Risa lay at the top of the hill above Keon, letting the warmth of the June afternoon sweep over her. A mockingbird began to sing. The beauty of the summer day washed away all Risa's concern. Life was definitely getting better. Keon had a new channel, Van, allowing both Nedd and Risa some free time. Not being Sectuib, Risa was actually able to take her free time as she pleased--and Sergi, her Companion, was thus also able to do what he preferred. It amused her to see that he, born and bred in Householding Keon, very rarely took time simply to relax. He usually disappeared into the metalworking shop, designing and making the jewelry for which Keon was justly famous.
Below her, Sectuib Nedd Varnst's wife Litith came out with her baby, and sat down in the shade, putting the child to nurse. Too far away to make out features, Risa knew Litith would be smiling and singing to the baby. It was a delightful scene to watch. People stopped to look at the baby, to say a few words to Litith, then went on their way again.
A familiar figure emerged from the metalwork shop, tall, strong, sunbronzed: Sergi. As he was Gen, he could not control his body's responses to temperature; working in the hot shop, he was wearing only shorts and sandals, revealing his well-proportioned, muscular physique. No one would ever take Sergi's solidity for Sime, but he moved with Simelike grace, and his immense size became apparent only when he was near someone else for comparison.
He stopped to talk to Litith for a moment, then turned and headed away from the house, in Risa's direction. It would have been no use for Risa to change her position had she not wanted him to find her; Sergi had a disconcerting knack for homing in on her no matter where she might be.
It took him some time to walk through the orchard and climb the hill, but eventually he reached the crest and flopped down beside Risa on the soft grass. "I'm glad you came out here," he said.
"Oh? Why?" She turned onto her back, propped up on her elbows.
"I . . . wish to talk with you without interruption. In the house, that is virtually impossible."
"I hope there is nothing wrong, Sergi." It was impossible to read his emotions at that moment, which made Risa apprehensive about what he might be controlling so strongly.
"No, everything is going well. I worked with Van for a while this morning. I think he's reached his peak, but he's twice as good as when he arrived."
"Orli isn't quite . . ." Orli was the Companion Van had brought with him.
". . . quite good enough for you," Sergi finished her statement.
"Oh, Sergi, I didn't mean it that way! But he's considerably older than you are, and he still doesn't have your skill."
"It's not entirely skill, Risa. We're learning that just as not all channels have the same capacity, not all Companions can master the same abilities. There's so much yet to learn! And Keon . . . has so little time for research."
Risa sat up, studying the scene below. It was possible to interpret the constant activity as frantic, for Keon was a subsistence householding, still trying to recover from the nearly-mortal blow of last December's raid. Risa's brother Kreg had died in that raid, leaving her without the reason she had come to Keon in the first place, for Kreg had been Gen, and a householding was the only place she could live peacefully with the only family she had had left. Now she had no one.
But worse to Keon than the personal blow to Risa was the fact that the Raiders had succeeded in killing two of the Householding's four channels. For five hard months they had barely managed to survive, with Nedd and Risa sorely overworked. There were whispers of breaking up Keon during the miserably cold winter, but with spring came the birth of Nedd and Litith's son, followed shortly by the arrival of Van and Orli with a small but capable group of Simes and Gens. Keon drew new hope from their arrival, putting out of mind the fact that they were refugees from a failed householding, Targus.
"Perhaps now that we have another channel," said Risa, "there will be more time for the research you'd like to do. I . . . I think perhaps because I'm disjunct I'm less sensitive than other channels, Sergi. After all, I didn't have a Companion in those eight months between my changeover and the time I met you, and I didn't go crazy the last week of every month."
"You weren't living side by side with Gens, either."
"That's true. But still, you don't have to hover about me like a nursemaid from turnover to transfer."
"Risa . . . did it ever occur to you that I like taking care of you?" He put his right hand over hers.
Risa extended her dorsal tentacles over Sergi's hand, exerting a gentle pressure. "I know. I do appreciate all you do for me. All I'm saying is that you could have much more time for yourself if you wanted it."
Without looking up, he began to weave her tentacles between his fingers. Even in the warmth of the day, he was cool to her touch. But although his hands were in close proximity to her sheathed laterals, she could tell nothing of what he was feeling.
"You worry too much, " she said. "I'm not going to go berserk and grab some other Gen. What I have with you is better than egobliss any day."
His eyes flew to hers, a question in their dark blue depths. "You mean that?"
"How can you not feel it, Sergi?"
"I do," he said softly, lowering his eyes again to watch his hands weaving ever more intricate patterns with her tentacles.
"So you see," she continued, "even when I am approaching need I'm not tempted toward anyone but you. The times I've had to accept transfer from someone else were just not the same--even with Nedd, even though he's the best there is."
"You think so?" A hint of amusement?
"He wouldn't be Sectuib in Keon if he weren't. Everyone wants Nedd's touch. Last week I walked through the dispensary while Nedd was taking donations--the selyur nager was enough to knock me over!"
Sergi laughed, a deep chuckle. "Oh, Risa, didn't you realize that it was directed at you?"
"Because I was approaching need?"
"No, because you're you, and you have the sweetest touch any of us has ever known." As she looked at him in amazement, he continued, "You haven't experienced much householding politics, Risa. People are not rotated to different channels merely to distribute the load, you know. Before you came, everyone would have gone to Nedd every month if they'd had a choice. Now that you're here . . ."
"Sergi, that's ridiculous! I'm only now starting to feel real confidence at preventing post-transfer depression in Simes."
"You've passed Nedd's ability."
"How would you know? Sergi, you're not Sime."
"Before I brought you to Keon, I had been Nedd's Companion for years. Because I'm more skilled than Gevron, I was assigned to train you."
Suddenly the sunny day seemed bleak around Risa. "Then you've come to tell me . . . that the training is over--and Nedd wants you back?"
His fingers tightened over hers, capturing her tentacles. "No!" He caught himself. "Nedd would never do that," he said casually. "He recognizes that your capacity is greater than his, and that you cannot function without a Companion of equal capacity. Gevron is perfectly adequate for Nedd, and he has not said a word about any changes."
"He must miss you terribly."
"I think not. He never touched the depths in me that you do . . . that I didn't even know were there until I met you." He went back to playing with her tentacles, not looking at her face. "Nedd is not too proud to recognize your talent, Risa. That is why he wants your children for Keon. Have you . . . decided?"
"How did you know he had asked me?"
"You are both channels; thus there is a good chance that your child would be a channel. Are you going to do it?"
His hands stopped moving. Remaining perfectly still otherwise, he raised his eyes to hers. "Just like that?"
"Sergi, you may not realize it, but juncts have just as firmly established a moral structure as householders. I may not be a virgin, but I'm not going to have a child by a man who is married to one of my best friends! In fact, I can't see having a baby at all unless I were married to its father. Surely you can understand that. Except for a few instances of channels, it's the way householding families operate."
"Yes, I understand," he said. "Yet . . . your talents must be passed on, Risa."
"Sergi, I won't even be twenty until August! I have plenty of time to have children . . . or was all that propaganda about the long lives of householding Simes so much hot air?"
"You know better."
"Do you mind then, if I wait and marry someone I love?"
"Risa . . . you ought to marry, or at least have children with, someone who can provide an inheritance similar to your own."
"I don't meet many unmarried channels."
"Have you . . . met someone else that you wish to marry?"
"No--and I suppose the pressure will be on from now on."
"Risa . . ." Sergi's eyes were earnest, commanding her attention. "Both my parents were channels. My brother was a channel. My sister died in changeover, but Nedd was certain she, too, was a channel. I am a Companion . . . and householdings actually require more Companions than channels." He paused, letting the reason for his recitation of family history hang in the air between them.
"Ohhh . . . Sergi," Risa whispered. "Oh, it wouldn't be fair to you! You've already given Keon so much . . ."
"You don't understand. This is for me, not for Keon. I love you, Risa."
At last he dropped his barriers, and she felt a poignant combination of apprehension, protectiveness, and desire. It was incredible! How could he have hidden it all this time? "I never dreamed--" she began, and stopped, fearing to hurt him.
"I couldn't admit it to myself until now. Risa, could you--?"
"I . . . have never thought of marrying a . . ."
"Gen?" In the juncted world Risa came from, Gens weren't even people.
"Companion," she corrected. "Sergi, our relationship has been so . . . professional. I can't change my way of thinking that quickly. We're so close, but not . . . Let me get used to the idea."
Relief sighed from him. She realized he had feared a flat negative. Then he smiled at her. "I'll help you get used to it." Sliding an arm around her, he drew her to rest against him. His skin was cool, comfortable. But the thought interfered: we have often been this close before.
The few times she had left Keon, Sergi had always been with her. When they stayed at an inn, they shared a bed because of the householding rule that the closeness between Simes and Gens must be thus displayed. When they had to camp out, it was often so cold that sharing a blanket was the only logical procedure . . . and it was all so determinedly asexual . . .
Risa thought of Sergi as a Companion, not a man. His touch was helpful, comforting, pleasant . . . but not exiting. The barriers she held against seeing him as anything more than a dear friend could not be dissipated so easily.
His lips sought hers, not with the firm pressure of transfer, but soft and yielding, moving upon hers until they parted for him. Even then, no excitement stirred in her.
Sergi did not try to proceed further. Caressing her hair, he said, "Take your time, Risa. I can wait, but I do not intend any further effort to hide the fact that I love you."
"How can you have such patience?"
"Patience is the curse of the Companion."
"No, Sergi, channels are the curse of the Companion."
He laughed. "So I'm a glutton for punishment--I had to fall in love with one."
He sounded utterly contented. "I have a present for you," he added.
"Please . . . not now."
"It's not an obligation. No strings. In fact, I'm making one of these for each of the women in Keon; yours is just the first."
From his pocket he brought out a ring, a delicately wrought design which incorporated the Keon crest and ruby, but was smaller, more fragile-looking than the householding rings they both wore. That large rugged design suited Sergi's hand, but Risa's appeared to weigh her right hand down. Sergi removed Risa's ring and slid the new one onto her finger. It fit perfectly.
"Sergi, it's beautiful! What a lovely idea." She examined the ring, turning it on her finger to study the design. It suited her small slender hand precisely.
He handed her the ring he had removed. "You'll want to keep this--it is still the symbol of your pledge."
"Of course," she said, starting to slip it onto her left hand for safekeeping.
"Not there!" he said. "Save that finger for your wedding ring."
"You're certainly confident!"
"No woman has ever rejected my proposal."
"And how many women have you proposed to?"
"One. Marriage, that is."
"I may not be a virgin, but--" he quoted. "Ouch!" as she hit him in the stomach. "No fair augmenting!"
"I didn't. You're just out of condition."
"Risa, one thing about householding Gens--trying to keep up with Simes, we are never out of condition!"
"And you still want to marry a Sime?"
"I want to marry you. That you happen to be Sime is irrelevant."
"That I happen to be a channel isn't. But I suppose if anyone knows what life with a channel would be like, you do." She sobered. "I don't like being a channel, Sergi."
"What? Why not?"
"The responsibility is endless. It's not as if I had asked for it. All I wanted to do was disjunct. I was willing to earn my keep--but I didn't count on having the lives of everyone in Keon dependent on me."
"It is a sacred trust."
"It is a lifelong sentence. And now you want me to bear a child who will live under that same sentence--channel or Companion, he will be trapped, Sergi."
"I . . . don't understand you, Risa."
"No . . . I don't suppose you do. You grew up here. You have never tasted freedom. You don't know what it's like to suddenly have your whole way of life dictated by an accident of biology."
"Don't I?" He was controlling his emotions again, forcefully. He spread his fingers in imitation of the Sime gesture which stretched tentacles as well. Staring at the backs of his hands, he said, "I've told you my whole family were channels. I grew up certain that I, too, would be a channel." He clenched his fists, the echo of remembered bitterness in his voice. "I was twelve when Nedd told me I had established. I ran, Risa--as if I could run away from the fact. You know the cave just below here? I hid there for two days, crying. Then I realized that no one had come after me because everyone--all the Simes, anyway--knew exactly where I was. They let me come back of my own accord--after a while, in an adolescent boy, hunger overcomes humiliation."
"Oh, Sergi!" gasped Risa. "Why would you feel humiliated?"
A sardonic smile slightly curved his lips. "Tiny as you are, Risa, you're stronger than I am. You can move faster and more sure-footedly. You never get lost. You can read emotions."
"So can you."
"To a degree, after long practice. But then I didn't know I was anything more than an ordinary Gen. If I were . . . I don't know what I might have done. But Nedd . . . you know his methods sometimes--not exactly subtle."
"I know," she agreed, remembering how Nedd had shocked her out of disjunction crisis by bringing her brother Kreg to see her when he was just established and high-field.
"Nedd ignored me for a week after I came home," Sergi continued. "Everyone else acted as if I'd never been away. It was the tragedy of my life, and no one recognized it! That only made me more depressed."
