TEST OF COURAGE

by
Mary Lou Mendum

Chapter 8

Channel Errant

Rital consigned Mayor Kroag to Seena's expert care for the post-donation paperwork, and fled to the safety of the records room. He leaned against the wall, trying not to shake with reaction. The Mayor had been his shift's only donor. She was usually quite steady for a general class, out-Territory Gen, but the channel had thought he zlinned an underlying uneasiness in her when he made lateral contact. Worse yet, there was an answering darkness from inside himself, which responded to it.

Mayor Kroag's uneasiness might not have been connected to his own presence, of course. Although the selyn shortage grabbed the headlines, the sheer number of sick people caused problems of its own, as skeleton crews labored to keep essential services available. Mayor Kroag might be worried about any number of problems unrelated to what he was doing to her, and be unable to set her concerns aside while donating

However, he thought her uneasiness had increased while he was in lateral contact, as if he was the cause of it. His fertile imagination was all too ready to imagine what the donation had been like from her perspective. If their situations were reversed, how comfortable would he have been, lying there helplessly while a possibly crazed channel took his donation? A channel who had been involved in an incident of Gen abuse not quite two weeks before?

It was time to stop kidding himself, Rital thought. He had been making excuses, telling himself that his sudden interest in Gen fear was a temporary abberation. However, his attempts to ignore it had not made it go away. If he was having so much trouble controlling himself with calm donors, when he was pre-turnover, what would happen when he was in need? Would he make a mistake, accidentally or on purpose, and learn the hard way whether his anti-kill conditioning still functioned?

Den's hand came to rest on his shoulder, wrapping him in a cocoon of warm Gen caring.

"Cousin, are you all right? Is it entran?"

Rital didn't deserve any Gen's concern. He forced himself to stand properly. "No, I'm fi..."

He broke off, as the floor seemed to drop out from under him. "...Turnover," he managed to gasp, as he clung to the Donor.

"It's a day early for you," Den observed with concern. "Although I suppose that's not too surprising, considering how your transfer went. Sit down a moment, and let me work on you."

The channel allowed himself to be led to a chair, and surrendered to his cousin's expert administrations. Den was safe. He could handle anything that the beast might do, even if it slipped out of Rital's tight controls.

That is, the Gen could handle it, if he saw trouble coming in time. No Donor expected a channel to attack unexpectedly. Could the beast harm Den, if it caught his cousin by surprise?

It wanted to try, and a shameful part of him wanted to let it. How would a Donor's nager zlin, trapped and helpless?

No channel should be able to even think such a thing, he realized with increasing horror, and yet it felt like the most natural thing in the world.

Den had always been able to read his cousin like a book, even when they were children. "Rital, has something been bothering you?" The Donor's concern was openly displayed in his nager. "Has Quess been hinting about another official investigation into our affairs?"

Rital shook his head. "It's nothing like that. As far as I know, the Tecton is satisfied with our performance here." Whether it would remain so, if it knew his condition, was a matter he preferred not to consider.

"Then what the shen's wrong with you? You've been jumpy as a virgin donor ever since those foreign diplomats landed on our doorstep."

Rital would have preferred a different comparison, under the circumstances. He drew breath to insist that he was fine, then reconsidered as he zlinned his cousin's determination. The Gen would not be put off with excuses this time. Moreover, while he would bully Rital into taking whatever remedial action he considered appropriate, he wouldn't betray the channel to the Tecton authorities without permission. Rital hadn't had much luck dealing with the problem on his own, and a different perspective might help.

"Look, Den, I'll explain it all to you, but not here where we could be interrupted any time. Let's go to my room."

Den looked at him skeptically for a moment, as if wondering whether the channel was just trying to delay the inevitable, but nodded in agreement.

Rital suffered second thoughts as he led his cousin towards the insulated refuge of his quarters. Would the Donor be as repelled by the ugly truth as he himself was? As a Gen, Den had the luxury of washing his hands of the whole miserable business, and just walking away. Would his conscience overcome his family loyalty after all? And if he reported Rital to the Tecton as dangerously unreliable, would other Donors refuse to work with Rital, as well?

