TEST OF COURAGE

by
Mary Lou Mendum

Chapter 5

Delicate Negotiations

In the end, Hank Fredricks' coverage of the power plant incident was more nuanced than Rital had dared to hope. The main headline read "Interterritorial Treaty to be Negotiated in Clear Springs," with a subheading, "Pact to End Sime Raiding." The habits of Cordonan raiders, and the sufferings of their victims, were described in sufficiently lurid detail to keep the most exacting subscriber glued to the page. The article also contained a detailed exposition from one of Defender Foley's aides about the ethics of association with Simes. However, this was balanced by a few remarks from the Defender himself, questioning whether Tecton channels were properly classed with their Cordonan colleagues, morally speaking.

The power plant fiasco itself, was described in an article that started below the fold on the front page, under the heading "Clear Springs Citizens Get a Taste of Cordonan Brutality." The facts of the story were presented in a straightforward fashion, although that was scant comfort. The facts required no embellishment to be a public relations disaster for the Tecton, and particularly for its Clear Springs Controller, who should have prevented the entire incident.

It appeared, though, that Hank Fredricks had asked Skaggit some hard questions, and the Cordonan channel had seen fit to answer them. Skaggit was quoted at length, expounding upon his hypothesis that the Tecton's current selyn shortage was due solely to its ethical qualms about taking a Gen's donation by force. Blithely ignorant of the consequences which would be visited on any channel who dared try such a thing, Skaggit had made raiding for donors sound like a practical solution to the selyn crises.

Fredricks had ended the article by quoting Rital's appeal for new volunteers to make up for the regular donors who were unable to give selyn due to illness. Juxtaposed with Skaggit's remarks, it made Rital, and the Tecton, sound a great deal more noble and self-sacrificing than they were.

Rital was cheered enough by the newsman's editorial slant to view his own situation with something closer to his normal pre-turnover optimism. It was just possible that his horrifying reaction to Mathison's terror wasn't a sign that he had become a danger to Gens. It might have just been a fluke, brought on by overwork and worry. Any channel might come dangerously close to breaking, when in hard need and deprived of his Donor. Perhaps it didn't mean anything more than that he had been pushed beyond his personal limits.

If that was so, then he could avoid a reoccurrence by easing back on his workload, and spending time with Den, so his subconscious would once again believe that the Donor would be there for him. To his delight, and Den's disappointment, his cousin had been assigned to give transfer to Hajene Bikella, the Second Order channel who had arrived with Quess. Her departure had been delayed when Calvin Nermann had succumbed to the flu, just hours before he was to leave with her for Valzor. The transfer would, of necessity, take place before Den's field recovered completely from his illness. Unsatisfying as such a transfer was for a First Order Donor like Den, Rital couldn't muster a proper degree of sympathy. At least it had the virtue of placing the Donor back in phase with Rital. To the channel's secret shame, that mattered a great deal more to him than his cousin's satisfaction.

Donor or no, Rital was not willing to take unnecessary risks. Over the next few days, he used the last traces of the burn headache as an excuse to avoid scheduling himself time in the Collectorium. He was not in the habit of malingering, but in this case he felt himself justified. While the Collectorium was bringing in only a fraction of its normal complement of donors, among them were a scattering of newcomers who were responding to the appeal for emergency donations. Rital could imagine the courage it must take for a Gen to volunteer a donation after reading about Skaggit's misbehavior. They didn't require a confrontation with the other channel who had been involved in the incident, at least not until he was sure, in his own mind, that his control was adequate.

To avoid uncomfortable questions from Den, Rital spent long hours in the infirmary. Extra tentacles were urgently required to look after the sick, but it was light work, and no particular challenge to the control of a First Order channel. More importantly, all but two of the patients were either Simes, or Gen staff members who had been raised in-Territory, and who were long used to working with channels.

The exceptions were not likely to try his control. Flora Mills was the widowed mother of the Mayor of Berrysville, where Doctor Lennard had his clinic. She owed her life to Rital's care after a terrorist's bomb had taken off her hand. Her partner of six months, the eccentric Mr. Duncan, had been the first Gen to donate at the Clear Springs Sime Center. This was particularly notable because at the time, his daughter Carla Lifton had been organizing the violent anti-Sime protests that had plagued the Center's first two years.

