Mary Lou Mendum

Chapter 16

The Beast in Harness

When they returned to the banquet hall, they discovered that preparations had gone forward in their absence. Duke Pollmar was busily directing the rest of the guests in rearranging the furniture, while Alhonzo Jequihita looked on, smiling unpleasantly. Both cast frequent, sly, looks at Prince Korrin, who zlinned much sobered, and very contrite.

The tables had been pushed back against the wall, still covered with the remains of the interrupted feast. A transfer lounge had been brought in from the Collectorium and installed in the cleared space, allowing the assembled guests to view the spectacle from all angles. Rital thought about protesting; even high field, it would be harder for Den to block the spectator's nagers when they were impinging from more than one direction. However, the more fuss he made, the more stress Prince Dinsmuir would experience, and the less chance there was of convincing anybody that this was a more or less routine donation.

The channel contented himself with asking the onlookers to move back. Not only did that moderate the impact of their combined nagers, but it also made it harder for them to observe the expression on Prince Dinsmuir's face...or his own.

As their audience rearranged themselves with a muttered grumbling, Prince Korrin approached his uncle, wringing his hands in distress. "This is too much to ask of you," he murmured. "Look at you; you're pale as a ghost. Your loyalty to the crown is beyond question. You don't have to prove it by being a sacrificial victim."

"Better me than you," his elder responded adamantly. "Unlike me, you've no younger brother to continue the line. If you're deposed for contamination by a Sime, the Usgants fall with you."

"Father's remarkably healthy," the Zillian heir protested. "By the end of his reign, that law may well be overturned."

"How likely is that, if your enemies know that by enforcing it, they can overturn the succession and have a king more to their liking?" Prince Dinsmuir asked rhetorically. "Your father couldn't afford to propose such a change, if the primary beneficiary would be his own son. Even if Defender Foley granted the King's request, and removed the religious barriers, Duke Pollmar and his allies would unite as never before to prevent reform of the secular laws. No, it's too risky. This donation is my task to endure, as it is yours to ensure that our family's honor remains unstained."

"But Uncle, you'll suffer if you do this, while I would not."

The elder prince's eyes shone with genuine pride in his nephew, although his expression remained sober. "Your wish to spare me does you credit, and bodes well for the future of Zillia. However, it's my responsibility to protect my prince, as it's yours to secure the treaty that will bring peace to Zillia at last. If you can hold Clanleader Jequihita to his word, there's a chance to accomplish what four weeks of negotiations have not; an end to the obstructionism. That, in itself, is worth the price."

The guests had finally settled. A flush faced Clanleader Jequihita seated himself in the choicest seat, laughing raucously at a comment from Protector Grigiano, who had claimed a place at his left. The Amzonian lifted a brimming goblet. "Gentlemen, ladies, I propose a toast," he announced. "To King Madigan, the much respected monarch of Zillia! Long may his family provide us with such grand entertainment!"

Many of the guests were offended by the proposed toast, but Duke Pollmar chuckled from the Clanleader's right, and drained his glass. "It's been frustrating, that His Highness has been so reluctant to see that we must have a nobility free of the taint of Simes," he remarked. "Perhaps he'll change his overly romantic mind, when he sees my long lost cousin there thrashing like a fish out of water, being harvested like the lowliest peasant."

"Oh, harvesting peasants is so...routine," Skaggit complained from his seat across the room. "Most of them don't even struggle properly. We'll have to hope that our dear Hajene Madz puts on a better show than that. From the zlin of his client, he just might!"

"Our former Crown Prince does look a bit green in the face," Protector Kelteth agreed. "So does His Highness, the current Crown Prince, for that matter. Apparently, the royal Usgants aren't quite as eager as they pretend, to do what they recommend for others."

Defender Foley, whose disapproval of the entire proceedings was plain to zlin, turned on his inferiors. "For shame!" he reprimanded them. "This isn't a spectacle provided for your entertainment. Prince Dinsmuir was almost killed by a Sime, fifteen years ago. Who among you would have the courage to do what he's agreed to do, if you'd suffered so?"