Risa couldn't help smiling. "I know how it can be not to be taken seriously."
"Nedd took me seriously, all right, but not the way I wanted. Nobody but me wasted a moment's pity--but I was wallowing in it. Then one afternoon Nedd called me into his office. He was alone . . . and in need."
"W-what?" she asked in amazement.
"It was easy enough to guess that with my family background I was likely to have more than ordinary Gen abilities, although I'd been so immersed in myself that I didn't even recognize that I'd been walking around for days in a new world. When I walked in, I felt Nedd's need--a channel's need."
"It didn't frighten you?"
"No. I only wanted to help him. It was the first time I knew what it meant to be a channel--the pain you feel."
"It's not pain, really," she said. "When we met, when I was in the first stages of attrition--that was painful. But ordinary need is . . . bearable."
"I know that now. But the first time I recognized it, all I wanted to do was alleviate it--and the fact that I could was the greatest joy I had ever known. Nedd felt it, of course. After a moment, he said, 'Don't you think it's time we qualified you?' And he did."
"And you've been satisfied with your life ever since, haven't you?"
"Yes, indeed. But while I don't envy you, Risa, I find it hard to understand why you rebel against your own abilities."
"Sergi, I didn't grow up in a householding. I didn't have it drilled into me that it's the greatest thing in the world to be a channel. Someone has to do it, and there are only three people at Keon able to, so I do it because the householdings are the only way to stop wholesale killing. I won't shirk my duty . . . but surely you can forgive me for wishing that duty were not mine."
"You've been overworked since you first disjuncted, and this past winter was sheer hell. Keon should have five or six channels for the present membership, Risa. You've never worked under normal circumstances."
"Maybe you're right. I hope so."
"I'm right. You just want a vacation. Why don't we make it a honeymoon?"
"You're certainly persistent!"
"Stubbornness is something Gens do just as well as Simes."
"You're good at everything you do, Sergi," she said, studying the exquisite workmanship of the ring he had given her.
With a finger under her chin, he tilted her face up to his. "That's true, but you haven't had absolute proof of it yet."
"That cave is just below the crest of the hill. We would have privacy--"
He laughed. "Risa, in two years, that is the first time you've called me that. It's too late to retreat into formality now."
"What am I going to do with you?"
"I told you I'd think about it, Sergi, but . . ."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't push--but now that I've discovered that I love you, all I want to do is carry you off and make love to you."
"Not unless you want me to."
"I mean, please don't set yourself up for disappointment that any. Sergi . . . you're like a brother, a dear friend. I don't know if I can think of you as a lover."
"Just don't fight it."
"All right. That I can promise. I won't make any effort to direct my feelings for you away from . . . love."
"I won't ask any more." He kissed her gently, just brushing her lips with his. Then he stood. "Are you ready to go back to the house?"
"No, but I'd better. I have to teach accounting class in half an hour."
Risa had come to Keon at seventeen, having run the wholesale business she had inherited from her father for three years. When Nedd found out, he had handed Keon's books over to her--and she was just now becoming confident that they were unsnarled once and for all.
Nedd could keep masses of details in his head; he not only forgot that other people couldn't, but he also forgot to inform others of income or expenses. Risa simplified the books, convinced everyone else to keep accurate records, and badgered Nedd at dinner each evening to make certain she knew of all major transactions. Now she was teaching accounting to four other members of the householding, in hopes of turning up someone with the talent to take over the accounts from her.
This afternoon's session, however, was hardly started before Renata appeared at the door. "Risa--come quickly. It's Georg. Changeover complications."
"Class dismissed!" Augmenting, Risa was in the infirmary almost before the Gen woman was out of the classroom.
Nedd, Litith, Gevron, and Sergi were already with the boy.
"Clench your fists," Nedd was directing. "Come on, Georg, I know it hurts. It'll be over soon."
Sweat pouring down his face, the boy clenched his fists, snapped them open, repeated the exercise all children were taught. Nothing happened. He seemed to be moving mechanically. Even when Litith took one hand to swab medication on the swollen membranes, the movement continued unabated.
As she swabbed the other wrist, Litith said, "I think we'd better rupture the membranes."
"Could be premature," said Nedd.
Sergi touched the boy's arm, very gently. "The ronaplin glands are swollen badly. Far beyond normal."
Nedd looked up and saw Risa. "Oh, good. He may require both of us, Risa."
"Is he . . . ?"
"A channel," said Sergi. "Low-field as I am, I'm drawn to him. The only time I've seen stronger need was that night you were in attrition, Risa."
"He's blacked out," Risa said.
"Gevron, get over here," said Nedd. "We've got to wake him up if we're going to help him."
Shenoni! Gevron was high-field because Nedd was approaching need--and if there was anything required in a changeover crisis, it was to have the Sectuib in peak condition.
Again Litith swabbed the throbbing sheath-ends and nodded to Gevron. The Companion gently but deliberately ran his fingers over the boy's lateral sheaths. Georg's body convulsed; then his eyes opened so wide that the white showed all around the iris. He grasped for the Gen's arms; his impacted tentacles writhed within their sheaths, and he screamed in pain.
"Easy . . . easy, Georg," said Nedd. "We'll help you. Let go of Gevron, now. That's it." He looked up. "Risa, I hope you're ready for this. At the moment, you have better control than I do."
Risa checked her show-field. "I can do it," she replied, moving into position. "Georg, look at me. It's Risa. I'm going to provide transfer for you. Let go of Gevron." She slid her hands under Gevron's, while the others pried the boy's hands from the Companion's arms. Gevron retreated, and Sergi moved in beside Risa.
Georg grasped her, clutching painfully. Litith quickly ran her tentacles down the swollen sheaths, forcing the fluid to rupture the membranes. Blood, ronaplin, and lymphatic fluid splashed them all as the new tentacles writhed forth and Litith withdrew.
At the release, Georg gasped--and tried to thrust Risa from him. She held him, twining her tentacles in his. "No! Sime/Sime transfer, Georg. Come on. Lateral to lateral. Remember what you've been taught."
One of her laterals met one of the boy's and his resistance melted. Their laterals entwined, and Georg's eyes focused on her. A weak smile. "Risa."
She smiled in return. "It's all right," she said, and drew him to touch lips for transfer.
He drew deep, swiftly, strongly--as she had never felt before from this end. When it was over, and they disentangled, she pushed his damp hair back from his forehead and kissed his cheek. "Congratulations, Georg. And you may congratulate me. I've never provided transfer for another channel before."
His bright black eyes lit with delight. "I really am a channel?"
"Definitely. Good timing, too. We can certainly use you."
Georg lifted his arms and waved his brand-new tentacles. "Ick!" he said with adolescent attention to priorities, "I'm a mess!"
Laughter rippled around the room. "I'll help you clean up," said Litith. "Then you'll rest." She turned. "Okay, everybody out. Visitors tomorrow morning."
Georg touched Risa's arm once more. "Thanks," he said shyly.
She squeezed his hand. "You're very welcome, Georg."
In the hall outside the infirmary, Nedd told her, "You handled that beautifully, Risa. I didn't think just one of us could satisfy him after what that changeover took out of him."
"My secondary system is depleted," she replied. "Georg is a channel, all right."
"He'll be taking some of the load off us in no time. Sergi, is anybody among the new kids showing real talent as a Companion?"
"They're all working diligently, but I don't think any of them has the natural capacity to handle Georg. He may have almost as great a capacity as Risa."
"Mmm. That's a wonderful talent, but he won't be able to function until we find him a suitable Companion."
"We can try to get someone from another householding," said Risa.
"We have nothing to trade," said Nedd. "I'd hate to tell you how often I've been advised this year to give up and disband. But we're not going to." He stopped, looking out the open window. "Keon has existed for three generations, and we're not going to quit now!"
"No, of course we're not," said Risa. "There must be a way to wangle a trade."
"Wait a minute!" said Nedd. "That girl at the Norlea Choice Auction--the one who survived transfer!"
Not very enthusiastically, Sergi agreed, "She must have a Companion's capacity."
"When I heard," said Risa, "my first instinct was to say let's go get her out of there--but Keon can't afford the cost of buying her, or the tax on an extra Gen. But . . . if she could be trained as a Companion . . . Nedd, is it possible? After she's been burned?"
"The first Companion in Keon did it," Nedd replied.
"Sure, with his own brother," Sergi pointed out. "If this girl is still alive, and if by some miracle we could get her to Keon, what makes you think she'd trust us?"
"She must know her only chance to survive is in a householding," said Nedd. "Risa, how much money do we have?"
"Not enough," she replied. "We can't compete for her at auction; the juncts won't let a householding have her, anyway."
"That's true," Sergi agreed.
"So," said Risa, "we can't let her be put up at auction."
"Hmmm?" asked Nedd.
"Nedd . . . I'm going to go to Norlea and buy her."
"Oh, no, you're not!" said Sergi.
"All right---you go try to buy her."
"Touché," he said ruefully. But, Risa, what can you do?"
"I . . . thought about this when I heard about the girl--but it seemed like a hare-brained scheme then. Two years ago, I left Norlea with my brother Kreg. That's not so unusual--when a child is fairly obviously going to be Gen, some member of the family disappears with him. Usually, that person returns alone, some time later, and no one asks any questions."
"Not many families do it, though," said Nedd.
"No, not many--but enough so that if I show up back in Norlea, it will be assumed that I was helping Kreg. I didn't tell anyone where I was going, you know."
"No one knew you went to Carre?" asked Sergi.
"Maybe. But Carre often aids people, just as Keon does. Anyway, Sergi, you're assuming people are suspicious. They're not; they won't pay any attention to me. I'm going to be in and out of Norlea before anyone gives me a second thought. I still own a house there."
"After not paying taxes for two years?" asked Nedd.
"They were paid," she admitted.
"Then . . . everyone knows you're here," said Sergi.
"No. It is not in the best interest of the bank in Levine to have one of their largest accounts jeopardized because its owner is a channel in a householding."
"What?!" gasped Nedd.
"Nedd . . . you never asked me to give up my business, and so I didn't. I reduced it drastically, so I can handle it from here. When I go into town each week to take care of Keon's business, I take care of my own at the same time. I use the bank as an accommodation address."
"Risa!" exclaimed Sergi in utter revulsion, "how could you?"
"How could I what? Shuven! You never complained last winter during the raids and the hatred in town, when Keon's funds were not confiscated! Money is power. If the householdings had enough money, they could pay taxes on so many Gens they could force every Sime into disjunction!"
"Risa, you forget," said Nedd, "it is impossible to disjunct more than a year after changeover. And householdings would be stopped by law if they started gaining that kind of power."
"I know," she said. "That's not the point. My money saved Keon's last winter. And my money will buy the girl in Norlea."
"On what pretext?" asked Sergi, his nager flaring anger and disgust.
"I don't need a pretext," she replied. "I'm a rich eccentric."
"You're a rich--!" He gritted his teeth over his words, turned, and stalked away.
Shocked, Risa started after him, but Nedd stopped her. "Let him go. I've never seen Sergi so angry, Risa. You'd better let him cool off before you try to talk to him."
"But what did I do?"
"Betrayed the trust of your householding."
". . . what?"
"Risa . . . I would not have tried to stop you from carrying on your business. I regret, however, that in two years you have not come to trust me enough to tell me about it."
"I . . . never thought of it that way, Nedd. My father taught me never to let anyone know the full extent of my business. The way we lived . . . it was obvious we were successful, but very few people know what we were worth."
"You were afraid Keon would demand your money?"
"Not . . . demand. I know you would not do that. But . . . in the bad times the past two years, you might have asked. If I had poured my money into Keon then, it would be bankrupt now."
"What? I don't understand."
"Yes, you do," said Risa. "What happens to a child in changeover if you open his wrist orifices prematurely?"
"Sometimes he dies. Always, he is weakened."
"Precisely. But sometimes he needs just a little help, as Georg did, after he has done most of it himself. Nedd . . . you have the unique ability to keep all the disparate personalities here at Keon functioning in unison. You inspire the kind of loyalty that made us able to survive last winter. But--forgive me--you have no sense of business whatsoever."
"That's why I turned Keon's books over to you."
"Yes, but don't you see? I could have balanced the books by putting in my own funds when I first arrived. All that would have done would have been to encourage already unsound economic practices."
"But you're willing to use your own money to buy us a Companion now . . .?"
"Because Keon is now solvent . . . barely. Next year, if the harvest is good, people will have money to buy Keon jewelry. I was going to approach you about a distribution scheme. In a year, Keon will have funds to cover an emergency like this. And in the future--"
"In the future?" he prompted.
"Forgive me, Sectuib. I have no right to be making plans for Keon's future."
"But you have, Hajene. That tells me you see Keon's future as your own. I . . . thought to tie you to Keon with a child, Risa. Now I see that you must make Keon your home first. When you feel truly secure here, then perhaps you will reconsider my request."
"Nedd, please consider that subject closed. If I have a child by anyone in Keon, it will be Sergi." The "if" loomed very large in Risa's mind, but Nedd ignored it.