When the two elderly Gens fell victim to the influenza epidemic, they had been faced with a dilemma. Flora's son, the Mayor, was sick himself, and in no condition to nurse two additional invalids. Mr. Duncan's relationship with his daughter was not such that he felt comfortable asking her to take them in. Consequently, the two had decided to weather their illnesses at the Sime Center.

Rital did not protest the imposition. It gave the infirmary an almost in-Territory flavor, to have patients who weren't part of the Center's staff, and the gesture might provide some favorable publicity when it was most necessary. Besides, Flora Mills had managed to single-handedly bully the Berrysville town council, her local congregation of Rational Deists, and the Tecton into approving Doctor Lennard's scheme to invite channels to his clinic, against their better judgment. Against one so formidable, how could a mere channel hope to prevail?

Several days after the diplomatic reception, the two invalids received some visitors; Mr. Duncan's grandson, Rob Lifton, and his wife of just under a year, Bethany. The two had lost no time in fulfilling the traditional task given Gen Territory newlyweds. Bethany moved with a ponderous grace, and her abdomen bulged under her loose fitting maternity dress.

"I don't think I can stand two and a half more months of this," she groaned, as she sat heavily in a chair beside her grandfather-in-law's sickbed. "This kid is going to be a soccer star when she grows up. It's kick, kick, kick, all the time. It's going to be the death of me. I didn't get a wink of sleep last night." Indeed, the circles under Bethany's eyes did little to set off what was normally a very pretty face.

"It's excellent practice for when the baby's born," Flora Mills pointed out, with the ghoulish sympathy of a mother whose children were long grown.

It wasn't the fetus's kicking that concerned Rital, however, nor was sleep deprivation the greatest danger Bethany faced, for the young woman also had relatives staying at the Clear Springs Sime Center. Bethany's long dead mother had been Sosu Lissabee ambrov Shaeldor, and Quess and Nerina were her grandparents. The young Gen had been raised out-Territory, and had only learned a year ago that her mother was a Householding-pledged Donor. She had lived briefly with her grandparents, rather than continue under the guardianship of her uncle, the fanatical Reverend Sinth, who had beaten her for dating Rob. However, the moment she reached legal adulthood under out-Territory law, she had married Rob and settled down in Oak Ridge, a small community not far from Clear Springs. She made no secret of her intention to ignore her in-Territory heritage.

Unfortunately, her heritage was not returning the favor. The fetus Bethany carried was a channel, and because she had never trained as a Donor, it was already burning more selyn than she could produce. Her nager was barely mid-field, although it had been five weeks since her last donation. If nothing was done, her nager would continue to ebb. Without sufficient selyn available to support the heavy demand of a channel during birth, chances were good that both mother and infant, would die.

Even before Unity, the Householdings had worked out methods for providing a channel fetus with extra selyn during birth, when its Gen mother's own supply was insufficient. Just as a channel's secondary system could work backwards to provide transfer for a renSime, a Gen's nervous system could be induced to accept selyn, instead of giving it. With plenty of selyn available to feed the infant channel's demand, the mother didn't risk dying from the Gen equivalent of attrition.

Unfortunately, forcing selyn into a Gen wasn't as straightforward as taking it out. It required the Gen's active cooperation to drop the barriers that would normally prevent a backflow. Furthermore, unlike during a general class donation, there was no practical way to prevent the Gen from perceiving the flow. This wasn't usually an issue in-Territory. Many Gens giving birth to channels were Donors themselves, well used to feeling selyn movement, and almost all of the rest knew what would be required of them before they made the decision to get pregnant.

Bethany probably had the genetic potential to be a Donor. However, her uncle, Reverend Sinth, had raised her to believe that her mother's profession was an abomination, a shameful perversion of what it meant to be a Gen. Her brief stay with her grandparents had eliminated her childhood fear of Simes, and financial necessity had forced her to make her peace with donating. However, despite the vague promises she had made to her grandparents before her marriage, she had not yet started to learn the exercises which would permit her to drop her internal barriers on command, and accept the selyn she would require to survive her child's birth.