Or would Den's Donor conditioning hold, causing him to laugh off Rital's fears? That would be a comfort of sorts, allowing matters to continue as they were. However, if the problem was simply ignored, eventually the beast within him wouldn't be satisfied with zlinning Gen fear only when it was unavoidable in the course of his duties. He would find himself "accidentally" missing opportunities to calm nervous patients, so that he could feel that illicit pleasure again. It was only a short step from there to deliberately frightening the Gens who had entrusted themselves to him, as Skaggit did.

Rital couldn't bear the thought of becoming such a creature, nor would the Tecton tolerate such a channel among its ranks. Even if he avoided death by an involuntary abort (if his anti-kill conditioning still functioned), or in a Last Year House if it didn't, there were other dangers. If he had become too unreliable, the Tecton might force him into involuntary retirement. That wasn't quite as bad a death as the others, but dead was dead. The only escape would be to immigrate to Cordona, and become Skaggit, in truth.

As if the thought of Skaggit had invoked him, the Second Order channel's voice echoed loundly down the hall from the Cordonans' quarters. "I'll not have it, do you understand?"

There was an indistinct reply, then the sickening crunch of an augmented fist meeting soft flesh. A thin wail of pain was cut off by another thud. Rital winced at the sound, even though the room's insulation was good enough to prevent him from zlinning much of the impact.

Skaggit's voice roared, "You are mine! The sooner you resign yourself to it, the better it will be for you. I won't let them teach you their insolence, and that's final!" This time, the roar was punctuated by the sharper report of an open handed slap.

Rital looked at Den, zlinning his own shock, anger and determination mirrored in his cousin's nager. As one, they stalked down the hall to confront the Cordonan renSime guarding his master's privacy.

"Step aside," Rital ordered shortly.

The guard blanched as he found himself the focus of two infuriated First Order nagers, and obeyed without a token protest. Not bothering to signal, the channel jerked the door open with far more force than necessary.

Inside, Skaggit was shaking his Donor, Toljee, until the man's head flopped back and forth. The two had had transfer the week before. However, the selyn Skaggit had received hadn't inspired any lasting gratitude in him towards the Gen who'd provided it. The Cordonan channel was furious, and Toljee's depleted nager was broadcasting real fear for his physical safety. Rital couldn't blame the young Gen. Even a Tecton Donor might have been worried, faced with a channel going berserk.

Skaggit was so caught up in his own anger, and in enjoying Toljee's distress, that he failed to notice the interruption. Neither did the two renSimes who zlinned the show with avid interest.

Before Rital could intervene, Skaggit released his victim with a vicious shove, sending the Gen careening towards Rital. Rital sidestepped hastily, not trusting himself to handle even a low field Gen in such an emotionally charged situation. Instead of smashing into the door, Toljee hit the door jamb instead. His momentum carried him staggering past Rital into the corridor.

Carried on a wave of righteous outrage, Rital hardly felt the shock. It was barely distinguishable against the throb of pain from the beating the Gen had taken in any case. The channel glared at Skaggit. This time, he didn't care that he was a head shorter than the Cordonan channel, or that his physical appearance was less formidable than that of the Center's resident pussycat.

"What the blazing shen is going on here?" he demanded, as if he had a right to know.

Skaggit's eyes widened with alarm as he zlinned Rital, and he took an involuntary step backwards before recovering. "Mind your own business, Madz. This is a Cordonan affair." The reply was bold enough, but Rital could hear the other channel's voice quaver just a bit, and his nager betrayed his uncertainty. Like any bully, the Second Order channel showed little enthusiasm for confronting a foe who might fight back.

"You were warned against mistreating Gens."

A trace of his earlier contempt flickered across the Cordonan's face. "I'll treat your Gens like they were made of glass," he declared, "but Toljee is my property. I'll discipline him as I please, without your interference."

"Not in my Sime Center, you won't."

Skaggit smiled, not pleasantly. "You've forgotten, Controller Madz." He lingered over the title, making it sound like an insult. "My rooms are the Cordonan Embassy until the conference is over, and you have no authority inside them."

"I've forgotten nothing," Rital snapped. "Since Sosu Toljee is not presently inside your 'embassy', but outside of it, in my corridor, I'm taking him to the infirmary. He'll remain there until I decide that he is fit for duty, at which time he can decide whether he wishes to return to you, or to apply for Tecton citizenship."

Skaggit's eyes widened in shock, and his bravado melted away like snow on a hot hearth. "You can't take my Donor!" he protested. "How will I get along without him?"