"What sane person would want to?" Protector Grigiano muttered, not quite under his breath.

Prince Dinsmuir held up a hand. "Archbishop, please. I appreciate your support, but it's not necessary." He turned to face his tormentors. "It's true, I was badly burned by a Sime, and it's given me an abiding fear of all Simes. However, I also understand the difference between selyn harvest in the Cordonan tradition, and selyn donation as the Tecton practices it. The first is more nightmareish than even the stories admit, but we've all seen that the second is not. Even if it wasn't, if preserving the Usgent dynasty requires me to give selyn, then as a loyal Zillian I can do no less, whatever my personal misgivings."

In the silence that greeted this speech, he turned back to Rital. "I await your pleasure, Hajene," he said with quiet dignity. Squaring his shoulders, he walked steadily towards the waiting transfer lounge.

Now that the Gen was irrevocably and publicly committed, at least in his own mind, his chaotic and violently conflicting emotions calmed somewhat. Instead, the fragmented nager cycled between sick fear, resignation, and embarrassment, all overridden by courage and iron determination. Rital wasn't sure that was much of an improvement, but at least the former Prince's stony expression revealed none of his internal turmoil to the Gens in the room. Skaggit and his bodyguards, of course, weren't deceived, any more than Rital and Nerina were.

Without waiting for further instructions, Prince Dinsmuir lay down on the lounge and began unbuttoning his cuffs. He rolled his sleeves up neatly, focusing on the task as a distraction, and the intensity of his embarrassment waned. Rital waited at a safe distance of about six feet while the Gen readied himself, using the pause to reinforce his own control. Den was a steady support beside him, still unhappy about the situation, but committed now to seeing it through. The spectators were a blur of mixed emotions beyond, as if the fragmented chaos of Prince Dinsmuir's nager had been scattered about the room. However, with the help of the high field Donor, he could hope to ignore them.

Rital could admit, if only to himself, that only part of the fear gripping him was the Zillian Gen's. The rest was his own; fear that he'd lose control and betray himself, and the Tecton, by killing a Gen in front of a room full of witnesses. The beast inside him, roused by need, found his personal fears almost as stimulating as Prince Dinsmuir's. Den's continued misgivings weren't helping.

The channel had enough doubts of his own, without borrowing them from others. Looking at Prince Dinsmuir, he was once again struck by the contrast between his client's calmly resigned expression, and the chaos of his nager. Most of the Gens in the audience, he zlinned, seemed to be accepting the facade at face value.

Rital wondered if he could exploit this Gen idiosyncrasy to his advantage. The Zillian Gen's fear would worsen, if he knew the channel doubted his ability to take the donation under such makeshift conditions. On the other hand, if the channel looked confident, the Gen might assume that all would be well. Using courage of his own, Rital forced himself to stop fidgeting. He wasn't sure Prince Dinsmuir noticed, wrapped in his own fears as he was. However, to his surprise, Den zlinned steadier, the Donor's misgivings fading as he observed his cousin's calmer demeanor.

With a final twitch of one cuff, the former Zillian Prince finished adjusting his sleeves and held out his hands to Rital. Any further delay would accomplish nothing. The channel ran through one more centering exercise, in the forlorn hope that it would help cage his beast for a little longer, and then settled on the lounge beside Prince Dinsmuir. He reached for the offered hands, closed his own fingers over them lightly, then let them slide over the thick Gen wrists and grip the muscled forearms.

Prince Dinsmuir's eyes widened as they fixed on Rital's own forearms, and the lumps made by the sheathed tentacles. The Gen shivered with a strange combination of apprehension and anticipation. However, there was no physical resistance. Encouraged, the channel let his handling tentacles emerge to reinforce the grip of his hands.

This time, the Gen flinched, jerking his arms back and away from Rital. At the same time, a sharp pang of alarm partly displaced the apprehension and anticipation, echoed by a collective gasp from the audience. Then Prince Dinsmuir's courage rose to the occasion and battered his fear into temporary submission.