When Bethany and her husband had finished their visit with Mr. Duncan, Rital herded them into an examination room before they could make good their escape. Fixing Bethany with a sternly disapproving look, he waited until she began to squirm, then demanded, "Just when were you planning to start your prenatal instruction, young woman?"

"There's lots of time," Bethany objected. "The baby won't be born for months yet."

"Two and a half months isn't much time, to gain conscious control of your barriers," Rital argued. "Not when your life is at stake, as well as your child's. And sometimes, babies come early."

The young Gen pouted. "I don't see what all the fuss is about. Women have babies all the time out here, and without any interfering channel sticking his tentacles into things, either. My doctor says it's a completely normal pregnancy, and there shouldn't be any problems."

"Your doctor isn't a Sime, and so he can't zlin how you're being drained," the channel pointed out. "You're as low field as if you'd donated two weeks ago-and we both know it's been quite a bit longer than that."

Bethany shrugged. "So the baby's lowered my field a bit," she said, with an adolescent's blithe disregard for risk. "I've been low field before. Gens don't live on selyn."

"Gens do die if all their selyn is drained," Rital corrected grimly. "At the rate it's drawing selyn, this baby will kill you during labor. And then die itself, because it still can't get enough selyn to survive." The channel pointed a stern handling tentacle at her. "Unless, that is, a channel can provide it-and you-with extra selyn. Which will not be possible if you don't learn how to lower your barriers."

Rob was sobered by this grim prognosis, but his wife just sniffed. "You're not as indispensable as you think, Hajene," she announced. "As it happens, I've discussed the matter with my obstetrician. He said that since the greatest danger comes during labor, we can avoid the problem quite easily by scheduling a surgical birth for a week or so before the baby would be born naturally."

Rital could feel his jaw dropping in disbelief. With an effort, he managed to force it closed again. "Do you want both of you to die?" he demanded.

"It's not a very dangerous surgery," Rob protested.

"That's right," his wife confirmed. "Dr. Hardstrom says that when it isn't an emergency, complications are rare. Just because channels are squeamish about surgery, doesn't mean it doesn't work, you know."

Rital looked at the defiant young Gen. He could zlin no hesitation in her determination to let herself be eviscerated, rather than work with a channel to manage her pregnancy. He didn't want to be the one to break the news to Quess and Nerina that their granddaughter was planning to commit suicide, and take their great-grandchild-to-be with her. He took a deep breath to calm himself, and tried again.

"I am sure Dr. Hardstrom is quite competent, when it comes to managing ordinary pregnancies," he explained, congratulating himself on his tact. In his view, any so-called physician who would inflict a serious abdominal injury on a patient was a great deal less than competent. "However, there are some things he probably doesn't know about fetal channels. For instance, by the time you are ready to give birth, that umbilical cord will be conducting selyn almost as rapidly as a lateral. It has to, or it couldn't supply enough selyn for a channel to survive childhood and changeover."

"What difference does that make?" Bethany asked sullenly.

"The difference it makes is quite simple," the channel said crisply. "Until your baby takes its first independent breath, the umbilical cord will be transporting selyn from you to it-a great deal of selyn. Sever that connection prematurely, and like an injured lateral, it will void selyn uncontrollably. As low field as you will be by then, and with no channel to control the selyn loss, chances are good that you will simply void to death. I'm told it's not quite as painful a death for Gens as for Simes, and you would presumably be anesthetized for the surgery, but dead is dead."

Rital glanced at Rob, whose concern was turning into real apprehension, then returned his attention to Bethany. "Your doctor might keep you alive by making sure your baby is breathing before he cuts the umbilical cord. Of course, without the selyn it would have drawn during a natural labor, your child won't have the reserves to survive childhood, much less changeover. How will you tell your child that she's doomed to a very painful, premature, and completely unnecessary death, just because you didn't want to be bothered with prenatal exercises?"

By now, Bethany was looking and zlinning distinctly uncomfortable, although she was not quite ready to admit defeat.

Rital decided that it was time to bring out the heavy artillery, to use a local metaphor. "I'm sure your late uncle would have liked that; a guaranteed death in changeover, and without the tedious inconvenience of slaughtering a sick child."

