Mary Lou Mendum

Chapter 9

Cloak and Dagger

A few days later, Rital made a point of dropping by Toljee's room. He wanted to check how well the young Cordonan was healing, and to see if he could provide any clues to his former master's odd obstructionism. Under Den's tutelage, the young Donor had been working hard to master some basic Tecton techniques, and was able to provide a neutral field with only a little fumbling.

"You're a quick study," the channel praised, dismantling the transfer contact as he finished his examination. "You're healing nicely, too. There's no reason why you shouldn't start getting some moderate exercise, as long as you don't overdo it. If it hurts, stop, and don't work yourself into exhaustion."

The Gen looked at him closely, then flared courage. Underneath it was sharp apprehension, centered on Rital. No Donor should feel personally threatened by a channel, and no channel should be exposed to such misgivings carried on a Donor's strong and responsive nager. Rital found himself wondering how Toljee would zlin if the apprehension burst free as true fear, and edged away.

"Could I..." the Cordonan ventured timidly, then braced himself and went on with the recklessness of someone with nothing left to lose. "Could I go walking in the gardens, sometimes?"

Rital felt his jaw drop in astonishment. Toljee tensed, as if expecting immanent attack, and the channel automatically zlinned for the source of the danger. After a moment, he realized the Gen expected him to continue the beating that Skaggit had started. Rital curbed his first reaction, which was to give the young Donor a good scolding for even thinking that a Tecton channel might do such a thing. It wasn't the boy's fault that he was wary of channels, and two days exposure to civilization wasn't nearly enough time to recover from years of barbaric abuse. Nor did Toljee have any way of knowing how deeply his distrust was feeding Rital's own insecurities.

The Gen's nager betrayed disappointment, then went flat. He assumed a submissive posture, looking down at Rital's feet, and the channel realized that his silence was being taken as a refusal. "Of course you can walk in the gardens, Toljee," he said gently.

The young Donor's nager brightened with hope. "Do you really mean that?" he asked.

"Why wouldn't I?" Rital countered. "The grounds are here for our staff to enjoy, and that includes the Gens as well as the Simes."

"Oh, thank you, Hajene!" The Gen seemed barely able to contain his joy.

If Toljee considered it such a privilege to walk in the mud through a gloomy, dormant winter garden, Skaggit must have kept him a virtual prisoner. The thought of the Cordonan channel raised a new concern.

"Keep an eye out for Skaggit's guards, if you want to walk alone," he warned. "If they drag you back to his quarters, I might not be able to get you out again without creating a diplomatic crisis. I mean, more than I already have."

Rital was surprised that the Cordonan channel hadn't already filed a formal protest with the Tecton authorities. He was fervently hoping that nobody would inform him that such an option existed.

Toljee's eyes widened with astonishment. "Oh, Skaggit would never do that," he hastened to assure Rital. "He's an honorable channel, and ordering his band to snatch another channel's Donor would be stealing."

The channel blinked. "Since that's exactly what I did with you, I'd think he'd consider it reclaiming his own stolen property."

"You didn't steal me," the Cordonan corrected, with the patience of someone explaining self evident truths to a small child. "You offered Skaggit a fair challenge, nager to nager. It wasn't done behind his back. Challenges aren't as common as they used to be, it's true. These days most channels buy or trade for their Donors, since most of the weaker channels have alliances with stronger bands. Fights still happen, though, particularly over the really good Donors, the sort that aren't usually available in trade. Or sometimes when a channel wants a Donor that belongs to an enemy and can't find an intermediary to bargain for him."

Rital wondered why he was shocked. How could anything better be expected from channels who scared Gens for fun, and bought and sold Donors like property?

Toljee blithely chattered on, oblivious to the channel's distress. "In this case, Skaggit chose not to fight for me. There wouldn't have been any point, since he couldn't use his renSimes against you in challenge. He knows you have much greater capacity and control, and so he would have lost. That won't stop him from trying to convince you to return me, though."

"You don't have to worry about that," Rital assured the young Gen. "If you go back to Skaggit, it'll be because it's your own free choice. You might have to suffer through an official inquiry, particularly if Cordona makes a fuss on Skaggit's behalf, but I'm not worried about the outcome. The Tecton will allow you to stay and train as a Donor, if that's what you decide is best for you."

