Nick is in the Hannard's Ford train station, somewhat ~~ worried ~~ about how long he can make his dwindling stash of money last. He asks directions to the post office, and is shortly on his way, ~~ enjoying ~~ the stroll through a more sophisticated town than Gumgeeville.
Nick mails his letter, looks ~~ mournfully ~~ at the remaining coins (all two of them), and gives up on the idea of having a substantial meal. He instead asks the postmaster if he can recommend a place where a man might get a hot cup of coffee or tea.
Yanal is leaning back on the two rear legs of a battered chair, his feet propped against the stove. He's hungover, but not as badly as his brother Yalan, who wouldn't even get out of bed.
Yanal is feeling grumpy at having lost three straight games of checkers with the postmaster. He views the stranger in the rather battered clothing. Doesn't look like he has enough money to be worth working on.
Yanal: Could try the Maple Leaf Cafe. Old Lyana will fall for a sob story, as long as you've got the right religion.
Yanal spits onto the top of the stove, an impressive feat of expectorative power, and enjoys the sizzling sound.
Nick considers for a moment, then shakes his head.
Nick: Dunno if I'd qualify for that kind of charity.
Yanal: Fake it. It's easy.
Nick: Never been good at that. Surely there's someplace else that serves hot drinks?
Yanal: Well, there's the Klestral Inn. A bit higher class place.
Nick: Probably beyond my means, then. Unless they hire extra help now and then?
Yanal: What, you want to wash dishes for your grub?
Nick has a long wait for the next train back to Gumgeeville, and there are worse places to spend it than in a warm kitchen, up to his elbows in hot dishwater.
Nick: It wouldn't be the first time.
Yanal: Don't think he'd hire you -- he's got four unmarried daughters.
Yanal thinks he'll have some real fun with this loser.
Yanal: Here, I'll tell you what you can do, if you're broke and really desperate.
Yanal doesn't think much of people who let themselves get desperate. Broke is normal.
Yanal: Since you're not religious, you shouldn't much care.
Nick raises an interrogative eyebrow.
Yanal: We got a tame snake in town, hot little broad, she'll pay you to let her suck your soul out.
Yanal: Yeah. Good money, I hear. But you gotta stand there and let her grab you with her tentacles and suck. Takes a lot of nerve. You move, and she can kill you.
Yanal: And you get tea and cookies, too, if you survive it.
Nick decides to have some fun with this guy.
Nick: Really? You seem to know an awful lot about it. Are you one of those lucky survivors?
Yanal: Naw. I'm not that desperate. No snake slime on my arms.
Nick: Ah, so your information is just rumor?
Yanal: Lots of losers like you doing it for the cash. Or maybe to get kissed. Like I said, she's a hot little broad. Some people get desperate, y'know?
Nick: That good looking, eh?
Nick's expression is ~~ interested ~~.
Yanal: If you like 'em skinny. I like a little more padding, myself, makes for a more comfortable ride.
Nick: There's a lot to be said for stamina, and Simes have more of that than any normal person.
Yanal laughs again. He doesn't think this guy knows any more about Simes than he does.
Yanal: I've got plenty of stamina, ride all night long.
Nick: Don't look like you've been doing any all-night rides recently. Except maybe with a bottle.
Yanal: The women can't resist me.
Nick's expression shows his ~~ skepticism ~~. He has, after all, traveled with the notorious Sectuib in Naros, and thus it's easy for him to distinguish a wannabe from the real thing.
Nesta Brown hurries into the post office. She has a handful of letters to mail, and her monthly donation to take care of, before the end of her lunch break.
Nick decides to put Yanal's irresistibility to the test, and politely tips his hat to Nesta.
Yanal sneers at Nesta. Another of those goody-goody Brown clan types.
Nesta glances past the usual collection of scummy loungers to the stranger.
Nesta: Hello. Are you new in town?
Nick: Just in on the train.
Yanal spits on the stove again.
Nesta: I'm Nesta Brown.
Nick gives her a smile that's 75% as charming as Riyyh's, and therefore a great deal more charming than Yanal's.