Rob flinched. His sister Annie had almost been murdered that way, although, in her case, Reverend Sinth had mistaken stomach flu for changeover.

"Of course, it's possible that Dr. Hardstrom will refuse to do this surgical birth at all, when he learns of his own danger," the channel continued thoughtfully.

"How could the doctor be in danger?" Bethany demanded, her discomfort turning to irritation.

"I told you that umbilical cord will be conducting selyn much like a lateral," Rital said. "Any high field Gen who tries to handle it, or worse yet, damage it by cutting, could easily end up on the wrong end of an active gradient. Dr. Hardstrom has never even volunteered to donate. I doubt he wants to risk a severe transfer shock injury."

"Who's risking transfer shock?" Quess asked crisply, as he and Nerina entered the small treatment room. "Bethany, my dear, we've been hoping that you would visit."

The young Gen smiled weakly at this gentle reprimand, and allowed her grandparents to embrace her. Nerina took advantage of the physical contact to zlin her granddaughter deeply.

"You're doing well," she approved, as she released the Gen. "Your field's a bit low, of course, but that's why you're learning to drop your barriers..." Her voice trailed off as she zlinned the others' tension rise in response to her innocent remark.

"Bethany doesn't want to learn to accept a selyn influx," Rital explained flatly. "She wants her Gen doctor to perform a surgical birth instead, to avoid the channel's prenatal selyn draw."

Quess blanched with horror, and Nerina gasped as if she'd been shenned. "Bethany, darling, you mustn't!" she pleaded. "We've just found you, after looking so long. I couldn't bear to lose you again so soon, and for no good reason."

Her grandparents' unfeigned horror did more to convince Bethany her plan was dangerous than any number of stern warnings from Rital. She was still young enough, and stubborn enough, to protest loudly. However, when her husband joined his pleas to the others, she finally agreed to come in the following morning and begin her lessons. To Rital's immense relief, Nerina insisted on undertaking that critical task herself, despite her other duties.

When the young couple had been sent on their way, Quess turned to Rital. "We were actually searching for you, Hajene, when we heard that our granddaughter was here."

The channel tensed, visions of fresh disaster dancing before his eyes. "Is something wrong?" he asked. "Please, don't tell me Skaggit has created another incident. One per week is enough, thank you."

The Donor chuckled. "No, nothing's wrong. The delegates have been hard at work for days, though. I thought a change of pace might be in order. Naturally, I'd prefer that any entertainment provide insight into our culture, as well."

"If you want to Den to perform, you have my permission to ask him. Fair warning, though; he's much better at playing his guitar than he is at singing."

"We hoped to use your cousin's other talents," Nerina explained. "Specifically, we want him to give a comprehensive tour of the Sime Center, with emphasis on how it serves both in- and out-Territory communities. That will give the delegates some real information to work with, when discussing their southern counterparts."

"I can see how it would," Rital admitted. "I'll ask Den if he would arrange the tour for...shall we say, tomorrow?"

"We'd better make it the day after," Quess suggested. "The Zillian clergy have some sort of religious ceremony scheduled for tomorrow morning. Since meeting for just a half day isn't likely to be productive, Clanleader Jequehita suggested that the individual delegations simply use the time to review the week's progress."

"Very well, the day after tomorrow, then. We're a bit short-handed just now, but we'll manage a decent show."

"Excellent." The Donor beamed. "I've only one more request, then. The etiquette of diplomacy requires you, as Controller, to issue formal invitations to the event. They would be most effective at compelling attendance if delivered, personally."

For the first time, Rital regretted that the Gen diplomats were staying in downtown Clear Springs, rather then at the Sime Center. If Quess and Nerina were both free, the negotiations must already be over for the day. To hand deliver invitations to the Gen delegations would thus require walking through town, his retainers advertising his larity to every passing Gen. Many would have read the Clarion's coverage of the power plant incident. The channel didn't want to zlin their apprehension that he might turn on them. He feared it would reawaken the bestial, predatory feelings that Skaggit had awakened...and he feared the part of himself that had enjoyed those feelings even more.