As Skaggit's defiant anger disappeared, the anger that had kept Rital from thinking about his impulsive actions faded as well, leaving him free to consider the diplomatic consequences. He wasn't at all certain that he could get away with removing the Cordonan Donor from Skaggit's control, and on such a flimsy technicality. However, he refused to back down, after going this far. He buried his doubts and made certain that nothing in his showfield could be interpreted as doubt.

"You should have thought of that before you beat Toljee to a pulp," he pointed out. "If you require the services of a Donor, I'll provide one, but only if you don't abuse the privilege. Right now, though, I've some work to do in the infirmary."

Rital turned on his heel abruptly and retreated in good order. Skaggit had no time to remember that the Cordonan renSimes had the Tecton pair outclassed, both in numbers and combat experience.

Toljee was cowering against the far wall of the corridor, his nager frozen with shock and disbelief. Rital couldn't blame him. The channel was having trouble believing what he had done, himself.

The young Gen was not a pretty sight. Blood ran down his broad face from a cut on his right cheek, and dripped from his chin onto his ragged, faded shirt. That was easy enough to heal. Rital was more concerned with the stab of pain that laced the ambient with every breath the Gen took. The channel suspected a cracked rib at the very least.

Toljee stared at Rital dumbly, one hand raised as if to fend off the channel. The Cordonan Gen seemed to fear Rital's anger just as much as he did Skaggit's. Unlike Mathison, though, he knew better than to try and escape from a Sime. Instead, he held his ground, trying hard not to flinch and thus provoke another attack.

Skaggit wouldn't remain cowed for long. There would be time later to convince the Gen that Rital meant him no harm. Wrapping two handling tentacles firmly around the conveniently outstretched wrist, the channel motioned for his cousin to support Toljee from the other side.

"Come along," he ordered firmly. For just a moment, he thought he zlinned another Gen down at the end of the hall, too muddled by the intervening nagers to recognize. He wondered whether it was one of Quess's diplomatic staff, and if so, whether his actions were about to be summarily overruled. However, even as he turned his head to look, the nager disappeared into a side corridor. Shaking his head, he dismissed the incident, and with his cousin's aid, led Toljee away down the hall.

***

For once, Den had the grace to wait until they were out of earshot from hostile witnesses before presenting his unsolicited opinion.

"There's going to be trouble over this," the Donor stated. He didn't zlin as if he regretted their rescue of the Cordonan Gen, but even so, Rital could have done without the reminder.

"Tell me something I don't know," the channel muttered, steering the stumbling Toljee around the corner and approaching the stairs. "Careful of your footing," he warned the injured Gen as they started down.

When the hazard had been safely negotiated, Rital turned his attention back to Den. "Cousin, I don't suppose you'd be willing to take on the thankless task of teaching Skaggit some manners, if he requests help? Vasthan's too young and inexperienced. He'd let himself be bullied."

Den made a face. "I don't want to, but I suppose I'd better."

Toljee's wariness of Rital, which had been receding, flared anew. The Cordonan Donor's nager was nothing compared with Den's, but even low field, it was stronger than a general class donor's. Rital felt his newly awakened need respond, and prudently took remedial measures.

"What's the matter, Toljee?" he asked, keeping his voice calm.

"I thought the Tecton didn't give its Donors away," the Cordonan Gen said, with a disillusioned sigh. "Particularly not to the likes of Skaggit." He looked at Den sympathetically. "He'll get mad and hit you, even if he promises your channel that he won't. He always forgets, when he gets angry."

"I'd like to see him try," Den said, with a predatory smile. "I think he'd find it a very educational experience."

"If he raises so much as a tentacle tip to you, cousin, you can slam him with my blessing," Rital approved. "I don't think he will, though. He's only a Second, and ill trained besides. You can overcontrol him, if he starts getting troublesome."

"Believe me, I will."

The Center's infirmary was well equipped but small, intended to handle only an occasional injury among the staff. An in-Territory city the size of Clear Springs would have had several full sized wards, with three or four channels assigned to each, but most out-Territory Gens preferred to use Gen doctors.

