"What?" Den yelped "Skaggit burned Rollin...I mean, Prince Dinsmuir?"
Skaggit's nager flared shock and horror. He swayed, as if physically assaulted. "Who told you that?" he whispered through pale lips. "I was promised that no one would be told, if I..." he broke off. "I've kept my part of the bargain; I gave no cause for such a betrayal."
Rital looked at the other channel with unfeigned interest. "There was a bargain, then? With whom?"
The Cordonan's mouth opened, as if to answer, then snapped shut. "You're bluffing," he accused Rital.
The Tecton channel shrugged. "Well, I admit, I'm not sure of all the details regarding the other parties to this 'bargain', although I have my suspicions. However, it was easy enough to deduce that you were responsible for the Prince's injury. As I said, few secrets remain secrets forever—particularly when the evidence is so spectacular."
"What evidence?" Den asked, reasonably enough, under the circumstances.
"There's the timing, for one thing," Rital pointed out. "The Prince was burned fifteen years ago, around the time Skaggit admits to losing control and burning a Gen whom he thought was fair game. Even their stories match, given the difference in perspective. But the most critical piece of evidence is the Prince's scarring patterns, which show exactly what went wrong."
"You know that?" Skaggit asked. "I've never been sure, myself, and my mentor Rahaul could tell me nothing."
"Prince Dinsmuir is left handed," the Tecton channel explained. "So are you. You're used to handling right handed Gens, whose dominant, most nerve rich arm joins to your own. You work a bit lopsided as a result—I zlinned it when you were pushing selyn into Bethany. There was more flow through your left and her right side. That's harmless enough, and you're obviously used to handling the uneven flow. However, if you apply that same technique to a donor who's also left handed, then his weak side—his right—will be forced to carry too much of the flow, and the fields will become unbalanced. The Prince's scars are very asymmetrical, as if the burning started on his right arm nerves, and then hit his left side, too, when the balance was inexpertly shifted in the other direction. I expect he was the first left handed Gen you'd ever tried to handle?"
The Cordonan channel's shoulders slumped. "Well, as to that, I don't usually quiz Gens on which hand they write with, before harvesting them. Besides, a great many of the peasants and drovers can't write at all. I must make do with what I can zlin about their characteristics. The circumstances that night were unusual in other ways, too. I swear, though, I didn't set out to burn Prince Dinsmuir, only to scare him good and proper. And I had no idea that he was anything but a horse handler, at the time."
"If he'd been 'just' a horse handler, would that have made burning him acceptable, in your eyes?" Den inquired, his nager as frosty as his tone.
Skaggit looked at the Donor squarely. "Perhaps not, in your opinion, and of course no channel enjoys a technical failure. However, it's the opinion of the Zillians, and most particularly of their monarch, that's relevant. If King Madigan ever learns that I'm responsible for his older brother's injury, the past two years of diplomacy will have all been for nothing. There will be a war, on a scale Cordona has not experienced in over a century. The Gens will send their troops into the mountains as soon as the snow melts, and murder every Sime they can find. If they get enough of the channels, the renSimes who survive will have no choice but to kill, and the delicate balance that lets us survive will fail. Why else would I have given in to the demands of that..." He broke off abruptly.
Rital raised an interested eyebrow, but Skaggit remained stubbornly silent. "I think perhaps you're being overly pessimistic," Rital continued, when the Cordonan still declined to name the party who'd been pressuring him. "The Zillians aren't so unreasonable as to choose war, when peace would bring so many advantages."
"You are naive. War has always been their way, when noble interests are threatened. Why else would we leave the highborn strictly alone?"
"Prince Korrin is a reasonable young man," the Tecton channel pointed out. "He's become quite friendly with young Tohm Seegrin, and you zlinned his eagerness when he thought he'd be allowed to fulfil his vow personally. If Zillian law didn't prohibit it, I expect he'd have volunteered to donate weeks ago. The Defender is also surprisingly open minded, given the doctrines of his church."
"You are naive, Hajene," Skaggit repeated, with a trace of his former scorn. "The Defender and King Madigan together couldn't prevent war, if the nobility demands blood. Nor would they try."
