Mary Lou Mendum

Chapter 18

Perplexing Enigma

Very early the next morning, Rital awoke from a blessedly nightmare free four hours of sleep. The nagging dissatisfaction that had plagued him throughout the previous month was gone, washed away by Den's abundant selyn. For the moment, at least, his predatory instincts were quiescent; the beast slept contentedly in its stall.

The channel wasn't so naive as to believe that it would remain quietly there forever. The Tecton had a shortage of First Order Donors, and that meant occasional shorting which would trigger his fear of attrition, and arouse his darker self. However, Rital was no longer so afraid that his beast would gain the upper hand and cause him to injure a Gen. After his success with Prince Dinsmuir, he was confident that he could maintain control of himself, at least long enough to escape a dangerous situation before any serious damage was done.

He stretched with the luxurious ease of a cat, then slipped out of bed, reaching for the comfortably worn robe which was tossed across its foot. As he padded around the room, laying out a fresh uniform, he was even able to see the advantage of having a tame beast. Skaggit's channeling abilities might be crude by Tecton standards, but properly used, the ability to harness the Sime predatory urge to increase sensitivity during a difficult functional had possibilities.

Rital frowned, and paused in the middle of buttoning his shirt. He could also zlin some potential difficulties to adding the Cordonan technique to the Tecton's standard repertoire. To use the beast, he'd had to suppress his anti-kill conditioning. Only his naked will, backed by his channeling skill, had kept him from injuring Prince Dinsmuir badly, or even fatally. If his determination had faltered, even for a fraction of a second, the outcome could have been very different.

Channels being human, determination would never be as dependable for the Tecton as properly functioning anti-kill conditioning was. It wasn't only the risk that an improperly harnessed beast might kick over the traces and break free of the channel's control, either. What would a frank acknowledgment that all Simes, even Tecton channels, had the capacity to desire Gen pain and fear do to the future of Sime/Gen relations?

The professional Donors might simply shrug it off, as Den had done. After all, they had the comfort of knowing how to shen an attacking channel with minimal risk to themselves. Also, they had few illusions about what need did to a Sime. Minimal risk wasn't no risk, of course, and being able to survive transfer was no protection against other abuses, as Toljee had discovered. However, of all Gens, the Donors were least vulnerable to the dark side of Sime nature.

In-Territory Gens were routinely taught how to avoid provoking a Sime attack. Depending on their confidence in their abilities, some might accept the information that channels could be tempted, albeit with misgivings. On the other hand, if they knew the truth, how many would choose to live in-Territory and support their Sime neighbors with donations? In-Territory Gens were also far more likely to become Donors than their out-Territory cousins. How many of them would dedicate their lives to feeding monsters who enjoyed their pain? The Tecton used its steadiest channels to train new Donors, at least until they were comfortable giving transfer. If the trainees knew that even their teachers had a beast, Rital feared few would complete their training.

Worse yet, how would the out-Territory Gens respond, if the Tecton admitted its channels had the same instinct to attack Gens as any Sime? And that at least one Tecton channel had allowed those instincts free rein while in full lateral contact with an untrained Gen? The Tecton had never even openly admitted to the out-Territory government that its channels routinely took donations while in need, and for good reason. How many of the Gens who'd volunteered to donate after reading Wilda Orsen's column would have done so, if they'd known every cell in Rital's body was aching for their selyn?

No, the out-Territory Gens were better off not knowing, and so the Cordonan technique would have to remain a foreign oddity. Rital would report Skaggit's unconventional approach to Bethany's case in detail, and let his superiors make what they would of it. Fortunately, the ambient had been too cluttered for Nerina to have zlined exactly how Rital took Prince Dinsmuir's donation. Skaggit, who'd been closer, had nothing but contempt for the Tecton's tendency to "coddle" Gens. He wouldn't view Rital's use of a common Cordonan technique as noteworthy. Rital's superiors didn't have to know that he'd deliberately suppressed his anti-kill conditioning. Who would suspect, after all, that a Tecton channel with an unstained record would unleash his predatory instinct, risking a public kill in front of an audience of high ranking Gen diplomats? The very idea was ridiculous, and its truth didn’t make it less so.