The channel was not at all sure that his own career would survive the inquiry, particularly not if his control problems came to light. However, there was no reason to lay that burden on Toljee, who seemed to be having some difficulty accepting that he was free.

"Would the Tecton really let me stay?" the Cordonan asked. "Even if my return was the price demanded for the treaty they want so badly?"

The question betrayed a depth of understanding at odds with a career as a pet. Or, perhaps Cordonan politics were so cutthroat that diplomatic blackmail was as natural to them as transfer. "Do you really think Skaggit would hold the future of his Territory hostage for a personal matter like this?" Rital asked.

"Why not?" The young Donor shrugged. "He's generally in favor of the treaty, but that's because such an arrangement would be to his personal advantage. If he and his band don't benefit-and losing a Donor is hardly a benefit-he has no reason not to change his mind."

"Skaggit was laying the groundwork for something of the sort yesterday," the channel admitted. "At least, Sosu Quess was complaining that Skaggit suddenly raised three separate issues that had already been settled, and demand that they be renegotiated."

Rital frowned. "Toljee, I won't let you be held hostage for political gain. The Tecton doesn't traffic in Gens, and that's what returning you to Skaggit against your will would be. If we don't stand by our own principles, what good is the Tecton?"

"Thank you, Hajene," the Donor said, blinking back tears. "If the Tecton believes that strongly that Gens should be free, than I'll try my best to believe it, too."

"That's the spirit!" Rital approved, clapping the young Cordonan on the shoulder. His hand met a lump of knotted fabric in the Gen's once fine but now faded shirt, where the rotting cloth had been inexpertly repaired with clumsy stitches. "That shirt's not much better than a rag. Don't you remember that you have a Tecton stipend now, to cover your living expenses?" he asked.

"You mentioned it, Hajene," the young Gen admitted, "but it sounded terribly complicated." His nager displayed an odd mixture of frustration, hurt, and abandonment.

Rital remembered then that the Gen had spent his childhood on his parents' farm, and had fallen into the clutches of his first channel long before he'd had the opportunity to spend his first paycheck. Given the seclusion in which Cordonan Donors were kept, Toljee had probably never handled money or made an independent purchase in his life, not even of such a minor item as a shirt.

"I'll ask Seena to show you how to access your money," Rital promised. "Ref can advise you as to which shops downtown have reasonably priced clothing suitable for men." The lost look came back into the Cordonan Gen's eyes. The channel sighed to himself, and made a mental note to ask the Center's cook to supervise the purchase of an appropriate wardrobe.

As he took his leave, Rital wondered how the Cordonan channels could stand having their Donors-for most had more than one-so completely dependent on them. Rital had enough trouble remembering his own shirt size. He couldn't imagine trying to function as a channel while taking personal responsibility for providing multiple Gens with every meal they consumed and every stitch of clothing they wore.

The day's work kept him busy, but not too busy to avoid worrying at odd moments about the consequences of his rash rescue. He was even more concerned when Quess didn't adjourn the day's meeting at the usual time. Instead, he invited the principal negotiators to discuss their differences informally over dinner, in hopes of recapturing the momentum of the previous two weeks. Ref had to scramble to feed so many extra Gens on such short notice, but he managed. The channel could only hope the prospect of food would work its usual magic on the Gens' dispositions, and through them, on the Simes'.

An exasperated Quess was still presiding over the marathon discussion three hours later, long after the remains of the meal had been cleared. This left the lesser aides, secretaries, and assistants free to wander around the Sime Center. After fielding three complaints about intrusions into medically sensitive areas, Rital pulled some of his own staff off their regular duties and assigned them the task of keeping the visitors out of trouble.

When the situation was under control, the channel settled down in his office to catch up with the paperwork that was the bane of any Controller's existence. However, he kept getting distracted by thoughts of Skaggit's oddly self destructive conduct. All it accomplished was to anger the delegates from Amzon and Zillia, making them fight the necessary compromises even harder. Why would a diplomat undermine his own interests during important negotiations? Rital wondered if the Cordonan channel's behavior was caused by the same secret, dark, masochistic delight in Gen distress that had awakened in Rital. That pleasure was insidiously seductive, the Tecton channel was learning through bitter experience. Was it tempting enough that Skaggit would forget his sworn duty towards his Territory, in order to preserve his right to torment Gens?