"Ah, but whose blood would be required?" Rital said. "Skaggit, I won't maintain silence on an issue this important. Prince Dinsmuir has a right to know what happened to him, and I can't take the risk that you might submit to blackmail again, in the future. The only way to prevent that is to make sure that your dangerous secrets don't remain secret."
Skaggit stared at Rital in horror. "You are mad," he whispered. "I thought the Tecton wanted peace?"
Den's resolution wavered, but Rital remained implacable. "The Tecton also promotes justice," he said firmly, "and Prince Dinsmuir has received very little of that, these past fifteen years. If he wants retribution for your crime against his person, that's his right. It's a risk you'll have to take. However, I think I can persuade him to be lenient; to forgo retaliation entirely, and leave you with your position intact."
"The Usgents, be lenient to a channel who harvested one of their own?" Skaggit shook his head. "You don't understand the way the Zillian nobility thinks."
"I believe I understand how Prince Dinsmuir thinks," the Tecton channel declared. "One way or the other, though, he'll know. Tonight. I believe I can salvage your position afterwards, but I require a promise from you, first."
Suspicion flared. "For a man who claims to abhor blackmail, you seem quite prepared to resort to it yourself. What sort of a 'promise' do you require from me?"
"One that you shouldn't find particularly burdensome," Rital assured the Cordonan. "Only that if I can get the Zillians to overlook your misconduct, and not retaliate against Cordona, you'll turn your full efforts to designing a treaty that works for all three Territories. I have no objection if you use the opportunity to secure the future of your band, but I won't tolerate any more attempts to hold the negotiations hostage. Your personal interests must not be allowed to interfere with the welfare of three Territories."
Skaggit cocked his head. "An interesting proposal, and far more lenient than a Cordonan channel would have offered. Even my allies would have used the opportunity to acquire a desirable renSime or two, or access to some of my Gen villages. You have me in a most unfortunate position. I admit, I find such altruism hard to believe."
"It's not altruism," the Tecton channel corrected. "What earthly use would I have for your renSimes, or for unwilling general class donors who are a thousand miles away?"
The Cordonan's self-confidence was rising steadily, as he zlinned the truth of Rital's statement. "There still remains the issue of my Donor. Does this proposal of yours include his return?"
"Don't press your luck, Skaggit," Den said, the blatant threat in his nager reinforcing the verbal warning. "Toljee belongs to himself, and his future isn't part of any bargain you make with Rital."
The Cordonan channel took an involuntary step away from the angry Gen. "So I lose my most promising young Donor, either way. That's hardly the advantageous outcome you promised."
Rital met the other channel's eyes squarely. "Hajene Skaggit," he began, "you've been makng trouble for everyone since you arrived in Clear Springs. I'm very tired of tripping over a diplomatic crisis every time I try to get something done. I want a successful end to the negotiations, so my Sime Center can perform its intended functions. If you're willing to extend your best efforts towards that end, fine. I'll help to deflect Zillia's wrath away from you. If you refuse, however, I admit that I'd derive some personal satisfaction from seeing you held accountable for what you did to Prince Dinsmuir."
The Cordonan channel dropped all control of his fields, letting his conviction show clearly. "I wasn't jesting. The Zillian nobility will demand a war to retaliate for a Sime touching one of their own. They won't care that it was fifteen years ago."
Rital smiled, not pleasantly. "I think they might be prepared to forgo a war, if they were given the option of punishing the actual channel who was responsible. I think they'd be satisfied with making an example of you, and allowing another channel to negotiate for Cordona. A channel who'd have every reason to be more cooperative."
Skaggit stared at Rital for a long moment, zlinning the Tecton channel's utter sincerity. "You really would hand me over to Gens for execution," he said, shaking his head in amazement.
"In a heartbeat," Rital confirmed.
A grudging admiration tinged the Cordonan's nager. "When I met you, I thought you were soft; so accustomed to a life of ease that you were incapable of dealing with life's harsh necessities. However, you're just as ruthless in your way as the most predatory Cordonan band."
"Of course I am," Rital confirmed. "I'm a Tecton channel, and how else could the Tecton have forged the Unity Accord? Do you think that the juncts of Nivet, or the New Washington Gens, wanted to give up their hate and stop fighting each other? The Tecton has enforced that peace for over a hundred years, through every threat and crisis. In the past, that's required the sacrifice of people who've done far less to earn such a fate than you have."