Now that the treaty’s most determined opponents had been cowed, the diplomats who’d witnessed the incident should soon settle their differences and return to their own continent. With luck, they’d be out of reach long before the Regional offices in Valzor got around to reading Rital’s monthly report. The channel didn’t think the Tecton authorities would inquire too closely into how an agreement was reached, so long as it contained no unacceptable compromises to the Tecton’s interests.


With an eye towards hurrying the process along, Rital dropped by the library a few hours later to check on the diplomats' progress. He discovered they'd taken the unprecedented step of agreeing, in principle, to settle their differences. In the absence of blatant obstructionism from Skaggit, Alhonzo Jequihita and Duke Pollmar, they'd even reached a tentative agreement on two issues that had previously seemed unsolvable. The Cordonans would charge a reasonable toll from travelers and traders using the mountain passes, although there was a notable difference of opinion as to what sort of toll was "reasonable". Also, the Zillian nobility would not have the right to accept or refuse placement of Sime Centers in the villages and towns their fiefdoms. It was yet to be determined, however, whether that right would rest with the Zillian government (Prince Korrin's preferred solution), or with the Church of the Aggregate, as the traditional arbitrator between Zillian citizens and the Cordonan channels (advocated by Defender Foley). Skaggit, of course, believed the Cordonan channels were the best judges of how many Sime Centers would be required, and where they should be placed. Guildmistress Halitono's diffident suggestion that a panel of neutral Tecton experts make the politically volatile decisions on the basis of practical logistics was rejected out of hand.

Rital was also less than pleased to discover that some of the delegates were searching for new complaints to replace their worn, comfortable quarrels.

"It's all very well for Hajene Skaggit to say that the Cordonan channels will change their ways," Defender Foley objected. The Cordonan channel had just finished a long and impassioned oration on why the details of selyn management must stay in the experienced tentacles of channels, and not be left to the fumblings of Gen amateurs. "However, what's to keep them from sliding back into their old ways, when no one is watching? A peasant or traveler here or there, ambushed at night, with no chance to identify the perpetrator..." The prelate shrugged. "How can we ensure Hajene Skaggit and his colleagues don't give in to temptation?"

Skaggit scowled ferociously at the Zillian. "You dare to question a channel's honor?" he demanded.

The elderly Gen refused to back down. "Historically, Cordonan channels have often changed the terms of their 'agreements' with Gens, often with no warning whatsoever. Don't bother to deny it. As Hajene Madz pointed out last night, it's my priests who've acted as liaisons between your marauders and our congregations. In addition, we saw evidence last night that you, personally, can be blackmailed. I'm not so naive as to think your people will suddenly lose interest in your sport of tormenting Gens, just because you sign a treaty in their names."

"It's not a sport," Skaggit stated, looking at the pontiff with contempt. "Without regular exposure to Gen fear and pain, our disjuncts will suffer, and our juncts will die within the year. Unpleasantly. That includes my trusted assistant, Pollit, " All eyes went to the impassive renSime who stood so quietly behind his master's chair between two bodyguards, then looked quickly away as the Cordonan continued. "That's not speculation—it's a certainty. We've agreed to murder some of our own citizens to reach an agreement with you. Are you going to reject our offer because of petty, hypothetical concerns that one of your people might be frightened at some unspecified future date?"

Defender Foley shook his head. "You've just given me even more reason to be wary. The temptation will be very great for your channels to decide that the life of a trusted friend must be preserved, even if that means abusing a stranger. I repeat, who'll ensure that you and your colleagues stick to the terms, and the spirit, of your agreement?"

Skaggit's handling tentacles lashed in anger. Before he could reply, Toljee stepped forward from his own observation post against the back wall. "I could keep Hajene Skaggit from breaking the treaty," he offered shyly. "With a bit of training, my colleagues could do the same with their own channels."

Rital couldn't zlin who was more surprised, the Defender or Skaggit.

"I've learned a lot from Sosu Den," the young Donor continued. "Including how to use my nager to overpower a Sime who's becoming violent. I'm not sure I could do it without hurting the Sime, yet. But that threat will only help convince the Cordonan channels to avoid temptation."