Rital steered Toljee into a treatment room, urging him to sit on the padded bench. As Den bustled around, getting out disinfectant, bandages, and other supplies, the channel grimly surveyed the burgeoning bruises on the Gen's chest, arms, and face. He shook his head in disgust at Skaggit's behavior, then held out his hands to his patient, handling tentacles spread in a request for a transfer contact. "Give me a neutral field for a moment," he ordered. "I want to zlin whether you've got any internal injuries."

Toljee obediently placed his hands in Rital's. However, instead of becoming relaxed and still as the channel's handling tentacles wrapped around his forearms, the Cordonan Donor's nager went completely flat. Rital had never zlinned such a thing in a Gen who wasn't either heavily sedated or completely exhausted. The channel imagined that the drugged, downtrodden inmates of the junct Pens might have zlinned so.

It was obviously a well practiced effect, but Rital couldn't imagine it serving a useful purpose, unless imitating a nageric piece of furniture was the intent. Come to think of it, given Skaggit's taste in entertainment, perhaps it wasn't surprising that his Gen would go to some lengths to be ignored.

The technique was not going to help the channel determine how badly Toljee was injured, however.

"Not like that," he snapped, irritation sharpening his voice. "I said a neutral field, not a dead one."

There was a flash of apprehension in Toljee's nager, gone so quickly that Rital wasn't sure that he hadn't imagined it. "I'm sorry, Hajene," he apologized humbly, looking down at the floor. His nager went even flatter, if possible, its complete tastelessness making it difficult for the channel to focus his attention on the young Gen.

Toljee wasn't quite cringing, but Rital still had the distinct impression that the Cordonan expected to be beaten for disobedience. That was odd enough, but the young Gen was also just standing there. He made no attempt to use his nager to calm Rital, much less prevent the channel from lashing out with his fists as Skaggit had done. It was as if he honestly believed he could do nothing to stop Rital from inflicting such abuse.

A Tecton Donor would have known half a dozen ways to handle an angry and potentially violent Sime, and would not have hesitated to use them. It was easy enough for a knowledgeable Gen to defuse a Sime's anger by broadcasting amusement, affection, or any of a dozen other lighter emotions inconsistent with violent outbursts. Verbal misdirection, or even a scolding backed by firm conviction, would reduce most offenders to tearful apologies.

If all else failed, Tecton Donors were quite capable of using their nagers in self defense. Even pre-Unity juncts had known that attacking a Householding Companion was suicide. A Donor could walk through the worst neighborhoods of an in-Territory city and not worry about being assaulted, at least by any group of criminals that had a least one Sime member. It wasn't that the Tecton emphasized such things in training its Gens. It was simply an unavoidable side effect of producing Donors who could handle their channels in a crisis.

On the other hand, given Skaggit's taste in entertainment, and his lack of interest in basic channeling skills such as healing, the Cordonan channel might prefer to live without a Donor who could control him if necessary. The traditional seclusion of Cordonan Donors would make it difficult for a young Gen like Toljee to learn anything his master considered undesirable. It still seemed incredible, though, for a Gen who gave transfer regularly to lack such a basic skill as presenting a neutral field. That left miscommunication. Perhaps Cordonans called it something different?

"Relax, Toljee," the channel said, deliberately keeping his tone light. "I didn't mean you had to eliminate all emotion from your nager. It's just easier for me to concentrate on your physical health if I don't have to work with the distraction of strong emotions carried on a Donor's nager, that's all."

It took several minutes of coaching before the Cordonan was able to unflatten his field. As Toljee sought to understand the channel's instructions, it became clear that he had never been asked to do such a thing before. In the end, Rital settled for the approximation of a neutral field expected from an experienced, general class donor.

A thorough zlinning confirmed that the damage was restricted to superficial cuts and bruises. "You'll be fine," he reassured the young Donor, as he set to work cleaning a cut high on the Gen's battered right cheek. "That rib is just bruised. It will be painful for a week or so, but there's no real danger from it. Most of this was intended more to frighten than to injure you, I think."

"Well, of course," Toljee said, sounding a little surprised at Rital's ignorance. "I'm the only Gen he's got at the moment, so he has to use me for everything. I should've remembered that before I tried to leave our quarters without permission. I did want to see the gardens, though. They looked so pretty from the window."

Rital wondered just what the Cordonan mountains were like, that the winter dead grounds of the Sime Center could provide an irresistible temptation.