Unfortunately, he couldn't act on his misgivings without explaining why he had them. Quess and Nerina would have no choice, then, but to report him to the Tecton, and he would be summoned before a board of inquiry to explain just why he shouldn't be summarily retired.

He didn't quite have the courage to face that, and so he simply said, "Very well."

***

In the end, the task of personally delivering the invitations wasn't quite as bad as Rital had feared. Den was worried about what he thought was his cousin's slow recovery from his injuries, and insisted that they use the staff car to drive to the Gen diplomats' hotel. Rital would normally have walked, particularly given the selyn shortage, but the opportunity to avoid closer contact with the Clarion's readership was too tempting to refuse.

Once at the hotel, Rital and his cousin were lucky enough to catch both of the principal Amzonian delegates in Guildmistress Halitono's quarters. In the face of her enthusiastic endorsement, Alhonzo Jequihita was forced to accept on behalf of his own people, or risk giving offense.

When Den and Rital arrived at Prince Korrin's quarters, however, they were less fortunate. It was the Prince's Simephobic aide who answered; the same man who had acted so strangely at the reception.

"His Highness stayed after the morning's services to converse with Defender Foley," the Gen said courteously. "I am Rollin, his confidential aide. Can I be of assistance?"

As before, the Zillian's face remained perfectly bland. Without the supportive presence of his fellow Gens, though, his control of his body language was less complete. He spoke to Rital, but his eyes remained firmly fixed on Den, except for quick, darting glances in the channel's direction. Even so, he was careful to look only at Rital's face, and never to let his gaze fall on the focus of his attention,the thick metal retainers encasing the channel's tentacles. Den edged a bit closer to his cousin, to Rital's relief. The channel wondered once more why the Zillian prince had brought a Simephobic aide on this journey.

Like most Simes, Rital could not trust a Gen whose feelings so dramatically contradicted his words. "Our business is with Prince Korrin himself," he said firmly.

"His Highness will be back shortly," Rollin replied. He had not taken offense at the channel's refusal to explain his errand. "Would you care to wait for him?" The aide stepped back, holding the door open in invitation.

On impulse, Rital abandoned the protection of his Donor and stepped through the door. "We will wait, if that isn't an imposition." Behind him, Den flared astonishment, then outrage, before following.

"Not at all, you are very welcome," Rollin lied. He waved Rital and his cousin towards a comfortably upholstered couch along one wall of the luxury suite's common room. Above it, an ornately framed portrait of Zillia's King Madigan had replaced the blander artwork provided by the hotel. "Would you care for some refreshment?"

Even through the protective buffer of Den's nager, Rital could zlin the Zillian Gen's nervous awareness of him, a jangling alarm that set his own nerves on edge. As he was not in need, it was not as unsettling as Mathison's panic had been. However, he still found himself tensing, half fearing and half hoping that he would once again find himself attracted to Gen fear.

The channel wasn't worried that he would attack the Gen. The retainers made it physically impossible for him to make a transfer contact, and with Den present to override his antisocial impulses if necessary, he didn't have to depend entirely on his own self control. Paradoxically, this gave him the freedom to risk a closer exposure to the Gen's alarm than he would otherwise have dared.

Rital had not had a chance to observe Rollin at close range since the welcoming reception. The aide had remained very much in the background, almost invisible among the other low level staff. Then, too, the channel hadn't exactly sought out the man's company, on those occasions when he had no valid excuse to avoid the diplomats altogether.

In this more isolated setting, Rital could zlin something decidedly odd about the Gen's nager. It wasn't just that he was nervous in the presence of a Sime. That was common enough in those local Gens with no personal experience of channels. He suspected that it was equally common in Gens from Amzon and Zillia who did have personal experience of Cordonan channels. What caught his attention wasn't even the sharp contrast between Rollin's fear, and the genuine sincerity with which hospitality was being offered. Despite the blurring caused by the retainers, Rital thought he zlinned something abnormal about the Gen's nageric response to his presence. It made his tentacles squirm under the confining retainers.

"Perhaps we might have some water?" he requested. He wasn't thirsty, but it seemed the most expedient way to lure Rollin closer.