"Ah . . . so that's how it is. I should have expected it. Yes--Sergi's children are likely to be either channels or Companions. An excellent choice."
"I haven't made it yet," she said.
"You'll have to soon, Risa. How long is it since you've had a man?"
"That's none of your business," she snapped.
"It is my business! I can't have my channels becoming irritable, losing efficiency . . ."
"Forget it, Sectuib. Only arrant nonsense irritates me, and as to my efficiency, I think I can pass any test you care to devise."
"Yes, Risa, we all know your efficiency. Doing the work of five people and the disappearing for hours. It's damned hard not to resent you, you know. There you are, taking a walk while the rest of us work morning to night and can't accomplish half as much."
"If there's no time to take a walk, or sing a song, or stare at the moon, then it's not worth being alive."
"We have to think of the future."
"Yes, but not to the exclusion of the present. Nedd, do you want your son to live the way you do? If you want him to be able to enjoy life, you'll have to teach him, the way my father taught me. Don't try to make me feel guilty. I do my share today, and I prepare for tomorrow. The rest of the time is mine. It's all I have, and I'm not going to lose it."
"Why are you willing to try to get that girl for Keon, then? That will take time."
"Time spent as I want to spend it. Nedd, I am not totally selfish. Georg needs a Companion, and this seems a likely way to get him one. I can do it, if anyone can."
"All right. See what you can do, with my blessing. But take Sergi with you.
"Sergi! I might as well write 'channel' on my forehead!"
"You don't know how long you'll be gone. It's a five-day journey to Norlea. If it took only three or four days to get the girl, you'd hit turnover before you got back--and if you succeed, you'll be traveling with a frightened highfield Gen who's already been burned once. Moreover, you've been functioning as a channel for two years--stop functioning for a few days, and you can have all sorts of problems."
"If necessary, I can get help at Carre."
"No, Risa. Sergi goes with you, or you don't go. That's final. So if you want to go, you'd better go find him and make up. And . . . if you do a little more than make up, I, for one, will feel more comfortable about your going off on this journey."
"Not now!" she said. "But you're right--I need to find Sergi and make him understand about my business. Because, whether I love him or not, I care very much about what he thinks."
Sergi was nowhere in the house. Outside, though, where there was less nageric clutter, it did not take Risa long to locate his strong field. Even low-field, Sergi was a beacon amid the candleflames of the other Gens. I might have known, thought Risa, smiling around a lump in her throat as she realized he was in the cave beneath the brow of the hill.
The sun of the early June day was still high as she walked through the orchard and climbed the hill easily, quietly--yet the moment she entered the cave, Sergi said, "Go away, Risa." His fury had given way to a harsh despair.
"No, Sergi. We've got to talk."
"What is there to talk about? You're leaving Keon. That's all there is to it.
"Sergi . . . I can't leave. You know that. Where would I go?"
"Back to the life you so conveniently left open for yourself," he said bitterly. "You never had any commitment to Keon, did you? Only to Kreg. And when he died, we were of no more use to you. But you were here, busy, owing us something. I'll give you that, Risa--you repaid your obligations many times over this past winter. You can leave with a clear conscience. Now you've got your excuse, you can go back to Norlea, be independent--all you have to do to be accepted is kill someone!"
"Do you really believe I could do that?" She knelt before him, holding out her hands. "Sergi, you can read me. Am I lying when I say that I could never kill again?"
His blue eyes searched hers; then he slid his hands under hers until their forearms aligned. Risa let her laterals touch his skin gently, so that he could feel her emotions as directly as possible. "I am disjunct, Sergi, and I intend to stay that way. I'm going to Norlea to get that girl for Keon--for Georg. Why do you resent the fact that I have the money and the business sense to have some hope of accomplishing my intentions?"
"I know you're not lying to me," he replied. "I fear you are lying to yourself."
"What do you mean?"
"You told me today that you hate being a channel. You have left yourself open to a decision, Risa. Which do you hate more: being a channel or being junct?"
"You . . . really think I could go back, don't you?"
"Yes, Risa. You've kept your ties to Norlea--your house, your business. And you've established ties with the juncts in Levine."
"My account at the Levine Bank kept Keon solvent! Shuven, Sergi last winter if I hadn't had the economic clout to keep the Keon account open we couldn't have paid the Gen head tax, and all our Gens would have been confiscated! Ties with Darcy indeed! He'd close my account in a minute if that weren't killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. He's a smart enough businessman to see the amount I bring in every year. He could let my funds be confiscated once, but he would lose a large yearly sum thereafter. He can't afford to lose it -- he's made investments on the expectation of that sum." She looked squarely at him. "Sergi, just why do you think I was so foolish as to move the bulk of my funds to Levine?"
"What do you mean?"
"I did it after Nedd turned Keon's books over to me, and I saw how we were being cheated. Do you know when the raids on Keon will stop? When hurting Keon hurts Levine. In the meantime, we can only keep a few individuals from hurting us by making it to their benefit to cooperate. Darcy is a swine, but he's got common sense. He'd deal with you if he thought he could turn a profit."
"Thanks," said Sergi.
"If my plans work out, he will deal with you and with all the other Keon Gens."
"We're not people, Risa."
"Don't be ridiculous! That's the kind of attitude that keeps Keon and Levine apart. If you think that, how do you expect the juncts to respect you?"
"I don't. I don't want anything to do with them."
She stared at him, shocked. "Sergi -- you're prejudiced"'
"Against people who would gladly kill me on sight. Why should that surprise you?"
"I meant to kill you, the first time we met."
"I know. But you were . . . so helpless. And you were willing to accept my help. I thought you were different."
"But you don't think so now?"
"I don't know what to think! I'm in love with you, and therefore I want to believe that you are sincerely committed to Keon. But . . . here you are, doing business with the people who killed your brother."
"No, Sergi. Oh, yes, I know Levine's leaders were aware of the Raiders' plans to attack us, if they did not instigate them -- but separating Keon from the town is not the answer. Look at Carre. Their Simes move freely in Norlea. Even though I never set foot inside the householding until I went there with you, I used to do a lot of business with them. The Raiders knew they wouldn't get a friendly reception in Norlea, and so they stayed away."
"Carre has existed much longer than Keon, and it is much larger."
"No householding is large enough to resist a concerted attack. It's a difference in attitude, in cooperation. Watch for it, Sergi, when we visit Carre. You'll see what I mean."
"When . . . we visit Carre?"
"If I'm going to carry off my masquerade, you can't stay with me anywhere else! We'll sneak you into Carre, and then I'll go get the girl. If necessary, I'll put up at the Inn, as I've rented out my house."
"Of course," Sergi said flatly.
"Well there's no sense paying taxes on something that's not paying for itself."
A smile tugged at the corners of Sergi's mouth. "Oh, Risa, you are so damned mercenary!" But his tone of voice indicated that he was beginning to accept, if not to understand. Suddenly she hoped Nedd would not tell him she had originally meant to go without him.
After working all evening and half the night to minimize the effect of their absence on Keon, Risa and Sergi left at dawn the next morning. In the glorious June weather, the trip was like a vacation. They traveled the broad highway of the Ancients, moving southward easily through the passes that cut mountains down to size. At this time of year many people were on the move, but most avoided the householders. That suited Risa; she feared meeting someone she knew, and having the news of her Keon affiliation reach Norlea before she did.
The last two days they stowed their red Keon cloaks in their saddlebags and took the less-traveled back roads. It was getting hot, so they wore their lightest clothing, putting away the heavy garments they had worn in the mountains. In the warm dry weather, they didn't have to call attention to themselves by stopping at inns; they merely went well off the road each night and slept under the stars -- that is, Sergi slept while Risa kept watch, sometimes taking an hour or so of sleep while her Companion guarded her.
Near noon on the fifth day they reached Carre. Carefully shielding their combined nager, they waited until no one was near before emerging onto the road and riding up to the gates. Sergi slid down from his horse and knocked. When he identified himself, the small door in the gate was opened, and Qual, a short, fat Gen Risa remembered from two years ago, practically leaped out to embrace Sergi.
"So good to see you! We heard about Keon, the raids -- but you look wonderful And Madame Risa . . ."
"She's one of our channels now," said Sergi.
"Oh?" said Qual, staring at her. Then he resumed his joviality. "Well, come in, come in. I'll open the gate."
The large gates were opened so the horses could enter. Sergi led them across the cobbled courtyard. People were coming out to greet the visitors as Sergi turned to lift Risa down from her horse - a completely unnecessary gesture which she was aware did not go unnoticed.
They were ushered into the Sectuib's office. "What brings you to Carre?" Jorn asked. "You are welcome, of course, but why didn't you let us know you were coming?"
"We would have arrived as quickly as the messenger," Risa explained. "And I was traveling incognito."
"With Sergi's nager proclaiming 'Companion' right to the border?"
"He has excellent control," she replied. "At any rate, if I'm lucky I'll accomplish what I came for today yet -- and then it won't matter if everyone in Norlea knows I'm a channel."
She felt a glow of approval from Sergi at her words, but Jorn frowned slightly. "Sectuib Varnst allows you to function as a channel?"
"Keon couldn't have survived last winter without Risa," Sergi said defensively. "She did the work of at least two other channels."
"Mmm," Jorn said noncommittally, joining his fingertips and letting his tentacles play between them. "And you are Risa's Companion now, Sergi?"
"Then I can see why you can function safely, Risa. I've been trying to get Sergi to come to Carre since I first met him."
"I don't think you'll ever tempt Sergi away from Keon."
"No," replied Jorn, "not now. I can see it's too late."
When Risa explained their mission, Jorn nodded. "I hope you succeed . . . although the girl may be dead by now. She was barely clinging to life yesterday, at last report. I tried to buy her immediately after she was returned, but it was no use. They'd rather have her die than go to a householding. They wouldn't even let me send someone to treat her for transfer burn."
"If she's alive," said Risa, "I'll get her. But you may not like my tactics. I'm going in as a dealer."
"Risa!" gasped Sergi.
She ignored him. "Sectuib, can you use a couple of extra Gens? I may have to cover my interest in the girl by making a package deal."
Jorn sighed. "No more than two," he said. "And . . . try for one, or none." He pulled open a drawer and handed her a purse. "That's all Carre can afford, even for an errand of mercy."
"I used to be pretty good at bargaining," said Risa, weighing the purse in her hand. "I'll try to get you off cheap."
An hour later she approached the amphitheater where the Norlea Choice Auction was held. It was deserted today, so she went around to the back, where the pens were. She was in luck; there were only three Gens besides the girl she was there to get.
She looked the prisoners over carefully. A beautiful black woman got up with feline grace from where she had been sitting on the floor of her cage. As the cage floor was a foot off the ground and she was quite tall, she looked down at Risa from a towering height, her eyes smoldering.
"Sime bitch!" she spat in English. "Don't you look at me that way, you slimy snake!"
Playing her role, Risa looked the woman up and down, then, reverting to the broken English she had known before her tenure in Keon, said, "Good . . . good. You are what customer want -- put up good fight. Much satisfaction."
The exchange of voices brought the keeper from the back of the compound. "Ah, yes, Madame -- what can I do for you?"
Risa stepped back from the cage and surveyed the man. "You?" she asked haughtily. "I doubt there's much you can do for me. Who owns those Gens?"
"They're up for the next auction, in four days. There's a whole load coming in the day before."
"Too bad," said Risa. "I won't be around here then. This woman interests me. Who has the authority to sell her?"
"No private sales. Auction only."
Risa studied the man. "Meaning you don't have the authority." She deliberately let her nager show contempt.
"Yeah, I have the authority. They ain't for sale."
"Too bad. You could have made a little without paying the auctioneer's commission. But I made a mistake coming over here at all. You clearly have only inferior merchandise."
The man bristled. "I've got the best in this area!"
"Look at those two!" Risa pointed to a man and a woman huddled together at the back of a cage, clearly terrified. "No spirit. And that one --" indicating the girl lying unconscious in the next cage "--what happened to her? Sick? Shaking plague, maybe?"
"N-no!" the keeper gasped. Why was he so frightened? "No. She's returned merchandise." An idea formed in Risa's mind.
"Returned?" She radiated surprise and curiosity.
"Survived transfer -- if you can call that surviving." His nager had still not settled back to normal. Risa became certain she was right.
At last she dared approach the girl she had come for. She was fourteen or fifteen, with pale blond hair, her skin ashen with shock. She was unconscious, barely alive. Risa's heart sank. Probably the girl would not live to become high-field again.
The black woman, on the other hand, had a tantalizingly strong field; she might have the makings of a Companion. Used to changing direction quickly in competitive markets, Risa decided to go for the two women. It would get the girl away, even if only to die peacefully at Carre, while the woman would certainly be a good producer even if she couldn't be trained as a Companion.
She peered more closely at the unconscious girl. "Looks like the first stages of plague to me. Have you touched her?"