Rital let his arms move with the tug until both of the Gen's elbows dug into the transfer lounge, then firmed his grip to curb any further movement. "Relax, Your Highness," he commanded quietly as the Gen began to tremble. "Take a few deep breaths and let your body go limp. If your body is relaxed, you'll find the fear much easier to cope with. That's right," he said as the Gen obeyed.

"It's just as well that you aren't depending on me to stay completely still," Prince Dinsmuir admitted. "This isn't going to be as easy as I'd hoped."

"This isn't going to be easy at all," the channel countered, with some severity. "Not for either of us. It'll be a little easier, though, if you can go limp when it starts to get uncomfortable. Tension causes resistance, and that increases the difference in selyn flow characteristics between the scars and healthy nerves. Relax, and I'll be able to dampen the eddies far more efficiently."

Rital had small hope that the Gen could relax enough to make any realistic difference. However, the effort would make the Zillian an active participant in the donation rather than a passive victim, and that might make him feel a bit less helpless. "I'm going to make lateral contact now," the channel warned, hoping to forestall another flinch. "Hold still."

Prince Dinsmuir didn't jerk away—quite—as the laterals slid into place on his arms, but it was a near thing. "Hajene, I don't know if I can do this," he warned in a small voice.

Rital wished the Gen had reached that sensible conclusion while there was still time to act on it. As it was, neither of them could back out now without precipitating the very diplomatic disaster which both had agreed must be prevented.

"You're doing just fine," he said, and neatly stifled any counterargument by leaning forward to make lip contact. The full impact of the Gen's shattered nager impinging on his own momentarily stunned him. As the full extent of the damage to Prince Dinsmuir's nerves became apparent, he knew he'd seriously underestimated the difficulty of the task he'd set himself.

Sluggish patches of scar tissue knotted around and through the nerves of the Gen's arms, impeding the normal flow of selyn. Individually, they were well healed, but even after fifteen years, there was no integration between them. It wasn't just the time delay he had noticed before, which generated the cascade effect. Each scarred patch actually responded slightly differently to the Gen's emotions, as if it were part of a different nager entirely. To make matters worse, the scarring along the Gen's right arm nerves was perceptibly worse than that obstructing his left arm nerves, something which should have been theoretically impossible. The symmetrical nature of a lateral contact should have led to equally symmetrical damage.

The combined effect was dizzying, as if he were in lateral contact with dozens of different Gens, some of whom were closer than others, and all of whom were gibbering with fear, resignation, trapped panic, terror, courage, or apprehension as they waited for something truly dreadful to happen. The channel wondered if Prince Dinsmuir could truly be considered sane, after all, with such an internal cacophony.

A cool Gen hand came to rest on the back of his neck, and with it came the steady, clean, reassuringly singular throb of Den's nager. "Are you all right, cousin?" the Donor asked.

Rital couldn't have given an honest answer even if he'd been able to speak, but the question jarred him out of his paralysis and recalled him to duty. He examined the damage more systematically, zlinning for clear pathways that might conduct selyn more quickly and testing the exact degree of resistance required before a perceptible degree of turbulence would result. The different scar patches not only displayed a variety of resistances, but the rate at which those resistances changed in response to the speed of selyn flow also varied dramatically. After some experimentation, the channel thought he'd managed to calculate a draw speed that would provide an approximately equal resistance to his draw on either side.

He wished that he'd taken more training in handling such cases, but it was years too late for regrets. The Gen's fortitude was getting increasingly strained as he waited for something to happen. If Rital delayed much longer, neither of them would have to nerve to face what they must.

Carefully, he allowed a trickle of selyn to leak across his laterals, increasing the flow by increments for the smoothest possible draw. He couldn't hope to watch each shard of the fragmented nager, or track how it was reacting to the flow. The best he could do was to alternate his attention between a few of the worst scars and what he hoped was a representative sample of the rest.