"Of course, Controller Madz." The Gen bustled over to a sideboard where water and stronger beverages were laid out, ready to serve. He began assembling clean glasses and a pitcher of iced water on a small tray.

Den, who had sat down beside his cousin, automatically gathered himself to get up and fetch the tray, thus preventing the untrained Gen from coming closer to his channel. Rital surreptitiously tapped the Donor's knee, then shook his head.

"I want a closer zlin of him," the channel mouthed, in a barely audible whisper. Puzzled, but obedient, Den settled back on the couch, and as the aide approached, adjusted his nager to allow Rital to zlin the other Gen as clearly as the retainers would permit.

Rollin's expression was blandly polite, if a little pale, and there was little outward sign of his conflicting emotions. His heartbeat was faster than the physical exertion justified, and there was a sheen of sweat on his brow. However, he carried the tray steadily towards his guests in a display of courage that Rital both admired and distrusted. It was too easy for courage to break, loosing the fear it contained.

The channel settled back on the couch, trying to look harmless. As Rollin bent over to set the tray on the coffee table in front of the couch, Rital looked at the water pitcher, then focused his full attention on the Gen's nager. He couldn't be sure, but it seemed to respond to his presence in an uneven fashion, as if the normal flow of selyn was obstructed in some areas. Of course, that could be due to the distortion of his retainers. Den's nager also zlinned distorted, although not in quite the same way. Rital was almost convinced that he had zlinned something real, though, by the time the object of his interest straightened and backed away.

"Please let me know, if there is anything else I can do for you." The aide retreated to the other side of the room, where he stood at respectful attention beside the drink counter. He apparently perceived this as a "safe" distance from the channel, because his heartbeat had slowed considerably, and the sharp edge of fear had faded back to wariness.

***

The Simephobia implied some Sime-related trauma, over and above that provided by an out-Territory upbringing. Certainly, Zillian Gens had reason to fear channels, especially if they didn't belong to the protected noble class. On the other hand, any Gen who had seen a Sime augment would know that Rital could have crossed the distance between them long before Gen reflexes could react. The implied contradiction did nothing to explain the distortions in the Gen's nager, if they weren't a figment of his imagination.

The Gen was not Rital's patient, nor was he ever likely to be. Still, Rital never could resist a professional challenge. The channel accepted the glass of water Den poured for him, and tried an oblique approach. "Would you be willing to satisfy my curiosity about something, Rollin?"

"If I can."

"I can't help noticing that you're not very comfortable around Simes-not even channels."

The Zillian Gen's nager twisted with a mixture of anxiety and shame at Rital's words. "I'm sorry if I've made you uncomfortable, Hajene," he apologized. "Certainly you have done nothing to earn my distrust. Our briefing was quite clear that proper etiquette among your people requires Gens to remain calm and unafraid at all times, but I'm not very good at it. I'll have to try harder..." The courage returned as he tried to force himself not to be afraid.

Rital held up a hand to stem the flow of apologies. "I wasn't criticizing your manners," he reassured the aide. "I just wondered why you are serving as aide to the Prince, under these circumstances. I don't doubt your competence, or your loyalty to Prince Korrin. However, surely he could have chosen someone more comfortable around Simes, and whose feelings were more in line with his own?"

Rollin gave a short, bitter laugh. "Many highborn are more comfortable around Simes than I am, but very few have traveled outside Zillia, and none of those wanted to serve the Prince as he argues in favor of the treaty. They fear Defender Foley will defy the King's wishes, and rule that donating to the Tecton's channels is morally equivalent to harvest by the Cordonan ones. Or, he might simply delay his decision indefinitely, if he chooses not to be open in his defiance. Either outcome would cast doubt on the moral standing of any highborn favoring the treaty. His Highness can survive such criticism, but it could make advancement very difficult for an ambitious nobleman."

"You don't fear damage to your own career?" Den asked.

"No, but then a delayed or unfavorable ruling can't make my position any worse." Rollin gave a self-mocking smile. "You see, gentlemen, the Prince selected me for my position, at least partly, because I have direct, personal experience of what our lowborn citizens have endured for generations."

