Mary Lou Mendum

Chapter 12

Inter-larity Misunderstandings

When the two out-Territory Gens had been consigned to Gati's expert care for the post-donation administrative details, Rital turned to Toljee with a relieved smile. "You did well," he told the young Cordonan. "I think Wilda Orsen will write a favorable account of what she saw. If she describes Gillum Mathison as a hero, others may choose to follow his example, and his sister's boycott will fail."

Toljee looked at Rital with amazement. "I've never seen anything like that," he admitted. "Skaggit would've taken one zlin of the man and turned him over to the renSimes for working up into a frenzy. He was perfect; scared silly, strong willed so he wouldn't break too quickly, and healthy enough to tolerate lots of physical abuse."

"The kind of Gen whom juncts considered a Choice Kill, in other words," the channel said softly.

"Yes, that's it," the Cordonan agreed. His tone was matter-of-fact, and his nager displayed none of the horror and revulsion that a Nivet citizen would experience at hearing such a comparison. "Even without the workup, I'd have expected Mathison to panic when you took him. He had that look about him. But he hardly twitched, much less tried to fight you. He won't have even a bruise to remember you by."

"That's the advantage of working with volunteers," Rital pointed out. "Even the frightened ones come in intending to cooperate. It's mostly a matter of showing them how. Of course, it helps if they believe you're on their side, and are trying to make the experience as pleasant as possible."

"Skaggit couldn't have done what you just did," Toljee stated. "He knows how to play on a Gen's fears. He can provoke even a Gen who knows the game into an unthinking frenzy, if he has to. He can calculate the stress he applies to a hair. I've never seen him go too far and make his victim simply give up. He could've gotten a reasonable harvest of selyn out of Mathison, without injuries beyond a bruise or two. But Skaggit doesn't know anything about seducing a Gen into letting him take selyn without a fight. That's just as specialized a skill, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is," the channel agreed. "It's one the Cordonan channels will have to master, if they intend to adopt the Tecton practice of using volunteers. Particularly at first, those volunteers will be very nervous, given the history of forced donations by Cordonan channels. How they experience donating will influence whether their friends and neighbors choose to donate also."

"I can see that," the young Gen agreed. "But you spent over half an hour to take one donation. That's not a realistic schedule, if you have to supply a whole band of Simes. Not even when you don't have to finish quickly, before the authorities arrive in force and slaughter you."

Rital wasn't about to explain the real reason he had been so careful to avoid spooking Mathison. The Cordonan had lived three long years with Skaggit, who was the embodiment of everything the Tecton channel feared he was becoming. Toljee had run away from his master at the first opportunity, without any zlinnable sign of regret or apology. If the young Donor knew Rital's own predatory urges were under uncertain control, how could he do anything but report it immediately, and then get as far away from the dangerous channel as possible? The Gen might even decide to abandon being a Donor completely, despite the instinctive caring for channels that Skaggit's abuse hadn't quite managed to snuff out. Rital couldn't risk that, not in the middle of a Donor shortage. Besides, when all was said and done, he had managed to keep Mathison's donation under control. Surely that counted for something?

"You're right, it wouldn't be practical to go so slowly for every donation," he admitted instead. "I couldn't have taken this approach if there were other donors waiting. I spent the extra time because the reporter was watching. Wilda Orsen wanted a story, and since she's never donated herself, she was empathizing with Mathison's fear. I didn't want her to pass it on to her readers, so I had to make sure that he showed as little visible distress as possible. I think I succeeded there. If she uses my Faith Day comparison in her column, we may see some donors again."

Toljee's nager displayed a flash of disillusionment, quickly controlled. "So, you only took the trouble not to scare Mathison because there was an outside witness," he said flatly.

"Toljee, I'm a Tecton channel," Rital said. "Unlike my Cordonan counterparts, I don't go around deliberately scaring Gens when they have placed themselves in my care, for donation or anything else. It's true I took greater care with this donation than I normally would have, because of the reporter, but that doesn't mean Mathison would have suffered abuse under any circumstances."

"You'd have just gone ahead and harvested him, like Skaggit would a farmer from a village in his own hunting territory?"