Skaggit nodded, then bowed deeply to show his concession. "Hajene, I accept your bargain. If you can persuade the Zillian nobility to overlook the damage to their Prince, I'll find a way for the Simes of my Territory, and the Gens of Amzon and Zillia, to live together. Perhaps not in peace; that would be too much to expect in my lifetime, but in a spirit of cooperation nonetheless."
When they rejoined the others, Prince Dinsmuir was still sitting on the transfer lounge. He was much less pale, however, thanks to the calming effects of a glass of brandy provided by his anxiously hovering nephew. Prince Korrin, on the other hand, appeared much sobered. Rital hoped the Zillian heir had learned an important lesson in self-control.
The young Gen had at least been provided with detailed instruction on his shortcomings, if the grim look on Defender Foley's face was any guide. The prelate stood beside his prince, talking to him, but Korrin carefully avoided his spiritual leader's eyes.
Alhonzo Jequihita had also sought comfort in brandy. The Clansleader's arrogant assurance was gone, replaced by sullen defeat. He appeared somehow deflated, as if he no longer had the energy to move his great bulk. He slumped in his chair, staring into his cup, steadfastly ignoring the eyes of the curious.
Duke Pollmar and the two Protectors whispered to each other at one side of the crowd. They had to be worried about how the evening's events would affect the viability of their position. However, the blast of hatred they emitted when they saw Rital made it clear that their opposition to anything involving a closer association with tentacles remained strong.
If Rital hadn't been in hard need, he might have taken a more circumspect approach to his intended agenda. However, after the nerve wracking events of the past hour, he wanted nothing more than to resolve them as quickly as possible. Only then could he retire to have his transfer, and fill the yawning, hungry emptiness inside himself.
He was also heartily sick of diplomats. Instead of being the best minds of their respective Territories, united in a search for solutions, they seemed intent on squabbling like children over minor details. They'd certainly avoided the hard work of actually solving the problems on their agenda. Rital was through with high diplomacy, and therefore didn't feel obligated to cater to the prejudices of professional quibblers and obfuscators. Not when the situation could be easily resolved by frank and open discussion.
Being in the mood for prompt resolutions, then, the channel made no attempt to be diplomatic. He simply held up a hand, handling tentacles spread in a request for attention. "Ladies and gentlemen," he announced to the room at large, "I've just confirmed some interesting information that will affect some of you personally, and which has a direct bearing on the treaty negotiations, as well."
There was an excited hum of conversation. Rital waited until it died away, then continued. "Hajene Skaggit has admitted that it was he who almost killed Prince Dinsmuir fifteen years ago, when he was a raw apprentice just learning the channel's craft."
Behind Rital, Skaggit flinched at the blunt disclosure. The ambient resounded with a mixture of shock, disappointment, anger, and delight in the prospect of a particularly juicy scandal.
Prince Korrin was outraged. "Cordona sent as its representative the channel responsible for deposing a Crown Prince of Zillia? I've long suspected the Council of Channels doesn't really want peace with Zillia, but I would never have suspected a gesture quite as blatant as this! To deliberately undermine the lawful government of our country, and then flaunt it so openly is, is..." He paused, searching for a word strong enough to describe his indignation.
"They didn't know!" Skaggit's voice was hoarse with desperation. "Shen, I didn't know, myself."
"Your Highness, there's no reason to blame the Council of Channels," Rital confirmed. "The plot to undermine the Zillian monarchy was not hatched in Cordona. Skaggit himself was a pawn, and he wasn't told whom he'd burned until a few weeks ago, long after the negotiations had started."
"How convenient for him," purred Duke Pollmar. "I suppose the Sime expects that a simple apology will atone for his transgression?" He turned to Prince Korrin. "Your Highness, there can be no forgiveness for a channel who harvests a highborn. Hajene Skaggit must be held accountable for their despicable action in the only way the tentacled understand; total destruction, of him and his band."
Korrin opened his mouth to agree. Before he could speak, his uncle touched his hand and gave a curt head shake, in a clear order to remain silent. The elder Usgant turned to face the nobleman. "What you propose is war, Duke Pollmar. I've never held that war is a decision to be made lightly, or in the first heat of anger. Hajene Skaggit has offended mightily, but Hajene Rital mentioned an additional plot to undermine the throne. Perhaps we should hear the details, before making hasty decisions."
