TEST OF COURAGE

by
Mary Lou Mendum

Chapter 4

Cross-Territory Diplomacy

"Cousin, are you sure you're up to this?" Den asked, as the two wound their way through the Sime Center at a pace befitting two invalids. "Quess and Nerina were the ones who invited that lorsh to stay. Let them explain his actions."

The Donor had insisted that they stop by the infirmary on the way, so that Rital could swallow another dose of fosebine. The drug had not yet taken full effect, and the channel ached from head to toe. "Quess and Nerina are busy with last minute preparations for tonight's reception," he pointed out. "Besides, the whole fiasco was my fault. I shouldn't have let Skaggit get so far out of hand. When he started stalking those Gens, I froze. I should have put an end to it immediately."

Den rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Rital, you can hardly be blamed for not expecting a nonjunct, functioning channel to suddenly start behaving like some Freeband Raider out of a history book. The man's a diplomat, for shen and for shame. He's supposed to represent his entire Territory at this conference. You had every reason to expect him to act in a civilized fashion."

"I thought so," Rital admitted. "I'd have responded sooner, if I'd known more about Cordona."

"There you are." The Donor sounded very sure of himself. "You should have been warned that Skaggit might cause trouble. You weren't. The Diplomatic Corps slipped up, and there was an incident because of it. It wasn't your fault."

Rital could zlin his cousin's firm conviction. The clear vote of confidence helped, especially coming from a Gen. However, Den didn't know the whole story. The channel couldn't help but wonder whether he had failed to stop Skaggit, not from sheer disbelief, but because he secretly wanted to zlin Mathison's terror.

It was this possibility, more than his physical condition, which led Rital to have Seena to show his guests into his office, rather than greeting them himself. A Sime seated behind an ordinary desk, looking like any other bureaucrat, would, he hoped, seem far less threatening than a Sime walking up and offering to shake hands in the traditional out-Territory greeting.

Rital zlinned the five Gens surreptitiously as they entered. Hank Fredricks, owner and editor of the daily Clear Springs Clarion had long been a friend of the Sime Center. He had covered the first changeover classes taught in the Clear Springs schools for his newspaper. However, he was a newsman, first and foremost. The story of Skaggit's misbehavior was too good for him to overlook, playing as it did to the secret fears of his readers. Fredricks would print whatever explanation Rital cared to offer, but that would not make up for the damage the story would do.

Nid Fulson and Gillum Mathison, on the other hand, had good reason to be wary of Simes. Mathison was genuinely afraid of Rital, although he was trying hard to act normally. It was obvious even to Gen eyes that he wished he were any place else. Nid Fulson felt less personally threatened, although his unpleasant, gloating smile made the channel very apprehensive.

Police Chief Tains was a large man, whose ample belly was imperfectly contained by the leather gun belt strapped over his uniform. He had disapproved of the Sime Center from the start. His flat refusal to have his officers "waste time babysitting demonstrations when there are real crimes taking place" had allowed the late Reverend Sinth to terrorize donors for over a year without fear of consequences. Tains had never been inside the Sime Center before, but as a police officer, he had probably witnessed more than one berserker attack. If the man's antagonism towards the Sime Center was based on Simephobia, Rital wanted him to feel as secure as possible. Tains was wary and alert, in the habitual fashion of a man accustomed to physical danger. He surveyed Rital's office quickly but thoroughly, dismissed Den with a slight sneer of contempt, then turned his eyes on the channel, as the most likely source of danger.

Mayor Kroag was the only member of the delegation who seemed willing to give Rital the benefit of the doubt. She, alone, among the visitors donated regularly, and so, she had some grounds for comparison. She was not a large woman, but she had a commanding presence about her. As soon as she entered the office, she strode briskly over to the desk and offered her hand to Rital. "Controller Madz, it's good to see you again, although I wish the circumstances were better." She shook his hand firmly, with the deft economy of a politician who performed the ritual often, then moved on to shake hands with Den, as well.

Underneath the professional politeness, she was worried, and with good reason. She had been elected two years before because of her progressive views, and support for the Sime Center had been a key element of her campaign. If Skaggit's misbehavior turned public opinion against the Center, she would have a difficult time winning reelection.

None of the other Gens chose to follow her example and shake hands, which did not bode well for the interview.