"A Cordonan channel forced you to donate against your will?" Rital asked. "I was told only poor and uneducated Gens were taken." It would certainly explain the Gen's wariness around channels, though, if he had been targeted for 'harvest.'

"To be strictly fair, I doubt the Simes who attacked me knew I was highborn," Rollin admitted. "It was fifteen years ago, when the Tecton was just another far away foreign government, and long before anyone started to consider -the possibility of an alliance. I was betrayed and kidnapped by my family's enemies. My captors held me just across the border in Amzon, in one of the staging areas where the caravans form before making a run through the Cordonan passes. There was one gathering at the time; I could hear the conversations outside the shed where I was imprisoned. It was ordinary talk, about the Great Clans, and trade prospects, and why the guards were late. By that time, I'd been beaten so badly that I could barely talk, and my clothing was nothing but rags, so there was no use crying out for help. I looked like a servant, wearing his master's castoffs long after they were fit only for washing floors. Still, even the lowliest peasant doesn't deserve what was done to me."

The Zillian Gen's nager darkened with the memory of long suppressed anger, humiliation, and pain. Despite the blurring of the retainers, Rital could zlin the separate emotions clearly, alternating in intensity but never quite fading from his perceptions. "I heard screams outside, running feet, and galloping hooves. Two Simes burst into my prison; they were almost as filthy as I was. They put a blindfold over my eyes and dragged me outside. I could hear others of their band calling back and forth in their language. Many of them were drunk, and I could hear some of the Amzonians begging for mercy."

A nightmarish terror joined the other emotions warring for supremacy in Rollin's nager. Strangely enough, the separate responses did not blend into a coherent emotional whole, as the channel would have expected in a Gen relating a trauma fifteen years in the past. Rital wondered why the Zillian had never been able to put the incident behind him and move on.

The Gen's voice grew harsher. "They began to play with me. They literally tossed me back and forth, with no care for my bruises, taunting me all the while with descriptions of the terrible things they could do to disobedient Gens. When they had me worked up into a frenzy, one of them finally grabbed me. I still don't know whether it was their channel. I do know that what followed was the most terrifying thing I've ever experienced. It hurt much worse than the beating, too. It felt like I was being burned alive from the inside. I couldn't escape no matter how hard I tried, and not even my fellow Gens tried to interfere. I remember thinking that if I had to die, I didn't want my death to support my murderer's life. Then I passed out."

Den was looking at Rollin with shocked disbelief. "Are you sure that it was one of the settled Sime bands that was involved, and not a band of recent changeovers who had become junct Raiders?"

"I survived," the Zillian Gen pointed out.

"Sometimes, junct renSimes will attempt a kill before they are truly in need, and the Gen isn't burned fatally," Den argued.

"But that is rare." Rital could understand his cousin's reluctance to consider that a channel might allow a donor to be deliberately tormented, then burned. A Donor's ability to function was based on the absolute trust that the channels would never, ever, allow a Gen to be harmed. Channels being Simes, sometime maintaining that illusion was a near thing.

In his own case, the safeguards that were supposed to protect Gens like Mathison and Vasthan had not worked. He had wanted to hurt them, and his anti-kill conditioning had failed to engage. He hadn't actually injured either Gen, so it was possible that the stimulus simply hadn't been quite strong enough to trigger a suicidal abort. Alternatively, the dark pleasure he had felt in Gen distress might be a sign that his conditioning had failed, and that nothing but his own self control now stood between him and the Kill.

He had prevented a disaster both times through sheer force of will, but how long could it be before his will was seduced by the addictive pleasure of Gen fear? Den might not believe that a channel could do such a thing, but his cousin had not had the dubious pleasure seeing Skaggit in action.

"It was a settled band," Rollin insisted. "Juncts would have destroyed what they couldn't use, and murdered those whom they didn't kill. The settled bands steal what they can carry, and leave the rest unharmed. How else can they ensure the Clans will remain in business to use their passes?"