Duke Pollmar opened his mouth to object, but Prince Dinsmuir cut him off impatiently. "As the injured party, I insist. Hajene Rital?"
Rital moved a cautious step farther away from Den, the better to make out the reactions of several members of the audience. What he zlinned was consistent with his conclusions, and so he continued. "It was a complicated conspiracy, as you might expect, and many people were involved to various degrees. Perhaps I should describe their involvement one at a time."
"As you wish," Prince Dinsmuir agreed.
Rital nodded. "Since Duke Pollmar is so interested in Hajene Skaggit's involvement, I'll describe his role first. Fifteen years ago, Hajene Skaggit's mentor Rahaul, leader of the band he now rules himself, led his band against a caravansary in Amzon. It was a daring raid, far from the villages along the Tylom River in Zillia where they usually stole their selyn. Despite being so far from home, the attack was successful. Rahaul celebrated by drinking himself into oblivion, leaving the harvest to his apprentice. When the renSimes discovered a battered, filthy young Gen in a locked shed, they thought he was a disobedient horseboy, not a kidnapping victim, and dragged him off to be harvested. The donation proved difficult, for technical reasons that aren't important right now, and Hajene Skaggit lost control and burned the Gen deeply."
"The 'horseboy' was His Highness?" Defender Foley asked.
"Yes. Prince Dinsmuir subsequently escaped his kidnappers and make his way back to Zillia. However, the nature of his injuries couldn't be hidden, and so he was disinherited."
"It seems clear enough, to me," Duke Pollmar insisted, with some urgency. "The Sime harvested the Crown Prince, the lawful heir to the throne of Zillia. That can't be forgiven, whether Hajene Skaggit knew what he was doing or not."
"There's plenty of blame to go around, without heaping it all on the one person who acted in ignorance," Rital pointed out, then continued. "I found it peculiar that Rahaul's attack was directed against a well fortified staging area for Clan caravans, instead of an isolated group of travelers. In another interesting coincidence, the assembling caravan wasn't properly guarded. The guards—and the goods of the sponsoring Clan which was to supply them—were unaccountably late. Perhaps you'd care to explain this laxness among your staff, Clanleader Jequihita?"
The corpulent Amzonian jumped, as if pricked by a pin. "It wasn't me!" he yelped, looking desperately around for support. It was obvious even the Gens didn't believe him, and so he tried again. "I mean, it must have been an oversight, chance miscommunication, unexpected delays... Very unfortunate, of course, but these things happen."
Rital shook his head, cutting off the excuses. "It wasn't a coincidence. You knew when and where Rahaul's band was going to attack, and delayed the arrival of the guards who should have defended your clients and their goods. You intended the raid to be successful. However, you also made sure that your Clan wouldn't lose any of its own merchandise."
"He what?" Guildmistress Halitono demanded. "I've long held that the Clanleaders encourage Cordonan bands to rob their clients, and leave their own trade goods alone, but this...this is treachery."
"Quite," Rital agreed. "Doubly so, because the traders were incidental victims. It wasn't a coincidence that Prince Dinsmuir's kidnappers happened to seek shelter in that unprotected camp, just as it was attacked. They fully intended for their captive to be harvested by Rahaul."
"Clanleader Jequihita plotted to dishonor Zillia's royal family?" Duke Pollmar's glare was deadly, and Alhonzo Jequihita shrank back in his chair, causing it to creak in protest. "You've offended against all decency, sir, and I demand immediate satisfaction. I'll meet you outside within five minutes, if you must set your affairs in order first, but there can be no delay beyond that. We can use pistols, if you insist, although I've always preferred the sword."
"B-b-b-but I've never fought a duel in my life!" Jequihita protested, lifting a trembling hand to ward off his challenger.
Pollmar's thin lips separated in a smile worthy of a shark. "Don't worry," he assured the Clanleader. "It won't last long enough for your inexperience to become embarrassing."
"There'll be no duel on the grounds of my Sime Center," Rital ordered. "Duke Pollmar, you must content yourself with a different revenge for the injury to Prince Dinsmuir. Clanleader Jequihita, you will, of course, repay the small traders who lost goods that night, because they trusted your security precautions? The refund of all fees paid, and perhaps five times the value of the goods endangered by your actions would be an appropriate gesture, I think."