When his guests were seated-all but Tains, who seemed to prefer the psychological advantage of standing-Rital settled back in his chair, tentacles carefully sheathed to appear as harmless as possible. "How can I be of assistance to you?" he asked courteously. He was grateful for the solid support offered by his cousin.

Mathison squirmed in his chair, his flushed face indicating embarrassment and extreme reluctance. Nid Fulson shot an anticipatory glance at Mayor Kroag, but she shook her head slightly, refusing to level the first accusation.

Chief Tains deliberately readjusted his gun belt, then cleared his throat loudly. "Nid Fulson here says one of your Simes assaulted his employee, Mr. Mathison there, at the power plant. He said the Sime threatened to kill Mathison."

"That is almost true," Rital agreed, making no attempt to hide his own anger and sorrow. "Hajene Skaggit is not a member of my staff, or a Tecton channel. He is a foreign diplomat from Cordona Territory, here in connection with the upcoming treaty negotiations. Also, he threatened to take a donation from Mr. Mathison without his consent, not to kill him. It was an inexcusable act for a channel."

All five out-Territory Gens looked startled by his ready admission of Skaggit's wrongdoing. The channel had difficulty understanding that. With so many witnesses, what was the point of denial? It would only confuse the issue. Rital was not about to give these out-Territory Gens the impression that he approved of the Cordonan's acts, by making excuses for them.

Tains shuffled his feet, looking at the others for support. "Well, that's still assault and battery, as I see it. I'm going to have to ask you to surrender this...Hajene Skaggit."

Nid Fulson grinned in open triumph, and Hank Fredricks scribbled busily in his notebook.

"I'm afraid that's not possible," Rital said tiredly. "You don't have jurisdiction."

Tains's face darkened. "What do you mean, I don't have jurisdiction?" he growled. "The assault happened at the power plant, not here in your precious Sime Center."

Rital winced at the combination of anger, hate and fear that washed over him. The fosebine had finally taken effect, but it only dulled the pain. He gingerly massaged his throbbing temples. "The incident took place in the basement of the power plant, in the battery room. That room is posted as Sime Territory, so the Nivet Territory courts have jurisdiction over any crimes committed there."

Mayor Kroag looked interested. "If I recall correctly, the basement door has a sign on it that says, "Warning: Sime Territory. Authorized Tecton personnel only beyond this point." When did you join the Tecton, Nid?"

Fulson glared at her. "It's my power plant. I'm responsible for making sure that the lights stay on in Clear Springs. When I got a message that the Simes were cutting off our power, of course I wanted answers, and quickly."

Rital looked at Fulson, trying hard not to let his own dislike show as obviously as the Gen's. "There is a good reason why that door was locked," he pointed out. "If you had burst in while we were filling the batteries, we might have been seriously injured by the disruption. On the other hand, if you'd waited until we had left the basement, we would both have been wearing retainers. I doubt Hajene Skaggit would have threatened to take an unauthorized donation from one of your employees, under those circumstances."

Rital wondered for a moment if he could have prevented Skaggit from abusing Mathison, if he'd known how Cordonan channels went about collecting donations. Then he rejected the exercise as futile. There was no way to undo what had happened. Besides, he wasn't at all sure that Skaggit wouldn't have baited the Gens even if his tentacles had been confined. However, many out-Territory Gens had a strong, if unjustified, faith that retainers could make a Sime "safe," as if the physical inability to attack a Gen for selyn led inexorably to that conclusion. Like any in-Territory citizen, Rital knew better. However, in this case, reinforcing the myth might prevent a future interruption of the delicate battery filling process.

Mathison shifted uncomfortably in his chair at Rital's words, but Fulson felt no guilt at all. Hank Fredricks raised an interested eyebrow. "Suppose you tell us your version of what happened," he suggested.

Rital glanced at Den, and the Donor shrugged slightly, leaving the decision to Rital.

What small diplomatic ability the channel had acquired over the past two years, mostly through trial and error, was not at its best when his head was throbbing down to his tailbone. The pain made it nearly impossible for him to block the undisciplined fields of the out-Territory Gens. He had no idea what sort of story would placate them, so he gave them the bare truth.

"Hajene Skaggit is a diplomat from Cordona Territory on the southern continent, here to represent his Territory at the upcoming diplomatic conference," he began. "He was supposed to spend a week in Valzor before the conference, learning some of the channeling skills that his people lack. Unfortunately, Valzor has been particularly hard hit by the epidemic, so they sent him here early, instead.