"There's no reason at all why you shouldn't walk around the grounds, if you want," Den assured the Cordonan. "For that matter, there are a some pretty places over on the university campus, if you like that sort of thing."

Toljee stared at Den in amazement, then looked at Rital. "Do you really let him break seclusion like that?"

"Let him?" the channel asked, blinking in confusion. "I've no authority to tell Den what to do with his spare time, unless it directly endangers the functioning of the Sime Center."

"Not that he doesn't feel free to express his opinions, on occasion," Den said, winking at Toljee. "It's one of the disadvantages of working with a relative."

Rital chuckled, conceding the point. However, the Cordonan Donor didn't seem to get the joke. "But Hajene," he objected, "I'm told there are many channels working in a Tecton Sime Center. Aren't you afraid that one of them might steal your Donor?"

"In the Tecton, transfer assignments are made by the Controllers," Rital explained. "Den will serve me at the end of this month, if the schedule doesn't get disrupted again by this shenned epidemic. However, the month after he will work with a different channel, so as to avoid a dependency."

"Cordonan channels keep more than one Gen, if they can afford it, so they can rotate. They don't swap, though, or let another channel get a so much as tentacle on their Gens," Toljee said. "The Gen might get stolen, if she was a good one, and if she wasn't... Well, what channel would want to admit in public that he can't afford anything but inferior goods?"

"Don't the Gens themselves have something to say about all this?" Den asked.

"Of course not." The young Donor seemed surprised by the question. "Well, there are some Gens who get the silly idea that one channel is better than another. Some of them risk a lot to bring themselves to the attention of a channel they think would be kinder, or who has a band that provides better food or fancy clothing. I've never seen the point to that, myself. It's too much risk, for too little gain."

"And yet you took a similar risk, just to walk outside," Rital said softly. He'd sometimes felt trapped by his profession, but it seemed even the most harassed Tecton channel enjoyed privileges that a Cordonan Donor could only dream about.

"I didn't think I'd get caught," Toljee admitted, "and I was counting on Skaggit's sense of self preservation to keep him from hurting me if I was. I miscalculated, though. I should've remembered that Uxtel and Oorana were close to need, before I tried to wheedle my way past them. They told Skaggit, and he decided to reward their diligence by giving me a real beating."

"The man's a monster," Den muttered.

"He's a channel," the young Gen corrected. "What do you expect?"

"How did you end up as a Donor, if you dislike channels so much?" Rital asked.

"I was young and stupid, how else?" Toljee's broad face twisting in a grimace of self disgust. "I grew up on a farm just outside of Tuthkaklon, a village in Amzon, not far from the border. It has nothing to recommend it to outsiders, or even to the people who live there. My parents were farmers, as their parents had been before them. They thought of nothing but their cattle and crops. I couldn't stand the thought of following in their footsteps, as I was expected to do."

Rital made an encouraging noise as he reached for the disinfectant and a clean swab. He dampened the swab in the bowl, and prepared to clean the cut on Toljee's forehead.

"One day I was sent to town to get a damaged hoe repaired," the Cordonan continued. "There was a merchant at the blacksmith's shop, with a string of mules he wanted reshod before he attempted the mountains. Santo Maatap was an independent trader who made his living exchanging Amzonian cloth and pins for Zillian spices. He'd decided to increase his profits by risking a solo journey across the mountains, instead of paying to join a Clan sponsored caravan. I was fascinated by his stories, and wanted the freedom to travel. It took me most of the afternoon, but I talked him into taking me on as a muleteer."

Rital applied the swab to the cut cheek, and Toljee winced as the disinfectant stung.

"Maatap abandoned the main trail for deer paths once we got across the Border, to avoid Sime bands," Toljee continued, when the unpleasant task was done and he could ungrit his teeth. "It didn't work. We were ambused barely halfway to the pass. It wasn't much of a band; only ten renSimes and their channel. However, that was more than enough to take the two of us. When the channel, Radda, offered free passage through to the pass in exchange for me, Maatap agreed without hesitation."

"You agreed to stay?" Den asked, openly skeptical.

"I wasn't very happy about it, at first," Toljee admitted. "But Radda offered me good food, fancy clothes, and a life filled with adventure if I would be her Gen. She made it sound very romantic. If the reality didn't quite live up to her promise, parts of it were very nice, indeed. Radda kept me fed, and warm in winter, and she treated me well enough. Her other Gens were much older than me, but they were friendly, in a distant sort of way. It was better than crawling back to my parents' farm."