Nick: Pleased to meet you, Ma'am. I'm Nick.
Nesta adds an extra touch of warmth to a smile that had begun as merely polite.
Nesta: Welcome to Hannard's Ford, Nick.
Nick: Thank you.
Nesta studies Nick's shabby clothes.
Nesta: What brings you to town, Nick?
Nesta, although still quite young, has already acquired the family taste for gossip.
Nick is genetically tailored for gossip on a scale Nesta never dreamed of.
Nick: I'm just passing through. Wouldn't say no to a hot drink or a few hours' work, though.
Nick would like to get a few things for Kat and Virla, and currently lacks the cash.
Nesta frowns thoughtfully.
Nesta: There isn't really a lot of work at this time of year.
Nick: It's the off season, for sure.
Nick speaks with the knowledge of a man who's lived on seasonal earnings.
Nesta: Um, I know a place where you can get hot tea and cookies. And maybe earn a bit of money, if you're willing.
Nesta baked today's lot of Sime Center cookies herself; she knows they're quite good.
Nick: Where might that be, Ma'am?
Yanal: She's gonna send you the same place I did.
Nesta: Uh... Nick, how do you feel about Simes?
Yanal: Suck your soul out for money!
Nick: There are plenty who'd say I lost my soul long ago. [to Yanal]
Nesta scowls at Yanal.
Nick: Really, Ma'am, I've never been particularly scared of Simes. Even though some have told me I ought to've been.
Nick thinks about the lectures he's received about how anyone with sense wouldn't have volunteered as a Donor for Snake or Arat.
Nesta: Then why don't you come to the Sime Center with me, since I have to go there next anyway? You can have a hot drink, and talk to Hajene Bibi about the possibility of donating.
Yanal: Tea and cookies and snake slime!
Yanal: Desperate for a kiss from them hot snake lips?
Nesta glances disdainfully at Yanal.
Nesta: I'd rather kiss a thousand Simes than a drunk like you.
Yanal guffaws again and spits on the stove.
Nick: Looks like that charm of yours truly is irresistible to the ladies, mister.
Yanal: You want that one? Go ahead, try your luck. She's no fun.
Nick: Ma'am, I accept your invitation gladly. I admit, I'm curious to meet this lady Sime of yours.
Nick offers a polite arm.
Nesta smiles and leads Nick out of the post office.
Nesta: Watch the steps; they're slippery. Now, Nick, I'm sure you've heard all kinds of stories about donating.
Nick: I've heard a few. Some seemed more far-fetched than others, if you want my opinion.
Nesta raises an inquisitive eyebrow as she begins leading the way down the street.
Nesta: Such as?
Nick: Well, I admit, I'm skeptical enough to doubt that Sime Centers abduct people and ship them to Simeland for kills.
Nesta gives a full-throated laugh.
Nesta: I should think not!
Nick: And while I don't know everything about Simes, I don't think that three-foot-long tentacles like some pictures I've seen would be very practical. Stands to reason; they'd trip over them.
Nesta spots a friend hurrying in the opposite direction and gives her a small wave from across the street. It will be all over town, now, that she's been seen on a stranger's arm.
Nesta: You're a practical man, Nick.
Nick: A man in my position can't afford to be anything else.
Nick can't afford much of anything at the moment, but hopes the telegram and letter he sent will remedy that.
Nesta: Simes are just people, really. And their tentacles are only about... this long.
Nesta indicates a measurement between her two hands.
Nick: You don't say.
Nesta: They're just like extra fingers, really.
Nick: A bit stronger, I gather.
Nesta: Yes. But Hajene Bibi -- she's a channel -- isn't going to use them to hurt you. All the times I've donated, I've never even had a bruise.
Nick duly notes the local channel's name, as well as the fact that she seems to be competent.
Nick: Well, that speaks well of her, I'd say.
Nesta: Oh, she's a wonderful lady.
Nesta hesitates, considering some of the rumors she's heard about Hajene Bibi and Hajene Seruffin. But that's really none of this stranger's business.