As the Tecton channel considered Toljee's offer, he decided that it had much to recommend it, at least with respect to the success of the treaty. Whether it was a good thing for the Gen himself was another matter entirely.

Toljee turned to Skaggit. "There'd be conditions, of course. I'd have to have free access to other Donors; not only yours, but those of the other channels, as well. There must be no more enforced seclusion."

"But if you don't keep seclusion, what's to prevent some other channel from stealing you from me?" the Cordonan channel protested.

"I'm quite capable of defending myself from another channel's attentions," Toljee asserted. He smiled slyly. "That is, if I choose not to enjoy them instead. There's no reason why we Gens shouldn't help choose which channels we serve."

"And what happens to your grand scheme to safeguard the treaty, when all the Donors have moved in with the channel who promises them the prettiest baubles and the most lavish compliments?" Skaggit's voice was a strange mixture of indulgence, amusement, and contempt, much like a parent responding to a precocious child's intrusion into adult affairs.

Toljee's nager rang with the sting of adolescent humiliation, but he kept his voice level as he replied. "I think before that happened, the other channels would learn to provide an occasional compliment or bauble of their own," he asserted confidently. "Don't you?"

Skaggit scowled ferociously. "You expect us to grovel before you, begging your indulgence for our very lives?" He shook his head. "We're Simes, not lapdogs. Better to die of attrition, than live at the whim of Gens."

"No one would ask that of you," Rital assured the irate Cordonan, before the situation could deteriorate into an unproductive shouting match. There'd been more than enough of that, over the past month.

"It's simply a matter of being the sort of channel a Donor enjoys being with," he continued. "It isn't particularly difficult. Gens with Donor potential have a strong instinct to care for channels. As long as you don't actively discourage that, you won't die of attrition."

"You expect Cordonan channels to lower our dignity, and grovel for our right to survive? For access to Gens we bought fairly, and must feed and house whether or not they condescend to be of use?" Skaggit tossed his head in scorn. "That would never be acceptable to the Council of Channels."

"Those channels unwilling to accomodate their Donors may well change their minds, after living on channel's transfer for a few months," Rital said. "Gen transfer is worth a lot to a channel, as you know. Why else have you been trying so desperately to persuade me to return Toljee to you?"

"He's mine," Skaggit answered, with a dismissive gesture of one handling tentacle. "I paid Hajene Radda six months of hunting rights to one of my best villages for him. It took firm measures to force my other villages to accept their increased quotas. We had to burn three fields of oats, and beat up two village headmen and a priest as examples. It was almost a year before we could lower our guard again, in our own hunting grounds. Toljee cost my band dearly. You had no right to steal him."

Toljee looked at Skaggit in amazement, and his hitherto rebellious nager softened and warmed. "I didn't know Radda set my price so high," he said softly. "You must have wanted me a great deal, to pay it."

The Cordonan channel looked at the young Gen evenly, but his nager strained to reach out and mesh with the comfort Toljee offered. "I always insist on having the best quality," he asserted shortly. "You know that."

Toljee seemed to think this was a compliment, and Rital shook his head in disbelief. "You've got to stop thinking of Gens as property, both of you," he insisted. "Even with the Tecton's help, Cordona will have to supply the bulk of the channels for the new Sime Centers in Amzon and Zillia. That will require a level of cooperation between bands far in advance of your Council of Channels and their twice-yearly meetings. The days of Cordonan channels working independently, with a personal harem of Donors, will soon be gone forever."

It should not have surprised Rital that neither Skaggit nor Toljee believed him. Before he could elaborate on the point, Alhonzo Jequihita interrupted with a complaint that the Clans were being asked to shoulder more than their share of the financial burden. The other Clans, he insisted, were not being given due consideration even though they were blameless of his personal failings. Guildmistress Halitono hotly disputed both points, calling the arrangement more than fair, and accusing the Clans as a whole of exploiting her craft workers for generations.

The discussion degenerated from there, and Rital left in disgust.


Instead of going directly back to his office, the channel stopped by the cafeteria for a composing cup of tea. He wasn't in the mood for socializing, so he took the steaming cup with him instead of choosing a table. The alcove down the hall, in which the two Protectors had plotted with Jequihita's secretary, today provided a quiet refuge from which to look out over the garden.