"I haven't seen Skaggit working under those circumstances. Can I assume that even Gens he isn't deliberately terrorizing don't particularly enjoy his attentions?"

"That's true enough," the Cordonan Donor agreed.

"Toljee, if the reporter hadn't been there as a witness-and if I couldn't have spared the extra time, I'd not have permitted her to watch-if the reporter hadn't been present, I'd have spent perhaps half as long taking a first donation from a Gen who was that apprehensive. That's because I'd have had only one Gen's questions to answer, and I could have afforded to let Mathison express his apprehensions more openly, even to the point of minor physical resistance."

"So you'd have gone ahead and scared him, if there hadn't been a reporter to impress." The disappointment was back. "I thought you were different from the other channels I've known."

Rital placed a comforting hand on the young Cordonan's shoulder. "I prefer to work with Gens who aren't afraid, of course, but that's not always possible, especially out-Territory," he explained. "When I can't avoid frightening donors, my goal is to help them face their fear of Simes and work through it."

Toljee shrugged off the channel's hand. "So, it's just a matter of convenience for you. If you have the time, fine, you'll make donating pleasant. But if you're in a hurry, you're as willing to scare your donors as Skaggit. They're just Gens, after all."

The young Donor's tone was sullen, and his nager reeked of betrayal. It was obvious Toljee had a typically adolescent, wildly idealized view of what even the most talented Tecton channel could do. Rital reminded himself sternly that the Cordonan Donor had good reason to distrust channels. From his perspective, it was easier to judge outcome than motivation, and a frightened Gen was an easy outcome to identify. The young Donor was too naive to grasp that the difference between Rital's treatment of Mathison and Skaggit's approach to his own reluctant donors was more subtle. It was less in the Gens' immediate feelings, than in their subsequent perception of the experience.

"Toljee, the Tecton can't take Gens who know nothing of Simes but the threat of berserkers, and magically erase their fears the first time they donate," he pointed out. "Tecton channels have the same tentacles as any other Sime, and we can't draw selyn without using them. A frightening experience doesn't have to be a destructive one, though, when it's viewed as a personal challenge. Mathison came here of his own free will, fully expecting to face an ordeal. Handled properly, he could've been quite frightened during the donation and still suffer no lasting trauma, because he overcame his fear successfully. He would have left the collecting room feeling good about himself and his decision to donate, and ready to tell other Gens that it's worth doing. That's what's important, if the renSimes of Cordona-or Nivet, for that matter-are to have a reliable selyn supply."

"Is that all you care about? Maximizing your harvest?" Toljee's lips quivered, as if he was about to burst into tears. His voice was shrill.

"Toljee, it's not like that at all..." Rital began, but the young Donor was already running down the hall, in blatant defiance of in-Territory etiquette for Gens. He paused at the channel's words, turning a tear streaked face to look over his shoulder and deliver one parting shot:

"I thought you were different from Skaggit!"

With a martyred sigh, Rital returned to the waiting room. Mathison and Orsen were gone, and the only donor present was Seena, who was only mid field. She'd dropped by to share a cup of tea and some gossip with Gati. The channel wasn't in the mood to talk with a Gen, just then, and so he left them undisturbed. Instead, he waved a casual greeting and retreated to the records room, now mercifully free of Skaggit.

He worked half heartedly at his monthly report for a while, but he couldn't concentrate properly. The text kept assuming a life of its own, as he imagined more Tecton Collectoriums reduced to the pathetic selyn collection figures of his Clear Springs Center. Would the renSimes go raiding across the border, to seize the selyn their channels couldn't provide?

The answer was as obvious as it was terrifying. The Sime instinct to hunt was very strong, as he'd recently rediscovered. Of course they'd hunt Gens, rather than tamely die of attrition. How could they not?

Some raiding bands might think to bring a channel along, and avoid the kill through Cordonan style selyn banditry. How many channels would forget their oaths and participate in such an involuntary "harvest" of captured Gens? Rital suspected many would do so, if the alternative was zlinning those same Gens being killed.