If the predator was so easy to rouse in any Sime, even a channel, and so difficult to control, what chance was there for a lasting peace between Sime and Gen? And without peace, what chance did humanity have to survive at all? Had the best efforts of the Tecton merely served to delay Zelerod's Doom a few short generations?

Rital shuddered, and recalled himself sharply to business. The Tecton's ultimate future was in more talented tentacles than his, and he had work to do. He made himself reach out and select two random items from his inbox.

The first was a summary of the week's dismal Collectorium yield, the second was a directive from the Regional Controller. It outlined additional conservation measures that would be required if the selyn supply failed to increase.

This reminder of how serious the selyn shortage could become was too much, coming on the heels of his earlier brooding. The channel dropped the two reports back into his inbox, unread, and left his office. He wandered the halls for a while, making unnecessary spot checks on the various departments. When he realized that he was getting in the way of what remained of his staff, rather than helping them, he retreated to the library in search of a book.

The library wasn't its usual, peaceful refuge. The tables were still pushed together. Papers were scattered across them, mute reminder of the stalled talks. A tea cart with water, trin, coffee, and stronger offerings still waited for the overworked kitchen staff to collect it.

However, the room was at least free of other nagers. Moreover, no one was likely to search it for a truant Controller. With a sigh of relief, Rital selected an historical novel that had been recommended by Alyce, the Center's groundskeeper. He helped himself to a glass of water from the tea cart, then settled down in his favorite armchair, now pushed against the wall, setting his glass on the small table between it and the other armchair.

The channel was soon happily engrossed in the adventures of the fictional Blynogg family, aristocrats of Shen. They seemed blissfully unaware of the rapid approach of Zelerod's Doom as they schemed their way through the political morass of upper class junct society in the years just before the Unity War. It was exactly the sort of escapism he was after, and he quickly managed to forget the selyn shortage and the diplomatic stalemate. Even his own problems with control seemed minor, compared with the larger-than-life problems of the fictional characters.

When he zlinned Gen pain and fear in the hall, at first he thought it was simply his overactive imagination; a mild hallucination brought on by the author's vivid account of a luxurious Kill parlor. However, a moment later, the library door opened and Rollin almost fell through it. The Gen was so intent on escaping whatever he was fleeing that for a moment, he didn't even realize Rital was present.

Rollin took three steps into the room, limping heavily as he tried to keep his weight off of his right foot, when he finally saw Rital. "Controller Madz!" he exclaimed, and the channel gritted his teeth as a fresh burst of alarm suffused the Gen's field, this time focused on himself. The Zillian hesitated, then decided that the channel was the lesser danger, and continued limping towards the concealing bookcases. "Please, when they come to search, you haven't seen me, and I'm not here. For Prince Korrin's sake, if not my own, they must not know it was me. The treaty, and the future of three Territories, depends on it."

Rital was already on his feet. "You're being chased, but your pursuers don't know that you're the person they want?"

The Gen nodded. "They must not be allowed to find out, or my warning will come too late for Prince Korrin. I can hide, if you would divert them." He took another step, ignoring the pain that shot through his ankle in his haste to reach the shelter of the bookcases.

"I've got a better idea," the channel said. He carefully retracted his tentacles, then succumbed to Sime instinct and reached out to support the faltering Gen. The Gen stiffened at his touch, his nager wavering wtih trepidation, and it felt good.

There was no time to consider what that meant, just now. "You've been here all evening, talking with me," he improvised, guiding Rollin deftly towards the nearest armchair. "Go on, sit down."

When Rollin obeyed, Rital stuffed the book he'd been reading onto the closest shelf, then quickly snagged a clean glass and a half full decanter of brandy from the tea cart. He poured a liberal shot of the liquor into the clean glass and set it down on the table, within easy reach of the Zillian aide. He turned to look towards the door as he zlinned a second Gen nager approaching in the distance; a Gen who paused by each door along the hall just long enough to open it and peer inside with focused intent.