The previous night's storm had passed, leaving the outside world clean, fresh, and liberally sprinkled with puddles. Rital much preferred honest mud, made of clean earth and rain water, to the less tangible morass in the library. Alyce was hard at work, walking the grounds to determine what damage had been done by the wind. The trees were still bare, of course, but here and there, tucked under the bushes amid the dried husks of last year’s leaves, the first crocus and snowdrops showed brave splashes of purple and white, giving promise of spring to come.

Alyce wasn't the only one out and about. As the channel watched, a Gen in a brilliantly colored coat emerged from the Center's back door and looked around in awed wonder. Intrigued by this almost childlike response, Rital eased open the window. Without the insulation provided by the leaded glass, he recognized the much reduced, but still fragmented, nager of Prince Dinsmuir.

The Gen took a few steps away from the door, then hesitated. His field was a jumbled mess of hope, determination, shame, and a bone wrenching fear that prodded Rital's somnolent beast to lift its head and yawn, before it resumed its interrupted nap. For a moment, the channel thought that the Zillian would give up his self-appointed challenge and return to the building. However, that would have been too sensible for a diplomat, particularly not one whose stubbornness was noteworthy even among that mule-headed breed. Instead of turning back, the Gen flared courage, squared his shoulders, and began marching at a steady pace down a brick path.

If Prince Dinsmuir had expected his trial by fire to magically cure his psychological damage, he was going to be disappointed, the channel observed. The Gen proceeded down the exact center of the path, and started at every rustle in the bushes. As might be expected, he wasn't deriving much enjoyment from his bucolic surroundings.

Unfortunately, the path the Prince had chosen would lead him by a roundabout way towards Alyce. The renSime was pre-turnover, but Rital still didn't want her exposed to the Zillian Gen's reaction, if he found himself suddenly confronted with a strange Sime in the garden. The channel left his tea in the alcove and slipped hastily down the stairs, then out the back door. Choosing a different path than his quarry had selected, he circled around in front of the Gen. Whistling loudly (albeit tunelessly) to announce his presence, he stepped out onto a small patch of lawn just as Prince Dinsmuir entered it from the other side.

"Good morning, Your Highness!" he called to the Gen cheerfully, from a safe distance. "Isn't it a beautiful day?"

Several minor fragments of the Zillian's splintered nager flared alarm at the interruption, but that faded as he recognized Rital. "I've never seen a more hopeful one, Hajene," he agreed, with ill-concealed relief. The Gen herding instinct drove him to close the distance between them. Apparently, Sime or not, his phobia ranked Rital as less dangerous than the imagined dangers which might hide in the bushes.

"Look, the first flowers are blooming." Prince Dinsmuir extended his right arm, to show the small bouquet of crocus he had picked. As he did so, the channel zlinned a nagging discomfort in wrist and shoulder. The cause wasn't hard to deduce.

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I don't usually bruise donors. I should have healed you before I let you go. Would you like me to take care of it now?" He daringly extended a handling tentacle and rested it lightly on a spot of purple that just peeked from under the Prince's shirt cuff.

The Gen stood his ground for perhaps half a second, then took an involuntary step backwards. The individual fragments of his nager were less distinct, now that he was low field, but Rital had no trouble zlinning alarm, shame, and just a hint of longing for something unattainable. "I really do appreciate the offer, Hajene," he said, in a tone as contrite as Rital's. "I know you mean well. However, I don't think I'm ready to try that. At least, not yet."

"Last night may make it more difficult to overcome the trauma of being burned," Rital warned.

"At least I know I can face my fear of donating, if I absolutely have to," Dinsmuir said, still apologetic. "Before, I wasn't sure, and I had no intention of finding out, either. I think next time it might be wise to find one of your specialists, though."

The channel was relieved at this display of common sense, even as his professional pride was stung. It was humbling to be presented with proof that his best efforts had been so inadequate that even this out-Territory nondonor had noticed.

