TEST OF COURAGE

by
Mary Lou Mendum

Chapter 13

Gen Wrangling, Cordonan Style

When Rital and the others arrived Nerina's quarters, they found Den hovering over the older channel. Nerina was lying on the braided area rug which decorated the dressing room. Her field was a morass of pain, and it flickered in an alarming fashion that might indeed indicate vriamic involvement.

"What the shen happened?" Rital asked Den, as he knelt hastily beside the injured channel. Gritting his teeth against her pain, he extended his laterals to zlin the damage more closely.

"Shen is right," the Donor agreed. "Although I might go as far as shenshay, if I wanted to be technically accurate. Nerina was desperate to get some selyn to her great-grandchild, but Bethany's been skimping on her practice. She wasn't as ready for it as she should have been." The Donor's disapproval was clear, and Rital couldn't bring himself to issue a reprimand.

Bethany, who was curled into a ball on her cot, lifted a red, blotched face and scrubbed indignantly at her tears. "I didn't mean to hurt Grandma," she wailed. "It was awful, though. It felt like horrible, nasty bugs were crawling around inside me, and I couldn't make it stop!"

Rital could well imagine that the unexpected sensation of selyn flow might feel so, to an out-Territory raised Gen who'd never expected to be subjected to it. Raised to believe that selyn movement meant death, no wonder she had resisted.

Den, who experienced selyn movement every month, and enjoyed it immensely as any Donor must, wasn't sympathetic. "It wouldn't have felt awful, if you were doing the exercise even halfway properly," he snapped at her.

This only evoked a fresh cascade of wails, until Skaggit edged closer to the cot and glared at her down his arched nose. "Stop your sniveling this instant," he ordered. "They've got delicate work to do, if your grandmother is to live, and they can't do it when you're yowling about like a cat in heat. It's not as if you were injured, after all."

The young Gen's jaw dropped in astonishment at this pronouncement, and a wave of indignation displaced her genuine sorrow over Nerina's plight. She stared at the Cordonan channel for a moment, taking in his outlandish costume and barbaric appearance.

"Are you the Cordonan ambassador?" she asked. "The one in the newspaper, who attacked the power plant manager?"

"I am Skaggit, yes," the Cordonan agreed, and her eyes widened in ill controlled alarm.

Skaggit's interest in the young out-Territory Gen increased in response to the fear stimulus. He sat down on the edge of her cot and reached over with one handling tentacle. She watched it approach as if hypnotized, until the very tip delicately pushed up on her chin, closing her mouth firmly. "That's better," he approved. "A good young Gen remains silent until she's asked a question."

Bethany's dark eyes flashed in anger. Her mouth opened to issue a scathing retort, but Skaggit barked, "Silence! And blow your nose. It's dripping."

To Rital's astonishment, Bethany scrambled to obey both orders, and without a trace of her usual defiance. Her incipient hysteria had calmed as well. With Skaggit blocking much of her nager, the Tecton channel could finally zlin the damage to Nerina clearly.

"She's a mess," he told Den. "I think you may be right about the vriamic involvement, too. A simple transfer abort shouldn't have done this much damage, particularly when her primary system wasn't involved."

The Donor shook his head. "Rital, Nerina took three aborts in rapid succession. The last time, she almost killed herself right there, trying to keep the backlash away from Bethany."

Rital winced. After the agony he had suffered during his own abort off of Vasthan, the channel couldn't imagine the courage it must have taken Nerina to face that, not once, but three times. In spite of the pain, Nerina had maintained sufficient control not to injure her granddaughter. Rital didn't think he could have done as well, even before his recent difficulty with control. He was very sure that he didn't want to try. Unfortunately, with Nerina injured, Bethany had of necessity, become his patient, and his responsibility.

The young Gen's field was still dangerously low, and falling as the combination of pregnancy and illness drained her. She could survive another few hours, until Nerina was stable. At that point, Rital would have to make another attempt to get selyn into the young Gen. The thought made his stomach clench. He didn't have Nerina's experience in the procedure, and the beast would be waiting if things went wrong. That was all too likely, if Bethany hadn't been able to cooperate with her own grandmother's attempts.

