Mary Lou Mendum

Chapter 14

A Reckless Vow

Two days later, Rital decided Bethany was well enough to return home, much to everyone's relief. With her grandparents unable to care for her, her fretful demands for care, sympathy and entertainment pushed the Sime Center's overworked staff to the limit. Quess, too, had recovered sufficiently to worry over how the negotiations were proceeding.

Nerina was old, and healed slowly. Still, Rital was pleased with her steady progress, until on the afternoon of her granddaughter's departure she complained of feeling "just a little bit odd", and asked the other First to check for complications. Rital complied, and was forced to tell her, "You're healing nicely, but I'm afraid you're sick."

He spent the rest of the day on the telephone, trying to get his tentacles on the Donor she would now require days before her regularly scheduled transfer with her husband, who was a week out of phase with her anyway, due to his own illness. Rital had hoped to find a Donor who could stay a full month, so that Quess could spend his limited stamina concentrating on the diplomatic situation. However, he was forced to settle for a woman who stayed just sixteen hours before taking the train back to Valzor. The channel suspected her layover would have been even shorter, if the trains were running on their usual schedule.

At least the transfer, hurried as it was, did much to heal Nerina's injuries. Rital was able to reassure her that she'd make a full recovery. When her fever broke, two days later, she insisted on taking a donation rather than doing an entran outfunction. Rital allowed it, but only because Mr. Duncan, the Clear Springs Center's steadiest Donor, was finally high field again after his own illness, and was available.


The day of the Zillian banquet in honor of King Madigan's tenth coronation anniversary was dark and gloomy. A cold, steady rain fell all day, dismal proof that winter wasn't yet quite ready to surrender to spring. The Collectorium was almost empty once more, and Rital couldn't blame the citizens of Clear Springs for staying home.

Hard need made every functional a nerve wracking effort for the channel, as he strained to keep the baser urges it incited securely caged. Despite his best efforts, and Den's, the few Gens who did come in to donate seemed to catch his nervousness. Even Annie Lifton, Rob's sister and Bethany's sister-in-law, was edgy enough that Rital spent five minutes coaxing her to relax before taking the donation. Annie was normally a cooperative donor. The channel began to worry that somehow, news of his newly acquired taste for Gen distress had become common knowledge among the Gens of Clear Springs.

Rital wasn't looking forward to spending the evening making polite conversation with feuding diplomats. He didn't want to waste time being courteous to a bunch of thick-headed foreigners who couldn't understand that peace was less destructive than war. More than once, he caught himself daydreaming about barricading himself in his room with Den until the banquet was over, and they could have transfer.

There were legitimate grounds for apprehension, quite apart from his personal distaste for formal diplomacy. As Nerina had feared, now that Skaggit no longer felt obligated to her, he'd become twice as inventive in blocking any real progress on the treaty. He'd finally returned to the conference table, where he occupied his time making sly digs at the members of the opposing delegations. He was particularly fond of exposing, in public, the small lies and evasions that Gen etiquette demanded, calling them blatant hypocrisy. His victims didn't appreciate his efforts.

With neither Quess nor Nerina at the conference table, the rest of the Tecton's diplomatic staff had proved unable to counter his mischief. Defender Foley had openly expressed his misgivings, saying that perhaps it would be wise to spend a few years studying the Tecton system before trying to implement it. Even Gildmistress Halitono was less enthusiastic about breaking the Clan monopoly of the Cordonan trade routes, if it also meant opening up the Amzonian towns to Skaggit and his colleagues. Prince Korrin was still officially optimistic, but Rital had zlinned the young Zillian's growing frustration with the lack of progress.

Under the circumstances, the Zillian banquet was going to be awkward for everyone. Still, Prince Korrin was sparing no effort in honoring his father. Rollin was kept busy with last minute details, which fortunately left him no time for further spying upon his countrymen. The Sime Center's off duty staff joined their efforts to the Prince's entourage, and the cafeteria was gradually transformed into a scene of primitive feudal splendor.