"N-no!" But the keeper's nager flared panic.
"Sure you have," said Risa. "How about these others? Have you touched them? Listen, I think I'd better get a health inspector. I suspect you've got infected merchandise for sale."
"No, Madame! They were all cultured on arrival. I can show you the tests."
"Mm-hmm," said Risa, and played her ace. "What about this 'returned merchandise'? Was she cultured again after she was returned?"
"Uhhh . . ."
"She wasn't, was she? I'm going for the inspector."
The keeper was flaring solid panic by now. With a shipment due for a big auction, he could not afford to have his premises closed, even temporarily. A breath of rumor that the auction was a plague site would keep people away -- and there would be all those Gens to feed and care for and pay taxes on. He knew as well as Risa did that the girl didn't have the plague . . . but obviously he had omitted to have her re-cultured when she was returned. Her suspicion had proved true.
"Tell you what I'll do," she said. "You give me a good price on this woman, and I'll take the girl off your hands for free."
"You think I'm crazy?"
"Okay. I'll go tell the health inspector you couldn't produce an up-to-date health certificate for a prospective buyer."
"I'll have the certificate by the time she goes up for sale."
"You won't have it by the time I get back here with the inspector." She studied him. "Look, I'm doing you a favor. What if your partner comes back and finds this kid dead? I'll take her off your hands in order to get this other Gen. You know the kid's a total loss. Is she worth having your license suspended?"
"Ren thinks she'll live; she survived the first day. And she'll bring a pretty penny at the next auction. Think of her terror next time, after she's been burned once."
"Sure -- a real treat for someone if she lives. How long ago did your partner leave? He thought she'd improve, didn't he? But has she? How long ago was she burned?"
"Oh . . . two weeks, maybe."
"Two weeks! And she's as low-field as if it were two days. See for yourself. What have you been doing for her?"
"What's to do? I put the food in; she ignores it."
"No wonder she's dying. You don't know how to care for her -- but I do. I'll take the chance she's salvageable if you'll sell me this other Gen at a good price. If the kid dies, I've still got something from the bargain, but if she dies under your care, you'll have to face both your partner . . . and the health inspector."
"Oh, all right," said the keeper, and named an outrageous figure. But Risa had won the moment he agreed to sell. Her bargaining instincts leaped forth, and an hour later she left with the two Gens, having spent none of Jorn's money, and only a modest amount of her own. She was exhilarated -- it was too long since she had bargained face to face. This was where she belonged -- not cooped up in Keon!
The girl was still unconscious, verging on circulatory collapse. Risa mounted her horse, and the keeper handed her first the girl, then the white-painted chain attached to the collar around the black woman's neck. Both Gens were properly tagged, and Risa had their papers in her pocket -- but she had conveniently "forgotten" to check the date on the girl's health certificate.
She rode slowly, so the woman walking beside her could keep up easily and so she could try to support the field of the unconscious girl. When they had turned the corner into a street with no traffic, Risa stopped and said to the woman, "Let me unfasten your hands."
"Good! That way I'll have a chance to get at your throat!"
"I understand your bitterness," said Risa, "but I could not get you away from there except by posing as a trader."
"Some improvement -- sold by you instead of auctioned off!"
"I'm not going to sell you," said Risa. "I'm going to take you where you'll be safe."
"Why?" demanded the woman. "Why should I believe you?"
"I am Risa ambrov Keon, a channel."
That obviously meant nothing to the woman, so Risa continued, "I'm taking you to Householding Carre, where you will see Simes and Gens living together peacefully."
"Sure -- until the Simes get hungry!"
"You'll see when we get there. Householding Simes don't kill Gens -- ever. Now, I think you'll be more comfortable with your hands unbound. I'm afraid you'll have to wear the collar until we reach the householding. I think you're intelligent enough to know that if you stay with me you're safe -- even if you think I'm only saving you to sell. But if you try to escape here in the city, your field will be a beacon to every Sime past turnover, and you will be dead in minutes. Understand?"
The large brown eyes studied Risa warily. Then the woman nodded. "Yeah, I understand," and she held up her hands for Risa to free them.
As they started on their way again, the woman asked, "How come you speak English so well all of a sudden?"
"Everyone in our householding studies English. I would have given away my identity if I had spoken fluently to you in the pens. By the way, I've told you my name. Will you tell me yours?"
"Well, Mara, you're going to see a way of life you didn't think possible."
Risa continued to speak soothingly to Mara about householding life, hoping that at the same time her tone as well as her nageric support might be reaching the girl she held before her. It was difficult to keep her horse down to a walk; she wanted to gallop to Carre and get the girl into the infirmary. Her field remained weak, as the ride took its toll.
Sergi and Quel threw the gates open as soon as Risa approached. The moment they were inside, Quel barring the door behind them, people converged from all sides.
"You did it!" said Sergi, radiating astonishment.
She looked into his eyes. "Did you really think I couldn't?"
His eyes met hers openly. "I was praying that you could."
He took the unconscious girl from her, handed her to one of Carre's channels and reached up to help Risa off her horse. As she slid down into his arms, he held her close for just a moment before he allowed her feet to touch the ground. In that moment of contact, she felt in his nager a fiercely controlled but intensely joyful triumph.
Now she was committed forever, for the story would be all over the Territory the moment it was found out where Risa had taken the Gens she had purchased. She didn't care. What she had done today, she realized, could have been done wearing her red Keon cloak, with Sergi by her side. And now that she had proved that, she would do such things often! Her life would never be so circumscribed again.
Only seconds had passed. The unconscious girl was being carried toward the infirmary. Mara was surrounded by Carre Gens, who were removing her collar and tags and speaking to her reassuringly.
Jorn, emerging from the house, stopped a moment to read the nager of the girl. "Get her into treatment as fast as you can."
He came up beside Risa and Sergi and looked at Mara. "Good job, Risa. That woman's field is flaring beyond any of the Gens around her. But she'll have to donate before she raises intil in our Simes."
"Give her time," said Risa.
Jorn nodded. "Sergi, will you see to her until she's calm enough to donate?"
"Certainly," Sergi replied, and moved off toward the crowd of Gens.
"What did you pay for her?" Jorn asked.
When Risa told him, he stared at her, head cocked to one side. "For both of them?! I offered three times that for the girl alone."
"You're Sectuib in Carre. By the way, I didn't spend any of your money. She handed him the purse. "It was good to know I had it, though. Thank you."
"Do you plan to take both women to Keon?"
"No, just one. Chances are the girl will have a higher capacity -- and that we really could use now. Georg just about drained me at First Transfer."
"You . . . provided First Transfer for a channel?"
"Nedd was approaching need," she explained. "It was the first time I'd done it. Keon is so small, it could be years before a channel gets a chance to really do some things, rather than just practicing under simulated conditions."
"You think you and Nedd can turn that burned child into a Companion?"
"He turned me into a channel. When it comes to making people use their capabilities, I'll trust the Sectuib in Keon. So, if it looks as if this girl is going to recover, I'll sell you Mara for what I paid for her. But if the girl dies . . ."
"Yes, she's very weak," agreed Jorn. "We'll do everything we can for her, Risa, but it may be that all we can do is ease her pain."
"That's why I . . ." She looked at him squarely. "You do understand that when I saw the chance to get a possible substitute, I had to take it?"
"Of course I understand," said Jorn. "It is what I would have done. What I don't understand is how you got the two of them so cheap."
"Oh! You'd better order both of them cultured at once."
"Cultured? For plague? Risa, there's no infection in either of those women."
"I know that. But we certainly don't want the trick I played on the keeper turned back on us!"
When she explained, Jorn laughed. "Ren will be livid when he finds out how you took his partner. It's a good thing Slade is new in town. If he'd recognized you, he'd have been on guard."
"I could have gone in there as a channel, since it turned out I was right about their not having the girl recultured."
"That's not what I meant. Risa Tigue has quite a reputation as a trader, you know -- the kitten with the teeth of a mountain lion."
"You think I've forgotten the time you bought my entire stock of farm equipment and kitchen utensils -- and sold them right here in Norlea at three times Carre prices?"
"That's known as turning a profit," she grinned. "And you got your price, so what are you complaining about?" Then she sobered. "We could certainly use some of your products. Do you know what our fine metal shop was doing this spring? Mending pots and pans for the people of Levine!"
"They don't last," Jorn agreed. "Yet I've got some pieces here that go back to the Ancients. Don't rust, don't develop holes or weak spots -- but we can't make any metal like that."
"I wonder . . ."
"Sergi is a damn fine metalworker. Perhaps you'd let him take a look at that metal?"
"Certainly. But I'll tell you what we could use that would solve a lot of our problems: a reliable source of iron and steel, raw materials to make our products. You know the problem, Risa. You scalped customers for Carre products that time because you got the word before we did that the barge with our supply of iron had sunk. It was three months before we could get a new supply."
"From Keon to here, there's an easy land route by the Ancient highway," Risa observed.
"Hmm? Risa, your brain is clicking away like an abacus. You've just seen another way to make money."
"Better than that, Sectuib. I have just seen the way to stop the raids on Keon."
"How long is it since Carre was attacked?"
"One of our Simes was killed three months ago."
"Until Sime Territory is one big householding, we'll have to expect that. But when was the last concerted attack on Carre?"
He thought a moment. "It's eight years now."
"Do you know why?"
"We keep pretty quiet, and our products are useful."
"Precisely! Keon keeps pretty quiet, too -- but our products are luxury items. Norlea can't afford to cut off its supply of plowshares, wheel rims, horseshoes, knives -- I know your products, Sectuib; I've merchandised enough of them. They're the best available."
"And your father and you used to make a nice profit out of the prejudices of the juncts who won't buy directly from the householdings."
"If they want to be prejudiced, let 'em pay for it!"
Jorn burst our laughing. "Oh, you are incorrigible!" he gasped.
"Why? Because other people are foolish enough to pay more than they'd have to if they bought directly from you? Someone was going to make money from it -- why not me? Dad always said the habits of the householders weren't contagious, so--"
Jorn had not truly recovered from his previous burst of laughter, and now Risa's words triggered a new attack. She stared, suddenly acutely aware of who and what she had become. Her own merriment bubbled forth. "Yes--" she gasped when she could find enough breath to speak, "yes, they are contagious! And there is our salvation."
"What do you mean?"
"An idea, Sectuib -- the germ of an idea to go along with my plans for Keon."
At that point they were interrupted as Sergi brought Mara over to them. Wariness was plain in the Gen woman's nager, but she was not flaring the combination of anger and fear that had marked her earlier.
"Sectuib Jorn," said Sergi, "This is Mara Shanton. I have told her that if she will donate she can have free run of Carre, and the protection of the householding."
"I . . . don't understand any of this," said Mara, "but all these people have told me they . . . donate . . . all the time and never get hurt."
"That's right, Mara," said Jorn. "I promise -- I won't hurt you. I'm a channel. For twenty-seven years I have been Sime . . . and I have never killed a Gen. Do you believe me?"
She looked at Sergi, at Risa, then back to Jorn, studying his face. "I . . . I don't know how to believe it. How can you live without killing Gens?"
"It is not necessary to kill to obtain selyn. The killmode is triggered by Gen fear -- and an ordinary Sime cannot help killing then. Some of us, the channels, have the special ability to take selyn from Gens, and transmit it to other Simes. We train long and hard to overcome our reaction to Gen fear. Of course, none of the Gens here fear transfer. The more you can control your fear, Mara, the easier it will be for me . . . but believe me, I won't hurt you no matter how frightened you are." His voice was soothing, hypnotic.
The Gen woman was becoming less apprehensive. "If I . . . donate . . . can I go home?"
Jorn sighed. "You will be free to leave Carre as you wish. However, I do not think you would reach the border before you were picked up by traders. They'd keep you until you were high-field and put you up for sale again. It is unlikely that you would have the good fortune to be purchased by a householding a second time."
"Then . . . I'm stuck here. I can never go back to my husband . . . my babies . . ." Her lower lip trembled and a tear slid down her cheek.
"Mara," said Jorn, "the householdings command no power in Sime Territory. We are barely tolerated. All I can offer you is your life, now. I can offer you a home here at Carre, or at Keon, should we arrange that you go with Risa and Sergi. I have no way to get you back to where you came from . . . but rendering you low-field will give you the best chance of getting there by yourself. It is a very, very slim chance."
"I'll take it," she said. "How do I donate?" Her nager was flaring more hope than fear. Risa, knowing how hopeless her situation really was, looked at Sergi, and saw the deep sadness in his eyes. What a waste of a life!
But Jorn had to take advantage of the opportunity to accept her donation with the least difficulty. Dina, one of the Companions in Carre, stepped between Mara and Jorn, holding out her hands to the Gen woman.
"Sectuib must touch you," Dina explained, "just as he would in transfer."
Mara did not flinch. She stood determined, conquering her apprehension as Jorn's tentacles extended, the Companion stepped back, and the channel made contact. She was still holding perfectly still, expectantly, when he disengaged, moments later.