Nerina was still alive, so it was likely that her three aborts had been voluntary, and thus somewhat under her control. The aborts induced by the involuntary action of anti-kill conditioning were not controlled, and tended to be fatal. Rital wasn't sure he had the nerve to make himself shen out of the transfer, if Bethany resisted him. For that matter, he wasn't sure that he had the raw skill to take the complete backlash himself. He could end up injuring her, even if he didn't wait for his anti-kill conditioning to be triggered. Assuming, that is, that enough of the conditioning remained to do the job.

What would the Tecton do, if Rital injured an out-Territory patient? With Householding Shaeldor to act on Bethany's behalf, the punishment would be both swift and severe. Forced retirement and an early death from entran complications would be the kindest option. From there, the possibilities grew progressively worse, ending at public execution by attrition as an unrepentant near-junct. He shook his head sharply, and brought his mind back to his work. For the moment, his duty was to save Nerina, and that should still be within his capabilities.

"Why did you attack Gillum Mathison?" Bethany was asking the Cordonan channel.

"I didn't harm a hair on the Gen's head," Skaggit pointed out, with what sounded like real indignation. "I just pointed out to Controller Madz that the logical way to cope with a shortfall of harvestable Gens was to find new ones. Your Tecton even agrees-why else do we have all these desperate petitions from the World Controller's office, begging Gens to volunteer? But the Tecton is run by cowards, who can't understand that changing circumstances require changing tactics. They won't take the obvious step and take the Gens they must have, when volunteers don't materialize. I was simply demonstrating how easily a suitable number of Gens could be rounded up and brought to the nearest channel."

"The Tecton couldn't just kidnap Gens at random for donations!" Bethany objected. "That would start a war.

"Why should it?" Skaggit asked. "Wars are very messy, little Gen. They destroy crops and factories, and make normal trade impossible. They murder large numbers of young men and women, at just the age at which they should be settling down to work in the factories and pay their taxes. No country would declare a war when the only provocation was that a few of its lesser citizens were mildly inconvenienced for an hour or so, and then sent on their way unharmed."

Bethany shook her head. "You don't understand the New Washington government at all, or you wouldn't be saying that. They'd never just stand by while citizens are attacked for selyn."

"Controller Madz agrees with you," Skaggit admitted. "Perhaps he is right. Or, perhaps he's simply afraid that if once he allows himself to act like a Sime, he'll no longer be able to stomach begging for every dynopter of selyn he takes. He might find that he enjoys using his tentacles as they were intended to be used; to take what is not offered freely."

A touch of uncertainty flickered through Bethany's nager as she realized that Skaggit was serious, and she glanced at Rital for reassurance. The channel studiously ignored her, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on Nerina.

The elderly channel stirred as the combined efforts of Den and Rital began to dampen the chaos in her systems. It wasn't a pleasant awakening, however. Rital wanted to duck into hypoconsciousness to avoid her pain, but he couldn't work on her fields without zlinning. Fortunately, unlike Gen pain, Nerina's agony was not particularly attractive.

The channel bent over his patient as her eyes opened, murmuring softly in deference to her pounding headache. "It's all right, Nerina. Just let me work on you, and you'll live to regret this tomorrow."

The silver eyelashes winced away from the light, and the shock pale lips shaped three soundless syllables, a question.

"Bethany's fine," Rital said, trying to put into his voice the reassurance that Nerina was too badly hurt to zlin. "You didn't hurt her at all."

Nerina's eyes closed, and she stopped moving.

"She's fainted again?" Den asked, wrinkling his eyebrows with worry.

"Not quite. Let's move her into the bedroom, away from this ambient. Nerina, did you hear that? We're going to move you. You've got to hold on. You can faint later."

The silver lashed eyes opened once more, and the pale lips opened and closed in a silent "yes." With utmost care, Den took charge of their patient's feet, while Rital lifted her body, trying to keep her head as level as possible. Nerina let out a cry which made even Bethany wince, but she didn't quite faint. They carried her into the other room and installed her in the bed beside her sleeping husband. When her head touched the pillow, she let out a muffled wimper, and surrendered to unconsciousness. Together then, Rital and Den worked to start her singed and battered nerves healing.