When Rital arrived for the banquet with Den at his side, he found Zillian flags pinned to the walls, set off by swaths of brightly colored fabric. The large portrait of King Madigan had been brought from Prince Korrin's quarters, and now occupied a place of honor along the far wall. The tables were covered with snowy white linens, and tall vases filled with hothouse flowers, mingled their fragrance with the cool, fresh scent of pine boughs. The air was filled with more exotic smells, as Ref labored in the kitchen over strangely spiced dishes.

The foreign guests were arrayed in their gaudy national costumes, once more making Rital's formal Tecton dress uniform look dull by comparison. Prince Korrin had also invited a scattering of guests from Clear Springs. The channel noted to his amusement that Mayor Kroag had donned a bright turquoise dress that shimmered like a peacock in the candlelight. It was easily brilliant enough for Zillian or Amzonian tastes, while its simple elegance showed a level of sophistication seldom found on the southern continent.

Despite the efforts made on their behalf, however, few of the guests were truly enjoying themselves. Most of the diplomats were content to sit with like minded members of their own delegations, talking about nothing in particular. Rital suspected that after weeks of debate, the delegates were heartily sick of arguing their respective positions.

There were a few exceptions, of course. At one of the smaller tables, Defender Foley and Thaddus Webber were engaged in an animated discussion, ignoring the tension around them. Foley was deeply focued in the conversation, and his conflicted emotions suggested he was wrestling with issues that were deeply important to him.

Rital had some experience with the free ranging cross examination that passed for light conversation among the Rational Deists. If anyone could cut through a web of blackmail, threats, and intimidation to convince the victim to do what was right, it was Webber. Of course, according to the Deists' peculiarly flexible theology, exactly what was "right" varied greatly with the individual circumstances.

Curious, the channel drew closer and listened.

"It's a delicate question," Defender Foley was admitting to his northern colleague. "Some of our theologians say that a Gen's selyn belongs to God. Ergo, to allow one's selyn to be stolen is a sign of spiritual weakness, and to give it away willingly is to support the Adversary."

"But didn't you tell me a central premise of your faith is that resources must be used for the good of the Aggregate, and not selfishly hoarded for one's individual convenience?" Webber's eyes sparkled at the prospect of a challenging discussion. "Who's to say that God does not wish his selyn to be used to support the others within his Creation who need it? Unless you see God as a sort of super-Sime, who requires all available selyn, leaving none for other Simes?"

"No, we've always imagined our deity as a Gen," the prelate admitted. "I'm also uncomfortable about the context in which that argument is promoted. Its strongest advocates are among the nobility, my clergy, and the wealthier city dwellers. All three groups are traditionally immune from harvest by the Cordonans, who primarily target the rural villages. They have used the purity argument as a self-fulfilling justification for the privileges of the fortunate. It certainly lacks proper empathy for our poor, who have little choice about submitting to harvest when the Cordonans come calling. Encouraging resistance would gain them nothing but the destruction of their villages and the theft of their goods by the raiders. I can't ask that of them in the name of preventing spiritual contamination. Not when they'd be harvested just the same, in the end."

"If the forcible theft of selyn does no spiritual damage—beyond the damage any theft does to a person's trust in goodness, that is—then there would seem to be no spiritual virtue in being high field," Webber observed. "Your religion, like ours, views it as a moral virtue to provide sustenance for the poor. Wouldn't it also be virtuous, then, to provide selyn for a Sime who would otherwise perish?"

"Ah, you've cut to the heart of the matter as usual, my friend." The Zillian clergyman chuckled as he shook an admonitory finger at his colleague, who beamed at the compliment. "It's true enough that if theft alone causes the spiritual damage to harvested Gens, then eliminating the necessity for theft would be a virtue. But there are always problems in applying morality, particularly when one is dealing with bandits. For instance, how can we ensure the Cordonans only take willing donors, if we give them free access to our towns?"

