A Companion's Duty
You are about to read one of the finest bits of writing we have been honored to publish among the Sime~Gen fan fiction offerings. But you should be aware of three things about this story before you decide to read it.

a) It lacks the broad-based introduction to the Sime~Gen background found in the professionally published novels and in several of the novels posted for free reading, notably Aldrea Alton's Icy Nager, Belling the Cat, Partners and Kerry Lindemann-Schaefer's The Only Good Sime. So this piece does not make a good one to read as your very first Sime~Gen novel.

b) It is an alternate-universe novel which splits off from the professionally published background in the year circa -409 (about 100 years after Rimon Farris) which you can see in the official chronology. This marks the year when a new and distinctively different mutation appeared among the Farrises. It can be assumed that other sub-mutations in this alternate universe are likewise slightly different.

c) This novel contains tasteful but explicit gay sex scenes that are not pornographic, but integral to the plot.

A Companion's Duty
By M. Alexis Pakulak

        “They're sending us a Farris!”

        Kira, who had been filling out a changeover report at the other desk in the Sectuib's office, winced as Kelidan's startled nager spiked through the room. “They're what?”

        After his initial surprise, Kelidan had quickly schooled his emotions back to calmness, mindful of Kira's approaching need. He dropped the cover letter onto the thick package of documents it had accompanied, where it rested in a warm puddle of midsummer sunlight amidst the clutter of the large desk. “They're sending us a Farris channel,” he repeated. He picked up the letter and passed it to Kira, then began scanning the accompanying technical reports.

        “Are they sending us another Companion, too?” asked Kira, taking the letter between two tentacles and scanning it quickly. “We don't have anyone who's Farris-trained.”

        “Actually, we do,” admitted Kelidan distractedly as he found the page he was looking for and studied it closely. “I trained at Zeor, my First Year. Twice I even gave transfer to Klyd Farris himself.”

        Kira stared at Willow's First Companion in awe. “I never knew that about you, Kel.”

        Kelidan shrugged. “That was twelve years ago,” he said. “I haven't worked with a Farris in almost a decade. I'm rusty. This channel they're sending us is nothing like Klyd,” he continued, staring at columns of numbers. “He's merely average, for a Farris.”

        “For a Farris,” Kira snorted.

        Ignoring the sarcasm, Kelidan began leafing through the rest of the Farris' file. “I sent out a copy of my own records, as well as those of our other Companions, when I sent the request. And on paper, I'm not a bad match for him. My speed should be adequate for him, barely. My capacity is a bit low, but should stretch to reach him. I could have handled him easily, when I was your age. Now, I'm simply going to have to work myself back into shape. It's a long time since I've dealt with Farris pathologies, but I'm sure that part will all come back as soon as it's required.” He projected as much confidence as he could into his nager. “This package contains a couple of recent handbooks on working with Farrises. I'll study up, and by the time he gets here, I'll be ready for him.”

“When does he arrive?” asked Kira, who had been pinch-hitting as Willow's Controller, and would be responsible for integrating this new channel into the schedule.

        “A couple of weeks,” said Kelidan, gathering up the rest of the file and passing it across to Kira's waiting tentacles. “Can we hold out that much longer?”

        “We'll have to,” said Kira simply. Instead of studying the file, she looked back at Kelidan. “Can one channel, even a Farris, really make up for the two we've lost? There are only so many hours in a day.”

        “You'd be amazed what a Farris can do,” said Kelidan, filling his nager with all the calm and confidence he could muster. “And we're very lucky, you know. On paper, we don't even require one replacement channel, let alone two. Willow is such a small Householding, if you go by the official records. That they're sending us anybody is amazing. That they're sending a Farris has to be some kind of miracle.”

        “I don't trust miracles,” said Kira. “Why are they sending a Farris to such a godforsaken little mountain town?”

        “I expect it's politics,” replied Kelidan. He stood and came around behind Kira, to where he could point out details on the papers she had begun spreading across her desk. “See, he was one of the first to be Rialite-trained. But instead of going back to Zeor, or settling in at any other single Householding, he's been traveling around ever since. He's still pledged to Zeor. He's never spent more than six months in any one place, except for the two years he was in Nivet's Capital. That's the movement pattern of a career diplomat, or a troubleshooter.”

        Kira frowned. “I don't understand Nivet's Tecton, or its politics.”

        Kelidan snorted a laugh. “Be glad you've never had to.”

        “Do you think he's being sent to troubleshoot us?” asked Kira, clearly worried.

        “All the way from Nivet? I doubt it. I suspect he simply annoyed the wrong political faction once too often, and they arranged to get rid of him to the most remote posting they could find. A gift of a Farris to Norwest Territory, and a convenient exile, all in one penstroke. And we're the beneficiaries.”

        The tense line of Kira's shoulders said she was still unconvinced. Kelidan dropped the pages back on the desk and began massaging Kira's neck muscles, working the fields to ease her into relaxation. In a few minutes, she was due to go and work dispensary with Granif; it was Kelidan's job as Companion to keep her in shape to do it.

        Once the office door had closed behind Kira, leaving Kelidan in privacy, the Companion was free to let go of the tight control he had been keeping on his nager, letting his fears and misgivings well up to claim his attention.

        He had put a brave face on it for Kira's sake, but he wasn't at all sure he could meet the requirements of a Farris channel. Even six years ago, he might not have been up to it; it had been, in part, his own inadequacies as a Companion that had driven him to take refuge in Willow. But now, having spent the past six years coasting, never being pushed anywhere close to his limits by Willow's less powerful channels, he knew that his talents, never more than mediocre, had rusted severely.

        Now he had to cope with a Farris. He couldn't afford to fail, for Willow's sake. And for the Farris'.

        But he really didn't know if he could handle it.


        Liiron Farris ambrov Zeor arrived at Willow fifteen days later. Dusty from their ride through the high mountain pass, and with both of their Gens showing symptoms of severe altitude sickness, the tiny escort party was welcomed through the open gates of Willow by an eleven-piece marching band, a children's dance troupe, and a full turnout of the Householding's five Companions and two remaining channels, caped in Willow's light green and royal purple.

        Liiron and his traveling Companion, Melina ambrov Frihill, retired immediately to Willow's finest transfer suite, then to their guest quarters. Two hours later Liiron emerged alone, fresh-scrubbed, impeccable in his formal cape of Zeor blue, and exuding the typical Farris charisma. Only to Kelidan's experienced eye did he seem a little strained.

        “I hope you'll forgive me,” Liiron said as Kelidan greeted him at the entrance to Willow's dining hall, “but I left Melina to sleep off our transfer. She was looking forward to tonight's festivities, and I was hoping the transfer would improve her altitude sickness, but it seemed wisest to just let her sleep.”

        Kelidan nodded. “Only time improves altitude sickness, as the bloodstream adjusts to carry oxygen more efficiently. In the meantime, the best treatment – for Simes as well as Gens – is to drink plenty of water, and get lots of rest.” He paused, as Kira and Granif emerged from the crowded hall. “Hajene Farris, may I present Kira ambrov Willow, our senior surviving channel, and Granif, Second Companion in Willow and husband to our late Sectuib, Nelsa.”

        “I am honoured,” Liiron replied. “And please let me offer my condolences on the death of your Sectuib.”

        “She is sorely missed,” said Granif, not bothering to control his emotions, but stepping partway behind Kelidan to shield the channels from the pain in his nager.

        “No human being can ever replace another,” said Liiron gravely, turning to Kira as he spoke, “but perhaps I can at least relieve you of some of the workload that your Sectuib's death has burdened you with.”

        “That is our hope as well,” said Kira with careful formality. What was she zlinning in the Farris' nager, that put such a cautious look on her face?

        Kelidan resolved to take her aside and ask her at the first opportunity. But in the meantime, there were formalities to be observed.

        “All of Willow, and several representatives from the town of Stoak, are waiting to greet you, Hajene Farris. Will you join us in the hall for the welcoming ceremonies?”

        The channel nodded, every inch the gracious diplomat. At a signal from Kelidan, the band struck up a fanfare, and the four of them turned to enter the warmth of the brightly-lit hall.


        As soon as the brief welcoming speeches were over, Kelidan left Liiron with Granif long enough to take Kira aside.

        “I saw you zlinning him,” he said in a low voice, keeping his nager level so that passing Simes would ignore the exchange. “Is something wrong?”

        “I can't quite put a tentacle on it,” said Kira, equally softly, “but I'm sure he's hiding something. His nager is just too perfect, too controlled.”

        “He's a Farris.” Kelidan shrugged.

        “And did you see what he's wearing, under that impeccable blue cape?” Kira continued. “I don't like flashy dressers.”

        “Zeor makes fine textiles,” Kelidan pointed out, “and they have close business dealings with Imil, the fashion House. Half the people in both Householdings consider it a matter of personal honour to dress like a fashion plate whenever they travel. What he's wearing is still technically Zeor dress livery, even if the cut and fabric are a bit flamboyant. Don't let it trouble you. Besides, perched on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere, how do we know what's this year's style for Nivet's urban flatlanders?”

        “There's still something too good to be true about him,” Kira insisted.

        “If so, you're not going to figure it out here, in a hall full of people, on a formal occasion like this. Relax.”

        “I can't relax, Kel. I'm too jumpy. This is the longest I've been away from work in months. I keep expecting someone will rush in here, and drag me away to some crisis.”

        “All the more reason to relax while you can.” Kelidan projected total calm with his nager. “If this Farris is half of what he's supposed to be, our crisis here is over.”

        “I still want to know what he's hiding.”

        “As he undoubtedly wants to know what we're hiding. The difference is, we'll have to tell him our secrets, as soon as we put him to work. If not sooner; he's already holding several pieces of the puzzle, just by zlinning around this room.”

        “So let's go distract him, before he starts putting them together too soon.” Kira straightened her cape, squared her shoulders, and waded back into the swirling nager of the crowd.


        “I see you've met our newest Companion,” said Kelidan as he and Kira joined the cluster of people around Liiron. “Sylval only established last month, but already she's showing a lot of promise. Her parents would have been proud.”

        “Her parents?” Liiron asked.

        “Nelsa and her first husband, Zal. Granif is the father of Nelsa's other two children, but Sylval's father was a channel, and Sectuib before Nelsa.”

        Liiron turned and bowed formally to the young woman, who smiled shyly from behind her curtain of fine blonde hair. “May I zlin you?” he asked, reaching towards her with his tentacles half extended.

        “Of course, Hajene.” Sylval dipped her head in a brief nod and pushed up her sleeves, offering him her forearms.

        Liiron twined his handling tentacles around the young Companion's wrists. As Kelidan and Granif shifted to make a bubble of nageric privacy, Liiron gave a practiced flip of his cape to shield what he did from the eyes of casual passers-by. He extended his laterals to rest against Sylval's pale skin and closed his eyes to concentrate as he briefly brushed her lips with his. Then he dismantled the contact and withdrew half a step, giving another formal bow.

        “A substantial talent indeed. If you are willing to work with me, Naztehr, I think you could develop both the capacity and the speed to serve the need of a Farris.”

        Sylval blushed, overwhelmed by the compliment, then glanced at Kelidan and her stepfather for permission to respond.

        Granif gave a small nod as Kelidan said, “It would be a wise move, Syl, if you're willing. Aside from the obvious benefits to Willow in developing your talent to the fullest, it's not safe in a Householding this isolated to have only one Companion who can serve Hajene Farris' need. If something were to happen to me, Liiron would be in danger as well. Unless Melina is planning to stay?” he added, turning the question to Liiron, who twined two tentacles in a negative gesture.

        “It's settled, then,” said Kelidan.

“I'll schedule you as much work with Hajene Farris as possible, Syl,” said Kira.

        Sylval grinned proudly. Low-field though she was, her nager made nearby Simes turn to stare as she bowed awkwardly to Liiron.

        “Thank you,” she said.

        Kelidan swept Liiron on into the crowd, introducing him to each person they met. Gradually a calculating look came into Liiron's eyes, and Kelidan knew the channel was beginning to do the arithmetic on the unexpectedly large number of Gen Householders he had met.

        “And these are Luan and Kord, our Senior File Clerks,” Kelidan said.

        Luan, a middle-aged renSime, and Kord, a balding and slightly plump Gen, both bowed. Liiron bowed back, but his attention was on Kelidan.

        “Is there some particular significance to the title?” the channel asked.

        “Neither of them ever forgets a single detail,” said Kelidan, as if he hadn't heard the question. “So be careful of what you tell them, unless you want it quoted back to haunt you on your deathbed.”

        Liiron smiled uncertainly, as if unsure whether this comment was meant to be a joke. Kelidan smiled in private satisfaction; he was keeping his nager steady indeed, if a Farris channel couldn't read him. “And have you met Liara, our head cook?”


        With Liiron safely sandwiched between Sylval and Granif, Kelidan took advantage of the brief opportunity to excuse himself to the washroom.

        Willow's washrooms were the pride of the Householding, a marvel of modern technology in this remote and rustic setting. The heavy porcelain and metal fixtures had been carted piece by piece up the steep mountain roads; the unfailing clean water supply was one of the benefits of living so high in the mountains.

        Kelidan took his time, savouring the few minutes of solitude. He didn't like large social gatherings; he preferred to deal with people one or two at a time. He paused in front of the mirror to straighten his cape and smooth his unruly light brown hair before returning to the crowded hall.

        At first he couldn't spot Liiron in the crowd. Then he noticed that one of the heavily insulated window curtains was bulging unnaturally, and below it protruded a hem of Zeor-blue cloth. He crossed the room, paused a moment to smooth his nager from worry to gentle concern, and slipped behind the curtain to join the channel.

        Liiron turned to face him as he entered the tiny bubble of privacy. On the window, glistening in the moonlight, were damp streaks of ronaplin and sweat, where the channel had rested his laterals and forehead against the coolness of the glass.

        Entran! Only a Farris, Kelidan thought wryly, could manage to suffer entran just hours after his own transfer.

        And only a Farris could die of the complications of a simple entran attack.

        Kelidan began rolling up the sleeves of the heavy sweater he wore under his formal cape, and moved closer to the channel.


        Sometimes Liiron really hated being a Farris.

        He didn't mind being a channel. The joy and fulfillment of the work almost always outweighed the griefs and burdens that came with it. But he hated being a Farris. True, he could do easily some things that other channels struggled a lifetime to learn. But the hypersensitivity had its price in illnesses and ailments and weaknesses, in too much knowledge and too little privacy, in headaches and rashes and entran attacks. As a horse lover, Liiron knew that the thoroughbreds, with their elegant grace and their fragile limbs, won the fame and the attention, running like the wind for all to admire. But he suspected it was the draft horses, who dragged a plough inelegantly through the fields all day, who rested content when their work was over.

        Still, Liiron was what nature had made him: a Sime, a channel, a Farris, and – other things. He had to live with being what he was. With all of what he was.

        It was cousin Klyd, in this generation, who set the standard for coping with being a Farris. The brittle pride, the veneer of self-confidence verging on arrogance, the unrelenting self-discipline and devotion to duty – those were as much a part of being Farris as the talents and the illnesses.

        The curtain moved and Liiron lifted his forehead from the blessed coolness of the window glass. A warm, supportive nager flowed into the tiny curtained bubble of privacy. It was the Willow First Companion, Kelidan.

        Kelidan studied him briefly before letting the curtain fall shut behind him, cutting off the light and the ambient nager of the hall. “Entran?” he asked softly in his distinctive, musical baritone. His nager made it clear that it wasn't really a question; he was already rolling up his sleeves as he spoke.

        Another wave of pain washed through Liiron at that moment. He focused on relaxing and breathing, breathing and counting, until the attack had passed.

        “…and two and three and hold and hold and out and two and three,” Kelidan counted aloud in unison with Liiron's internal count, then stepped forward to catch the channel as he staggered, off balance, against the curtain. Another wave of dizziness hit as the pain clenched around Liiron's vriamic node again. Supported safely between the Companion and the window, Liiron let go all pretense of maintaining his own balance. Again, Kelidan counted the exercise aloud, a redundancy that was somehow reassuring when working with an unfamiliar partner. Another spasm of pain hit, and another. Finally the attack passed, leaving Liiron braced limply between the cool body of the Companion, and the even cooler panes of glass. He reasserted control of his muscles. After a moment, Kelidan backed off half a step, acknowledging Liiron's renewed self-control.

        “Only a Farris,” said Kelidan conversationally, “could manage an entran attack barely three hours after taking transfer.” By his tone, he might have been commenting on the weather.

        Grateful for the semblance of normality, Liiron replied in a similar tone. “Melina was really sick on the way up here. I postponed transfer until we arrived, hoping you might already be in phase with me. When I zlinned that you weren't – how far out are you, by the way?”

        “Nine days short – Kira had just taken down my field, four days before we received the message that you were coming,” Kelidan replied.

        “Anyway, Melina did the best she could for me,” Liiron continued. “I was as gentle with her as possible. Didn't even touch my secondary system.” He recited some numbers, watching Kelidan blink as he integrated them with the information he had from his charts. “Hence, the entran.”

        “And not knowing any better, I walked you right into a roomful of high-field Gens, and Simes in need. I'm sorry,” Kelidan said.

        “You didn't know.”

        “It's my job to know.”

        “We Farrises are hard to read.”

        “I used to be pretty good at it.”

        “I know. I've read your file. Are you still good?”

        Kelidan shrugged. “I guess we're going to find out. But I am good enough to know that we still have to do something about your entran. And that you're about to pretend that we needn't bother.”

        Liiron, who had been opening his mouth to say exactly that, closed it again. This Companion was too good, too perceptive, and, Liiron was beginning to suspect, too accustomed to being in control of everything since his Sectuib had died. But Liiron's head had begun to clear, and an impulse was forming. “You know,” he said, “we're going to have to do something to get you in synch with me for next month. At the moment, your speed and capacity are both a little below my requirements.” He took hold of Kelidan's hands as he spoke, positioning his laterals for an entran outfunction. Zlinning the Companion's reaction carefully, he shifted to a transfer grip. “Of course, the fastest way to boost your production and speed would be to singe you slightly, a time or two.”

        Kelidan's nager flickered for a moment, then resumed its steady, unruffled acceptance.

        “If I were to take your donation now, using my secondary system to simulate the high-speed draw I would demand in real transfer, stripping your field to a bare minimum and singeing you just a little, by next month I'd have you back close to your previous top speed and capacity, and you'd be just three hours behind me. Plus, it would take care of my entran.”

        The Companion had to know that what Liiron was suggesting would be painful for him, more painful and potentially more debilitating than the channel's entran. Not to mention dangerous, unless controlled very precisely. Liiron shifted one lateral slightly and reseated it, emphasizing the message that he was physically ready to do exactly as he had described.

        Untroubled, Kelidan's nager shifted to invite the channel to take his selyn. “I defer to your judgment, Hajene Farris,” he said steadily. “Do you want me to open up all the way, or resist a little?”

        Liiron sighed and dismantled the contact. His bluff had been called. It served him right, for testing a First Companion so harshly. “But actually,” he said, “I prefer gentler techniques, even if they do take a bit longer.”

        Kelidan took a deep breath and, with apparent reluctance, let the bright invitation fade from his nager. Still clasping Liiron's wrists, he said, “There's still the matter of your entran, and I may have just made it worse.”

        Liiron shrugged and reclaimed his hands. “Kira has me scheduled to work dispensary at midnight, as soon as this party is over. I'll be all right until then.”

        Skepticism was plain in Kelidan's nager. “More denial exercises? After such a difficult transfer?”

        Liiron squared his shoulders. “Denial builds strength.” Zlinning closely, he asked, “Haven't you been keeping up the exercises you learned at Zeor?”

        “I've started them up again, since the day I learned you were coming here. Before that,” Kelidan shrugged sheepishly, “I hadn't had much cause to, for years. Even without working at it, I've had everything that was required by any of the channels here.”

        “Excellence is its own reason. There's no excuse for slacking off,” said Liiron coldly. Having thus regained the upper hand, he pushed through the folds of the curtain and stalked back into the crowd, with the Companion an arm's length behind him.


        “I'm curious,” said Liiron, “if it's not too painful a question to ask. How did you manage to lose two channels at once?”

        Since their encounter behind the curtains, Kelidan had stuck to the channel like glue. Resting against the Companion's supportive nager, Liiron had begun taking an interest in the party again.

        “Didn't you read the report?” asked Kira, mild surprise spiking in her nager. Kelidan shifted to block Kira's field. His solicitousness, extreme as it had become, was beginning to annoy Liiron. Kira was, after all, a channel; she wasn't going to slam the ambient with anything extreme.

        “The report I saw said only, 'accidental death.'” Liiron edged sideways until he could read Kira's nager once more.

        “There was an avalanche,” said Kira. “There's always a possibility of avalanche, when you travel in the mountains. It's just one of the dangers you have to live with. But the risk is especially high during spring thaw.” She turned and began scanning the crowd.

        “There's a legend,” said Kelidan in a clear change of subject, as his eyes also swept the crowded hall, “going back to the time of the Ancients, that when civilization first began, it started in the east. The first great cities were built along the east coast of this continent. But a few people found urban life too regimented, too structured. And they – the rebels, the misfits, the freethinkers – moved west to find a place of their own. As civilization expanded westward, the freethinkers and adventurers moved farther and farther west, ending up in what is now Norwest Territory. And when great cities began springing up on the west coast as well, those rebels and misfits took refuge in the high mountains.”

        Kira touched Kelidan lightly on the wrist and nodded, then slipped away into the crowd. Kelidan continued with his story.

        “The intellectuals and freethinkers and creative people wanted one kind of life, the rebels and adventurers another. You saw Rev, the large town you passed through in the valley, just before you left the main road to take the trail up here?”

        Liiron nodded.

        “Rev is a mining town, mining and forestry. The Ancients mined here too; the mountains are riddled with their excavations. But they left plenty for us. Mining is hard and dangerous work, but it pays huge profits.”

        Kelidan looked around, now apparently searching for Kira. Was he spinning out this tale to artificial lengths, stalling until Kira found whatever, or whoever, she was searching for? Or was this story something Liiron ought to be paying close attention to, full of information he would require later?

        “But there were still the intellectuals, the freethinkers, the ones who sought freedom of the mind and not just the body,” Kelidan continued. “So some of them withdrew even farther from civilization, up into remote valleys like this one. The town of Stoak, which is at our front gates, was created by some of those people, as an artists' colony.

        “The trouble is,” the Companion continued with a wry grin, “That people who are misfits in the mainstream of civilization tend also not to fit too easily with each other. So when Willow was founded, to be the Householding here, its virtue was that of the willow tree: flexibility. Flexibility, adaptability, openmindedness – this is what such people require if they're going to support each other, as people must to survive in such a harsh environment. When more rigid trees are torn and broken, the willow tree survives the worst winter storm, and holds fast to its roots, by being flexible.”

        “So Willow, like Stoak, is an artists' colony?” Liiron asked.

        “In large measure. Artists, inventors, artisans, writers. All the works you've seen on display were created here, in Willow or in Stoak. Works of art, and the raw materials of art, are compact and relatively easy to transport through the high mountain passes. But artists usually starve,” said Kelidan, nodding to Kira as she returned with a tall, well-muscled Gen. “So when a deposit of copper was found, almost on Willow's doorstep, the Householding decided to do a little mining, too.”

        Kira picked up the story, as smoothly as if it had been rehearsed. “Snow controls much of what we do here,” she said. “The wagon trail you followed up through the pass from Rev to Stoak is closed for six or seven months every winter, by snow. The road up the mountain, to our little copper mine, is only open for four or five months of every year. And that's why, at the earliest possible opportunity this spring, Sectuib Nelsa was leading a small party up the mountain, to check on the mine and the handful of Gen miners who had chosen to spend the winter working the tunnels up there.”

        Kelidan spoke again. “And Prinn, here, was the only survivor of that expedition.”

        Prinn began his tale with the concise clarity of one who had recited the same facts a hundred times, until the story was well-polished and devoid of emotion. “It was a warm spring morning when the six of us left for the mine, with a string of pack ponies. There was Sectuib Nelsa, Hajene Durgan, our Third, Travni our Second Companion, and three of us mining engineers: me, Dervon, and Zandra. We was going up the trail single file, mindful of the muddy bits, with Nelsa at the front, Durgan at the back, and everyone else spread out between. Now there's some dangerous spots along that road, even a few places where we've built snowsheds so we'll dare cross at all, but where we were wasn't one of those bits. It was a level spot between two peaks, with big trees up either side that said this spot ain't had no avalanche in long enough to grow a forty-foot pine. We passed some abandoned machinery alongside the road, and I stopped to check it out. That's what saved me. I dropped back behind the rest of the party. Not by much, mind you. I was still close enough to see all of it.”

        He stopped and cleared his throat. “Now I'm a structural engineer, and on paper I can tell you all about stresses and loading and angles of repose. But there's nothing like seeing it happen. One minute there's a quiet, bright spring day, with birds and splashing meltwater and thinking about lunchtime. The next minute there's a million tons of rock and ice flowing down the mountainside like a handful of sand, snapping trees like toothpicks. It's silent at first; the sound doesn't catch up until it's nearly over. Sectuib's square in the middle of it; she's caught for sure. Durgan, at the back, might have got clear, but instead of running away from it, he augments forward, trying to grab Zandra and take her out with him. And then, looks like slow motion but it was only a few seconds, all that rock flows down the mountainside, and across the flat, and halfway back up the other side, taking pieces of our people with it.” He looked at Liiron with haunted eyes. “At least it was quick. What we dug up of them was so smashed, they wouldn't have lived more than a few seconds. And that's all I know how to tell you. The rest doesn't have words. That's how we lost Sectuib Nelsa and the others.”

        Kelidan had interposed himself to shield the channel from the Gen's emotional nager, but there was no shielding him from the words.

        “I see,” said Liiron. He had gone automatically into channel's working mode, to avoid blasting the entire hall with his emotional response. It left his reactions distant, as if packed away in cotton, to be experienced later at some less public moment. His nerves screeched with the threat of returning entran, yearning to function – to do something to ease the pain of the Gen standing before him, lost in recollection. But there was nothing he or anyone else could do.

        “Thank you for telling me, Prinn,” he said.

        A Sime approached them with a tray of hot drinks. Though decorated in an amazing variety of colours and styles, the mugs came in only two shapes: squat and broad-based, designed to be difficult for Gens to knock over, or tall and cylindrical for Simes. These mugs contained a murky greenish-brown liquid, more nearly a puree than a drink.

        Liiron studied the mugs suspiciously, noting the slightly greener colour of the liquid in the Gens' mugs. In one corner of the tray, one of the Sime mugs had blue and black ribbons tied to the handle, and a slightly paler liquid inside. The intent was clear. Liiron picked up the Farris-beribboned mug as Kelidan took one of the Gen mugs and held it, waiting for it to cool. Kira took two of the Sime mugs, one in each hand, and drained both in rapid succession.

        “What is this stuff?” asked Liiron, sniffing curiously at the steam.

        “High altitude tonic,” said Kelidan, who sipped cautiously at his own mug before deciding to let it cool a bit longer. “Helps your body cope with the effects of living at high altitude, mostly by enriching your blood so it can grab oxygen more efficiently from the thin air. It should help you adjust more quickly to living here, and reduce the fatigue you've undoubtedly been feeling. Separate formulas for Simes and Gens, of course. I've already sent some to the guest quarters, for Melina and the others.”

        Liiron twined a tentacle around the ribbons on his own mug and raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

        “I gave the kitchen a complete list of your allergies,” said Kelidan in response to the unspoken question. “They brewed up a special batch of tonic for you. They had to leave out a couple of the usual ingredients, but it shouldn't reduce the medicinal effects appreciably.” The Companion sipped again at his own mug, then took a larger swallow.

        Liiron sampled his own mug, grimaced, then bravely drank down all of it. “Tastes better than fosebine. Barely,” he said.

        Kelidan grinned. “I believe the ingredients they had to leave out were included in the original recipe more as flavourings than as medicinal components.”

        “Hmm,” said the channel as he deposited his empty mug on the sideboard. “Might not be too bad if I had something better tasting to use as a chaser.”

        Kelidan caught the eye of one of the circulating kitchen staffers and signaled.


        “Does the mine still operate?” Liiron asked a few minutes later, sipping at the trin tea one of the children had fetched from the buffet.

        “Of course it does,” said Kelidan. “We can't afford to close it.”

        “Did I hear someone mention the mine?” said a familiar deep voice from behind Kelidan. “I've got another dozen workers through basic training and ready to send up, any time you're ready for them.”

        Let's see how the Farris handles this one, thought Kelidan. “Hajene Farris, this is Ervon, the operator of the Stoak Pen.”

        Ervon was one of the very few people present who didn't wear Willow's formal light green and purple. He was bulky, for a Sime, and the bright red business suit he wore didn't make him look smaller. Kelidan watched as Liiron zlinned him. Would a Nivet Tecton Farris recognize the nager of a semi-junct?

        Liiron's voice revealed nothing as he bowed with just the right degree of formality. “Pleased to meet you.”

        “Kel,” said Ervon, shrugging off ceremony as he turned to the First Companion, “you might want to send down a channel to check out one of the ones in our latest shipment. She zlins like a potential Companion – no fear, lots of selyn, and she seems to be attracted to Simes in need. I haven't let them near her, of course,” he added with a glance at Liiron, “but she's been following one of my assistants around ever since his turnover yesterday.”

        “Thanks, Ervon,” said Kelidan. “I'll send someone around as soon as we sort out our backlog here. Five or six days, maybe.”

        Ervon nodded and faded back into the crowd.

        Kelidan turned to find Liiron frankly staring.

        “Flexibility, Hajene,” he said. “Semi-juncts are the stepping-stone to our future. And the surplus Pen Gens – the ones the semi-juncts don't kill – become our miners and sheep-herders, our cooks and our bookkeepers, occasionally even our sculptors and Companions. Liara, our chief cook and the head of our support staff, whom you met earlier, was one of Ervon's. So were two of the musicians in the band that greeted your arrival.”

        Liiron stood frozen, his focus turned entirely inward. After a moment, Kelidan turned his attention from watching Liiron, to watching Kira zlin Liiron. Kira turned to the Companion and grinned. “He's starting to work it out, Kel,” she said.

        At that moment, Liiron unfroze and blinked. “I'm beginning to understand why such a tiny Householding requires so many channels,” he said. Turning to Kira, he asked, “How many semi-juncts do Willow's channels serve?”

        “Three hundred and thirty-seven. And one hundred thirty-four disjuncts and nonjuncts who aren't Householders,” she said. “Almost the entire village of Stoak. Plus, of course, Willow's fifty-six renSimes.”

        “And how do you – never mind. If you've got a backlog of Simes overdue for transfer, and all these high-field Gens waiting to donate, then why are we standing here making polite conversation? Take me to your dispensary and let me get started. We can always hold another party later.”


        Over the next three days, Liiron lived up to the best of the Farris reputation for coping with crises. Of the effects of altitude sickness and his inadequate transfer, he showed no signs, even to Kelidan's anxious eyes. Kira shrugged and threw aside her Controller's schedule, letting Liiron give transfers as fast as he was able. During the first hours he focused on the dispensary, where his greater proficiency would save the most time, leaving the other channels to gather slow morsels of selyn from the Gen donors. RenSimes and low-field Companions marshaled traffic in the hallway outside the transfer rooms. More renSimes with clipboards hovered at Liiron's side, constructing transfer reports out of the few quick numbers the channel barked over his shoulder before moving on to the next person. By sunrise of the first day, there wasn't a Sime in hard need left anywhere inside the gates of Willow. Kelidan sent Kira and Elgi, Willow's other channel, for an hour of sleep then, the first that either had had in three days. Kelidan, who had traded off with Sylval to get a nap during the night, escorted Liiron into Stoak, where he set up operations in the Pen. By noon, semi-juncts were no longer resorting to unnecessary kills for lack of a transfer. Liiron let Kelidan order him to bed, then. When he got up an hour later, he began taking donations from Willow's ordinary Gens, and made his first tour of the infirmary. Throughout all of this he managed, with the legendary Farris charisma, to make each person feel – if only for a few seconds – that they had his undivided attention and he would do anything in his power to ease their suffering. By the end of the week, renSimes in Stoak and Willow were daring to augment again, secure in the expectation of extra transfers as needed.


        Melina ambrov Frihill and her escort of Tecton renSimes departed without fanfare on the morning of the second day, having seen very little of Willow. Liiron sent no report back with her except a hastily dictated, “Arrived safely. Plenty of work for me here.”

        “What should I report?” he asked, to Kelidan's relief. “I don't understand what I'm zlinning yet. This place has kept its secrets well; I'm not going to start broadcasting them until I understand them.”

        Even Kira shrugged and abandoned her loudly cynical distrust of the Farris channel. In his first days at Willow, Liiron had indeed worked a Farris miracle.


        At the beginning of the second week, Liiron began drilling Kelidan, Sylval, and the other Companions in Zeor drills and techniques. For Kelidan, many of the exercises reinforced things he had known, but had allowed to rust with disuse. But others were completely new to him. As Liiron's turnover day approached, he spent increasing amounts of time with the First Companion, hoping his increasing need would drive Kelidan's selyn production to higher levels. More than once, Kelidan fell asleep on a sofa near where Liiron worked, and awakened to find the channel crowded onto the cushions with him, writing a report or reading a file. Kelidan had gotten out of the habit of such nonstop discipline, and quickly began feeling squeezed by the other man's constant proximity. A Companion's duty, he reminded himself frequently, is to provide whatever his channel requires in order to function at his best.

        To avoid spending all his days rushing to the infirmary Kelidan began carrying a Farris-specific medical kit in a backpack, wherever he and the channel went. Liiron was proving to be a typical Farris – high-powered, competent, and charismatic, but also fragile, hypersensitive, and subject to a host of ailments. Drills that had been interesting theoretical exercises just a few days earlier, became daily life-or-death necessities as Liiron sank closer towards need. And having driven himself to perform beyond even a Farris' normal limits during his first days at Willow, Liiron now faced entran if he performed only a normal busy day's work. Almost every meal break or hour of sleep ended in another entran attack. Twice he was even hit by entran while in the midst of performing a series of channel's functionals, and only Kelidan's calm-voiced intervention saved several of Willow's best donors and renSimes from being traumatized by the fear that they had somehow injured the channel during a routine donation or transfer.