"What's wrong?" she asked when Jorn drew away.
"Nothing's wrong," he replied with a smile. "It's all over. You were very good, Mara. You made it easy for both of us."
"Can I go now?"
"As I told you, you are free to go. You have paid any debt you might owe Carre. But let me ask you to accept our hospitality tonight, and start out fresh in the morning . . . if you still want to go."
"I'll have a better chance at night," she protested.
"No, you won't," said Jorn. "Not in Sime Territory." At her blank look, he explained, "Simes can follow your field as easily in the dark as in daylight; they don't have to see you. As there are more people about in daylight, and you are now low-field, you will have a better chance of blending into the general nageric atmosphere in daytime."
She nodded. "I understand."
Dina said, "Mara, let me show you around Carre. Perhaps we can persuade you to stay with us."
Mara looked at the Companion. "Do you have children?" she asked.
"Yes," Dina said softly.
"In my situation, would you stay here, and let your children grow up thinking you were dead?"
As they were moving away, Risa did not hear Dina's answer, but remembering her commitment to her little brother, she could well imagine how Mara would feel about her children. No, Mara would not stay . . . but there was always a chance she might escape. A tiny chance.
A little later, Risa and Sergi went to the infirmary. "How is the girl?" Risa asked.
"Not good," replied Silva, an elderly Gen woman who was sitting beside the bed. "She came conscious enough for me to get some fosebine into her, but I don't think she was aware of where she was."
"Poor little thing," said Sergi -- the only person Risa knew who was likely to refer to a Gen as "little".
"Her field is stronger," Risa observed, "and steady. On the ride here, what little power her nager had was fluctuating wildly."
As she drew near, the girl's eyes flickered open, unfocused. Then suddenly she was conscious, peering at Risa, no fear in her nager. "Lella?" she murmured. Then, "No, you're not my sister," and tears rolled down her cheeks.
"It's all right," said Risa, resisting the urge to extend her laterals for an accurate reading on the girl's field. Holding all of her tentacles retracted, she took the girl's hand. "You're safe here, honey. No one's going to hurt you."
"Who are you? Where's Lella?"
"My name is Risa. Can you tell me yours?"
"Etti Pomeridge. Ohhh. It hurts!"
"I know, Etti, but you're going to be all right now. Just sleep. We'll take care of you."
Exhaustion was taking its toll. "Yes, Lella," murmured Etti, drifting to sleep.
"Simelan," Sergi observed. "She's from in-Territory. That will be some help."
Risa turned to Silva. "She's really asleep now, instead of unconscious."
"That's good. I think it's best not to disturb her until time for her next medication."
"You're really good with children," Sergi said when they were outside once more.
"Etti's an adult now," Risa observed, "but she's still a child emotionally, of course. I think she's going to come through this all right."
"Yes, she's going to live," Sergi agreed, "but I'm not sure she'll be able to overcome her fear. I wish we could take Mara instead."
"I'm sure she's going to try to go home," said Risa.
"So am I," said Sergi. "I know how hopeless it is. I also know that if I were separated from you . . . and our children . . . I would have to try it."
The next day, Mara was gone. When the sheriff came pounding on the gates at noon, every mind leaped to the thought that Mara had been caught and Carre was to be charged with conspiracy to aid a Gen to escape -- a charge that could never be made to stick, as one could do what he pleased with his own Gens except escort them to the border. However, every Sectuib spent an occasional night in jail under that charge, and had to establish his innocence. It was just another part of the steady harassment of the householdings.
But although the sheriff was there about Mara, it soon became obvious that he did not know she had left Carre. He was there to see Risa and Jorn. The first charge was that Risa had no valid license to purchase Gens wholesale. But, of course, she had -- and produced it for his inspection. The furious glance he threw at the keeper beside him indicated that he now knew he had been dragged out here on a wild goose chase.
"I'll have to see the health certificates for those two Gens," he continued woodenly.
"Certainly," replied Jorn. "If you would like to come in and see for yourself -- "
"You know no decent person would set foot in a place like this!"
Risa smiled inwardly, remembering her father, and later herself negotiating with Jorn at the gates of Carre. But the offer made it sound as if Jorn could produce both Gens for inspection. Good thinking, she silently congratulated the Sectuib in Carre.
The new health certificates for both Gens were produced. Obviously annoyed, the sheriff left, and Risa started back toward the house. Sergi had been standing back in the crowd; when she approached him, she found again that edginess and distrust that she had thought was gone forever.
Puzzled, she asked, "Sergi . . . what's wrong?"
"I'll never really know you, will I?"
"Now what have I done?"
"So you had a license to deal in Gens. I can accept that. But after you pledged unto Keon, why did you renew it?"
"It's a general wholesale license," she replied, producing the paper again for his inspection. "My father and I always paid extra for the general license so we'd be able to take advantage of any opportunity that came along. It just happens to cover wholesaling Gens, too."
Relief and regret flowed from him as he read her license. "Risa, I'm sorry! I don't want to doubt you. It's just that these past few days. . . ."
"It's just that you have suddenly had revealed to you Risa Tigue, Sime Kitten. That's what they used to call me, because I looked so young and innocent."
"You still do."
"But I'm Risa ambrov Keon now. Come on -- let's see if we can pay for Carre's hospitality by making ourselves useful."
Jorn was in the dispensary, taking donations. There were only five Gens waiting, though, and he was finished with this simple process in as many minutes. "Risa, I owe Keon," he said, "for Mara's donation. Shall I pay you for her, or would you prefer the selyn?"
"The selyn," she replied.
"How many dynopters?" he asked.
"How many what?"
Jorn laughed. "I don't know either, but I hope to very soon. Zeor has invented a way of accurately measuring selyn flow. Some of our members will be crossing Gen Territory for the Arensti, so I'm sending a channel on to Zeor then to learn it. They've invited representatives of any householding to learn it, not just those in the Tecton."
"I'll tell Nedd," said Risa. "Maybe he'll let me go learn it for Keon. We ought to be forming our own Tecton in this Territory -- but Keon can't suggest it because it would look as if we were asking the stronger householdings to protect us."
"I think the original Tecton will spread over here soon," Jorn said. "In the meantime, we can go on cooperating with one another."
Jorn transferred to Risa approximately the amount of selyn he had received from Mara. Then she suggested, "Shall Sergi and I work dispensary for you for a while? We'd earn our keep, and you'd have a bit of free time."
"Thanks for the thought, but I'll have to say no," replied Jorn.
"What -- a Sectuib who's not so swamped with work that he'd give anything for an hour off?" Risa teased.
But Jorn was serious. "Risa . . . I know it will seem unreasonable to you, but I don't want you functioning as a channel while you're here at Carre."
"Why not?" she asked, mystified. Beside her, she felt Sergi bristle, then burst into anger at Jorn's answer.
"Because you're disjunct."
"That's right -- disjunct," she replied calmly. "I've never hurt anyone since I started channeling, Jorn. This past winter was absolute hell with only two channels at Keon -- and I never even burned anyone, let alone killed."
"I know," he said gently. "It's not my Gens I'm worried about. I know they're safe with you. But you would junct my Simes."
Sergi exploded. "Jorn, that is the most pig-headed, prejudiced statement I have ever heard from a so-called channel! All the early channels were disjunct, starting with Rimon Farris. Our own Sectuib's grandfather, who founded Keon, was disjunct. What's the matter with you?"
"Sergi, calm down!" said Jorn as his own Companion moved between them to shield him from the big Gen's wrath. "Get hold of yourself and look at Risa. There you are, right next to her, flaring fury, and it's not bothering her a bit. That's a junct reaction, to absorb another's fear, anger, pain . . . and enjoy it."
The fury in Sergi's nager was damped as if he had doused a torch-- but before he regained total control Risa felt an icy fear clutch at him. Then there was no emotion to be read in him at all, just the soothing pulse of the nager of a skilled Companion.
Risa studied Jorn. "I don't 'enjoy' another's fear, anger, or pain," she said. "Logically, the fact that I have some degree of immunity to such emotions gives me more, not less, control than the average channel. I wouldn't junct your Simes, Sectuib -- but don't worry, I won't touch anyone in Carre, Sime or Gen."
She turned on her heel and stalked out of the dispensary, Sergi in her wake.
He remained a steady, soothing presence as they crossed the court, but when they entered the empty hallway, he grasped Risa's hand to stop her.
"Risa. Risa, I'm sorry; I haven't been controlling properly the past few days. But . . . Jorn is partly right. It's because you don't react."
"I've understood your anger," she said.
"Nonetheless, you have felt it without shrinking from me. Gens learn control through Sime reactions. I can . . . sense . . . something, but I can't read nager as you do. I've just realized I've been letting go with you because you don't give me any negative feedback. Forgive me."
Risa looked up at him. "You're also afraid Jorn is right that I'm a menace to renSimes. If I am, why did we not have a single instance of junct reaction all last winter? No attacks, nobody going crazy with intil."
He smiled in relief. "Of course; you're right. Jorn is exaggerating his safety measures. If Keon isn't safe with you, then it's not safe with anyone."
That evening, Risa found Etti awake again, this time entirely sure of her surroundings. With just twenty-four hours of a warm bed, medication, and gentle hands caring for her, she was improving rapidly. Her field had increased perceptibly, although it was filled with apprehension.
When Risa came in, Etti looked pointedly at her forearms, and said, "There are Simes here."
"Yes, Etti, but none of them will hurt you."
"Is this a householding?"
"Yes. You are at Householding Carre, just outside Norlea."
"You're going to keep me . . . as a . . . supplier of selyn?" Risa could feel fear and relief warring in the girl's nager.
"If you mean, are we going to force you to stay here and donate, no. But we will try to persuade you that you will have the best possible life in a householding. Etti, what do you know about our way of life?"
"I know you don't kill Gens."
"You keep Gens . . . like cattle to supply your need."
"No, Etti. Some Simes say that about us, but it's not true. In the householdings, Simes and Gens live as equals. As soon as you're well enough, you can go anywhere in the householding, talk to people, see how we live. Then, if you decide you want to try to escape into Gen Territory, no one will stop you. But you will be welcome to come with me to my own householding, Keon, to live with us in safety."
"But . . . I'd have to . . . go through that . . ."
"No, Etti. Ordinary donation to a channel doesn't hurt. Ask Silva, or any of the other Gens. They donate every month, and they're not hurt."
Risa could feel hope vying with fear in the girl's nager. She knew what Etti had been through already -- the self-revulsion of the child of Simes who established, the knowledge that she would either be killed or, if she escaped, would have to make a new life among people with a completely different culture, different language. Wild Gens, they were called in-Territory. Was it any wonder that few children who established had the incentive to overcome their despair and reach the border?
Etti had been captured, auctioned off, and badly burned. No wonder she felt dread fear of transfer. No wonder she felt useless as a Gen when all her life she had seen Gens killed and their lifeless bodies discarded as so much garbage. Yet Risa sensed a natural buoyancy in the girl's personality; perhaps they would be able to coax her back to a sense of her own worth. Risa determined to send Sergi to spend time with Etti tomorrow -- if there was ever a self-assured Gen, it was Sergi.
Outside, she found that her Companion had joined a group gathered around a shiltpron player. Sergi was seated in the inner circle. When he saw Risa approach, he started to get up, but she waved him back and found a seat on the edge of the circle.
After a few concert pieces, the musician suddenly plunged into a dance tune. Immediately, his audience were on their feet, reaching for the nearest partner, whirling into a riotous hoedown.
The dance went through several variations before it brought Risa and Sergi together. He danced well, she thought -- that peculiar grace so unexpected in a man so large, and Gen to boot. As they danced, she became aware of . . . envy . . . from the women around her. Envy? Envy because when Sergi swung Risa he took the opportunity to hold her tightly for a moment, did not let go before he had to. Moreover, his delight in her closeness was in his nager for every Sime to read -- and plain on his face for every Gen.
The dance separated them again, and at the end Risa found herself in the arms of a handsome young channel she'd met earlier. "That was fun," he said. "Shall we call for another set?"
"Yes!" said Risa, who hadn't danced in more than a year, and was thoroughly enjoying it.
But Silva was calling from the infirmary window, "Hush down there! I've got patients who must rest!" And the musician went back to soft, soothing music.
Daro, the young channel, had kept hold of Risa's hand. Now he drew her back from rejoining the circle forming around the shiltpron player. "Would you like to go for a walk?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied. "It's a beautiful evening."
As they walked, he said, "Risa, I remember you from years ago, looking sweet and demure sitting beside your father on his wagon."
"Sweet and demure? All an act, I assure you. I was probably sitting on a hole in my britches from climbing somebody's apple tree."
"And do you still climb trees?"
"I seldom have occasion to."
"Not just for the fun of it?"
"Not for a long time. You're a channel, Daro. When was the last time you had time to do something just for the fun of it?"
"Today. Dancing, and now walking with you."