"I think that's your pursuer down the hall," the channel warned. He hastily poured a dribble of brandy into his own now empty water glass, then sat down in his own armchair.

Rollin's eyes widened in understanding. With hasty care, he unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, ran an artful hand through his hair to muss it, and leaned just a bit sideways in his chair. He even managed to imitate the dazed expression of a Gen who'd consumed far too much alcohol. "Howsh thish?" he slurred.

"Your nager's far too alert to fool even a renSime," Rital answered, "but the gentleman outside in the hall, who is currently inspecting the supply closet, is a Gen. Your act should be good enough to fool him. I warn you, though, I'll want the whole story afterwards, when we've gotten rid of him."

"That is understood." The handle on the library door started to turn, and Rollin immediately began slurring through a long, rambling monologue. It would have been difficult to follow even if he hadn't had the presence of mind to start in the middle.

"...and sho m' brovver went t' my father and shaid-did I tell you about my father's dog? Well, when m' brovver went in, he tripped over the dog, and m' father, he shaid, if you can't schtep over a dog, how're you schupposed to...to..." He lifted the glass of brandy and waved it artistically in a wide arc, as if searching for the proper word.

Rital lacked the acting ability to match Rollin's performance, particularly when it was in such stark contrast to his actual condition. Instead, he opted to play the part of a long-suffering bystander, unwillingly cornered by a drunk and too polite to make his escape. Pasting what he hoped was a convincing expression of patient boredom on his face, he turned to face the new arrival, as if hoping for rescue.

Protector Kelteth, the taller of the two Zillian priests on Defender Foley's staff, stepped through the open door. He surveyed the room swiftly, hissing, "Sime-lover!" in an offended fashion as he spotted the "drunken" Rollin apparently sharing three nightcaps too many with Rital.

"Did anyone come by, just now?" he demanded urgently, directing his question to the channel instead of to his fellow countryman.

Rital shook his head. "Why, no," he said, showing what he hoped was the proper degree of relief in response to the interruption. He raised an eyebrow to simulate mild curiosity, and asked, "Who are you looking for?"

"A man with a limp, and too much curiosity for his health," the priest answered. "He tried to overhear things not meant for outside ears."

"Thersh nobody here but ush," Rollin said, his nager betraying relief that he hadn't been identified. "But we have lotsh of brandy left. Come sh-share a glash with ush, Protector Kelteth. It's good." He took a swallow from his glass, somehow managing to spill most of its contents down his shirt front. Placing the glass back on the table, he lifted the decanter with a shaking hand and refilled it, splashing a generous amount onto the table as well.

Rital reminded himself to respond only to what he saw, and ignore the aide's hyper-alert awareness. Still, he wondered how even a Gen could fail to notice that Rollin's shaking was caused by tension, not an excess of alcohol. However, the priest's lip merely curled in contempt as he looked at the aide.

"Those who can't handle strong drink shouldn't indulge in it," he reprimanded. "You can be sure your master will be informed of your activities-in detail. Including the inappropriate company you choose to keep. Drinking with a Sime! Prince Korrin may be young and foolish, but he should at least be able to rely on his own assistant's descretion. I will discuss an appropriate penance with the Defender."

Rollin assumed a comical expression of dismay. At the same time, he leaned forward, putting his weight on the injured ankle. The resulting flash of pain caused his face to pale quite convincingly. It was probably for the best that the priest was too busy enjoying his countryman's distress to notice Rital flinch.

"Pleash," Rollin begged. "Don't tell the Prince, and the Defender. I'll do a penance; jusht name it."

The priest made a show of considering the petition. "Well, perhaps. I'll pray for guidance tonight, and give you my decision tomorrow morning. Very early tomorrow morning, I think. I'll expect to find you offering suitable prayers for your redemption."

There was an ill disguised touch of cruelty to the man's tone, and Rollin obligingly shuddered. If the aide had actually consumed as much alcohol as he pretended, the resulting hangover would have made the priest's demand sheer torture. "Yesh, Protector," he agreed. His voice had a blend of remorse and apprehension that was not reflected in his nager.

Apparently, the act was convincing to Gen eyes, because the priest turned his attention back to Rital. "It's unfortunate that you had to witness such disgraceful behavior on the part of a Zillian diplomat, Controller," he said, with patently false regret. "Prince Korrin is young, and not always cautious in his choice of associates."

