Rital was floating on a perfectly calm ocean. It was glassy smooth, except for the regular rhythm of the tides, a reassuring pulsation that soothed every cell of his being. Far off, he thought he could hear a voice echoing over the water, but it was unimportant. What was important was resting on the water. The voice kept nagging at him, though, interrupting his tranquility, persistent as a mosquito. Eventually, he gave in and listened to it, hoping that would make it go away.
"Open your eyes, Hajene. Come on, you can do it."
The voice was professionally calm and concerned, but with a genuine urgency underneath. Rital tried to obey the order, but he didn't seem to have eyes to open at the moment.
"I should have handled Vasthan myself, Quess." A woman's voice, this time: Nerina. She sounded upset, he realized vaguely. "I should have insisted, when Rital told me that he'd never handled a Qualification before."
"We discussed that with Monruss, remember? And we all decided that Hajene Rital was the better choice, because his draw speed is slower than yours. It was a risk, but our reasoning is just as valid now as it was then."
The repetition of his name fixed Rital's attention. He slowly became aware of other sensations; a firm but yielding surface under his back, cool Gen fingers moving expertly over his arms, and a throbbing pain in his head and spine that was barely held at bay by Quess's skilled attentions.
"Vasthan got confused when he tried to lower his TN-1 barrier, but that shouldn't have triggered something like this."
Nerina again. She was farther away than Quess, across the room. Rital heard the tinkle of glassware, and the sound of a liquid being poured. He was lying on the lounge in the transfer suite, he realized. It seemed to be vibrating up and down, not staying put the way a decent piece of furniture should.
"From what Sosu Den told me about this morning's contretemps, I suspect that Hajene Rital was under more stress than simple transfer deferment."
The part of Rital that wasn't preoccupied with pain recognized that line of inquiry as dangerous. He forced his eyes to open, blinking against the light, which seemed determined to bore right through his skull. He groaned, and shut them again.
"Here, Hajene." Nerina crossed the room to his side and held a glass to his lips. "Drink this fosebine down. It will help."
Rital didn't even think of refusing the bitter brew. He swallowed it obediently, in two large gulps that minimized the time it spent in contact with his cringing tongue. Fosebine was by far the most effective treatment for transfer burned nerves. From the severity of his headache, Rital knew he would be drinking a lot of the foul tasting medicine over the next few days. He gagged as his stomach rebelled at the thought. Quess's warm, disciplined nager steadied him, however, and in a few moments he was able to open his eyes again. As the fosebine took effect, he gradually became able to zlin something besides his own pain. Quess was a firm support, and Nerina's concern and sympathy offered reassurance of another kind. There was one nager missing, however.
With morbid fascination, he turned his aching head until he could inspect the floor. There was no lifeless body slumped on the carpet, but then, there had been plenty of time to remove one while he was unconscious. He tried to zlin himself, to see if the junct pathways had opened, but all he could perceive was a mess of inflamed nerves throbbing in protest.
"Where's Vasthan?" he croaked.
"He's fine, at least physically," Nerina reassured Rital quickly. "You took all the backlash from the abort."
Rital went limp with relief. Despite everything, he hadn't completely disgraced himself. He hadn't broken a Tecton channel's most solemn pledge; never to harm a Gen. The beast hadn't won freedom, and so there might still be a chance that he could learn to banish it for good. It might even be possible, if he was very careful, to do so without letting the illicit, junctlike pleasure he had taken in Mathison's terror, and Vasthan's uncertainty, become part of his public record.
Quess's cool Gen hand shifted to the back of his neck, just above the throbbing, and the Donor's attention followed. As his head cleared, Rital realized that the Gen was still high field. Nerina must have delayed her own transfer to allow her Donor to heal Rital's injuries. He could detect no resentment in her showfield, but he was in no condition to zlin a tentacle in front of his own nose. A visual inspection revealed that Nerina had the pinched, tense look of a Sime in hard need. It had to be uncomfortable, having her Gen pay close attention to another Sime at such a time. A mean and selfish part of Rital was glad. It felt that she deserved to suffer for misjudging her own pupil's abilities, and setting him up for disaster. Common sense, however, argued otherwise. They would all be better off if there was at least one First Order channel in the Center who was well enough to deal with any emergencies that the Thirds couldn't handle.
Reluctantly, Rital reached up and removed Quess's hand. "I'll live," he assured the Donor, "although I won't be very happy about it for a few days. Thank you for the help, but your wife needs you now."