It wasn't enough. Despite all his care, one scar that he'd discounted as minor proved more extensive than he'd thought. The difference was just enough to divert part of the flow towards a much more heavily injured patch. By the time he noticed the problem, the turbulence had spread, upsetting the already precarious balance he was maintaining. Prince Dinsmuir responded to the disruption with a sharply increased anxiety, all the more unsettling to the Gen because its cause could not be consciously perceived.

Rital slowed his draw, working quickly to dampen the turbulence. From its prison deep inside him, the beast murmured seductively that if he altered the flow thus, and diverted selyn there, the Gen would respond with an invigorating pulse of terror that would echo through the scarred patches.

He tried to ignore the voice. It tempted him with visions of the beautiful, complex nageric patterns that would form, and how delightfully they would stimulate his own need. He countered with visions of a formal Tecton investigation, followed by mandatory retirement and an early death from entran complications. It whispered that as long as he kept the selyn flow below Prince Dinsmuir's perception, he could torment the Gen as much as he pleased, before a room full of witnesses, and no one would be the wiser, not even his victim.

The prospect was so outrageous that he momentarily lost track of what he was doing. The beast snatched for control, trying to increase his draw speed and provoke a stronger reaction in the Gen.

Deep inside himself, Rital could feel something stirring besides the beast; something he hadn't felt since his long ago days of training. Like a grim guardian, it hovered on the horizon of his awareness, waiting to see whether he could salvage the situation, or whether it should smite him down. Rital had spent so many hours convincing himself that his anti-kill conditioning was gone that at first he didn't recognize it preparing to engage.

When he did, it was almost too late. In a last ditch effort to regain control of the situation, Rital tried to shut down the flow entirely, as quickly as he could without actually shenning himself.

It was the wrong decision. In his haste, he created the very currents he was trying so hard to avoid, and the resulting turbulence built to a level perceptible to Prince Dinsmuir.

A sudden jolt of stark horror, followed by a chorus of terrified screams, assaulted the channel's already raw nerves. In full lateral contact, zlinning closely as he fought the turbulence, Rital had no defense against the Gen's emotions. The beast burst out of its prison as easily as if it had never been confined. It rejoiced in its freedom, and jeered at his helpless, hopeless attempts to cage it again. Under its urging, his tentacles clamped down on Prince Dinsmuir's arms with bruising force, reducing the Gen's instinctive attempt to jerk his arms free to an ineffectual twitching. The small portion of Rital's mind that wasn't preoccupied with impending disaster noted that the slight movement was probably not visible to the Gen onlookers. Skaggit and his followers, he zlinned, were enjoying his predicament.

Rital broke lip contact as quickly as he could, before the beast could trick him once more, although he didn't dare loosen his grip on the Gen's twitching arms. "Hold still," he whispered, and to his relief, the Zillian froze. He hastily retracted his laterals, as a further precaution against temptation.

"Are you finished?" Prince Dinsmuir asked. Hope and relief clashed with the still distinct echoes of fear in a stomach wrenching display. He sat up.

"I'm afraid not," the channel admitted, bracing himself against the Gen's reaction to his words. Turning his head, he addressed the onlookers. "Ladies, gentlemen, the assault which deposed His Highness from the succession has left the nerves of his arms too badly damaged to sustain a selyn flow."

There was a low murmur as the news was discussed. Alhonzo Jequihita's slack lips twisted into an unpleasant smile. "So, our impetuous Prince Korrin will have to honor his word personally after all, instead of by proxy."

Stung, the young Zillian heir turned to face the Clansman. "Do you think I'm afraid to do so?" he demanded, tossing his head proudly. For some reason only a Gen could understand, Prince Korrin's earlier eagerness to donate hadn't been affected by the sight of Rital terrorizing his uncle.

The channel put up a hand to stop the young Gen's approach. "That won't be necessary," he assured both Prince Korrin and his uncle. The former prince's sense of failure at his inability to accomplish a simple donation was uncomfortably close to the channel's own. "I'll simply have to bypass the scars."

He reached for the Gen's shoulders, and Prince Dinsmuir's eyes widened. "No, Hajene, you mustn't," he whispered. "I can't be sure that I can hold still." Behind the channel, Den was in complete agreement with the Zillian.