Simes facing attrition were not prone to thought, however. Most bands would not kidnap a channel before they went raiding. Those renSimes would kill for the selyn they needed. Nivet Territory alone had over ten times its pre-Unity population, and the other Tecton allied Sime Territories had also grown. Were the numbers enough for the desperate renSimes to overcome the Gens' traditional advantages of superior armament, numbers, and organization? If so, they would hunt the Gens to extinction, and then die themselves. The whole continent might be depopulated by Zelerod's Doom. Along with thousands of lives, the Tecton and its hope for a lasting peace between Sime and Gen would be gone forever. Over a hundred years of sacrifice and effort, destroyed by a simple virus.

A drop of ronaplin landed on the half finished report, and Rital realized that his laterals were extended, seeking selyn. He blushed and retracted them, then blotted the page with his shirt tail. He was glad nobody was present to see his predicament. Channels were not supposed to drip on their paperwork, particularly not when they were still days away from transfer.

That he'd raised enough intil to do so without being consciously aware of it was disturbing. The frequency of beast induced lapses in control was increasing as he approached need. What were the chances that the beast would break free of its chains entirely, and cause him to attack a Gen?

So far, he had been luckier than he deserved. He wouldn't always have a spare half hour to work with a problem donor, or win consent to drug a difficult patient into oblivion to treat a relatively minor injury. Eventually, he'd be placed in a position where his beast would be fully roused. If he wasn't ready when that happened, he'd injure or kill the Gen he was supposed to be helping. And then he'd die himself; either a relatively quick but agonizingly painful death by shenning if his anti-kill conditioning worked, or a slow, messy, and equally painful death from disjunction if it didn't, and he killed.

Unfortunately, he still hadn't found a case history in the library of a channel with a similar control problem. He had no guidelines for treatment, or lists of precautions known to be effective in curbing the dark side of a channel's Sime nature. He could only improvise, taking what additional precautions seemed prudent.

One obvious precaution, that he could no longer justify putting off, was to confess the whole mess to his cousin. The Donor's training might have included instruction on rare channels' dysfunctions not covered by his own education. If nothing else, Den could steer the more dangerous cases to Nerina, until a more permanent solution was found. Or, at least until after Rital's transfer, when the beast might become temporarily compliant once more.

Of course, the Donor would also give Rital a good scolding for his irresponsibility. After all, the channel had ignored and then hidden the problem for over three weeks. That wouldn't be pleasant, but it was better than mishandling the problem on his own. He'd certainly earned every name Den would call him, and more, by allowing his desire for a clean record to overrule his good sense, and his duty to protect the people he served.

He finished his shift in a thoroughly penitent mood. Before he could change his mind, he sought out his cousin in the Donor's office, only to discover that new problems had descended upon his beleaguered Sime Center.

"Bethany was ill, when she came in earlier," the Donor reported. "Quess took to his bed this morning, as well. Nerina's beside herself, and who can blame her?"

"Quess is ill?" Rital asked, stunned. His knees felt weak, and he sat down on the corner of his cousin's desk. The Controller in him started planning how to tell District Controller Monruss in Valzor that another emergency Donor must be sent out to Clear Springs. The channel in him itched to pick up the red pen on Den's desk and write "MINE" in large letters across the Donor's brow, just as a precaution. Nerina outrated him in speed and capacity. She could give him an emergency transfer, if she had to, but he couldn't return the favor. If no Donor could be found for her, Rital would have to exchange Den for an unacceptable substitute for the second month in a row.

"Nerina's put Quess and Bethany in her quarters, so she can care for them personally. Bethany and her husband didn't like the idea, but she's too ill to put up a real fight, and Rob's sensible enough to understand that she requires a channel's help if she's to survive at all, much less keep her pregnancy."

Rital, who had been obsessing about the transfer schedule, hadn't yet considered the consequences of Bethany's illness.

"How far along is Bethany's training?" he asked. "Can she accept an infusion of selyn, if that becomes necessary?"

"I don't know," the Donor admitted. "Her progress has been erratic, at best. When she's in a cooperative mood, she does quite well. The rest of the time, she's impossible. I'm not sure she understands why the exercises are necessary."