Webber's attention, which had been wandering casually around the room as Foley spoke, alighted on Rital. "Perhaps we should consult an expert," he suggested, waving the channel over. "Come over here, Hajene, and explain something to us. How does the Tecton confirm that its donors are all truly willing?"

Rital didn't like to undermine the Rational Deist's line of argument, but the issue was too critical for diplomatic half truths. "A channel can zlin whether a Gen is willing easily enough," he said, sitting across the table from the two theologians. "However, the Tecton is less concerned about whether Gens are willing to donate, then in whether they consent to do so. There's a critical difference."

"I'm not sure I understand the distinction," Foley said. "Would you explain?"

"I'll try," the channel said. He leaned back in his chair and put his elbows on the arms, letting his fingertips touch lightly in a contemplative fashion. He was careful not to let his tentacles emerge and complete the gesture, for fear of offending Foley. His words might do that, all by themselves.

"Willingness is an emotion," he began. "Like any other emotion, it's subject to the unconscious whims that Simes and Gens both share, and sometimes it occurs in inappropriate contexts. Consent, on the other hand, is a deliberate act. As such, it reflects a person's conscious decision as to whether an action is in his or her best interests."

The two Gens nodded thoughtfully.

"For most of our experienced donors, there's no conflict," the channel continued. "They consent to donate, and they're willing to do so. Sometime, though, there are conflicts between people's willingness to donate, and whether they believe it's appropriate for them to do so. Your own Prince Korrin is a good example, Defender Foley. He was fascinated when he watched young Tohm Seegrin donate. He would like to try it himself, I believe, but the laws of Zillia prohibit him from doing so. Unless he chooses to abdicate his crown, no Tecton channel who understood the situation would consider it acceptable to take his selyn, no matter how willing he might be."

"I should hope not!" Foley exclaimed.

The Zillian prelate reacted to the news of his prince's Simephilia with distress. In the cluttered ambient of the banquet hall, the channel couldn't tell whether the Gen's negative reaction was prompted by patriotic concern for the stability of the Zillian government, or by personal revulsion at the thought of donating.

"New Washington Territory inflicts no legal penalties on Gens who choose to donate," Webber observed. "I expect it's rather rare for you to find a Gen who's willing to donate, but doesn't consent."

"It happens more often than you might think, even here," the channel said. "Most often, in instances where a person's spouse or other close family member would be unduly upset. In such cases, we respect the judgment of the person involved as to what is best, and refuse the selyn if necessary. However, the more common situation is the Gen who consents to donate, but isn't truly willing to do so."

"Well, I suppose some nervousness would be natural enough, at least when a person starts donating," Webber agreed. The Rational Deist hadn't suffered more than faint and transitory misgivings during his own first donation, as Rital had reason to know. The channel suspected the clergyman's Rational Deist habit of measuring risks strictly according to the evidence was responsible this. He wondered if Webber had any idea how frightening Gens raised in less logical traditions could find the process.

"Sometimes it's much more than simple apprehension," Rital admitted. "I have met Gens who feel it's necessary to donate, even when that's the last thing they want to do. Usually, there's a compelling outside reason for the decision; the person must travel in Sime Territory, or wishes to support a child who's gone through changeover. In such cases, if I'm convinced that the Gen has made a firm and informed decision, I'll go ahead and take the donation, even if the donor is unwilling."

"But what if the decision is made in haste, or under duress?" Foley asked. The channel noted that the Zillian found the idea of consent without willingness even more distressing than the reverse.

"Duress is often as much the result of circumstances, as of hostile intent," he pointed out. "It's not safe for a high field Gen with no training in nageric control to associate with renSimes. Insisting that out-Territory Gen travelers be low field while visiting Sime Territory is an important safety precaution, particularly when it isn't practical to assign a channel or Donor to manage the fields. That this biological necessity causes some Gens to choose donation who wouldn't otherwise is unfortunate. However, a Gen who truly can't endure the thought of a channel touching him has no business being in the same room with a renSime, for everyone's sake."

"And if a forced decision is regretted afterwards, when the damage is done?" the Defender persisted.