"Yes, of course," said Risa. "You have enough channels here at Carre. Would you like to come to Keon, Daro?"
"With you? An enticing invitation." He faced her, taking both her hands. Risa looked up into his dark eyes and felt a very odd sensation. He was handsome, he was personable, and he was about to kiss her. She wanted to be kissed . . . but not by Daro.
"Forgive me," she said, disengaging her hands. "I shouldn't have started flirting with you."
He smiled tolerantly, feeling the change in her nager. "I started it," he said. "Too bad I can't finish it."
"It's not your fault. I just realized that a casual relationship, no matter how attractive the partner, is no longer comfortable. I'm sorry you had to take the brunt of that realization."
"I understand," he said. "I know you weren't deliberately teasing me. I'm tempted to say that we might have something beyond a casual relationship, for I would like to get to know you much better. But I think there was a little more to that realization than you're admitting?"
"Zlinprying channel!" said Risa in mock annoyance.
They went back to the group around the musician. Now something Risa had never seen before was happening. Dina, the Companion who had taken charge of Mara, had joined the shiltpron player. As he played, her nager pulsed with the music, creating an eerily beautiful tension between physical and hyper-physical sensations.
There were fewer people than before, so Risa was able to sit down beside Sergi. He was entranced by the music. She knew he could sense, probably more than any other Gen there, what Dina was doing . . . but he could never know fully that overpowering combination. Risa was seated to his right. Sergi put his right arm around her, taking her hand, then reached over and took her left hand in his. The effect became even more sensational. Risa's field was responding to the music -- and Sergi's was echoing Dina's, but carefully damped so he would not interfere with her performance.
Risa was overwhelmed. She seemed not only to hear the music and sense the nageric accompaniment, but to feel, to see, to taste, to smell - to zlin - the sensations. It was no longer a performance outside themselves; they were both the performers and the work, in a world as new and different as the world of the Sime just through changeover.
When the music ended, Risa reluctantly returned to reality, looking at Sergi with new eyes, realizing that he missed nothing. Always she had thought, He does amazing things . . . for a Gen. He's very perceptive . . . for a Gen.
It was a long time since she had learned to accept Gens as people, but she had accepted them as handicapped, incomplete people, as children like Kreg. No wonder she had not seen Sergi as a man, as a sexual being.
It had grown dark. Only very dim light from the house let them look at one another, but they were looking with other senses as with one accord they rose, leaving the circle of listeners, moving off to a distance at which their fields would be unreadable.
They didn't speak. Risa reached up, her arms around Sergi's neck, and he kissed her. This time it was a warm, delicious, heady excitement. After a few moments, though, she was wobbling on her toes despite the support of Sergi's strong arms, and had to draw back. She held him close, her cheek against his chest, wanting to get closer, to strip away the layers of clothing between them, the layers of flesh between them . . .
"What happened?" Sergi asked softly.
"I had an opportunity for comparison."
"Since I seem to have gained by that comparison, I won't ask further."
"Let's go inside," she murmured, and felt his nager flare his eagerness.
Decorously they merely walked side by side, not even holding hands as they passed the dwindling circle in the courtyard. No one turned to look at them as they entered the house.
Just as they reached the staircase, however, Silva came bustling down it. "Oh, Risa! I'm glad I found you so quickly. Etti's calling for you."
"What is it?"
"Nightmares. She's terrified, woke up screaming for Lella, then asked for you."
Reluctantly, Risa came out of her romantic mood. Sergi was following along, but Silva said, "I think as few people as possible should see Etti right now. She's very confused and frightened."
"All right," he replied. "Risa, I'll be -- " he obviously changed his mind, "--downstairs, if you want to find me."
Etti was sobbing into her pillow, shaking, her field fluctuating madly. It had increased again, even in the short time since Risa had last seen her. She'd make a Companion, all right, but not until she learned to control that broadcast of emotion. Risa gathered all her channel's control about her as she approached the girl.
"Etti. Etti, what's the matter?" she asked as gently as she could manage.
The girl flung herself on Risa, sobbing against her shoulder. The physical contact increased the potency of her nager, and Risa fought down intil despite the fact that she was pre-turnover. "Etti, stop it"' she said through gritted teeth. "You're hurting me!"
Etti let go, staring at Risa in astonishment, surprise peaking over her grief for a moment. It was obvious she thought Risa meant physical pain.
Gently, Risa drew Etti back into her arms, comforting her as she used to comfort Kreg . . . realizing that that was why the girl's grief affected her so, bringing back her own loss. "Etti, it's your sorrow that hurts me. I am trained not to react to fear, but I feel your grief as keenly as you do. Can you talk about it?"
The girl's sobs subsided into hiccups and she said, "Lella . . . she thinks I'm dead! I'll never see her again!"
"I know, dear, I know."
"I dreamed . . . she died. I saw her dead!"
"That was only a dream, Etti, only a dream. You know your sister is alive. She's very sad to lose you, but she still has her life. Doesn't she have other family?"
"Oh, yes. She's married. San. He was so nice to me, too, just like a brother. And they have a b-baby. Oh, I'll never see little Jonna again, either!"
When she expressed her sorrow verbally, Etti's nager did not flare so painfully, and Risa was able to comfort her, saying soothingly, "In the householdings it doesn't matter if you're Sime or Gen. Families have both in them. If you come with us, the whole householding will be your family."
Etti was calming under Risa's soothing voice and touch. She didn't think Etti was really listening or thinking until suddenly she said, "Risa . . . can I write to Lella? Tell her I'm all right? Maybe . . . oh, maybe they'd come live with us!"
"Etti, they can't," Risa said sadly. "If you want to, of course you may write to your sister. But she probably won't answer you. And she can't disjunct, even if she wanted to."
"Disjunct. Stop killing. Simes can't just stop, Etti. It's a terribly painful process, and anyone who has been Sime for more than a year can't do it. They die."
Risa felt Etti's newborn hope die, and hugged her close, hating having to hurt her, but knowing that it was best if she made a clean break from her old life now. "You're a grown woman now that you've established," she explained. "You're going to have to make your own decision. Would it be kinder to Lella to let her forget you, or to tell her you're alive, but can't live with her any more? Take your time to think about it, Etti. You don't have to make up your mind right now . . . but you should very soon."
After a while Etti calmed down, and soon fell into an exhausted slumber. Risa went back downstairs, wanting Sergi's steady presence. She found him in the lounge, with the Sime who had been playing the shiltpron, Daro, Dina, and two other Gens. They were laughing and talking, and didn't notice Risa's approach.
At that moment, Sergi was the object of the others' teasing.
Someone was saying, "You're big enough to make two ordinary Gens."
"Sometimes I felt like more than two people last winter," replied Sergi. "Everyone at Keon did the work of two or three -- and Risa the work of a dozen, it seemed."
"There he goes again"' laughed Dina. "Risa, Risa, Risa! I wish such a gorgeous man were that besotted over me."
"Will I do?" asked Daro.
"You'll have to ask my husband," Dina replied. "But Sergi, you don't have to ask anybody's permission. Why don't you use your advantage as a Gen?"
". . . what?" asked Sergi.
"If I were in your position," Dina explained, "I'd just imprint her."
There was general laughter. Holding her show-field low, Risa let the conversation turn, so no one would know she had overheard, before she entered the room. But although she managed outward calm, her head was spinning.
Imprintation. She had heard of it, of course, but it was not her problem. That is, since she didn't have to worry about imprinting anyone, she had given little thought to that lesson in her channel training.
Only channels were in danger of being imprinted, and then only in personal transfer with a Companion of the opposite sex -- something she experienced every month with Sergi. It was his responsibility to prevent it, and he did so as a matter of course. Never once had she felt an uncontrollable urge to tumble into bed with him after transfer.
But now . . . now Sergi said he loved her. And Nedd approved - he would undoubtedly urge Sergi to be "careless" at their next transfer. Her Companion had the power to make her desire him, exclusively and helplessly.
But he's never used it, she reminded herself.
But then, he had never had a reason before.
When they went upstairs, Sergi lingered only briefly in Risa's room. "You're upset," he said. "Is it Etti?"
"Partly. She's on that edge between relief at being alive and sorrow at losing her home."
"She'll come through."
"Yes, I think she will. Spend some time with her, Sergi. Show her what it's like to be a householding Gen. She's ignoring Silva and calling for me, which doesn't make sense with the way Silva's caring for her. I don't think she has yet accepted Gens as people."
"You think I can help her more than Silva?"
"She can get a nice healthy crush on you to tide her over until she learns her own worth."
"I'd rather you had a crush on me." He paused, analyzing her reaction. "What's wrong? Earlier this evening, I thought . . ."
"Oh, I'm just tired," she said, torn. In Sergi's presence, she could not believe he would take unfair advantage. But when he had gone, doubt crept back again.
She lay awake for a long time, considering the events of this confusing day, and her ambivalent feelings toward Sergi. In one day her perception of him had swung 180 degrees.
How could she have lived in Keon for two years and continued to perceive Gens as less than Simes? She had, she now realized, seen them as people, yes, but handicapped people -- like a child born blind, who, even if he changed over and developed the Sime senses that allowed him to function almost as well as everyone else, would still be lacking a part of life that everyone else knew.
Kreg . . . little brother . . . how she had loved him, but she had loved him as a child, a child forever once he established. But Kreg had died a man, defending Keon.
Once she had gone beyond that barrier, Risa was able to appreciate Sergi as a man -- oh, indeed, an incredibly compelling man! But he had the power, if he cared to use it, to tie her to him, helplessly. Imprintation was not love, but sexual desire. Sergi would not want sex without love. She knew that. How could she malign him by even thinking such a thing? Then, if she didn't fear that, what was she so upset about?
Almost in panic, she flung off the light cover, which had become tangled about her legs. Restrictions! More walls closing in on her life. More people with power over her. It was not that Sergi would use it, but that he had that power.
All her life, she had struggled for independence. Her father had taught her that: work for yourself, rely on yourself, answer only to yourself. Thus she had kept a part of herself separate from Keon, some place to turn if Keon failed her.
Now she realized that it was a false perception. Only Gens could be independent; Simes would always be dependent on them. Juncts might consider Gens animals, and thus disguise their dependence, but that did not change the facts: Gens could live full, complete, independent lives without Simes. Without Gens, Simes would die.
Sergi spent the next day with Etti, as Risa suggested. After finding that the girl's spirits were improving with her physical condition, Risa went out with Carre's renSimes to spend the morning in the fields. By noon it became uncomfortably hot, even for Simes, and they returned to the main house. Risa showered, then went down to the veranda, where she found Sergi and Etti drinking lemonade and talking.
"Uh, Risa!" Etti said excitedly, "Sergi's been telling me all about Keon, and about being a Companion. Do you think I can learn to be one?"
"Yes, Etti, I do, but it will take a lot of hard work." She smiled knowingly at Sergi over the girl's head. He had certainly followed her instructions.
Within a few days, Etti was well enough to travel, and bubbling over with enthusiasm. She objected vehemently to having to wear the collar and tags that marked her as Risa's property. "Why can't I wear a red cloak, like Sergi? I'm going to be a Companion."
"You can wear my cloak if you want to," said Risa, "but off the grounds you'll still have to wear that collar until you've pledged unto Keon."
"I'll pledge now!"
"No, dear. You have to donate first, and Sectuib Varnst must accept your pledge."
Etti quieted at that. The one thing she had refused to do, with either Sergi or Risa, was go to the dispensary to watch donations. She had clearly accepted the fact that Gens were not hurt in householdings, that she was safe among householding Simes, and even that she wanted to be a Companion like Sergi -- but she had obviously divorced all that in her mind from the act of transfer.
Risa was past turnover, which usually bothered her very little. This month, for some reason, waves of dizziness assailed her when she least expected it, and food didn't seem to agree with her. She put such minor annoyances out of her mind, but her general feeling of not-quite-up-to-standard kept her riding silently while Etti kept up a constant chatter to Sergi.
They rode openly now, along the mail roads, Sergi and Risa with their red cloaks draped across their saddles when it was too hot to wear them. They were given a wide berth by passing Simes, although Risa could feel their flaring resentment and thought that probably Sergi sensed it, too.
The third evening they were up into the hills. It was cool, and besides, all of them wanted some trin tea, so they camped and built a fire.
As Risa handed Sergi the wood she had gathered and watched him coax the tiny flame into a warm glow, the headache that had been nagging at the back of her skull all day suddenly exploded beyond her power to ignore it. At the same time, a cramp in her solar plexus made her draw her knees up and put her arms around them, as if to calm the pain by containing it.
What was it? She'd been through some horrifying physical experiences -- changeover, psycho-spatial disorientation, disjunction -- Compared with even the least of those, this was nothing, but somehow it was related to her Sime functions, rather than being an illness or something she had eaten.
Suddenly she was aware of Sergi beside her. "What's wrong?" he asked, but the moment she looked up he smiled reassuringly. "It's only entran."
"Entran! I never have entran!"