From the other room drifted Skaggit's voice. "I see that the Tecton has at least some concern for the future, if it keeps Gens who are pregnant with channels under close supervision." It was the closest the Cordonan had yet come to approving of the Tecton, and Rital was not surprised to hear the statement qualified with Skaggit's next breath. "I don't understand, though, how a channel of your grandmother's formidable abilities could so bungle a straightforward task like this. Surely she trained you in how to drop your barriers?"

"I come in to the Sime Center three times a week," Bethany complained. "All that nonsense about 'relax and think of nothing'. I can relax just fine in my own house, without traveling so far in my condition. It's boring, too." The spoiled, fretful note that Rital so hated was back in her voice.

"I suppose the Tecton really is so wealthy that it can throw away its channels' lives," Skaggit mused. "Why else would it chain them with that silly anti-kill conditioning that gets in the way at the most inconvenient times? Now, in Cordona, conditions are much harsher. We lose many channels even as children, despite all the care our bands can provide. We have no Sime Centers to help them through changeover, or great universities to train them afterwards. Each band must make sure that there is another channel to take over when their leader dies, because otherwise they'd have to bargain to their disadvantage for a replacement. There's a channel on our Council who has little ability of any sort, but who has gained much influence through such alliances of necessity."

Rital was still struggling with his task as Quess awakened, his body responding to the presence of an injured channel despite his illness.

"Nerina?" he asked, the shock bringing him fully awake. "Shen, Rital, what happened?" He pushed the covers off and sat up, his disease weakened nager instinctively reaching out to his wife.

"She took three aborts trying to force some selyn into Bethany," Rital reported. "There's some vriamic involvement, but I think it's under control for the moment. We're working on the major transport nerves now. Can you help? She's going to respond better to you than to Den."

"Of course," Quess agreed. For a moment, his love and concern washed freely into the ambient. Then his nager assumed the disciplined rhythm required for delicate healing, only a little woozy around the edges from his fever.

With the aid of a second Donor, the work went much faster. By the time Rital had to pause for a rest, Nerina was breathing much easier, and had been eased into a healing sleep.

In the other room, Skaggit was still lecturing Bethany. "If you lived in Amzon or Zillia, little Gen, the Cordonan band with hunting rights to your town would have taken you when they zlinned you were bearing a channel. You'd have been sequestered with the band's Donors to await delivery. You'd have practiced your exercises every day, boring or not, because if you failed to learn them, you'd be punished. You would not enjoy being punished by a Cordonan channel, little Gen, I assure you."

"You're a barbarian."

"Perhaps so," Skaggit admitted. "But barbarism is more efficient than your civilized ways. It has to be, or we barbarians wouldn't survive. Take your grandmother, Hajene Nerina. Despite the medical wonders of your Tecton, it will be some time before she can perform the simplest of channeling tasks. The Tecton has enough extra channels that someone else can step in and perform her duties. Even the ones requiring great skill. Controller Madz may be a close minded coward, but there's no denying he has talent.

"In Cordona, a channel who's too injured to work, and who isn't fortunate enough to have an advanced apprentice, must barter for services with another channel. That could cost a band a Donor, or the hunting rights to a particularly profitable village or trail. No band can afford much of that, and so our channels don't allow themselves to take near fatal injuries for frivolous reasons. Reasons such as coddling a naughty little Gen who can't be bothered to practice the exercises intended to help her own survival."

"Grandmother was trying not to hurt me!" Bethany protested. Rital could hear her indignation clearly. "That's what she said, after the first time; that the awful feeling meant that if she'd continued, I'd have been burned."

"She's quite right, you would have been burned," the Cordonan agreed. "That's the usual result when a Gen-or a Sime-resists selyn flow, whether it is going in or out. Why else would Nerina have been teaching you not to resist? Her great-grandchild will require selyn at birth. She values you enough that she would prefer you survive as well. I can't see why, myself; I've never been tempted to make a pet out of a selfish, spoiled Gen. I prefer my Gens to be polite and useful, but we all have our eccentricities."