"It's not that you caused me any unnecessary distress or discomfort," the Zillian said, in a display of that uncanny ability Gens had, of guessing a Sime's feelings without zlinning them. "But I expect it was at least as traumatic for you as for me, and I've already imposed on you far too much. Believe me, I'd never have asked you—no, forced you—to take my donation, if the throne of Zillia hadn't been at stake. That you agreed, even under duress, says much for your integrity. Zillia owes you a debt of honor."

"That's not necessary," the channel assured Prince Dinsmuir hastily. The last thing Rital wanted was to entangle himself even deeper in the Byzantine politics of Amzon, Zillia, and Cordona. After learning why Skaggit had treated Bethany, and hearing Duke Pollmar challenge his accomplices to duels, he was especially wary of honor debts, and the obligations they imposed.

"I'm a Tecton channel," he elaborated. "Taking donations is my job, even when it's difficult. Zillia owes me nothing."

The Zillian prince smiled. "We both know last night was more than routine performance of your duties," he chided the channel gently. "I speak for my brother and nephew, as well as for myself; if there is ever any service that the Usgants can provide, you have only to ask, and it will be yours."

Rital decided it was time to concede graciously. "That's extraordinarily generous," he allowed.

"So were you, last night," Dinsmuir repeated. "I trust you suffered no ill effects, with respect to your own transfer? I would hate to think that..."

The Gen broke off in the middle of his sentence. "Is something wrong, Hajene?"

Rital realized that his jaw was hanging open with shock, and closed it with a snap. "You knew I was in hard need last night?" he demanded.

A frission of alarm flickered through the lesser fragments of Dinsmuir's nager. It wasn't clear to zlin whether it was a response to the mention of need, or a reaction to the sharpness of the channel's query.

"Why, yes, I knew," the Gen admitted. "Young Toljee told me during the banquet. He was jealous that Sosu Den would give you transfer instead of himself. Between the two of us, I don't think he was quite as confident that he could serve you as he was trying to sound. He explained some problem with your last transfer that he'd heard about, and how it made this transfer more challenging for whichever Donor you selected. I couldn't understand the technical details, but he was quite sure that you'd be taking transfer directly after the banquet."

Rital frowned, making a mental note to review medical confidentiality with Toljee. Few out-Territory Gens knew enough Sime physiology to recognize such symptoms as swollen ronaplin glands, but they all knew how to count days. The channel didn't want to face a waiting room full of Gens who were apprehensive about his control, at the very time of the month when it was weakest.

"The boy meant no harm," Prince Dinsmuir assured him. "He's been lonely, I think. He spent a good ten minutes telling me how need affects a channel's personality, sensitivity, and control. He apparently misses your practice sessions, and looks forward to working with you again, when you're better able to cope with an apprentice's mistakes."

The channel shook his head in wonder. "Knowing that, you still asked me to take your field down? I'd have expected you to choose Nerina. She had transfer a few days ago, and is therefore at the most stable point in her cycle."

"It was an imposition to ask you instead, I know," the Zillian prince confessed, "and all the more so because it was deliberate. I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive my selfishness. However, I'm not sure I could have let Nerina take selyn from me."

"She's more capable than me, especially when it comes to handling something that exotic," Rital admitted. "I've no specialized training in that area. Nerina could probably have managed with less preliminary fumbling. She'd certainly have avoided many of my mistakes, or at least dampened the imbalances before you felt them."

"That...wasn't pleasant at all," Dinsmuir agreed, shuddering at the memory.

The channel edged back half a step in response. He'd already lived through the Gen's experience once, and expected to have nightmares about it after turnover. Reliving the emotions now would only reinforce the memory.

"You were quite right, you know," the Zillian prince continued, after a moment. "I wasn't at all ready to attempt a donation. Not even the gentle sort of donation the Tecton offers, and I'd have died of heart failure if Hajene Skaggit had attempted a Cordonan style one. Even with all your care, in some ways it was worse than what happened to me fifteen years ago."

"Of course it was," Rital agreed. "Then, Skaggit grabbed and burned you so quickly that you had no time to anticipate. Last night, you had all the time in the world to experience fully something you've spent fifteen years dreading."

"The only thing that let me do it at all, even to save my nephew's crown and my family's honor, was my trust in you."

