, in the corner of the room, the shape of the Guard had grown less distinct, wreathed in shifting colours as it prepared for action.

Chag shifted in his seat, trying to work out which way to duck. With Atla to his right and Pevan to his left, he didn't have a whole lot of room in which to move. Tangling with either of them could cause a fatal delay.

In a voice so toneless it almost lacked vowels completely, Ashtenzim hissed, "Relvin Atcar, Pevan Atcar and Chag Van Raighan are Separatists and have renounced the Treaty of Peace."

"I have not!" Rel's shout rang from the vaulted roof and struck jingles from the chandelier.

"The three named will avail themselves of our protection. We have no interest in the other human."

Pevan stood, and Chag followed her automatically, expecting her to head for Ashtenzim before the Guards could grab them. She stood her ground, and said, "Rel?" The one syllable gave her no chance to falter, but she needed no such advantage. She spoke the Clearseer's name as if it were a stone launched from a sling. Chag's throat tightened.

Behind his back, Rel made the flat-palmed negative sign. There was venom in his voice when he said, "I am here by authority of Taslin of the Gift-Givers, not the Treaty."

"You will stay in my custody." Taslin matched Rel's tone, and some sort of ripple burst out of Ashtenzim. Chag flinched. Rel bent double as it hit him. Taslin caught him, even as Pevan sprang forward to help. She stopped short as soon as the reflex let up.

Everything stilled for a moment, then Ashtenzim's voice again, like a hammer, "Pevan Atcar and Chag Van Raighan will avail themselves of our protection."

Chag looked to Pevan, but her eyes were fixed on Rel. Atla shrugged. The Gift-Givers were focussed on the Separatists. The moment Chag started to walk forwards, every eye seemed to be on him. He thought he could even feel the weight of Ashtenzim's and Lienia's attention. Cold and uncompromising though they were, the Separatists still held the best hope for the future.

Pevan caught hold of his arm. "Where are you going?" Her tone made the question something very close to a threat.

He glared at her. "To join our allies."

"The Separatists?" For almost the first time since he'd led her into the Separatists' cave, she looked like she was losing her cool. It was almost satisfying to see her so on edge, eyes jumping back and forth between him and the trial, face pale. When she spoke again, it was quickly, breathlessly. "Chag, you can't do that! We have no idea what's at play here. What do they want to do with us?"

"Isn't this exactly the kind of situation that justifies Separation?" He waved his hands to encompass the whole room. "Wildren politics with human lives in the balance. Gifted attacking Wildren because the Wildren couldn't understand the situation well enough to explain. It has to end."

"And what about what Taslin said?" From somewhere, Pevan found a remnant of her familiar intensity. "I still want some answers about the Separation before I'm prepared to commit to it."

"Only one place to get them." He folded his arms, jerking his head in Ashtenzim's direction.

"Both of you will come with us." Chag winced, wishing the Separatist had moderated its voice a little.

Its tone had clearly irritated Pevan. "I'm not leaving until I get some answers. What will your Separation do to the First Realm?"

"Woah, hang on." He held up a hand in front of her, then turned to face the Wildren. "How about a compromise, Ashtenzim. We'll meet with you somewhere within the Court and we can make sure we're all on the same page. Then if needs be, we can see what we can do about Rel."

The air between the Gift-Givers and the Separatists blurred with angry communication. Chag found himself edging backwards. It wasn't supposed to be possible for Second-Realm terrain to become that unstable in the Court. Taslin pulled Rel back, the Clearseer still hugging his abdomen. What had Ashtenzim done to him?

Colours that stung the eye began to flicker in the distortion. Quilo's face was impassive, but Loget's had grown twisted, well past rage and into an expression that could only mean the inquisitor had lost control of his visual appearance. It was only communication, not violence, that was passing between them and the Separatists, but in the Second Realm the line between the two was thinner than in the First.

When it ended, it did so so suddenly that Chag almost dived for the floor. He heard Pevan's sharp intake of breath ringing from the chandelier. In the wake of that single, lonely sound, though, the room collectively relaxed. The Guards settled back into their more definite, humanoid forms. Quilo actually took his eyes off Ashtenzim.

"Your compromise is accepted, Chag Van Raighan." Had Ashtenzim's voice actually softened a little? Chag glanced at Pevan, gestured for her to proceed him. She stuck him with her best rock-splitting glare and straightened upright, folding her arms. In the end, he led the way. It was just easier than waiting for her patience to give out.

* * *

Next Episode

2 comments:

  1. Rik,
    WELL DONE. I'm...stunned. Their descent reminds me of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Loved the descriptions! Favs:"rushing air clawed at his hair" and "weight of the sky". Sweet descriptives every writer needs to adopt. "Air leaking through feathers" is something I would never think of, having never spread my wings and soared. lol. Nice perspectives.

    I especially enjoyed the names. Chag is ingenious. Curt, snappy and original. I love it. Your world building is phenomenal.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed :)

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