        With Liiron increasingly sensitive to even the tiniest flicker of his Companion's nager, Kelidan schooled himself back to the extremes of calm and steadiness that he had learned at Zeor, but hadn't required in all the years since. To a Farris, Kelidan was beginning to understand, the denial exercises for which Zeor's channels and Companions were so famous were not unnatural extremes of asceticism, but daily necessities for survival. Excellence wasn't just an ideal or a goal; it was a basic starting point.

        Kelidan felt as if he had become two different people in one body: one the Willow First Companion, mature and self-assured; the other the timid, inept young man who had taken refuge in Willow years ago, when his abilities had proven inadequate to meet the harsher standards of Zeor, Dar, and the Tecton.

        Since his first evening at Willow, Liiron had asked no further questions about Willow's peculiarities, or its unusual relationship with the villagers of Stoak. The channel was obviously a keen observer, and could not have been missing the anomalies that paraded themselves before him on a daily basis. Still, he said nothing. He filled out his reports meticulously, one by one, and did his share of the administrative work that overflowed from Kira's and Kelidan's desks. But of the larger pattern, he said nothing.

        Kelidan knew that a day of reckoning must eventually come, and that how he handled it would determine not only Liiron's reaction, but Willow's future. Still, he wasn't eager to precipitate that crisis while Liiron was approaching need, and suspected that Liiron felt the same way. Their conversation, though there was much of it during the many hours the channel and Companion spent together, stayed mostly on technical, or safely trivial topics. For the moment, that seemed to be enough.


        It was a warm, quiet afternoon. Kelidan and Liiron had just finished lunch together. One of the welcome aspects of Zeor discipline, in Kelidan's opinion, was that Liiron knew it was his duty to eat, even when his appetite dwindled with approaching need, and he didn't turn every mealtime into a battle of wills with his Companion. Feeling mellow after a good lunch – soup and a thick cheese sandwich for Kelidan, vegetable broth and some fruit for Liiron – the two arrived a few minutes early for their shift in the dispensary.

        Kelidan settled in his usual comfortable chair in the corner and reached into an outside pocket of the medical backpack to pull out his current project.

        Liiron dragged a chair next to him and asked, “I've been watching you work on that for weeks, and I'm still not sure what it is.”

        Kelidan stopped sorting through a multicoloured tangle of cotton threads and spread the canvas on his lap, turning it so that the picture faced Liiron. “Of all the people who've joined Willow from other Householdings, I'm one of the very few who wasn't drawn by Willow's reputation as a haven for artists and artisans. I don't paint, I don't draw, I don't sculpt. I'm not a potter or a glassblower or a silversmith. I don't even write novels or compose music. But to blend in here, it seemed like a good idea to learn some creative skill, so I took up needlework – knitting, crochet, embroidery. It's the perfect craft for a Companion without much creative talent: a single evening of planning and charting a piece – usually based on a sketch that one of our real artists does for me – and then many hours of patient, repetitive stitching. It's portable, it's calming to work on, I can set it aside at a moment's notice, and it lets me contribute an occasional piece to Willow's primary export. I also make things for use in-House; one winter, I embroidered thirty patches with Willow's tree-in-circle emblem, to be sewn onto cloaks and such.”

        Liiron studied the canvas in Kelidan's lap. It had been marked off into a grid with long stitches of dark thread, but the small area of variegated browns that had been completed near the centre of the cloth gave no suggestion of what the finished image was going to look like. “What's this one going to be?”

        “This is cross stitch.” Kelidan fished out a much-folded chart drawn on grid paper, and beneath it a sketch done in coloured pencil. “It's an image from one of Willow's teaching fables, to replace a piece that was destroyed by a fire in our schoolhouse last autumn.”

        The sketch, when Liiron turned it to the light, showed a rough-woven and battered wicker basket lying in the mud, with leaves sprouting from it. “What teaching fable?”

        Kelidan smiled. “Flexibility isn't the willow tree's only virtue. Another is the tremendous vitality of willow wood.” He leaned back in his chair, let his eyes go slightly out of focus as he shifted into his storytelling voice, and began. “Once upon a time there was an old basket made of willow wood. It had been woven in haste, without stopping to peel the twigs, and it wasn't particularly pretty. But it was useful, and for more than ten years the family that owned it carried it back and forth to the kitchen garden, bringing in vegetables and berries, carrying out scraps for the compost.

        “One autumn, by chance, it was left out under the trees when the first snow fell. It stayed in the frozen mud, buried in snow and leaves, forgotten, all through the winter. When it was finally discovered the following summer, the supposedly dead, ten-year-old wood had put down roots, and sprouted leaves, and was well on the way to becoming a new willow tree.”

        Kelidan looked at Liiron and continued, “The lesson, of course, is that each member of Willow carries that same vitality. No matter how battered by circumstance, no matter how long separated from this home we have built in the mountains, each of us carries within us all the life and all the virtues of our House, and can offer those gifts to the world with renewed strength, no matter what mud we come to rest in.”

        “Are members of Willow often scattered far from home?”

        “Only as far as our winter tunnels. But, emotionally sensitive individualists that most creative people are, one doesn't have to travel physically to feel battered by circumstance, isolated, cut off from the life and comfort that other members of the House seem to share.”

        Liiron looked thoughtful. “To be a member of Willow is not a simple thing, is it?”

        Kelidan spread his hands in a shrug. “Like any Householding, Willow is a complex thing that takes a lifetime to understand.”

        “Willow has chosen a powerful symbol for its focus,” the channel observed.

        “Do you want to know the irony of that symbol?” Kelidan grinned. “Willow was formed out of Householding Mountainwater, which is not very much south of here, but is on the coast of the Pacific Sea, with a temperate climate warmed by tropical ocean currents. When Willow's founders moved here and began building the House, it took them several years to discover they had chosen a location so high, and so cold, that only evergreen trees thrive here. There's some scrub willow along the riverbanks, and a few spindly white willows that we've managed to nurture in sheltered corners of the Householding compound – but a Willow member who has never traveled has never seen a huge, tall, spreading willow tree like the one on our crest, has never seen a willow that wasn't small, and fragile, and clinging desperately to life.”

        “It's a good thing,” said Liiron with a grin, “that artistic people have good imaginations.”

        “True. But we also try to make sure that, sooner or later, each of our people gets to take a turn at accompanying a wagonload of goods down to the flatlands, to get a glimpse of the larger world beyond our gates.”

        Liiron opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment the first patient of the afternoon arrived, and both channel and Companion turned their attention towards work.


        One evening, a few nights before their first scheduled transfer together, Liiron looked up from the book on winter survival techniques that he'd been perusing, and fixed his attention on Kelidan. Aware that he was being zlinned, the Companion pushed aside the report he'd been working on and set down his pen.

        Liiron poured out the last of the oversteeped trin tea in the pot and handed one of the mugs to Kelidan before saying casually, “I've begun learning quite a bit about the personal lives of most of the people in Willow.”

        Kelidan grunted a neutral acknowledgement as he swallowed a sip of tea.

        “But I've discovered almost nothing about yours, Kel.”

        It was the first time the channel had used Kelidan's nickname.

        The Companion set down his mug carefully. “I haven't had much time for one, since spring.”

        “Is there no one in your life, then? No one who's missed you these past few weeks, while I've been monopolizing your time?” The channel seemed genuinely concerned. Under the peculiar intensity of that dark Farris gaze, Kelidan felt compelled to answer with simple truth.

        “Not any more.”

        With a wave of tentacle and a lift of eyebrow, Liiron invited the Companion to say more.

        “I guess I've always lived a fairly solitary, introverted sort of life,” Kelidan began. If this was a time for self-revelation, he might as well start at the beginning, though there were certainly things he intended to gloss over. “I was born and raised in Dar, but I had no aptitude and less interest in the martial arts. So I grew up as kind of an outsider. When I established, and seemed likely to make a strong Companion, Dar sent me to Zeor for training. This was before Rialite was founded, and the ambition of every young channel or Companion was to spend First Year at Zeor. So I trained there, and then went back to Dar.”

        Kelidan took another sip of the cooling tea, judged it too bitter, and pushed the mug aside. “I got home to discover I was even more of a misfit in Dar than I'd been before, and Dar had a surplus of good Companions at the time. But everyone in the Tecton hires Dar bodyguards, so I began attaching myself to Dar escort parties, whenever they were hired to travel with a channel. I went back and forth all over Nivet, and occasionally between Territories, never staying anywhere for more than a few weeks. It wasn't entirely a solitary lifestyle; Householding women are drawn to Companions, and genetically speaking a top Companion is almost as good a catch as a channel, but slightly less dangerous. I've got four children – that I know about – scattered around Nivet, and I still write to all of their mothers. But the traveling lifestyle doesn't really lend itself to deep or lasting relationships.”

        “I know what you mean,” said Liiron. “I, too, have moved around a lot.” With a wave of a tentacle, he gestured for Kelidan to continue.

        “Then one day, about six years ago, I escorted a party to Willow. I liked what I found here, and decided to stay. They had an opening for another Companion, so I traded into Willow and settled down.”

        Kelidan paused, picked up his mug, and ran a finger slowly around the rim before continuing. “There was a woman in Stoak. Norda. She made beautiful art glass, and lampwork beads and jewellery that sold for a premium in Tak and Van and all along the west coast. You've seen one of her pieces, the cascade of glass flowers in the display case to the left of the entrance in the dining hall.”

        “The one that stands by itself, on a gray cloth?” Liiron was clearly impressed.

        “That's the one.” Kelidan smiled proudly. “Her work deserved every bit of the praise it got.”

        Silence descended as the Companion's smile faded.

        “What happened?” Liiron prompted at last.

        “She was renSime, and semi-junct. We had two years together, before the end.”

        Liiron bowed his head at that, weaving his tentacles together in a silent gesture of understanding. Semi-juncts rarely lived long once they began perceiving all Gens as people, and their deaths were never easy.

        “After that,” said Kelidan, breaking the silence with a brisk smile that he knew didn't penetrate to his nager, “I decided to keep my heart to myself. My body is available to women for sex, just as it's available to channels for transfer, and I've rarely been left idle for long, nor heard complaints about my skill, in either area.” He knew that sounded arrogant, but it was simple truth. “I have many friends, and no enemies that I know of, both here and in town. But there's been no one person since Norda. Since becoming First Companion, sometimes I think that I'm married to the Householding.” He looked up, meeting Liiron's gaze steadily. “And that's a love that can be painfully intense, but that I needn't fear losing. Because while I live, I will not permit Willow and its ideals to die.”

        It was a challenge, of sorts. If Liiron was planning to attack Willow for its unorthodoxy, he now knew where the battle lines would be drawn.

        It was too much of a challenge, for a transfer-shorted Farris so close to need. At the ripples in Kelidan's nager, Liiron gave him a peculiarly intense look. Then the channel's forehead broke out in a cold sweat, and his laterals quivered visibly in their sheaths.

        Other concerns forgotten, the Companion turned his attention to smoothing the ambient, hoping that this time he could prevent the vulnerable channel from going into convulsions.


        Never since First Year had Kelidan been so filled with self-doubts about his ability to serve a channel in transfer. He had coasted, he knew, during his six years in Willow; even Nelsa's capacity, speed, and sensitivity had been substantially below his own.

        Now he must serve a Farris. He was almost three weeks overdue for transfer. His selyn field, he calculated, would be at its maximum about eight percent below Liiron's this month – an acceptable difference to most channels, but a major one to a Farris. His speed, after the exercises they'd been doing together all month, should likewise be almost enough. Liiron hadn't had a trouble-free transfer in several months, Kelidan now knew, and after the month the channel had just endured, he couldn't afford another bad transfer. To make up for the shortfall in the numbers, Kelidan would have to make sure everything else was perfect.

        He paced nervously back and forth across the thick new rug of his own suite, reviewing every mistake he had made over the past month. He had managed well enough with the surface details – the Farris-neutral shampoos and laundry detergents, the avoidance of woolen fabrics and down-filled cushions, the menu adjusted to compensate for the long list of Liiron's food allergies. But when it came to the nageric interactions that were a Companion's real work, he had been clumsy time and time again.

        Self-doubt, of course, was a crippling factor in itself. Maybe he shouldn't have left Sylval to cover Liiron's last collectorium shift before transfer. Maybe he should have kept himself busy, too busy to worry himself into this childish panic. But he hadn't been good enough for Zeor twelve years ago; why should he think he was good enough to serve a Zeor channel now?

        He worked a simple breathing drill to calm himself. Then another. And another. At last, with less than an hour left to go, he took a long hot shower, letting the needle-sharp pulses of water drive away all conscious thought, letting doubt and worry wash down the drain.

        He dressed carefully. Then, nager shining bright and calm, Kelidan made his way to the transfer suite.


        As a Farris, Liiron was accustomed to inadequate transfers. There were very few Companions – never enough to go around – who could match the draw speed and capacity of a Farris. As a Farris, Liiron was accustomed to dealing with the thousand complications of being what he was, from sniffles and rashes to entran and shenshay, from dizziness and cramps to expanding feedback loops and vriamic fibrillations. And as a Farris, he was accustomed to Companions being a little bit afraid of him.

        No, not afraid of him. Afraid for him. Terrified of doing anything in his presence, for fear of doing something that would hurt him. And it was the best, the most conscientious Companions who were the worst for this.

        In sheer self-defense, Farrises learned to conceal the worst of their suffering, to mask pain as simple irritability and weakness as arrogance.

        And the best Companions learned to read right through these defenses.

        Kelidan was clearly one of the very best. If he had stayed at Zeor after First Year, he would have been a rival for Denrau, and perhaps even for the legendary Hugh Valleroy. If he had stayed at home in Dar, he would have replaced Vitri as First Companion. And if he had settled down in Capital, the many Farrises passing through Tecton Headquarters would have fought over the privilege of his service.

        Instead he had hidden himself away in this tiny mountain Householding, letting his talents rust with disuse. But he wasn't lazy or undisciplined; in the month Liiron had been here, the Companion had worked diligently to retrieve his rusted skills and to learn new ones. He had stretched himself mercilessly, trying to get back all of his former capacity, speed, and sensitivity in a single month.

        And he was now, if Liiron understood anything at all about topnotch Companions, wearing a hole in the rug of his private hideaway, tormenting himself with self-doubt as the scheduled hour of their transfer approached.

        Like all Farrises, Liiron sometimes hated himself for what he put his Companions through. He wasn't going to make it even worse for Kelidan by telling him everything. Not yet. For now, he would keep his guilty secret – and his other secrets, as well.


        It had taken Kelidan longer than usual to centre himself in the calm, open, and utterly present frame of mind he required in order to offer transfer. He had allowed a few extra minutes, and spent that time walking a slow circuit of the small rock garden near his quarters. Then, exactly on schedule, he went indoors and straight into the anteroom of the insulated transfer suite.

        He slipped out of his Willow-green and purple cloak and hung it on a peg, took off his muddy boots and left them on the mat, then rinsed the mud from his hands in the washbasin. Under the cloak he wore a simple white shirt reminiscent of the traditional yawal, and blue cotton trousers. Not a vivid Zeor blue; that would have been presumptuous, but a soft light blue that would suggest home and familiarity to the Zeor channel without drawing attention.

        Moved apparently by a similar impulse, Liiron wore a long white tunic of fine Zeor-woven cotton, with a single line of Farris-black piping down the front seam, and forest green leggings. Barefoot and apparently relaxed, he sipped at a mug of trin tea. As Kelidan entered, the channel glanced up, lifting a second mug of tea in two dorsal tentacles and offering it to the Companion.

        Without a word, Kelidan closed the door behind him and moved forward to take the tea. As he let his nager warm with readiness and invitation, he saw the channel's ronaplin glands respond with a surge of fluid.

        They were both as ready as they were ever going to be.


        Liiron glanced up as the Companion entered. He was pleased to see that they had both been moved by similar impulses in choosing their clothing for this moment; it was one more indication that they had formed a link that went beyond the simple nageric level. Maybe this time everything really would work out.

        Kelidan didn't speak as he crossed the room to accept a mug of tea. To preserve the mood, neither did Liiron. There was no need for words. They had discussed every detail, every technicality, every eventuality, long before today.

        As the Companion's nager flared ripe and ready, Liiron let himself go hyperconscious. Soothing, erasing doubt and desperation, that blazing selyn field moved closer, and Liiron reached out to accept it.


        Kelidan leaned forward, making the fifth contact point with his lips. Immediately selyn began to flow, easing the full-to-bursting sensation the Companion had endured for the last few days.

        After an initial moment of hesitation, the channel's draw speed increased.

        Kelidan knew he had become too accustomed to channels of lesser capacity. Until Liiron had come to Willow, it had been years since Kelidan had had cause to drop all his barriers in transfer, offering no resistance whatsoever. He'd dropped his barriers adequately in training sessions over the past month; could he do it now?

        One by one his barriers fell away as the channel drew faster, harder. Utterly unresisting now, Kelidan reveled in the sensations of the first truly sufficient transfer he had had in years. This was the way a Companion's body was meant to be used; this was how it was supposed to feel! Why had he been willing to do without this for so long?

        Liiron drew harder, and Kelidan let go of a last tiny increment of resistance he hadn't known he'd been holding. Selyn rushed out of him, faster and still faster, with the ecstatic tingle that told him he was approaching the limits of his own ability to offer more speed. The closer he came to his limit, the more wonderful it felt. He made no attempt to signal a slowdown, trusting the Farris sensitivity to recognize his limits and not draw beyond them. He soared upon rushing waves of hot tingling delight.

        Suddenly a shudder went through Liiron's body and the flow dropped to a trickle as the channel teetered on the brink of abort. Signaling quickly, Kelidan seized control, driving his selyn into the reluctant channel as fast and hard as he was able. Liiron steadied, pulled back from the brink of abort, and took back control of the flow. The joyful tingling of perfect transfer surged through Kelidan's nerves again, and again the channel responded by shuddering towards abort.

        He's afraid of a good transfer! Kelidan realized, and seized control of the flow again. This time he held on to control, even as the channel steadied.

        Through the link of the rushing selyn, the Companion could feel Liiron's despair, his self-hatred, his sense of unworthiness as he surrendered all control of the transfer to the Gen, no longer trusting himself to manage the flow. The glorious tingling turned to stinging needles of Sime self-disgust.

        Kelidan recognized and understood that feeling of unworthiness. Better to abort than to let Liiron do this to himself. Bend like the willow, Kelidan thought, and instantly surrendered all control to the channel.

        Liiron hung once more at the brink of abort. Then, buoyed up by the Companion's gesture of trust, he seized control of the flow, steadied, and held it.

        Passing the peak now, the flow began to diminish naturally. One sparkling final moment of ecstasy, and it was over. Exhausted as if he had run up a mountainside, Kelidan sank into the welcome darkness of drowsy completion.

        Moments later, he lifted his head and opened his eyes. Slowly, almost reluctantly, the channel dismantled the rest of the contact. Kelidan sat up and reached for the tea, not caring which mug had been whose. He topped up both cups, handed one to Liiron, then raised the other in silent salute.

        “Thank you,” said Liiron. He lifted the cup in a steady hand. “That was the closest thing to an adequate transfer that I've had in months. Not a single abort.”

        “But only close to adequate.” Kelidan studied the channel, seeing not the faintest signs of postsyndrome. “I'm sorry that was the best I could do for you.”

        Liiron shook his head. “Don't be sorry. It was good enough. I should have far fewer health problems this month. And I'm impressed by the way you stretched yourself. You were up to within three percent of my minimum satisfaction threshold in draw speed, and six percent of my capacity.” He reached out and took hold of Kelidan's forearm, extended a single lateral to quiver against the Gen's ronaplin-covered skin. “Can you feel that? Your production rate and my consumption are almost twice as close to being in synch now.” He sheathed his tentacles and took his mug in both hands.

        “Next month it will be perfect,” Kelidan promised. “You won't even have to think about holding back.”

        A shadow flitted across Liiron's face. “I'm sorry about the aborts,” he said. “I thought I'd already licked that particular phobia. It's been six months; I should be over it by now. But – I never want to burn a Companion like that again.”

        “You can't harm me,” assured Kelidan. “Your control is as good as I've ever seen. Besides, even if my speed and capacity only grow half as much as they did this month, next month I'll be so close to you that you couldn't possibly burn me enough to matter. A bit of a headache at worst, maybe. You don't have to be careful with me ever again. Gens are sturdy, you know.”

        “Oh?” said Liiron with a wry smile. “I'll remember that, the next time I see you trying to get by on just a couple of hours' sleep as if you were a Sime. Gens are fragile, despite their sturdiness.”


        The next morning, as Kelidan had anticipated, Liiron came in search of answers. The channel entered the Sectuib's office without stopping to use the magnificent wooden door knocker, crafted in the shape and colours of Willow's tree-in-circle crest. He closed the door behind himself, and nodded greeting to both Kelidan and Kira.

        “I think this would be a good time to talk,” he said without preamble. “None of the three of us has anywhere we have to be for at least an hour. And thanks to you, Kelidan, I'm feeling healthier and more clear-headed than I've been in months.

        Blanketing the ambient with calm, Kelidan set down his pen and asked with studied casualness, “What did you want to talk about?”

        Liiron scooped a stack of papers off the only other chair in the room, helped himself to a mug of trin tea, and sat. “Question one: how did you manage to disjunct, or at least semi-junct, an entire village? Question two: I know where all the extra Gens come from, but where do you keep them? And question three: how do you manage all this, legally and financially?”

        Kira and Kelidan exchanged glances, but it was Kelidan who spoke.

        “Consider several factors,” he said slowly, resting his elbows on the desk and steepling his fingers in front of his face. “One is that this valley is very high up a mountainside, in a very remote and lightly populated area. And both Stoak and Willow are very small. We accomplish a great deal simply by being unnoticed and unimportant. We're too small, too trivial to bother with. And no one ever comes here by accident, or by any path other than the road through the high and narrow pass by which you arrived.”

        “Another factor is the people of this region,” Kira interjected, as smoothly as if it had been rehearsed. “Rugged individualists all, even down the hill in Rev. And up here, a village full of artists and artisans: creative, intelligent, and mostly well-educated and openminded people.”

        “And consider the climate,” added Kelidan. “The snow isolates us completely for half of every year. And the deep winter cold forces Simes to augment to boost their metabolic rates almost constantly. That's not a choice, it's a survival necessity. Yet the government Pen rations are the same here as anywhere else, the nearest Choice Market is nearly two weeks' ride away even when the pass is open, and the typical artist's income doesn't allow for the purchase of a lot of extra kills anyway.”

        “Willow has been here, on the outskirts of Stoak, for almost a century,” said Kira, “an artists' Householding alongside an artists' village, kindred spirits from the start. And from the very beginning, some of the openminded creative thinkers in the village saw a Householding, and its channels, not with the contempt that townspeople elsewhere tend to show towards Householdings, but as a potential solution to the kill shortage. If channels could help stretch the supply of Pen Gens by reusing some of them, then channels were a good thing, and Willow was welcome here. Mind you, the villagers didn't want to become Householders, and most of them didn't want to disjunct, but in return for channels' help they were willing to do business with us, and offer some major concessions.”

        “Also,” said Kelidan, “we're far enough from the border, here, that there really wasn't much hope for kids who established to make it to safety, until Willow was here. Then folks from Stoak – and occasionally from down in Rev, too – started sending their kids to us. If their parents lived in Stoak, those Gens could keep visiting their families and participating in Stoak's social life, even after they'd pledged Unto Willow. And although the Householders never dared suggest it, some of the kids in changeover wanted to join Willow too, to stay with their friends who had come here. Since those early days our main gates have always stood open, day and night, so people could go back and forth freely. We keep the snow shoveled away from the foot of the gates, so they can be closed if there's ever necessity, but there's never been cause to shut them for more than a day or two. We close them on Founding Day, when we celebrate Willow's existence as an independent entity, and we close them for the sake of appearances when a government inspector comes up the hill, but so far we have never closed them to defend ourselves from the people of Stoak.”

        “Never?” asked Liiron, clearly impressed.

        “Not once – though during one lean spring about forty years ago, when bears attacked the village, we closed our gates with the people of Stoak safely inside them, until the bears were gone.”

        “So from those beginnings, things just built gradually?”

        “Not entirely,” said Kelidan. “When Zelerod's work was published, everyone in Stoak read it, and parents began encouraging their children to start out non-junct. But few tried to disjunct who were already accustomed to the kill. And they made a clear mental distinction between Pen Gens and 'people' Gens.”

        A heavy silence fell, then. Kelidan stared at Kira, Kira stared down into her lap, and Liiron watched them both. Zlinning the ambient, he was clearly unwilling to push for the next part of the story.

        After a few minutes, Kira spoke. “Because the pass closes every winter, the Pen has always gotten in a half-year's supply of Gens every fall, to get the town through until spring. The winter I turned eight, there was a very early fall snowstorm that closed the pass, and it kept snowing heavily, so the fall shipment of Gens couldn't get through. Everyone in the village knew what this meant, of course, and they all immediately turned to Willow for channels' transfer. Those who were young enough tried to disjunct, but of course the older villagers couldn't. They each needed one or two real kills to get them through the winter.”

        Kira folded her hands on the desk, twining her handling tentacles together tightly as she continued. “They stretched the supply of Pen Gens as far as they could stretch it, and several of the oldest Simes chose to die rather than use up another kill that their children or grandchildren required. But with spring thaw still weeks away, there came a day when the last Pen Gen was gone.”

        Liiron waited, scarcely daring to breathe, until Kira resumed her tale. “Sectuib Zal – he was Nelsa's first husband, Sylval's father – didn't know what to do. He briefly considered locking Willow's gates, to protect our Gens, but that was voted down. He and the other channels sat vigil with dying village Simes, and shoved selyn into some of them by main force, through abort after abort. Simes going into hard need began showing up at the empty Pen, asking to be locked in so that they wouldn't go after their brothers and sisters, their sons and daughters in Willow for a kill when they became desperate.

        “Willow's Gens began talking among themselves. These were their parents and brothers and friends who were dying of attrition in the Pen. That night, the Gen who was chief cook at the time put a heavy sedative in the Simes' mushroom soup, and the Gens held a meeting.”

        Kira took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. “At the end of that meeting they drew straws, and twenty-seven of Willow's Gens, including my brother Len, who had established only a month before and was hoping to train as a Companion, walked out of Willow's gates and into the Pen, and offered themselves to the Simes in attrition there. Two of them survived. You'll find the names of the other twenty-five in Willow's Memorial.”

        There was a long silence, punctuated only by the sound of normal everyday traffic in the hallway outside the office.

        Struggling to lighten the ambient despite his own mood, Kelidan spoke. “By the time I arrived here, six years ago, there was hardly a fully junct Sime left in Stoak, and not a villager there who wouldn't die to defend Willow. The outside world perceives nothing; Stoak still pays Pen taxes, and still receives its full quota of Gens every year. But all the ones that aren't – used – are given to us. You've met Ervon, who runs the Pen. He even screens the incoming stock, trying to identify the most promising individuals and keep them from the kill. He – one time he managed to stretch himself to nine months between kills, and nearly died of it. He's not unique.”

        Liiron, who had begun weaving his tentacles in a complex dance through his steepled fingers as he listened, cleared his throat and spoke. “Now I understand what you have here in Willow, and why it's so precious to you. What I don't understand is how you make it work – the paperwork, the government inspections, the taxes. How you feed so many Gens, and where you put them all.”

        Although the atmosphere in the office had lightened, now it became tense in a different way. Kelidan and Kira exchanged cautious glances. Then Kelidan spoke. “What we have here is very precious to us but very – unconventional. Having trained at Zeor, I know that Zeor is the most…conservative…of Houses. And you are ambrov Zeor. It seems like a miracle that when we called for help, we were sent a channel with the capacity to do all that we require. But before I speak of our methods to you, I must understand that miracle a little better.”

        Liiron quirked one expressive Farris eyebrow upwards and gave a wry smile. “It shows, that you have spent time as a diplomatic escort.” He sheathed his tentacles and sat back in a casual, open posture, as carefully calculated as Kelidan's words had been. “It appeals to my sense of irony, Kel, that last night you and I shared so much trust in our transfer together, but today we must fence with one another like strangers.”

        “Strangers, but I hope not enemies.” The Companion made it a question.

        “Not enemies, nor even opponents, I think,” said Liiron. “So who am I, and what the shen is a Zeor Farris channel doing in a tiny mountain Householding in Norwest Territory? Who sent me, what's my agenda, and what damage might I do to this beautiful but fragile thing your people have built at such cost?”

        Kelidan acknowledged the shift in tactics with a tiny swirl of his nager.

        “The simple fact is,” said Liiron, “that I have always been a thorn in cousin Klyd's shoe, and he was delighted at this chance to be rid of me. At home, I'm an embarrassment; here, I'm quietly exiled to a remote mountaintop, while scoring points for Zeor in a diplomatic dance with Norwest Territory's Householders' Council.”

        Kelidan couldn't help a tiny sympathetic smile, but he couldn't afford to let go of his questions so easily. “What sort of embarrassment are you?”

        “A very quiet and private sort.”

        Kelidan waited, saying nothing.

        “To anyone but a Farris, Klyd and I are as similar as two acorns from the same tree. Apart from the age difference, we even look alike. When I was in Capital, people would see me strolling down a hallway dressed in Zeor blue, and give me Sectuib's greeting. I was tempted to get a sign to hang around my neck, saying, 'I'm only his cousin.'”

        “So you and Sectuib Farris are just too much alike?” asked Kira.

        “No! To outsiders, all Farrises seem alike. To a Farris…” Liiron shrugged. “As Farrises go, we're opposites. I'm outgoing where he's shy, outrageous where he's conventional, a risk-taker where he's cautious – and cautious at times when he'd take a risk. He can't understand me or predict what I'll do and it drives him crazy – and all the more so, since I'm third in line for Sectuib if he dies before Muryin is grown. He'd dearly love to trade me away to some other House, preferably on a remote mountaintop in another Territory. Failing that, at least he can send me off on a mission of mercy and hope I'm gone a good long time.”

        Kelidan frowned. “Third in line… Would you want to be Sectuib of Zeor?”

        “Do I look crazy? An ordinary channel has burdens enough; Klyd carries more than any of us. I love him and respect him, even though it isn't mutual – but I wouldn't want to be him.”

        Kelidan looked at Kira, who had been zlinning the other channel throughout this exchange. She gave a tiny shrug.

        “There's more to my story, of course,” Liiron said, “But I give you my word, Unto Zeor, that I am not here to judge Willow, nor to harm it, nor to do anything other than offer such assistance as you require.”

        Kira nodded to Kelidan, confirming that she zlinned truth in Liiron's words.

        “Very well," said Kelidan, after a pause just a shade too long. “For Willow's sake, I hope you are what you seem to be. I won't try to bind you by oath, but I do ask for your simple promise that what we're about to share with you will not be spoken of outside this valley, in any way that might harm Willow. And if you cannot in good conscience stay with us once you understand our methods, I ask that you at least delay your departure until we can find some other channel. Kira and Elgi can't continue through the winter with the kind of crushing workload they had before you arrived. Not with winter's extra demands.”

Liiron digested this in silence long enough for Kira to begin fidgeting before he replied. “I promise, Unto Zeor, that I shall do nothing to harm the good people of Willow, or of Stoak. And whatever I may think of your methods, I will not deny my service to those in need.”

        It was both less and more than Kelidan had asked for, but he knew it was the best he was going to get. Choosing his words carefully, he took the plunge.

        “In Nivet Territory the Tecton, led by Zeor, has chosen that for survival's sake the Householdings must abide by the laws of the junct government, even when they are unjust. The alternative would be to invite the wrath of the juncts, and lose the precarious political balance that permits the Householding way of life to continue. But in Norwest we have nothing like the Tecton. Our Householders' Council is a very loose supportive alliance, but makes no decisions that are binding upon all its members. Therefore we break no agreements, and are answerable only to ourselves, when we survive by breaking the law. If we are caught, other Houses are free to condemn us as loudly as they wish; in fact, we would encourage them to, for their own survival's sake.”

        Liiron nodded slowly, unsurprised. “So tell me,” was all he said.

        “Our first line of defense,” said Kira, “is simply that we are small, remote from the centres of civilization and government, and not worth bothering with. As long as on the surface we seem unremarkable, we are ignored.”

        “Our second line of defense,” continued Kelidan, “is the rugged individualists of Rev, who without any prompting from us, delight in resisting, harassing, annoying, and impeding government inspectors and tax collectors, who quickly come to understand that their continued good health is contingent upon not being too diligent in their work. Most of them face enough difficulty and delay in Rev that they don't even think about coming up here. As long as our paperwork appears to be in order, they shrug and pass us by.”

        “But if an inspector does decide to come up the mountain,” said Kira, “we have friends in Rev who give us enough forewarning to do what we must before the inspection team arrives. As insurance, there's always a guard posted at the top of the pass. The inspectors find our paperwork in order, our taxes paid, the right number of Gens in the Householding and in the Pen. And despite our solicitous offers of medication for their altitude sickness, they feel increasingly ill the longer they stay here – too ill, after three or four days, to do anything except retreat to lower ground. Such a shame, that none of our medications do them much good.”

        Liiron laughed at the deadpan solemnity of Kelidan's nager. “How do you hide the extra Gens? And – cutting your Gen tax gives you some money to work with, but how do you house and feed them all? You can't possibly be farming up here in this climate.”

        Kelidan smiled. “You've met Luan and Kord, our Senior File Clerks. Remember I mentioned that they both have excellent memories?”

        Liiron nodded.

        “And you must have wondered,” said Kira, “why Kel and I seem to spend all our free time in here, catching up on paperwork.”

        Liiron shrugged. “Not really. Most Householdings turn into bureaucracies as soon as they reach a certain size.”