"I am sure Rollin meant no harm," the channel soothed. "I'll see that he's returned safely to his rooms, before he passes out."

This answer seemed to satisfy the Zillian. "I must resume my search for the intruder," he said. "If you notice someone with an unexplained limp, you are to inform me immediately."

"I will certainly do so," Rital promised.

"See that you do, Sime. The future of Zillia depends on it." In a blatant display of doubt in the channel's word, the priest briefly but thoroughly searched the library before taking his leave.

When the door clicked shut behind him, Rollin closed his eyes and collapsed back into his chair. His fragmented nager displayed a chaotic mixture of relief, leftover fear at his narrow escape, and increasing discomfort from the injured ankle. Underneath it was the steady throb of nervousness the Gen always showed around Simes. Rital doubted the Zillian even consciously realized he was feeling it, given his muddled emotions, but the channel found himself aware of it, nevertheless.

"Thank you, Controller," Rollin said after a moment, when he had regained some of his usual composure. "That could have been a very ugly situation for me."

"It might still become one," Rital pointed out grimly. Driven by Sime instinct, he had protected an injured Gen. Now the danger had passed, and he could only hope he'd chosen to support the right side. He settled back into his armchair to appear less threatening, and ease the undercurrent of fear in the Simephobe's nager before he began to enjoy it too much. "Now, I've given my word to tell Protector Kelteth about any unexplained limps I encounter...so start explaining."

Rollin's lips twitched in the ghost of a smile. "There's not much to tell. In addition to my duties, I've been keeping an eye on the less politically reliable members of the Zillian delegation. There are powerful factions among our nobility and clergy who are adamantly opposed to the changes the Tecton alliance would bring to our society. Their success-or ours-will depend largely on how Defender Foley decides to view the moral status of selyn donation."

The channel nodded impatiently. "Quess said as much, during his pre-conference briefing for the Center's staff."

The Zillian aide took the hint, and got to the point. "Protectors Kelteth and Grigiano, both of whom are adamantly against any accommodation with Simes, have been looking very pleased with themselves for several days now."

"That might be a reaction to Hajene Skaggit's sudden obstructionism," Rital pointed out.

"That's possible," Rollin admitted. "However, there's also the chance they've found some means to pressure the Defender into taking their side on the issue. Prince Korrin must know, if he is to counter their effort, and so I've been watching the good Protectors. When I spotted the pair slipping away after dinner, it aroused my curiosity, and I followed at a cautious distance."

"Not cautious enough, apparently."

The Zillian Gen spread his hands, accepting the criticism without protest. "The two met up with Alhonzo Jequehita's secretary in the hall, and they withdrew into that odd little alcove with the window seat. I was naturally curious as to what the three were discussing. However, they were keeping watch on the hall, and I couldn't get close enough to overhear their conversation."

"What did you do?"

"The window in the alcove was open, and so I ducked into the laundry and opened its window. There's a ledge that runs around the building, and the ivy offers good handholds. I climbed out and edged along it until I could overhear..." Rollin broke off at the horrified expression on the channel's face. "Is something wrong, Controller?"

"You climbed along an overgrown six-inch ledge, ten feet off the ground? You're lucky you didn't break your fool neck when you fell!" The channel found himself on his feet, pacing back and forth, as his instinct to protect a Gen from injury was aroused, only to be thwarted because the danger was past.

The Zillian flared alarm at Rital's reaction, and several additional facets of his nager showed personal offense. "I didn't fall," he corrected. "I jumped."

The channel didn't understand how that was supposed to make him feel better. However, frightening the already Simephobic Gen would do more to convince him that all Simes were unstable, than to show him how unwise his behavior had been. Rital made himself sit back down. Rollin was an out-Territory Gen, unused to considering how his antics were likely to affect nearby Simes. He couldn't have known the risk he was taking, doing such a thing where Simes could zlin the consequences.

"But that was later," Rollin continued. The flare of alarm had faded as the channel sat. "I was able to overhear part of the conversation. The Amzonian apparently wanted some sort of assurance for his master. Protector Grigiano responded, 'He'll continue to cooperate, the Duke assures me of it. He has no choice, if he doesn't want to face an exposure that would destroy him.'"