Jequihita winced at the loss, but one glance at the still fuming Duke Pollmar convinced him Rital's suggestion was the lesser evil. He nodded with a show of eagerness, his double chins flopping. "Yes, yes, you're correct A refund is in order. As soon as I return to Amzon."
"The payments must, of course, be accompanied by a detailed and public apology," Rital continued.
"But that would ruin me!" Jequihita wailed. "Who will pay caravan fees to a Clan which fails to protect its clients?"
"The days of the caravans are over," the channel informed him. "Once a treaty is in place, the smaller traders will deal directly with the Cordonans, rather than relying on the Clans' traditional agreements with individual bands. Right, Hajene Skaggit?"
The Cordonan channel hadn't let his own danger prevent him from enjoying Jequihita's humiliation. "I envision a reasonable toll, in goods or money, will be instituted," he said. He managed to look barbaric and dangerous despite the civilized nature of his reply. "The toll would be sufficient to pay our donors, with a bit more to cover other expenses. The passes are our primary national resource, after all."
"But that would destroy the Clans' profit margin entirely!" Jequihita protested. "We already pay our drovers for any...minor inconveniences they suffer in the course of their duties. Why should we pay their donation fees, as well?"
"You won't have to pay guards any more, which will lower your expenses," Rital pointed out. "If you still can't afford to pay outside drovers along with the Cordonan toll, you can have your own Clan members move the goods. By donating themselves, they'd recover most of the new fees for your Clan."
"A Clan member submit to harvest? Personally?" Jequihita's eyes widened. "That's never been part of our bargains with the Cordonan bands."
"Then it's fortunate that you're now committed to working out a new bargain," the channel said.
"I still think shooting him would be easier," Duke Pollmar insisted. "As well as more personally satisfying."
"Personal satisfaction won't stop the fighting between Zillia and its neighbors," Rital pointed out. "Besides, Alhonzo Jequihita was acting under another's orders when he facilitated Prince Dinsmuir's disgrace. As I suspect he was tonight, when he goaded Prince Korrin into making a rash promise which threatened to remove him from the succession."
"You keep hinting about a criminal conspiracy, Hajene," Prince Korrin complained. "You haven't described its purpose, however, or named the mastermind behind it."
"It's time I did so, then," the channel agreed. "The progressive Usgants have long been a thorn in the side of the conservative Zillian nobility. Your grandfather, King Jalvint, was no exception, and his heir, Crown Prince Dinsmuir, also proved unsympathetic towards their cause. Arrangements were made to secure a hold over the heir that would force him to cooperate with the traditionalists after his coronation. Specifically, he was kidnapped and transported to the caravansary in Amzon, where he was to be harvested by Hajene Rahaul during his band's attack. I expect the event was supposed to have been photographed, to provide suitable documentation."
"There were cameras taken from several of the drovers," Skaggit confirmed. "I remember it clearly, because the quality of the equipment was so high, in contrast to their ragged clothing."
Rital nodded. "Unfortunately for the conspirators, one of the small traders gathered at the staging point was a wine merchant, and Rahaul succumbed to temptation. Skaggit, who hadn't been informed of the real reason for the raid, took over for his mentor. The harvest proceeded with disastrous results, and then Prince Dinsmuir compounded the problem by escaping his kidnappers. Instead of a useful way to control the next Zillian monarch, Alhonzo Jequihita and his friends ended up with an exiled Crown Prince. The new heir, Prince Madigan, was just as progressive as his father and brother, but it was too risky to try again."
"I should hope so!" Foley murmured. The clergyman was shocked, but not disbelieving. The channel was pleased. If the Defender had decided to reject the first part of his story outright, his task would have been more difficult.
"The conspirators took steps to hide their deeds," he continued. "I expect that the actual kidnappers didn't live for long. Rahaul, too, was murdered within weeks, by a detachment of Zillian soldiers who conveniently happened to be passing by when he arrived for a routine harvest at a village in his band's hunting territory."