        Kelidan nodded ruefully before speaking. “We keep two complete sets of records. The official ones are stored here and in the room next door, where an inspector would expect to find them. The real ones are stored in very flammable wooden crates, in a room with the largest fireplace in Willow. Backup copies are in Luan's and Kord's memories. We've only had to burn the files once, when an inspector got a little too close to them. As for where we hide our Gens – some are in plain sight, in the Householding compound or in the Pen. Many of the rest, in summer, live outdoors, under canvas. In winter – this mountain is riddled with well-reinforced mine tunnels, some recent and some left behind by the Ancients. It doesn't take much work to turn a dry tunnel into a safe, cozy, and well hidden living space. Our real mining activities provide enough of a cover to divert the inspectors. And mining pays well; our wagons go down the mountain loaded with ore, and come back full of grain and vegetables from the lowlands. And some of our Gens, while they're out on the mountain, living away from Simes for weeks or months at a time, supplement their diet with meat. You've seen flocks of sheep out there. Some belong to Willow, some to private owners in Stoak. The Gens who tend them harvest their meat, as well as their milk, wool, and hides.”

        Liiron looked a little ill at the thought, but covered it quickly. “You use so much wool here, I've had trouble avoiding it,” he commented.

        Kelidan grinned. “You wouldn't believe what we went through during the two weeks before you arrived, trying to clear all the wool from rooms you'd be using. It seemed there wasn't a single rug, blanket, curtain, jacket, or upholstered chair in all of Willow, that didn't contain wool. And most of our creams and lotions – which you'll discover you require a lot of, in this cold climate – have a lanolin base. We had to raid Liara's cooking oil supply, to make shaving cream and soap for you.”

        “I do appreciate the effort.” Liiron sat back in his chair. “So you've got a well-balanced system here, saving many Gen lives and gradually disjuncting the entire village.”

        “I don't know that I'd call it well-balanced,” replied Kelidan. “We're not going to turn a Gen away, but as long as Stoak's willing to keep paying Pen taxes for Gens they don't kill, we're bringing in new Gens faster than we can house and feed them. Rapid growth isn't necessarily a blessing. Between drugs and inbreeding, many of those Pen Gens are never going to become fully functioning members of Willow. Even the ones who will eventually recover require a lot of tending during the first year or two; many have a lot of health problems and only live a few years. Food is the biggest difficulty, though. And you're right; there's very little in the way of food crops that we can grow here. Even with greenhouses, the growing season is very short.”

        “But we're drowning in surplus selyn,” added Kira. “We've got one of the inventors in Stoak and two of our Householders working on a project to devise an artificial selyn storage device. If we had that, we could laugh at Zelerod's doom. And if we could find a way to turn selyn into food for our Gens…”

        “Which reminds me,” said Kelidan. “Sarpin and Mong were most unhappy that Melina ambrov Frihill left before they could ask her about Frihill's research into the Ancients' methods of storing electricity. They seem to think there might be a useful parallel between storage of electricity and storage of selyn.”

        “Melina wouldn't have been the person to ask anyway,” said Liiron. “Her specialty is Ancient language and literature. But I could give you the names of the right people in Frihill to write to. And you might want to talk to the folks at the Bandegog Institute in Moriathon. They're junct, but they've got an excellent reputation as archaeologists.”

        Kelidan jotted a note to himself before drawing the discussion back to the original topic. “If we can find a solution to the food problem, then as long as we can keep being ignored, when Zelerod's Doom hits, it will pass us by. Even if no one else survives, we will. Humankind won't die.”

        “But if anyone figures out what's going on here…” Liiron began.

        “They won't wait for the Doom to hit,” affirmed Kelidan. “They'll round up the miners and tunnel-dwellers as Wild Gens, and burn Willow – and probably Stoak as well – to the ground. All in the name of justice and civilization.”

        “Then let's make sure our secret stays hidden,” said Liiron.

        Noting the use of the pronoun, Kelidan and Kira exchanged broad grins.


        Kelidan had spent the last several hours assisting Liiron as he trained Sylval in outfunctions and emergency drills.

        At last Liiron sat back on the contour lounge and said, “That's enough for one day. You're doing well, Syl.”

        Sylval got up and went to the corner where Kelidan kept his hot plate and teakettle. Kelidan watched as Liiron extended his handling tentacles, two at a time, in a patterned stretch designed to relieve muscle tension. Without comment, Kelidan stood, moved to the seat Sylval had just vacated, and expertly began massaging the channel's hands and forearms. Liiron sat with his eyes closed, his expression reminiscent of a contented cat on a warm lap.

        Kelidan's fingers paused, backtracked, and re-explored the bit of ventral tentacle they had just been rubbing. “Hmm, that's odd. I've never encountered that before.”

        “What?” asked Sylval from across the room. Lazily, Liiron opened his eyes.

        “This tentacle has an extra muscle. Come here and feel this.”

        Obediently, Sylval let Kelidan guide her fingers along Liiron's ventral, but it was obvious from her expression that she was finding nothing out of the ordinary. “Is it a problem?” she asked at last.

        “I wouldn't expect so. There are thousands of tiny variations in human anatomy: number and placement of muscles, of ligaments, structures of bones and joints, placement of internal organs. You and I probably have a dozen small differences that have nothing to do with gender. I thought I knew all the common variations on tentacle musculature, but this one's new to me. Is it on all of them, Ron?”

        Liiron extended all of his handling tentacles for Kelidan's inspection. “Just the inside ventrals. I don't know of anyone else with the same quirk, and I've never found any use for it, except that it lets me do this.” He bent the tentacle sharply in a movement that, if it had been done with a finger, would have been an obscene gesture among out-Territory Gens. Sylval giggled.

        Kelidan resumed his massage, and Sylval went to pour the boiling water over the trin leaves.

        “You know,” said Liiron, “I've worked with hundreds of Companions in my travels, but you're only the third one to notice that muscle.” He sat up straighter and clasped Kelidan's hand in his own, curling a dorsal briefly in a gesture of sincerity. “I owe you an apology, Kelidan, for my harsh words the day we met. I called you a slacker, and you're not. You're one of the most diligent and careful Companions I've met.”

        Kelidan reclaimed his hand and gave a small embarrassed shrug. “It's just that I take seriously the responsibility that's implicit in my power over you. Syl,” he added, slightly louder, “Let's have the tea over in the corner, on the softer chairs.” He went to help her with the mugs and coasters.

        When they were settled with their tea, Sylval asked, “Power? Responsibility?”

        “Which must always be intertwined,” said Liiron, spiraling two dorsal tentacles together to illustrate his point.

        “Syl,” said Kelidan, “what is a Companion's duty?”

        Realizing now that her day's lesson had not ended, but simply shifted focus, Sylval carefully gave the answer she had been taught. “A Companion's duty is to assist a channel by providing whatever the channel requires.”


        “Huh?” The younger Gen looked flustered.

        “Do you mean to tell me you've been working to become a Companion since the day you established, if not for years before, and you have no idea why we do what we do?” Kelidan set down his mug and stared at Sylval. In silent reinforcement, Liiron leaned forward, resting a hand on Kelidan's knee.

        “It's – well,” Sylval gestured helplessly, struggling to find words for something so self-evident that she had never consciously thought about it. “What channels do is so very important, so absolutely necessary. But they can't do it without our help.”

        “There's much more to being a Companion than simply serving transfer and managing fields,” said Liiron slowly, emphasizing each word as he spoke. “If you want to make this your life's work, it's not enough to have a repertoire of skills. You must think and understand. It's time for you to begin to understand the relationship between channel and Companion, the decisions you'll be forced to make, the priorities that will rule your life.”

        “It's possible, Syl,” interjected Kelidan, “that you've already learned a lot of these things, just by growing up in a family of channels and Companions. Did Nelsa and Granif ever talk to you about their work, or their relationship?”

        “No,” said Sylval in a small voice. “That was all grownup stuff, to save for some time later. And then suddenly Mom was dead, and Granif, he's…” She shrugged helplessly. “He's not up to talking much, these days.”

        “Were you aware,” asked Kelidan into the awkward silence, “That one of the biggest sorrows between Granif and Nelsa was that he was never able to serve her a satisfactory transfer? He did give her transfer once or twice, but her capacity and speed were both too far above his. Travni and I served her transfers. And a few times, when Granif was away on business or otherwise unable, I served Nelsa's postsyndromes too, with Granif's blessing. He knew that she was far more vulnerable to coital deprivation than the average channel – which, incidentally, seems to run in the family and you'll probably pass the same weakness to your kids – and he was more concerned with Nelsa's health and wellbeing than he was with protecting his turf as her husband. Do you begin to understand the demands and pressures this work will put upon you, the ways in which everything else in your life must be placed upon the chopping block of necessity?”

        Sylval stared, wide-eyed.

        “Go have an adult-to-adult talk with Granif, before you go much further with this work,” said Kelidan more gently. “And let it also teach you another of the skills of a Companion: listening to pain.”

        There was an awkward silence. They sipped at their trin tea, each alone with their thoughts.

        Liiron drained his mug and refilled it, then set it down. “Let's get back to the question of the relationship between channel and Companion. Who's in charge?”

        Sylval's expression cleared. “The channel, of course!”

        “You think so?” said Liiron, raising one black Farris eyebrow. “Because the channel dashes around the Householding barking orders and issuing instructions, while the Companion scurries along behind him, managing the fields and carrying out the instructions?”

        Sylval nodded.

        Holding very still, Liiron carefully shifted his gaze down to his lap, where Kelidan had rested a single fingertip, ever so lightly, above a precisely chosen spot on Liiron's lateral sheath. “Who's in charge now?” the channel breathed softly.

        Sylval gasped. She already knew enough about Sime anatomy to know that a slight pressure on that spot would be fatal. Liiron didn't twitch, despite the explosive shift in her powerful nager.

        The point made, Kelidan moved his hand away and let out the breath he had been holding.

        “Look at it one way,” said Kelidan, “and the channel is in charge. The channel can do things no Gen can do, zlin things no Gen can perceive, can give or take selyn at will, can even use his showfield to emulate almost every one of the things that are part of a Companion's daily work. The channel is faster, stronger, and requires less sleep. A channel, even more than any other Sime, has the power to kill a Gen in transfer. But the channel is the only one who can give life to Simes without killing Gens. Therefore the channel holds both the power and the responsibility, and a Companion's greatest joy and honour is to serve the channel.”

        As smoothly as if they had rehearsed the lesson together, Liiron spoke into Kelidan's silence. “Look at it another way, and the power and responsibility are all in the hands of the Companion. The Companion could survive indefinitely without a channel; the channel can't survive a month without a Companion. And the Companion, ultimately, is in charge of any transfer situation. It's the Companion whose touch enables the channel to function, the Companion who shapes both the health and the usefulness of the channel. Alone, a channel can do little; it's the skill and effort of the Companion that turn the channel into a useful tool. And the Gen has a sturdiness and resilience that no channel can match. The most sensitive and powerful channels, the Farrises, are also the most fragile and vulnerable. In fact, the Companion is not so much obeying the channel's orders, as receiving and acting upon feedback from the tool in his hands, so that he can use it more effectively. The Companion is the one with all the responsibility and all the power.”

        “But,” said Sylval, “everything still revolves around the channel. And a Sectuib is a channel by definition.”

        “Syl, can you think of any other kind of person who receives as much attention, as much service, as a channel?” asked Kelidan.

        The younger Gen was quiet for a minute, her fine pale hair falling forward over her face as she struggled with the question. At last she looked up, clearly stumped.

        With a glance and a flick of his nager, Kelidan passed the question to Liiron.

        “A baby,” said Liiron softly, and waited until comprehension flooded Sylval's face and nager. “A tiny, helpless, vulnerable baby. Because the baby is too weak to care for its own requirements, but there are adults who value it enough to give of themselves to serve its necessities.”

        “But nobody obeys a baby,” protested Sylval.

        “They listen to its cries, to try to understand what it requires,” said Liiron. “But here's where the analogy breaks down, because a baby has not yet developed either mature judgment or self-discipline. A channel had better have both.”

        Sylval sat silently, biting at a strand of her hair as she stared back and forth between the two men. “Now you've got me really confused. You've made good arguments for both sides. Which one is right?”

        Liiron reached sideways to clasp Kelidan's hand, wrapping his tentacles around the joined fingers as Kelidan spoke. “They're both true, Syl. They're not mutually exclusive. It's a symbiosis, an equal team. Control passes back and forth from moment to moment in a dynamic balance that never holds still, communicated in signals so subtle that renSimes and ordinary Gens rarely pick them up. The glue that holds it all together is voluntary mutual vulnerability and mutual surrender, made possible by mutual trust.”

        “For a Companion, the vulnerability is a voluntary thing,” corrected Liiron. For the channel, it's a simple fact of life, enforced by the channel's anatomy. Now do you understand why we channels honour the Companions so much?”

        While Sylval considered that, Kelidan got up to make another pot of tea. As he stood, a small embroidered cushion dislodged itself from behind his back and fell to the floor. Sylval bent to pick it up, and read the neatly stitched motto aloud. “'A Companion's duty is love.' I like that. I like that better than all this talk about power and responsibility.”

        “In any sane system,” said Kelidan over his shoulder as he filled the kettle, “power and responsibility are inseparable. Love and trust are another such pair. Love means that you won't use the other person's openness and vulnerability against them; trust means that you dare let down your own guard and be vulnerable, knowing you won't be harmed. Any sort of intimacy, whether it's the lifelong bond of a marriage, or the working relationship of channel and Companion, is impossible without both.”

        “' A Companion's duty is love,'” Sylval repeated softly as she set the cushion back in its place.

        “It's a quote from a longer passage,” said Liiron, as Kelidan busied himself with the tea. “'A Companion's duty, above all else, is love. Not the misty-eyed love of romantic adoration, but the enduring love that expresses itself in all your acts and choices. Love for humankind in all its strength and sorrow, joy and weakness, struggling to survive through countless millennia. Love for the Sime, whose hopes and fears are no different from your own. Love for the Householding, your root and strength, your nurturance and your anchor, whose fate rests in your hands. Love for the channel, the living sacrifice who gives life to all and hope to humankind, who is worthy of your uttermost outpouring of gifts. And love, first and last, for yourself, for this is the source from which all other possibility of love must spring.' There's a parallel meditation for the channel, which says in part, 'Love for the Companion, whose deepest sacrifice is so freely given for your sake.'”

        Kelidan returned with the teapot. As Sylval held out her mug to be refilled, her hand shook visibly. She steadied the cup with both hands and stared down into the steaming liquid until Kelidan had reseated himself. Then she looked up. “You're scaring me with all this talk about sacrifice. I've always thought of a Companion's work as a joy, a privilege, an honour. A lot of hard work, yes, but worth it.”

        “It is all those things,” said Kelidan, “but it's also a burden, a responsibility, and a sacrifice. Even when the joy fades – when the channel is someone you can't stand, you've got a headache all the way down to the base of your spine, the patient dies and all your efforts seem futile – the responsibility remains, and the sacrifice is still necessary. You must understand that before you go much further with your training. It's too big a burden to carry without your freely given consent, and you can't really consent unless you understand.”

        “That's the biggest single difference between a channel and a Companion,” Liiron said. “A channel is a channel by birth. Whether you're a Farris, and know from earliest childhood that you're going to be a channel, or whether you only find out at changeover, there's no real choice involved. If your body is a channel's body, then you're a channel, and you'll spend your life doing a channel's work. But a Companion chooses to be a Companion. Certainly there's still a genetic factor involved, that determines whether you have the physical capacity. But as a Gen, you're not ruled by your body. You can choose whether or not to develop that capacity and actually be a Companion. And you're free to change that choice at any time. That's why channels honour the Companions so much, because we understand the magnitude of the sacrifice they make, and we know that it's freely chosen. Each day, it's freely chosen all over again.” Liiron twined a handling tentacle gently around Kelidan's wrist. “How can we fail to honour so generous a gift?”

        “And how can a Companion fail to honour the channels,” said Kelidan gruffly, “for bearing so gracefully and with so little complaint, a burden that they were never free to choose?” He briefly covered Liiron's tentacle with his other hand, but his gaze never left Sylval. As the channel sat back and picked up his tea, Kelidan rested his hands in his lap and continued, “That's why we do it and keep doing it.” He looked sharply at the misty smile with which the younger Gen was favouring him. “But don't rush into this work without thinking about it, just because it's possible to change your mind. It's true, it's possible to stop working as a Companion. And many who begin the training do drop out during the first few months. But after that, very few Companions walk away from this vocation, unless forced to by age or injury. You must go into this accepting that your commitment is permanent. That's why we're trying to confront you, now, with hard truths you might prefer not to think about.”

        An awkward silence fell, and Sylval began tracing nervous patterns around the edge of her tea mug with one fingertip. At last she said, “So what did that quote mean about a 'living sacrifice'?”

        Liiron took another sip of tea and set down his mug before answering. “It's hard enough to be willing to die for this work. But dying for something is relatively easy, because it's quick. Living for the same cause is harder in some ways, because it can be just as painful – but it goes on and on and on. Most of the things people recognize as courageous acts of martyrdom are the result of a single split-second decision. And I'm not pretending those aren't necessary and worthy. But the truly courageous choices are the ones a person makes over and over and over again, knowing the cost but facing the same burden again tomorrow.”

        “But living for something still includes being willing to die for it,” said Kelidan. “Here's another of those complementary pairs for you to think about, Syl. A channel – any channel – is willing to die rather than harm a Gen.”

        “This isn't just an abstract ideal,” said Liiron. “Many channels have died in suicide aborts. Every channel goes into every transfer situation, no matter how routine, with that possibility in mind.”

        “And likewise,” Kelidan continued, “a Companion is willing to die rather than let harm come to a channel. In practice, more Companions die protecting channels from knives and whips and falling trees than in transfer. But a Companion goes into every transfer situation fully willing to die for the channel's survival. And it's only because that commitment is real, and without reservation, and reciprocal, that such a sacrifice is in fact so rarely required from either.”

        Sylval stared from Kelidan to Liiron and back again, wide-eyed. “But how can any sane person want to die?” she asked in a small voice.

        “There's a difference between wanting to die, and being willingly resigned to it,” answered Liiron. “A channel, or a Companion, who wants to die –“

        “--whether out of a misplaced sense of idealism, or from depression and despair –“Kelidan interjected.

        “—is a danger not only to themselves but to everyone else around them, most especially their transfer partner,” finished Liiron.

        Sylval seemed on the brink of frustrated tears. “But – but if… I don't understand.”

        Kelidan reached across and took Sylval's slender hand in his, resting his other hand reassuringly on top. “The urge to survive, to keep on living, is the most basic instinct any creature has. If it weren't, our species wouldn't have survived this long, through all the millennia of hardships. But there's a thing that happens sometimes…” He let his voice trail off, his eyes turned inward to a distant memory.

        Liiron spoke into the other man's silence. “Tell me, Syl, have you ever been in a situation where you knew – or at least, believed absolutely – that you had only moments left to live, and there was nothing you could do to change your fate?”

        She shook her head.

        “Well, I have,” said Kelidan, returning from his reverie. “Many times, now. And I can tell you, as long as there's any faint hope for survival, the human instinct is to struggle to live. Calmly, perhaps. Or maybe in a blind panic. But when the moment comes that you know you're about to die, and there's nothing you can possibly do about it, suddenly all the panic goes away, and there's a calm feeling of absolute acceptance, of utter peace in the face of the inevitable.” Visibly struggling for words, Kelidan gestured helplessly.

        Liiron nodded. “Yes, that's exactly how it is. The first time I felt that acceptance, that peace with death, I was only ten years old. Still a child, by several months. I was in a wagon, being pulled up a steep switchback trail by a pair of horses. There was a sudden wood-splintering noise, and the wagon stopped. The driver got out to see what was the matter. There was some jerking and jiggling, then suddenly another wood-splintering noise, and the wagon with me in it was tumbling end-over-end down the mountainside. There was nothing I could do except cling to the rail in absolute terror. I knew I was going to die. And then I felt a peace, a warmth, a calm acceptance. I was still tumbling end-over-end down the mountain in a box of fragile wood, but it didn't matter any more. What would happen would happen. I was in a bubble outside time, an infinite moment of peace and acceptance. And then the wagon came to a level place and stopped, and I was just a kid lying on my side with some broken bones, and life and pain and hope and fear all came back.”

        Kelidan gave Sylval's hand a squeeze and sat back against the cushions, turning to meet Liiron's eyes with a look of shared understanding. “Once you've felt that acceptance of death, if only for a moment, you never forget it. And you recognize it when you see it in others – the very old, the terminally ill, those in the last stages of dying by attrition. And the next time you find yourself facing inevitable death, it's easier to reach that point of acceptance again.”

        “Or if not easier,” said Liiron, “at least less impossible. And the next time, and the next time. Until finally that soul-deep stillness, that acceptance, is a familiar sensation that you can find, almost at will. And now that's how I –“

        “—go into every transfer,” the two men finished softly in unison, their eyes locked to one another's.

        After a moment, Kelidan added, “It's not even a particularly rare thing. You know the story of The Twenty-Seven Who Gave Themselves, whom we honour each spring on Remembrance Day?”

        Sylval nodded, looking dazed.

        “What you may not know,” the older Gen continued, “is that of the twenty-five who died, eight were stripped rather than burned. If they had all been at maximum field, and the Simes less deeply into attrition, most of those eight would have lived. But the point is that those eight, and one of the two who survived, offered no resistance, no fear, when they were taken in killmode. It wasn't because they expected to survive; it was because in the short time between the drawing of lots, and their arrival at the Pen, they each found that same acceptance of death that we've been talking about. Fully a third of that randomly selected group. It's not rare at all.”

        Sylval folded her hands, white-knuckled, in her lap, visibly struggling to still their shaking. Kelidan glanced from her to the channel, who was zlinning her closely. After a moment, both men sat back against the cushions, waiting while their mutual pupil struggled to cope with the lesson she had just been given. After a while, to fill the silence, Liiron poured out the last of the tea and went to the sink to rinse the pot. When he sat down, Sylval stirred, looking back and forth between the two men.

        “I'm scared now,” she said. “I've never been afraid of the idea of being a Companion before. It's something I've always looked forward to, but now I'm terrified. And you did this to me deliberately, both of you. Why? Isn't fear the worst thing that can happen to a Companion?”

        “A Companion must be without fear,” said Kelidan quietly, aching with regret for what necessity required him to do to this young woman who still seemed so much a child, “but without fear for the right reasons.”

        “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred,” said Liiron, “at this point in a Companion's training, I'd be trying to teach fearlessness. But you're the hundredth case, Syl, because there are two kinds of fearlessness. What you've had until now is the fearlessness of innocence, of naiveté. The fearlessness of someone who has never known danger, never seen cause to be frightened. And the trouble with that kind of fearlessness is that it's fragile. The first time something the least bit frightening happens, it dissolves – not just into fear, but into panic. I could never feel safe in the hands of a Companion who was working out of naïve confidence, because I would be braced for it to shatter at any moment.”

        The channel glanced aside at Kelidan before continuing, “The other kind of fearlessness is the kind that comes from feeling fear and facing it, and then letting the fear go. It's different from courage; courage is about doing something in spite of fear. And it's not denial. Denial only pushes fear down under the surface, where it festers and gets bigger in hiding.”

        Sylval was almost in tears. “Then what the bloody shen am I supposed to do?”

        Kelidan automatically opened his mouth to reprimand the girl for swearing, then stopped himself. Sylval was an adult now; if he expected her to act like one, he must treat her accordingly. Instead he said, “Face the fear. Let yourself feel it. Get to know it. And then find your way beyond it, and out the far side.”

        He leaned forward, breaking her white-knuckled grip to take each of her hands in one of his own. “Syl, Nelsa and Granif chose to shelter you until you established. They let you see their own fearlessness without showing you the ongoing struggle to achieve it. They let you see their acceptance of the costs and burdens, without showing you what those burdens are. But now that you know that there are risks and fears and struggles, know that what they did show you is also real, and runs deep – the acceptance, the achievement of fearlessness, the love. And even though your parents sheltered you from the adult world, I remember enough about my own childhood to know that yours has been full of pain and fear and frustration, cruelty and doubt. You've already had practice in dealing with all those things. I've watched you struggle against them since you were a little kid. This is just more of the same, on a larger scale. You can do it.”

        Kelidan could see that his words weren't getting through. Liiron came to the rescue. “Talk to some of the other Companions and channels – maybe some of the ones closer to your own age. Spend some time in the Memorial – it has a way of putting things in perspective. Know that you can come to either one of us, at any hour of the day or night, if you want to talk. And cry when you have to; sometimes it's the only thing that helps.”

        In a sudden change of mood and manner Liiron stood and stretched, extending all his handling tentacles until they brushed the ceiling. “I'm on in the dispensary in fifteen minutes. Sylval, I'll see you at nine a.m. in the collectorium. Kel, Kira has shifted the schedule; you and I are on in the infirmary together at noon. Sleep well.” With Sime swiftness, he took his Zeor-blue cloak from its peg by the door, slung it around his shoulders, and was gone.

        Sylval stared at the closed door after the channel had left. After a moment, she turned her attention back to Kelidan.

        “Kel, do you mind if I ask a – personal – question?”

        “Go ahead.”

        “What's the hardest thing about serving a Farris channel? I mean, specifically a Farris?”

        The answer came to him without conscious thought. “Giving up chocolate.”


        Kelidan sighed. “I know; it's expensive, and hard to come by, and bad for my teeth. I've never been able to indulge in it often. But there's a big difference between 'not often' and 'never'.”

        Sylval was shaking her head in disbelief.

        Kelidan offered her a wry grin. “I know, it seems petty. But in the long run, the little sacrifices are harder than the big ones.”

        “Why can't you have chocolate?”

        “Many Farrises are somewhat allergic to chocolate, though a few eat it anyway. But Liiron is severely allergic to it. The tiniest trace – on my hands, on my lips, even on my breath – could send him straight to the infirmary. I'm not going to risk his health over something that's so easily avoided.”

        He stood and gathered up the tea mugs, then handed Sylval her jacket. “It's late, and you've had a long, hard day.” Gently, he brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Get some sleep, and I'll see you at breakfast.”

        She took the jacket and draped it over her arm; she didn't have to go outside to get to her own suite from here. “Good night, Uncle – I mean Sosu – Kel.”

        But as the door closed behind her, Kelidan thought grimly that it would probably be a long time before Sylval slept that night.


        Liiron took his time crossing the cobbled courtyard toward the dispensary, letting the cool crisp air and the brief solitude clear his thoughts. It verged on criminal, in his opinion, what Nelsa had done to her daughter by overprotecting her so. It was too late to chastise the late Sectuib for her choices. But Granif was the only father Sylval had ever known, and now when she required him the most he had abandoned her, retreating behind the barrier of his own grief. What he had forced upon Kelidan tonight was cruel beyond belief. It was clear that Kel, too, had taken Nelsa's death very hard, and Granif shouldn't have left him alone to shoulder the burden of explaining her parents' choices to Sylval. Liiron made a mental note to have a word with Granif tomorrow.

        No, he realized suddenly. It's not my place. I'm a guest here. It's up to Kelidan, to handle this as he sees fit.

        Liiron had gotten so bloodyshen used to the Farris mystique, so used to having people turn to him wherever he went, expecting him to take charge, solve problems, and fix the irreparable, that he was forgetting how to not do those tasks, though he hated them so much. Kelidan knew Granif better than an outsider possibly could, and knew whether the man was really as incapacitated by loss as he seemed. It had been Kelidan's own choice to shoulder the burden where Granif had failed, and he didn't require some meddling channel trying to protect him. Kelidan and Kira were, between them, perfectly capable of running this Householding. If they required Liiron's services as more than a channel, they would ask.

        Now that he thought about it, Liiron realized the relationship between Kelidan and Granif must be far more complex than simply that of two Companions in the same House.

        By channel's exemption, of course, custom had allowed Nelsa to bed whomever she chose, whenever she chose. It wasn't just a matter of propagating the channel's genes; if it were, it would have been extended to top male Companions like Kelidan, who also carried channels' genes, rather than to a female channel, who at best might hope to give birth a handful of times in her life. No, the channel's exemption was partly about genetics, but mostly about a channel's vulnerability to coital deprivation. The CD's could, in a matter of months, threaten a channel's performance, health, sanity, and ultimately his or her survival. Liiron himself was all too aware of the risks.

        Nevertheless it was not uncommon for a married channel to do as Nelsa had done, allowing her spouse a voice in her selection of additional partners. What was unusual was the way Granif had used his power. Most husbands would have used it to veto a potential serious rival for their wife's affections. Instead, Granif had used it to offer Nelsa the chance to enjoy, from another man, the one thing she could never have from him: the combination of transfer with sex. (He pushed aside the discomfort that thought raised in him; he knew that not every House shared Zeor's taboo about risking transfer dependency.) That Granif had offered this to Nelsa said a lot about how much Granif had loved her – and equally much about how deeply he trusted Kelidan. It was clear that Kelidan had not abused that trust. It was equally obvious that Kelidan, too, had deeply loved Nelsa, and must be grief-stricken at her loss. Liiron hadn't believed, for a minute, Kelidan's claim to have kept his heart free since Norda's death, even though Kelidan seemed to half believe it himself.

        But Granif had been free to succumb to his grief; Kelidan, with the weight of the entire Householding now resting upon his shoulders, had not. And now Granif had added to the younger Companion's responsibilities with yet another gesture of trust, asking him to teach Sylval.

        That Kelidan managed all these burdens so gracefully said a great deal about his strength and courage. Liiron had seen many able and powerful leaders in his travels, but none he respected more than Kelidan.

        Kelidan was also truly amazing as a teacher. It was a long time since Liiron had worked with an equal teaching partner; in the classroom, as everywhere else, other teachers tended to defer to the Zeor Farris channel. But tonight had been extraordinary. The two of them had meshed so well as teachers that they were almost finishing one another's sentences. Was it just Kelidan's long-ago Zeor training coming to the fore? Liiron didn't think so; most of what they'd been discussing tonight was not part of any established lesson plan, nor of official Zeor doctrines. They had simply been talking about the forces and ideas that shaped their lives; that they had so much in common was a happy coincidence, not the product of any curriculum.

        The balanced give and take had been exhilarating. If anything, the flaw in tonight's lesson was that the two teachers had been too much in accord. Soon, Liiron hoped, a topic would come up in which they'd be able to argue opposite sides of an issue.

        A channel's job was to care for the people of the Householding. A Companion's job was to care for the channel and the Householders; a First Companion's job was to do all that and care for the other Companions as well. But who took care of a First Companion?

        As he finished crossing the courtyard and entered the welcome warmth of the dispensary, Liiron made a mental note to ask Kira for some serious practical information.


        The two quarreling Simes paused in their arguments and stared past Kelidan towards the doorway of the warehouse. The Companion turned to find Liiron approaching. He opened his mouth to excuse himself from the debate, but the channel stayed him with a gesture and stopped a short distance away, leaning casually against a stack of crates. Kelidan returned his attention to the two combatants. With Liiron reinforcing his efforts to spread calm through the ambient, Kelidan quickly sorted out the quarrel and then went to join the channel.

        “Two dogs, one bone,” Kelidan explained succinctly. “Or in this case, two artisans, one sheet of ruby glass. And no more coming in, of course, until spring.”

        “So which is more temperamental?” asked Liiron with a wry grin. “The average artist, or the average channel?”

        Kelidan laughed out loud. “Just don't give me both in one package,” he said. “You weren't thinking of taking up sculpture, I hope?”

        Liiron made a show of pretending to consider the idea as he steered the two of them out of the warehouse into the early autumn sunshine. Then, sobering, he said, “You do a lot of mediation, don't you? Not just within Willow, but between Householders and townsfolk? I've even seen some of the townspeople bring you issues between one another to solve.”

        Kelidan shrugged. “I seem to have a knack for it. And I learned a lot from watching Nelsa – she was superb at it.”

        Liiron led the way around the corner of the building and onto the path that led to his quarters before responding. “You don't know how refreshing it is to be in a place where people don't automatically turn to me for arbitration, just because they see a Farris face. I've never been any good at that sort of thing. But people expect it of a Farris. So I muddle on through, the best I can, and every time, I'm amazed that they pay any attention to my advice at all.”

        He opened the door and ushered Kelidan into his suite before continuing, “Normally, a Companion only has to hold a channel together, so that the channel can keep everything and everyone else functioning. But you're doing it all right now – you're taking care of me, of the other channels, of Granif and Sylval and the other Companions – of the whole Householding.”

        “It's not quite that bad. I'll admit it was rough, just after Nelsa and the others died. But Kira is turning into a superb Controller, Liara always has a mug of hot trin and a listening ear for the kids, Mayor Arfin in Stoak has been a lot of help. We're managing.”

        “But you're the one who's been holding it all together. Who holds you together?”

        Kelidan shrugged.

        Liiron took the Companion's cloak and hung it along with his own, waved Kelidan to a seat on the sofa, and put the kettle on for tea before he continued, “It took me a while to find out what I wanted to know. Kira can be very close-mouthed, but she talked eventually.”

        “About what?”

        “You've made a lot of sacrifices to have me here. You made special arrangements with the cafeteria; you had all the contour lounges reupholstered to get rid of the wool, not to mention the sofas here and in your own suite.”

        Kelidan, uncomfortable with the channel's solicitude, began hamming it up. “Not just my sofa. My curtains, my blankets, my rug, half my wardrobe – not to mention the lanolin-based soap, my shave cream –“

        “And that's why,” Liiron interrupted, “with Kira's help, I've devised the perfect response to all your generosity.” With a flourish, he took a gift-wrapped box from the drawer of his desk and presented it to Kelidan.

        Kelidan peeled the paper away from the tightly sealed metal box, opened the lid – and quickly closed it again, alarm flooding through his nager. He damped the emotion, and looked up at Liiron's pleased grin. “Chocolate – Ron, I wouldn't dare – you can't afford to risk – thank you very much for the thought,” his nager bubbled with warm gratitude, tinged with regret, “But I wouldn't dare eat this, as long as I'm working with you.”