"How did you end up in Skaggit's clutches?" Rital asked. "I thought that Cordonan Donors only work with one channel?"

"Twice a year, the Cordonan bands have a week long meeting, the Council of Channels. They settle quarrels between bands, or exchange renSimes if a band wants to acquire particular skills, or wants to correct an imbalance between the women and men. It's a chance to meet people, and show off your wealth. The bands are pretty much isolated, otherwise."

"I can see how that would be," Rital said, remembering what Quess had said about the territoriality of Cordona's Sime bands.

"By that time, I was itching to talk to someone besides Radda and her other Donors. I wanted adventure. So, I wheedled Radda into taking me along. It didn't take nearly as much effort as I'd expected. Looking back, that should have warned me."

"Warned you about what?" Den asked, offering Rital a clean swab in exchange for the soiled one.

"Radda didn't require more than two Donors, and she could have gotten by with one, if she had to. However, she had a taste for seducing young Gens. She trained them up a bit, then traded them away to channels who didn't want to be bothered training their own Gens. In exchange, she'd get temporary hunting rights, or Simes for her band, or goods. It was my bad luck that Skaggit had just lost one of his Donors in a card game."

"He gambled away his Donor?" Every time he learned more about Skaggit, Rital liked the Cordonan channel less. Donors were precious; the one thing that stood between a channel and the Kill. They were not objects to be used and discarded at whim.

His scandalized expression must have betrayed his thoughts, for Toljee hastened to reassure him. "Olaga went to Sodac's band. He's considered a bit of a pervert because he insists that his Gens be young and pretty, and he keeps at least five at a time for variety. But he's said to indulge them shamelessly, and his favorites wear jewels. He hardly ever beats them, either; doesn't like to zlin bruises. I've sometimes wished that I could catch his eye."

There was a wistful note in Toljee's nager that Rital found obscene. No Gen should be so mistreated that his greatest ambition was to become the property of a slightly more indulgent master. "How long have you been with Skaggit?" the channel asked gently.

"Three years, almost." The Gen's tone made it seem a lifetime.

"You don't have to go back to him, if you don't want to," Den assured Toljee.

"But what about the treaty?" the Cordonan Gen protested. "The Council of Channels will never approve an alliance with the Tecton if it means having their Gens stolen."

"It will be more difficult," Rital admitted. "However, I can't see any Tecton channel making you return to Skaggit's clutches against your will, once they know how he treats you."

"If you do want to return to Cordona," Den added, "I'd be happy to show you some tricks that will allow you to defend yourself against mistreatment. You should be able to control Skaggit when he gets angry, at least well enough to keep him from beating you."

Toljee looked at the other Donor, his eyes wide with awe. "You can do that?" he asked. "I've heard legends of Donors who could turn the tables on their masters, but I've never believed them."

"Of course I can defuse a Sime's anger, or at least convince him to keep his fists to himself," Den said. "More to the point, so can you, once you know how. It's not even particularly difficult. If you've been handling transfers regularly, it shouldn't give you any trouble."

"I'll arrange for you to get a stipend, as any Tecton student Donor would receive, while you consider your options," Rital offered. "It's not a full Donor's salary, but it should cover your incidental expenses until you decide what you want to do with your life."

"Will I be under your protection?" the young Gen asked hopefully. His nager shifted, offering selyn laced with a strange hint of resistance that was oddly attractive, despite the Donor's relatively weak field. "I don't think I could give you much of a transfer, but I'm willing to try."

Rital stepped back hastily, putting distance between himself and the odd projection. "That won't be necessary, Toljee. The Tecton would classify you as a Second Order Donor. You have much to learn before you can serve a First."

A wave of insecurity swept through the Cordonan's nager. Donors didn't suffer physically when they couldn't work, but they did miss the constant interaction with a channel's nager. Rital smiled gently at the young Gen, glad that Skaggit had not succeeded in beating the Donor instinct out of Toljee, after all.

"We're shorthanded here, because of the epidemic," he told the Gen. "Can I call on you to help out, from time to time, as your skills allow?"