"You won't break," Rital murmured, in hopes of convincing all three of them. "It shouldn't be quite as bad this way." Before either Gen could argue further, he took advantage of the dictates of Zillian fashion and slipped his hands inside the wide, loose collar of the Prince's dress shirt. He secured his grip as best he could with fingers and handling tentacles, then let his laterals extend. He'd never tried to use the neck nerves for a donation before, even with a normal, unscarred Gen. It took some experimentation before he found a solid contact.

Prince Dinsmuir gasped at the feel of the moist, probing laterals slithering across his skin. The whites of his eyes showed clearly, but he didn't pull away. His hands moved, and Rital hesitated, ready to break off the attempt and retreat quickly if it became necessary. However, instead of lifting to tear at the channel's tentacles, the Gen's hands flattened against the lounge, pressing firmly into the upholstery.

Rital could zlin how much courage it was costing the Gen to keep them there, and for a moment he debated calling off the attempt. However, Prince Dinsmuir's reasons for insisting on the donation were as valid as ever, as were his own for agreeing to do so. Moreover, if the channel were to back down, the Gen would blame himself for Rital's failure. That could easily cause more suffering for him, long term, than the legalized torture the channel was inflicting upon him in the name of lowering his field.

It was common Tecton dogma that no untrained Gen could endure a transfer related injury without offering physical resistance. The Gen instinct to pull away from an attacking Sime was simply too strong. The channel decided to proceed for as long as Dinsmuir's hands remained solidly planted on the lounge, demonstrating that he'd not yet reached the limits of his endurance. If the Gen's hands lifted, Rital intended to get out as fast as he could, and hoped that they would both survive it with minimal injuries.

Portions of Prince Dinsmuir's nager had calmed as the channel's laterals found the proper contact points and stilled. There were even a few fragments reflecting a paradoxical trust in Rital, in complete disregard for the channel's actions, the Gen's own well developed phobia, or for that matter, plain old common sense. The beast within Rital found this very amusing, and immediately started planning the most spectacular way to betray that trust.

The channel himself, however, had other plans. He curbed the beast, and met the frightened eyes that belied Prince Dinsmuir's still calmly resigned expression. He murmured softly, "Remember, when it gets uncomfortable, relax. It really will help."

The Gen nodded once, a quick bob of his head, and let himself be pulled forward until their lips met.

As Rital had hoped, with the shoulder contact he was able to zlin clear pathways around the edges of the scar tissue. He wondered again how the Gen's attacker had managed to burn the arm nerves so selectively. Carefully, he began teasing selyn out along the undamaged nerves, making several hasty adjustments as the neck nerves responded in a somewhat different fashion than he had predicted. He kept the flow to a very slow, gentle speed, in hopes the it wouldn't affect the scarred patches at all.

It was a delicate balance, and he found himself wishing for the legendary sensitivity of a Farris channel. It didn't help that he had to keep part of his attention on himself, to ensure that the beast didn't batter its way loose once again.

The beast, however, wasn't interested in taking selyn from the clear pathways. Its attention was elsewhere, on the scarred patches, and he could feel its growing expectancy. It was a passive anticipation, however;it wasn't attempting to wrest control away from the channel.

Rital felt his intil rising in response, despite Den's efforts. He didn't trust the beast. If it was passive, that was only because he was doing what it wanted. He eased back on the flow, zlinning Prince Dinsmuir deeply for trouble, and that was all that saved him from disaster.

He'd been draining selyn from the parts of the GN-3 level which were not badly affected by the scarring. This left the scar impaired storage areas full, since there was too much resistance for them to simply drain into the unscarred nerves. The internal imbalance had finally created a gradient steep enough to force a flow through some of the scarring. Selyn burst through into the normal nerves in a chaotic cascade of discharges, sending waves of sensation through both of them. To Prince Dinsmuir, it felt like an uncontrolled selyn draw, even though the selyn movement causing the sensation was strictly internal. He responded accordingly, and the beast attacked.