"I always felt it was strange, that soldiers would go to such effort," Skaggit remarked. "Usually, they only attack bands who are raiding outside their own hunting grounds, and threatening goods as well as peasants. I'd like to get my tentacles on the man responsible for arranging it. Rahaul wasn't much of a channel, but he was my mentor. As long as he kept to his agreement with the village, he should have been left in peace."
"I have to assume Rahaul knew the identity of the head conspirator," Rital said. "If so, they'd never have let him live, even if the plot had gone as originally intended."
"This head conspirator of yours must have been a very busy man, involving three Territories in his schemes," Duke Pollmar remarked lazily. "It's quite like an old fashioned adventure novel. Who is this criminal mastermind who came so close to being the power behind the throne, by such unscrupulous means?" There was glint of predatory tension to the Zillian nobleman's nager that made Rital's intil rise in response.
"You know him quite well," the channel said. "He's you, of course."
The look of shocked astonishment on Pollmar's face was well done, but every Sime in the room knew it wasn't backed by genuine innocence. "Me? Preposterous. Everyone knows how I feel about cooperation with Simes, for any purpose."
Skaggit approached the Zillian, zlinning him openly. A cruel smile spread across his face. "You're lying, of course. Haven't you learned by now that Simes can zlin if you're telling the truth?"
It was his fellow Gens to whom Pollmar was appealing, however. "Defender Foley, surely you aren't going to accept the word of a Sime, particularly when the allegations are so harsh? It goes against all custom." A sharp glance at Protectors Kelteth and Grigiano produced an obedient chorus of agreement.
"Consider the evidence," Rital urged. "Rahaul's band had harvest arrangements with villages on Duke Pollmar's ancestral estates, along the Tylom River. Who else would he pick, when he required a Sime dupe? Also, who else would stand to benefit so much from compromising the Crown Prince of Zillia? Not only is Duke Pollmar a leading traditionalist, he's also related to the royal family. Who would have taken the crown, if Prince Korrin had been rendered ineligible?"
The Defender's face blanched. He turned to look searchingly at Pollmar, who stared back defiantly. "It's plausible," Foley agreed. "The evidence is circumstantial, however."
"It's sufficient evidence that Duke Pollmar has been extremely worried, ever since Hajene Rital told us of a conspiracy against the throne," Skaggit pointed out. "Why else would he insist on summary execution for both myself and Clanleader Jequihita, without benefit of trail or further investigation? He wanted to silence us before we could expose him."
"I don't like hearing that one of Zillia's noblest families could be so corrupted," the prelate murmured.
"Neither do I," Prince Korrin agreed. The younger prince's usual optimistic attitude was gone, and his nager showed grim purpose. "Since the rot exists, however, we must determine how far it has spread. Was this an isolated incident, or are more of the nobility involved? If so, is it just the secular nobility, or have some churchmen also misused their holy office in the service of politics?" His gaze came to rest on Protectors Kelteth and Grigiano, who froze like rabbits suddenly caught in a bright light.
"Protector Kelteth, Protector Grigiano, you both knew several weeks ago that Duke Pollmar was blackmailing Hajene Skaggit into disrupting the treaty negotiations. Don't bother to deny it. My uncle overheard Protector Kelteth telling Alhonzo Jequihita's secretary as much, before he lost his hold on the ivy."
The lean Protector's eyes blazed with sudden fury, as he realized that he'd been duped. "So it was you," he hissed. "You play the drunken fool very well, Your Former Highness."
Prince Dinsmuir chose to take this as a compliment, and bowed in acknowledgment.
"You should've been a peasant, subject to harvest by any channel, if you value your noble blood so little," the priest continued. "You're a traitor to your class."
"It is your own treason that is at issue, Protector Kelteth," Prince Korrin said coldly. "And that of your colleague, Protector Grigiano. Tell me, were you just messengers, or have you been actively involed in carrying out Duke Pollmar's attempted coup?"
The two underpriests glared at their future monarch, then Protector Kelteth appealed to Defender Foley. "Your Excellency, these accusations by the Crown are unprecedented, and they threaten the independence of the Church. A priest is subject only to ecclesiastic authority. Will you permit us to be interrogated by a secular official?" The Protector's outrage was not entirely feigned, Rital zlinned.