"There is no selyn based technology in Cordona, so I took him to the power plant to demonstrate how the batteries work," he continued. He outlined what Skaggit had done after the five Gens burst in on them, as briefly as he could, trying to keep his voice steady and calm. It wasn't easy, when Mathison and Fulson were reliving the incident as well, less than six feet away from him. The other Gens weren't as personally involved, but Mayor Kroag's sense of betrayal was particularly hard for the channel to bear.

"A Tecton channel who did such a thing would be considered a criminal, and I could have disciplined him as such," Rital finished. "However, Hajene Skaggit has diplomatic immunity. He can't be arrested for crimes committed in Tecton lands-or in New Washington Territory, for that matter-without the consent of the Cordonan Council of Channels. Frankly, I don't believe they would let one of their own to be punished for doing something which, I have since been told, is a common sport among their channels."

"A sport!" Mathison's voice cracked with remembered fear. "That's...that's barbaric. Like the Raider bands, before Unity."

"Yes, it is, although Cordonan victims usually survive," the channel confirmed. He met the Gen's eyes as squarely as he could, letting his own sorrow and anger show. "Cordonan channels make a sport of hunting unwilling Gens for forced donations. The Tecton helped negotiate a treaty between Cordona and its Gen neighbors precisely to prevent such behavior. If we are successful, the Gens of Amzon and Zillia will no longer routinely experience what Hajene Skaggit tried to do to you-and worse."

Mathison stared at Rital, deeply shaken at the thought of channels raiding for selyn. Rital couldn't blame the Gen; if anything, he was more disturbed by it himself. Hank Fredricks looked sober, as if he was rethinking just how to frame his story, and Mayor Kroag's eyes were wide, as she thought over the implications. Even Nid Fulson seemed to have grasped that the incident was more complicated than he had thought.

Only Tains was unimpressed. "Diplomat or not, he broke the law," the police officer insisted. "He can be as barbaric as he wants in his own land, but Gens have rights in New Washington Territory."

"Gens have rights on this side of the border, for that matter," Den retorted.

Tains's fists clenched, and a new wave of anger washed through the ambient as the taunt hit home. "Brave words from a Sime-loving selyn-whore," he replied.

"Den, stop that," Rital ordered, bracing himself against the emotions. His cousin might bear a grudge against Chief Tains, and with reason, but this was not the time for indulging it.

"I'm sorry," Den apologized, his nager steadying into a solid support.

Tains didn't offer an apology of his own, but he seemed inclined to accept Den's, and didn't offer further insult to the Donor. The channel breathed easier as the ambient steadied.

"I've done what I can to prevent further trouble," Rital said, hoping that Hank Fredricks would see fit to print the details. "Hajene Skaggit will not be allowed to work in the Collectorium, or in any other official capacity during his stay here. My staff has been alerted and will watch for any attempt to have unsupervised encounters with Gens who are vulnerable to abuse. When the conference begins tomorrow, it will occupy much of his time." He looked at Mathison. "It's not enough, I know, but it's all the law allows me to do for you."

The Gen nodded in acceptance, oddly reassured despite the channel's confession, that Skaggit would not be punished.

Hank Fredricks cleared his throat. "Would it be possible to obtain more information on Cordona, and this alleged habit of hunting Gens?"

Rital didn't want such information in front of the Clear Springs public, particularly at a time when new donors were desperately required. However, he was committed to complete honesty about the incident, and it was possible that the contrast with Tecton policies would be reassuring. "I will ask Sosu Quess and Hajene Nerina, who will represent the Tecton during the negotiations, if they would share with you the briefing materials they prepared for my staff," he agreed.

Nid Fulson had grown increasingly frustrated as the conversation proceeded, and it became clear that he would not see Skaggit dragged off in handcuffs to the Clear Springs jail. "If you're so eager to apologize," he demanded, "why don't you prove it by refilling our fourth selyn battery? That way Mathison, and the rest of us who work at the power plant, won't get blamed by our neighbors when the lights go out."

Rital looked at the power plant manager calmly. "That is not so simple as you assume. We have every reason to think the selyn shortage is temporary, but at the moment, it is also very real. Sick Gens can't donate, and the epidemic is taking a heavy toll on donations all across the continent. The Tecton's first priority must be to ensure that all renSimes who require a transfer can get one. Otherwise, they would be forced to turn on the closest Gen for a kill. Do you really want that priority to change?" He leaned back in his chair, bracing his elbows on the arms and steepling his fingers.