Quess gave him a searching look, then gestured to Nerina. She gave him a quick but thorough zlin, then nodded. "You'll do," she agreed. "We'll talk later."
She looked much less haggard the following morning, when she handed Rital another dose of fosebine. "You're doing well," she encouraged, with the optimism of a Sime who has just had a very good transfer.
Rital ached from his toes to his tentacle tips, and his head had unaccountably been settled by a large flock of woodpeckers, all of which were trying to drill exit holes through his skull. Nerina's good cheer was more than a little irritating, under the circumstances. He lay back on his pillow, closed his eyes, and hoped fervently that she would go away.
"I think you're fit for light duties of an administrative nature, as long as you keep taking more fosebine every two hours or so," she continued briskly. "In the meantime, Quess has organized a background briefing on the diplomatic situation on the southern continent, and to outline what the Tecton hopes to accomplish by this conference. It begins in one hour. We've invited the Center's staff to attend, to help minimize unintentional diplomatic blunders."
Rital groaned, but opened his eyes. "I suppose I'd better attend," he agreed reluctantly.
He would much rather have spent the day hiding in his room, sleeping through as much of his recovery as he could conveniently manage. Normally, a transfer abort case would have been placed in the Center's infirmary, but the flu casualties among the Center's staff had filled the small facility. Rital didn't really mind. The insulation in his bedroom was just as good, and the soundproofing was far superior. Furthermore, it kept the width of the building between himself and his all-too-perceptive cousin Den, which lowered the danger of inconvenient questions being asked. If Nerina had overlooked the failure of his anti-kill conditioning to engage, he didn't want to open the subject until he had time to consider the implications.
The older channel smiled sympathetically. "You have time for a cup of tea, before the briefing begins, and perhaps a bit of breakfast as well."
There was nothing that Rital wanted less, at the moment, than food. However, the throbbing ache in his head was slowly diminishing as the fosebine did its work. He sat up carefully, trying not to move his head any more than he had to, and reached for his robe. "I'll be there," he assured her. He tested his legs to make sure they would bear him. "Just give me a few minutes to get dressed."
A hot shower helped to ease his stiffness, and a crisp, clean uniform transformed him from a mere patient into a channel. He was feeling almost human again as he sat in the Center's cafeteria and buried his nose in a steaming cup of trin tea.
"Hajene, I am so sorry."
Rital looked up as Vasthan slid into the seat across from him. The young Gen appeared to have survived his attempt at Qualifying unscathed, except for the guilt that throbbed in his much reduced nager. Rital stopped zlinning immediately. His own guilt with regard to the incident was more than enough.
"You're not to blame," he assured the young Donor sincerely. "You should never have been asked to Qualify two months early, and with a strange channel."
"I've never shenned a channel like that before. Not outside of training exercises." The young Donor was almost crying. "I thought I'd murdered you."
Rital bit back a sharp comment. It wouldn't help the Gen to criticize his mentors. It wasn't Vasthan's fault that he had failed. The Tecton's solemn pledge that its channels would never harm a Gen didn't apply only to general class donors. The technical class Donors, whose work required them to place themselves at much greater risk, deserved that protection ten times over. Vasthan should never have been asked to perform so far beyond his demonstrated abilities. A flu epidemic was no excuse for neglecting safety precautions, or for risking the future career of a talented young Donor.
"Vasthan, there's no permanent damage. I'll be fine in a few days." Rital forced his reluctant body to sit straight, and made his lips curve in a smile. He hoped it looked more sincere than it felt. "Listen, you almost had it. You were handling the increased speed very well; you just had trouble releasing your TN-1 barrier. With a little more practice, I think you'll be able to Qualify as a First yet."
Rital's effort was rewarded with a brilliant smile.
"Thank you, Hajene." With the resilience of youth, the Gen bounced out of his chair and went over to the buffet. He proceeded to pile his plate high with enough food to feed a dozen Simes.
Shaking his head, the channel took a last sip of his tea, and let his eyes rest on the small bowl of cereal, liberally sprinkled with sugar, which rested by his left elbow. To heal, he required nutrition. Making a face, he reached out with the tip of a handling tentacle and pulled the bowl closer.
It steamed malevolently at him.
His control might be uncertain around Gens, but surely he had not yet sunk so far that he was intimidated by boiled wheat? At least, not much?