From the Bethany's indignant spluttering, Rital inferred that the young woman's didn't approve of the Cordonan's perspective on her relationship with her grandmother.

"Hajene Nerina isn't completely suicidal," Skaggit went on. "She wouldn't have tried this if you couldn't drop your barriers. Show me."

"What?" Bethany squawked. "Do you think I'm some kind of trained animal, performing tricks on command? Go away. I'm tired, and I have to pee."

"Now, little Gen, or suffer the consequences!"

A multilingual torrent of abuse was the only response. Rital hadn't known that Bethany's Simelan vocabulary was so large, or so specialized.

"Mind your manners, in the presence of your betters!" There was the sharp report of an open handed slap. The swearing cut off abruptly, with a startled yelp, and was replaced by self pitying sniffling. Skaggit was courteous, and blocked most of the nageric disruption caused by his disciplinary measure. Still, Rital could zlin Bethany's cheek stinging when he focused his attention on her.

Quess was looking towards the door, torn between the necessity of healing his wife, and the desire to protect his granddaughter.

"Should we...?" Den asked, nodding towards the door.

The slap hadn't caused any serious injury, unlike the beating Toljee had suffered. Rital had frequently fantasized about slapping the young Gen himself, when she was being particularly difficult. The sniffling was already waning, as the young Gen discovered that it was not winning her the sympathy she wanted. He decided that monitoring Nerina's progress was more critical than rescuing her granddaughter.

"No," he decided, turning back to his patient. "Bethany's not really hurt, and Nerina is. Give me some support; those vriamic vibrations are threatening to build up again."

The urgency of the request stemmed Quess's incipient objections. When Nerina's damaged systems had been rebalanced and she was stable again, Rital turned his attention back to the conversation in the other room.

"So, you can do it, when you're sufficiently motivated," Skaggit taunted, in a tone of mocking approval. "I suppose the danger of murdering your grandmother just wasn't inspiring enough?"

"I didn't hurt Grandmother Nerina on purpose!" Bethany objected, her voice starting to rise again.

"I can zlin that you didn't," the Cordonan channel agreed. "It was sheer laziness, on your part. You just don't care enough about her to set aside your selfishness and work with her. Since she was risking death to save your wretched life at the time, I think your actions are at least as barbaric as anything we Cordonans have done."

Nerina moaned, and all three of her attendants bent over her, trying to cushion what was going to be a very unpleasant second return to consciousness.

"Be still, Nerina," Rital murmured in her ear, mindful of how painfully any loud noise impacted on a transfer burn headache. "We've got some fosebine here. It's pretty strong, but you need that right now. Can you drink it?"

Nerina started to nod, then flinched, giving a shallow gasp. Quess reached out to cradle her head in his hands, using his nager to draw off as much pain as he could. It wasn't enough; even Gen eyes could tell that much. However, the injured channel bravely opened her mouth for the cup Rital offered, and swallowed twice before turning her head to refuse more.

Rital had hoped for a larger dose, but he could zlin the elder channel's nausea, caused by a combination of pain, shock, and the horrible taste of concentrated fosebine. The full dose of medicine wouldn't help her if it didn't stay down, and so the partial dose would have to do. When it took effect, she might be able to drink the rest. He set the cup aside, and helped Den and Quess cushion her head more effectively.

"Now, it happens I owe your grandmother a favor," Skaggit was saying. "This seems a good time to repay it. It's clear she can't let herself burn you, not even a little, and that you don't return her affection."

"What??" Bethany shrieked.

"Silence, Gen!" the Cordonan channel snapped. "Not one more word. Her Tecton anti-kill conditioning-and her softheartedness triggered those aborts, which almost killed her. Controller Madz shares both weaknesses, and is no more likely to succeed. I, on the other hand, don't have anti-kill conditioning. I can also promise that if it comes down to a choice between us, I won't take an injury to save a spoiled little pet like you, even if you are carrying a channel. So, I advise you to lower your barriers, as you've shown me you can, and keep them down. Otherwise, you're going to have a headache just as bad as Hajene Nerina's."