"Duke Pollmar's blackmailing the sanctified head of his own state religion, with the eager assistance of the clergy?"

The channel had wondered why the Defender had brought underlings who were so adamantly opposed to the conference's agenda. Rital had zlinned Foley's discussion with Tohm, and was convinced that the man's ambivalence about voluntary, Tecton style donations was genuine. How much would Foley resist his subordinates' pressure, when he half wanted to take their side, anyway? And if he ruled in the Tecton's favor instead, would the Zillians accept his pronouncement if the rest of their clergy denounced it?

"I had to consider the possibility of blackmail," Rollin agreed. "That's when I tried to get closer, to make sure I could hear any details Protector Grigiano let slip. Unfortunately, I put too much weight on the wrong strand of ivy, and it pulled loose from the wall. The noise attracted Protector Kelteth's attention, and he silenced his colleague and came to investigate. There wasn't time to retrace my path along the ledge, so I turned my face away and jumped, aiming for a shadowed patch of the path."

"You might not have twisted your ankle, if you'd aimed for a landing spot you could see."

"If I'd landed in the light, Protector Kelteth would've seen my clothing clearly, even if he couldn't make out my face. As it was, he saw me limping towards the back door, and came down to search for someone with a foot injury. Thanks to your quick thinking, he now believes that I was getting drunk with you all evening, and therefore couldn't possibly be his spy."

"He'll change his mind quickly enough, when he sees you limping tomorrow morning," Rital pointed out. "If I'm not mistaken, you've given yourself a nasty sprained ankle. It's not going to disappear overnight."

"I'll manage," the Gen insisted. "Fortunately, a sprained ankle isn't as obvious as, say, a cut across the face. Prince Korrin will find me sedentary work for a few days, and I can force myself to walk normally for a short time if I must. Having a 'hangover' will be a good excuse to move slowly, for tomorrow at least."

The channel shook his head. "You've forgotten that Simes zlin. No Sime in the same room with you could possibly overlook that injury-or the absence of a hangover, for that matter. Furthermore, I can't allow you to wander around my Sime Center broadcasting pain with every step."

Rollin smiled ruefully. "You're right, I had forgotten. It seems unnatural to me, that you Simes experience each other's physical sensations and emotions. It must be very disorienting, trying to figure out whose feelings belong to whom."

"Not really," Rital said. "Most Simes learn to make that distinction in the first few months after changeover. The rare ones who can't, go insane and die. Also, anyone who spends time in-Territory learns to be polite, and not project strong, undisciplined emotions in public."

The Zillian pondered that information for a moment. "I suppose, then, that to Simes, walking normally on an injured foot is the equivalent of standing in a public square, shouting obscenities as strangers walk by?"

"Well, yes," the channel admitted. He wished he could leave the matter there, but there was too much at stake. What if the Gen went spying again? Rollin had been very lucky that there had not been a renSime in zlinning range when he made his jump.

"There's another thing to consider, as well," he added reluctantly, bracing himself for the Gen's reaction. "Certain emotions tend to affect Simes very strongly, and in ways we can't always control. Fear is one of them, and pain is another. If they're carried on a high field Gen nager, they can trigger a renSime to attack reflexively, even against his will."

"Walking on a sprained ankle could get me killed?" A frission of fear ricocheted through the facets of Rollin's fragmented nager. Rital was prepared, though, and kept himself firmly under control.

"Well, you wouldn't be in much danger just from the ankle itself, although it would attract attention," the channel admitted. "However, you're also nervous around Simes. A mixture of pain and fear, carried on a replete Gen nager, is very...disturbing. And very dangerous."

Rollin cocked his head, studying the channel's expression. For some peculiar Gen reason known only to himself, a strong eddy of obsessive curiosity was warring with his Simphobia. The two emotions remaining distinct as they occupied different fragments of his nager in succession. The channel wondered, in passing, how the Zillian had kept his sanity, after fifteen years of such clashing, unintegrated emotional responses.

"You sounded as if you wanted to use another word, there, instead of 'disturbing'," the Zillian Gen observed. "Perhaps you would have preferred 'attractive'? Or even 'seductive'?"