Picking up his spoon, he began to eat.
Rital was not the only one to leave his sickbed for the meeting. When he arrived at the Sime Center's library, he discovered his cousin there before him, seated close to the door. The Donor's fever had broken, but the illness had left him weak and listless. His normally healthy complexion was abnormally pale under its tan, and he was grasping the arms of his wooden chair as if to keep himself from falling out of it.
Gati and Esparra Daybee had been busy. The clutter had been cleared away. Rital's favorite armchair and its mate had been moved against the wall, to provide more space, and a small table had been placed between them. The three large tables had been pushed together to form one large conference table, and chairs had been arranged around its perimeter.
Rital slid into a seat next to his cousin, partly so as to be near enough to catch the stubborn Gen if necessary, and partly because he wasn't sure his own legs would carry him to the far side of the room. Deciding that the best defense was a strong attack, he leaned over and murmured in his cousin's ear. "You look like shen."
Den raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You were the one who was shenned, I hear."
"Vasthan wasn't as ready as Quess and Nerina thought he was."
The Donor grunted, but was tactful enough to drop the subject. He turned to look behind him as Ref, the Center's talented cook, arrived. Ref was a cheerful, middle aged man of the generous dimensions one might expect of a Gen who spent his time preparing food. He was pushing a wheeled cart as broad as himself, with a tea service laid out on top. Gati came behind him with a basket of pastries. Rital distinctly heard Den's stomach growl at the sight. The Center's other receptionist, Seena, was on duty, but the room gradually filled with all of the healthy staff who were not absolutely required elsewhere. Quess, Nerina, Vasthan, and the other Diplomatic Corps staff arrived as a group.
Being Gen, with a Gen's priorities, Quess waited until food and drink had been distributed before calling the meeting to order. "As you know, the Tecton is committed to a lasting peace between Cordona Territory and its two neighboring Gen Territories, Amzon and Zillia," he began. "Last year's treaty should have brought peace to the region, but all three signatories have resisted implementing its provisions. So long as important elements in each government are undermining the treaty, the region will remain volatile, and the Tecton's reputation will suffer."
The Gen paused for a bite of pastry, then continued. "In my opinion, Amzon and Zillia are the key. If they unite in favor of peace, Cordona will have to cooperate. Unfortunately, the two Gen Territories are rivals. They have spent centuries fighting border skirmishes over trade issues, and particularly over mining rights to the Ancient ruins along their common border. The original treaty didn't resolve these issues, and thus, allow the two Territories to present a united front against Cordona. The Amzonian and Zillian delegations arrive tomorrow. They will contain opponents of the treaty, as well as supporters. It is our job to answer the skeptics' concerns, and to convince them that they have much to gain, and nothing to lose, by giving the treaty a fair chance. I don't expect it to be easy." The diplomat gave a wry smile.
"It is critical that there be no blunders to interrupt or confuse the negotiations," Quess continued. "There has already been one unfortunate incident involving the Cordonan delegate. Controller Madz, would you relate what happened yesterday, during your visit to the power station?"
Rital would rather have forgotten the episode altogether. It reflected poorly on his ability as a Tecton Controller to have a guest of his Sime Center, under his direct supervision, run amok among the out-Territory Gens. However, it was inevitable that questions would be asked as word spread through Clear Springs. If the Tecton's staff professed ignorance of the incident, the damage to the its reputation would be immense.
Holding tight control of his nager, Rital outlined the events of the previous afternoon, leaving out his own aberrant response to Mathison's fear. The abridged story so shocking, even Den, who had heard it once before, did not notice the omission. "I didn't have time to make it an official order," the channel concluded, "but I don't want Hajene Skaggit anywhere near the out-Territory donors. Some of them are skittish enough already. They shouldn't have to face a channel who thinks it's fun to scare Gens."
Quess nodded in agreement. "I should have anticipated such trouble," he admitted. "Skaggit was briefed on the conduct expected of a Tecton channel, but he's having difficulties applying the information."
"As far as I could tell, he just likes the zlin of Gen fear," Rital declared, letting his indignation show. "He might not be a junct, technically, but he certainly thinks and acts like one."
The balding diplomat shook his head. "Skaggit is a product of his culture. By Cordonan standards, what he did to Mathison was perfectly acceptable behavior for a channel." He paused to consider. "Although it was a bit rude of him to do it on what was arguably another channel's hunting grounds."