Fulson's eyes darted to the channel's arms, where the sheathed tentacles lay like ropes from elbow to wrist. He swallowed, then shook his head.

"Neither do I," Rital assured the Gen. "Hajene Skaggit was correct in this much; the shortage of industrial selyn will not ease soon, if we depend only on those of our regular donors who are not ill. In Cordona, the channels would send their renSimes out to capture any healthy Gen they could, to be stripped of selyn. However, as a Tecton channel, I must wait for volunteers." The channel met Fulson's eyes squarely. "I don't want Clear Springs to run out of power any more than you do. I will provide the town with as much industrial selyn as I can, without endangering lives elsewhere. The rest will depend on the personal choices of you and your neighbors."

Fulson grumbled under his breath, but appeared to accept the unwelcome answer. Hank Fredricks, who had been scribbling busily as Rital spoke, was more satisfied, but the channel suspected that the editor's pleasure was mostly due to the quotability of Rital's plea. The newsman might feel very differently if he were unable to publish the resulting article for lack of power to run his printing press.

Mayor Kroag rose to her feet. "It appears our concerns have been resolved, to the extent they can be," she said. "I think we've accomplished our purpose here. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us, Hajene, I know you're a very busy man."

The Gens took this as a signal to leave. Nid Fulson, Hank Fredricks, and Chief Tains joined Kroag at the door, where Seena waited to escort them out of the building. Mathison, however, lingered behind. He leaned closer to Rital despite his obvious unease at being so near a Sime, and spoke in a low voice. "Hajene, it wasn't my idea to come here like this. It was Nid who called the police, the Mayor, and the newspaper. He said I'd better go along with him if I knew what was good for my wife and kids, if you know what I mean. I'd have let it go. I wasn't hurt, after all."

"I appreciate that," Rital said warmly, meaning every word. "Few Gens in your position would be so forgiving."

Mathison's expression hardened. "I haven't forgiven that misbegotten blackguard. But since you stopped him before he could," the Gen swallowed nervously, "do what he wanted to do, I want you to know that I don't hold with what Nid's done."

With a sharp nod, the power plant worker joined the other out-Territory Gens, closing the door behind him. Rital stared at it for a few moments, shaking inwardly at the memory of how close he had come to attacking Mathison himself. If the out-Territory Gens ever learned that even an outwardly dependable channel could feel the desire for Gen fear, their trust in the Tecton would dissolve, and the temporary selyn shortage would become permanent.

Den looked at the channel in concern. "Are you all right, cousin? Is your head still hurting?"

Rital grasped at the ready made excuse. "Yes, it is. Perhaps I should lie down for a while. I really ought to attend Quess's welcoming reception tonight, and I'll have to be clear headed for that."

***

Whether it was the fosebine making him groggy, Den's nager lulling him to relax, or just his own general reluctance to face the world, Rital napped most of the afternoon. When he awoke, the pounding headache had faded to a dull throb, and even that disappeared after he took another dose of fosebine. He bathed, dressed with care in the formal dress uniform he wore only when ceremonial splendor was mandatory, and accompanied the equally resplendent Den to the cafeteria.

Quess's staff had done a remarkable job on the room, particularly given that the Center's staff were either ill or pulling extra shifts to cover for their sick colleagues. The floor had been polished until it gleamed, the tables were covered with clean linens, and someone had scoured the Center's oversized grounds for the first spring flowers.

Quess and Nerina were overseeing the last minute touches, resplendent in their own finery. The fronts of their tailored formal uniforms were decorated with the awards and medals they had accumulated over their long careers in the Tecton's service. Formal Householding capes in the Shaeldor colors draped gracefully over their shoulders, hanging almost to the floor. Rital privately thought the effect was a bit excessive for a simple welcoming reception, but he had to admit that it was impressive, nonetheless.

Along the back wall, close to the kitchen, was a buffet table piled high with an assortment of beautifully prepared delicacies guaranteed to tempt the appetite of any Gen. Den was already eyeing them with more than casual interest, and young Vasthan's much depleted nager was unabashedly broadcasting the bottomless hunger of an adolescent male Gen.

The taste of the fosebine had destroyed what little appetite Rital had, and he was in no mood to be cajoled into eating. He edged away from his cousin. "You go see if Quess has any orders for us," he suggested. "I've got to check with Gati about something." The Gen looked at him oddly, but obediently took his hungry nager away. With a relieved sigh, the channel went off to commiserate with his fellow Simes.