"I know. I zlinned it." The channel shook his head. "To be honest, I'm not sure that your trust in me was justified. I should have refused to try such a stunt at all, especially after I zlinned just how bad your scarring really is. Between ignorance and need, I could easily have burned you again."

"And yet, I'm unharmed." One side of Prince Dinsmuir's mouth lifted in an ironic smile.

"We were both very, very lucky."

"It wasn't luck," the Gen contradicted. "Or at least, not only luck. You told me my courage was dangerous in Sime Territory, because while I'm used to facing my fears, the Simes I'd encounter might not be. I've seen enough of you to know you have fears of your own. However, you also have courage enough to face your demons—and mine—and function in spite of them."

"As a Sime, I find it hard to trust anyone's courage. Not when I can zlin the fear beneath it."

"Well, it's true enough that a man's courage can break, under stress," Prince Dinsmuir admitted. "Still, I didn't think yours would fail."

The channel shook his head in exasperation. "You've known me for only a month. We've spoken perhaps half a dozen times during that period. How could you be so confident in me? Confident enough to risk being burned again if you were wrong?"

The Gen smiled again, more easily this time. "As to that, courage is only as strong as the motivation behind it. I saw you rescue young Toljee from Skaggit's abuse, Hajene. You showed no hesitation, no uncertainty, no nuanced consideration of the diplomatic repercussions. He was being harmed, and so you interposed yourself between him and his attacker."

"I acted on impulse," Rital admitted.

"I didn't think you'd be less dedicated to my own welfare. Hajene Nerina, on the other hand, is far too accommodating of Skaggit's moods. She might have more technical skill, but she seems less inclined to risk herself on my behalf, at least to my eyes. It's a matter of motivation, as I said. In my eyes, your courage and dedication was more reassuring than any difference in skill."

"That's not much to go on, when you're risking your life if you're wrong," Rital pointed out.

"Tecton channels aren't the only people pledged to die rather than betray the trust of those they serve," Prince Dinsmuir said quietly. "I gave my life to Zillia long before I was kidnapped. If it had been necessary to save my nephew from his folly, I'd have asked Skaggit to harvest me, even knowing that he might kill me. It's not so different from what is expected of a soldier, who must go into battle despite the risk of death."

Rital shook his head in disbelief. "I don't care how much courage you have. You're still human, and Skaggit simply doesn't have the skill to work around your scars, even in the inadequate fashion that I did. You'd have been fighting him as hard as you could, from the first moment of selyn flow."

"So I would," the Gen agreed. "Fortunately, Cordonan channels don't require cooperation from the Gens they harvest. Skaggit would have ignored any resistance."

"He'd have burned you badly, or even killed you."

"Either way, my nephew Korrin would keep his crown." Prince Dinsmuir's voice showed a calm acceptance that humbled Rital. "On a personal level, of course, I'm very glad it wasn't necessary for me to suffer quite that much. Even soldiers prefer surviving, to tell of their adventures, to dying heroically in battle."

"To be honest, I don't think many channels would recognize that kind of heroism as a virtue," Rital admitted. "We prefer Gens who are quiet and predictable; they're easier to handle. Even Skaggit only seeks out rebellious Gens when his juncts require the stimulation. Or so he says, although he enjoys his 'hunts' far more than any civilized individual should. Most of his band's selyn is collected peacefully, by prearranged extortion."

The Zillian laughed. "Being a farmer is always easier than hunting for a living. Simes may be predators at heart, but they're also people. People can respond with intelligence as well as blind instinct, when they care to take the trouble. That's the key that makes peace a possibility."

Rital zlinned the Gen as deeply as he could, but could detect no equivocation. Prince Dinsmuir, despite the abuse he'd suffered, believed the Sime beast could be tamed. It was incomprehensible.

"You look surprised," Dinsmuir noted.

"I'm not used to hearing Gens who aren't professional Donors dismiss the Sime predatory instinct so calmly," the channel admitted.

"Why not?" the Zillian asked. "We Gens have the same killer instinct, after all. It's just a little less obvious, because it isn't invoked on quite so regular a schedule. It's just the less admirable part of being human...except when it suddenly becomes useful, and brings out the best in us."