        Liiron gave a conspiratorial grin. “Kira's promised that at least a couple of times a month, she'll book a straight eighteen-hour gap when you and I aren't working together.” That, he knew, given Kelidan's love of solitude and privacy, was a gift of another sort. “That should give you time to indulge, and still get every trace of chocolate off your skin and your breath before you come near me again. And in an emergency,” he added, forestalling the Companion's objection, “we have a whole pharmacy full of Farris-specific medications, to help me survive even if I do come in contact with some chocolate. Just don't eat it on your contour lounge; it would be a shame to get the oils onto that wonderful new wool-free upholstery.”

        Kelidan closed his sagging jaw and sat staring at the channel, his nager pulsing with amazement, worry, and gratitude.

        “Thank you,” he said at last.

        “You're welcome,” said the channel. He glanced at the boiling kettle. “Would you like to make the tea?”

        “I'd be honoured.” Kelidan set down the box of chocolates on one arm of the sofa, and went to lift the kettle from the burner. “I really appreciate this too, you know.”

        “Appreciate what?” Liiron seemed genuinely puzzled.

        “That you let me make the tea. I know how hard it is for a Sime to let a Gen – especially a high-field Companion – handle hot things and sharp things. And I'm unusually clumsy, even for a Gen. Your trust and forbearance are remarkable.”

        “Unusually clumsy? You?” Liiron laughed. “Hardly. If anything, you're considerably less clumsy than most Gens. Unless, of course,” he added shrewdly, “you're still measuring yourself by the abnormally high standards of Dar's combat instructors?”

        Kelidan blinked. He'd never considered it that way. But before he could pursue the thought, Liiron sat down at the far end of the sofa and said, “Bring the tea over here, please, and join me. There's something I have to say to you.”

        Kelidan studied the channel curiously. It was unlike Liiron to rush through the amenities over a cup of tea. He was still several days short of hard need; Kelidan couldn't think of anything to account for the Sime's nervousness now. Projecting calmness into the ambient, he brought the tea tray across the room, sat next to Liiron on the sofa, and offered the channel a steaming cup.

        “Thank you.” Liiron took the cup and held it, staring into the dark surface of the liquid for a long moment before taking a sip.

        Deliberately casual, Kelidan took his own cup of trin and sipped from it, then shifted to sit with one leg bent under him on the cushions, his body turned towards the channel. “So what's on your mind?” he asked, judging that the tense silence had stretched on just a little too long.

        Liiron took another sip and set down his cup. He folded his hands in his lap, but his handling tentacles freed themselves from their sheaths to dance nervous rhythms above his fingers. “I owe you an apology,” he said at last, flicking a brief glance towards Kelidan before looking away again. “My behaviour towards you, on my first evening here, was entirely unforgivable.”

        “You've apologized to me already,” said Kelidan, “and I've forgiven you. We both know each other much better now. Don't worry about it.”

        “You don't understand.” With a deep sigh, Liiron stilled his dancing tentacles and raised his eyes to meet Kelidan's gaze. “Everything I accused you of that night, everything I tried to test you with or frighten you with – it was all flicking a tentacle at my own failings and fears. And a month later, I let you give me transfer without yet having given you clear warning of what you were dealing with in me.”

        “You did warn me that you'd been having a lot of transfer aborts lately. I wasn't taken by surprise when it almost happened again.”

        “But I didn't tell you why,” Liiron admitted miserably, “or whose fault it was, or what risk you faced.”

        “I saw in your file that you'd accidentally injured a Companion a few months back. It wasn't hard to deduce that it's your fear of another such accident that's been driving you to all those aborts ever since. When you offered to singe me deliberately, to bring my capacity up faster, I knew you didn't mean it.” He projected understanding and acceptance into his nager. “You were just saying that as a way of trying to deal with your own fears.”

        Amazement spread across Liiron's face. “That's why the suggestion didn't even frighten you.”

        Kelidan grinned. “It's a Companion's job to see right through a channel. I was pretty sure that, as a Zeor channel, you wouldn't deliberately singe any Gen, unless there was no other alternative.” He paused and eyed the channel, keeping his nager carefully neutral as he added, “On the other hand, I could afford to relax anyway because I knew that, as a Zeor-trained channel, if you did deliberately singe me, you'd have the skill to do it precisely enough to avoid doing me any real harm.” He kept his face and nager deadpan until Liiron's face registered shock. Only as the channel opened his mouth to offer protests and disclaimers did Kelidan let laughter erupt into his nager. “Don't worry – if I'd really thought you were serious about singeing me, I would have suggested adjourning to someplace a little less public than a window alcove at a party.”

        Liiron stared at the Companion a moment longer before relaxing and letting the corners of his too-revealing Farris mouth quirk upwards in a smile. This close to need, he couldn't be expected to have much of a sense of humour. But he did relax, sitting back against the sofa cushions. He poured himself another cup of tea and drained half of it before looking soberly at Kelidan once more. “Do you know how long it's been since anyone dared tease me like that? Or what a rare and precious thing it is to work and teach alongside someone who treats me as an equal, instead of putting me up on a shenoni-be-damned Farris pedestal?” He cut off the Gen's incipient comment with a flick of a ventral tentacle. “Yes, I know about your background, but that's not the point. The point is that I enjoy working with you. I'm comfortable around you in a way I haven't been comfortable with anyone in a long time. On the one hand, that means it's time to let go of some of my barriers and defenses. On the other hand,” he raised his eyes to meet Kelidan's, “I'm very much afraid of losing your trust and respect.”

        Kelidan held the gaze of those dark, typically Farris eyes as he said, “I give you my word, In Flexibility, Unto Willow, that whatever failings or weaknesses you are bracing yourself to confess to me, I will not reject you for them, nor hold you in contempt.” Less formally, he added, “Human weaknesses are a specialty of mine, in case you hadn't noticed. I've got so many of my own.”

        The channel's eyes went out of focus as he went hyperconscious, zlinning the mood behind the Companion's words. Silently, Kelidan pushed back his sleeves and leaned forward to offer his hands, inviting a deeper reading. Liiron took the offered intimacy and returned it in kind as he gripped the Gen's wrists with fingers alone and trustingly extended his vulnerable laterals across the cooler Gen flesh. After a moment he dismantled the contact and offered instead a single dorsal tentacle, which Kelidan twined among his fingers in a gesture of casual friendship.

        “So what did you want to tell me?” the Companion asked.

        The tentacle tensed, but did not withdraw. “I accused you of laziness, because you had not kept up the exercises you learned at Zeor,” said the channel in a level voice. “I had no right. To me, as ambrov Zeor, those exercises are a daily duty and an obligation. To you, ambrov Dar and later ambrov Willow, they are simply skills you once learned, to practice or not according to whether you find them useful. An unnecessary asceticism, if nothing in your work requires them.”

        “But to a Farris channel,” Kelidan acknowledged, “or to a Companion who would serve a Farris channel, they're not unnecessary and not asceticism. They're simply the basic tools of a channel's sanity, health, and function. I understood why you were so upset that I had let them lapse. And I assure you, I've been practicing every one of the exercises and disciplines in full form, every day since I first learned you were coming here. I know I'm still rusty, but I'm getting back into shape as fast as I can.”

        “I know,” said Liiron. “It shows in your nager. And your growth, these past few weeks, has been beyond anything I would have thought to see in a mature Companion. Already you've outreached all your previous recorded limits, and there's no sign that your growth is slowing down. This month, your speed and capacity will be almost a complete match for me. By next month, you may outpace me. But that's not my point.”

        Kelidan, who had been about to reply, closed his mouth and gestured for the channel to continue.

        Liiron pursed his mouth as if he had tasted fosebine. “You're right that for a Farris channel, those daily disciplines are a basic requirement for sanity and function. And if Zeor can be summed up in a few words, it's about the constant striving for excellence. 'Good enough' isn't sufficient.” He reclaimed his tentacle from among Kelidan's fingers and brushed the back of the Companion's hand with it once, lightly. Then, as if relinquishing something precious, he withdrew from the Gen's touch and sheathed all his tentacles. “I didn't set out to cut corners. But life in Capital was hectic. There was rarely any privacy, and even for a Sime there were never enough hours in a day. I began saving a little time here and there. Five repetitions of an exercise instead of six, nine minutes of holding a focus instead of ten. Occasionally leaving out one of the meditations, though never the same one twice in a row. And then I cut back a little more, and a little more.” He fell silent, his eyes fixed on images only he could see.

        “An understandable lapse,” Kelidan prompted.

        “A channel can't afford lapses.” Liiron raised haunted eyes to stare at the Gen. “For several months running I'd been matched with Companions who were… barely adequate to my needs. And then, seven months ago…”

        The channel fell silent. Kelidan waited. At last, in clipped formal words as if reporting something that had happened to a stranger, Liiron said, “She was a young Companion, talented but still lacking mature confidence in her skills. When I tried to draw faster than she was used to, she panicked. And because I had been lax with my exercises, I was too slow to respond, hesitated a moment too long before aborting the transfer… and she was burned. Badly burned. She survived, but she may never work again. All because I was lazy, and neglected the basic disciplines. For any channel, it was reprehensible. For ambrov Zeor, it was inexcusable.”

        The channel huddled at his end of the sofa, waiting for Kelidan's condemnation.

        “What did your Sectuib say?” Kelidan asked quietly.

        “That I must learn from it. Make such amends as I could. And then sit in Zeor's Memorial until I was ready to leave self-hatred behind and rededicate myself to the pursuit of excellence.”

        “Since you are no longer sitting in Zeor's Memorial, I presume that you did this?”

        Miserably, Liiron looked away.

        “You know where Willow's Memorial is, any time you require a refresher.”

        “Thank you,” said Liiron in a tight voice, still clearly considering himself unforgiven.

        Silence stretched between them.

        “It's not my forgiveness that you must have, although you've got it. Nor even your Sectuib's.” Kelidan spoke gently but firmly. “It's your own.”

        “I know.”

        “You're a long way from home. Did you come here to run away?”

        Liiron shook his head. “No. I know better than that. I can't run away from something I carry within myself.”

        “Did you come here looking for something?”

        The channel tensed, then visibly forced himself to relax. “If so, it has nothing to do with any of what we've been talking about.”

        Kelidan tilted his head, studying the channel. “More secrets? If so, you're welcome to keep them for now. I trust you.”

        “Why, when I don't trust myself?”

        “Because I think you're a man who learns from his mistakes. You won't make the same one again. And as for the possibility of discovering new ways to err – we're all on an even footing there. I zlin you as trustworthy.”

        Liiron stared at him. “Gens can't zlin.”

        Kelidan shrugged. “Call it Companion's intuition, then. At any rate, I do trust you.”


        “I do. But for Willow's sake, it's necessary that you also trust yourself.”

        The channel stared, puzzled.

        “It's too late to bring in another channel, before the passes close for the winter. Willow's survival is in your tentacles. If you don't trust yourself, if you abort out of transfer because you don't trust yourself, you won't be fit to serve Willow as we require.” Kelidan hesitated, then forged ahead. “I'm not your Sectuib. But for Willow's sake, I must command you as he did: You've learned from your mistake. Now put the past behind you and return to the path of excellence. If you're not good enough for Zeor, you're not capable of giving Willow the help we need. Find that capacity for excellence within yourself once more, and trust yourself to live up to it.”

        “And if I can't?”

        “You can.”


        Strangely, Liiron's confession left Kelidan more relaxed, rather than less so, as he approached their next transfer together. He was certainly concerned about the success of the transfer, and the difficulties it would present. But instead of dwelling on his own shortcomings, as he had a month ago, this time he was focused on Liiron's need, Liiron's struggle, and the importance of nurturing Liiron's self-confidence so that the channel could heal his crippling guilt and self-doubt.

        On the morning before their scheduled transfer, Kelidan took the channel aside for a few minutes at the end of their dispensary shift together.

        “You say my capacity's still growing,” he said, settling onto the new upholstery of the contour lounge. “Zlin me carefully, and tell me how close I'm going to come to meeting your speed and capacity requirements this month.”

        Liiron seated himself on the lounge and bent forward to make a full transfer contact, his need-sensitized laterals still bathed with plentiful ronaplin despite the long shift he had just worked.

        After a moment he dismantled the contact and sat back. “That's amazing. Your speed has risen above my minimum satisfaction threshold – though just barely. And your capacity will be only about two percent short.”

        “In other words,” said the Companion, “there's no way you could seriously harm me tonight unless you were actively trying to. The worst you might do, even if you were to lose control, would be to put me in bed with a headache for a day or two.”

        The channel nodded.

        “Spend the next few hours thinking about that,” suggested Kelidan, as he stood and reached for his sweater. “And I'll see you tonight.” He scooped up his cloak and slung the pale green folds of it around him, then went out into the crisp autumn sunlight.


        Kelidan arrived at the transfer suite a full hour early, using the extra time to take a long hot shower in the suite's well-equipped bathroom. He wrapped himself in a thick white bathrobe and emerged, still toweling his hair, to find the channel adding wood to the suite's fireplace. Tea was already steeping on a table alongside the transfer lounge. The Companion padded barefoot across the deep, tufted-cotton rug, and poured out two mugs of steaming trin as Liiron set the firescreen back in place and stood.

        Kelidan appraised the channel's condition at a glance. Every line of the wiry Sime body was tense with need, but his face and manner were calm, almost detached. His ronaplin glands were, if anything, less swollen than they'd been a few hours ago.

The Companion sighed. Breaking down the self-restraint of a transfer-shy channel wasn't his favourite task. Putting a brisk note of command into his nager, he gestured towards the lounge. “Come on. Lie down. We've got work to do.”

        Liiron complied. He was barefoot and barelegged under a long white tunic, so Kelidan pulled up a stool and began as far away as possible from the focus of his attention. He reached for the channel's nearest foot and started kneading it with precise, skillful pressure.

        The channel rested, sipping his tea with an air of detachment, as Kelidan's fingers worked their way up the leg as far as the knee. He shifted his efforts to the other foot, chasing each hint of tension away as he let himself relax into the task, meshing his awareness with the rhythms of the body under his hands.

        He finished the immediate task and draped a light cotton blanket over Liiron's exposed legs and feet, then paused to rinse his hands in warm water before moving his stool to the other end of the lounge.

        “Have you been considering what we discussed this morning?” he asked, reaching inside the loose neckline of the channel's tunic to massage the tight muscles of his shoulders.

        Liiron nodded once, briefly.

        “So you know you can't possibly do me real harm. And knowing this, you can afford to relax, relax and let go, trusting yourself, enjoying this transfer, trusting yourself to let go, let go and be satisfied, trusting yourself as I trust you, trusting to let go and enjoy…” Kelidan continued murmuring rhythmic reassurances, reinforcing the message nagerically as his fingers followed the tight muscles down onto the channel's chest over the vriamic node, then up to loosen the tension in neck and jaw and scalp, gradually deepening the nageric contact as he let his thoughts move from happy anticipation of transfer to a more active eagerness. He finished with Liiron's forehead, then, leaving a fingertip in contact with the channel's head as he stood, moved around to take his place on the lounge with Liiron.

        He let his voice fade away as he began massaging Liiron's hands and forearms, knowing that the channel was drifting hyperconscious and was no longer listening. He massaged the handling tentacles one at a time, gently pressing on the extensor reflex node of each in turn, eagerly anticipating the moment when those same tentacles would wrap themselves around his forearms like gentle steel and draw him into position for transfer. The channel responded to the anticipation in the Companion's nager, moist lateral tips slipping from their sheaths.

        Kelidan turned his attention to the laterals now, running his fingers ever so lightly along the sheaths, not so much massaging with his touch but merely making contact so that his nager could stroke gently at the nerve-rich tissue beneath. He traced the bulging ronaplin glands with a feather-touch, triggering a fresh burst of fluid.

        Letting his eagerness rise to a peak of absolute readiness, the Companion slid his hands under the channel's forearms. Reflexively, the handling tentacles lashed out, completing the transfer grip.

        With a grunt of effort, the channel drew his laterals up into their sheaths and opened his eyes, forcing himself duoconscious. “Kel,” he said, “I don't trust myself.”

        Startled back from the brink of transfer, Kelidan opened his own eyes. “You can't harm me,” he said.

        “I could still singe you pretty badly. I'm still afraid of that. I'm going to abort again, I know I am. You'd better control this one.”

        Kelidan shook his head. Not sure whether Liiron was duo enough to see the movement, he reinforced the gesture nagerically. “No, Ron, I'm not going to control. You control this. You can do this. You must do this. I trust you absolutely. You're not going to hurt me. You're not going to shen yourself. Trust yourself. You must take control.” Suiting nager to words, he went completely passive, anticipating transfer, begging for it, seducing, but not compelling.

        “I can't,” Liiron gasped, resisting the seduction.

        “You can.” Kelidan focused on his eagerness for transfer and surrendered his last vestiges of nageric control. His fingers moved fractionally on the channel's arms, brushing the lateral extensor nodes. The laterals slicked into place, hot and dripping with ronaplin. Kelidan leaned forward to make the fifth contact point but stopped a hair's breadth short, leaving it for the channel to cross that last tiny gulf.

        Lips met hard-set lips, completing the contact, and selyn began to flow.

        Slowly at first, then a little faster, the channel drew, raising his speed in cautious increments, leveling out well below his satisfaction threshold.

        Frustrated, but still refusing to seize control, Kelidan touch-signaled for greater speed. The flow increased, slightly at first, then leaping to a speed that teetered at the brink of pain.

        Hastily, Kelidan tried to drop the last thin veil of resistance. But before he could do so, the flow dropped fractionally and held.

        Together they soared through the midpoint of the transfer with scarcely a wobble. As the flow dropped off, Kelidan refrained from meeting the decrease with a touch of resistance. It was more important, this time, to leave the channel completely in control of the termination than to grab at an extra moment of enjoyment.

        At just the right instant, the flow tapered neatly and ended.

        Kelidan held the lip contact an extra second, then sat up and opened his eyes. With apparently equal reluctance, Liiron slowly sheathed his laterals, letting them trail with a last moist caress across the smooth contours of the Gen forearms. He dismantled the transfer grip, letting his handling tentacles slip back into their sheaths, and opened his eyes.

        “You see?” said Kelidan with a grin. “I knew you could do it.”

        Liiron laughed, then let laughter turn to tears as all the fears and frustrations of the past months washed through him and out of him. Kelidan sobbed, too, in his first real postsyndrome since Nelsa's death, free at last to feel the shock, the grief, the fear, the burdens of the past months.

        A long time later, Kelidan settled back into calmness to find his arms wrapped around the slender, still-sobbing body of the channel, his damp face pressed against the damp cloth of Liiron's collar.

        Slowly, the channel's sobs quieted. The two of them just held each other a while, in simple animal comfort. Then Kelidan freed an arm and groped on the nearby table until he found the pile of clean handkerchiefs.

        They wiped their eyes and blew their noses and tossed the damp cloths aside. But when Kelidan would have stood to go and put the kettle on for fresh tea, Liiron wrapped a ventral tentacle around his wrist and tugged him back down.

        “Stay a moment,” the channel said.

        Kelidan sat down again.

        Liiron, who still lay stretched full length on the lounge, rolled over onto his side, bracing his weight on one elbow. The Sime heat of his body pressed against the Companion's hip.

        Gradually, through the layers of cloth, Kelidan became aware of another symptom of the channel's postsyndrome, pressed hard and hot against him. A woman. He must be thinking about a woman. He felt a parallel reflex stir in himself.

        Slowly, hesitantly, Liiron raised a visibly shaking hand and caressed the Gen's face, trailing a single trembling tentacle behind his ear, down the side of his neck to the base of his throat, to rest just above his collarbone. His dark eyes were filled with a strange mixture of desire and timidity; his expressive Farris lips parted slightly.

        Kelidan froze in disbelief, feeling his heart start to pound in counterpoint to the channel's racing pulse. Disbelief turned to revulsion, and then to pity.

        With an effort, he silenced all these thoughts, reaching for a single steadying focus. A Companion's duty is to provide whatever the channel requires…

        Whatever the channel requires. Channels, especially the highly sensitive Farris channels, could die of prolonged coital deprivation.

        A Companion's duty… Schooling himself to calm and resignation, Kelidan focused on the touch of flesh against flesh, struggling to bring forth a physical response that he did not truly want to feel.

        But Liiron had forced himself duoconscious the moment the Gen froze, and had zlinned every nuance of the emotions that followed. As Kelidan reached for him, the channel pulled away, slid off the transfer lounge, and went to make the tea.

        Feeling an odd mixture of relief and failure, Kelidan went to add wood to the fireplace.

        When the tea was ready, Liiron took it to the far corner of the suite, where four comfortably upholstered chairs surrounded a small coffee table. He placed his tray on the table and sat, waiting in awkward silence while the tea steeped and Kelidan finished stirring up the embers of the fire.

        The new wood caught at last. Unable to prolong his task any further, Kelidan replaced the firescreen and rose, dusting soot from his hands onto the white toweling of his robe. He crossed the room to where Liiron waited and chose a seat across from the channel. The physical barrier of the table, and the careful formality with which Liiron poured the tea, gave an illusion of distance and safety which allowed Kelidan to meet the channel's gaze without flinching.

        “I'm sorry,” the Companion said. “I would have tried…”

        At the same moment Liiron spoke. “So now you know…”

        Kelidan fell silent and with a nervous laugh gestured for the other to continue.

        “So now you know,” Liiron continued, “why Sectuib Farris was so willing to exile me to a remote corner of Norwest Territory.”

        “How is this possible?” asked Kelidan. “I've always thought that a channel couldn't… the vriamic, the nerve paths… I thought it was theoretically impossible for a channel to be anything other than actively heterosexual, and still live.”

        Liiron essayed a rueful grin. “I think that's what offends cousin Klyd the most. Not that he's prejudiced against homosexuals in general, but that my mere existence is a violation of half a dozen natural laws he thought he understood. I don't fit his equations. Theory says I shouldn't exist. Or that I should be totally incapable of functioning as a channel, suffering from a dozen different transfer dysfunctions, teetering on the brink of death from multiple major health problems. I continue to surprise him by being as healthy, and as functional, as any Farris.”

        “Is your situation unique?”

        “That depends upon whom you ask.” Liiron relaxed as he settled into what was obviously an oft-repeated lecture. “Among out-Territory Gens, about ten percent of all men are homosexually inclined. Most of them try to ignore or suppress it, since out-Territory culture is heavily prejudiced against such things. They see homosexuality as a perversion, with much the same attitude, and at least as much vehemence, as in-Territory juncts feel towards our Householding lifestyle.”

        “I know,” said Kelidan. “My father was raised out-Territory, and I'm afraid that although I never consciously thought about it until today, I must have absorbed a full dose of that prejudice from him as I grew up. I'm sorry, and now that I'm aware of it I'll work at conquering it, but there's no point in pretending it isn't there.” He let go of the tight damping he had placed on his nager, hoping the channel would zlin his sincerity.

        Liiron twined three tentacles in a gesture of acceptance. “In-Territory, among renSimes, the incidence is much lower, a little less than two percent. The commonest in-Territory attitude is not so much prejudice as puzzled incomprehension, though as you've pointed out, many Simes were raised out-Territory and brought out-Territory attitudes with them. In-Territory Gens – that is, Householding Gens – presumably because of their constant exposure to Sime nagers, are at close to the same rate as renSimes, about two and a half percent. Those in whom the bias is not overwhelmingly strong tend to ignore it and live a heterosexual or celibate life, just because there are so few of us that it's hard to find each other. I'm not sure what the percentages are for women, but I assume they're comparable.”

        He sipped at his tea before continuing. “As for channels, I know of three besides myself in the current generation. Two died within a few months after changeover; the third survived nearly three years past changeover, and kept company with me briefly before succumbing to a combination of lung infection and kidney failure.” Liiron steepled his fingers and wove his tentacles in and out between them in a rhythmic dance. “I'm six, almost seven years past changeover, I'm as healthy and functional as any Farris, and I'm tired of having perplexed channels zlinning me, scratching their heads in puzzlement and waiting for me to drop dead. But my only real complaint is that I've had to shape my life around finding a willing sex partner at least once every six months, to avoid the ravages of coital deprivation.”

        The litany of mind-numbing statistics had eased Kelidan's tension. So long as it was being discussed in the abstract, he could afford to be sympathetic. “It must be hard to find sex partners.”

        “When it became apparent that I was going to survive long enough for it to matter, Sectuib did his best for me, putting out queries among the other Nivet Householdings. That's been one of the factors shaping my travels. In Capital, and some of the other large cities, there's a small network or community of like-minded individuals. Most of them, though, are junct, and uninterested in the perversion of bedding a Householder and channel. They're as uncomfortable with me as I am with them.” Liiron heaved a weary sigh. “Sectuib has promised me that, if ever I find a suitable long-term partner, he won't stand in the way of my trading into another House to be with him, and he won't dicker harshly for the trade, when my survival is at stake.”

        Kelidan raised an eyebrow. “So if Willow wants to keep you, we must find you a suitable 'husband'?”

        “Or watch me die of coital deprivation, here on this isolated mountaintop, in less than a year.”

        Kelidan frowned, trying to tease out a strand of memory. “Willow – and Stoak – truly does practice tolerance and flexibility. When I first arrived here, about six years ago, there was an elderly pair of semi-junct men in Stoak. Everyone treated them just like any other married couple – and they died within a month of each other, just like old marrieds. I don't know of anyone else here – but maybe some of the folks who knew Dom and Lindon might know if there are others. I can ask around.”

        “I can ask no more of you than that.”

        “I'm sorry, Liiron. I wish I could give you more. But it simply isn't in me.”

        The channel spread his tentacles in a shrug. “Don't apologize. We are, each of us, what we are. If there is trust between us, and the beginnings of a friendship despite all of this, that's enough.”

        Kelidan sighed. “As a Companion, I know that's not enough. Not as long as you're threatened by the CD's. But I'll see what I can do for you.” He reached across the barrier of the coffee table, offering his hands in token of the only gift he did have to offer.

        Liiron took the Gen's hands in his own, let his grip slide up to Kelidan's wrists, and let his still-moist laterals flicker out against the cool skin in a gesture of total trust. Only then did he seal the contact with the grip of his handling tentacles.

        After a moment he dismantled the handclasp. Together they gathered up the tea things to wash, and then left to go about their separate duties.


        There was enough work, over the next few days, to let Kelidan brush aside the emotional impact of Liiron's self-revelation. As promised, the Companion made a few discreet inquiries, but came up with nothing.

        There were plenty of more immediate things to worry about. The upper passes leading to the copper mine and the outlying residential tunnels would soon be closed by snow; winter supplies had to be hauled up, and an all-Gen crew rotated into the mine for the winter. Last-minute repairs were required on several of the buildings in the Householding enclosure. A thousand details and decisions demanded the First Companion's attention, and this was in addition to a Companion's usual duties in the infirmary, collectorium, and dispensary.

        He saw relatively little of Liiron. As soon as Kira was sure that he had had a fully satisfactory transfer this month, she had scheduled the Farris channel to begin working more closely with Sylval, and to take next month's transfer with her. It would be a stretch for the young Companion, and inevitably inadequate for Liiron, but without such stretching during these early months, Sylval would never reach her full potential as a Companion. So Sylval would serve Liiron, and Kelidan would serve Kira, and Granif would be the odd one out among Willow's top-ranking Companions this month.

        As the days shortened rapidly towards winter, and the Householding scurried efficiently about its autumn business, Kelidan had little time for introspection.

        One morning, as he and Kira finished a quiet overnight shift in the infirmary and handed off the duty to Liiron and Sylval, Kelidan shrugged into his cloak and hurried across the main courtyard behind his channel. The sky was heavy with clouds and the smell of the wind promised snow. Kelidan glanced at the workers who were replacing a windowframe on the guest quarters and was glad, for once, that most of his duties kept him indoors.

        He dashed up the steps to the side door of the administrative building and followed Kira into the dim, woodsmoke-scented warmth of the interior. He would have gone down the main hallway to check the chalkboard outside the Sectuib's office for last-minute changes in today's schedule, but Kira tugged at his sleeve.

        “Don't bother,” she said. “It's the west conference room for both of us, right away. In fact, we're already a bit late.”

        Puzzled, but not wasting time on questions, Kelidan followed Kira through the building. The west conference room was the smallest, but most luxuriously appointed of Willow's three meeting rooms, with a dozen well-upholstered chairs around a rectangular table of knotty pine.

        Half of the seats were occupied as Kelidan entered behind Kira. Nearest the door was Elgi, who had been Willow's fourth-ranking channel under Nelsa and was Second, but still least, now. Flanking him were Tirli and Blayval, the two lowest-rated Companions. Across the room, Granif stood staring morosely out the window, pleating the deep purple curtain between his fingers. Liara, Willow's head cook, and Lorrin, chief mining engineer, shared that side of the table with the older Companion's unoccupied chair. Hlar, the painter who acted sometimes as spokeswoman for Willow's artists and artisans, sat alone at one end of the table. At the other, two chairs had been pulled up for Kira and Kelidan. These were all of Willow's channels and Companions, aside from Liiron and Sylval who were on duty, plus the heads of all the major departments.

        Kelidan frowned as he pulled out his chair and sat. As First Companion, he should have been forewarned of any meeting this important. What was going on?

        Liara pushed a teapot and a pair of mugs towards the new arrivals. Kira poured tea for Kelidan and herself. Kelidan cupped his hands around the steaming mug and inhaled the familiar scent of hot trin, but didn't drink.

        Blayval cleared his throat nervously, looking even younger than his seventeen years, and spoke.

        “I've been asked to chair this meeting today because I'm the juniormost one here, in both age and skill, and therefore the least likely to have a vested interest in the outcome.” He sipped nervously at his tea.

        Poor kid, thought Kelidan. The boy hadn't even bothered to seat himself where he might best hope to command the ambient – which was just as well, since all he was broadcasting, obviously, was nervousness.

        “We have only one item of business to consider today,” Blayval continued, his voice steadying a little as he spoke. “It was exactly five months ago today that Sectuib Nelsa, Sosu Travni, and Hajene Durgan died in an avalanche. Willow has gone for almost half a year without a Sectuib. It is time for us to choose a new leader. And while, according to our charter, all of Willow must ratify that choice, it is we in this room who must name a candidate for their consideration.”

        Blayval came to the end of his prepared speech and stopped, licking his lips nervously. All around the room people turned to each other with glances or murmurs of surprise. No one, it seemed, had been forewarned of the topic of this meeting. Only Granif, who still stood silently by the window, seemed unsurprised.

        Blayval let the muttering drag on, long past the moment when he should have refocused the gathering. As the seconds stretched on, Kelidan realized that the youngster had no idea of what to do next. Reaching unobtrusively for command of the ambient, the First Companion cleared his throat.

        “Shall we stand,” he said, making it less question than suggestion, “and offer a minute's pledge-in-silence to the memory of each of our three lost friends?”

        They rose, in a shuffling of chairs. Kelidan, who had already grieved each of the three, many times over in privacy, kept his nager quietly respectful but used the time to marshal his thoughts and arguments for the debate to follow.

        At the end of three minutes, the Simes moved in unison to resume their seats; the Gens followed a moment later. Kelidan, who at barely half field still had by far the most powerful nager in the room, refocused the ambient, turned his full attention towards Blayval, and then faded back, leaving all eyes upon the young Companion once more.

        Blayval was ready this time. “Does anyone here present wish to offer themselves as candidate for the office of Sectuib?”

        All eyes turned to Kira, who sat motionless, then gave a tiny shake of her head.

        After an awkward silence, Liara spoke up. “Am I missing something here? I mean, I'm not a channel or Companion or anything; I'm just head of the support staff. But I thought it was quite straightforward. The Sectuib is always the best channel in the Householding, and that means it's obviously…”

        As she spoke, Lorrin's creased face lit with understanding, and in a tone of sudden revelation he said, “Kira!”

        At just the same moment, Liara finished, “…Liiron!”

        The two turned towards each other and exchanged looks of consternation.

        “Liiron is ambrov Zeor,” Elgi pointed out. “He hasn't pledged Unto Willow.”

        “Does anybody know whether he's planning to?” asked Tirli.

        “I asked him, shortly after he arrived here,” said Kira. “He says he'll stay with us through the winter, and longer if we still require him, but he didn't know whether he would choose to stay permanently. He said Zeor's Sectuib had freed him to trade into Willow if he chose to, but that he hadn't decided yet.”

        “He can't just walk in here and take charge!” protested Hlar.

        “There's ample precedent for a channel trading into a House in order to become Sectuib,” Kelidan pointed out. “Especially a Farris channel. It's one of the things that binds the Nivet Tecton together: so many of their Householdings are linked at the highest levels by blood or marriage, precisely because of such trades.”

        Granif spoke for the first time. “A Sectuib must be more than just the most powerful channel in a House. The Sectuib is the House, the living embodiment of all that the House is and the active agent of all that it stands for. Willow's virtue is flexibility. Adaptability in the face of constant change. Can Liiron live that virtue in his life? Do we want to ask him to try?”

        There was a thoughtful silence. Into it, Kelidan said, “He's adapted very well to the knowledge of the things that make Willow unique. Several times I've seen him consciously set aside expectations or prejudices that are pretty much taken for granted in Nivet. Zeor may be one of the most conservative of Houses, but Liiron himself is not conservative.”

        “He's very openminded,” Kira agreed reluctantly. “For a Farris.”

        “For a Farris!” snorted Elgi. “Farrises aren't willows, they're oaks! They're very strong, but when they reach the limits of their strength, they don't bend, they break. I could never accept a Farris as Sectuib of Willow.”

        Tirli placed a hand on Elgi's wrist. From where he sat, Kelidan added his efforts to soothe the ambient around Willow's oldest, but least powerful channel. Approaching need as Elgi was, he couldn't be expected to be entirely calm and reasonable now.

        Oblivious to the nageric currents, Liara raised an eyebrow. “Isn't that a pretty inflexible attitude, Elgi?”

        Working the fields to ease the Simes' tension, Kelidan searched for a way to calm the Gens. “We don't even know yet whether Liiron would accept the role if we were to offer it. He's got a good idea of the burdens of being Sectuib: I've heard him say outright that he wouldn't want to be Sectuib of Zeor. And he's third in line there, until Klyd's daughter reaches changeover.” He paused to let them digest that, then said, “What about our other candidate? Kira, you were born and raised in Willow. You're the one who held us together all summer. Willow must have a Sectuib. Will you offer this further service to us all?”