Over the next half hour, the room gradually filled with Center staff, all looking splendid (if a bit uncomfortable) in their formal finery. There were other arrivals, too. Quess's staff had apparently persuaded a select group of Clear Springs dignitaries, carefully chosen for their generally pro-Tecton sentiments, to lend their support to the affair. Mayor Kroag swept through the door on the arm of her husband, looking elegant in a simple, almost Zeor blue dress. Tohm Seegrin and his father, Karl, arrived shortly thereafter. Karl Seegrin was a bit pale, but seemed to be recovering well from his illness. That boded well for the return of at least one general class donor to the Center's rolls. Rital noticed that Tohm had set aside his beloved school jacket in favor of more appropriate formal wear. The channel concluded the elder Seegrin's formidable reputation as a debater was fully justified.

The channel smiled at the sight of another guest; a white haired teddy bear of a man. His formal wear, although very proper, somehow appeared more worn and comfortable than the costumes of the other guests. A highly respected theologian, Doctor ("Don't call me Reverend; I'm not!") Thaddus Webber ministered to the local congregation of the Church of Rational Deism. While the orthodoxy of the Deists was frequently questioned by the more mainstream Gen denominations, no one disputed their ability to subject any issue to a stringent examination. In particular, the Deists were firmly committed to discarding any belief or doctrine that was factually inaccurate, and any custom which harmed people rather then helped them, however laudable its original intention. Rital gave Quess full credit. If anyone could persuade the Zillians to rethink their theology of donation, it would be Webber.

Webber was accompanied by a fellow Deist, Doctor Lennard. Lennard provided medical care to the residents of Berrysville, a small farming town, a few miles away from Clear Springs. The young physician had been fascinated by the channels' approach to healing from the start. He had even decided to host a part time Sime Center in his Berrysville clinic, and had prevailed over every objection that the Tecton and the Berrysville City Council could muster.

Rital had arranged for Quess to give Fredricks the briefing materials. The intrepid newsman, in turn, had apparently persuaded the diplomat to part with an invitation to the reception as well. He had cornered Esparra Daybee, and was questioning her earnestly, notebook in hand.

Rital was discussing the severity of the selyn shortage, and how the Tecton was coping with it, with Mayor Kroag when a flurry of activity at the doors caught the attention of the assembled guests. The murmur of voices fell silent as they craned their necks to see the cause of the disturbance.

In the sudden quiet, the clash of boots stamping in unison could be clearly heard. The doors were thrown open, and six renSime bodyguards bounded through, wearing brilliantly colored outfits, none of which matched the others. The cloth portions of their outfits shone in an eye searing array of colors, many of which clashed violently with each other, and every bit of metal or leather had been polished until it gleamed. While they were unarmed, every inch of their bodies quivered with repressed eagerness for action. The six formed a corridor of honor, and a seventh renSime, Skaggit's chief of staff Pollit, appeared. The scarred and wizened old man walked down the corridor to announce proudly, "His Excellency Hajene Skaggit, Ambassador of the sovereign Territory of Cordona!"

Skaggit strutted through the corridor, his head up and his eyes gleaming with pride. His long black hair had been arranged elaborately on the top of his head, secured in place by jeweled pins. A certain smugness in his nager, lurking underneath the arrogance, betrayed his pleasure at the impression he was making. The individual items of clothing he wore were of good quality, but as a whole they combined into another eye searing, clashing collection of reds, greens, blues and purples. It was as if the channel's wardrobe, and that of his followers, had been selected at random from a pirate's treasure store. Considering the Cordonan lifestyle, Rital speculated, the clothes might have been acquired in just that fashion.

Behind Skaggit trailed his Donor, Toljee, making his first public appearance since his arrival. Rital looked at the young Gen curiously. He was probably not more than four years past establishment, and had the broad face and sturdy build of a peasant farmer. Rital couldn't zlin much detail because of the intervening renSimes, but Toljee's nager seemed dull and uninteresting, for a Donor's. Or perhaps it was just that he wasn't controlling the ambient in his vicinity, as a Tecton Donor would. His clothing was considerably plainer than his channel's, and his only adornment was a broad, jeweled necklace that circled his neck tightly. The similarity to the collars which pre-Tecton juncts placed on their kills was unmistakable.