Den shrugged, bowing to Rollin's greater experience, and the Zillian continued his story. "When I woke up, I was back in my prison, the caravan was finally setting out, and I could hear my captors arguing. Some of them-the hired hands-were saying that I was as good as dead, and my ransom value was destroyed. They wanted to cut their losses, and my throat. The leader wanted to go ahead with their plan, whatever it was, if I lived. I didn't wait to find out. They hadn't bothered to bind me again, so I crawled across the floor and squeezed through a high window in the back wall of my prison. I don't remember much after that. I think I stole a horse, and set the others free. I vaguely remember tying myself to a saddle. In any case, I was mounted when a Zillian patrol found me two days later, barely alive."

"That you were able to escape at all says a great deal for your courage and determination." Rital's respect and sympathy for the Zillian Gen had grown as he heard the story. Rollin had good reason to be afraid of Simes. That didn't make the channel any less wary of what his fear might do to Rital himself, of course, nor did it necessarily quiet the channel's doubts about the Gen's ability to truly support his young master's agenda.

"If blackmail was my kidnappers' intention, they failed in their purpose." Rollin was fiercely glad of that, and Rital couldn't blame him. "The cause of my injury couldn't be hushed up, not with the tentacle bruises still purple on my arms for all to see, and a whole troop of the Border Guard for witnesses. My father was forced to declare me unfit to be his heir, of course, and my younger brother inherited the title."

"You were disinherited?" Den inquired, confused by the logic. "How did that follow?"

"If I was attacked by a Sime, then by definition I couldn't be a true noble, could I?" The Zillian aide's nager had a cynical edge to it. "It is not the first time such things have happened, and until our laws are changed, it won't be the last.

"As for me, I lost any chance of holding a government position or a title, no matter how Defender Foley rules on the morality of voluntary donations. A disinherited ex-noble can't hold public office. I've lived abroad in Bolvar ever since, advising my father, and later my younger brother, in such affairs as required a greater knowledge of the outside world. It hasn't been a bad life, although I would not have chosen exile voluntarily."

"You are very forgiving, to a family who cast you out," Rital observed.

"How not?" Rollin asked, in genuine surprise. "My father owed me nothing, after the humiliation I had brought him. Instead, he gave me a purpose, and a new life. Now my brother has arranged for me to serve Prince Korrin as he negotiates a treaty that can change our laws. If His Highness succeeds, perhaps I can go home again. Not to take up my former rank, of course, but I long to see my native land again."

"The Tecton will certainly offer what help it can, towards such a goal," Rital promised. "And if that proves insufficient, there are many places in the world where your history would not prevent your advancement."

Rollin smiled, a genuine smile, even if it did have a bittersweet edge to it. "I thank you, gentlemen," he said, "but Zillia is my home, for all its flaws. Then, too, I still hope to discover the identity of my enemy. Not the kidnappers themselves; they were never more than paid lackeys. I want the noble house who hired them to be exposed and brought down, and then perhaps it will be possible..."

A flurry of approaching activity in the hallway outside caught the channel's attention. He cocked his head to listen, as the walls were thick enough to muddle what little sense the retainers left of the ambient.

The Zillian aide stopped speaking in the middle of his sentence and followed Rital's gaze to the door. "That will be His Highness now," he said, hurrying to open it for his master. As the young prince swept through the door, Rollin bowed deeply, his nager showing an unambiguous mixture of deep protectiveness, profound loyalty, and a highly personal pride in Korrin's achievements.

"We have visitors, Your Highness," he announced.

"Thank you, Rollin." Korrin's eyes were already moving beyond his aide, searching the living area of the suite. They lighted on Rital, and the young Prince's nager brightened with interest.

As Rital and his cousin rose courteously and gave the short bow that Zillian etiquette required from foreign dignitaries, the channel realized that he would have to rethink his assumptions about the aide. Simephobe or not, it was obvious that Rollin was loyal to Prince Korrin. There had also been no dishonesty in the aide's expressed desire to create a Zillia where no Gen would experience the abuse he had suffered, however poorly equipped he was to live in a society where Gens and Simes mixed more freely.

Of course, this left unanswered the interesting question of exactly why Rollin had been acting so furtively at the reception. Intriguing as the problem was, however, it wasn't any of the channel's business, and he had an errand of his own to complete. Taking a deep breath, he focused on the task at hand, and began.

"Your Highness, we are here to convey an official invitation to you and your staff..."


 Read Chapter 6

 


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