"Any decision can be regretted, in hindsight," Rital pointed out. "That doesn't make it any less necessary to act on the decisions we make. Furthermore, I'm a channel, not a spiritual advisor or secular counselor. I'm not qualified to tell Gens what they ought to do with their selyn. I can only assist in carrying out some of those choices. If I refused to honor the decision of a Gen who has chosen donation, simply because that person is too apprehensive to be truly willing, then I'd fall into the same ethical trap as the Cordonan channels. I'd be presuming that I have the right to decide when and how a Gen's selyn is taken, rather than the Gen who produced it."

"Those are pretty words, and passionately spoken," the Archbishop said. "I suspect that the situation isn't quite so simple as you describe, however. It almost never is."

The channel nodded. "I must admit that I'd also turn down a prospective donor, consent or no, if I believed that the donation posed an unjustifiable risk to the Gen, or to myself. I wouldn't risk taking a donation from a frightened Gen with certain heart conditions which make stress dangerous, for instance. The trick comes in determining exactly what is justifiable in each case, and where the greatest potential for human good lies."

Foley's lips lifted in a genuine smile that spread to his nager as well, suffusing it with a warm glow. "Well, that's a dilemma that haunts us all. You've given me much to think upon, Hajene, and I thank you."

Taking this as a dismissal, Rital left the two religious experts to continue their discussion and moved on. Guildmistress Halitono was explaining something to Mayor Kroag, over by the refreshment table. The Amzonian woman's nager flared in frustration, so the channel wandered over to pour himself a cup of tea.

"It isn't just the Cordonans, Mayor Kroag," Halitono was explaining when he got within eavesdropping range. "We could defend ourselves against their predation much better, if it weren't for the Zillians."

"But they're also a Gen Territory," the mayor objected. "Surely they share your interests in that matter, and many others as well?"

"Oh, they do," the Amzonian agreed ruefully. "They certainly share our interest in the Ancient city found in the marshlands between our two Territories. The ruins are particularly rich in metals, you see."

Rital had been most interested in the negotiations concerning Sime Centers, and how well they would be accepted in the two Gen Territories. However, the hostility between Amzon and Zillia was also part of the web of mistrust that had kept the three southern Territories warring for generations. He edged closer, hoping for more information.

"There's conflict over the mining rights?" Mayor Kroag was asking.

The Guildmistress smiled ruefully. "Isn't there always, when there's profit to be gained? A hundred and fifty years ago, the ruins were a prime hiding place for killer Simes, and mining was quite limited. However, when the mountain Simes acquired channels, and began to form larger, more stable bands, they recruited most of the Simes from the ruins."

"Ah, I see. Mining was suddenly a great deal less risky?"

"Yes, indeed." Halitono spread her hands, as if to disclaim responsibility for her fellow citizens' greed. "Amzon and Zillia have fought several wars over the issue, and the ruins have changed ownership many times. At the moment, they're held by Zillia, although Amzon holds the two critical access roads. King Madigan has not, so far, seen fit to allow Amzonian miners access to the ruins, in return for our cooperation with his treaty."

"I suppose the Cordonans are quite happy to have your military, and Zillia's, preoccupied with this standoff?" Mayor Kroag asked.

"Of course. If we didn’t have to worry about Zillian treachery, our soldiers would have secured the Cordonan passes long ago. For that matter, even the Zillians could have stopped the Cordonan raiding, if they weren’t obsessed with stealing the ruins for themselves." The Guildmistress’s words betrayed a patriotic conviction in her own land’s superior military prowess. Rital suspected that in reality, the two armies were evenly matched, or they wouldn’t have settled for a stalemate.

If either Gen army could defeat the Cordonans at will, however, it was better for all concerned that they’d been preoccupied with other matters. The Cordonan channels were a disgrace to their profession by Tecton standards, but they didn’t kill. If Amzon and Zillia could prevent the Cordonans’ harvests without providing an alternative source of selyn, the Cordonans would have no choice but to get selyn any way they could.