Rital found himself on his feet again, pacing, with no clear memory of standing up. He hadn't been expecting such perception from a Gen who had never lived among Simes. With an effort, he forced himself to stand still and face Rollin, although he couldn't quite mange to sit down again.

"Oh, yes," he admitted. "It's all that and more, and no Sime is civilized enough to leave the urge to hunt behind completely. Even a channel can be affected, if he's close enough to need, or stressed beyond his limits."

It was a strange relief for Rital to finally confess his unnatural Sime urges to a Gen, even hypothetically. His own hypocrisy of the past few weeks, as he assured nervous donors that they had nothing to fear from him, had been more of a burden than he'd realized.

"Yet the Tecton has a formidable reputation for safety, in spite of this barbaric impulse," Rollin argued softly. "Its channels must be exposed regularly to Gen pain and fear, and sometimes both together-if nothing else, you act as physicians, do you not? Was Sosu Quess lying, when he told us that Tecton channels were not a threat to the Gen citizens of Zillia?"

Despite his recent self-doubts, Rital could only give one answer to that question. "No, Quess wasn't lying," he conceded. "Tecton channels train long and hard to recognize our limits, and we avoid situations that might stress us beyond our control. If we get into trouble anyway, we have the option of shenning ourselves-pulling out of an attack in the middle, to avoid killing or injuring a Gen. Of course, the backlash has to go somewhere. The channel usually ends up badly injured, and deaths are not uncommon."

"Then it appears the danger to Gens is minimal, after all."

Rital didn't dare let himself believe that. If he did, he'd be tempted to relax down his guard, and in his current condition, that could bring disaster. "Whether or not there's an actual attack, the risk is always there when Gen pain and fear are present," he insisted. "Channels are human. It's all too easy to misjudge your limits, or to overlook some important detail. That sort of carelessness might have contributed to your being so badly burned, years ago. You had more to lose by a forced donation than the average farmer, and you would have responded accordingly. If the channel who attacked you wasn't expecting that, and couldn't adjust in time, it would have been easy to lose control of the draw. Once your resistance caused pain, there would have been little chance to recover and salvage the situation."

"And that's the difference between my Cordonan attacker and a Tecton channel like yourself," the Zillian Gen said, stubbornly clinging to his illusions. "My attacker chose to injure me, instead of taking the injury personally. You would have made the opposite choice, would you not?"

The civilized part of Rital wanted badly to agree, and still the growing sense of personal threat in Rollin's nager. It was attracting the ill controlled, lawless beast inside him, which has already been roused by the subject of the conversation. He found himself wondering, in passing, how the Gen's distorted alarm would feel with a full lateral contact...and his curiosity wasn't clinical.

"I like to think I would choose differently," the channel agreed, forcing his thoughts back within socially acceptable boundries. "I even swore an oath to die, rather than kill or burn a Gen. I'm a human being, though. I can't be absolutely sure that I'd have the nerve to carry out my oath, if faced with a situation that required it. It's not a pleasant way to die."

"What is?"

"There are far worse ways to die, however," Rital continued. He wanted the out-Territory Gen to understood that his actions could harm innocent bystanders, since the man seemed quite prepared to risk himself. "A renSime doesn't have the option of shenning out, when a transfer goes dangerously wrong. If Gati, or our groundskeeper, Alyce, had been close by when you jumped, you could have triggered an attack. You'd have died, painfully but quickly. Your attacker would have been sent to a Last Year camp, where she would have died in agonizing increments over a period of months, because she was too old to disjunct."

"That's a harsh penalty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Rollin observed.

"It is," the channel agreed. "That's why I wanted a channel or Donor present, when your duties in organizing Prince Korrin's banquet require you to speak with a renSime. It's also why I won't allow you to wander my Sime Center with a sprained ankle, quite apart from any risk that your injury would become common knowledge."

"And yet, I can't hide in the Prince's quarters until I heal, either," the Gen objected. "If I stopped handling the arrangements for the banquet without good cause, Protector Kelteth will know I was his spy. There seems to be no solution that doesn't betray me."

"Yes, there is," Rital said, cautiously venturing a step or two closer. "I'll just heal your ankle."

 Read Chapter 10


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