        Kira shook her head. “If you had asked me a few days after Nelsa died, I would have said yes, because it seemed like there was no one else for the job. But I know my strengths, and I know my limits. I'm a good organizer, a business manager. I'm willing to continue as Controller; I've begun to catch on to the job and I think I'm starting to be good at it. But I'm not a leader people will follow. I'm not a goal-setter; I'm not a visionary. I can be a good assistant to a Sectuib, but I would make a worse than mediocre Sectuib.” She paused. “And as long as Liiron is here, whether he's pledged Unto Willow or not, I wouldn't dare stand up in front of him and call myself Sectuib. The contrast between us is too obvious.”

        She steepled her fingers, weaving her tentacles in and out among them in a complex dance that held the attention of everyone in the room. “Kelidan,” she said, turning to look him in the eye briefly before returning her attention to the rest of the room, “you're the one who's been leading us since Nelsa died. I've kept things organized, but you're the one who's held us together, who's made the decisions, who's advised and coached me every step of the way. You've been hurting as much as Granif has; you've been as busy and as exhausted as Elgi and I, but you've held us all together, set your own worries aside, and given all of us the strength and courage to keep going. You're the person people bring the emergencies and the decisions and the tears to. You've poured your tears and sweat and selyn into Willow's survival. And if proficiency is the issue, you're a match for Liiron, near as makes no difference. I would gladly pledge to you as my Sosectu.”

        There was a moment of stunned silence, then everyone began talking at once. Kelidan glanced at Blayval, but the youngster had entirely lost control of the meeting, and was staring around in helpless passivity. Kelidan flexed his nager, gathering the attention of all the Simes in the room. A few moments later, the Gens followed their lead.

        Kelidan spoke into the silence. “How can a Gen possibly lead a Householding in a Sime Territory?”

        Kira shrugged. “It wouldn't be the first time we prepared paperwork for the government that had no resemblance to reality. For government purposes, I'm willing to let my name go on the record, in my role as Controller, as nominal owner of all the assets of the Householding.”

        Elgi stood. “Kelidan embodies the essence of Willow. I could gladly pledge to him as my Sosectu. I would a thousand times rather do that than accept any Farris as head of Willow. Sosectu, will you accept my pledge now?”

        Kelidan stopped breathing, staring down at his fingers resting on the wooden tabletop. Granif knew, but he had resumed staring out the window. Kira knew; she was carefully studying a cobweb caught in an angle of the ceiling beams.

        Kelidan took a deep breath, and released it. “If you will not have a Farris as your leader, then I cannot be your Sosectu. I am Farris, by my mother's line.”

        Silently, all eyes turned to Kira, as Controller, for confirmation. She nodded once, reluctantly.

        “You don't look Farris,” said Tirli. “And you've never acted Farris.”

        “I'm an Aldo-Farris. The Aldo-Farrises are descended from the main Zeor Farris line; we branched off about a century after Rimon Farris. We're a little less susceptible to allergies than the mainline Farrises; in other ways we tend to have all the same health problems. I've been healthy these last few years because I haven't been close to working my limits as a Companion; that's likely to change as I keep working with Liiron. Aldo-Farrises don't usually look Farris; we've got the Farris nose and sometimes the forehead, but without the other features the nose isn't particularly distinctive. Because we don't look Farris, people don't treat us like Farrises. By avoiding the Farris mystique, we avoid most of the pressures that shape the typical Farris personality. As long as we don't flaunt the Farris surname, we can get by as fairly ordinary but high-capacity channels and Companions. I've never tried to hide my Farris heritage, but I've never gone out of my way to display it.”

        Elgi, who was still on his feet, cleared his throat nervously. “It would seem that I'm the one who's shown a rigidity of thought that's totally unworthy of Willow. Please accept my apologies. Farris or not, Kelidan, I will pledge to you as my Sosectu if you will have me.”

        Kelidan gestured for Elgi to sit. “Is this the will of all of you?”

        “Yes,” said Granif immediately.

        “Definitely,” Kira chimed in.

        The others registered various degrees of uncertainty. Kira's eyes went out of focus as she zlinned the ambient. “It's an idea that may take some time to get used to,” she said at last.

        “And there's still the question of where Liiron stands with all this,” Tirli pointed out. “Until we can spare him, we can't afford to do anything he would zlin as a deliberate insult.”

        “It will take time to gather the consensus of the Householding,” Lorrin added. “Many of the Gens have already dispersed to the winter tunnels. We won't be able to hold a formal conclave of the Householding until spring.”

        “It can't wait that long,” said Elgi.

        “But it can wait long enough for some discussion, and we can send messengers to the outlying tunnels,” Liara suggested. “We can get by without having everyone at the formal conclave, so long as they've had their say less formally. It's important that everyone gets to speak their piece.”

        “That can be organized,” said Kira.

        Kelidan cleared his throat. “Is anybody going to bother to ask me whether I even want the job?”

        “Of course you don't want the job,” Kira said, looking at him with pity. “Nobody in their right mind would want the job. But I zlin that you will consent to carry the burden, if we ask you to.”

        Kelidan spread his hands in a gesture of surrender.

        “Blayval,” he said, “why don't you adjourn the meeting now? Kira and I are on duty in the collectorium in five minutes.”


        After that meeting, Kelidan was no longer able to push aside Liiron's situation, or the problem for Willow that it represented.

        Kira was increasingly adamant that she would not become Sectuib. As discussion began buzzing around the Householding – always abruptly cut off as Kelidan entered a room – the First Companion became increasingly aware that this debate could have one of only two outcomes: to bring Liiron into Willow as Sectuib, or to become Sosectu himself.

        Either way, Willow required – no, needed – Liiron's services for the foreseeable future. There were several youngsters approaching the age of changeover who seemed likely to become lesser channels. But there was no one – at least, no one older than Nelsa and Granif's seven-year-old son – who might hope to be a strong enough channel to fill the vacuum Liiron's departure would leave.

        And Liiron could not stay much past spring, if he could find no sexual outlet here. Even if he were personally willing to make the sacrifice, a sick and dying channel would do the Householding no good.

        Once, during his pre-Willow travels, Kelidan had seen a channel who was in the late stages of death by coital deprivation. She had been in a near-torluen with her husband, a skilled and nagerically powerful Companion who had been castrated by a random blow from a flailing hoof during a riding accident.

        Nevrog had recovered enough to give his wife transfer by the following month, but his sexual capacity was gone forever. Wounded emotionally as well as physically, he had not even the faintest traces of sexual desire left to offer to Danitu – but he still loved her. And it had been he who, seeing a visiting Companion more powerful than himself, had asked Kelidan to do everything in his power to save Danitu's life.

        Danitu had already been confined to an infirmary bed for several weeks when Kelidan first saw her. Her liver and kidneys both teetered constantly on the brink of failure. One of her lungs had collapsed several times, and her heart arrhythmia was worsening. Vriamic malfunctions were a daily occurrence, and now entran was added to her problems.

        Kelidan had worked, with every bit of his training and skill, to insinuate himself into the transfer dependency between Danitu and Nevrog, while at the same time struggling on a round-the-clock basis alongside her own Householding's physicians, just to keep her alive. When he could be spared from that work, he had spent long and awkward hours in discussion with Nevrog, trying to help the man reconcile himself to a loss that Kelidan wasn't sure he himself could have faced if their positions had been reversed. The day Nevrog rode a horse again was a major victory, a single bright spot amidst weeks of pain and gloom.

        The first month, Kelidan had tried and failed to break the transfer dependency. After an agonizing series of aborts in which Kelidan had taken all of the backlash, Danitu's Sectuib, who had been monitoring, had given up and called in Nevrog to complete the transfer.

        They never got a chance to try again; Danitu died a few days later.

        The episode had left Kelidan with a firm desire never to see a case of coital deprivation again.

        Liiron could not afford to stay beyond the point that his health began to be at risk, but Willow could not afford to see him leave. And aside from his reluctance to step into the role of Sosectu by default, Kelidan valued the equal working partnership, and the tentative beginnings of a friendship with the channel, that had been dented but not broken by Liiron's self-revelation.

        But what could Kelidan do? What Liiron had asked of him, wasn't in him to give.

        Kelidan's transfer with Kira was scheduled a week early for him, but nevertheless he had more selyn than she could possibly require. It went as smoothly as Kira's transfers always did, and she came away from it thoroughly satisfied. Kelidan, who always previously had enjoyed their transfers together, came out of it feeling strangely shortchanged. Now that Liiron had stretched him to his limits for the first time since he came to Willow, the Companion was no longer content with the muted satisfaction of serving a channel so far below his own capacity and speed. He was left feeling restless, and worked off that restlessness by throwing himself more diligently than ever into Willow's preparations for winter.

        Sylval's transfer with Liiron, a few days later, was nowhere near so easy. Kira had Qualified Sylval a month after the young Companion had established, but the Farris channel was a huge stretch beyond Kira. Liiron was resigned, of course, to being shorted in such a transfer; it was the necessary price of developing a new Companion's abilities.

        With Kira and Kelidan monitoring, and Sylval brimming with all the eagerness and confidence of Kelidan's last-minute pep talk, the transfer was a bit bumpy but went without an abort. Afterwards, Sylval's pride in her performance was more than enough to carry her through the slight transfer burn headache she received, which was nothing worse than a glass of fosebine and an afternoon of sleep could take care of. Liiron, with Farris resilience, got through the whole thing without reawakening his old phobia; as training transfers went, he counted it a success.

        Nevertheless, it was with a sigh of relief and a feeling of homecoming that Kelidan and Liiron fell into place at one another's side afterwards, knowing that next month's transfer would be between the two of them.

        Try as he might to stay out of the debate, Kelidan couldn't help overhearing bits of the discussion that grew out of the meeting over the choice of Willow's next leader. He feared seeing the Householding polarize over the issue, and did his best to defuse tensions by showing all of his usual friendliness to Liara, the loudest proponent of Liiron's name.

        What Liiron thought of Liara's campaign, Kelidan didn't ask, though he was sure the channel was aware of it.

        Hlar, who had said little at the original meeting, now seemed to be truly ambivalent about the choices offered. The squat, black-haired Gen dutifully spoke to the artists and artisans whose representative she was, but this only served to propagate her mixed feelings. A consensus quickly developed among her volatile constituency that the Householding had no consensus, and it would be better to wait than to make a hasty decision.

        Meanwhile, the daily business of Willow went on. With snow closing the upper pass leading to the mine and most of the residential tunnels, the Gens who were taking their turn at spending the winter there were effectively sealed off, left to their own devices until spring. Kelidan regretted that Willow didn't have enough channels that one or two could be spared to winter in the mine or one of the larger tunnels; a mixed mine crew could work much more effectively through the winter months, and a few augmenting Simes in the tunnels would improve both morale and functioning in the snowbound underground residences. But with all of the channels remaining at the main Householding compound, so too must all of Willow's Simes, as well as all of the pre-changeover teenagers and anyone with health problems, remain at Willow's headquarters for the winter.

        Stoak's final big shipment of Pen Gens came through from Rev; a last wagon train of ore, wool, and artworks was sent out, a last load of winter supplies came in. As the lower pass filled with impassable snow, the residents of Willow and of Stoak settled in with a collective sigh of relief and regret: until spring, the outer world was no longer relevant to their icebound private universe.

        Throughout Willow, steep-shouldered winter awnings went up, sheltering narrow pathways from one building to the next. If it was a winter of heavy snow, these pathways would soon become ice-roofed tunnels; if the snow was light, awnings would periodically come crashing down during winter storms.

        Having done all they could to ensure their winter survival, Willow and its neighbour Stoak turned their gaze inward for the season, to paint pictures and write songs, to weave wool and carve wood. Sarpin and Mong, temporarily stumped in their efforts to devise a nonhuman selyn storage device, grilled Liiron for what little he'd learned during his stay at Frihill, from the archaeologists studying the Ancients' knowledge of electricity.

        “If they could store electrical energy, we should be able to figure out how to store selyn,” said Sarpin thoughtfully, fingering a length of electrically insulated wire she had made out of copper from Willow's mine. “It's just a matter of trying things until we find the right approach.”

        Granif, shaking free at last from the depression that had enfolded him since Nelsa's death, turned his attention to helping Kira train Fenn, the Pen Gen Ervon had spotted as having Companion potential. The girl was almost Sylval's age, but utterly different in looks and manner: heavyset, with short dark hair and the quiet, unassertive manner of all newly rescued Pen Gens. If she was to develop as a Companion, she couldn't wait to learn transfer skills until she had first learned to be fully human; she would have to develop both capacities at once. Between Fenn, and his own two motherless children, Granif would be kept well occupied this winter.

        The ever-shortening winter days settled into a routine. Kelidan, tempted as always at this season to sink into a hibernation-like somnolence, napped through his dispensary shifts with Liiron and drowsed on a cot in the infirmary whenever traffic was slow there. Dispensary traffic picked up as, increasingly, Simes in both Householding and village augmented to cope with the winter cold and the constant slogging through deep snow. Collectorium work picked up correspondingly. With many Gens gone upmountain for the winter, those who remained were now donating on a regular twenty-eight day cycle, with none of the summer's laxness. Already some of the surplus Gens from Ervon's big winter Pen shipment were being integrated into Householding life, but always Kelidan and Liiron took the collectorium to them, in the familiar surroundings of the Pen, for their first few donations. First donations were inevitably stressful, but Kelidan found satisfaction in this work. Easing his fellow Gens' apprehensions by his presence and his manner while shielding the channel from the impact of their fears, Kelidan felt more than at any other time that his daily work was changing the world for the better in ways that he could see and touch.

        As Gens from the Pen moved into Willow's dormitories to learn their new humanity, young singles from Willow's dorms moved into the vacated wings of the Pen to ease crowding in the main compound. Liiron, to whom this traditional winter routine was neither familiar nor predictable, watched in fascination as yet another group of Willow's young Simes and Gens moved into their new quarters in Stoak's Pen, eager to spend the winter shopping and partying with their contemporaries in town, half a step removed from the more sedate and structured life of the Householding. It was almost another coming-of-age ritual, Kelidan told Liiron, a season of independent young adulthood before settling down to the responsibilities of marriage and regular work.

        Stoak's Simes, too, needed more selyn as they augmented through the snow and ice. Willow's channels each worked an extra shift per week in the small dispensary located in Stoak's Pen, but even so, there was a constant trickle of Simes from Stoak, visiting the Householding to avail themselves of the dispensary there, often staying to visit friends and family inside the walls.

        Amidst all this daily busyness, Kelidan and Liiron worked side by side for many hours each day, without ever sparing the time to address deeper and more private issues.

        Shorted by his transfer with Sylval, Liiron hit turnover a day and a half early. It took him by surprise in the middle of a collectorium shift, but Kelidan helped him field it so smoothly that the Gen waiting on the contour lounge never noticed a thing.

        Kelidan looked forward to this month's transfer with both eagerness and apprehension. Eagerness, because he knew he would be completely up to Liiron's speed and capacity requirements this month, and after Kira he was looking forward to a transfer that fully used his capacities. Apprehension, because a good transfer would send Liiron post again, and Kelidan had no sexual surcease to offer him.

        A Companion's duty, Kelidan reminded himself over and over again, is to provide whatever the channel requires. But what if the Companion can't?


        Three days before Kelidan's scheduled transfer with Liiron, the pale winter sun was struggling its way up over the eastern peaks. Kelidan struggled to swallow a yawn as Kira and Granif, looking impossibly bright and cheerful as only a pair who had taken transfer the day before could look, strolled into the infirmary to take over the daytime shift. Kelidan sagged against a wall, letting Liiron take care of the handoff. After several days of split shifts and hasty naps, he was looking forward to a solid eight hours of unbroken sleep.

        Sylval entered the infirmary, still drowsy as she nibbled on a muffin, but ready to join Liiron for his upcoming shift in the collectorium. Relieved now of his responsibilities, Kelidan pushed himself upright and reached for his cloak.

        At that moment Liiron turned and stared at the doors, zlinning some commotion outside. Kira, who stood nearest the exit, gave a little exclamation of surprise and turned towards the doors also.

        With a sigh, Kelidan put his cloak back on its peg.

        Pennel and Herkan, a middle-aged Gen couple, pushed through the double doors in a rush of cold outdoor air, supporting their son Waldi between them.

        “Changeover,” gasped Pennel, a little breathless, as she helped her husband lower the boy onto the vacant bed nearest the door.

        Kira moved forward immediately to zlin. “Stage three, no pathology – hey, he's a channel!” She turned to Liiron. “Double-check me, will you?” Kelidan moved closer to adjust the ambient so that Liiron could zlin more easily. At his gesture, the boy's parents moved back.

        “Yes, he's a channel,” confirmed Liiron crisply, “and approaching transition to stage four. Let's get him into the changeover suite before it hits.”

        Willow didn't actually have a separate changeover ward; they took Waldi into the best-insulated transfer suite, the one the channels always used, and settled him onto the contour lounge. After easing him through the transition, they left his parents to sit with him while the channels and Companions gathered in the next room for a conference.

        “Who gives him First Transfer?” Kelidan asked Kira as soon as the door closed behind them. “You've got Granif low-field, but both Blayval and Tirli are high –“

        Liiron shook his head firmly. “Neither Tirli nor Blayval have the speed or capacity this one's going to require.” He looked at Kira. “Fenn would, but…?”

        “No, she's not ready yet, to handle something like this.” Kira looked from Kelidan to Sylval. “It's between the two of you, then, and since Kelidan's already assigned to Liiron, Sylval seems like the logical choice.”

        “Wait a minute.” Kelidan turned to Liiron. “Can you give me a rough estimate of Waldi's capacity and speed?”

        Liiron called off the numbers, to three decimal places. Trust a Zeor-trained Farris, thought Kelidan wryly.

        “Then I'm afraid,” said Kelidan, with a strange combination of regret and relief, “that I'm the best choice for Waldi. If you will release me, Hajene, and take Sylval this month in my place?”

        Liiron visibly hesitated, then nodded. He was opening his mouth to speak the formal words of release, when Kira said, “Hold on.” She looked from Liiron to Kelidan. “Since I'm Controller here, would you mind explaining your reasoning to me before you start reassigning transfers all over the place?”

        Kelidan, to whom the decision had seemed self-evident as soon as he heard the numbers, sighed wearily and gestured for them all to sit. He rubbed his eyes and ran his hands up across his forehead, then through his hair, as he considered how far back to the basics he would have to take his explanation. He felt, rather than saw, Liiron stand and walk around behind him, to begin massaging his scalp.

        “You know how important it is,” he began, “that a channel's First Transfer be as satisfying as possible. That First Transfer becomes the channel's standard of excellence, the template upon which he models the transfers he gives to renSimes for the rest of his life.”

        Heads nodded around the room.

        “The channel's satisfaction,” Kelidan continued, is based primarily on three factors: speed, capacity, and the Companion's enjoyment of the transfer.” Liiron's fingers had moved down to work on the muscles of his neck, while strong tentacles dug into his knotted shoulders. “Both Sylval and I greatly overmatch the speed and capacity Waldi's going to require, so there's no problem there. I'm assuming,” he opened his eyes to glance at Kira, “that's why you figured Sylval or I could serve equally well?”

        Kira nodded.

        “So let's look at the third factor,” said Kelidan. “The Gen's satisfaction depends upon a bunch of emotional factors and two physical ones: the sensation of rapid selyn movement, the faster the better, right up to the limit of the individual's tolerance; and the feeling of being adequately drained of selyn at the end of the transfer. The best way to ensure both these things is what's normally done in a large Householding: to assign transfer pairings that are as closely matched as possible, in speed and in capacity. And part of a Companion's advanced training,” he exchanged glances with Granif, “is to fine-tune a transfer by providing tiny amounts of resistance, to sharpen the sensation of selyn movement and improve the quality of the whole experience.”

        Kelidan glanced around the room. Sylval had frowned in surprise at that last bit of information, but for the most part he wasn't telling these colleagues anything they didn't already know. Still, they were all listening attentively, waiting to find out what he was leading up to.

        He continued, “Despite the excellent training I got during my year at Zeor, there's one thing they didn't teach me. Probably because Zeor has so many top-rated channels that it's rare for a Companion to be assigned to a channel who's a severe undermatch.”

        Liiron's fingers and tentacles stilled on Kelidan's shoulders, as the channel waited to hear what he would say next.

        “So this was something I had to work out for myself, when I became a travelling Companion, and then when I came to Willow where there was no channel – not even Nelsa – who came close to being a match for me. But it's possible, with practice, for a Companion to learn to provide much larger amounts of structured resistance, in order to enjoy a transfer with a much slower channel.”

        Liiron's tentacles abruptly clenched on Kelidan's shoulders, hard enough to leave bruises. In a voice tight with suppressed emotion, the channel said, “I'll tell you why Zeor doesn't teach that technique. It's because it's extremely dangerous. A Companion who learns to offer substantial resistance during transfer is a Companion who gets badly burned, or killed.” Suddenly aware of what he was doing to Kelidan's shoulders, the channel relaxed his grip. Warmth tingled through the bruised muscles as Liiron focused a brief healing effort upon the damage he'd caused.

        Kelidan shrugged under the channel's touch. “I've been doing it routinely, without harm, for the past nine years. And I was still fully able to drop all resistance in my transfers with you. Control is the key.”

        Liiron's voice was heavy with disapproval. “If you're planning to do this for Waldi today, then I intend to monitor.”

        Kelidan looked over his shoulder at the channel and grinned. “Thanks. I was going to ask you to. With feedback from a channel with your sensitivity, I'll be able to work with much more precision and a narrower safety margin.” Before Liiron could respond, Kelidan turned to address the others. “So you see, Kira, why I'm a better choice for this than Sylval. Syl's still learning how to eliminate all resistance in transfer; it will be a while before she's ready to learn how to deliberately add resistance.”

        Sylval nodded vigourous agreement. Then, at Kira's gesture of assent, she turned and extended her forearms to Liiron in the traditional gesture of willingness to serve transfer. Liiron briefly twined his handling tentacles around her wrists in formal acceptance, then turned back to Kelidan.

        “I suppose,” the channel said in a voice still heavy with disapproval, “that you're going to want someone to take your field down a little too, so that you're more nearly a match to Waldi in capacity.”

        “That part's not as important,” Kelidan began, then noticed Liiron's face. The channel was obviously still struggling to resign himself to losing Kelidan this month; he'd find it easier to assist at the changeover if he knew that the Companion was already no longer up to his capacity.

        Kelidan nodded. “I had thought,” he said with careful courtesy, “to ask Kira to do that for me, since she's already had transfer and would find it less stressful.”

        The vehemence of Liiron's headshake confirmed everything Kelidan had surmised.

        “Nonsense,” the channel said, his voice rough with a mixture of protectiveness and possessiveness, “I'll take care of it for you. After I've zlinned Waldi again, to get a more accurate estimate of his capacity.”

        Kira shrugged and backed away. Sylval moved closer to Liiron, resting a hand gently on his forearm as she worked to soothe him with the promise of her selyn.

        “Shall we see how our patient is doing?” asked Kelidan. Silently, resuming their professional demeanor, they all trooped out of the room.

        Waldi was approaching stage five transition. His parents sat to either side of him, calmly coaching him through the breathing exercises. Liiron made a full transfer contact in order to zlin the boy as precisely as possible, then took Kelidan aside long enough to take down his field. Kelidan didn't bother to argue about the large safety margin the channel insisted upon, even though it almost negated the ostensible purpose of this exercise.

        When they returned to the room, Kira had eased the patient safely through to stage five.

        With nothing to do for a while but wait, Kelidan found exhaustion catching up with him. He dragged in a folding cot from the next room and stretched out alongside the boy, projecting drowsy reassurance with his nager as he drifted off to sleep.

        When Liiron shook the Companion awake, Waldi was just minutes from breakout. Sylval sat quietly in a corner, watching everything. As Kelidan sat up and rubbed his eyes, the door opened and the rest of Willow's Companions and channels filed back into the room, weaving themselves carefully into the ambient as they prepared to witness the arrival of a new colleague to join their ranks.

        Kelidan pushed the folded cot aside and took charge of the room, just as Waldi's first breakout contraction hit.

        “Relax into it,” he reminded the incipient channel, counting the breathing exercise aloud as he steadied the ambient with a reassuring not yet…not yet.


        Liiron tried to stay calm as he zlinned the routine progression of the changeover. He had reluctantly done as Kelidan had asked a while ago, reducing the Companion's field a little so that his capacity would be a closer match to Waldi's need. He'd left much more of a safety margin than the Gen had asked for; he had no intention of taking reckless chances for this shendi-flayed scheme. But with Kelidan co-operatively flattening all his barriers, Liiron had pulled selyn up from the deeper storage levels, so that what remained when he was done was near enough to the surface that Waldi would be able to reach it.

        For a secondary functional, it had been unusually stressful. For a channel so close to his own need, to lower the field of the Companion who, until minutes ago, had been assigned to him for transfer – and then to hand off that Companion entirely to another channel, while staying to monitor – flew straight in the face of every Sime instinct.

        He didn't agree with, and couldn't condone, the way Kelidan had chosen to handle this transfer. He reminded himself forcibly that he was a guest in Willow, while Kelidan was First Companion here; once he had released the Companion from obligation to his own personal need this month, Liiron had no right to interfere in Kelidan's decisions. But he disagreed vehemently with the Gen's priorities. For a Companion to risk his life, and the juncting of a channel, simply to create a slightly more enjoyable transfer experience, was stupid and irresponsible in the extreme. Any other Companion would simply shrug and resign himself, for one month, to a less than delightful transfer. Any other Companion would value his own life over a tiny increment of pleasure, even for a First Transfer.

        What was the idiot Gen thinking?!

        No, not an idiot Gen. A Zeor-trained Farris Companion, with twice as many years' experience as Liiron himself had had. And while a Companion might resign himself to one month's lackluster transfer, upon joining Willow Kelidan had faced a lifetime of inadequate transfers. In that context, it was almost understandable that he had used his knowledge of transfer mechanics to try to devise a remedy. Being a Gen, he had been incapable of truly understanding the risks he took. And none of Willow's channels had been skilled enough to perceive what he was doing.

        It might be an unconscionable risk, but it was one that Kelidan had been taking routinely for many years now, and there was no preventing him from it today. The most that Liiron might do would be to monitor the transfer, and try to minimize the danger.

        Not that this logical, rational decision made Liiron feel any better at all about the whole thing.

        And Kelidan had been quite explicit about how narrow a safety margin he wanted for this transfer. Liiron could simply ignore the Gen's wishes, of course, and pad his signals with an extra margin of error. But if Kelidan caught him doing that, the stubborn Companion was perfectly capable of ignoring all his monitor's signals, and trusting instead the slow and inadequate feedback of his own Gen perceptions.

        Shen it, why did Kelidan have to be a stubborn, pig-headed Farris?

        Liiron struggled to contain his seething anger and apprehension. Waldi's changeover had progressed to the point where he was sensing fields. It was time, therefore, for the channel to set aside his worries and begin projecting calm and confidence into the ambient.

        But later, he would give the shedoni-be-damned Companion a piece of his mind in private.


        “Can you relax into the contraction one more time?” asked Kelidan. “It'll make you a stronger channel.”

        “I'll try,” Waldi gasped, just as the contraction began.

        But nobody had expected Waldi's family to produce a channel, and the standard changeover training given to all of Willow's children barely touched upon the extra disciplines expected of a channel. Waldi resisted the contraction as long as he could. But just before it would have ended he gave in to it at last, shouting his relief as his new tentacles burst out into cold air, spraying his traditional plain yawal with blood and fluids.

        Kelidan was ready for him, leaning forward on the contour lounge as he offered his forearms in invitation. As the new channel lunged upward to make lip contact, the Companion felt Liiron glide smoothly into place behind him, unobtrusively ready to monitor.

        Waldi paused just before his lips touched Kelidan's, his channel's capacity for self-discipline asserting itself just long enough to be certain that he had the Gen's consent.

        Kelidan closed the last tiny gap between them, pressing his lips against the firm Sime heat of Waldi's mouth, meeting the young channel's draw without resistance as selyn immediately began to flow.

        Oh, this was wonderful! For the first time since he had served Kira's First Transfer, Kelidan had a channel who wasn't trying to control, didn't know how to control, and was just all-out enjoying the experience. He added some resistance to the flow, then a little more and a little more until even at Waldi's low draw speed, he could feel the tingle of selyn movement. Waldi's response to the resistance was to draw harder and faster. Kelidan adjusted accordingly, making the flow an ecstatic rush that stopped just short of becoming pain.

        The flow peaked and steadied. Kelidan rode the sensations along with the new channel, wanting more and more.

        From somewhere near the edge of his awareness came an intrusion, a familiar pressure-coded signal. Someone wanted…Liiron wanted him to ease off, to decrease his resistance. The channel was such a worrier. Undoubtedly he had padded the safety margin. Kelidan ignored him, riding the soaring crest of the transfer.

        Liiron signaled again, more urgently. Reluctantly, Kelidan backed off a little.

        It scarcely mattered. The transfer was almost over. Waldi, replete with selyn, was letting the flow taper off. It ended, leaving Kelidan content – not utterly drained, but no longer bursting with a profusion of selyn.

        He waited while the new channel sank back against the upholstery, breaking the lip contact, then dismantled the transfer grip, letting his laterals relax into their sheaths, leaving behind only rapidly cooling streaks of tingling ronaplin.

        Waldi was staring back at him with wide-eyed wonder. He studied Kelidan briefly, then let his glance flick to Kira, to Liiron, and back to Kelidan. Seeing no Sectuib who might receive his formal pledge, he simply gasped out, “Unto Willow, Forever!” then burst into happy tears.

        “Unto Willow, Forever,” echoed Kelidan and Kira in unison. This was a graphic reminder, as nothing else could be, of why Willow must name a new leader soon. Waldi and Sylval, plus over a dozen new renSimes and recently established Gens, could make no formal pledge to Willow until there was a Sectuib to receive it.

        Or a Sosectu.

        Pushing the thought aside, Kelidan held the young channel while he sobbed and giggled his way through the first and most intense minutes of his postreaction, then let the witnesses crowd around to offer their congratulations. Somewhere nearby were the sounds of people shifting tables and organizing refreshments, preparing for Waldi's changeover party.

        Kelidan yawned and stretched contentedly, then stood up.

        And in a wave of dizziness and a wash of familiar pain that burned from the base of his skull to his tailbone, found himself lying on the floor. Voices buzzed meaninglessly around him.

        Hot tentacles grasped his shoulders, raised his head. A cup was pressed to his lips. He drank, not bothering to make a face at the expected taste of fosebine.

        A different set of tentacles grasped the back of his neck, massaging some of the pain away. Gradually, the world faded back into existence around him.

        “Idiot Gen,” said Liiron's voice in his left ear. “I tried to warn you.”


        Kelidan rested on the couch in his own suite, his feet propped on a small padded stool. Alongside him, a ball of Zeor-blue cotton yarn unrolled in time with the rhythmic movements of his knitting needles. Between his fingers, a narrow cylinder of the same colour slowly grew longer. It was two hours, yet, before he had to be anywhere or do anything. He should have time to finish this project and grab a bite of lunch before returning to work for the first time since his injury two days ago.

        He dropped a couple of stitches onto a spare needle, knitted past them, then picked them up again, forming another cable twist in the design.

        There was the sound of staccato footsteps that paused outside his door. He glanced up, but didn't stop the steady movement of his needles.

        The door opened and Liiron strode into the room, pausing just inside the doorway to zlin the Gen.

        “Don't just stand there,” said Kelidan conversationally, trying to sound as if nothing were wrong. “Come in and close the door. You're letting cold air in.”

        Liiron closed the door but remained where he was, studying the Companion.

        Kelidan sighed. He had hoped to postpone this confrontation until after Liiron's transfer. He spoke in a light tone, still hoping to deflect some of the channel's anger.

        “What's the matter? Haven't you ever seen a Gen knitting before? We can do it, you know. Not as quickly or efficiently as a Sime, but we can do it.”

        The diversion worked about as well as Kelidan had expected: not at all. Still without a word of greeting, the channel advanced across the room, tentacles extended. Hastily the Companion stuck his knitting needles into the ball of yarn, freeing his hands to meet Liiron's grip. The channel made lip contact and held it long enough to zlin the Gen deeply. When he released him at last, he didn't back away but stood where he was, glaring down at the Companion.

        “No permanent damage,” Liiron said at last, his dark eyes still full of fire. “You were lucky this time, you shedoni-be-damned idiot.”

        Feeling crowded, Kelidan dropped his feet to the floor and slid over on the sofa. With a gesture, he invited the channel to sit.

        “I know,” he said. “I misjudged the situation, and I paid for it. More to the point, I misjudged you, and for that I apologize.”

        Looking startled, the channel backed off half a pace. After a moment, he pulled the footstool toward himself and sat, then reached forward to twine his handling tentacles gently among the Gen's fingers.

        “You can't afford to take chances like that,” he said, the anger gone from his voice. “Willow can't spare you. I can't spare you.”

        Kelidan eyed Liiron's swollen ronaplin glands, then met his gaze squarely. “I'm sorry,” he said simply, making his contrition plain in his nager as well as his voice.

        “Now do you believe me when I say that was a dangerous stunt to pull? It's only by sheer luck that you've gotten away with it until now.”

        Kelidan shook his head. “What I've been doing all along is safe enough. What's dangerous is what I did differently this time.” He tightened his grip on Liiron's tentacles to forestall the channel's protest. “When it's done properly, it's no different from what a channel does every time he serves a renSime in transfer, adjusting the resistance to give the renSime something to pull against.”

        Liiron shook his head. “There's one difference. A big difference. A channel can zlin exactly what's happening, and can therefore respond precisely and instantaneously. A Gen – even the most talented and skilled Companion – can never do that.”

        It was Kelidan's turn to shake his head. “Maybe I can't zlin, but I can sense enough of what's happening to respond properly and not get hurt. No, I'm afraid my failure this time was something worse than simple inability.”

        The channel raised a dark Farris eyebrow. “So what do you think went wrong?”

        Kelidan freed his fingers from Liiron's grip and laced his own fingers together. He studied his folded hands for a long time before he spoke, his voice roughened by the effort to force the words out.