He laughed. "You never go for two weeks without channeling, either. It's a wonder it didn't start days ago. But we'll get rid of it quickly enough. You remember the exercises." He held out his hands to her.
"No," she said. "I ought to be able to control my own body. I don't want to be dependent on you."
"Risa, you can't control entran without help from a Gen, but it doesn't make you dependent on me. Any Gen could do this for you."
"Any householding Gen," she gasped as a spasm hit her. He didn't answer that, and there was little change in his nager. He didn't understand her rebellion, but it no longer surprised him.
Entran was the final mark of her subjection to Keon. Now she could never cease being a channel -- and she could not be a channel outside a householding.
The pain of that finality was far worse than the entran.
She felt Sergi's nager, warm, comforting, easing some of the pain, calming her. He had a trick of falling into phase with her, quelling her need even when she was very close to transfer, enabling her to work comfortably without intil, sometimes right up to the time they retired for transfer -- as long as he was at her side.
Shen! She was dependent on him, for health and sanity. Might as well marry him; there certainly wasn't room in her life for Sergi and a husband. He knew she would have to see that, eventually, damn him. He had done this to her --
No. No, Sergi had not done it. He had done what had to be done, as she had. Through the misery of the past winter, Risa had been forced to expand and strain her capabilities to keep Keon alive . . . and Sergi had kept Risa alive.
She looked up into his clear blue eyes, knowing she could trust him. It wasn't his fault he had been born a Companion, any more than it was hers that she was a channel. She put her hands on his arms, gripping him with her handling tentacles, extending her laterals. But before they could make lip contact, a scream shattered the easy communion of their nager. "No! No! You'll hurt him! You'll kill him!"
Etti launched herself between them, scattering berries across the ground as she dropped her basket to tear at Risa's arms.
Swiftly sheathing her laterals, and augmenting slightly, Risa met the girl's attack, gripping her hands with handling tentacles to keep them from reaching her delicate nerves. Sergi was reaching for Etti at the same time -- slow motion to Risa, but she held the girl easily until he got his arms around her shoulders, then let go and sheathed her tentacles, to avoid alarming the child any more than ---
As she came out of augmentation on a wave of dizziness, Risa realized that what she read in Etti's nager was not fear -- at least not fear for herself. It was anger, consternation, and . . . protectiveness! She writhed in Sergi's grip, sobbing, "Don't let her, Sergi! She'll kill you!"
"Etti!" he exclaimed. "Stop it! Risa has never hurt me, and she never will."
The girl subsided into incoherent sobs, and Sergi pulled her gently against him, letting her cry on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," she got out finally. "Oh, I'm sorry. It just -- it just brought it all back!"
From the safety of Sergi's arms, Etti faced Risa, her eyes wide with the horror of what she thought she'd done. "Risa! How can you just sit there calmly when I interrupted your transfer?"
"It wasn't transfer, Etti," said Risa. "It was an entran outfunction."
"You know channels have two selyn systems. My secondary system hasn't been used for the past few days, and it's . . . cramping, just like a muscle does if you suddenly stop using it."
"But . . . if you take selyn from Sergi now, into your secondary system, he won't have enough for you when you're in need."
"She wasn't going to take selyn, Etti," said Sergi. "All a channel requires to combat entran is a Gen -- any Gen -- to act as resistance. There is no selyn flow."
"No selyn flow?"
"Only within my system," said Risa. "Nothing from Sergi to me."
"But you're past turnover, and Sergi is high-field. How can you keep from . . . ?"
"Channel's training. Long, hard months of training, Etti. I . . . can't hurt a Gen any more. I would abort transfer -- and risk dying of the shock -- at the first sign of pain in the Gen. But in entran function there is no transfer -- so there can't be any pain."
Etti looked at her, puzzled, frowning. Then she left Sergi and moved closer to Risa. "I think . . . I think you're telling the truth. I'm lots lowerfield than Sergi. Let me do it."
Double surprise flooded Risa -- but it was Sergi who had the presence of mind to ask, "What makes you think you're lower-field than I am, Etti? I donated to Risa several days after you were attacked."
There was confusion in the girl's nager. "I . . . don't know. I mean, I just know, that's all. You're a Companion, Sergi. Maybe you just naturally have a higher field."
"That's right," said Risa. "But don't you see, the fact that you somehow sense these things means you are a Companion, too."
"Really? Will I be able to stay at Keon?"
"I'm sure of it," said Risa. Now . . . you're not afraid of me any more?"
"No. I know you won't hurt me. But you're in pain!" She gasped as another spasm wrenched Risa's system. "Oh, please -- let me help!" Selyur nager supported her words as she held out her hands to Risa.
"Sergi . . . come monitor," said Risa.
"You'd let her--?"
"She wants to. Can't you tell?"
He said no more, but moved to kneel behind Risa, his hands on her shoulders.
Etti did not shrink at all when Risa's handling tentacles wrapped around her forearms. When the moist laterals touched her skin, a slight apprehension charged her nager, and Risa held absolutely still until it subsided. "You make the lip contact, Etti. Whenever you're ready."
The girl hesitated only a moment. Then she pressed her lips to Risa's. The channel waited to be sure there was no fear, then used the girl's field to direct her own internal selyn flow. It took only moments.
When Risa broke contact, Etti said, "Did you do it? I didn't feel anything."
"You weren't supposed to," said Risa with a smile. "You did just as well as Sergi could -- held everything absolutely steady for me to work against."
"You said any Gen could do it."
"Not any Gen still recovering from transfer burn," said Sergi. "Congratulations, Etti. You have just performed your first function as a Companion."
"Thank you, Etti," said Risa, and kissed the girl's cheek.
Etti threw her arms about Risa's neck and hugged her. "Oh, thank you Risa! Now I know I'm going to be all right."
Later that night, Risa rolled up in her blanket between Sergi and Etti, although she did not sleep. As the night grew colder and the fire died down, they moved closer together for warmth, until by morning she was sandwiched between the two Gens, their fields creating a sensation much like post-transfer euphoria.
She didn't want to get up when the sun rose, but she did, woke her companions, and they set out on another day's journey.
At Keon, the training of Georg and Etti began in earnest. Apologetically, Nedd assigned Sergi to Georg for his second transfer. "He really should feel what a good Donor is like," he told Risa. "You can have Gevron this month, and serve me. I suspect I won't feel any lack at all, considering the complaints I've had while you were away."
"From the Simes scheduled for you, who had to come to Van and me instead. They tell me you're much more satisfying."
"People just like something to complain about," said Risa. "How's Georg doing?"
"I've got him taking a few donations every day, and transferring to Van or me. He's good, Risa. I think after a proper transfer we can start him on some of our steadier renSimes. Michi, for example."
"Poor Michi! He suffered through my first attempts!" laughed Risa. "Georg certainly can't be any worse."
When Risa had begun channeling, she had quickly learned to control the flow, not to harm Gens, to provide enough selyn to Simes to satisfy. Having been junct, however, she had found it difficult, after the agony of disjunction, to deliberately recall and reproduce the sensation of the kill for other Simes -- the egobliss that was as necessary to their health as a full complement of selyn.
Georg, Nedd reported, was already doing it well in their practice sessions, "Undoubtedly having learned it from your First Transfer, Risa."
Etti hung around Risa or Sergi their first day home, until either of them headed for the dispensary. Then she would disappear. That afternoon, Risa found her, and said, "Come along now, Etti. I'm going to take donations in the courtyard, and you're going to watch."
"What if I get scared? That will disturb you, and you'll hurt someone."
"First, I'm a channel. I would hurt myself rather than harm a Gen. Second, you're not going to get scared, any more than you did when you helped me over that entran attack."
Orli was monitoring Risa -- which, he had learned, meant staying nearby, but definitely out of her way. He and Etti sat on a bench and watched the proceedings.
As Orli stayed between them, Risa could not tell what Etti felt as she watched the Gens step up to donate. Soon she forgot the girl's presence, concentrating on her work, talking and laughing with the donors. This was the easiest and pleasantest of her channel's duties, especially since she had moved it outdoors.
When she had finished, Etti came up. "I wish I had watched it earlier," she said. "I don't know what I was so afraid of. Can I donate now?"
"As soon as Sectuib Varnst has time to accept your donation."
"Can't I donate to you, Risa?"
"The Sectuib accepts the first donation. It's traditional."
It also prevented Etti from becoming dependent on Risa. After she came smiling from Nedd's embrace, pledged unto Keon, and accepted her ring, Etti never turned back. She was not only welcome as a Companion-in-training, but her sunny personality soon made her beloved in the householding.
Both Etti and Georg were progressing rapidly, but although they spent a great deal of time together, they were not yet experienced enough to function with one another. For her second donation, Nedd assigned Etti to Risa for personal transfer.
"Do you want me there?" asked Sergi as the two women prepared to go off for the privacy a channel's transfer required.
"No," said Etti before Risa could reply.
"We'll call you if we require you," said Risa. She knew she would probably require his help to regain her normal steadiness, as she had last month. Gevron was experienced, but just not quite up to Risa's needs. She expected an even less satisfactory transfer with Etti, but the girl had to learn.
When they were alone, Etti asked, "Is there anything special I should do?"
"Not for me -- but you should ask that question each time you're with a new channel. Nedd says he absolutely can't recover without a glass of tea."
"That's easy enough!"
Etti was awkward, obviously ticking off the steps in preparation for transfer, feeling her way uncertainly. Soon, though selyur nager indicated her response to Risa's need. Hesitantly, she reached for the channel's hands.
She was nervous, but not frightened. The feeling brought back Risa's own early functions, the frightening responsibility of offering life to another person . . .
"Etti, relax," she said. "It's not life or death this time. Nedd will never give you an assignment you can't handle."
"I want to do it right for you!"
"You will. Take a deep breath now, and do the relaxation exercise."
Etti did so, and fell into routine. When she stopped trying to control, her field became receptive, inviting. Risa drifted into trautholo.
"Very good," said Risa. "That's just right." She slid her hands onto the girl's forearms, gripping her with handling tentacles, allowing the blessed energy of the Gen field to envelope her. Her moist laterals unerringly found the transfer points, and Etti became a flaring beacon to which Risa was helplessly drawn, a flame to which she must submit her soul.
She drew Etti forward, drowning in her nager, pressing firmly lip to lip, and determinedly maintained control. She drew consciously, rapidly enough to satisfy, but alert for that moment at which a Companion might begin to feel the flow of selyn. Nedd had not drawn to that point for Etti's donation; now Risa had to be prepared, lest the memory of having been burned cause Etti to panic and resist. If Risa drew against that resistance, she would burn Etti again. If the girl's fear were deep enough, her resistance strong enough, a channel's draw would kill her if it were not stopped in time. To stop under those conditions with Gen fear and pain triggering the Sime killer instinct, felt like suicide. Risa had been through practice aborts time after time in her training; she never wanted to face one in reality.
Risa worked, as Nedd had taught her, by instinct, by feel. Etti was passive, relaxed. The moment came. Risa felt the girl's surprise -- at her startle reflex, the channel slowed, preparing for an abrupt withdrawal if her donor became afraid. But even as she worked against her own hunger for a rapid, uncontrolled draw, Etti began to work with it! She was actually pouring selyn from her system into Risa's, warming and serving, fulfilling and completing!
Fighting not to relinquish control entirely, Risa let herself accept, alert only for the instant when Etti would terminate the flow . . . too soon . . . oh . . . lovely, but not enough . . . . She did not let herself try to draw further, but broke contact, almost satisfied. In a short while, her system would adjust, and she would be comfortable enough.
When she opened her eyes, she found Etti staring at her, astonishment in her wide blue eyes. "Risa," she said, "I knew it wouldn't hurt, but I didn't expect it to feel good!"
Retracting her tentacles, Risa hugged Etti. "That was slil," she explained. "Etti, you donate the way Sergi does. I think with practice you can be just as good as he is."
"I want to be, but I've already forgotten my lessons! The channel's needs must come first in personal transfer. Do you want to lie down, Risa? Can I get you anything?"
"No, just sit here with me for a few minutes while my system adjusts. Immediately after transfer, my field continues to respond to yours for a while. The fact that you are so happy and contented is helping me right now. That's one of your hardest lessons: no matter how unhappy or depressed you might be at some time when you're called to serve a channel's need, you'll have to suppress your own feelings if you don't want to spoil his transfer."
"Yes. Nedd has both Georg and me practicing projecting different emotions. I . . . forgot about that just now, too. All I was trying to do was stay relaxed."
"You did just fine. If you can remember how you felt today, and try to feel that way from the very beginning of each transfer, you'll make it very easy for Georg, or for whatever channel you're working with."
Later, Risa found Sergi waiting in her room. It was a Companion's prerogative to invade a channel's privacy if he thought the channel required his services, but Sergi very rarely did it to Risa.
He looked her over. "You look fine."
"I am fine. Etti's going to be as good as you are, once she gets some experience."