There was a startled squawk. "Let go of me!" Bethany yelled, a new note of alarm replacing her usual petulance.

"Now, Gen," Skaggit ordered coldly. "Lower them now, or suffer the consequences."

"Shen!" Rital swore, jumping hastily to his feet. "Den, look after Nerina." He augmented towards the door, but when he opened it, he was already too late. Skaggit had completed a transfer contact, and was forcing a wave of selyn into Bethany.

At first, Rital thought the Cordonan's insane stunt was working. Skaggit quickly backed off his initial speed, adjusting the selyn flow to a rate that was not-quite-enough to cause nerve burn. It was a maddeningly slow trickle, though, and the Tecton channel could zlin his Cordonan colleague's rising irritation. At the current rate, it would take almost five minutes to force enough selyn into Bethany to ensure her survival. He wondered if Skaggit had the stamina, or the desire, to last so long.

While there was a chance Skaggit could maintain control, Rital didn't dare to risk interfering. The situation was highly unstable, however. Bethany was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the sensation of selyn movement across her only half lowered barriers, and they were wavering, threatening to snap closed entirely.

Skaggit had warned her that if she resisted too much, he'd deliberately burn her. Rital didn't think the Cordonan had been lying.

"Relax, Bethany," he urged her verbally, hoping that she would listen. "Lower your barriers and let yourself accept the feeling, and it won't bother you so much."

The young Gen, who wasn't very good at lowering her barriers even under optimum conditions, was ill prepared to follow such instructions when under assault. Instead of relaxing to lower her resistance, she tensed instead, and Skaggit failed to adjust his flow speed in time. Bethany flared real alarm as the sensation of selyn movement increased sharply, a horribly uncomfortable feeling right on the edge of pain.

Forgetting everything she knew about Simes, Bethany began to struggle physically. Skaggit's handling tentacles clamped down on her arms with bruising force, adding pain to the ambient. The young Gen's resistance to the selyn flow fluctuated wildly, as she abandoned her half hearted attempt to keep her barriers down, and allowed them to respond freely to her anger, fear, pain, and hate.

Rital felt his beast stir in response despite his immediate attempt to suppress it. He could zlin that the Cordonan channel's own darker nature was also responding, and that Skaggit was making no attempt to suppress his baser urges. Instead, he was using Bethany's fear and pain to raise intil, in a blatant display of predatory savagery.

The Tecton channel crouched, preparing to sprint across the room and forcefully rip the two apart, stopping the transfer. It wasn't the preferred method of bring a functional to a close, and was almost guaranteed to leave both parties injured from the backlash. However, he could hardly allow a Gen to be burned or killed right in front of him. Even a properly trained Tecton Second Order channel couldn't handle a functional this difficult. Managing a balanced selyn flow against the shifting resistance Bethany was providing required the sensitivity and control that only a First could posses.

Rital zlinned deeply, searching for a way to force Skaggit to absorb most of the backlash from the shenning, then hesitated in disbelief. He straightened, swearing.

The Cordonan was playing a game that the Tecton channel had never dreamed was theoretically possible. He was using his Sime predatory urges, and the intil he had raised, to compensate for his lesser, Second Order sensitivity. As Bethany's resistance increased, his intil soared, responding to the prospect of an easy kill. A Tecton channel's anti-kill conditioning would have shenned him out of the transfer long before the situation got so unstable. However, the Cordonan channel maintained a precarious control of the transfer by keeping the flow at the very edge of pain. He wasn't doing it in the usual fashion, by zlinning directly how the resistance was shifting and making conscious adjustments to the selyn flow. Instead, he was operating on instinct, using the flares of intil, and the pleasure he felt in Bethany's occasional flashes of pain, as a guide to warn him when he was getting too close to killing her.

It was not a stable situation.

"Bethany, get your shenned barriers down, now!" Rital ordered, in a futile hope that she would listen. This time, to his immense relief, the young Gen obeyed. Inexpert as her efforts were, she did stop fighting Skaggit, and the selyn flow smoothed out as the fluctuations in resistance stilled.