        “Two things,” he said at last. “First, I let my pride get in the way of my common sense. When you objected to what I was planning to do, I sensed the others doubting my ability and judgement. For a minute, I thought you were going to try to pull rank and flatly forbid me to do it.”

        “I have no rank, in Willow,” the channel interjected.

        “I've done much more difficult things many times. I knew I could handle this. I should have just gone ahead and done it, with all the care and discipline I usually use. Instead, I felt insecure. Threatened. I felt as if I had to prove myself. So I acted like a damned adolescent show-off, ignoring basic precautions, cutting it much finer than I normally would.”

        After a thoughtful silence Liiron prompted, “You said there were two things.”

        Miserably, Kelidan nodded. He tried to raise his eyes to meet the channel's gaze, then gave up and stared at the backs of his own hands. “I didn't trust you to do what we'd agreed on. You're a channel and I'm a Gen. I assumed that you would try to overprotect me, that you would pad the safety margin you gave me. So the first time you warned me to back off, I deliberately ignored you. And by the time you signaled again, the damage was already done.”

        Kelidan forced himself to look up, his pale eyes meeting the channel's dark ones. “You're a Farris, and ambrov Zeor. If you weren't willing to do as I asked, you would have said so outright. You wouldn't have tricked me. And – you let me pour hot tea for you. I should have known, after that, that you weren't going to overprotect me. You trusted me, and I failed to return that trust.”

        His confession complete, Kelidan now gazed steadily at Liiron, waiting for condemnation or forgiveness. The channel's expressive Farris mouth frowned, then quirked upwards at the corners before opening to speak. “You don't want to know how close I came to doing exactly what you suspected of me.”

        “But you didn't.”

        Liiron rested one hand upon the Companion's two joined ones, and twined a single dorsal tentacle around the Gen's nearest wrist. “Naztehr, we can't go on like this. We have to trust one another's judgement, one another's skills, one another's word. We can't afford to keep doubting each other, second-guessing each other, undermining and competing with each other. I shouldn't have argued with you in the presence of others – especially now, when I know that the leadership of Willow is under debate.”

        Kelidan opened his mouth to protest, but Liiron raised a hand to forestall him. “No, need does not excuse my ill-mannered display. We have both failed one another in the matter of trust. We must both learn to do better – or next time, the consequences may be worse than a day or two of headache and a few glasses of fosebine.”

        The channel sighed and continued, “In the beginning, we were able to trust each other – impersonally, professionally, based on our common background and shared ideals as Householders. In time, we will trust each other personally, as individuals, on the basis of shared experiences and deep familiarity with each other's strengths and weakness, moods and quirks. Right now, we're in between those two things – too late to trust each other as strangers, too soon to know each other as deeply as we know ourselves. It's an awkward time, a dangerous time.”

        Kelidan nodded. “But somehow we have to get through it. Because it's already too late to go back.”

        “It's been a long time,” said Liiron, “since I wanted a friendship badly enough to take the risks that go with building that kind of trust.”

        Kelidan bowed his head. “After Norda died, I thought I would never take those risks again.” He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “'Never' is too long a time.” He looked up, meeting the channel's eyes, and attempted a smile.

        “On every long journey,” Liiron breathed softly, “a first step.” He directed his gaze down to their joined hands, then retracted the single handling tentacle that clasped the Companion's wrist, leaving his hand resting loosely atop Kelidan's clasped fingers. Then slowly, deliberately, he extended both laterals, glistening with ronaplin. Kelidan gave a little gasp as they settled into place against the skin of his wrist, sending a little jolt of sensation through both men. The Gen kept his hands rock-steady as the hot, moist laterals rested unprotected, quivering and vulnerable, against his cooler flesh.

        Liiron held that position for a long eternity of seconds, then slowly, almost reluctantly, let the tiny tentacles slip back into their sheaths.

        Daring at last to breathe again, Kelidan said, “I'm afraid a Gen has no equivalent gesture of trust to offer.”

        “You gave me yours already. I came in here angry, aggressive – and you gave me truth, without trying to justify or defend yourself. It's enough. More than enough.” Searching for a lighter topic, the channel yawned and stretched ostentatiously, then flicked a handling tentacle at Kelidan's knitting project. “What are you making?”

        Kelidan held up the ball of Zeor-blue cotton, then fished between the sofa cushions for the first, already completed sock. “A peace offering and a token of apology, for a channel I know.”

        Had he not been in need, Liiron would have laughed aloud. Instead, he quirked a quizzical eyebrow. “Anyone I've met?”

        Kelidan made a rude noise and flung the finished sock at him. “Here, try it on. See if it fits.”

        “It should, unless my feet have gotten too large to ever again fit in my mouth.” The channel bared one foot and tried the sock. It fitted perfectly. “I take it this is a token of my privilege, henceforward, of walking all over you?”

        Growling deep in his throat, Kelidan lunged at the smiling channel. Yelping in mock terror Liiron fled, hopping on one foot, with his shoe in his hand.


        Kelidan added more wood to the little blaze in his fireplace and resumed pacing, glancing again at the clock on the mantel. Liiron would be taking his transfer with Sylval about now. The thought left Kelidan feeling strangely bereft.

        Telling himself not to be silly, he sat down and picked up a book. He wanted to go outside and help shovel some of the recently fallen snow to work off the nervous energy he was feeling. But Liiron had asked him to stay in his suite and available this evening, so here he sat like a good Companion, fidgeting but obedient. Neither Liiron nor Sylval had thought it necessary to have a monitor for their transfer this time, but Kelidan supposed the channel was still a bit uncertain over how it would work out. Having been shorted in last month's transfer with the young Companion, Liiron would be less resilient this month. Sylval's capacity and skills were growing rapidly, but she still didn't know how to help a Farris comb the knots out of his system after an abort.

        Kelidan stared at the book for several minutes, then realized he was holding it upside down.

        He tossed the book aside and filled the kettle to make tea. A pot of hot trin would steady his nerves. Instead of lighting the small burner in his kitchen corner, he hung the kettle over the fireplace, then measured out trin leaves.

        The tea was steeping and almost ready to pour when a quiet knock sounded at Kelidan's door.

        “Come in,” he called.

        Sylval entered, wafting cold outdoor air as she moved. She shed her cloak into Kelidan's hands and left her boots on the mat, then hurried over to the fireplace to get warm.

        Was it just the cold air that had put such a flush on her cheeks and a sparkle in her eyes? Or was it something more?

        “How did it go?” asked Kelidan, his attention entirely on the younger Companion as he set out a second mug and poured tea.

        “Very well.” Sylval laughed, seeming happy and a bit nervous. Kelidan handed her a mug of tea, and she wrapped her fingers around the hot earthenware to warm them. “Liiron said –“ she hesitated, suddenly less sure of herself, “that since this is my first real postsyndrome, I should come here and spend it with you.”

        Kelidan took the time to sip from his own mug before replying. “Is that what you want to do?”

        She stared into her mug. “I – I guess so.”

        “Syl, if there's someone else, or if you simply aren't ready – you don't have to be with me just because Liiron told you to.”

        “It's not that.” She shook her head, pale hair sweeping back and forth as she moved. “It's just that… sex is another of the things Mom was going to teach me about later, when the time came. I've listened to Megg and Dorna, but what they say is pretty confusing, and they talk about what it's like but not how to go about it.”

        Kelidan smiled. “They're both about your age, aren't they?”

        “Megg is fourteen, but she established last year. Dorna's fifteen, and five months past changeover.”

        “Then they're hardly experts yet.” He moved closer to her, but not too close. “Syl, the first thing to know about sex is that it's something you should do only because you want to, only when you want to, only with whom you want to. Even if it's a channel who asks you, you're entitled to say no if it feels wrong, as long as you help him find someone else.”

        She took half a step towards him. “I want to. Here. Now. With you.”

        Gently he took her hand and led her to the sofa. He set down both their mugs and reached to brush back a strand of her hair. “The second thing to know is that sex should feel good. If it stops feeling good, you shouldn't go any farther. And in one way, sex is like transfer: it goes best when both partners trust each other, and can let each other know from moment to moment, how it feels and what they require from each other.”

        She nodded, wide-eyed and studious.

        “Relax,” said Kelidan with a grin. “That's as much lecture as you're going to get from me tonight.” He took one of her hands between both of his and raised it to his lips, giving slow and thorough attention to each fingertip before gradually working his way up towards the wrist.

        Sylval pulled back, embarrassed. “I'm all gooey from transfer. I'm sorry. I should go and wash up.” She tried to stand up, but Kelidan tightened his grip on her wrist and pulled her forearm towards his lips.

        “No. Don't wash. I can show you some uses for leftover ronaplin that I'll bet you've never thought of.” He kissed the moist stickiness, feeling his lips tingle as they absorbed the selyn-conducting secretion. The scent of ronaplin filled his nostrils. Liiron's distinctive, personal scent. Suddenly it was as if the channel were there with them, a third participant, intrusive and unwelcome.

        Kelidan banished the image with an effort, then trailed a finger through the stickiness and applied it to Sylval's lips. As always, where ronaplin-sensitized skin met skin, it was as if their two bodies dissolved together, flesh joining flesh without surface or boundary.

        He kissed her, gently at first and then more deeply. After a while he returned his attention to her forearms, picking up more ronaplin and continuing to spread it as he unbuttoned Sylval's collar and began working his way downwards from her throat.

        Some time later he suggested, “Let's move to the bedroom.”

        She nodded, too engrossed in sensation to move. He picked up a candle and handed it to her, then scooped her up in both arms and carried her to the bed.

        Most of the ronaplin had soaked into skin or simply dried by now, but as they finished undressing one another they found a few more places to apply the last of it.

        He was gentle with her, very gentle, remembering that her body had not done this before.

        Afterwards, they lay clinging together, unwilling to relinquish the connection. Only when Sylval began to shiver did Kelidan let go of her long enough to pull up the blankets over them both.

        After a while, Sylval freed one arm from the bedding and reached up to stroke Kelidan's hair, to pull his face closer to her lips. And they began again.

        Much later, they lay side by side, legs tangled loosely together, content for the moment. Sylval raised her head, studying Kelidan's face as if she had never seen it before.

        “I'm puzzled,” she said.


        “I'm glad that I'm here, with you. But I don't understand why Liiron sent me to you, instead of keeping me with him. He was post too; I'm sure he was.”

        He hasn't told her. Kelidan closed his eyes briefly, searching for an explanation that was true but would not betray Liiron's secret.

        “Occasionally it is possible to combine transfer and sex,” he said slowly, “and when it does happen, it can be very, very nice. But even when it could happen, it's the exception rather than the rule. Often one or the other transfer partner has a commitment elsewhere. Or if they're a very good match for transfer, they may be trying to avoid forming or deepening a transfer dependency. Zeor and several other Nivet Territory Householdings actually have a policy, if not an absolute rule, of not combining transfer with sex except in the case of a married couple.”

        Sylval's forehead wrinkled in a frown. “But Willow doesn't have any such policy. You told me that you and Mom –“

        “But Liiron is still ambrov Zeor,” interrupted Kelidan, unwilling to be reminded here and now of what he had shared with Sylval's mother. It cut too close to taboos he had absorbed from his father's out-Territory background. “There might be other reasons as well. Different men have different tastes in sex partners. It's possible that Liiron prefers older partners, or Simes, or heavy-set muscular bodies. Or he might think he's not the right partner for you. Some men have difficulty taking it as slowly and gently as a beginner requires. There are a thousand possible reasons. He might simply have been protecting your freedom to choose.”

        “My freedom?”

        “He's a channel, and a Farris, and very much an authority figure to you even apart from being one of your teachers. And as his transfer partner, you'd been working very hard at letting him take control, at providing whatever he asks or requires of you. Maybe you didn't want to say no to him, but with all those factors lined up to influence you, do you really think you would have been able to say no even if you'd wanted to? If, say, you'd had some young man of your own choosing waiting for you?”

        Wide-eyed, she shook her head.

        “And therefore it would have seemed to him like coercion, even to offer you an invitation, no matter how gently it was phrased.”

        “But he sent me to you instead.”

        “As a command, or simply as a suggestion?” He watched emotions chase themselves across her face as she reviewed and reinterpreted what Liiron had said to her. “And I tried very hard,” Kelidan added, “to give you the clear choice of not staying with me, if you didn't really want to be here.”

        Sylval looked as if she were about to burst into tears. “Were you trying to send me away too? Didn't you want me?”

        He kissed her gently, once on each eyelid. “I wanted you very much, and I'm glad you chose to stay. But I wanted it to be your choice. I wouldn't have wanted your first experience of sex to be based on a sense of duty or obligation. There'll be enough of that later.” He stroked her hair, letting his hand rest lightly on her shoulder before sliding under the quilt to caress her back. “You gave me a very precious gift tonight, Syl, by choosing to be with me. As did Liiron, by suggesting that you come to me.”

        Thus reassured, Sylval smiled and pulled herself closer to Kelidan. “One thing did surprise me about all this,” she said.


        Somehow, from listening to Dorna and Megg talking, I'd expected sex to be more… energetic. Athletic.”

        Kelidan raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so it's athletic you want?” He grinned fiercely and pulled her against him, his desire rising once more. “I think we can do something about that!”

        He was still careful, though, to take the time to be gentle as he entered her. And properly energetic, for all the rest of it.

        Afterwards, she slept nestled against his shoulder, her hair spread fanlike across the pillow. Once she was soundly asleep, he slid out of bed, wrapped himself in a fluffy robe against the chill, and tiptoed into the bathroom.

        As he washed and dried his hands afterwards, other concerns began intruding into his thoughts. It had been generous, indeed, of Liiron to send Sylval to him here. Expedient, perhaps, but still generous; there were many other men in Willow who would have made her welcome.

        But if Sylval was in postsyndrome, so too must Liiron be. Kelidan stared at the tiny, frost-etched bathroom window, then pushed it open and looked out across the moonlit courtyard to the guest house.

        A faint light shone in Liiron's window. As Kelidan watched, the light dimmed for a moment, then returned. Again. And again. The channel was pacing back and forth, between the lamp and the window.

        Suddenly conscious of the ronaplin still tingling on his skin, Kelidan pictured Liiron pacing, dark eyes hooded, movements jerky and intense with frustration.

        If he wished, Kelidan could slip quietly into his cloak and boots, cross the snow-spangled courtyard, and go to him. He could. If he chose.

        Kelidan stood at the open window for a long time, worrying his lower lip between his teeth as the chill slowly penetrated to his bones. Then, with a small sigh, he closed the window and tiptoed back to the warmth of his own bed. Eventually, listening to the sound of Sylval's breathing, he slept.


        Kelidan woke early the next morning. He got up quietly, bathed and dressed, then slipped out of the room without waking Sylval. The younger Companion was scheduled for a morning shift in the infirmary; Kelidan covered for her until she stumbled in an hour late. She looked drowsy, a bit stiff, and content. Kelidan wanted to sweep her into his arms and begin kissing her again. Instead, he poured her a cup of hot trin, brushing the back of her hand with his fingertips as he passed it to her, then briefed her in crisp professional tones before heading off to breakfast.

        Liiron found him there, lingering over a plate of cheese toast and a bowl of porridge.

        “You look like a man who didn't sleep much last night.” The channel greeted Kelidan with a grin.

        “So do you,” said Kelidan bluntly.

        The channel acknowledged that with a nod, then picked up his spoon and began toying with his porridge. “It's harder to fast, within sight and earshot of others who are feasting,” he said at last. From the disinterest with which he pushed his oatmeal around the bowl, it was clear he wasn't talking about food.

        Kelidan took the time to finish his toast before speaking again. “That was an extraordinarily generous gift you sent me last night.”

        Liiron's mouth stretched in a brief smile that never reached his eyes. “I asked Granif which man he would choose, for his stepdaughter's first time.”

        Kelidan raised an eyebrow in an attempt at humour. “He's hardly in a position to judge firsthand.”

        “I also asked around, among those who would have firsthand knowledge. Your name came up again and again.”

        “I'm flattered.”

        “Don't be. Consider it a hard-earned honour.” The channel gave up on rearranging his cereal and set down his spoon. “I envy those women their firsthand knowledge,” he said very quietly without looking up. He stood and picked up his tray.

        Kelidan grabbed him by his black braided belt and pulled him back down. “You haven't eaten anything yet. I'm not letting you go until you finish everything in that bowl.”

        Meekly, Liiron picked up his spoon.


        Alone that evening, Kelidan paced back and forth before his fireplace.

        He had tried and failed to find a man, in Willow or in Stoak, who could offer Liiron what he required.

        A Companion's duty is to provide whatever the channel requires.

        The onus was still upon him to provide what Liiron's health and sanity demanded.

        A Gen might be persuaded by a good act, so long as his partner could pretend desire and make his body go through the necessary motions. A channel could not be fooled so easily. A Farris channel, in particular, would be almost impossible to deceive. If Kelidan were to come to him concealing revulsion or disinterest, if he were distracting himself by imagining it was a woman he was with – if, in fact, he came to Liiron with anything except active and genuine desire for Liiron himself, the channel would turn him away. The emotional catharsis and the physical release were inseparable for a channel of Liiron's sensitivity. Only a personal desire that reciprocated his own and zlinned genuine to the core would be good enough.

        If the emotional component alone were sufficient, there'd be no problem. Kelidan liked Liiron well enough. More than liked him. But he didn't know how to translate the desire for emotional intimacy into something physical.

        As a muscle twanged in his neck, the Companion realized he had worked himself into a state of head-to-toe physical tension. Deliberately he stopped his pacing, sat down, and closed his eyes. He began with a simple exercise of controlled breathing, then began working one of the simplest meditations he had learned at Zeor, relaxing each group of muscles one at a time until all the tension had drained from his body and he was ready to search for a fresh angle on his problem.

        Zeor had exercises, meditations, disciplines, and techniques to control, increase, suppress, reshape, or focus almost every function of mind or body. Kelidan had been practicing the standard Farris Companion's drills every day since summer, and had even begun to master some of the advanced exercises that he'd barely been introduced to during his long-ago year at Zeor.

        Zeor really did have techniques for everything. There was even a set of techniques for devising new exercises and meditations for any purpose not covered by the existing package.

        To control, reshape, or focus any function of mind or body.

        Any function of mind or body.

        Scarcely daring to think through the implications of what he had just realized, Kelidan crossed the room to his desk, took out a fresh sheet of paper, and began devising.


        Willow's life went on as winter deepened. Waldi, Fenn, and Sylval progressed in their studies. Decorations began going up all over the Householding in preparation for the Year's Turning celebrations. Sarpin and Mong, together with their colleague Palli in Stoak, requisitioned additional copper wire and other materials as they continued to research parallels between the storage of selyn and the Ancients' technology for storing electricity. One afternoon, Sarpin showed up at the infirmary with bad burns to both hands as the result of one of her experiments, but refused to consider cutting back on the research. The roof on one wing of the infirmary building collapsed after a heavy snowstorm, leaving three Simes and a Gen chest-deep in snow and rubble, but none seriously harmed. With all but one of the dispensary's transfer rooms thus out of service until repairs could be done in the spring, Kelidan commandeered a couple of vacant offices in the admin building and had extra insulation draped from the walls – a makeshift solution that was awkward but workable. A brief epidemic of stomach flu swept through Willow's Gen population, ending as suddenly as it had begun. Residents in the low-lying part of the Householding compound gave up on shoveling the ever-deeper snowdrifts from their doors, and began using the second-story exits. Five babies were born; two elderly Householders and four recently rescued Pen Gens died. There was another changeover and two establishments. And Kelidan continued working the new exercises he had devised for himself, telling no one what he was doing.

        The initial flood of discussion about Willow's next Head of Householding had faded to a trickle. Kelidan knew the issue hadn't gone away, but he was too busy to think much about it. As his next transfer with Liiron approached, he spent increasing hours with the channel, and collapsed into exhausted sleep at the end of each day.

        Nevertheless, he wasn't entirely surprised when, late one afternoon, he was called to another meeting of Willow's channels, Companions, and department heads.

        This time Granif called the meeting to order, no longer bothering with the pretense of hiding behind Blayval.

        “Willow has been a body without a head for too long,” the oldest Companion said bluntly. “We can't delay the decision any longer. I'd like to hear the personal feelings of each one of you, before we discuss the consensus of the House.” He glanced to his left. “Let's go around the table in order. Kira?”

        “My position hasn't changed,” she said. “I still consider myself entirely unqualified to be Sectuib, and will refuse the office if it is pressed upon me. Kelidan is my choice for Sosectu as things stand. If Liiron were to pledge Unto Willow, and if he were chosen by the majority, I would accept him as Sectuib. But if it were up to me, I would still choose Kelidan.”


        “I'm still having trouble with the idea of having a Sosectu,” the young Companion admitted. “I like Kelidan, and respect him a lot, but a Sectuib should be a Sectuib. So if Liiron can be persuaded to join Willow, I'd rather have him.”


        The channel stared down at the table, where his fingers and tentacles were interlaced in a restless pile. “A Sectuib – or a Sosectu – is more than just the leader of a House. They're the individual who is the House, who embodies its essence, who lives and breathes its virtues. And such a one is not elected, but recognized.” He paused. “I recognize Kelidan as my Sosectu. I will leave this House, rather than accept Liiron as Sectuib.”

        There was a stir at this, but Granif pushed on. “Tirli?”

        “Kelidan or Liiron. I could accept either. I'm inclined to choose Liiron, just because it's so important that we keep him here if we can. Even with Waldi, we'll be desperately shorthanded if we drive Liiron away.”


        The young Companion trainee shrugged and shook her head; her Simelan was still rudimentary and she was clearly out of her depth in this meeting.


        The Gen woman fidgeted. “At first I thought Kelidan, rather than an outsider. Then I thought Liiron, rather than a Gen. Then I thought Kelidan. I don't know. When it comes to the vote, I may abstain. But if you asked me right this moment, I'd say Kelidan.”


        The weathered renSime glanced at Kelidan, then at Granif. “Kelidan's a good solid man. I respect him.”

        “But…?” prompted Granif.

        “No buts. Kelidan's good for Willow. He's my choice.”


        The chef cleared her throat awkwardly. “I guess you all know that I was out there campaigning quite energetically to draft Liiron.”

        Heads nodded around the table.

        “Well, he came to me about a month ago, as I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, and he asked me to stop. He said he hadn't come here in order to barge in and take over as Sectuib.” She hesitated. “He didn't say, in as many words, that he wouldn't take the job,” she added hopefully.


        “I don't know if I'm even entitled to a vote here,” Sylval said. I still haven't been able to make a formal pledge Unto Willow, and I obviously can't until this is settled. But – I've known Kelidan for a long time. And I've spent a lot of time with Liiron since he arrived here; I probably know him better than most of you do. And I've watched the two of them together. They're very well matched – in knowledge, skill, technical capacity, ability to lead. Together they make a phenomenal team. They're very different, but they're very much the same, too. It's too bad we couldn't have the pair of them, together, as So-sectu-ib. But I know it ultimately has to be one person. I'd pick Kel.” She glanced at Liara. “By the way, I did ask Liiron outright, a few days ago, whether he was planning to join Willow. He said he still hadn't decided. I asked him what it would take to persuade him to stay, and he smiled, kind of sadly, and said, 'Nothing that's in your power to give or withhold, Syl.' And later I asked him, supposing he did decide to pledge Willow, would he be willing to consider becoming Sectuib then? And he quite abruptly changed the subject without answering.”

        Granif waited a moment, to see if she would say more, then asked, “Waldi?”

        The young channel glanced at Sylval. “If Syl's not entitled to a vote, then neither am I, but if I could vote, I'd vote for Kelidan.” He glanced up at the Companion to his left with a look of pure hero worship.

        Kelidan looked away awkwardly, and fidgeted.

        “Kel?” Granif prompted gently.

        “I think I do know what it would take to persuade Liiron to pledge Unto Willow, though I'm not free to speak of it. What I don't know is whether that thing is achievable. I may know more about that in a few days.” He looked up and around the room, briefly holding the gaze of each one of them. “I am not eager to be Sosectu, but I am willingly resigned to it. I think Liiron would make a good Sectuib, if he could be persuaded to it. And,” he added with a glance at Elgi, “I believe he embodies Willow's essence better than most of you have seen. Better, perhaps, than I do.” The Companion took a deep breath and let it out. “I will abide the choice of the House, whichever way it goes, though I would prefer to be spared the burden.”

        Kelidan looked to his left; the discussion had come full circle. “How about you, Granif?” Where do you stand on this?”

        Granif reached out with his right hand and laid gentle fingertips on Kelidan's wrist, just as he would do if he were trying to ease the ambient for a channel in distress. “I'm sorry, my old friend, but I agree with Elgi. I recognize you as my Sosectu. I won't leave the House if Liiron is chosen, but you're my choice.”

        Kelidan turned his hand over to squeeze Granif's fingertips in brief reassurance, then withdrew his hand. Granif took a sip from his cooling mug of tea, then looked around the table and asked, “What of the opinions of those who aren't in this room? Several of you were going to go out and poll the house; what did you find?”

        It took them a while to tally the results, because there had been some duplication of effort. But the overall trend quickly became clear.

        At last Granif put down his pencil. “So overall it's running more than four to one for Kelidan over Liiron. One small group of Gens in the farthest of the tunnels was cut off by snow in the passes before they could be polled, but since the Gens overall have been running almost five to one in favour of Kelidan, I doubt those twenty-five votes would change anything. We've got – let's see – five votes for drafting Kira despite her objections, two of Liiron's supporters who would not accept Kelidan as Sosectu, and eleven of Kelidan's supporters who'd refuse to pledge to Liiron as Sectuib. Although it won't be official until the House meets in formal conclave, I don't think there can be any doubt of the outcome. Let me be the first to congratulate you, Sosectu Kelidan.”

        Kelidan, who had felt the burden of the office gradually descending upon his shoulders like a cloak of lead as the votes were tallied, gave a tight nod. Then, realizing that to be a somewhat ungracious response, he stood and said, “Thank you for your trust in me. I did not seek this, but I do accept it. Willow is precious to me; I shall do my best for this House. To those of you who still have doubts about having a Sosectu,” he glanced at Liara, and then across the table to Blayval, “I ask you to give me a chance to make this work. Not for my sake, but for Willow's sake, please stay with us, and help keep this House healthy and strong.” He turned and looked at Granif. “When do you want to hold the official vote?”

        Granif glanced to Kira, who said, “We were thinking to hold the vote, and the investiture, at the Year's Turning feast. That's five days from now. Which gives you two days, after Liiron's had his transfer with you, for you to break the news to him privately. Unless you'd rather have someone else do that?”

        Kelidan shook his head. “No. That sort of thing is the Sosectu's task.”

        “What do we do if Liiron refuses to stay if Kelidan is Sosectu?” asked Tirli.

        “I don't think the outcome of this will have any bearing on whether Liiron decides to stay with us,” said Kelidan.

        “Whether he joins us, or whether he doesn't, he will not be Sectuib here,” said Elgi firmly. “Let this be a test of whether he has flexibility enough to be accepted into Willow: can he adapt to being merely First Channel, under Kelidan as Sosectu? If not, then he isn't a suitable candidate for Willow anyway. And if we must,” he added bravely, glancing to Kira and then to Waldi, “we'll manage without him, somehow, if he leaves. Until Granif's boy reaches changeover, if we have to. One way or another, Willow will survive.”

        Silence fell, as all of them contemplated that possibility.

        Granif cleared his throat. “If we have no further business, I believe most of us are overdue to be somewhere else. With your permission, Sosectu, I'll declare this meeting adjourned.”


        Kelidan left the meeting in a swirling mental fog of unreality. Until today, he hadn't really taken seriously the thought that Willow might choose him as Sosectu. His entire focus had been on giving Liiron cause to stay and pledge Willow, because then, of course, the channel would become Sectuib. And in a year or two, if Sylval continued to grow as a Companion, eventually she would outpace Kelidan and take over as First Companion, freeing him to be just an ordinary Companion within Willow.

        Now, unless he could find a way to change Willow's choice within the next five days, he faced a much heavier burden – and one that, once accepted, could not so readily be set aside. Wild plans danced across the surface of his mind: could he quickly find some way to disgrace himself, so that they would vote against him at the feast? Could he disappear into some hidden cave until spring, by which time the renSimes and Gens of Willow would have had more time to get to know Liiron, and learn to trust him? Was it too late to simply do as Kira had done, and refuse to be considered for the role?

        But as his mind found its way back to realism, he acknowledged that he would do none of these irresponsible things. Willow required this service from him, and he could not, while staying true to his original pledge Unto Willow, refuse to shoulder the burden.

        How he would carry it through the days and years ahead, he didn't know.

        He headed across the courtyard, intending to visit Willow's Memorial, but a messenger came hurrying after him with a problem about some plumbing repairs, and then he was on duty with Liiron in the collectorium, and after that Elgi wanted his support for an especially difficult healing functional in the infirmary. By the time he was free it was past midnight, and a blizzard was howling outside, and he was too exhausted to do anything but retreat to the privacy of his own bed, and sleep.


        The hour of Kelidan's scheduled transfer with Liiron approached. Liiron's transfer with Sylval last month had been good enough to send both partners post, but barely. With all the augmentation that winter in the mountains required, Liiron would be more than eager for selyn, and it shouldn't be difficult to raise his intil this time. As for the rest of it, Kelidan had been diligently working all of his exercises, both the standard ones designed to improve a Companion's working abilities, and the special ones he had devised for himself, to prepare him to serve Liiron's postsyndrome requirements as well. He was as ready as he could be.

        Rather than make do with one of the inadequate temporary transfer suites the renSimes were using, Liiron had opted for the greater privacy of Kelidan's quarters.

        “Your place or mine?” Kelidan had asked with an exaggerated leer that he was sure Liiron would take as a joke.

        “You went to all the trouble of getting rid of your woolen rugs and reupholstering your contour lounge. We might as well use it for something more than training exercises,” Liiron had replied. “Besides, my window is still jammed open a crack. It doesn't bother me, but my place is much too cold for a Gen.”

        Kelidan made sure everything in his suite was arranged as he wanted, with the tea service properly laid out on the table, and a full Farris-specific medical kit open on the counter. He measured out two strong doses of fosebine into glasses, and left them ready beside the tap. Satisfied that all was in order, he showered and dressed.

        Instead of the more subtle symbolism he'd used in his previous transfers with Liiron, Kelidan had chosen this time to wear an actual yawal, borrowed from the infirmary's linen closet. In addition to being worn at changeover, the yawal had been declared by Sectuib Nelsa to be the garment in which, henceforward, every Sectuib of Willow would take the oath of office, in memory of the Twenty-Seven. Kelidan would wear the yawal in a few days, at his own oath-taking – but on a Gen it had a more blatant, less nuanced meaning.

        The plain white cotton garment didn't cover much, and wasn't very warm. Kelidan built up the fire in the grate, then wrapped himself in a brightly patterned cotton quilt until he heard Liiron's footsteps at the door.

        The channel entered without knocking, as was his right.

        As he rose from his seat by the fire, Kelidan reached out across the width of the room to engage the channel's field. Liiron had paused just inside the door, looking somewhat like a walking snowbank. He slipped out of his cape carefully, trying not to spill snow on the polished hardwood, and hung the snow-sodden garment above the boot-mat where it could drip with impunity. There was still enough space on the mat, barely, for his boots.

        Under those heavy outer garments, Liiron wore only a plain white tunic, as short as Kelidan's yawal although somewhat better tailored, and the blue socks Kelidan had knitted for him.

        Kelidan offered the channel a towel, which he used vigourously to rub the melting snow from his damp black hair. Once Liiron was settled in front of the fire with a quilt, Kelidan made trin tea and brought it over.

        “Even for a Sime,” the Companion chided, “it's too cold to be running around outside dressed like that. I'll give you extra layers to wear when you leave.”

        “That won't be required,” said Liiron. His actions belying his words, he wrapped his fingers eagerly around the heat of his mug.

        “Companion's orders,” Kelidan insisted. “The alternative is to keep you in here, where it's warm, until spring thaw. I treated three cases of frostbitten tentacles in the infirmary this morning. I don't want to have to deal with a frostbitten whole channel next.”

        While he spoke, Kelidan had been warming his own hands on his mug. Now, with heated fingers, he reached for the Sime's nearest forearm, touched the tips of the sheathed handling tentacles to check their temperature, then skillfully began massaging the arms. With a contented sigh, Liiron relaxed under the Companion's attention, purring like a cat as Kelidan kneaded the muscles and began working the fields to begin raising the channel's intil.

        When he judged the moment was right, the Companion turned his attention to the still-sheathed laterals, stroking the ronaplin glands with a feather-light touch. In response, fluid gushed from the lateral orifices. Kelidan had never known another channel who produced such plentiful ronaplin.

        “I'm really looking forward to this transfer,” said Liiron drowsily. “Your speed and capacity are still growing rapidly. Most unusual in a mature Companion. You'll easily reach my lower satisfaction thresholds this month – and you may even manage a bit better than that.”

        “I fully intend to,” said Kelidan, teasing the lateral orifices with his fingertips until the tiny pink tentacle tips emerged half an inch, quivering and glistening. “I don't want you to hold back at all this time.”

        “Just don't give me any of the tricks you used on Waldi. I want no resistance from you, none at all. My top draw speed is still way above anything you've ever handled. If I'm sure you're not going to resist, I'll take the speed as high as you can safely give. Trust me, and I won't disappoint you.”

        “No resistance, I promise,” said Kelidan. “I'm quite aware that you still overmatch me. I'm looking forward to a good wild ride, and letting you do all the work.”

        “Mmmh,” Liiron replied, as Kelidan shifted his touch to coax the laterals a little farther out of their sheaths. Ronaplin dripped onto the bright cotton of the quilt.

        “Shall we move to the transfer lounge?” asked Kelidan. “Or do you want to just do it here, by the fire?”

        In reply, Liiron stood, wrapping one dorsal tentacle around the Companion's wrist to maintain contact as they crossed the room together. Liiron settled onto the contour lounge, leaning back into the cushions. He relinquished physical contact long enough to pick up the fallen quilt and drape it over the Gen, making a little tent over the two of them.