The Defender shook his head with ponderous dignity. "The priestly privilege of answering only to spiritual authority doesn't apply. It was intended to allow priests to speak out with confidence on moral issues, even when high ranking secular officials must be criticized. It was certainly never intended to shield a priest from the consequences of secular treason. However, if you prefer an interrogation under ecclesiastic authority, I'll oblige you. Tell us about your role in this conspiracy, in full."
"Controller Madz, would you please confirm their statements, for the benefit of those of us who can't zlin lies?" Prince Korrin ordered courteously.
"Certainly," the channel agreed.
The two priests tried very hard to look insulted at having their word doubted. However, their nagers betrayed dismay at this reminder of the Sime ability to detect prevarication. Protector Kelteth glared at the onlookers in defiance, his lips firmly closed, but the plump Protector Grigiano lacked his colleague's fortitude.
"Duke Pollmar just told us he'd found a way to make His Highness stop pursuing cooperation with Simes," the plump priest babbled, wringing his hands in distress. "We didn't know His Highness was to be tricked into letting himself be harvested. We'd never have gone along with a coup."
From the look of icy contempt Protector Kelteth directed at his compatriot, the lean priest had no such compunction. "His Highness's crown was in no danger, as long as he gave up this foolish treaty and returned to our traditional way of life. If he chose harvest instead—and calling it a donation doesn't change the essence of the deed—then it's better to have his flaws exposed before he's crowed. No noble who could commit such an abomination deserves to rule."
Defender Foley shook his head sadly. "It's not your place to determine who's worthy to wear the crown of Zillia, Protector Kelteth. Nor do you have the authority to decide for the Church on matters of doctrine. It is my task to determine the moral differences between voluntary selyn donation as the Tecton practices it, and the forced harvests of the Cordonan channels."
Foley looked at Prince Korrin, and then the Prince's uncle. Both returned his gaze steadily. "I'd thought to withhold judgment for a while, until the new Sime Centers were functioning and it could be determined how the treaty was being applied. However, it appears that in my desire to make a well informed judgment, I've been tacitly endorsing laws and traditions that have done much harm. If I hadn't procrastinated, Duke Pollmar wouldn't have come so close to winning control of a throne that isn't his by right."
This proved more insult than Duke Pollmar was willing to bear. "My blood's as pure as theirs!" he snapped, glaring at Prince Dinsmuir and his nephew. "Through my mother, I, too, am a grandson of King Blinzet Usgant, who taught the Amzonian junkers to respect the borders of Zillia, and a great-grandson of King Hafnik Usgant the Great, who drove the Simes into the mountains. I've certainly been more true to their legacy than their more favored descendants."
"Whatever its other faults, the Usgant line has never before produced a traitor," the Defender said sadly. He turned his back on the defiant Duke to address Prince Korrin. "Your Highness, I, too, have been an unwitting accomplice in Duke Pollmar's coup. I humbly beg your pardon, and ask what amends you would have me make."
"My forgiveness is yours for the asking, Defender," Prince Korrin said gravely. "No one can blame you for wanting to be sure, before altering a tradition so central to the Church. If you feel a penance is necessary, I would welcome your advice and support in forging an equitable treaty with our neighbors."
"I fear that Zillia has set a poor example for our potential allies, tonight," Prince Dinsmuir added. "Let's hope that they'll be willing to trust our intentions, after learning what a Zillian royal duke considered acceptable behavior."
"Such arrogance is always a danger, when the wealthy and powerful are exempt from the dangers that others must face," Guildmistress Halitono pointed out. "We of Amzon have fostered a similar attitude, and with results that are just as unfortunate." Her eyes rested on Alhonzo Jequihita, who looked distinctly unwell. "What can be done about it is another question, particularly when we are all so far from home."
"If I might make a suggestion?" Rital asked. "Duke Pollmar's actions were reprehensibe, as were those of his accomplices, to whatever degree. However, the prejudices that motivated them are common, in your three Territories. Some who hold them are in position to do considerable mischief, if they feel the treaty was made without due consideration of their interests."
The channel zlinned Duke Pollmar, Alhonzo Jequihita, Skaggit, and the two Fathers as he continued. "Let them continue speak for those who share their preferences, but with the understanding that a binding agreement will be reached, and a lasting peace formed between your three Territories. To gain their cooperation, I suggest an offer of clemency might be appropriate, contingent on their helpfulness as the details of the agreement are discussed."