Nick: Have you known her long?
Nesta: Since I established. Three years, now. I was fifteen.
Nesta studies Nick thoughtfully.
Nesta: She's about your age. And really nice.
Nick: That's pretty young to get involved with a Sime.
Nick notes that either this young woman's family approved, or the local channel is secure enough to overlook the Territorial differences in age of consent.
Nesta: In my family, you start donating as soon as you're old enough, or you hear about it from my grandmother. Civic duty. Unity.
Nesta: And the money certainly doesn't hurt.
Nick: Don't know if it's good for a family, to have that sort of ultimatum passed down.
Nick lived under a cloud of "Thou shalt become a Donor and support thy grandmother" for much of his youth.
Nesta: I wouldn't really call it an ultimatum. A couple of my cousins don't donate. Grandmother let up on them after a while. She knows when not to keep flogging a dead horse.
Nick: I've known a few who could have benefited from learning that lesson.
Nesta: I'm told that Grandmother's mellowed a lot since she was younger. I wouldn't know. But she's certainly the kind of person I'd like to be someday.
Nesta seizes the excuse to cling to Nick's arm as they cross the frozen ruts of a side road.
Nesta: We're nearly there. Want me to explain donating?
Nick is ~~ curious ~~ about how this general-class donor perceives it.
Nick never dared donate during his years of exile.
Nesta: There's not really much to it. You sit down on this odd sort of couch, and hold your arms out like this.
Nesta: And she slides her hands up your wrists and holds them with her tentacles. They're warm and smooth, like hands that have never been in a dishpan.
Nick: I expect a channel wouldn't do a lot of dishes.
Nesta: You wouldn't think so. Anyway, when you're ready, she presses her lips against yours -- it's not really like a kiss, despite all the gossip -- and then you just hold still for about a minute. You don't feel a thing.
Nesta opens the gate to the Sime Center grounds and leads the way up to the door.
Nesta: And then they pay you, and feed you tea and cookies.
Nick: Tea and cookies sounds great.
Nick is hoping he'll be able to cadge some as a professional courtesy, despite being unable to provide a donation in return.
Nesta: Come on in.
Bibi is in the basement fetching a few jars of tomatoes and pickles for Gitl, and checking the changeover room to be sure it's ready for the next child while she's down there.
Nesta glances around the empty waiting room.
Nesta: Hajene? Hajene Bibi?
Nick: Is something wrong?
Nesta: Here, Nick, you sit down and get warm. I'll find Hajene Bibi.
Nick wonders if there's a crisis in progress that the presence of an extra Donor might help.
Bibi comes up the stairs and is astonished to zlin a Gen nager almost as strong as Shorsh's or Lusinka's. She puts the jars on the kitchen table and hurries into the waiting room.
Bibi: Welcome, Sosu!
Bibi wonders what this high-powered Donor is doing here, looking like that.
Bibi: Oh, hello, Nesta. Time for you to donate again, eh?
Nesta turns and stares at Nick. Sosu? Isn't that what Donors like Cristal are called? ~~ puzzlement ~~
Nesta: Yes, and I'm in a bit of a hurry. And... and I thought I was bringing you a brand new donor, but...?
Nick offers his fingertips in an in-T style greeting.
Nick: Nick Reckage, Hajene.
Bibi strokes his fingers with her tentacle tips. Wow. Great nager.
Nick: Nesta here was kind enough to show me the way.
Bibi can zlin that Nick is cold and somewhat hungry, although he's not letting it be unpleasant to zlin.
Nesta: I, um... I'm sorry. I guess I misunderstood. I must have sounded really silly. ~~ embarrassment ~~
Bibi figures Nick was teasing her, which isn't very nice.
Nick smiles with plenty of ~~ charm ~~ .
Nick: Not at all. You're quite a passionate advocate.
Bibi steels herself against the seductive projection.
Nick: I apologize for the deception, but I didn't want to explain my business to half the town.
