There were simpler times, not long ago, in which the White Elm only met once a month to conduct their business. Run through the actions from the previous minutes. Discuss new items. Allocate tasks. Choose panel for the coming month’s criminal trials, if any. Go separate ways. All done and dusted in about two or three hours.
Today’s White Elm lived in each other’s pockets, bound by a base of operations for the first time in their history, bound by a collective responsibility to the students they’d agreed to upskill at Renatus’s fortress of a house. Today’s council knew each other intimately well, and the forced proximity had brought simmering grudges and differences to the surface. Renatus and Susannah wouldn’t speak to each other anymore; Renatus and Qasim had had it out several times. But it had also solidified friendships and alliances within the council that wouldn’t have had the space to grow under the old cycle of monthly circles, especially among the younger members who hadn’t known the old way. Jadon, Teresa and the traitor Aubrey had drawn close in their early days, and in the sudden absence of his friends when they were taken by Lisandro’s followers, Jadon had positioned himself firmly with Emmanuelle, who in turn had developed a close and surprising loyalty to Renatus.
The times had fostered an interconnectedness in the White Elm that Lord Gawain had not seen in its previous incarnations, and he knew it was for the best in their uncertain future, wherever it took them. A Seer, he knew a lot of what was to come, or at least what had to come to pass, one way or another. He had faith in Fate’s plan, ultimately believing it would bring them to the places it showed him, but this path wasn’t a comfortable one.
It was a test, he was sure of it.
“When did this start?” he asked Lev Zarubin, trying to keep his cautious hopefulness to himself and failing. The Russian councilman folded his scarred hands under his arms and looked to one of his medics. Silent words passed between them.
“Only yesterday, when his caretaker left her pencil and book beside his chair, but different observers have noted the twitch in the hands for a number of days now,” Zarubin said after a moment, seamlessly translating. “Dr Dragomirov thought to bring more materials but he’d already moved onto the walls. He does not seem to differentiate between canvases.”
The small log izba didn’t look like much, with its packed soil floor, thin rugs and basic furnishings, but Lord Gawain knew from his experience with the rest of the stark city of Valero that these were in fact generous accommodations, and a testament to the city’s respect and affection for Glen, rather than for the White Elm itself. He was a welcome patient here, surrounded on all sides by the most considerate neighbours a damaged Telepath could ask for, every single person inside this city’s walls capable of keeping their thoughts to themselves.
It didn’t look like Glen could handle any more thoughts than he was already dealing with. One hand pressed in apparent frustration to his head, covering an ear, familiar face drawn and scrunched in pained concentration, eyes flickering about the room, seemingly out of focus, blinking rapidly… He had only just regained the presence of mind and state of consciousness to feed himself, Lord Gawain had been told days ago, yet here he stood, shaky hand clutching a paintbrush, water-colouring the hastily paper-covered walls of his izba.
There were dry and half-dry illustrations all over the floor, tacked all over the walls, under the parchment canvases, too, directly onto the wood where the caretakers hadn’t been quick enough. There was a mixture of pencilwork and watery painting, sketches and landscapes and close-ups and surrealist shapes all combined across the display to give a chaotic sense of what it looked like inside Glen’s ripped-open mind.
Not a pattern or connection in sight. Not one image like another, not one repeated style, not one repeated face or place or word. Not one picture looking complete.
Lord Gawain felt his cautious hope slipping into despair.
“What is this?”
Despite his youth and inexperience, he’d brought twenty-one-year-old Jadon with him on this visit to Valero, now the only functioning Telepath on the council. The young American slid past Gawain and Zarubin to get a better look at the pictures Glen had created, casting a dubious glance over his shoulder at the artist, who wholly ignored his presence. The White Elm leader hoped the younger Telepath would heed the warnings of the Valeroans and stay out of their patient’s unstable mind.
The medic behind Zarubin had tilted his head when Jadon spoke, and now said something in old Russian. The city leader translated smoothly.
“Dr Dragomirov says we are starting to understand the nature of Glen and Anouk’s bond,” he said. “Their minds had grown into one another, as you know. You had told us of some of their unusual bonded behaviours – eating the same meals at the same time, completing one another’s tasks – but we now also believe that they were thinking together, too.”
Lord Gawain looked between the two colleagues he had brought with him, Jadon and Lady Miranda, for clarification. His surgeon co-leader voiced their shared question.
“Isn’t that telepathy 101? Thinking to each other?” she asked. Zarubin hesitated, his control of English strong but lacking the necessary finesse to explain this. Jadon pulled a picture off the wall, unnoticed or unheeded by Glen, who carried on painting.
“Not just thinking the same things, or thinking at each other, like we’re used to,” Jadon said, starting to realise. “Single thoughts starting and ending in two minds, operating increasingly as one. So when Anouk died, so suddenly…”
With an incoherent noise of discomfort, Glen threw down his paintbrush and groped about for a new medium. His grubby fingers closed on a stick of charcoal, and he tore down the unfinished watercolour painting and started afresh on the wall behind it, heavy upward strokes this time. He irritably shoved his dirty blonde bangs out of his eyes, the first indication that he was aware of his surroundings, smearing black dust across his brow.
Lord Gawain knew Lady Miranda had spoken to Glen’s ex-wife about his condition. She’d called it a catatonic state, a trauma response, and had promised to let the estranged but perfectly civil family know when it would be appropriate to see him. Now was definitely not that time.
“This is what it looks like inside Glen’s head,” Jadon explained, looking to the medic who nodded vehemently, understanding him but unable to reply in English. He waved the painting. “Unfinished. All his thoughts, maybe his whole identity, half in his head, half in hers, and when she was cut off from him without warning–” He abruptly tore the page in half, making everyone, even Glen himself, flinch at the sound. “Sorry, Glen. Half his mind isn’t in his head.”
“He’s trying to find it,” Lady Miranda realised. She ran a tired hand through her silvering hair, finding the loose bun that held it back and tightening it. It was rare for her to make personal visits in her role as head of state, and as it was she’d come straight from a shift at the hospital. The alliance as unstable as it currently stood, they’d agreed between themselves that it would be pertinent to present a united front and demonstrate their mutual dedication to the Valero Agreement. “Art therapy is used extensively in our world as part of a wholistic approach to recovery, but this is more sense-making than any attempt to communicate?”
Dragomirov replied in swift Russian, and this time Jadon concentrated on him, having noted the medic’s ability to understand him though he didn’t speak a word of English. There is much more to communication than words and language doesn’t need to be the barrier it is often treated as, especially for Telepaths, even without tapping into one another’s minds.
“We expect some weeks at least will pass before Glen becomes aware enough of the rest of us to wish to communicate, though that was our initial hope in providing the drawing and writing materials,” Zarubin answered. “Unfortunately this would indicate he is in a more regressed state that even we had anticipated. Come,” he prompted primly, as Glen cast down the charcoal and went to work urgently rubbing shapes and edges into the crude artwork with his thumb and fingertips. “We risk contaminating his environment with our worries for him.”
With another saddened look back at his younger fellow Welshman, telling himself the izba was the best place for him right now, Lord Gawain too murmured his thanks to the medic Dragomirov and followed the others outside.