"Yes. You know, this is where that selyn measurement would come in handy. If you could say exactly how much George drew from you, and I knew exactly how much I drew from Etti, if they were close enough, I think they could just be matched up next month."
"Uhh-uh," said Sergi. "You're the only channel Etti is safe with until she learns how not to imprint a male."
"What's wrong?" asked Sergi.
"Just a little reaction left, I guess. Etti doesn't have your skill yet."
"Maybe. But why did you react to that particular comment? Risa . . . are you afraid of me?"
"Of you? Sergi, of all the people in the world, I probably trust you more than any other. I depend on you."
"And you don't like to depend on anyone. Risa, I love you. I would never imprint you."
"Why not? If we get married, it would seem logical, wouldn't it?"
"To have my wife desire me out of a helpless biological need instead of love?" Sergi shuddered. "That would be horrible!"
She could feel that he was as repelled by the idea as she was. "Sergi! Oh, Sergi, I'm sorry! Now I don't know how I even thought it."
She put her arms around him, felt his welcome. Then he was kissing her, and she felt herself responding, yearning for a complete union with him. "Will you marry me?" he asked.
"Yes," she whispered.
He picked her up, squeezing her tightly. "Oh, I love you! I want to make love to you right now, but I want conditions to be perfect, Risa. I want you to be feeling absolutely the best you can possibly feel."
"You mean right after transfer with you."
"Yes, for that is also when I feel my best -- as happy as I do at this moment. I love you, I'm going to marry you, and I want the whole world to know it!"
Keon was a happy place that summer. With the burdens of channeling being slowly shifted so that Georg approached a full share, and Etti helping, the other channels and Companions were less pressured. The whole householding shared in the plans for Risa and Sergi's wedding, even though a date could not be set immediately.
Early crops were good that year, and by mid-summer, Keon was not only solvent, but earning a good profit from the sale of fine jewelry. Plans were made to enter Sergi's ring design in the next Arensti Competition, and send Risa to learn the selyn-measurement techniques at Zeor.
Risa had other plans as well. She had told Nedd of Carre's desperation for reliable supplies of iron and steel. "Sergi says it's not that hard to build a blast furnace," Risa explained. "We could produce a commodity that we could market even in the worst of times."
"Yes," said Nedd, "we'll work toward that, Risa, but right now we haven't the money to build a steel mill or the manpower to run it."
"I'll lend Keon the money -- and I'll bet it will be paid back in a year. As for the manpower . . . we'll hire people from Levine."
"Yes, hire juncts. Unemployment this past winter bankrupted hundreds of families. There's farm work now, but after harvest, about the time we would start hiring, there will be lots of people who have just managed to pay off their debts, and are out of work again. They'll have to get money to pay their taxes, or be sold as indentured servants. I think a good many of them would rather work for Keon than undergo that indignity."
"But . . . juncts? In among our Gens? Risa, it's too dangerous!"
"The Gens will run the farm. Why should they try to do the hot, heavy work of the mill, that Simes don't mind? You're quibbling over little things. We can easily keep our Gens out of danger. We'll build the mill down on the far southeast corner, which is no good for farming, and cut a road in from the main road there . . ."
Risa told Nedd only of immediate plans for Keon's solvency and safety. The town, she explained, would become economically dependent on Keon in a few years; the raids would stop when the raiders found the city of Levine allied with Keon.
To Sergi she revealed her larger hopes and fears, that the life their employees saw at Keon would appeal to them, rather than disgust them . . . and that their children might see the householding way of life as a new hope for the future. "If I'm wrong," she said, "and people are frightened or repelled, it could all come down around our heads."
"But it's worth the risk," said Sergi.
"You agree with me?"
"How are we going to persuade people we're not monsters? If they get to know us, they may accept us."
"Can you accept juncts? A while ago you were proud of your prejudice."
"Oh. Well, I can accept them, I guess. I won't have to work with them."
"Indeed? Who's going to run the mill?"
"Risa! I'm a Companion, not a mill hand!"
"You designed the blast furnace. You know how everything works, and you'll be safe, because you can control your field. Wait a minute! That's how we'll be sure our first employees are likely to cooperate! You'll do the hiring! A junct who will work for a Gen will be someone very grateful for a job."
"It could work," said Sergi. "With Simes doing the work, we could build up over the years, take on designing in steel . . . . And there are other furnace designs, formulas for steel. Why didn't I write it down?"
"Write what down?"
"When I was a kid, we had an out-Territory Gen, Bob Seldon, here at Keon."
"When could Keon ever afford to buy an out-Territory Gen?"
"We didn't. His daughter changed over and escaped, and about three months later she turned up on Keon's doorstep, wanting to disjunct. After she did . . . she went home and got her father."
"Not really. Like you and Kreg, Risa, all they had in the world was each other. After my parents died, Bob became a second father to my sister and me. He taught me most of what I know of metalworking -- not designing, but smelting, making alloys, that part. In Gen Territory, they have enormous iron and steel works, turning out tons of metal every day. There's no reason we can't do the same thing in-Territory."
And so plans were laid, with a great expanse of future ahead before they could come to fruition. For Risa and Sergi, though, personal plans came more quickly to pass.
In August, Nedd decided that both Etti and Georg had made enough progress to work together from then on. Although their training would continue for many more months, it left Risa and Sergi free to return to transfer with one another. They set their wedding day for Risa's transfer day in late September.
The summer had produced a paradox: when Risa could not have Sergi for transfer, she found herself growing more and more dependent on him to keep her physically comfortable and mentally stable. Etti's second transfer to Risa was an improvement over the first, but even though she needed only one shunt to finish out the month, as opposed to two the month before, Risa was less satisfied. She might not be able to measure accurately, but she was aware that she had drawn more from Etti the second time, and felt closer to satisfaction immediately afterward. Nonetheless, as the month progressed she found it harder and harder to work with anyone but Sergi by her side. Even then, his presence was a masochistic pleasure; supported by his nager, she felt normal, contented, at peace -- yet her feelings were always overlaid with the painful poignancy of knowing that someone else would have him for transfer.
When Nedd made his announcement, Risa found herself so flooded with relief that the world dissolved into selyn fields, the most powerful Sergi's, beside her, pulsating with total joy.
On her wedding day, Risa had to remind herself that the waiting was almost over. Tradition declared that Sergi could not see her until the ceremony. Etti and Litith dressed her, and Etti stayed by her side, a very adequate Companion indeed, but not Sergi. Still, all Risa required was to keep her need from rising to intil among the pulsating fields of the wedding guests. Everyone was there; Nedd had declared a holiday for the entire householding, for the wedding had become a symbol of their recovery from past hardships and hope for the future.
When she finally stood beside Sergi, and spoke her vows, Risa felt the same sense of homecoming that she had known when she pledged unto Keon. No. It was stronger, more welcome now. She understood fully what she vowed; there would be no reservations this time.
The bride and groom were not expected to stay for the entire celebration, which would probably go on all night. When they had acknowledged the toasts; when they had sat through the wedding dinner; when they had danced the opening dance -- they were at last free to go off privately together.
The moment Sergi left her alone in her room, need hit Risa. Only the knowledge that he would get back with her in a few minutes gave her any control. She put on the gown Litith had made for her, brushed her hair, and tried to quell the panic that whispered, irrationally, he's not coming back. To dispel the thought, she rose and paced toward the window. She didn't have to turn when Sergi entered; his nager filled the room.
His whole field throbbed with an infectious joy. Coming up behind her, he put his hands on her shoulders, resonating in such perfect pitch with her that it seemed her need had disappeared, so filled was she with his nager.
Involuntarily, she leaned back against his hard chest, washed through with his field, feeling as if she could sink right through his skin, to be one with him. She was one with him. She had never known anything like it outside transfer.
"Sergi . . . what are you doing?"
"I don't know. I'm . . . not trying to control at all -- just loving you."
He turned her to face him, and kissed her. To Risa it was merely a pleasant closeness; she could feel no sexual desire, or even response, until after transfer. Sergi would choose the proper moment . . . although she could not imagine their ever being more perfectly attuned than they had been ever since Sergi had entered the room.
"Let's lie down," he said suddenly.
"For transfer. We might as well be comfortable." He picked her up and placed her in the bed. She let him, totally bemused, watching as he took off his short robe and tossed it aside, lying down next to her clad only in pajama bottoms. Then he slid an arm under her.
She cuddled contentedly against him, trying to avoid lateral contact, for the eager, moist tentacles were unsheathed despite her lack of intil. But Sergi lifted her arms and put them around his neck.
"Be careful!" she said. "You're getting ronaplin all over you."
"I'll only feel more," he replied, capturing her hands as she tried to withdraw them, holding them against his chest.
"Sergi, how can you be so outrageous?"
"You expect me to be sober and solemn when I have everything I want in the world right here in my arms?"
She laughed, recognizing how incredible it was that she should be laughing at the depth of hard need, a need not properly satisfied for the last three months. Her cheerfulness was a tribute to Sergi's skill.
Forgetting caution, she drew him close, unmindful of the selyn-conducting fluid that smeared him everywhere her laterals touched. Contentedly, she rested her head on his shoulder, distantly surprised at her own lack of impatience. She felt she could just lie there forever, at peace.
Sergi held her, allowing the proper moment to come. Then his hands slid caressingly over her forearms, knowing the precise pressure that brought exquisite pleasure on the heart-stopping edge of pain. Her tentacles instinctively sought the proper grip. Sergi studied her with laughter dancing in his eyes. "Care to try a different fifth transfer point?"
"Oh, Sergi!" she said in amused exasperation, and pulled him forward to make lip contact.
With Sergi, Risa did not have to control. He poured selyn into her system as fast as she could accept it, satisfying her as no one else could. Tonight, though, there did not seem to be a flow through nerves at all -- it was as if suddenly all barriers were gone -- as if they were one and the same, filling and filled, satisfying and satisfied, healer and healed. Oh, God! This is how it's meant to be!
Never had she been carried so high in the rapture of transfer -- nor had Sergi's sensations, borne in to her in those moments of total sharing, ever before been so piercingly sweet. It did not end until she was beyond any satisfaction she had known before, as if he had opened new depths in her simply for the pleasure of filling them.
Stunned, Risa stared at Sergi, seeing him, as always immediately after transfer, with only those senses they had in common. But his eyes were unfocused, and he seemed to be drawn within himself, one with her on that awesome nageric level, lost to immediate sensation. Then he blinked, and his eyes focused on hers.
He could not speak, nor did he have to, for Risa felt directly the height of feelings for which there were no words. As tears began to slide down Sergi's cheeks, Risa was not at all surprised to find that she, too, was crying freely. They reached out to one another, clinging, crying with a joy too strong for laughter. Sergi made no attempt at all to control . . . they had all night -- all week!
After a while they just lay quietly, absorbed in one another. Then, tenderly, Sergi's hand entwined in her hair, and Risa felt a new inspiration at his touch, all senses keen and alert. Desire flowed from him to her, awakening her own.
She found his lips with hers, kissing him deeply, felt a sharp sweet joy within herself as her body responded to his. Then she sat up, looking at him, seeing him as a man -- the most desirable man she had ever known. He lifted a fold of her gown between his fingers. She let him lift it over her head, feeling free as she lay down upon him. When their skin touched where he was smeared with ronaplin, impossibly, the contact was even more intense. It was on his hands, too, sending tingles of joy through her as he caressed her.
Desire was throbbing within her now, and she could feel Sergi right with her, matching her mood precisely. "Your turn," she said, tugging at the waistband of his pajamas. "Well?" she asked when he remained motionless.
"If there is some magic technique for getting them off while you're lying on top of me, you'll have to show me."
"You weren't too weak to lift me a few minutes ago."
"I don't want to stop touching you, even for a moment," he explained.
"Then we're not going to get very far, are we?"
"Let's try it this way," he suggested, taking her arms and turning over on her. In moments he was naked, his eager flesh seeking hers, matching her rhythm -- or drawing her into his -- as easily and naturally as their fields resonated together. Intense joy sang through them, and Risa found her identity disappearing again, as she became unable to sort out her responses from Sergi's -- nor did she care. All she cared about was the pure delight surging through her as the driving joy of their shared passion carried them to the inevitable burst of perfection, from which they floated gently into contentment.
Cradling Sergi's head on her breast, his cool skin a tender pleasure on hers, she whispered, "Sergi, what's happening to us? I've never felt anything like that before. Or like what I feel right now. What could make me, not just desire you, but . . . feel such unity with you?"
". . . what? You mean lortuen?"
"Where the man is Gen and the woman is Sime, it's called torluen." He pulled her down into his arms. "I don't know why there should be two different words. When the sharing is this complete, who cares which one is what?"
"I don't care," she replied, pressing her body to his. "I just love you." After a moment, she added, "You were right, you know."
"Right about what?"
"You are good at everything you do."
He laughed, kissed her again, and held her tighter. And with the famous paradox of love, the tighter he held her, the freer Risa felt, and the more she wanted him to hold her even closer.
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