Nesta smiles. It's hard to stay upset for long, with Nick smiling at her.
Nick sees the effect his nager is having on Bibi, and tones it down a bit, although he keeps the smile in place.
Nesta studies the two. It looks to her like love at first sight. And Nick really is much closer to Hajene Bibi's age than Hajene Seruffin.
Bibi: Would you like some tea and cookies while I take Nesta's donation? She made the ones on the blue plate. They're very good.
Bibi even ate a whole cookie from that plate.
Nesta blushes; she hadn't intended to brag to Nick about her cookies.
Nick: I wouldn't miss them for the world.
Nesta blushes harder.
Nick goes over to the table to help himself.
Bibi: Come, Nesta.
Nesta, with another smile for Nick, turns and follows the channel into the donation room.
Nesta: He seems like a very nice man, Hajene Bibi.
Bibi: Rather flirtatious, isn't he?
Bibi isn't going to try to describe his nager or its effect on her.
Nesta: I like him. But he's more your age, really.
Bibi: Well, I'll find out why he's here. It's unlikely he'll be here for long.
Nesta: ~~ disappointment ~~
Bibi: Let's take your donation now, so you can get back to work.
Nesta: Sure, Hajene.
Bibi sits on the transfer lounge and is joined by Nesta. She quickly takes a routine donation from this experienced donor, writes up her file and voucher and goes out into the waiting room with her.
Bibi: Nattin's back from lunch, Nesta, so he can cash your voucher for you.
Nesta: Thanks. Um, see you later, Sosu Nick?
Bibi is puzzled. She thinks she's heard the name Nick Reckage before but can't remember the context. Ah! Gerrhonot mentioned him.
Nick: I hope so.
Nick gives a courtly bow that looks ludicrous, given his beard and general scruffiness.
Nesta hurries out of the room, with one last smile for Nick.
Bibi: I've heard good things about you from Sosu Gerrhonot, Sosu Nick.
Bibi can certainly zlin that Gerrhonot's description was not exaggerated.
Bibi: Let's go into my office. Refill your mug and bring some cookies with you.
Nick's nager perks up, although carefully contained so as not to whack Bibi.
Nick: You know Gerrhonot? How's he doing, these days?
Nick replenishes tea and cookies, glad that he's apparently not going to have to wash dishes for them.
Bibi: He's doing very well. He's with Hajene Seruffin all the time, and is really devoted to him. He's very happy being his Donor.
Nick: I'm glad that he's managed so well.
Bibi enters her office and sits behind her desk gesturing to Nick to close the door behind him and have a seat in the comfy chair in front of the desk.
Bibi: He's a good hearted young man and a very talented Donor.
Nick sits with a sigh, glad for the comfort after the hard train seat.
Nick: He is. I'm glad he found a channel who appreciates him.
Bibi: The two of them make a good pair.
Bibi pauses for the subject to change.
Bibi: So what brings you here, Sosu Nick?
Nick: Necessity, I'm afraid. I don't know how much of the story has reached this far...?
Nick raises an interrogative eyebrow.
Bibi recalls Seruffin describing Nick as something of a loose cannon, but she hasn't spoken to him in over a month.
Nick: I was working in Cottonwood City with a Sat'htine disaster team. While we were on our way home, we ran afoul of an old unfriend of mine. A Controller who had me arrested.
Bibi is startled, but waits for Nick to go on. Hannard's Ford is very far from Cottonwood City.
Nick: The Sat'htine channel I was assigned to took exception to this, and broke me out. We headed across the border until the legal issues could be sorted out, and we've been making our way here ever since.
Bibi: You're traveling with a channel? Where is he?
Nick: She's in Gumgeeville, safe for the moment, although we're going to have to come up with something better than entran outfunctions soon.
Bibi nods, remembering how desperate D'zoll was for work, despite his joking about it, and how concerned Shorsh was about D'zoll. She's glad she's only a Second.
Bibi: Well, the two of you are welcome to stay here. I can give your channel most of my work, but unfortunately, it's not much of a load for a First. Her naztehr D'zoll found it helpful, however.