Ignoring the shrieking terror that the sudden turbulence evoked from the Gen, Rital did the only thing he could. Faced with too many simultaneous problems to sort them by any rational means, he followed the lunge of his beast, trusting it to choose the eddy most likely to cause nerve damage. He hastily smoothed out the lower left arm scar it had selected, directing the selyn flow away from an almost completely blocked nerve just in time to prevent a re-injury.

The beast almost got away from him then, when it lost interest before he was done, but he accepted its verdict that there were more pressing problems and followed. For a frantic five seconds, that seemed like a century, he pursued his killer instinct, staying with each problem only long enough for some other bit of turbulence to take precedence. When it was over, and the scarred and unscarred tissues were in balance once more, Rital was as exhausted as if he'd been riding a wild buffalo.

A thorough zlinning confirmed that Prince Dinsmuir hadn't been injured, although the margin had been much closer than the channel cared to think about. Rital could guess what the cascade had felt like to the Gen; a sudden, uncontrolled draining sensation coming out of nowhere, evoking every nightmare of his ordeal fifteen years before. The Gen's barriers were locked tight against any selyn flow, and he was rigid with terror. It made the channel want to cry.

There could be no question of taking further selyn from a donor in such a state. Rital wondered whether the few pitiful dynopters of selyn he'd already gleaned was sufficient to cover the terms of Alhonzo Jequihita's agreement. He doubted it. The Clanleader himself couldn't zlin whether Prince Dinsmuir was high field or low, of course, and the channel thought Nerina would be willing to support a lie, under the circumstances. The Cordonans, however, would be much more critical. He was zlinning Skaggit surreptitiously, trying to determine if the man was inclined to interfere, when the unexpected happened.

Prince Dinsmuir took a deep breath and relaxed, in a gesture of blind trust that momentarily dissolved his GN-3 barrier as if it had never existed. Caught by surprise, Rital acted by instinct and restarted the selyn flow.

This time, however, instead of trying to lock his predatory instinct away, he harnessed it to help him. Summoning all his courage, he deliberately blocked his newly rediscovered anti-kill conditioning by setting the full power of his will against it. It might still be able to shen him out of an actual kill, but he would now be able to injure Prince Dinsmuir with relative impunity.

Then Rital set the beast free to roam at will, using it to warn him when trouble was immanent so that he could cushion the turbulence. It was, he realized, very similar to what Skaggit had done when the Cordonan channel had forced selyn into Bethany.

The balance Rital was maintaining was precarious. It depended for its success on the channel's ability to maintain control of his actions, in contradiction to his own feelings and instincts, and those of the Gen. With his ability to shen himself repressed, the price of failure this time wasn't just pain and suffering, but death or serious injury for both himself and his client. He wavered a moment, caught up in the possible consequences. He discovered, though, that once invoked, courage quickly became a habit.

Using his beast's help, Rital raised his draw speed to the very limits of Prince Dinsmuir's endurance, and held it there despite the Gen's discomfort. It was still an excruciatingly slow selyn flow, and it took four and a half endless minutes before he'd finished draining the GN-3 level.

By the time the channel relinquished his death grip on Prince Dinsmuir's shoulders, even the beast was content to quit. Or perhaps it was simply too sated to be interested in tormenting the exhausted Gen any further. Rital wanted only to put some distance between himself and his sorely abused client, a sentiment with which Prince Dinsmuir appeared to agree wholeheartedly.

The channel stood, his knees wobbling, and turned to face Alhonzo Jequihita. "Prince Dinsmuir is now low field," he said coldly. "You've seen your demonstration. I hope your word proves to be as good as an Usgant's."

Without waiting for a reply, Rital collected his Donor and retreated to the closest refuge. It happened to be the alcove near the kitchen in which Duke Pollmar and Clanleader Jequihita had met during the reception for the Gen delegates, over three weeks before. Once away from prying eyes, he huddled in his cousin's arms, shaking from delayed reaction.

"That fear," he complained. "It went on and on, and there was nothing I could do to stop it."