The Cordonan channel took full advantage of the situation, increasing the speed at which he was pushing selyn into the reluctant Gen. There were no more jabs of pain, but he was leaving far less of a safety margin than a Tecton channel would consider appropriate. He was actually enjoying the insane risk he was taking. It was only reluctantly that he brought the transfer to a close.

As Skaggit straightened, breaking lip contact with the now significantly higher field Bethany, Rital considered fainting in relief. With the end of his fear for the young Gen's life came anger. Not all of the throbbing transfer burn headache pervading the ambient came from Nerina. He stalked into the room, glaring at Skaggit.

"You've burned her," he accused the other channel.

The Cordonan was looking down at his victim. His face bore a cruel, contemplative expression. It reminded Rital of a cat which knows its wounded prey is no longer able to flee, and is trying to decide whether to have a quick snack, or play with it a bit longer first. His nager rang with the intense satisfaction of a channel who has finally worked after long abstinence. It made a strange contrast with the sharp, predatory tang of incompletely quelled intil.

Skaggit sheathed his laterals, then turned to face the Tecton channel. "She's barely scorched," he said, with chilling indifference. "I know my business. A half dose of fosebine will take care of the headache quickly enough. Zlin for yourself."

Rital's handling tentacles lashed as if of their own accord, longing to wrap themselves around the Cordonan's neck and break it. "Hajene Skaggit," he said severely, "you gave me your word of honor that you would leave the Gens in this Sime Center strictly alone. If this is the measure of Cordonan honor, then the treaty is useless before it's been signed."

For some reason, this accusation seemed to upset Skaggit. "What do you know of honor, or Cordona?" he demanded indignantly. He remained seated beside Bethany as he fought to restore his systems, which were in disorder from performing the difficult functional after weeks of enforced inactivity. As a Second Order channel, it would take him longer to recover than a First Order channel like Rital or Nerina.

"I've followed your strictures to the letter, Controller Madz," he continued, "despite the insulting implication that I'm an incompetent who can't be trusted around Gens."

Rital's jaw dropped at this blatant denial. "Then what the blazing shen were you were doing, playing games with the life of a patient in my Sime Center?"

The Cordonan's lip curled in a superior sneer, although for once he was unable to stand and use the full advantage of his height. "The Gen bears Nerina's great-grandchild, a channel. She is therefore, Nerina's property, and not yours to dispose of, whatever her location."

"What difference does that make?" Rital asked. "Nerina is Tecton, as I am, and follows our customs. Including that of the Controller's injunction."

"She doesn't, however, share your contempt for other customs, 'Controller'," the Cordonan pointed out, making the title an insult. "When she was in Cordona last year, I suffered an injury that prevented me from traveling for more than a month. It would have placed me at a severe disadvantage to buy another Cordonan channel's services for my band, and so I asked Nerina instead. She agreed to a traditional Cordonan alliance of equals; that we would care for each other's bands should either of us be incapacitated."

"Tecton channels don't have bands," Rital objected.

Skaggit merely shrugged. "I don't think Nerina ever intended for me to reciprocate in kind. It's more likely she thought to use my personal indebtedness to her to win my compliance for her treaty. She knew that as an honorable Cordonan, I would have to give her my support, while the obligation remained unfulfilled. Now, however, I have kept her Gen alive to bear her great-grandchild. I am a free agent once again."

With difficulty, the Cordonan channel struggled to his feet, somehow managing to make the effort appear dignified. "I'll leave you to care for the Gen, since you value her comfort so much," he announced. "If you want to learn more of how Cordonan's view honor and the obligations it imposes, I will answer your questions at some later date. But only if you ask with an open mind. If all you want to do is complain and criticize, use your own staff. They get paid to listen to you."

For a long moment, Rital found himself skewered with that sharp, superior, contemptuous look. It made him feel that he was in the wrong, despite the clear evidence to the contrary. Something about it made him hesitate, and by the time he'd recovered, the Cordonan channel was gone.