The shift from a junct lifestyle to a healthier non-junct existence inevitably resulted in population growth for Sime Territories. Rital doubted that Guildmistress Halitono had any idea how much damage the modern day Cordonans could do before they were exterminated—or how much more damage would be done by the next generation of Simes, who would lack channels and therefore be forced to live exclusively on the Kill.

Despite the quality of the wine and the exotic tidbits, the ambient remained tense. There was little active hostility between the delegates, but there was no friendliness, either. Even the guests from Clear Springs seemed to have caught the mood, and most were clustered uneasily at one table along the far wall. The notable exception was Thaddus Webber, who’d left Defender Foley and was now interrogating Oorana, one of Skaggit’s bodyguards. The renSime appeared somewhat bemused at being accosted by such a persistent Gen.

"Well, I’m sure Defender Foley would consider it most theologically sound if all Cordonan Simes simply dropped dead," she was telling Webber, as Rital drew near. "Still, he’s going to have to resign himself to our existence, and to our need for his flock’s selyn."

"The Defender enough of a realist to accommodate your presence, I believe," the Rational Deist said. "It’s the way you choose who will supply the selyn you need that’s at issue."

Skaggit interrupted their conversation with a harsh laugh. "I don’t suppose the so-virtuous Defender informed you of his own church’s role in the harvests he so deplores?"

"What role?" Webber asked, his confusion moderated by his perennial thirst for new knowledge.

"I see he didn’t." The Cordonan channel tsked in mock censure. "It’s the traditional duty of a Zillian village priest to bargain with the channel who owns hunting rights to that village over how many donors must be provided at each harvest. In addition, they select which Gens among the healthy adults are taken. I understand that the power to send an unrepentant sinner out for harvest does wonders to encourage piety among the Zillian laity."

"The Zillian clergy facilitate your harvests?" Webber’s eyes widened in shock.

Skaggit grinned in pleasure at the response he’d evoked. "Of course they do," he confirmed. "How else do they earn their own immunity? They’d rather use our harvests to their advantage, than be subject to harvest themselves. We accommodate them, since it makes our lives easier to have our victims waiting for us outside the village."

The Cordonan caught sight of Rital, and chuckled maliciously at the expression on the Tecton channel’s face. "What’s the matter, Hajene?" he asked. "You didn’t really think Foley was the pious, even-handed, innocent bystander he pretends to be, did you? He’s sent a lot of Gens into our tentacles, on his way up the Church ranks. His Protectors have sent thousands more, with his blessing, since he assumed control of the so-righteous Church of the Aggregate. It’s a useful threat for silencing any threat to their power." He smiled, and not pleasantly. "Oh, yes, the Defender’s ethics are at least as questionable as mine, when it comes to respecting Gen nageric self-determination. I, however, am not so hypocritical as to deny it."


At the head table, Prince Korrin had consumed three glasses of strong wine in quick succession, and was engaged in an increasingly loud and acrimonious discussion with Alhonzo Jequihita. The Amzonian merchant had matched the prince drink for drink, and although he had more mass with which to dilute his alcohol intake, he was far from sober. Rollin was watching the situation with concern from across the room. When the prince refilled his glass once more, the aide hurried towards his master.

He was too late. Jequihita said something that caused the Prince's nager to explode with frustrated anger. The young Gen leaped to his feet, fists clenched.

"You've been going on all evening, with your, 'The Tecton might' do this and 'The Cordonans might' do that!" he complained. The young Zillian's voice was so loud and impassioned that the whole room fell quiet to listen. "Well, 'they might' do a great many things, including exactly what they say they will. What proof does it take to convince you that Zillia will honor its treaty commitments? Name it, and by my honor, my family will provide it!"

Rital had continued to circulate among the guests, to give himself an excuse not to sit down and eat. He happened to be standing close to the table occupied by Duke Pollmar and the two Zillian priests during the outburst. As the prince made his vow, the channel zlinned a sharp surge of triumph in the Duke's nager, and a predatory, almost junctlike satisfaction from the priests. It made his own beast raise defensive hackles in its lair.