There was a shocked murmur around the table, as the Clear Springs staff absorbed the information. Quess waited until it subsided, then said, "Cultural understanding is the key to diplomacy. We can't make peace among our guests if we don't know why they are fighting in the first place. Nerina, since Hajene Skaggit's behavior is at issue, perhaps you would begin by briefing us on Cordona?"
Nerina stood gracefully, her long, silvery hair shimmering in the sunlight which streamed through the windows. "Cordona is a land of vertical mountainsides and barren peaks," she began. "It is impossible to farm, and there are few roads even a mule could travel. The climate is inhospitable to Gens. Cordona never developed a Pen system, because they had no way to feed captive Gens. Instead, they plundered Amzon and Zillia, taking kills where they could, and stealing what clothing and other goods they required.
"About a hundred and thirty years ago, a shipload of Householders, fleeing the collapse of Norwest Territory, were shipwrecked on the coast of Amzon, near the disputed Ancient ruins. Casualties were heavy, as you might expect, but a small party won through to safety of a sort in Cordona. Among them was a young channel, a woman named Siskyu ambrov Shaeldor."
Rital happened to be looking at Quess as Nerina spoke. He saw the Donor wince almost imperceptibly at the mention of Siskyu's name. Was she an ancestor of his, perhaps? If so, it might explain why Householding Shaeldor had taken a central role in solving the Cordonan problem. Householders believed in looking after their own, and that included taking collective responsibility for their members' actions.
Nerina reached out to rest a comforting a hand on her husband's shoulder, but her voice didn't falter as she continued her tale. "At the time, Cordona's population consisted of a half dozen or so independent Raider bands, all highly protective of their hunting grounds in Amzon and Zillia. The newcomers were not exactly welcome, but Siskyu managed to convince one of the smaller bands to use a channel to avoid killing when possible. With fewer kills being taken, the Gens in that band's hunting grounds prospered. The extra selyn attracted more Simes to Siskyu's band. Within two generations, most of the renSimes in Cordona were disjunct or nonjunct, and channels were leading all of the bands. They were still Raiders, though. There was no way to form a normal Householding, when they couldn't grow food. To this day, the only Gens living in Cordona are Donors, and it frequently takes all the band's resources to keep them from starving over the winter. The Donors live in almost complete seclusion, and are considered the property of their channel."
She paused for a moment to let that information sink in.
"Why would any Donor put up with such treatment?" Den asked, when it appeared that nobody else was going to do so.
Nerina acknowledged the question with a nod. "Most are poorly educated peasants, snatched from their families shortly after establishment. They receive the minimum training required to survive giving transfer, and that's about it. They are never taught the sort of nageric skills that might give them an advantage over their masters."
Rital didn't enjoy having his Donor overrule his judgment any more than the next channel. However, he considered that possibility a more than fair exchange for the physical and emotional support he received in return. He tried to imagine what it would be like to function as a channel without the support of a confident and competent Donor, and couldn't. No wonder Skaggit was such a poor excuse for a channel.
There were no more questions, so Nerina went on with her briefing. "Over time, many of the bands reached accommodations with the Gens living in their hunting territories. If the Gens went quietly with the renSimes sent to collect them, their children would not be harmed, theft and property damage would be minimal. So long as only peasants were taken, the authorities were willing to look the other way. Or at least be less than vigorous in pursuit."
"The governments of Amzon and Zillia tolerated Simes raiding for forced donations?" Ref was openly shocked.
Rital could understand the man's disbelief. When the Clear Springs Sime Center had first opened, there had been a substantial minority of Gens in the area who refused to tolerate even completely voluntary, paid donations in their town. They had felt so strongly about it that they had successfully blockaded the Center's front sidewalk, on a daily basis, for over two years, with the exception of the six months during which most of the key demonstrators had been in jail. The situation had improved considerably since the Reverend Jermiah Sinth had accidentally been blown to bits by a pipe bomb created by one of his more violent and zealous followers. However, that hard won tolerance was based on the understanding that no out-Territory Gen would so much as have to see a bared tentacle, without making a conscious effort to do so. Rital found the concept of a Gen society willing to look the other way while its citizens were kidnapped, robbed, and forced to donate, as alien as the concept of a channel who would take a donation from an unwilling Gen.