"How hard can it be, to understand 'Learn this or die'?" Rital had no patience for temperamental adolescents determined to be their own worst enemy. "We're teaching her for her benefit, not ours."

"She doesn't see it that way, apparently."

Den's disgust more than matched the channel's own, perhaps because the Donor had spent more time working with Bethany than he had. He sighed. "At least the negotiations are stalled anyway, thanks to Skaggit's mischief. Nerina will have time to care for her family. I suppose Esparra Daybee and Vasthan can handle the Gen delegates, and if something comes up that requires a First, we'll manage it somehow. It's not as if the Collectorium is demanding much of my time, these days."

"What's that old proverb, about one problem is a crisis, while two of them often combine to form a solution?"

Rital chuckled, then sobered. "Here's another problem, and I don't see how it can be the solution to anything." He described the predatory longings he'd felt, when Skaggit had thrust the terrified Mathison into his arms and the Gen had believed Rital would kill him. "I didn't want to reassure him, Den. For a moment, I actually wanted to kill him. More than that, I wanted to play with him, to feel his fear in all its variations and his despair when he discovered there was no escape."

"What did you actually do?" Den wanted to know.

The channel didn't see the point to that question. "I steadied him, then let him go and started calming him down, of course," he said, just a bit annoyed at the interruption. "You know what the out-Territory Gens would do, if one of their own was attacked by a Tecton channel. We'd have been lynched within twenty-four hours."

"So you had the control to stop your attack on Mathison, despite these longings of yours. In fact, you never even really tried to harm him. Or, does he believe differently?" The Donor frowned. "His sister's behind the Collectorium boycott, isn't she?"

Rital dismissed the question with an impatient wave of three handling tentacles. "Yes, but it should be over soon. Mathison donated this morning, with Wilda Orsen from the Clarion as a witness. I gather Mathison and his sister were at odds over the boycott issue from the first."

The Gen's jaw dropped in astonishment. "Mathison donated? And to you? He didn't ask for a different channel?"

Rital didn't find his cousin's amazement reassuring. "He didn't actually object to me," he admitted. "I don't think I scared him personally, although he was pretty nervous about donating at all. That doesn't mean anything, though. He couldn't have known he had a right to request a different channel, if he felt uncomfortable with me."

"I seriously doubt his ignorance would've kept him from objecting anyway, if he'd had any serious doubts about your competence," Den pointed out dryly. "How did the donation go? Were there any particular problems?"

"No, I had time to work slowly with him," the channel said. "He settled down nicely, in the end. I got most of the GN-3 level before he started to get too nervous, and he and the reporter left happy."

"Then where's the problem?" The Donor's field displayed a touch of exasperation. "You raised intil in the power plant, but only after extreme provocation. You were in hard need, working without a Donor, and you didn't know when or if your Donor would arrive. It's hardly surprising that you responded to Mathison's terror. It doesn't mean that your control is weak. Quite the opposite. If your lapse was so fleeting that Mathison never noticed it, even under those extreme circumstances, then your control is solid."

"If that was the only instance in which I've been tempted to hurt a Gen, I'd agree with you," Rital said. "I certainly want to agree with you, goodness knows. But there's more." Summoning as much clinical detachment as he could, he described the beast's reappearance during his abortive attempt to Qualify Vasthan. He went on to enumerate some of its other appearances, with emphasis on its increasing boldness.

"It's a betrayal, Den," he finished. "Of the Tecton, which has promised to curb its Simes' predatory nature, and of every Gen I handle. They donate to me because they believe that as a Tecton channel, I'm different from the berserkers who have been killing them for generations; safe, harmless, and civilized. How would they feel if they knew I was wondering how it would zlin if I burned them, just a bit?"

"Are you planning to burn them?" the Donor wondered.

Rital's eyes widened in shock. "Shen, no!"

The channel had been trying his best to convince his cousin that the danger was real, but it still hurt that Den could even think such a thing of him. Perhaps it was just as well that the Gen would probably have to be reassigned to Nerina for transfer. Even a Donor like Den could be harmed by the beast, if it could rouse enough doubts in him.