The rest of the guests were still in shock as Alhonzo Jequihita leaned back in his chair, oozing satisfaction of his own. "A noble offer, my young Prince," he conceded.

"And one I stand by," Korrin said, somehow managing not to slur his words in spite of his inebriated condition. "What evidence will convince you that the Zillian crown will make the Sime Centers work? The Simes will have their selyn through peaceful means, and your caravans won't be raided. Think of the new markets that will open up, if goods can be moved cheaply and reliably between our two Territories."

Rital wondered how much Jequihita really wanted to stop the raids. The Cordonans sometimes helped themselves to trade goods along with selyn, but those losses were minor, compared to the profits to be gained from a trade monopoly. If independent traders could move goods across the mountains without paying exorbitant fees for protection, the Clans would lose much of their income. At the same time, Clan expenses would increase as the Cordonans instituted official tolls on caravans, in order to generate income of their own to pay for the selyn they had previously stolen.

"I don't believe your precious Sime Centers will produce enough selyn to stop the raids, no matter how many pretty speeches your father makes," the Amzonian said, his voice clearly audible in the hush. "Unlike you, I've seen Cordonan channels at work, when my caravan workers were forced to the harvest. It isn't nearly as pretty and clean as that so sanitized demonstration we attended. The new hands cry and beg and struggle. The more experienced ones don't, but only because they've learned not to expect mercy from a Sime's black heart."

The Amzonian merchant glared at Skaggit, who smiled back, showing his teeth in sharklike fashion. Rital noted that Jequihita's own nager showed no sign that it had ever been tapped by a channel—or that he regretted sending his employees into the tentacles of Skaggit and his Cordonan colleagues.

"None of my employees would volunteer for harvest, no matter how enthusiastically I urged them to do so," the Amzonian merchant continued. "No, convincing people to volunteer for something like that requires more active leadership. I'll believe that your noble father's Sime Centers will attract customers, when I see a member of his own family volunteer for harvest!"

Prince Korrin blanched, realizing too late the trap into which he had been so carefully guided. "I would gladly do so, but Zillian law doesn't allow it," he protested weakly. "No member of the royal family can be harvested and still take the crown."

"Ah, how convenient," the Amzonian purred, folding his soft, uncalloused hands over his ample belly. "You'd be happy to give me evidence of your father's sincerity, but you just happen to value being crown prince more." He paused for a moment to examine a large purple stone which was set into one of the half dozen rings that decorated his pudgy fingers. "One might almost think you were afraid."

The young Gen's spine stiffened at the insult, and his nager flared indignation. "I'm not afraid of being harvested by a channel," he insisted, truthfully enough. "However, I've no brother to succeed me to the throne. Consider the political chaos it would cause, if I couldn't succeed my father."

Rital, zlinning, was suddenly convinced that Duke Pollmar, at least, had considered the implications in detail. He wondered what provisions Zillian custom made for the royal succession, when no direct heir was available, and who stood to gain by them.

"A valid excuse," the Amzonian Clanleader admitted. "However, you didn't swear, just now, to provide the proof I requested only if your claim to the crown was unaffected. That leaves me with no choice but to continue my opposition to this ill advised treaty by any means available to me." His face twisted in a wide, smug smile. It reminded the channel of a schoolyard bully watching a smaller child approach with a fresh ice cream cone, ripe for the taking. "It's rather a pity," the older Gen taunted. "I'd expected more honor, from a royal prince. The Usgants has grown weak."

There was no sign of weakness in the sternly royal look Korrin turned on his tormentor, although there was plenty of damaged adolescent pride. "Do you swear, on the honor of your Clan and in front of these witnesses, that if the royal house of Usgant provides the evidence you require, you will cease all opposition to the treaty, and instead will actively assist in its development? That further, your Clan will facilitate the Sime Centers' work in Amzon, as my father hopes to sponsor them in Zillia?"