Rital was still mulling over Prince Dinsmuir's contradictory views as he escorted the Gen back inside, by paths which remained a safe distance away from Alyce.

The were met outside the library door by a relieved Vasthan. "Thank goodness I've found you so quickly, Your Highness," he told the former Zillian heir. "They're discussing whether imprisoned criminals should be used as donors, if sufficient volunteers don't materialize. Protector Kelteth's needling your royal nephew, and it's beginning to get to him."

Rital winced at this fresh evidence that the diplomats continued to argue over trivia. Why had he ever thought he could blackmail them into behaving in an adult fashion, and discussing their differences in a straightforward and honest fashion?

Prince Dinsmuir raised an eyebrow, but his nager betrayed no surprise. "I'd better see to him, then. Thank you, Sosu."

When the older Gen had gone, Vasthan turned to Rital with a broad grin on his face. "We required a miracle to salvage the treaty, and last night you gave us one, Hajene. I can't believe the difference in the delegates' attitudes, today."

The channel zlinned the young Donor with disbelief, but the Gen seemed completely sincere. "What difference?" he asked. "They're still arguing over trivia with the enthusiasm of four year olds trying to convince a teacher someone else started the fist fight."

Vasthan chuckled. "I suppose it does look like that, from a non-diplomat's perspective."

"You mean it doesn't, from yours?"

"Well, yes, but that's the nature of diplomacy. The difference today is that they've actually reached a final settlement on three issues. Minor ones, to be sure, but the framework for a final agreement is taking shape."

"I'll take your word on it," Rital said. "I'd never make a diplomat, though. I don't have the patience."

"It does take a lot of discussion to accomplish anything," the Donor agreed. "It's still faster than a war, though. Less wasteful, too."

The channel could only agree.

"Hajene, there's a favor I've been meaning to ask of you." Vasthan's nager gained a puppylike, hopeful glint that made him zlin his age; all eighteen natal years of it.

"What is it?" Rital asked. "I'd be glad to help you out, if I can."

The channel was expecting a reasonable request. A chance to get away from the diplomats and work in the Collectorium or infirmary for a few days, perhaps. Or, given the young Donor's obvious ambitions in the Diplomatic Corps, a more detailed account of Duke Pollmar's plot.

This was not a day for reasonable Gen behavior, however, for instead Vasthan asked, "If I'm still in Clear Springs four weeks from now, I'd like to try Qualifying First again. With you."

Rital's eyes widened. "After what happened last time?"

He couldn't imagine any Gen, even a Donor, caring to repeat that experience. There were plenty of Tecton channels whose anti-kill conditioning engaged properly when disaster struck. If he hadn't been able to force the abort anyway, Vasthan would have been seriously burned before he thought to react. If the Gen had failed to recognize the situation for what it was, and apply strong measures, he could have been killed.

Genlike, however, Vasthan appeared willing to ignore unpleasant realities. "That was my fault, I know," he said, blushing. "I couldn't get my TN-1 barrier down far enough. I've been practicing hard, though, and Nerina says I'm doing much better. I'll understand if you don't want anything to do with me, after I hurt you so badly. Still, any Qualification forms a connection between channel and Donor, beyond that which links the whole Tecton. I'd be very honored to share that bond with a channel of your integrity."

The channel couldn't cope with this fresh example of Gen illogic. How could the Tecton possibly safeguard Gens from the baser Sime instincts, when the Gens persisted in running headlong into danger? Was there something inherently suicidal built into Gen nature, or had Ref somehow accidentally poisoned the lunchtime soup?

Vasthan was waiting for an answer, the puppylike hopefulness still evident. Rital couldn't refuse the young Donor's request outright.

"Look, a great deal can happen, in a month's time," he said, edging away from the Gen. "We can't even be sure that you'll still be in Clear Springs, if the diplomatic efforts are going as well as you say. I'll take your request into account when I make up the schedule this month, but that's all. Not that any schedule has remained intact for long, since the epidemic started."

Rital zlinning Vasthan's growing confusion, and realized he was babbling.

"I'll get back to you in a few days," he promised. Then he fled for the safety of his office, before he made the situation worse.

 Read Chapter 19


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