Rital glanced down at the crest ring on his right hand a bit smugly, glad that the Tecton had moved past the primitive habit of viewing people as property to be marked.

"Well, that Hajene Skaggit certainly looks like a complete barbarian," Mayor Kroag remarked with a sniff. "I haven't seen such a tasteless display in years."

Soon after, the first group of Gen envoys arrived, to be greeted formally, and introduced to the room by Quess and Nerina. The head of the Amzonian delegation, Clanleader Alhonzo Jequehita, was a short, middle aged man whose wide girth was swathed in garments brilliant enough to shame a peacock. Unlike the Cordonans, however, his choices of colors complimented each other. Jequehita's puffy fingers were adorned with jewel encrusted rings, and his hair shone with perfumed oil above his ruddy face. The physician in Rital recognized the inevitable consequences of overindulgence, and the dissatisfied pout on the slack lips boded ill for any attempt to promote the virtues of a moderate diet.

The second Amzonian delegate, Guildmistress Elsha Halitono, looked far more promising to the channel's inexpert eyes. She wore a dress made of shimmering green material, woven into intricate patterns. Her callused hands spoke of years of hard physical work at her loom. That she had risen to her current position spoke of a formidable degree of competence. If she wasn't unduly prejudiced against Simes-or at least was willing to acknowledge the differences between Tecton channels and those of Cordona-she might be willing to consider the advantages of the treaty for herself and her people.

Beside Rital, Mayor Kroag appeared to reach a similar conclusion. "Now, she looks like she's got some good sense," the out-Territory politician observed. "I think I'll go over and introduce myself, when the first rush has passed." Being Gen, she wandered off to spend the intervening time replenishing the food on her plate.

The Amzonian staff, who followed their principals into the room, seemed strongly polarized, holding themselves in two distinct groups. Rital wondered if there were already serious differences brewing between the two voting members of the delegation. Neither group appeared eager to socialize with their Tecton hosts. Rital wondered what would happen in Amzon if Halitono agreed to sign the treaty but Jequehita refused.

The last to arrive were the Zillians. Crown Prince Korrin was even younger than the briefing had implied; he could have established no more than four or five years. Unlike the Amzonians, or indeed the rest of his own party, he had rejected the colorful traditional costumes of his countrymen and donned the formal wear of his hosts. Only his unconventional choice of turquoise silk to line his jacket betrayed his unfamiliarity with current Tecton fashion.

To counterbalance to the Prince's youth, his father the King had provided him with two advisors who were considerably older. Duke Pollmar had iron gray hair, although he was vigorous enough. There was a thin dueling scar across his right cheek, and he carried himself lightly as if ready to respond instantly to any challenge. He had chosen to wear a formal Zillian military uniform, resplendent with bright turquoise embroidery that set off the plunging, V-shaped neckline formed by the overlapping panels of the wrapped coat. Rital wondered if the sartorial gesture was intended as a statement of patriotism, or as a silent reproof of Prince Korrin's choice of dress. In either case, he hoped that the man's jeweled belt was securely fastened. There was already far too much of the Gen's abundant chest hair displayed, in his opinion.

Chief Defender Foley, the head of the Zillian state religion, was resplendent in deep blue robes. Wisps of white hair escaped from underneath his embroidered cap, creating a silvery halo about his face. Rital zlinned the clergyman as he scanned the assembled guests, hoping for clues to his attitude. The channel could distinguish a distinct hint of uneasiness every time the man identified a Sime. He did try to set his feelings aside afterwards, in an obvious attempt to keep an open mind, but that wasn't completely reassuring.

The rest of the Prince's entourage was not making any such effort. The Defender's two attendants, one plump Gen introduced as Protector Grigiano, and his lean, hawk-faced colleague Protector Kelteth, were also robed in turquoise. They hovered protectively behind their elderly charge, aiming distrustful glares at Nerina, the closest Sime. The secular members of the entourage were not as open in displaying their feelings, but a miasma of apprehension and distrust permeated the ambient around them. One otherwise undistinguished man in the Prince's livery was broadcasting real fear of Nerina, although at least he was courteous and kept a buffer of colleagues between himself and the channel. Or perhaps he was simply trying to hide. Strangely enough, the fearful Gen's face was blandly polite, betraying none of his alarm. Rital wondered if the Prince knew about his vassal's extreme aversion to Simes. Or had the man been planted in his entourage by his anti-Tecton opponents?