Rital could zlin that Den disapproved of entrusting his channel to the skills of an amateur Second Order Donor. However, the offer seemed to be the right approach. Toljee smiled shyly, greatly reassured, and said, "Of course, Hajene. I am at your service."

With Den's help, Rital settled the young Cordonan in the empty room which had been occupied by Sosu Siv Alson. Clear Spring's other First Order Donor was unlikely to be sent back from Valzor until the epidemic was over. The room had the advantage of being between Den's quarters and Seena's. The channel hoped the presence of witnesses would prevent any attempt by Skaggit to reclaim his Donor by force.

When the young Gen had been made comfortable, Rital went to tell Quess and Nerina what he had done.

***

"You did what?" Quess demanded, looking at Rital in shocked disbelief.

"Well, I could hardly just walk away," the channel protested. "The young man's a Donor, and Skaggit was beating him to a pulp." He began listing the injuries Toljee had sustained, in graphic detail.

The older Donor held up a hand, stopping the recitation. "I don't question that the boy required rescuing-I've been to Cordona, and I know how Donors are treated there. But this will complicate the negotiations."

"Is that all you care about?" Rital's evening had been very frustrating, and he wasn't even trying to hide his indignation. "The Tecton is trying to bring civilization to Cordona. How can that happen, if abuses of this sort are overlooked for the convenience of diplomats? For goodness sake, all the boy wanted was to walk in the garden. What sort of crime is that?"

"We don't blame you for interfering," Nerina said with a sigh. "Shen, I'd have done so myself, although I'd have found a way to do so that didn't require kidnapping Skaggit's Donor."

"You would have left a Gen in the custody of that...sadist? A young Donor who doesn't know the first thing about defending himself?"

"I doubt Toljee is as helpless as all that," Quess objected. "Cordonan channels don't teach their Gens how to use their nagers offensively, it is true. However, Cordonan custom severely limits the amount of punishment a Donor can be given, and provides Donors with ways of asserting themselves. It's a very different balance of power than the Tecton employs, but it's real, nevertheless." He frowned. "This does sound a bit excessive, though, even if breaking seclusion is considered a serious infraction by Cordonan channels."

"The kid won't be able to breathe comfortably for a week. That's more than "a bit excessive," in my book."

"But there will be no lasting damage?" Nerina asked.

"No." Rital's admission was grudging. "He's young enough to heal quickly, at least physically. Psychologically, though, he's going to have problems standing up to channels. He was almost cringing away from me."

"Which, I expect, is exactly what Skaggit intended," Quess pointed out. "Cordonan channels work with minimal Gen support, using their Donors mainly for transfer. They don't do much healing, after all, and they're very underdeveloped by our standards. That makes them quite hardy, compared to Tecton channels."

"There is a bright side to this," Nerina pointed out. "Skaggit may choose to conclude his business here quickly, rather than become indebted to the Tecton for a Donor's services."

"That would be a nice change," her husband admitted with a rueful smile. "Skaggit's been deliberately stalling the negotiations, for some reason known only to himself," he explained to Rital. "Every time we come close to reaching an agreement on a key issue, he comes up with some objection that derails the whole compromise. I'd swear he's doing it just to annoy. Half the time, his objections have nothing to do with his agenda, or even run counter to it."

"It would be like him, to cause trouble for the sake of seeing others squirm," Rital said. "What can you expect of a channel who beats his Donor?"

Nerina looked at him with the severe expression patented by displeased school teachers. "Skaggit may be a barbarian, by Tecton standards, but the Cordonan Council of Channels appointed him to represent their interests in these negotiations. He is neither stupid nor careless, and I am sure that he has very good reasons for everything he does."

"Reasons such as he likes to zlin Gen pain?"

"I am sure he does," Nerina admitted. "Most Cordonan channels develop a taste for it. However, he wouldn't have beaten Toljee just for sport, and I doubt he's disrupting the negotiations for a frivolous reason, either."

"Skaggit's position in Cordona grows more precarious, the longer he stays away," Quess agreed. "Whatever his reasons for delaying an agreement, they must be important for him to risk his band, and his hunting grounds."

"Despite everything, I could have sworn that he wanted this treaty," Rital said. "What could cause him to work against his own interests?"

"If we can discover that, then perhaps we can resolve this problem," Quess said.


 Read Chapter 9

 


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