However, Den was grinning, and there was no apprehension in him that Rital could zlin. "You see, cousin? Your conscience is still in control of your actions, despite these uncivilized feelings of yours. You didn't break in the power plant, and you're not likely to be tested so severely again. So, once more, where's the problem?"

Rital usually found his cousin's opposite larity soothing. The steady pulse of selyn production, his for the asking, and the inherent Gen optimism and generosity that went with it, were things a Sime could only experience second hand. They provided an alternative perspective that no other Sime, subject to the need cycle, could provide. The haven of a Donor's supportive nager was all that kept a channel going, when the crises mounted and need loomed, and Den's support was laced with family affection and genuine friendship.

On the other tentacle, there were times when his cousin's Gen pig-headedness was exasperating. A fellow channel would have understood immediately how serious the problem was, but Den had never experienced need.

"I've been lucky, so far," he tried again. "I've prevented myself from giving in to temptation, and letting my dark self do the horrible things it wants to do. I can't be vigilant every moment, though. Eventually, I'll be caught unprepared, and this monster of mine will get the upper hand. I don't know what to do, Den. I don't want retraining. Or early retirement, if they can't cage my alter ego."

For the first time, the Donor was genuinely alarmed. "Cousin, don't you dare turn yourself in for unnecessary retraining," he ordered firmly. "The Tecton has more legitimate problems than it can handle, just now. It doesn't require your overactive imagination making more trouble."


The channel glared at his donor in indignation, and Den wagged an admonitory finger in response to the interruption. "Now, you've had a bad month after a lousy transfer. It's not surprising that you're noticing consciously, reactions that you would normally curb even before you knew they were there. It doesn't mean you're about to kill the next out-Territory Gen who loses it after getting his first glimpse of a tentacle. In fact, I expect your disturbing symptoms will disappear entirely, as soon as I've gotten a decent transfer into you."

Rital had been prepared for shock and horror, or even outright disbelief. He hadn't thought his cousin would believe his story, but then dismiss it as unimportant. "But I wanted to hurt Mathison, and the others, too!" he objected. "I was imagining what the pain and fear would zlin like."

"You're a channel. You always sit around imagining how things would zlin," Den said bluntly. "It's one of your least endearing traits, cousin, but it doesn't mean you're going junct any time soon."

Rital felt his jaw drop, and forced it closed. His Donor, his cousin and childhood playmate, was too Gen to take the problem seriously. Den did not-could not-understand. He wouldn't help cage the beast before it destroyed Rital, and perhaps the Tecton as well. And all because his infernal Gen optimism and his Donor's self confidence kept him from understanding the darkness that lurked in every Sime, no matter how ostensibly civilized.

Something of the channel's hurt must have communicated itself to the Gen, despite his inability to zlin. The Donor's expression softened, and his nager warmed with sympathy at last. "Look, Rital, don't worry so much," he said, placing a reassuring hand on the channel's arm. "If it'll make you feel better, I'll stay close by while you’re working until after our transfer, just in case. That way, if this 'beast' of yours makes a reappearance, we can handle it together. It will disappear after our transfer, though. You'll see. Just don't do anything drastic until next week, all right?"

The offer was more than fair, particularly since Den didn't really believe it was necessary. Rital let his handling tentacles wrap gently around his cousin's wrist, savoring the feel of cool Gen skin, and the throb of selyn production that pulsed beneath it. "Very well," he promised. "I won't report the problem unless it's still around after our transfer, if you'll help me control it in the mean time. It's only a few more days, after all."

"Nothing will happen, you'll see," Den promised with the supreme confidence of his larity. "Now, how about some tea?"


Den's steady presence over the next few days boosted Rital's confidence, but despite his promise, the Donor couldn't spend as much time with him as Rital would have preferred. With Quess sick, Den was the only First Order Donor available, and he had to split his time between Rital and Nerina. Still, the Gen managed somehow to be there, whenever Rital had a functional to perform.

With his cousin's help, the channel handled the modest influx of new donors generated by Wilda Orsen's column without any lapses in control. He wasn't able to give these new volunteers the time and attention he'd lavished on Mathison. However, there weren't so many of them that he had to rush through the donations, either. Knowing that Den was watching freed him to concentrate on his clients, instead of himself, and the quality of his work improved accordingly.