The Clanleader shifted uneasily in his chair, which creaked in protest at the redeployment of his colossal mass. For the first time, the man seemed to realize that the prince wasn't the only one who'd be bound by the bargain he had proposed—and that it didn't entirely reflect to his own credit. He looked around the room, searching the faces of the onlookers for support.

The reactions varied. Guildmistress Halitono and her staff, Rital zlinned, didn't approve. Even Jequihita's own supporters were apprehensive, afraid that their leader might be going too far. Defender Foley's nager rang with outraged horror, but Protectors Kelteth and Grigiano were trying, Genlike, to conceal their glee under sober expressions. Rollin was ashen, his usual calm facade shattered by the danger to his prince. The Clear Springs guests might not understand the political implications, but they didn't have to, in order to understand that something was seriously wrong. Skaggit's laterals flicked out of their sheaths, enjoying the charged ambient. Rital reflected sourly that there was certainly enough Gen distress in the ambient for the most exacting Cordonan tastes.

Then Duke Pollmar caught Alhonzo Jequihita's eye, and Rital thought he saw the Zillian nobleman nod briefly.

This seemed to be the reassurance the Amzonian was waiting for. He turned to Prince Korrin and said, "Yes. I so swear, in front of your assembled guests."

"I bear witness to the bargain," Duke Pollmar affirmed. Beside the nobleman, Protector Kelteth nodded eager agreement.

Defender Foley stood. He was pale, and his nager shimmered with dread. "This is an outrage!"

Protector Kelteth wisely stopped nodding at this show of disapproval from his superior. However, the smirk in his nager made his approval of the situation clear to the Simes.

"Clanleader Jequihita, you can see that His Highness has been indulging in too much wine. You can't seriously propose to hold him to a vow made while he was drunk," the Defender protested. "Not when it would cost him the throne, and throw the succession in Zillia open to question. State a more reasonable condition, if you must make such a bargain at all."

"I hold His Highness to nothing," the Amzonian merchant said, and his flabby lips curled in a ugly smile. "I've merely told him the conditions under which I'd drop my opposition to the treaty he values so highly. Whether he decides to fulfill my conditions—and uphold the family honor—is strictly up to him. He's free to keep his crown if he values that more. It's even remotely possible that he could force the treaty through over my objections."

Rital noticed a certain resemblance between Jequihita's reasoning and his own, when he'd discussed taking donations from Gen under duress with the Defender. Somehow, the argument didn't sound nearly as convincing in the new context.

Foley turned to Prince Korrin, who was sobering rapidly as he began to realize what he'd promised. "Surely there's no question of fulfilling his conditions, under the circumstances?" the prelate pleaded. "There's no other heir in the direct line."

"There's never a shortage of heirs, when a throne is at stake," the younger Gen reminded him. "My father taught me that a prince serves his nation and its God, rather than the reverse. One might argue that Zillia would be better served by a lasting peace with our neighbors, than by my presence on the throne."

The Zillian prince's voice was sober and thoughtful, and Rital could zlin that he understood how serious the situation was. Underneath that, though, the channel detected the same eagerness and curiosity he'd zlinned after Prince Korrin had watched Tohm Seegrin's donation. It was the response of a Gen who wanted very badly to donate, or perhaps do more than donate, eventually. This time, it wasn't mixed with the resignation of knowing that what he wanted was impossible. Quite the opposite.

Rital wondered what would happen to diplomatic relations between Zillia and the Tecton, if the heir to the throne abdicated in favor of becoming a Tecton Donor. Would King Madigan still want Tecton style Sime Centers in Zillian towns and villages? Somehow, the channel doubted it, and without the support of state or church, the effort was doomed. Even if Alhonzo Jequihita kept his word and supported Sime Centers in Amzon, there'd be no peace without Zillian involvement.

This opened the interesting question of the Clanleader's motives. Jequihita had seen Cordonan style donations before, he'd said, as the caravans he guided paid their 'toll' to the Cordonan channels. Unlike Rollin, the Amzonian merchant hadn't felt threatened by watching Tohm's donation. He, like Skaggit, had been disappointed that it wasn't more of a show. Did Jequihita derive such personal pleasure from watching the abuse of his employees that he'd have fought the treaty, even if he weren't faced with a reduction in his Clan's profits?