He told himself that he had more critical responsibilities, and that he could settle with Skaggit later. Much later, when he'd had the chance to muster such airtight arguments that even Cordonan logic would be forced to concede his error.

He turned to Bethany, who was cradling her head in her hands. "Here," he said tiredly, sitting down on the cot beside her and holding out his hands, handling tentacles spread. "Let me zlin how badly you're hurt."

Perhaps Skaggit's Cordonan discipline had had a salutary effect, or perhaps Bethany had simply used up her daily quota of stubbornness. For whatever reason, she allowed him to make a lateral exam without protest.

It didn't improve Rital's mood to discover that Skaggit's assessment of the damage was spot on, down to the half strength dose of fosebine required to treat it.

"You're hardly burned at all," he told the young Gen, getting up to fetch the medicine. "A little fosebine will stop that headache, and you'll be fine in the morning."

"Why didn't you stop him?" Bethany demanded as she sipped the medicine. "It was awful. He wouldn't stop." As if on cue, the tears started again. She seemed to have an inexhaustible supply, and Rital was tempted to zlin her again, to find out where she was storing so much liquid.

"If I'd shenned Skaggit out of the transfer, you'd be hurting a great deal more than you are now," the channel explained. "He scorched you, but he never lost control of his draw. I couldn't have stopped him without destroying his control-and he wasn't lying, when he said that he'd make sure you took any backlash."

"You should've stopped him before he grabbed me at all," the young Gen pointed out.

Since Rital had been castigating himself for the same error, he couldn't offer a ready excuse. "You're probably right," he agreed, nodding in satisfaction as the fosebine started to take effect and the Gen's headache diminished. "Right now, though, you're in no danger, and your grandmother is still critical. I'd better look after her."

Three worried faces looked up at the channel as he reentered the bedroom. "Bethany will be all right," he reported. "Skaggit even got enough selyn into her to last her through her illness, if she's lucky."

Nerina and Quess looked profoundly relieved. Den, who had much less affection for the young woman, waved that aside and asked the question none of them wanted to face. "So what do we do about Skaggit? He's broken a Controller's injunction, after agreeing to abide by it."

"As a foreign diplomat, he's not under Rital's authority as Controller," Quess reminded them. "For all of the difficulties it's caused in Skaggit's case, we can't discard the concept of diplomatic immunity, much as we might wish to do so. It's too valuable for our own people working in foreign Territories."

"That's all well and good for our diplomats," Rital objected, "but this is the second time in three weeks that he's attacked a Gen under Tecton protection. How can we prevent a third occurrence?"

"I think this was an isolated incident," Nerina said weakly. "He was worried from the start that I'd use his obligation towards me to force certain concessions. He was right, too. That's exactly what I planned, if I couldn't convince him with reason."

At Rital's shocked look, her lips twitched upwards in a weak smile. "That's how politics works in Cordona; a channel's influence is only as powerful as the web of obligations that requires other channels to cooperate with you. Skaggit is a master of the game, which is why he was selected as the Cordonan ambassador. He was also one of the few channels with the power to maintain his interests in Cordona during a prolonged absence, without some other channel taking over his band and hunting grounds. He's been gambling that he can write enough self serving concessions into the treaty to make the effort worth his while."

"Has the man no loyalty to his people, and his country, then?" Den asked.

"Very little," Quess assured them. "Why should he? Cordona as a whole has no loyalty to him. He defines 'his people' as the members of his band, and leaves the welfare of other bands to their own channels. It's harsh, but he has a degree of personal freedom that no Tecton channel can dream of."

"When he asked me to look after his band while he was injured, I jumped at the chance," Nerina admitted. "He probably expected that I wouldn't know enough about his culture to demand repayment, as a Cordonan channel would. I've been pressuring him over the last week, though, insisting that he work with me even when he'd rather not. The opportunity to escape that obligation by saving Bethany must have seemed too good to refuse."

"So, what is he likely to do, now that he's a free agent?" Rital asked, with a premonition of impending doom.

"I don't know," Nerina admitted. "I just don't know."


 Read Chapter 14

 


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