Rital took on other new responsibilities, as well. He assumed a more active role in hosting the diplomats, to free Nerina to care for her husband and granddaughter. He couldn't spare the time to sit in on the negotiations, as Nerina had done, because the Thirds couldn't handle the novice donors. However, there was so little formal negotiation going on that Vasthan and Esparra Daybee could represent the Tecton's interests themselves.

Instead, the channel made a point of engaging the delegates and their staff in casual conversation during meals and breaks. He was hoping that his non-diplomatic status would let him cut through the tangle of protocol, and find simple solutions the professionals had missed. If Amzon and Zillia could be brought to an agreement, then when Skaggit finally tired of playing games, he'd return to find a new treaty crafted in spite of him.


The results of Rital's informal diplomatic efforts were not encouraging. "The Amzonian Guilds would love to move goods through the Cordonan passes without paying the Clans for the privilege," Guildmistress Halitono agreed readily, as she and Rital approached the refreshment cart during the midmorning break. "They've been parasites on our economy for generations. However, I'm not comfortable with these Sime Centers of yours. After all, the Cordonan channels don't usually raid inside the city limits."

"Wouldn't it be better to eliminate all raiding, both in and outside of the cities?" Rital countered.

"Perhaps, but I don't trust Hajene Skaggit to forego the pleasure entirely, do you? No, thank you, I'll take the coffee. I don't see how you can stomach that trin tea."

"They're only Gens," Oorana said, with an eloquently dismissive gesture of one handling tentacle. Skaggit might have withdrawn from the talks himself, but he'd left the renSime behind to report on the proceedings. "What do they understand about need? If they want to negotiate for a gentler harvest, that's fine with me. But really, most of them still think they can avoid harvest entirely. How realistic is that, I ask you? We'd all die of attrition."

A frission of apprehension shuddered through the renSime's field, although she was barely past turnover. She wrapped her handling tentacles around her teacup for comfort. Rital put his own hand over her own, and projected a calming, Genlike field. "Nobody's going to die of attrition, as the result of any Tecton sponsored arrangement," he promised her. "That's not what this is about, at all."

The gesture eased Oorana's tension, but evoked a wave of cold disgust from behind the channel. Rital looked over his shoulder, just in time to see Protectors Kelteth and Grigiano turn away.

"There's no question that your Tecton has an admirable relationship with the surrounding community," their spiritual superior, Defender Foley, admitted. He nibbled delicately on a chocolate dipped strawberry. "I must question, though, whether that can be transplanted to our situation. I understand the Sime Centers you wish to place in Zillian cities would be staffed primarily with Cordonan channels."

"Well, yes," the channel agreed. "Although they'd be working under close supervision by Tecton channels during the transition period, if I understand the current proposal."

"That's hardly reassuring. What's to prevent them from returning to old habits, once the Tecton is gone? Or, from sending their renSimes out into the city to round up people for harvest, if there aren't enough volunteers?"


"Thank you for taking care of Rollin, the other night," Prince Korrin murmured confidentially in Rital's ear, as the other diplomats started making their way back to their chairs.

"It seemed the right thing to do."

"I scolded him for taking such a risk, and told him to keep a low profile, for a while," the Zillian heir continued. "However, his information could be critical. I knew we faced opposition from the old guard, but I hadn't expected it to be quite so strong. The population in Cordona has grown, over the past few decades. Does Duke Pollmar really think that he can hide away in his manor house on the Tylom river, and ignore what happens to his peasantry? Do the priests think that the raids don't challenge our nation's faith, just because they remain untouched themselves? Why can't they understand how much we have to gain, and how little to lose?" The young Gen's fists clenched in frustration.

"They're afraid," Rital answered.

The Gen's teeth ground together. "I love my country, but there are times I wish I could just..." he spread his hands in frustration "...walk away from the whole mess. If I were free to live the kind of life I want for my people, even for a short while, I think it would give me the strength to go on." He controlled his exasperation with an effort. "I can't blame them for their fears, but trust has to begin somewhere. Why can't they see that?"

"Skaggit hasn't done much to reassure them of his benign intent."