Bibi is still ~~ puzzled ~~. Why are they in Hannard's Ford, of all places? She supposes D'zoll, Shorsh and Hiram had something to do with it. She wonders why he was arrested, but figures that despite Seruffin's description of Nick, his channel, from a respected Householding, must know what she's doing.
Nick: That's a very kind offer.
Bibi may be somewhat excessively lulled by exposure to Nick's beautiful nager.
Nick's nager isn't necessarily Tecton standard in all things, but it doesn't shriek "criminal" either.
Nick: We're committed to staying in Gumgeeville until we hear back from Sat'htine, but I'll pass your offer on to Hajene Kat.
Bibi: As you wish. Are you comfortable there? Can I offer you some trin to take with you, or anything else?
Nick: Some trin would be very welcome, and also...
Nick: We are a little short of funds, at the moment. It should be temporary, but if we might have some vouchers, and enough money to cover them? Kat's trying to be brave, but I know the entran is hurting her.
Nick genuinely appreciates Kat's ethics, but has to admit that Snake's were better suited to the life of a rogue.
Bibi gets a bit paranoid. Is Nick spinning her a tale? A lot of money would be involved.
Bibi: I don't think I can front you the money, Nick. You can withdraw funds from your own Tecton pay account, though. Nattin can arrange it for you. He does the bookkeeping. I can reimburse you when I receive the selyn from your channel.
Nick has a considerable sum set aside, since he seems to have spent most of his Donor's career in places where there was nothing to spend money on.
Nick: That will be fine. We'll get you copies of the vouchers, too, so you can keep your records up to date.
Bibi: Okay. There are a few unusual donors in Gumgeeville... Virla included... but I suppose a Sat'htine First could manage them.
Nick: If D'zoll could, I'm sure that Kat can. After all, the Geggs are in-Territory at the moment.
Bibi: D'zoll wrote to me about Gegg's meeting his son. Wonderful news.
Nick: Yes, it is.
Nick speaks with genuine ~~ warmth ~~.
Bibi: I'm so glad. I wanted to do the best I could for him, but didn't know how much was possible. Seruffin introduced me to D'zoll, and we were able to arrange things.
Nick: With D'zoll's help, Gegg managed a minor miracle.
Bibi: Gegg has amazing determination and courage. I hope overcoming his phobia will help restore his faith in himself. And I'm so glad Toria is where she can expect to survive her pregnancy.
Nick: She was doing well when we left.
Bibi: Good. Poor woman must be huge by now.
Bibi: And how's Sanda doing?
Nick: She's having a fine time, posing as an expert on out-Territory culture, politics, religion, and everything else.
Bibi laughs again.
Bibi: And when she comes home she'll be a similar expert on Simeland!
Nick: Of course!
Bibi: Oh! I should give you a pair of generic retainers in case your channel serves a First Transfer, so you can get the new Sime here.
Nick: That was the other thing I wanted to discuss with you.
Nick: We have a young Sime with us. His people are Gens who live in the forests, without building permanent structures or growing crops, as far as we've been able to learn. We'd like to arrange to have him sent to Sat'htine for First Year.
Bibi: That should be possible. Your channel can write up a document inviting him to Sat'htine, and our mule can arrange things with the people he turns the new Simes over to.
Bibi: Do you want to bring him here, or have Marvin pick him up in Gumgeeville on his way in-T?
Nick: I'll discuss it with Kat, but I think it will probably work better if Marvin can pick him up in Gumgeeville. He's more or less adopted us as his new people, and Pinecone's having enough problem coping with Gumgeeville.
Bibi: Okay. We can send you a letter or telegram to let you know when Marvin will be coming through. You'll probably have to be ready on the platform when the train makes a short stop.
Nick: We can do that.
Nick: I did want to catch the late afternoon train back to Gumgeeville. Perhaps I could meet with this Nattin to work out the finances?
Bibi: Of course. I'll introduce you. Come with me.
Nick finishes his tea, and stands, following Bibi out of the office.