"But what of your duty to God, Your Highness?" Foley was demanding. "A century of religious tradition holds that none who have been tainted by harvest can serve as priest—or prince."

"Perhaps it's time to reexamine those traditions, then," Prince Korrin argued. "The Church teaches that the soul of the plowman and cobbler are equal in value to those of prince or lord, however much their worldly lots may differ. Why, then, should giving selyn irrevocably taint the latter, but not the former? It makes no logical sense, Your Excellency."

The tension in the ambient spiked as Prince Korrin openly defied the head of his church. Rital felt his intil rising in response, and edged closer to Den.

"We who serve our country must always accept limitations," Foley said, frowning.

Prince Korrin shook his head. "But why that particular limitation? What's so corrupting about losing a few dynopters of selyn, that it should permanently destroy an otherwise admirable candidate's ability to handle spiritual or temporal duties? Especially when the selyn will be replaced anyway, within the month?"

"How else can our countrymen know that their leaders' judgment is untainted, than by insisting on our purity?" Protector Kelteth said, from the table he shared with Duke Pollmar. He paced in a dignified fashion to stand beside his spiritual superior. "Harvest breaks the spirit. That might be acceptable, or even admirable, in a tinker or peasant. However, a ruler must be able to act on behalf of his country. Where the Simes harvest once, they'll return to harvest again. How could a man govern even a country estate, if he lived constantly with the fear that he might be harvested at any moment, without notice?"

"As to that, I know at least one nobly born person who's served Zillia loyally and well, despite that handicap." Prince Korrin's eyes rested for just a moment on Rollin, whose distress was growing with every exchange between his prince and the clergy. "Besides, Clanleader Jequihita's proof doesn't demand a traditional Cordonan harvest, but a Tecton style donation, of the type which would be instituted in the new Sime Centers. We've all seen that process, and that no breaking of spirit or implied threat is involved. Quite the contrary; the young man we watched seemed well content with the process, and stood to profit from the it, as well."

"That was unnatural," Protector Kelteth spat. "An abomination, intended to deceive us. He was a whore, selling himself for material profit."

"Where's the shame in profiting from the selyn one produces?" Korrin demanded. "There's none when a man sells the other fruits of his labors. And how can anything which can turn the abuses of harvest into a positive thing be an abomination?"

"The harvest is less of an abomination than a prince who would even think about participating in it!" the priest snarled. "The Usgants have ruled Zillia nobly, but it seems the royal bloodlines have grown weak. Why would this treaty have been considered in the first place, if the Betrayer hadn't made pawns of you?"

Defender Foley, who hadn't objected to the priest's earlier statements, chose to take offense at such open disrespect for a member of the royal family. "Protector Kelteth, remember your manners," he chided. "The question of whether Tecton style voluntary donations are permissible has yet to be decided."

"How can there be any doubt?" Protector Grigiano demanded. "Don't all Simes have tentacles, Tecton or Cordonan?"

"There are telling differences between the two," the Archbishop said. "It will take a great deal of study and debate to determine whether those differences warrant different treatments under religious custom and secular law. It's a profound moral question."

"There's no time to convene an ecclesiastical council to discuss the matter," Prince Korrin pointed out. "The treaty negotiations are at an impasse. While I am sure that there are some here who consider that an acceptable situation, I do not. Nor, I think, would my father."

Rital didn't trust the resolve in the young Gen's nager, especially given the hints of glee underneath. He remembered the Zillian heir's frustration with the limitations of his royal station. Had the young man decided to escape his unwanted responsibilities, under the guise of promoting the treaty his father supported?

The channel's fears were realized as the young Gen turned back to the Amzonian and announced, "Clanleader Jequihita, I accept your conditions. I will provide your evidence, and prove that the Usgants will stand behind the treaty with more than pretty speeches!"

 Read Chapter 15


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