"Forced donations were better than forced kills," Nerina pointed out. "If the Gens of Amzon and Zillia had managed to destroy the raiders-not an easy task, given the terrain and their mutual hostilities-that's exactly what they would have had. Their escaped Sime children would have reformed the raiding bands quickly enough, but without channels this time."
Ref considered that for a moment. "It makes sense, when you look at it that way," he admitted. "It's just that the out-Territory Gens I've met here aren't inclined to use that kind of cold logic, when faced with Simes."
Quess's mouth twisted in a wry grin. "The Gens of Amzon and Zillia are just as wary about Simes as their cousins here in New Washington. It's the structure of their societies that makes the difference. In both Territories, the members of the ruling classes view the less fortunate as inferior; workers whose only purpose is to serve their betters."
Nerina nodded in agreement. "The rulers know from earliest childhood that they will never be touched by a channel," she added. "If the raids don't harm the productivity of their estates, they ignore the complaints of their inferiors, whose misfortunes buy their own immunity."
"There are important differences in how the two Territories have accommodated Sime raiding, however." Quess continued. "Esparra, would you explain the situation in Amzon, please?"
The trim, diplomatic staffer nodded, adjusted her notes, and began to recite in a firm voice. "Amzon is a loose confederation of semi-independent city-states, each governed by a Council of trade and professional guilds. The Councils do manage much of the day to day business of government. However, real power rests in the hands of eight merchant families, the Great Clans, who together control most of the trade within Amzon, and all trade with other Territories. Clan children learn commerce from the cradle. Most speak a smattering of Simelan and English, as well as the Amzonian language. A key to the Clans' trade monopoly has been the private agreements they forged with various Cordonan bands for safe passage through the mountain roads and passes. Historically, the Clan caravans have provided the only reliable trade between Amzon and Zillia, and more importantly, between both Territories and the rich markets of Bolvar. It will come as no surprise that they are very wealthy indeed."
"I would think that bargaining with Raiders would be a chancy thing," Gati commented. "What sort of agreements did these Clans make?"
"The Clans have spent the past sixty years protesting any expansion of the Amzonian militia as an unnecessary expense," Esparra said dryly. "It is largely due to their efforts that the Amzonian city-states have never mounted an effective, organized resistance to raids. In exchange, the Cordonans allowed safe passage of most goods carried by Clan sponsored caravans. However, the caravans paid a toll for their passage, in the form of selyn. Travelers were advised to carry a substantial bribe if they wished to remain unmolested. The Clans themselves usually preferred to keep their goods and pay with the selyn of their employees."
"The employees didn't object?" Gati asked. Her tentacles were twitching in response to the various shocked, disgusted, and distressed emotions projected by her colleagues.
Esparra shrugged. "Whether they objected was not considered important. Any employee who complained was simply replaced with another laborer. High ranking members of Clan families were exempt from the toll, of course."
After seeing Skaggit in action, Rital wasn't surprised that the Clans had negotiated immunity for themselves.
"Of course, the Clan compacts were never quite as neat as my summary implies," Esparra continued. "The agreements were forged with specific Cordonan bands who controlled the caravan routes. However, the Cordonan bands were in a constant state of flux. A caravan master could never be sure that he would encounter only Simes who had an agreement with his Clan. Quite apart from their ever changing hunting grounds, Cordonan bands consider it great sport to poach on their neighbors' preserves. Such poachers would loot goods as well as Gens.
Esparra turned to her next page of notes. "The Clans supported the treaty at first, because it forbade the Cordonans to steal trade goods. It also provided for a more centralized Cordonan government, so it would no longer be necessary to negotiate safe passage with each band of raiders separately."
Rital zlinned that Esparra didn't have a great deal of sympathy for the Clans. He couldn't blame her. Even professional diplomats were human beings, and the Amzonian Clans appeared to be just as unprincipled, in their way, as the Cordonan channels.
"Unfortunately, the Clans overlooked one small detail," Esparra noted. "The Cordonans had agreed to pay for the selyn which they previously stole outright, and that required a new source of income. What was once petty pilferage of a few unlucky caravans became a more formalized system of tariffs, tolls, bribes, transport fees and taxes which affected all caravans. If the treaty holds, the Amzonian Clans will find themselves paying for the donations that were previously stolen from their employees. Furthermore, the new situation cancels out much of the Clans' historical advantage. Independent traders can prosper, and even the Zillians are forming their own caravans, rather than paying the Clans to transport goods. The great merchant Clans are livid, and they have become active foes of the treaty."