"You did what Prince Dinsmuir wanted you to, under very difficult conditions," the Donor said loyally. "I don't think a trained therapist could have made it any easier on him. I'm sure he's grateful for your skill. Or he will be, when he's had a chance to calm down a bit."

Completely focused as he was on the warm comfort of Den's nager, Rital was caught by surprise when a second voice drawled, "I must add my congratulations to those of your Donor, Controller Madz."

Rital stiffened as Skaggit strolled into the alcove. The Cordonan channel's mannerisms were as arrogant as ever, but there was genuine respect in his nager, and an new sense of collegiality. "It appears I misjudged you," the Second Order channel continued. "I assumed that your Tecton relies on volunteers because its channels lack the skill to handle frightened Gens without burning them. However, you brought the Zillian Prince to the very edge, and held him there for almost five minutes. I couldn't have done it better myself."

Rital zlinned Skaggit to determine if he was drunk, but despite the glass of wine he'd been holding earlier, the other channel was sober enough. "You say that as if tormenting Gens was a standard channel's functional. That..." he gestured vaguely towards the main cafeteria with two handling tentacles, "...that was an abomination. No Gen should be subjected to such torture, particularly under such makeshift conditions."

The Cordonan channel cocked his head for a moment, zlinning Rital's sincerity as he considered the Tecton channel's words. "I suppose it wouldn't be so necessary here. However, in Cordona, bringing a Gen to the very edge during harvest, and holding him there without actually burning him, is the most sought after skill a channel can have. It's the art that distinguishes the leaders of the best bands from the rest of the rabble."

Rital stared at the other channel, appalled. "But why?" he demanded. "What earthy purpose is served by such random torture?"

"Why, the prevention of random deaths, of course," Skaggit answered, as if it were self evident. "Cordonan bands don't raise children, except for our channels. We can't, with no way to grow food. As a result, our channels are mostly nonjunct, but our renSimes are almost all disjunct, with a few juncts and semi-juncts. The juncts in particular are a problem. They're daring raiders, taking risks that the disjuncts shun, but they can't be allowed to just kill Gens at random. The priests wouldn't send even the black sheep of their congregations out for harvest, if they thought they might be killed."

Rital was glad that he and Skaggit could at least agree on that much.

"We've discovered that periodic exposure to the emotions a Gen experiences under a Sime's attack is the most effective way to stabilize juncts," the Cordonan channel continued. "Particularly when magnified by a shiltpron. That's why we raid outside our hunting grounds, when we could simply harvest our own Gens with far less risk. Our best channels are those who can convince a Gen that he's being killed, without actually burning him, and maintain the illusion long enough to satisfy their juncts."

"But I thought it took genuine Gen pain to satisfy a junct," Den objected. "How can you provide that adequately, if you don't burn them?"

Skaggit gave Den the sort of disgusted look one reserves for the willfully ignorant. "Pain is pain. The Gens have to be worked up a bit anyway. A few good blows with a whip can be quite effective, and it adds the proper...spice...to the projection. Combine that with the feeling of selyn flow, and hold the Gen on what he assumes is the edge of death for a few minutes, add a bit of pleasure, and juncts who zlin it are good for several months, before they start wanting to kill again. It's not as effective as a real kill, but I've had some of my juncts go nearly three years before they became uncontrollable, and had to be destroyed."

"I believe the Tecton's record at supporting a junct on channel's transfer is less than a year," Rital admitted. The Cordonan sounded proud of his achievement, and the technician in Rital had to admit that it was an ingenious solution to the problem of keeping junct renSimes alive when they were too old to successfully disjunct. The human being in him, however, was appalled that anyone would even consider sustaining the life of a killer through deliberate torture.

"Of course, one has to be careful about judging the individual Gen's limitations," the Cordonan channel continued, with the didactic air of a Rialite professor. "A Gen pushed too far can simply give up, and then the whole effort is wasted. The trick is to select a Gen who can withstand harsh treatment, and then carefully bring him along until he reaches his personal limit. You did very well with that Zillian prince, Hajene, particularly since you weren't able to work him up properly. I believe that Pollit, my chief of staff, will now be stable until we can return to Cordona. I was worried about him; he is overdue for a good hunt."