Prince Korrin nodded. "I admit, his behavior gives me cause to doubt. To walk out of the negotiations might gain him a few minor points, but it could cost all of us the treaty. What does that say about his priorities?"


After such first hand confirmation of the chaos the Cordonan ambassador had caused, Rital was not particularly pleased when he returned to his office and found the channel waiting for him.

"Might I have a word with you, Controller?" Skaggit's words were polite enough, but there was an undertone of anger to them.

"Is something wrong, Hajene?" he asked politely.

"Yes, something is wrong," the Cordonan channel answered. "Just how long do you plan to keep Toljee lolling about in luxury, learning all sorts of bad habits? I've zlinned him; not even the most Gen-loving of your Tecton channels could claim that he requires additional medical care. You're not using him. Any further pampering would serve no useful purpose."

"Toljee should never have required medical care at all," Rital pointed out coldly. "A channel who abuses his Donor so severely has only himself to blame if the Gen chooses to go elsewhere. If Toljee asks to return to you, I'll allow it, if the request is made of his own free will, and not under duress. Unless that happens, however, he'll stay where he is."

Skaggit's tentacles lashed with frustration. "No Cordonan channel would consider my discipline of Toljee excessive," he pointed out. "Not given his transgression."

"Wanting to take a walk in the garden?" Rital shook his head. "Since when is that a crime punishable by a severe beating? Your renSimes have enjoyed that privilege daily."

"The Tecton lands are very different from Cordona, as you keep reminding me," Skaggit pointed out in acid tones. "And nowhere more than in what we consider proper behavior for Gens. Has it ever occurred to you that we have good reasons for secluding our Donors, but not our renSimes? Reasons that benefit and protect everyone, including the Gens themselves?"

Rital was unconvinced. "I'm hard put to understand just how beating your Donor to a pulp is supposed to benefit him."

"How does any discipline help?" The Cordonan channel tossed his head with frustrated impatience. "It provides a relatively harmless foretaste of the consequences of ill advised behavior," he answered his own question. "In Toljee's case, I'll admit, the details of his punishment were dictated by other factors. In Cordona, I might have settled on a good scold and half rations for a week or two. Unfortunately, I wasn't told about the ridiculous extent to which your Tecton coddles its Gens. I'd never have dreamed that you'd stake an absolute claim even to the ones you don't use. Thanks to the time required by our preparations, it's been far too long since we had a proper hunt."

"You came here in part to learn our ways," Rital reminded him.

"So I did," Skaggit agreed. "And since my arrival, I've obeyed your senseless strictures to the letter, while you've displayed nothing but contempt for Cordonan customs. I haven't hunted among the available Gens, even those who aren't affiliated with your Sime Center. Do you know how comical my colleagues in Cordona would find the idea, to stake a firm claim to Gens you're afraid to harvest?"

"It has nothing to do with fear," Rital said, somewhat sullenly. There was just enough truth to the Cordonan's words, at least with respect to himself, for them to sting. "I wouldn't expect a channel who makes an art form out of abusing Gens to understand that, though."

Skaggit's eyes narrowed with irritation. "I don't know why I bother talking to you," he said bitterly. "It's obvious you decided long before we met that an impoverished barbarian like me has nothing useful to teach your Tecton. Perhaps that's even true. However, your government wants Cordona to go along with its plans, and no Cordonan channel will do that unless we're treated with something approaching respect. You could start by showing the common decency not to interfere when I handle matters involving my Gen and my renSimes according to our own traditions. Toljee knew exactly what he was doing when he tried to sneak out of our quarters, and..."

The Cordonan channel broke off as a distraught Gati rounded the corner, almost augmenting in her haste despite the selyn shortage.

"Hajene Madz, come quickly!" she called, pounding to a halt. "Hajene Nerina has been shenned, badly, and Sosu Den thinks there may be some vriamic damage..."

Rital was already moving. "Where?" he asked briskly.

"Her quarters. Bethany's field was lower this morning, and Nerina tried to..."

"Oh, shen," Rital swore. With Gati and Skaggit at his heels, he sprinted for the stairs.

 Read Chapter 13


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