"They would rather have open war with their neighbors? And bad relations with the Tecton allied Territories, as well?" Rital had never zlinned a true battlefield, but he had a vivid imagination.
"War can be quite profitable, for those who don't have to participate in the fighting personally." Quess seemed almost amused by the strength of Rital's reaction.
Esparra cleared her throat, waiting for quiet. "The Clans fear, with some justification, that the treaty will break their trade monopolies," she summarized. "Unfortunately, they still have power, and the Guilds are reluctant to oppose them. Our job is to convince the Clans to drop their opposition, or the Guilds to ignore it. The Amzonian delegation will be headed jointly by Guildmistress Elsha Halitono, a weaver from the town of Lubria, and Alhonzo Jequehita, head of Clan Tappos. Any binding agreement must be approved by both of them. That's going to be a challenge, because the two delegates dislike each other personally, quite apart from their traditional rivalries."
"Thank you, Esparra." Quess took a moment to sip his tea. "There has been a similar opposition to the treaty in Zillia, although the form it has taken is somewhat different. Sosu Vasthan, would you outline the situation there, please?"
The young Donor blushed in embarrassment as all eyes turned to him, but he obediently consulted his own notes and began. "Zillia is a monarchy. The balance of power has historically wavered between the monarch and the powerful nobles who make up the Cabinet. The Zillians have an agrarian society, and the nobles hold title to almost all the arable land. Most citizens speak one of several languages indigenous to the area, but for historical reasons I won't go into now, the language of the Court is English. All Zillian nobles and their imitators speak English almost exclusively."
"Will the negotiations be conducted in English, then?" Gati asked.
"Yes, they will," Vasthan answered, and returned to his briefing. "The reigning monarch, King Madigan Usgant, has proved more successful at curbing his nobles than his father. He is a progressive thinker, and traveled extensively in the North before taking the throne nearly a decade ago. Since then, he has begun a systematic program of modernization. An alliance with the Tecton was a logical extension of that, and won him a great deal of popularity with the lower classes. Unfortunately, the nobility was less than pleased. Official encouragement of voluntary donations, and the end of raiding, threatens the perceived basis of their superiority; that they can't be touched by Simes."
Rital remembered Skaggit's conviction that Tohm had been blackmailed into donating, and that Rital was taking a huge risk in doing so. "The Cordonan Raiders reinforce that definition of noble privilege?" he guessed.
"Yes, Controller Madz," the young Donor agreed. "In the few documented cases where Raider bands mistakenly 'harvested' a noble, the Zillian military has retaliated in force. The latest such reprisal was only fifteen years ago, and the Cordonans are not eager for a repetition. As a result, Zillian nobles can ride right through a band of Cordonan raiders, secure in the knowledge that they won't be touched. Their tenants, of course, are not so lucky. Zillia's isolated farm and small villages are more vulnerable than the Amzonian towns and cities. Zillia has historically provided about two thirds of the selyn used by Cordona's Simes, despite its smaller population. The Cordonans can't afford to jeopardize their gentlemen's agreement not to attack the Zillian nobility."
"But a voluntary donation is hardly an attack," Ref pointed out.
"Zillian law states that no person who has been stripped of selyn can claim the rights and privileges of noble rank," Vasthan said. "Unfortunately, the law does not take circumstances into account. Mostly, it is applied to the rare noble who survives a berserker attack, but technically it can be read as applying to voluntary donations as well. Officials of the Zillian state religion, the Church of the Aggregate, share the same immunity from attack enjoyed by the nobility, and indeed are frequently younger sons and daughters of noble houses. King Madigan's liberal policies have discouraged court service among the more reactionary young nobles. As a result, the Church has become a bastion of traditional thinking, and a center of opposition to anything that threatens the prerogatives of the nobility."
Den leaned closer to Rital and murmured, "I don't like the sound of that. Mixing religion and politics brings out the worst in both."
Rital couldn't bring himself to disagree.
"King Madigan's son, Crown Prince Korrin, will head the Zillian delegation," Vasthan continued. "He supports his father's progressive agenda wholeheartedly, and is a staunch advocate of the treaty. However, he is young and inexperienced. Much of the burden of the negotiations will rest on his two ranking subordinates. Duke Pollmar's estates amount to nearly a quarter of Zillia's area. He has wealth to match, and has been actively involved in politics for decades. He has a reputation for looking out for his own interests, whether or not they are consistent with his sovereign's. Much of his dukedom lies along the Tylom River, close to the border with Cordona, so he will be greatly affected by the outcome of the negotiations. Unfortunately, he has been very close mouthed about his opinions. It is unclear at this point, just where he perceives his greatest interest to lie."