        Kelidan settled into a more comfortable position alongside the channel, feeling the Sime's body heat against his hip and thigh through the thin cloth between them. For a moment he allowed himself to think about what would come after the transfer. He was as ready for that as he could be; it would be enough, or it wouldn't.

        The Companion brushed the thought aside and returned his attention to more immediate matters. He leaned forward and carefully stroked Liiron's ronaplin glands again, applying equal feather-light pressure to all four at once. He was rewarded by another burst of warm fluid, dripping onto his bare knees and running back along the Sime forearms almost to the elbow.

        Slowly, without any abrupt shift, Kelidan let his mood turn from eager anticipation of transfer to something more urgent and intense. His breathing became deeper and more rapid, dropping into perfect synchronization with Liiron's.

        Now, smoothly, the Gen shifted his hands around so that his forearms lay under the channel's, palms up. He let his desire for transfer surge upwards, demanding a reciprocal urge right now.

        Suddenly, the Sime's handling tentacles lashed out and wrapped themselves around the Companion's arms like hot velvet-covered steel. The laterals flicked out a moment later, hot and moist, sliding along Kelidan's skin in a flood of ronaplin, tingling as if they were sinking deep into his flesh to seal nerve to nerve.

        Liiron jerked the Companion forward and down to complete the lip contact with almost bruising urgency.

        Immediately the channel began to draw selyn, hard and fast. Kelidan released all his barriers at once, abandoning all resistance.

        The flow deepened, a bright tingling ecstasy that reached all the way to Kelidan's bones.

        Suddenly, though far from satiation, the flow slackened, wobbled, teetered towards abort.

        He's afraid he's gone too far, afraid of hurting me. With rapid pressure-codes backed by all the force of his own emotion, Kelidan signaled, More! Faster! Deeper!

        Instead the flow slackened again, sliding closer and closer to abort. Or maybe he's afraid of having a really good transfer, afraid of going post with me!

        Signalling urgently, Kelidan seized control and began actively pushing selyn into the channel. Faster and faster, drawing from ever-deeper reserves inside himself, as fast as the fastest it had gone before, and then faster again, Kelidan pulled selyn from the very core of his being, from places never before touched, and flung it into Liiron.

        Suddenly, as if the floor had dissolved from under him, Kelidan felt a moment of free-falling, soaring, heart-stopping freedom. A popping sensation, as if his ears had adjusted to a sudden change in pressure, and then a flood of new awareness, new understanding, new colours and textures and flavours and sensations. Immediately he knew, and knew that Liiron knew along with him. Working together now, they poured selyn in an ocean-wide flood from Kelidan's overfull reservoirs into Liiron's starving depths, into depths he had never before known he could fill.

        It went on for a joyous eternity that neither of them wanted to bring to an end.

        At last, the flood narrowed to a trickle. There was nothing more in Kelidan to be emptied, no place left in Liiron to be filled. The trickle tapered, and ended.

        They held position for a moment, neither of them wanting to accept that it was over. Deep inside Kelidan, another pulse of selyn created itself out of nowhere, and smoothly entered Liiron to replace the bit he had just consumed. And another. And another. It was bliss – almost. But now selyn was forming in Kelidan just a tiny fraction faster than Liiron was making room for it, building the gradual beginnings of a dissonance between them.

        Reluctantly, Kelidan pulled his head back a tiny fraction, breaking the contact. Slowly, as if carefully disengaging themselves from deep within Gen flesh, Liiron's laterals slipped back into their sheaths. At last the channel retracted his handling tentacles. Kelidan sat up and opened his eyes. Deep black Farris eyes, wide with astonishment, stared back at him.

        And then they were grinning, and grabbing each other by the shoulders, and pounding each other on the back, and laughing and sobbing and clinging to one another, shuddering with joy and sorrow and regret and delight. All the unfelt, undared emotions of the past days and weeks bubbled up, intensified beyond measure by what had just taken place.

        Much, much later, they dried their eyes and blew their noses on handkerchiefs, and mopped at each other's dripping chins with the edges of the quilt. Drained, Kelidan slumped bonelessly against Liiron, who edged over to make room for the Gen's bulk next to him on the lounge, and cradled the Companion's head against his shoulder as if it were something infinitely fragile, and infinitely precious.

        There was awe and wonder in the channel's eyes. Several times he tried to speak, but his mouth seemed unable to form words. Kelidan stared drowsily back at him, aware now of a thousand things he had never known before, understanding Simelan on a level no Gen was supposed to be able to, but feeling no urge to talk about any of it. He knew, and knew that Liiron knew that he knew, and that was good enough.

        At last, Liiron found his voice again. “I had heard of that particular threshold,” he said, “but I had never thought to be one of the few who were privileged to cross it.”

        Kelidan tried twice before gaining control of his own voice. “There've been others who did that?”

        Liiron grunted an affirmative.

        “Many others?”

        “Klyd and Hugh. Possibly one other pair, both Farrises, in southwest Nivet.”

        “That's all?” Kelidan was incredulous.

        “All that Zeor knows of.”

        “A rare and precious gift, then,” said Kelidan. “Thank you for it.”

        “No,” said Liiron. “It's I who must thank you. You reached that gateway first, and pulled me through with you. I would never have found it myself.”

        “We took each other through it,” corrected Kelidan. “It's not something one person could do alone. It requires a Sime and a Gen. Together.”

        “Then I must still thank you for your half of it.”

        “And I must thank you. And so we're even.”

        Liiron had no response to that. He stared at Kelidan for a long time, his expression gradually changing from drowsy contentment to longing. He raised one hand, beginning to reach towards the Companion with ventrals extended, then snatched the hand back, drawing the tentacles deep into their sheaths.

        “Shall I make us some fresh trin tea?” the channel asked, beginning to sit up.

        “Later,” said Kelidan, wrapping an arm around the Sime's slight frame to pull him back down. “Stay here for a while.”

        The channel settled back onto the lounge. He took a deep breath and tensed all his muscles, then slowly relaxed them, as if letting go of something.

        This is it, thought Kelidan. It's now or never. He closed his eyes and took a moment to prepare himself, working quickly through one of the exercises he had devised. Then he reached for Liiron.


        Liiron wiped his eyes one last time, blew his nose, and tossed the handkerchief aside. He let himself rest for a moment, head resting on the salty damp patch he had made on the thin cotton that covered Kelidan's shoulder.

        He leaned against the comfortable bulk of Gen muscle. Male Gen muscle. Liiron had always thought of Gens as incredibly sensuous people, always hypoconscious, never incapable of sexual desire. It was almost as if Gens lived their entire lives in postsyndrome.

        Now, deep into his own postsyndrome, Liiron couldn't help but be aware of Kelidan's solid male body, the sweaty musk of his scent, the rising of his desire. For a moment, just for a moment, he let himself luxuriate in the fantasy that that desire could be for him.

        But he knew better than to tease himself by indulging in desire for what he couldn't have. He must get away from these arms that enfolded him, right away, before he could give in to the temptation to do something he would regret.

        “I'll make some fresh tea,” he offered, gathering himself to stand and walk away.

        “Later,” said Kelidan, pulling him back down. “Stay for a while.”

        Knowing better, but all too willing to be persuaded, Liiron settled back onto the lounge. He forced himself to relax, to push aside his daydream of seizing the cool warmth of the body next to him, flesh against flesh – no. He tensed all his muscles, then relaxed them one by one.

        Kelidan was reaching towards him, both forearms extended. Did he want to be zlinned, to check for possible transfer burns before he tried to stand up?

        Liiron forced himself duoconscious, preparing to comply. But instead, the Gen wrapped his arms around Liiron's waist and shoulders, pulled him closer, and kissed him softly on the lips.

        Liiron pulled back, staring at the other man in amazement. Surely Kelidan couldn't mean what he seemed to mean by that kiss. They had settled that between them months ago.

        Kelidan pulled him forward and kissed him again, a slow lingering kiss that made his intentions unmistakable.

        Liiron's heart began pounding in a whole new rhythm of excitement. As the kiss ended, he moved his head back just far enough to stare into Kelidan's pale eyes, trying to fathom the truth behind the appearance of desire the Gen was offering.

        Afraid of what he might find, but knowing that he must discover the truth, Liiron took the Companion in transfer grip and forced himself hyperconscious, zlinning as deeply as his own condition permitted.

        Desire, yes. Unfeigned sexual desire, and focused not upon some imaginary other partner but upon Liiron himself. Friendship and honest liking, as the foundation of that desire. Beneath that, a layer of uncertainty and doubt – but not doubt about what he was offering, Liiron realized after a moment. Doubt, rather, about whether this offering would be accepted, whether his desire was as honest, and as undeniable, as he wanted it to be. And beneath that, as Liiron probed more deeply into the underlayers of the Gen's emotions, the familiar disciplined pattern of exercises Liiron recognized, resting upon a bedrock of love, compassion, and personal integrity. Kelidan had worked hard to reshape his own desires in obedience to his Companion's oaths, had struggled against custom and his own body's habits to make possible the desire he now offered.

        And he had succeeded. However it was founded, the desire had become genuine, and Liiron would be doing neither of them any favours to refuse the hard-won gift of lust now that it was offered. He sheathed his laterals and fell back into hypoconsciousness with a little sigh, still clinging to the muscular Gen arms with fingers and handling tentacles.

        Still afraid to believe the evidence of his own senses, fearing that wishful thinking had shown him only what he wanted to zlin, Liiron searched Kelidan's eyes.

        “You truly wish to do this?” he asked the Gen, struggling to force enough air from his lungs to make the words take shape. “To give me this incredible gift?”

        Kelidan shook his head gently, pale eyes fixed on Liiron's as his lips curved upward in a smile. “To give us,” he corrected. “Both of us, together. This is another of the things it takes two to accomplish.”

        Liiron hesitated, troubled by another thought. “After what we've just shared, this could cement a transfer dependency like I don't want to think about.”

        “After what we've already just shared,” said Kelidan, “if we can manage another transfer like that one, I think we're going to have a dependency anyway, no matter what we do. We'll have to breakstep occasionally, both for Sylval's sake and for yours. But if the dependency is inevitable, why deny ourselves this in a futile effort to fight it?”

        Liiron closed his eyes, desire and doubt warring within him. Zeor frowned upon transfer dependencies. Liiron had always thought of himself as a rebel within Zeor, but now that it had come time to make the break, he found Zeor's habits strong within him. Flexibility, he reminded himself. Adapt to changing circumstances. Still, it was hard to let go.

        Kelidan, who had undoubtedly been watching every nuance of this struggle chase itself across Liiron's face, took matters into his own hands, freeing one wrist from Liiron's grip to wipe a trickle of sweat from Liiron's upper lip, then run a gentle fingertip across his face, down his throat over his Adam's apple, and on down his body, raising shivers of sensation.

        Liiron opened his eyes to watch Kelidan's muscles flex as his hands continued working their way down the channel's body, stroking at his ribs and belly as if the thin layer of cloth Liiron wore had vanished between them.

        A yawal worn by a Gen had barbaric overtones far different from those conveyed when a Sime wore the same garment. On a Gen, the yawal worn voluntarily bespoke total surrender, total vulnerability, nothing held back.

        It also covered very little. Liiron watched Kelidan's body move as the Companion's hands continued tracing their way across his own flesh. He let his own body respond, quivering at the touch, but not yet taking any more active role. There must be no doubt, now or afterward, that Kelidan had fully and consciously chosen what was about to unfold.

        The Gen's hands found their way to the hem of Liiron's tunic and slid under it, flesh directly against flesh now, working their way slowly upwards towards their eventual goal. Liiron gasped as Kelidan's fingers brushed their target, feeling his own flesh stiffen with eagerness.

        One hand remaining busy there, Kelidan freed the other to take Liiron's hand, raising it to his lips. Gently he kissed a lateral orifice, deliberately smearing ronaplin on his lips.

        Using both hands now, the Companion carefully but skillfully milked the last of the leftover ronaplin down out of the lateral sheaths and into his hands, then began smearing it on his own body and on Liiron's, wherever it seemed likely to do the most good.

        Liiron gasped in amazement and amusement once he understood what the Companion was up to. Only a Gen would think to use leftover ronaplin to enhance sex! A Sime, any Sime, knew what ronaplin was for, and sex wasn't any part of it.

        Liiron, even more than most working channels, rarely had trouble producing more ronaplin on demand. A few minutes ago, before transfer, he had produced copious amounts of it, dripping and splashing it everywhere. Already Kelidan had the sensation-enhancing secretion all over his exposed arms, his face, even soaked through the thin cloth of the yawal onto his chest. Now he was methodically applying it where it hadn't reached before, below the waist on both their bodies.

        Amused and delighted by the sheer kinkiness of the act, the enthusiastic breaking of conventional boundaries, Liiron laughed aloud. With a small effort he produced a fresh burst of ronaplin, which Kelidan took in his cupped hand. Reaching up under Liiron's tunic, he smoothed it onto Liiron's hard and quivering flesh, the Gen's busy fingers merging with the Sime's hot eagerness in a fluid joining of flesh with flesh.

        Liiron grabbed Kelidan's hands and pulled them away from their task, unwilling to let desire peak too soon. Undeterred, Kelidan milked the last few drops of sticky fluid from the channel's wrist orifices and reached up under his yawal, applying the ronaplin to his own body.

        Liiron grinned fiercely. “Do you know how few lovers would have dared to do that? I begin to understand why the women praise your skills so highly.”

        Kelidan raised an eyebrow. “Only the women? We'll have to fix that!”

        It was all the encouragement Liiron required. With a little whoop of delight he surged to his feet, augmenting just enough to scoop up the much heavier Gen and carry him into the bedroom, where Kelidan had left the blankets and the magnificent quilted spread turned down, and an oil lamp already burning.

        Despite his eagerness, Liiron forced himself to take some time with what came next. For all his sexual experience, Kelidan had never been with a man before. It was clear that he had prepared for this, mind and body, in every way he could think of. But his body was still inexperienced at this, and Liiron didn't want to overtax him. So after they had undressed each other, Liiron began with slow and gentle touch, taking advantage of the ronaplin on the Gen's body as he gradually brought him to the same eager pitch of arousal that the channel himself had already reached.

        When he could make himself wait no longer, Liiron positioned the Gen's body carefully on the mattress, then looked around. He had been thoroughly smeared with ronaplin, but most of it had already soaked in. What remained on the surface was more sticky than slippery, not at all ideal as a lubricant.

        But the Companion had thought of everything. On the near edge of the nightstand, its lid already removed, was a jar of oily ointment. With a clean ventral tentacle Liiron scooped up a substantial dollop and applied it liberally to himself. Then, with a gently probing single tentacle, he smeared the rest into his target, stretching and massaging the trembling flesh.

        Then, calling upon every bit of self-control he possessed to remain slow and gentle despite his eagerness, Liiron pushed his way into the waiting body, slowly penetrating the undefended closeness, alert for the slightest sign of discomfort from the Gen. Once all the way in he paused, savouring the moment, knowing that despite his best efforts he was too eager to make this last long once he began to move again.

        A shiver passed through Kelidan's body, a single brief clenching of muscles. In Liiron's heightened state of arousal it was more than enough to trigger his climax, deep shuddering waves of release that left him spent, drained, empty. Afterwards, he clung to the solid Gen torso, reluctant to withdraw sooner than he must, gasping for breath as his pounding heart slowed to a more normal rhythm.

        At last he pulled away and collapsed sideways onto the bed. Kelidan, still unsatisfied, rolled over to face him.

        “I'm sorry,” said Liiron. “I hadn't wanted to be in quite such a hurry. You didn't get a chance to feel much from that.” He reached for the other man, intending to offer some remedy, but Kelidan had already gone flaccid.

        “That's okay,” said the Gen with an easy grin that covered his disappointment almost well enough. “We're not done yet. I'm not letting you out of my bed any time soon. I intend to wring you dry first.”

        Somewhat reassured, Liiron let himself relax then, marveling in the knowledge that his long drought had ended. He pulled Kelidan closer, offering his Sime body heat in place of the quilt, which had fallen off the side of the bed.

        They lay there for a while in unhurried silence. After a while, feeling almost restored, Liiron began exploring Kelidan's body with hands and tentacles and lips. The Gen responded in kind, unerringly seeking out the spots he had smeared with ronaplin and teasing the hot Sime flesh with a skillful touch. It wasn't long before they were both ready to try it again.

        They exchanged positions this time, letting Kelidan take the more active role. The Gen fumbled a little at first, learning as he went, but quickly catching on. He wasn't as careful to be gentle as Liiron had been, clearly assuming that the Sime's body was well accustomed to anything he might do. Liiron, all too aware of his months of enforced celibacy, didn't bother to correct the assumption but simply relaxed into the friendly assault, shifting his body a little to improve the angle as Kelidan plunged into him with eager force.

        It lasted a satisfactory length of time this time, bringing them both to higher and higher peaks of arousal until they exploded into climax, one after the other in rapid succession.

        Afterwards they lay together in a contented tangle of arms and legs. After a while Liiron pulled the quilt and blankets back up onto the bed, covering them both against the chill.

        “You catch on fast,” said Liiron, stretching luxuriously. “Are you sure you're as new to this as you claim?”

        “Sex is sex,” said Kelidan lazily. “Man, woman, Sime, Gen. Human desire is human desire. Only the details are different.”

        They talked quietly of inconsequentials then, lazily exploring each other's bodies with fingers and tentacles under the blankets. For months already they had shared the physical intimacy of channel and Companion, but this was different. They went slowly, enjoying each new discovery.

        Gradually the exploration became more eager, the conversation more intermittent. This time it was all hands and tentacles and lips and skin, but when they were done the blankets were on the floor once more and they had both reached climax again.

        Satiated for the moment, they lay side by side for a while. Then Liiron got up and went into the other room, returning with the platter of food and the stoppered jug of porstan he remembered seeing earlier. They fed each other dried fruit and biscuits, getting crumbs into the bed to add to the damp, sticky mess they had already made of the sheets. Liiron had neglected to fetch cups for the porstan, so they drank straight from the jug, getting as much on them as in them. At last, satiated in every possible way, they put the platter out of the bed, sorted the bedding into some semblance of order, and curled up together to sleep.

        Kelidan was asleep almost instantly. Liiron lay for a while, his head pillowed on a sturdy Gen shoulder, with muscular Gen arms wrapped reassuringly around him, pulsing with new selyn production, and the cool hard warmth of a male Gen body pressed against his back and legs. He could not imagine being safer, or happier, or more replete.

        At last, lulled by the soft rhythmic snores and the Companion's sleeping nager, he slept.


        It was after midnight when they woke. Outside, the storm had quieted. Kelidan woke to the sensation of tentacles trailing across his shoulders, down his chest, back and forth across his belly, and then lower.

        Afterwards, when they were both content once more, Liiron propped himself up on one elbow and studied the Companion in the dim lamplight. “Will you accept my pledge Unto Willow now, Sosectu, or do you want to wait a couple of days until your formal investiture?”

        Kelidan sat up abruptly, dumping blankets off the bed. Shivering, he bent down and gathered them up, tucking them firmly around himself before speaking. “Well,” he said at last, “that takes care of the awkward parts of two or three conversations we hadn't gotten around to having yet.”

        Liiron shrugged. “I'm a Farris. I can zlin a political thought at sixty paces.”

        “Zlinprying channel!”

        “No, just a channel with good ears, who knows how to make his showfield zlin like wallpaper if an interesting discussion is happening nearby. So are you going to answer my question?”

        “Can Willow afford your price? What will Zeor ask in exchange for you?”

        Liiron rested a hand possessively on Kelidan's shoulder. “This is what Klyd hoped I would find, when he set me free to search for it. A place where I would find satisfactory transfers, and not face death from coital deprivation, and have useful work to do in a worthy Householding. In my room I have a letter from him, signed and sealed, authorizing me to pledge another House should I so choose, and to negotiate my own price. He told me privately that he'd be willing to give me away, outright, if I wanted to join an impoverished House. Otherwise, I am instructed to negotiate a price that's not ruinous, but is sufficient to save face, and protect Zeor's reputation as a harsh bargainer.”

        “Such as?”

        “One wagonload of some readily available local product, and some small political consideration. How about a load of copper ore from Willow's mine, and an invitation for Zeor to send a representative, under your sponsorship, to Norwest Territory's Householders' Council?”

        Kelidan frowned, considering. “It seems wasteful to send a bulky load of unsmelted ore all that distance, when there's a smelter close by, in Rev. Tell me, given the Farris allergies, do Zeor's cloth mills use wool?”

        Liiron grinned. “There's one small mill, downwind of everything else, that Sectuib never inspects. It produces some of the finest woven woolens in Nivet.”

        “Then how about one wagonload of ore, smelted down to an equivalent quantity of pure copper, and then the rest of the space in the wagon filled up with Willow's finest long-staple white wool? Plus a few choice artworks. And the Council invitation, of course. I'd have been tempted to offer that anyway; good political alliances are always worthwhile.”

        “Your offer is more than generous. On behalf of Sectuib Zeor, I accept. You've just bought yourself a channel. How soon do you wish to accept my pledge?”

        Kelidan grinned. “In a hurry?”

        “I don't want to give you time to change your mind. I'm ready to pledge now, and renew it publicly at your investiture.”

        The Companion sighed. “The trouble is, I don't feel like Sosectu yet. Maybe I will, after the investiture.”

        Liiron looked at him oddly. “Maybe.”

        Kelidan got out of bed, slipped into his fuzzy robe and slippers, then went to rummage in his closet. “I've got some warmer clothes here that should fit you, if you belt them in. Not your usual elegant fashion statement, but they'll do.” He tossed garments onto the foot of the bed. “Stay as long as you want, if you'd like more sleep, but when you leave you can wear these.”

        “Aren't you going to sleep more? A Gen requires sleep, and I did my best to wear you out.”

        Kelidan shook his head. “I'm wide awake. And there's something I must do, before the day's quota of distractions comes looking for me.” As he spoke, the Companion was rummaging in the wardrobe again. Without further formalities, he gathered up an armload of clothing and disappeared into the washroom. When he emerged a few minutes later, showered and dressed, the channel was gone.


        The chamber that was Willow's Memorial to the One Billion was part of a system of mined-out ore chambers and tunnels left by the Ancients. The main access to the system was through a stairwell at the back of the infirmary building. The Memorial itself was a chamber about forty feet across, roughly circular, hewn out of solid rock. Near the centre of the chamber, a shaft pillar of unmined ore, left deliberately by the Ancient miners as a support for the roof, had been woven around with a basketwork of wicker, with pieces of willow bark woven in vertically so that the effect was of a huge tree trunk, rooted in the Memorial's floor and disappearing through the ceiling. Copper plates engraved with the names of Willow's own martyrs were laid into the floor, not in the traditional spiral pattern but radiating outwards from the central pillar like roots branching from the trunk. A couple of paces from the trunk was a reading stand with Willow's Book of Martyrs and a single oil lamp. A couple of cushions and a folded blanket were stacked near the entrance, to protect a visitor from the chill.

        Kelidan left his boots at the entrance to the Memorial and padded in on stockinged feet, bringing the blanket with him. Keeping his cloak on for warmth, he spread the blanket on the floor and sat, with his back against the rough bark of the pillar and his legs stretched out in front of him.

        He reached out to finger the nearest of the inlaid name plates, barely visible in the dim light. Berdet Mayhew, it said. Who had she been? What was her story? The plate's nearness to the central pillar suggested that she had died early in Willow's century-long history, but if anything was recorded of her life beyond the simple fact of her martyrdom, Kelidan had never read it.

        Often Kelidan had come here in the past to sort out his worries, regain some perspective, and look for solutions. Other times, exhausted and depressed, he had come to restore his sense of purpose, to remind himself of the meaning of the Householdings' work and the reasons for continuing to shoulder his share of the burden. Today, instead, he came weighted down with too much purpose, too great a sense of inevitability, looking for comfort in his own insignificance when measured against the long reach of time and the many who had each borne a tiny piece of Willow's history.

        So many names here. And so many more, who had lived and died in Willow, each weaving their strand in the tapestry, though they had not died as martyrs, nor been recorded here. Was it a crime to be inadequate, when one was such a tiny piece of such a huge whole? Every one of the people named here, whatever their story, had been real human beings with flaws as well as strengths. Was he truly less worthy to serve Willow than they had been?

        And yet any one of them, perhaps, if they had failed at a pivotal moment in Willow's history, could have brought the whole thing crashing down into ruin. Knowing that, how could anyone be arrogant enough to take on the burden of leadership?

        But how could they not, if the alternative was to let Willow fail for lack of a leader?

        Sosectu. Sosectu Kelidan ambrov Willow. He tried the words on his tongue. They seemed pretentious and unreal.

        What must a Sosectu be, for his House? A Sectuib's bond was easy to see: he served the Simes in transfer, and took selyn from the Gens. A Sosectu's bond was more indirect, supporting the channels who did that work. What, then, was a Sosectu? The living embodiment of the essence of the House? That sounded too abstract, and much too arrogant. Yet a Sosectu was more than just an elected leader; he must carry the trust and ideals of the House in a way that was qualitatively different from anything that an elected official, such as Stoak's mayor, was ever called upon to do.

        With a puzzled sigh, Kelidan got to his feet. Chilled muscles protested as he forced them to move. Mountain winters were hard on a Gen; here he was, not yet thirty years old, hobbling across the chamber as stiffly as an old man.

        Taking the blanket with him to stand upon, he approached the lectern and opened Willow's Book of Martyrs. The pale green leather, grayed by time, was cool under his fingers. He opened the Book to where the stitched-in purple ribbon marked the most recent page. More than half the book was still blank, waiting for names.

        He studied the most recent entries, in Nelsa's crisp hand. Names he knew, stories he remembered, people he had known and touched. He turned back to the previous page. Zal's fluid script listed the names of the Twenty-Five. Their story would be remembered for a long time in Willow, but here their names were in no way distinguished from those before or after. A life sacrificed in the cause of Unity was a life sacrificed, a heavy price to pay under any circumstances.

        He leafed slowly backwards. The names inlaid in the floor were all Willow's own, but the Book contained the martyrs of other Houses as well, insofar as they were known. Marlin ambrov Dar, Lilliti ambrov Carre – a few were people he had met in his travels. Feleho ambrov Zeor – Kelidan had known him slightly, during his year at Zeor, and later had heard the gruesome story of his death.

        He came to the beginning of Willow's own entries, a few in the hand of each Sectuib past. A chill deeper than the physical coolness of the chamber settled over him as he realized that, as Sosectu, the next names would be his to add. And some, no doubt, would be those who had risked their lives upon his judgement, or acted upon his command.

        The earlier parts of the Book were all penned in the same ink, in the clear and uniform hand of a professional scribe. This was the Book as it had been handed down at Willow's inception, a copy of Householding Mountainwater's book as it had stood at that time. Back, and back. So many names.

        “Of course.”

        The words, though softly spoken, startled Kelidan out of the deep privacy of his reverie. He hadn't heard the door open. He looked up and saw Liiron's distinctive silhouette standing in the shadows at the entrance.

        “Of course,” Liiron said again. “It would have to be, that you came here spontaneously and of your own free will.” He came closer, into the light, moving with the dignity of centuries. He looked utterly Farris in his blue cape, impersonal and remote, and his voice rang with authority as he gestured to the Book and said, “Read them. Aloud. All of them, from the beginning.”

        Kelidan felt his throat go dry as he turned to the front of the Book. He pressed the underside of his tongue against the roof of his mouth to trigger a moistening flow of saliva, and then began.

        “Billy Kell. Drust Fenell. Vee Lassiter. Jon Forester.”

        These were the names that began the Book of every Zeor-descended Householding. Kelidan read on, stumbling over some of the names, guessing at the pronunciation of many, on down through the centuries until the syllables blurred into a meaningless flow of sound. That felt wrong. Human lives should count for more than meaningless mouth-noises. But there were so many. So very many. Kelidan read on, his mind drifting in and out of focus. From time to time he seemed to sense the presence of a huge gathering throng, in answer to the invocation of their names. Then the feeling would fade again, and he stood alone with Liiron in a simple rock-hewn chamber, reading syllables from a page.

        It took a very long time.

        He came to the end of them at last, familiar names made alien by their inclusion with all the others. He came to the end of the list and looked up, his mouth even dryer than before.

        His voice resonating strangely in the still air, Liiron spoke. “All of these have died for the cause of Unity, but the power of their lives endures unquenched. Kelidan Arvil Renaird Aldo-Farris, son of Daniel Renaird ambrov Dar and Pelissa Aldo-Farris ambrov Dar, great-grandson of Edond Aldo-Farris, Sectuib in Rihan, if you are prepared to Receive Willow, step forward now and become the vessel through which the power of death will brighten and grace the world of humankind.”

        “Receive Willow?” asked Kelidan. He realized then that he was trembling all over, and not just from the chill. “What do you mean, Receive Willow?”

        Liiron's manner softened, and suddenly he was merely human again. “Since the earliest days of the Householdings, from the very beginning of Zeor, each heir to the House has Received it as a part of taking office. Most of Zeor's daughter Houses have inherited the practice. The rite is shrouded in secrecy and is known only to those who have been a part of it. Willow is descended from Zeor, is it not?”

        Kelidan nodded. “Willow is a daughter House of Mountainwater, on the west coast of Norwest territory. Mountainwater is a daughter of Loran, a small House in north central Nivet that disbanded about sixty years ago. And Loran was a daughter House of Zeor.”

        Liiron nodded. “Which your Book confirms. Only the Zeor-descended Houses begin their Book with those names, in that order.” The channel frowned. “I wasn't certain, at first, whether Willow practiced the Reception. Neither Kira nor Granif knew anything of it, and I saw that you did not. But I went over the journals Nelsa kept as Sectuib, and found an oblique reference to it there. And so I knew.”

        “If it's so secret,” said Kelidan, “how come you know about it?”

        Liiron nodded, as if he had expected the question. “You know that I'm of the main Farris line. Before Muryin was born, I was third in line to inherit Zeor.”

        Kelidan nodded.

        Liiron continued, “Not every House practices the Reception, but those that do will invariably die within a couple of generations if the practice is discontinued. Occasionally a Sectuib dies before an heir is named. When that happens, the lore of the Reception may be lost. One of the ways to restore it is for the Sectuib of some related House to visit, and repair the breach.”

        “You've never been Sectuib.”

        “No, but a few years ago, one of Zeor's daughter Houses – don't ask me to reveal which one – lost its Sectuib suddenly. Klyd was unable to travel at the time, so he sent me to perform that office in his place.” Liiron gave a small, self-deprecating smile. “I know what is necessary to create the external form of such a rite. As for the internal experience, where the true work is done, that part is out of my hands.” He hesitated, then added, “And now you know the other reason why a Farris channel was sent to offer assistance when Zeor learned that a tiny, far-away great-granddaughter House had suddenly lost its Sectuib. I was sent not to be a replacement, but to help to create one.” Liiron took a deep breath, and suddenly the mantle of authority settled upon his shoulders once again. “I tell you now, that if you do not face this test, then you will never truly be Sosectu in Willow. But if you do face the test and pass it; if, furthermore, you live to return from it, you will never again be the same. What you bring back from the ordeal will be a gift Unto Willow, formed out of your own substance; it may or may not be of any use to you personally.”

        The channel's dark Farris eyes seemed to be expanding, filling the universe as he said, “You were not born to this task, and you did not seek it out. Choose now, whether you will proceed. At this moment you can still turn and walk away from this place, but once begun, there can be no turning back.”

        It's already too late for that. The certainty echoed through Kelidan's mind. A strange calmness filled him.

        “Let it begin,” he said.

        “Kelidan Arvil Renaird Aldo-Farris, step forth and become the vessel through which the power of death will brighten and grace the world of humankind.”

        Kelidan took a step towards Liiron, his stockinged feet sensitive to the texture of the engraved copper plates beneath his soles. Suddenly, all the names he had read out earlier became not just sounds, but shadowy presences crowded around the dim perimeter of the Memorial, gathered to bear witness to what would occur. Out of the corner of his eye, Kelidan thought he saw the sweep of Nelsa's golden hair, and the flicker of her impish smile. But when he turned to look directly, there was no one there. He returned his attention to Liiron.

        “Answer me now,” said the blue-cloaked channel, “from out of the core of your understanding: what is Willow?”

        A dozen stock answers flashed through Kelidan's mind, but he knew that none of them would suffice here. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, trying to wrap words around an understanding he had never tried to voice. “Willow is…” It was amazing how difficult it was to make his mouth and larynx move. “Willow is the acceptance of the fact that the only constant in the universe is change, and the only way to survive through change is adaptability. When the storm winds blow and other trees break, the willow survives by bending to the wind, and so it remains alive and fast to its roots. Willow's roots are two things: the survival of humankind by the unification of Sime and Gen, and compassion as the antidote to human evil. By being flexible in all else, we cling to these two things. In the service of Unity and Compassion, we must be prepared to sacrifice all else – even our understanding of the principle of flexibility, if it ceases to serve. To question every certainty, break every rule, unfetter oneself from every taboo, abandon the comfort of every habit – let all the nonessentials be swept away by the winds of change. To be of Willow is a responsibility, too, to carry the vitality of Willow always inside oneself. Just as the tiniest twig of willow wood, swept far from the tree by a storm, may endure, and put down its roots once more, and grow up into a new tree, so must each far-flung, isolated member of Willow carry the essence of our House, and keep it alive. Yet when we are together we must also keep our flexibility, because only thus can we be woven together into a basketwork of great intricacy and beauty.”

        He stopped speaking suddenly, not sure where the flood of words had come from. But now that he had let them out he felt drained, purified, cleansed, as if he had poured out all his selyn in a deep and fulfilling transfer.

        Liiron spoke again, his voice half an octave lower than usual, reverberating off the stone walls. “That is part of what Willow is, but there is more. To know Willow, you must dive deep within yourself to the roots of your own being, on the journey from which there is no return. Even if your physical life is not forfeit, your soul will be changed so that the person who returns will not be the one you are now. I cannot take you there, nor guide you along the road; I can only set your feet upon the beginnings of this path. Are you prepared to make this journey, to seek Willow in the roots of your own soul?”