Alhonzo Jequihita's nager flared with sudden hope, as did Protector Grigiano's. Protector Kelteth was consumed with hate as he looked at Rital, but Duke Pollmar was more of a realist.
"It's a generous offer, Controller Madz," the Zillian nobleman conceded. "We accept it gladly, and will give our full cooperation in drafting the treaty." He bowed deeply to Rital, in a gesture of submission.
Protector Kelteth opened his mouth to object, obviously upset by this capitulation in the face of moral principles. Pollmar silenced the priest with a glare. Rital wondered absently what hold Duke Pollmar still had over the leaner clergyman.
Prince Korrin was indignant that the evildoers were to escape punishment for high treason. However, before he could voice his opposition, his uncle nudged him to silence.
"Duke Pollmar, I find the Controller's solution acceptable," Prince Dinsmuir said. "As the most severely injured of your victims, I'm willing to forgo the pleasure of watching your execution, in exchange for your support of the treaty. You and your allies will suffer enough, once your deeds are known."
Alhonzo Jequihita's eyes widened. "B-b-but surely it is not necessary to publish the whole story far and wide?" he ventured timidly.
"Don't press your luck, Clanleader," Prince Korrin snapped. "Your side has lost, and you must adapt to the new reality."
"It isn't only the Clans and the reactionary Zillian nobility who'll have to adapt and compromise, Your Highness," Rital warned. "Your father has actively prosecuted Zillia's feud with Amzon over the Ancient ruins between your two Territories. If any lasting peace is to be formed, he'll have to accept sharing that resource with Amzon."
"What?!" The young Zillian heir jaw dropped in outraged astonishment. "Our people have mined those ruins for generations, except when Amzon took them by force of arms. Why should we give them up?"
"It was you who took them away from us by force of arms," an equally indignant Guildmistress Halitono objected. "Our people will never accept Zillian occupation of land that was ours long before King Blinzet attacked our peaceful miners."
"If we're awarding possession of the ruins on the basis of prior occupancy, I think Cordona has the best claim," Skaggit pointed out dryly. "After all, there were Simes living in the ruins long before either of your Territories thought to lay claim to them. The only mining then was being done by an occasional desperate, half mad—and short lived—junker."
Prince and Guildmistress turned on the Cordonan channel, their nagers and voices blending in an outpouring of denial. Rital decided it was time to intervene.
"Did you think that only others would have to give something up for peace?" he demanded. "Any treaty fair enough to succeed will demand sacrifices from everyone. Neither Zillia nor Amzon has been able to exploit the ruins, because of the constant fighting. What's really best for your respective Territories; sole ownership of an expensive liability, or half of a profitable enterprise?"
Prince Korrin's jaw continued to jut forward in stubborn defiance, but Guildmistress Halitono looked suddenly thoughtful. The Tecton channel immediately pressed his advantage.
"The changes that come with peace will affect all of you. Your towns will have Sime Centers in them, Guildmistress Halitono. If the Cordonans give up their right to raid for selyn, you and your fellow Guild members will have to accept the obligation to support them with donations. Prince Korrin, Duke Pollmar's right that the treaty undermines the traditional authority of the Zillian nobility. That will decrease your own power as well, when you come to the throne. Even Defender Foley's authority will wane, when his priests can't turn the Church's critics over to the Cordonan channels for harvest."
Foley winced at this accusation, but couldn't, in good conscience, deny it.
"None of you are completely innocent victims of the mess your Territories are in, and all of you have a choice," the Tecton channel continued. "You can work together, make the hard compromises, and find a way to live together. Or you can have your reasons for refusing to do so submitted to very public scrutiny, both here and in your home lands."
Skaggit tried to muffle a chuckle, then gave up and laughed heartily, his nager ringing with true enjoyment. "Hajene," he said, bowing formally to Rital, "I humbly beg your pardon for ever considering you to be an overly civilized Tecton coward. Your solution is worthy of the most barbaric Cordonan Sime. My congratulations."
He appropriated a half empty glass of brandy from the nearest table, and lifted it high in salute. "I'd like to propose a toast," he said, looking around the room. "May the treaty we create together be so revolutionary in its thinking, and so fair in its execution, that no one will think to ask exactly how it came to be!"
Read Chapter 18
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