Rital stared at the other channel, appalled. "You brought an active junct with you?" He thought back, and realized that he'd never really gotten a clear zlin of Pollit. On the rare occasions when the renSime had left the Cordonan quarters, either Skaggit or the bodyguards had very cleverly arranged themselves so as to blur his field.

"Pollit's an invaluable assistant. Of course I brought him. How was I to know that you'd place such ridiculous restrictions on my use of Gens that aren't even yours?"

Rital's mind was starting to work again. "Is that why you were beating Toljee?" he asked.

"Of course," Skaggit answered, as if it should have been self evident. "What other Gen was available for me to use? He was a poor substitute for a Wild Gen, though. He's too familiar with the game, and he knew that I couldn't afford to seriously injure him. I had to hurt him far more than I'd have had to hurt a Wild Gen, and still his fear didn't have quite the proper spice. I could have made it work, though, if you hadn't interfered."

Rital didn't feel in the least guilty for having rescued Toljee. In his mind, no renSime assistant could be so useful as to be worth potentially ruining a Donor. He told Skaggit so, ending, "If you were really so concerned about the health of your renSimes, why have you been deliberately prolonging the treaty negotiations? Nerina tells me that you've been arguing both sides of the question, and raising question after question on irrelevant issues."

The Cordonan channel looked wary. "As a diplomat I have obligations to many parties, and must find a way to satisfy them all, whatever my personal feelings. It's a heavy burden at times, but one does as one must, for the band's survival."

Rital cocked his head, zlinning the ambassador closely. "What if those 'obligations' were removed, and you were free to act? Free to choose the future that was best for your band? What sort of agreement would you design, between your people and the Gens of Amzon and Zillia?"

Skaggit looked at Rital curiously, but the Tecton channel's abuse of Prince Dinsmuir had apparently impressed him enough to give an honest answer. "I've done very well under Cordona's current system, such as it is. However, I'm not so successful as to be blind to its faults. I want the healing skills you and your Tecton colleagues practice. I even want access to selyn technology. Do you have any idea what an improvement it would be to our quality of life, just to have selyn powered lights instead of lanterns and torches?"

"I can imagine." Even the cleanest burning fuels made a considerable amount of smoke. Inside, that would lead to constant eye and throat irritation, greater susceptibility to illnesses, and the constant risk of dangerous fires.

"Of course, all of these advantages require a selyn supply that is both large and dependable. Raiding is too risky, and one can only increase demands on one's own villages so far without sparking a rebellion. You've shown me that selyn can be bought as well as taken. Although I don't agree with all your methods, I think a compromise could be reached that would satisfy most parties."

Skaggit's face twisted into a sardonic grin. "There are a few organizations which profit immeasurably from our current system, of course. Alhonzo Jequihita's Clan is one, and the Church of the Aggregate is another, reluctant as Defender Foley is to recognize the corruption of his institution. I admit, though, I'd feel no sorrow if I zlinned such hypocrites at a loss."

"I'm glad to know you do want peace," Rital admitted.

The Cordonan channel sobered. "Well, that's only what I would do if I didn't have obligations to the contrary. As it is, I can only work within the limits defined by honor."

"I see," the Tecton channel said, again zlinning the other channel closely. "One might argue that honorable arrangements are not possible except between honorable individuals. Those who buy and sell other's reputations for their personal profit hardly qualify, in my mind—and few secrets remain secret forever."

Skaggit's nager maintained a veneer of polite indifference, but Rital could zlin the alarm underneath. "Just what do you mean by that?"

Rital smiled as the Cordonan's reaction confirmed his suspicians. "I'm referring to your youthful indiscretion of some fifteen years ago, of course," he said. "The time you made an unfortunate choice of victim during a hunt, and then compounded your error by losing control as you harvested him. Tell me, just when did you discover that you'd almost killed the Crown Prince of Zillia?"

 Read Chapter 17


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