        Such a journey, Kelidan realized, was in itself an expression of Willow's core truths. He could not refuse it, and still call himself ambrov Willow.

        A deep shudder passed through his body, and in the wake of it a feeling of utter calm.

        “I am prepared.”

        Liiron walked around the wicker-woven pillar of stone at the centre of the chamber and wrapped his arms around it as far as they would go, which was just slightly more than halfway. He extended his handling tentacles. “Take my arms in transfer grip.”

        Kelidan pressed himself against the huge trunklike pillar, stretching to reach Liiron's hands. Hot handling tentacles wrapped his wrists, in sharp contrast to the coolness of the rough-barked pillar. The channel pulled Kelidan forward so that he was straining against the rough surface on the tips of his toes, his body pressed so tight against it that he could feel every bump and ridge through the thin protection of his clothes.

        “Make lip contact,” instructed Liiron.”

        Kelidan pressed his lips against the pillar, in full transfer contact now. He felt Liiron's arms slip out of his grasp, hot Sime flesh replaced by cool tentacles of living wood. It was as if he were locked in transfer with the tree itself.

        And then the flow began, not of selyn but of something even more essential to his existence, pulling his soul out of his body and into the huge tree trunk he grasped. Suddenly he was inside the tree, moving through living wood as if it were no more substantial than the air, breathing it in to replace the essence that had been sucked out of him. He stood on a floor of the same wood, more solid but of the same substance as that which he breathed. The concentric growth rings under his feet converged at a spot not far in front of him, the centre of the heartwood of the tree. And he knew that he must step upon that centre.

        But between him and that goal there stood a figure out of his deepest nightmares, that had frightened him out of sleep a hundred times. It was a huge Sime, towering far above his head, with handling tentacles as thick as Kelidan's wrists and laterals the size of garden hoses. Huge, insatiable, and in need, the giant Sime reached towards Kelidan, ronaplin glands bulging, laterals flicking out of dripping orifices. The Companion knew what he must do to reach his destination, and he knew that no dozen mortal Gens could have enough selyn to fill so huge a need.

        He tilted his head back, looking up and up the huge body to the face that topped it.

        It was the face of Klyd Farris, his former teacher and the most powerful of all channels, stretched to a grimace of urgent need.

        And now, with a little thrill of understanding, Kelidan knew what this figure was, that had ruined his sleep so many nights. It was the image of his deepest fear, the fear of his own inadequacy.

        If ever I meet a Sime I can't overcontrol, if ever I meet a channel whose need is greater than I can supply, I will be afraid. And my own fear will kill me.

        This was the fear he had carried away with him, from Zeor to Dar, running away into his years of travel, until finally he took refuge in Willow where none of the channels came close to being his match. It was why he had been content with years of unsatisfying transfers, content to be underutilized, never challenged, never stretched. It was the fear of not being in control.

        But I've already faced this, Kelidan realized. I had to, when Liiron came to Willow.

        And by facing it, he had had all the satisfaction, all the exuberant stretching of his skills, that his transfers with Liiron had brought him.

        Confident now, he stepped towards the huge nightmare figure, which shrank and shrank as he approached it, until it was only a little larger than an ordinary man.

        Despite the fact that he had just given transfer, and knew there was hardly any selyn in his body now, Kelidan reached out without fear, offering his forearms to the channel's transfer grip. The Sime bent his head downward, offering the fifth contact point.

        Kelidan stood on tiptoe, willingly meeting the hot Sime lips. He felt a split second of gentle selyn flow – a token acceptance of his offer, nothing more – and then the figure dissolved away, leaving the Companion's lips and forearms pressed against air.

        Before him, unguarded now, was the faintly glowing centre of the tree. He stepped forward onto it, and began gently sinking through the floor.

        And found himself standing in another place, in total darkness, with another wooden floor under his feet. And he knew, without knowing how he knew, that he was here because he wasn't good enough.

        Before him, in the darkness, a vertical band of dim light appeared, with narrow wedges of light running sideways from it at top and bottom. The image resolved itself, after a moment, into a door slightly ajar, and dim lamplight beyond.

        In the dimness, a voice spoke from behind the door.

        “Still awake, Den?”

        “I couldn't sleep.” A different voice, but as familiar as the first. “Still trying to balance the books?”

        A weary sigh. “Zeor still hasn't recovered from the last raid. Oh, on the surface we're in good shape, but we're deep in debt to the other Householdings.”

        “Oh, Klyd.” Denrau's voice was apologetic. “I shouldn't have asked, should I? We simply can't afford it right now.”

        “I wish we could find a way. The kid's good. Very good. Zeor could use him. I'd like to find a way to keep him.”

        Kelidan, eavesdropping in the darkness, felt a sudden envy of this kid they were talking about. No one had ever spoken such words over him. He hadn't been good enough for Dar. Even before establishment, he had failed miserably to meet the standards required of Dar's fighters. He hadn't been good enough for Zeor, as a Companion. And even Dar had had no use for him, despite his Zeor training. Only Willow had wanted him; in such a small and remote Householding, they'd had no better Companions against whom to compare him.

        Denrau spoke again. “I'm thinking of Zeor, but I'm thinking of the kid himself, too. He'll be wasted if we send him back.”

        “It was never intended that we should keep him. We agreed to train him for Dar, in order to partly clear our debt to them. If we keep him, we'll be even deeper into debt.”

        “Maybe not.” Denrau's voice was thoughtful. “He's not just the most promising young Companion we've seen in ages, he's also a well-trained Dar fighter. If we kept him, we could send back one of the Dar guards.”

        “Use a Companion to guard wagons full of cloth? Too risky.”

        “He can take care of himself. From the time he was eight, Dar had him training with kids two years older than himself, and he still almost kept up with them.”

        “The price of a Companion versus the price of a guard? It still wouldn't work, financially.”

        “Shen it, Klyd, do we have to base everything on the bottom line? This kid will be wasted as anything less than Dar's First Companion. But no matter how good he is, and even if there were no one else standing in the way, he'll never reach that rank in Dar. He's too intellectual, too introspective. Dar favours doers, people who act first and think later. They'll never make full use of his talents.”

        An affectionate teasing note crept into Klyd's voice. “If he's First Companion material, you should be glad we're not keeping him. He might supplant you some day.”

        Denrau's voice took on a note of sadness. “I watch Charnye coping with my existence, and I know that someday I'll be supplanted just as he was. I hope I'll cope half so gracefully when my turn comes. But – call it Companion's intuition – I've had the feeling for a while now that, when I'm ousted, it won't be by a youngster. It'll be by someone close to my own age, who comes to Zeor from some totally unexpected direction.”

        “Companion's intuition, you say?” Klyd made a sound halfway between a laugh and a snort. “Now Farris intuition, on the other hand, is a documented fact. And my Farris intuition says that you, Naztehr, are going to be First Companion in Zeor for a very long time. Because I, and this place, would fall apart without you.”

        The Companion gave a brief chuckle, then sobered. “Does your Farris intuition say anything about the kid?”

        There was a long silence before Klyd spoke. “You're right, he's First Companion material. And he will be First Companion and more, somewhere, someday. But not in Zeor, and not in Dar. He will find his proper destiny, and when he does, it will be tied up with Zeor somehow. But not here, and not anywhere close to here.” The channel's voice was distant, dreamy. “He carries the Farris curse. Events will shape themselves around him. But first he must be honed by pain.”

        “More than First Companion?” Denrau asked. “What do you mean?”

        “Did I say that?” Klyd's voice was crisp and ordinary once more. “I don't know.”

        “So we send Kelidan back to Dar, then?”

        “I'm afraid so.” Klyd's voice turned gentle. “Go back to bed, Den. Get some sleep.”

        The door closed, cutting off all light. Kelidan stood rooted to the spot, dumbfounded. I wasn't inadequate for Zeor! I wasn't incompetent as a fighter in Dar! I didn't get sent away because I was a failure!

        A years-deep weight of inadequacy fell from Kelidan's shoulders. It left him feeling so light he could almost fly.

        Instead, he sank through the floor again, going downward, ever down, deeper toward the roots of Willow.


        He was standing in an open, grassy space, surrounded by a ring of men – all of them Gens, dressed in out-Territory clothes, and all of them pointing at him in anger or derision. A familiar voice shouted his name, and Kelidan turned to see his father standing among the crowd, dressed not in the Dar livery of a working channel, but in a homespun shirt and farmer's overalls like the others.

        “Father!” said Kelidan, with a surge of joy. “I've missed you.”

        His father brushed that aside as he stepped forward out of the crowd, anger and disappointment written in every line of his body. “Kelidan, how could you? I'm glad I never lived to see this!”

        Kelidan raised an eyebrow but said nothing, knowing that his father had never required encouragement to voice criticism.

        The channel stopped an arm's length away and reached towards his son, but pulled back just short of touching him.”

        “I said nothing, son, when you bedded a married woman. I do understand the channel's exemption, though neither your mother nor I ever made use of it; you have no half-siblings scattered around Dar. The woman approached you, and with her husband's consent; you did nothing underhanded or dishonest.”

        “Thank you, Father. I think,” said Kelidan wryly.

        “And neither did I complain when you took that same woman's orphaned daughter into that very same bed,” the older man continued. “The girl was technically an adult, though barely, and she came to you voluntarily. You never fathered a child upon her mother, so there was no question of inbreeding. It was in poor taste, and some would say it overstepped the bounds of your duty as her mentor. But if her stepfather didn't see fit to object, I wasn't going to say anything.”

        It took all of Kelidan's Companion's discipline to keep the fury from his nager. In tight, dry tones he said, “It's so good of you to be concerned about my life, now that I'm grown and you're dead.”

        “Spare me the insolence, son.” He came half a step closer and seized Kelidan by the shirt front. “I know I wasn't always the perfect father. But I did my best to raise a decent son. And never, never in all my imagination did I think my son would turn out to be a pansy. A faggot. A queer.”

        Kelidan had had enough. “So make up your mind which bothers you the most,” he snapped. “Women in my bed, or men in my bed.” He pulled out of his father's grasp.

        The older man's face crumpled, as if he were struggling not to cry. “Tell me I've misjudged you, Kel. Tell me you only did it to keep that channel alive for your House. Tell me you hated every minute of what he did to you.”

        Kelidan's anger dissolved suddenly into pity, pity for this sad, powerless, imperfect man whose judgements would never again have any control over the Companion's sense of worth.

        “No, Father,” he said steadily and without raising his voice. “I can't tell you that, because it wouldn't be true. Maybe it's something I wouldn't have discovered about myself if it hadn't been brought to the surface by necessity. But all my efforts, all the deliberate exercises to make myself feel desire for Liiron, wouldn't have worked if I hadn't already had that capacity within myself. I am a man who can desire women or men, equally. I acknowledge this, and accept it in myself. I'm sorry if I'm a disappointment to you, Father, but I'm not sorry that I am what I am.”

        Until he'd said the words, Kelidan hadn't been sure that they were true. Now he was. The surge of confidence that filled him at this thought was enough, almost, to balance the sorrow he felt as his father's face took on the stony glare of a man who refused to acknowledge any emotion.

        “Then you are no longer my son, and I regret the day I fathered you.” Moving stiffly, the older man turned and began to walk away. When he had gone only a couple of paces he faded, became translucent, and dissolved into mist and nothingness.

        But the other men, the out-Territory farmers, closed in around him. Some carried hoes and pitchforks; others pointed accusingly at him with empty hands.

        One of them, solidly muscled and with cruel intelligent eyes, stepped closer and shoved at Kelidan. “So you're proud of being a pansy! We'll fix that,” he said with a sneer. “Unless you're prepared to think better of your perverted ways.”

        Kelidan shook his head, returning the other man's gaze without flinching.

        “Then we'll show you what we do to pansies around here, won't we, boys?”

        There were jeers and catcalls from all around as the spokesman shoved Kelidan again, driving him backward into the grasp of two of the others. “Want us to show you, pansy?” Slowly, deliberately, he began unbuttoning his fly.

        Kelidan said nothing as the men who held him spun him around and began shoving him back and forth, like junct Simes working up a Gen for the kill. The Companion lashed out with a well-aimed kick at one attacker while he chopped at the wrist of another. All the long-disused fighting skills he had learned in Dar were still with him, he discovered as one of his attackers went down, and then another.

        But there was only one of Kelidan, and many of his opponents. Before long they had him down on his knees in the trampled mud, his clothing down around his ankles. As his captors forced him to bend over, he felt the heat of the spokesman's body pressing close behind him.

        “Ready to change your mind, pansy? Or shall we show you what real men do to pansies like you around here?”

        Ears ringing from a blow, blood dripping from his nose, Kelidan struggled to raise his head and glare defiance at his captors. Physical cowardice had never been one of his weaknesses. If his own father's disappointment hadn't been enough to make him disavow his new self-knowledge, then certainly there was nothing these bullies could do to persuade him. He spat blood at the nearest man, who grabbed him by the hair and shoved his forehead down into the mud.

        Scrabbling for purchase in the muck, his fingers closed around something cool and solid. He turned his head to see a pale green, multi-faceted jewel – like the stone in his Willow Companion's ring, but many times bigger. He clutched at it, willing his pounding heart to slow. As calloused hands grabbed his hips from behind, he braced himself for fresh pain. With every bit of his Companion's skill and discipline, he tried to relax every muscle, to minimize the harm to his body by offering no resistance or tension.

        “Sime!” someone shouted suddenly in terror. All at once his captors were screaming and scattering, shoving him flat in the mud as they fled.

        It couldn't be his father coming back, Kelidan thought as he spat out mud and blinked mud from his eyes. No one had noticed or cared that Father was Sime. It must be Liiron, come to rescue him from his tormentors.

        He rolled over and struggled to sit up. Gentle hands and tentacles took him by the shoulders, lifting and supporting him. A clean damp cloth wiped the mud and gore from his face.

        He opened his eyes and looked up to see not Liiron, as he had expected, but Nelsa.

        Of course, he thought dazedly as the channel wrapped strong arms around him. Her familiar scent enfolded Kelidan as she pulled him to his feet. Of course it couldn't be Liiron. He isn't dead yet.

        As understanding flooded through him, Kelidan felt the soft mud turn to firm wood beneath his feet. And then he sank through the floor again, to face his next ordeal.


        The trials continued, one after another, until he lost track of their number and content. He knew only that his every weakness, doubt, and vulnerability had been prodded, examined, and scraped clean until every vestige of defense, every scrap of privacy had been flayed from him. He should, it occurred to him in some strangely detached fashion, be in extreme pain after such ordeals. Instead, he felt light and clean, so light that he could float upwards on the slightest breath of air.

        Instead, he sank through the floor again.


        He was standing on a narrow path, atop a windswept ridge of rock running between two cliffs. As he stood, the ridge narrowed under his feet to become a knife's edge of stone.

        Feeling himself teeter, Kelidan started to turn, to hurry back to the more substantial cliff behind him. But the cliff had receded, dreamlike, into the misty distance. And he couldn't turn around on so narrow a perch, not without falling.

        He looked off to the left, and felt fear in the pit of his stomach. Fear, self-doubt, incompetence, paralysis. He wobbled on the brink of falling. Quickly he pulled his gaze back to the ridge he stood upon.

        After a moment, when the unexpected rush of emotions had faded and his racing pulse had calmed, he looked to the right. Self-confidence, swelling into arrogance, power-lust, and careless misjudgements.

        Fighting an insane urge to jump off into the chasm on this side, he again brought his gaze to the path ahead, and let the emotions dissipate.

        The ridge of rock under his feet had somehow turned into a tightrope, running under his feet from cliff to cliff. He couldn't stay teetering here for long. Since there was no turning back, he must either go forward, or fall off into the chasm on one side or the other.

        As he slid one foot forward, Kelidan became aware of something in his hands. It was a long rigid pole, the kind out-Territory circus acrobats used to help them balance on tightropes such as this.

        As he studied the flawless woodgrain of the pole, he knew what it represented in this surrealistic landscape of symbols: strength of will, self-discipline, purpose.

        He took a step forward, and another. Slowly he inched forward, feeling the tightrope vibrate ever so slightly under his feet.

        He moved with a little more confidence now, still taking it slowly but beginning to believe he might complete the crossing safely.

        Gradually the quality of the light changed around him. He glanced up to see clouds massing on the horizon. Here, the air remained still, but in the distance he could hear the faint howling of the approaching stormwind.

        How could he survive when the storm hit? He was barely keeping his balance now; he knew he would have no chance to survive when the storm struck. Could he sit down on the tightrope and cling to it with his hands?

        Even as he asked the question, he knew that wasn't possible. If he tried to sit, he would only hasten his own fall.

        He smelled the tang of ozone, and knew the storm was close. What could he do?

        Suddenly the rigid balance pole in his hands went limp, as flexible as a willow withe. Without conscious decision, Kelidan gripped it by one end, swung it until it looped under the tightrope, and caught the other end as it whipped upwards.

        Now, if he could find a way to tie both ends to his body, he would be safe from falling.

        He tried to bend the supple wood into knots he could slip around his wrists. But, flexible though it was, this was wood, not rope. He clung to it, one end in each hand, trying not to panic, trying to think. This wood was willow, the essence of his House. There had to be something in that connection that could save him, if only he could discover it.

        Then, dreamlike, the ends of the wood rooted themselves in the flesh of his wrists where they touched him, so that it was as if he had one single ventral tentacle of wicker growing from each wrist, the two of them bonded in an unbreakable loop that would become his safety harness.

        The storm struck then. In the first moments he was blown from his stance on the tightrope, but the loop of willow wood caught him. Wind tore at him, torrential rain beat down on him. He shuddered in the chill and gasped for air as he was tossed back and forth, spun round and flung until he thought his shoulders would be pulled from their sockets, or his strange new tentacles torn from his wrists.

        He wasn't sure how long he hung, half Sime and half Gen, suspended between heaven and earth, between self-doubt and arrogance, between cliffside and cliffside, while the cold storm battered at him and lightning flashed all around. He only knew that at last the storm ended as suddenly as it had begun, leaving him limp, drenched, and exhausted, dangling from his strange safety harness.

        The clouds broke up and drifted away. The sun came out, warming and drying him as he hung like laundry on a clothesline, washed clean and empty by the storm.

        He hung a while longer, drained, numb in mind and body from the ordeal he had endured.

        Gradually, coherent thought returned. His muscles, though sore and weary, seemed willing to obey his commands once more. He began to be eager to continue his tightrope journey.

        Since he was now dangling under the tightrope, could he simply travel hand over hand from here? No, he realized after a minute, not unless he was willing to travel backwards for the rest of his journey. Or to go back the way he had come – but the thought came to him clearly that the latter was not an option. If he wanted to travel in the necessary direction, facing forward, he had to get his feet back onto the tightrope.

        It took him a long time, many false starts, and many pauses to rest. Secure in the knowledge that with a safety harness grown of his own flesh he could not possibly fall into the chasm, he persevered until finally he stood atop the tightrope once more, keeping a little tension on the woody rope of flesh to help hold himself in place.

        Giddy with success he laughed, then quickly sobered. Maybe he couldn't fall to his destruction now, but there was no knowing how soon another storm might strike, or what other hazards might find him if he lingered here too long.

        Much more sure-footed now than he had been in the beginning, and trusting his safety harness, he was tempted to run to the security of the waiting cliff, using his forward momentum to stabilize him on the tightrope. The sooner he ended this strange journey, the better his chances of being safe on the solid rock before the next storm could hit.

        But then he realized, with a bone-deep shift of awareness, where he was, and what this tightrope was, and what a swift end to this harrowing balancing act would mean.

        In this strange metaphorical world he found himself in, this tightrope was his lifespan, stretched between the solid endpoints of birth and death. Yes, he could hurry to the safety of a swift ending if he wished, sparing himself further storms, and guaranteeing his safe arrival at a place of rest. Or he could take the journey at its natural pace, accepting what came to him along the way. If he did that, he knew that despite the bright sunlight now, he would surely face more storms before the end. And there was no guarantee that his safety harness of willow would keep him safe from all peril.

        But life was a thing to be lived and savoured, a journey and not just a hasty destination. Now that he understood, he was in no hurry to end this amazing tightrope walk.

        Grinning fiercely, Kelidan slid one foot slowly forward along the rope.

        And he found himself sinking one final time – not the terrifying tumble into the abyss, but rather the soft melting through another floor of heartwood that told him he had survived this last and strangest ordeal.


        Total darkness this time, and total silence as well. No sense of heat or coolness, nor even of his own body.

        A voice, strangely hollow, as if there were no lungs or breath behind it, no heart pumping blood. Strangely powerful, as if it filled the entire universe with its presence.

        “Has he lived as a Sime?”

        “Yes.” Another voice, equally without breath, a little higher in pitch.

        “Has he lived as a Gen?”


        “Has he lived as both a woman and a man?”


        “Has he been both victor and vanquished?”


        “Has he killed and refused to kill, been killed, and refused to be killed?”

        “He has.”

        “Has he suffered cruelty, pain, and loss?”


        “Has he known love, compassion, and joy?”


        “Has he endured failure and achieved success?”

        “Yes, both.”

        “Does he know himself?”

        “He has begun to.”

        “Does he come here of his own free will?”


        After some time, he realized this was a question no one else, however omniscient, could answer for him.

        “I do,” he croaked, his voice as raw as the rest of him.

        The unbreathing, impersonal voice suddenly focused into a searchlight beam of attention, still impersonal but utterly aware, blinding in its brilliance.

        “Who are you?” it asked.

        It seemed as if that should have been an easy question. Before this began, he had had an identity and a name, but those were gone now, along with so much else. But… there was a word, if he could remember it.

        “Kelidan,” he said. The syllables sounded awkward, alien.

        “Why have you come here?”

        “To become the living sacrifice by which the roots of Willow are watered and nourished in this generation.” Where had those words come from? It didn't matter; they were truth.

        “Is there fear within you?”

        There ought to be, he knew. But he had gone beyond fear, beyond even awe – not to numbness, but to a place of complete acceptance.

        “No,” he replied simply.

        “Then Receive what you have asked,” the Voice said, with infinite warmth and compassion.

        He felt himself bending, dissolving, flowing, becoming rainwater and compost and rich damp sustenance.

        Bodiless, flowing through the tiniest crevices, he sank into the rich dark earth.


        He seemed to be hovering in the air, a short distance above a courtyard edged with lush summer vegetation. The breeze smelled of salt and seaweed.

        The courtyard was filled with people. The larger group, several hundred strong, all wore deep purple Householding cloaks edged with turquoise trim. The smaller group, of about two dozen people, wore bright new capes of pale green trimmed with purple. Mountainwater and Willow, Kelidan realized.

        The leaders of the two groups, each in the white-lined cloak of a Sectuib, exchanged a formal embrace. Then the purple-cloaked Sectuib took a large wooden box from a nearby attendant and handed it to the green-cloaked one, who accepted it with a deep bow and handed it off to be strapped to a pack pony.

        The green-clad group mounted their waiting horses. Gates opened, and the little train of green-clad Simes, Gens, and children, with all their horses, wagons, and pack animals, began filing out through the gates to the roadway beyond.

        Just before the gates closed upon the departing group, a purple-clad young Sime with long golden hair detached himself from the crowd and ran out onto the road, shouting and waving for the group ahead to wait for him.

        With a glad cry, a young woman riding at the new Sectuib's side in the First Companion's position reined in her horse and turned, laughing and crying as the golden-haired young Sime ran into her arms.

        With the young couple riding double, and a different Companion moving up alongside the Sectuib for awhile, the party resumed its inland trek, with the sea breeze at their back.


        A flicker and a moment of disorientation. Kelidan, zlinning everything around him, found himself walking at the back of a single file of twenty-seven high-field Gens, trudging through deep snow across Willow's main courtyard from the dining hall and out through the front gates. Each was formally cloaked in Willow's pale green and purple; each, despite the chill, wore only a yawal under the cloak. At the back, shoulder to shoulder and dressed in full Willow regalia, were a young Granif and another, older Companion, both low-field, but come to bear witness. The ambient throbbed with heavy fear, but also steadfast determination. And from the two witnesses, deep sorrow laced with guilt.

        Without faltering, the column marched along the moonlit main street of Stoak and in through the front gate of the Pen.


        Another flicker, and this time Kelidan floated high above the countryside, watching the movements not of individual people but of groups and seasons.

        Summer drought blew dust across the central plains of Nivet. Gens died; Simes fled to the cities. In Norwest, pelting hail destroyed what a fierce winter and late spring had left standing. Ordinary citizens took to the streets, storming the gates of the empty Pens. Ragged, desperate, survivors boiled out into the countryside.

        Kelidan watched as the people of Rev rode out of the town and up the mountainside, following the rumour of hoarded Gens. Suddenly he found himself watching himself, standing on the main road to Stoak, just upmountain of the pass. Kelidan saw himself, below, raise a hand in signal. Small puffs of dust burst from the mountainside in a patterned sequence, and rocks rained down from the cliffs to fill the pass with rubble.

        Kelidan's point of view rose and drifted upmountain. Huge copper cables ran from mountain waterfalls into the reclaimed tunnels of the Ancient mines. Deep underground, mile after mile of tunnel basked in bright artificial light and heat, planted with wheat and tomatoes, carrots and trin. Willow's Simes and well-fed Gens, secure in their mountain fastness, worked their underground farms, fired up their pottery kilns, and continued with their daily life.

        Far, far to the south, a population of Raiders fled southward, while an army of Gens trekked southwest to meet them.


        A flicker, and Kelidan stood in a mine's equipment room, watching himself serve transfer to a young renSime woman.


        Another flicker, and Kelidan again found himself hovering above Willow's main courtyard. As he watched, two huge machines like giant metal dragonflies, suspended in the air by noisy whirling blades, settled into the open space. Doors in the sides of the machines opened, disgorging bureaucrats with clipboards – strangely dressed, but unmistakably bureaucrats, each wearing the badge of Nivet's Tecton. Coming out to meet them, in the white-lined formal cape of Willow's Sectuib, was a petite, slightly wrinkled woman with Kelidan's face and Sylval's golden hair.

        At her side, wearing the heavy formal regalia of Stoak's mayor over Willow's colours, was a huge young man with classic Farris features and a Companion's disciplined manner.


        Another flicker, and now Kelidan floated high above the earth, so high that the world appeared as a globe. Hollow metal blocks and spheroids, wheels and blobs floated through airless space, some drifting in orderly patterns, others flying purposefully back and forth.

        And in all but the smallest of those floating dwellings, air and food were provided by gardens growing in watery tanks, tended by skilled workers in crisp coveralls badged in Willow's light green and royal purple.


        Another flicker, and this time the feeling that he had taken a very long step forward in time. Kelidan walked across a strangely undefined landscape amidst a throng of other travelers, their semitransparent bodies fading in and out of visibility. He glanced down at himself. He was as transparent as the others, his white-lined Willow cape billowing in a nonexistent breeze. He studied the others walking with him. Most wore Householding regalia, in a rainbow variety of colours. Under the cloaks they wore a bewildering assortment of clothing styles and fabrics, from simple homespun shirts and trousers, to sleek coveralls of metallic film, to garments that seemed little more than a handful of ribbons and beads.

        Most seemed human, in a range of skin tones from albino to deep earthen brown. But over there was a pair, channel and Companion by their manner, who had deep green skin and wooly greenish-silver hair. Another pair, dressed in Zeor blue, were impossibly tall and thin, with knobby joints and protruding shoulder blades. To his other side marched a Sime, three feet tall and as wide as he was high, all sturdy bone and thick muscle, companioned by a Gen built like a granite boulder. Beyond them waddled a solitary Sime woman, with preposterous rolls of fat jiggling all over her body.

        Kelidan approached an ordinary looking Gen woman, with Farris features and a green Imil cloak. She was less transparent than most.

        “Who are these people?” he asked. “And where are they going?”

        She studied him for a long moment before replying in a thick, difficult accent, “We are all the Householding channels and Companions who are or ever were. We go to witness the Ending.”

        “The ending of the world?”

        “Which world?” she replied. “There are so many. No, this is the Ending of Householdings. As Zeor was the first, so it shall be the last. And we all must bear witness. Humankind shall endure, Sime and Gen together. But Householdings must pass away, and new forms take their place. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. It is time for synthesis.” She gave him a strange look. “But go. Your time is not here, and your place is not yet. You have still to reach your final form.”

        Before he could ask her what she meant, she and everything else faded away to nothing.


        Another flicker, and Kelidan found himself standing alongside the trunk of a huge willow tree. He took a step forward, and suddenly he was the trunk. He felt his roots sinking deep, deep into the moist earth, searching out water. His trunk was huge; his branches rose far above the ground, far above the earth, out into the deep vacuum between the stars. Tiny motes of human life flitted among his branches; stars and galaxies drifted past. Kelidan felt the life force flowing through his body, green molten life flowing up from his roots, up through his trunk, out into his branches to meet the life soaking into his leaves from the light of the suns drifting past, out to the tips of his drooping branches and out through the leafy tips to drip gently back to the earth. And in through his roots, up through his trunk, out through his branches, falling softly away again in an endless cycle of life and vitality, the pulse of selyn rising up from his roots to shower all the worlds with life. And he was flooded with a sense of love and compassion, endless and deep, filling the universe.

        And then, when he thought he could endure the joy and awe of it no longer, his roots lifted up from out of the ground and were only human feet once more. No longer were branches rising from his shoulders; his trunk was only a human body, his branches only arms and hands. Before him, half buried in the mud, was a basket woven of rough-barked wicker, and from it there sprang a tuft of new, soft-barked shoots, lush with pale green leaves. Here, alive and real, was the original of Willow's teaching fable.

        Kelidan bent down, reverently, and touched the basket. A single leaf came away in his hand.

        A bodiless voice spoke inside his head. “You will remember only what you have present use for, what you are ready to accept, that will do you no harm. The other experiences will remain within you; when you are ready for their power, or require their wisdom, you will remember them also.”

        And then he was back in his own body and his own senses, soaked in cold sweat, unshaven, and chilled through, in an underground chamber, with his arms wrapped around a wicker-woven pillar of stone. In his hand was a soft, pale willow leaf, fresh as spring. But as he flexed stiff muscles and lowered his arm, he discovered that what he held was his own Willow crest ring.

        He stepped back from the pillar and felt his knees sagging under him. Before he could fall, Liiron was there, solid and prosaic. The channel caught him, and lowered him gently to the blanket, and covered him with his own blue cloak. Kelidan blinked up at the channel's anxious face, feeling all of the journey just past fading into mist, like dreams after one wakes up. A handful of images remained: Klyd and Denrau, discussing his fate; copper electrical cables feeding vast underground farms; a puff of dust from a cliffside; a wicker basket sprouting leaves. A Sectuib with Sylval's hair, companioned by a Farris mayor.

        “The roots run deep,” he mumbled. “All else may change.”

        Liiron gave him a worried look, as if he were babbling nonsense. There was concern on his face, but also a certain wistful curiosity.

        “Don't worry,” said Kelidan. “You'll find out in time. You're going to be Sectuib after me.” At the channel's look of alarm he added, “Oh, not for many years yet. And eventually, one of your descendants will be mayor of Stoak, and Companion to one of mine.”

        It occurred to him that if he had seen this much, he must also have been shown the time and manner of his own death, though he couldn't remember it. Strangely, the thought didn't trouble him.

        Gently Liiron reached to brush a bit of bark from his face. Then he reached to one side and held up an insulated bottle, which when he opened it steamed with the scent of hot trin and honey. Wordlessly he lifted Kelidan's head and held him while he drank, then laced his handling tentacles through Kelidan's fingers and sat studying him.

        It seemed to Kelidan that he drifted off to sleep, but not for long, because when he woke the last drop of honeyed tea was still trickling down his chin. Liiron chafed gently at his fingertips, then reached across and took his other hand, cupping it between his own palms to bring warmth back to his fingers.

        When he thought he was ready to do so without dizziness, Kelidan sat up. The chamber seemed strangely empty without the hundreds of ghosts that had crowded around the edges such a short time ago.

        But they were still here, of course, in the book that lay by his side and the copper plaques in the floor beneath him.

        Liiron sat back, resting his hands on his knees, zlinning Kelidan without the worried intensity of a few minutes ago.

        “Again I must ask you,” the channel said, “What is Willow?”

        We are, echoed a thousand inaudible voices from the walls and floor.

        Kelidan felt oddly full, but at the same time strangely empty and at peace.

        “I am,” he said. “I am Willow.”

        “And what is the role of the Sosectu in Willow?”

        “To lead by following, to rule by obeying. To surrender all resistance, and bend to the wind. To keep Willow alive through the storm, whatever the personal cost. And always, to do a Companion's duty.”

        Liiron bowed his head briefly in acknowledgement. The air of authority faded from his posture, and he was only himself once more. “Sosectu ambrov Willow, will you accept my pledge Unto Willow now?”

        Kelidan nodded, and offered both hands to the channel.

        Liiron grasped his hands and let his fingers slide up the smooth-muscled Gen arms, but did not reinforce the grip with his handling tentacles. In total trust and vulnerability he extended his laterals to rest hot and moist, quivering only a little, against the chilled Gen flesh.

        The channel took a deep breath. “Unto the House of Willow, I pledge my heart, my hand, my mind, my substance. And unto Kelidan Aldo-Farris, Sosectu in Willow, I pledge my life, my trust, my undying loyalty. I commit my life, my creativity, and my ever-changing future, to be born from death into a world of constant change, in Flexibility, Unto Willow, Forever.”

        Kelidan felt an invisible cloak of power and authority settle irrevocably upon his shoulders. But it wasn't as heavy as he'd expected it would be, because strong tentacles waited to help him carry the burden.

        “Unto the House of Willow, I pledge my heart, my hand, my mind, my substance; my life, my undying loyalty, my creativity, and my ever-changing future. And unto Liiron Tegir Farris ambrov Willow, I pledge my substance, my trust, and my undying loyalty, in my own name, born from death into change, in Flexibility, Unto Willow, Forever!”

        As Liiron sheathed his laterals and Kelidan let his hands fall to his sides, the Gen knew that he had at last fulfilled his Companion's duty – to Willow, to Liiron, and to himself.

        Because a Companion's duty is neither more nor less than love.

End of story