With all delegations present, the guests dutifully set about the business of being diplomatic. Arming themselves with glasses of wine and small plates of canapés, they circulated in a well rehearsed minuet. Polite pleasantries were exchanged, as they waited for their counterparts in opposing entourages to reveal hints of where their principals stood on various issues. Occasionally, they "accidentally" dropped carefully calculated hints of their own.

Rital chatted briefly with Karl Seegrin, advising him to give his field a few more days to recover before donating. Then, Doctor Lennard cornered him, and demanded a detailed account of how channels managed influenza cases. He was openly disappointed to learn that aside from general support and some minor relief of symptoms, the Tecton had little to offer beyond what Gen medical science provided. By the time Rital finally was free, his head was starting to throb dully again.

As the evening progressed, and the wine continued to flow, the ambient gradually began to lighten. With their intelligence duties completed, the guests were free to converse as they pleased. Being a Sime, and one not directly involved in the Tecton's portion of the negotiations, Rital found himself largely ignored. Since this suited his mood, he found a secluded corner and sipped slowly at his own drink, watching the drama unfold.

Prince Korrin had sought out company close to his own age, and was standing with Tohm Seegrin and young Sosu Vasthan by the buffet. Like any young, healthy male Gens, all three were systematically consuming an astonishing amount of food. This preoccupation did not appear to hamper their conversation. From their gestures, and Tohm's repeated use of carrots and olives to make diagrams on his plate, the channel deduced that they were discussing a tactical situation. Whether it was the tactics with which Tohm's OLD SOCKS counterdemonstrators had contained Reverend Sinth's anti-Sime demonstrations, or the tactics which the University's prized athletic team had used to lose their latest game, was unclear.

Ref came out of the kitchen to check the buffet, and was soon chatting with one of the Amzonian staff members. As Rital watched, they were joined by Gati Forsin. To her credit, the Amzonian held her ground, although she took a large swallow from her wine glass for courage. It wasn't long before she was speaking to the renSime directly, instead of relaying her questions through Ref. Rital smiled at the sight. If enough such small encounters took place, the Gen delegates would soon be viewing Simes as fellow human beings, instead of as dangerous monsters. From there, it was only a small step to wanting a lasting peace with their traditional foes.

At a small table in the center of the room, Defender Foley and his two attendants were holding an animated discussion with Quess and Thaddus Webber. Even as Rital zlinned, the attendants' nagers flared outrage at some proposition advanced by the Rational Deist. The channel couldn't blame the Zillians. Even if one had no personal stake in an alternative theology, having one's basic assumptions subjected to the relentlessly logical dissection which was the Deists' specialty was an unsettling experience. Unlike his underlings, Defender Foley appeared secure enough in his own philosophy to enjoy the exchange.

Mayor Kroag, Hajene Nerina, and Guildmistress Halitono were engrossed in their own conversation. They passed by Rital's corner, ignoring him completely as they discussed cloth patterns, fashion, and the social and economic value of the exotic.

Den was less fortunate. Quess had given him the task of helping Esparra Daybee keep an eye on Skaggit, who was in an expansive mood. The senior Donor feared that the Cordonan might cause mischief, in the presence of so many vulnerable Gens. With constant observation to remind him to behave, however, the Cordonan channel contented himself with zlinning the Gens only. Or perhaps the Zillian and Amzonian delegates and their aides were all too high ranking for Skaggit to consider them his rightful prey.

When even the Gens had eaten their fill, and were only picking half-heartedly at the remaining scraps of the buffet, Rital decided that he had done his duty by the Tecton and could retire with a clean conscience. With a sigh of relief, he yawned, extending his handling tentacles at the height of his stretch. A multifaceted stab of alarm washed through the ambient, breaking his relaxed mood. It was an unpleasant reminder of his vulnerability, surrounded by a room full of high field non-donors and without the protection of his Donor. He looked around to locate the Gens he had frightened, but could pinpoint only one of them; the Zillian aide who had been so careful to hide his fear of Nerina from Gen eyes. The man was standing near the cafeteria's main doors, half in their shadow. As before, his face was perfectly, professionally bland, revealing none of the unsettled emotions so prominent in his nager.

Once more, Rital wondered why the man was trying to conceal his fear of Simes, and from whom. He couldn't believe he'd fool the Simes in the room by controlling his expression, not if he had paid any attention at all to his briefings on in-Territory etiquette. That implied the man was trying to deceive one or more of the Gen delegates.