"If his holdings are close enough to the border that they are subject to raids, surely he would want that stopped?" Rital asked.
"Perhaps," Vasthan hedged. "On the other hand, he might view the preservation of noble privilege as more critical. Much depends on whether the Church of the Aggregate declares itself for or against the innovations forced by the treaty. Chief Defender of the Aggregate, Foley, the current head of the Church, will be the third ranking member of the Zillian delegation." Vasthan consulted his notes. "The Defender is almost seventy, and has held his office since the previous king's reign. Despite this, he is not as conservative as many of the younger clergy. He has a reputation as a careful and fair man, who refuses to rush to judgment on important issues. That is both good and bad. He has refused to condemn the treaty and the newly opened Tecton sponsored Sime Centers that were required by it, despite considerable pressure from his clergy."
After his experiences with the fanatical Reverend Sinth, Rital was willing to think well of any clergyman who was willing to take a stand for sanity, instead of against it.
"Unfortunately," the young Donor continued, "the Defender has not seen fit to endorse the Sime Centers, either. He has issued a temporary decree that no Gen who has donated, even voluntarily at a Tecton Sime Center, may receive the Church's blessing to hold a position of rank. The decree is in force pending 'a detailed Church examination of the ramifications of the Tecton system on the faith and welfare of the Aggregate,' but this has yet to be started. Unfortunately, the titled nobility of Zillia are confirmed in their rank by the Church. The practical result of the decree has been to ban donations among the ruling class and clergy, as well as those who hope to improve their status by imitating them."
"I suppose that's slowed donations at the new Tecton Sime Centers?" Rital asked wryly.
"It certainly hasn't helped," Quess agreed. "King Madigan couldn't persuade the Defender to permit voluntary donations by nobles while the Church study is going forward. With no leaders in either Gen Territory willing to set an example, there have been insufficient donations to supply the Cordonan Simes. They view this, with some justification, as a violation of the terms of last year's treaty. In retaliation, they have enforced their prior agreements with the Gens living in their traditional hunting grounds, as necessary to ensure a stable selyn supply."
"They've taken up raiding again?"
"Yes." Nerina looked very disappointed. "And the common people of Amzon and Zillia, who endured stolen donations when they had no choice, are starting to turn against the Tecton alliance."
"The delegations from Zillia and Amzon will arrive on the afternoon train," Quess announced. "They have been traveling through Gen Territory as much as possible, because the Zillian delegates have of necessity been granted a diplomatic exemption from donating. The Amzonians then insisted on the same privilege, of course. Unlike Hajene Skaggit and his people, the Gens will be staying at a hotel in Clear Springs proper. That will be inconvenient, but having so many high field non-donors quartered here would be more so. There will be a welcoming reception this evening in the cafeteria. I hope those of you who can, will choose to attend. It is important that the delegates learn about our way of life, or they will have no reason to choose it over their own, more violent past." Rital stayed in his chair as the others began to file out of the library, unwilling to stand before he absolutely had to.
"I don't envy you, Sosu Quess," he admitted, as the senior Donor finished gathering his notes into a neat stack. "The whole situation is like a nest of vipers; poisonous no matter which way you zlin. If all sides really prefer war, do you think you can convince them to give peace another chance?"
"I hope so," Quess said, although even he looked daunted by the magnitude of the task. "We did it once before, after all. With the cooperation of your staff, we can show the members of all three delegations that, growing pains aside, the Tecton offers them a better way of life."
"I wouldn't care to have to fate of three Territories resting on how well I do my job," Rital confessed. "It's more than enough for me, just to keep the Clear Springs Center running smoothly."
As if in response, Seena poked her head into the library. "Controller Madz, Mayor Kroag and Police Chief Tains are waiting in Reception. They want to speak with you about Hajene Skaggit. The power plant manager is with them, and a Mr. Mathison. Hank Fredricks, as well."
Rital groaned as she mentioned the owner and editor of the Clear Springs Clarion, but obediently struggled to his feet. "Tell them I'll be out in a minute." When she had gone, he looked at Den, not trying to hide his apprehension. "I suppose it's time to face the music."
Read Chapter 4
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