None of the Amzonians was likely to care about the personal feelings of a minor diplomatic aide in the Zillian delegation. After all, if an anti-treaty partisan was wanted, Duke Pollmar's choice of dress made his traditionalist position clear, and the Zillian nobleman was far better placed to act than any low ranking aide.

That left the man trying to mislead his fellow Zillians, and the whole act suddenly appeared more sinister. The only ranking Zillian delegate likely to disapprove of an aide with anti-Sime leanings was Prince Korrin himself. While Rital was no expert on Zillian livery, the Simephobic Gen had entered with the Prince's retinue, rather than the Defender's or the Duke's. Was he a spy, planted on Prince Korrin to gather information that could be used against the young Zillian heir? If so, that could shift the balance of power within the Zillian delegation, and not in the Tecton's favor.

The Gen's spike of fear had passed when Rital sheathed his tentacles. Now he was casually sipping his drink while he scanned the crowd, a slightly bored expression on his face. The Zillian's attention, however, was sharply focused on an alcove near the kitchen. Despite the cluttered ambient, the channel thought he could make out a combination of urgency and frustration, as if the man wanted to do something badly, but was forced to wait.

Was the Zillian trying to make a clandestine contact? Perhaps even with the person who had placed him in the Prince's retinue, if Rital's suspicions were correct and the man was a spy? From where he sat, Rital could zlin more than one Gen in the alcove, but not who they were.

His interest aroused, the channel decided to see just whom the fearful Gen was watching. It would not do, of course, to let the fearful Gen know that he was being observed. Rital swirled the remaining wine in his glass, then sauntered in a casual fashion along the wall towards the buffet, as if his only interest was to top off his drink. He paused just before he reached the alcove, and leaned against the wall. He took a slow sip from his glass, listening closely.

"Don't tell me that I have to do something about it," a cultured baritone hissed sharply, in strangely accented English. "If your precious ally had delivered fifteen years ago, things would never have gotten so out of hand. Trust you to trust a fellow drunkard." The speaker's nager was obscured by the edges of the alcove, but his voice held the self assurance of a person accustomed to instant obedience.

"This is no time for recriminations," a deeper, alcohol-slurred voice complained with an annoying whine. "Your wines don't sell like they used to, now that the new imports are available. I'm facing ruin, and if I go down, I won't fall alone."

"Don't threaten me," the baritone countered with icy contempt. "If the profit you make from my wines isn't enough, I suggest you consider the profit you will have of keeping your neck intact. Do as you're told, and I'll arrange things to satisfy both of us."

"But..."

"Not here, you fool. The walls have ears."

Thus rebuked, the deep voiced Gen fell silent, sulking.

"Now, go. And for goodness sake, stop drinking. You haven't the head for it."

Rital stepped away from the wall and pretended to pay attention to the closest conversation, a discussion between two of Quess's Gen staff regarding the seasonings in Ref's stuffed mushrooms. Behind him, the whining, lower voiced Gen emerged from the alcove. Turning his head as if to inspect the mushrooms, the channel identified his nager as belonging to the flamboyantly dressed Amzonian Clanleader, Alhonzo Jequihita.

Continuing his interrupted circuit around the room, Rital noted that the fearful Zillian aide's attention was still firmly focused on the alcove, rather than on Jequehita. That implied his contact was the other conspirator.

"So, Controller Madz," Esparra Daybee's cheerful voice interrupted his musings, "have you joined your cousin in deciding that all diplomats are lunatics?"

Rital smiled. "Shall we say, I'm developing an appreciation for the complexity of the situation?"

She laughed. "Under the circumstances, I think you could slip away if you wanted to, without causing comment. You can take Sosu Den with you. I think he's more tired than he's willing to admit. I will keep an eye on Hajene Skaggit, don't worry."

"I was hoping to slip away without giving offense," the channel said, with some relief. It helped to be reminded that the politics of Amzon, Cordona and Zillia were not his responsibility. Rital collected his cousin, who made only token protest at leaving the party early, and the two made their way towards the exit. As they neared the doors, the nager of the fearful Zillian aide flared with intent, and the Gen left his position by the doors and disappeared into the crowd.

On a hunch, Rital turned and glanced towards the alcove, just in time to see the second conspirator emerge. He was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that the baritone voice and authoritative nager belonged to the scarred, iron haired Duke Pollmar.


 Read Chapter 5

 


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