Risa stood at the library window, staring out at the spring crops that had come up in long neat rows in the past week. The last time she had had time to come up here in daylight she had looked over apparently empty furrowed fields. Now the young green made its promise against the rich brown soil.
She was exhausted, having worked all day in the dispensary - but the tiredness was not a physical, muscular tiredness that would allow her to sleep. Bracing her hands on the window frame, she leaned forward and breathed deep gulps of the fresh spring air. Only two years ago, she would have been spending such days out there, the sunshine and the scent of blossoms all day, perhaps even making love out of doors as twilight fell.
The breeze drifted wisps of her hair over her eyes, and she pulled them back with her tentacles, refusing to withdraw from the fresh air. She wished she could go out and work in the fields tomorrow . . . or with the parties of women who were gathering the early berries in the woods. She was only nineteen, but she was a channel; Householding Keon required her services in the dispensary, especially now.
Sectuib Nedd Varnst was kept busy with his wife, Litith, and their newborn son. If he survived, the baby would grow up to be a channel, for his birth had put a tremendous strain on Litith. Both Nedd and Risa had channeled selyn to Litith during labor, but still she had spent many hours on the brink of need, and was now suffering the shock to her nervous system of the excessive number of transfers she had had to have in such a short time. Although Nedd and his Companion, Gevron, had spent most of their time with Litith the past three days, the latest news was that she was little better, in need but unable to accept another transfer through her overstrained nerves. Since joining Householding Keon, after learning that she herself was a channel, Risa had learned why her own mother had died giving birth to her.
Life indoors seemed suddenly painful. Out there was spring. In here, where there was not drudgery, there was agony. Everyone in the Householding shared it, but most could escape for a few hours each day. Only the channels were trapped. There were times when Risa could almost wish she had never disjuncted . . . but no, she could not go back to killing now, not after knowing Gevron and Renata and all the other Gens of the Householding . . . and especially not after knowing Sergi. And not after her mind rejected the painful memory, returned to a more productive train of thought. Gens were people, just like Simes. Even those raised in the Pens were animal-like only because they were kept ignorant and helpless. Of course . . . as a channel, she did not need to kill. She could leave the Householding and . . .
And what? A Sime who did not kill Gens was labeled a pervert. There was no longer a place for Risa outside a Householding. And . . . she smiled tiredly . . . she didn't really want to go. This was home. It was only weariness sending those thoughts through her mind.
The golden glow of sunset spread across the fields before her, and she leaned out of the window as far as she dared, hands and tentacles spread against the inner wall on either side.
Behind her the door opened, and quiet footsteps approached. She felt the gentle emotional aura that could belong only to one person. "Please, Sergi," she said, "go back and say you couldn't find me. I am so tired! I couldn't be of use to anyone right now."
"I do not seek you for others," he replied. "I bring good news . . . and I thought you might need me."
"What news?" she asked, dropping her grip on the right side of the window and half turning toward him.
"Litith is out of danger. Nedd effected transfer, and now she will have a month to heal."
"Oh, thank God! And the baby?"
"Well, also. But you, Risa, have been doing double duty for three days, and before that you helped with Litith's labor and delivery. You are approaching need."
"Intil, not need yet. A shunt, I think. Poor Sergi. Keon could use another Companion. At times like these past few days, you and Gevron are severely overworked."
"No more than you and Nedd. I can care for you. Will you allow me, Risa?" He crossed his hands, extending them toward her.
Gratefully, she put her right hand on his right arm, her left hand in his; her tiny, slender hand disappeared into his large, strong one. As her tentacles instinctively sought the proper position, she rose on tiptoe and he bent his head so that their lips could meet.
A shunt, the slow transfer of selyn from Risa's secondary system to the primary, where she could use it herself, took much longer than ordinary transfer. As she stood with her eyes closed, allowing Sergi to control the delicate deproda balance, her mind traveled back to the black night when she had first met him, just over two years ago.
She had been visiting friends near the border of Gen Territory, high in the hills. Starting back toward the city of Norlea, where she lived, she had a safe road and plenty of time to reach home before she would be needed. It should have been a two-day journey with an overnight stop at the home of a cousin at the foot of the hills. Her uncle, Berob, was traveling with her that far.
Suddenly, they were both aware of selyn nager, a high field gradient, approaching rapidly from in front of them. Wild Gens! A whole troop of them appeared over the crest of the hill, riding fast - a raid into Sime Territory! Risa and Berob wheeled their horses and took off up the slope.
"Separate!" shouted Berob. "Meet at Kerog's tonight!"
They were outnumbered ten to one - even a Sime could not hope to fight so many Gens. Moreover, these Gens were armed with rifles - shots rang out after the fleeing Simes. Risa's horse reared, almost unseating her. In a nightmare of horror she saw her uncle hit in the back, and as he jerked upright another shot took off the back of his head. At the same time, she was fighting her mount, trying to maintain her seat as the mare thrashed and bucked. Somehow Risa gained control, struck out hopelessly across the open meadow toward the relative safety of the woods.
Behind her she could hear the triumphant cries of the Gens at Berob's gall. Thank God he was dead - and she must escape, or die. If the Gens captured her alive, they would take her into Gen Territory and imprison her to die of attrition.
Shots still pursued her, but her horse was fast and she was gaining. Just as she reached the edge of the forest, a bullet creased the mare's flank. The horse spurted wildly forward, screaming in pain. Risa clung for dear life, unable to control the animal, riding as best she could, not daring to look back. Suddenly her head seemed to explode in a violent flash of pain . . . then there was nothing.
The next thing she was aware of was the pain and terror of disorientation. Unable to orient herself to her surroundings, she felt, despite the fact that she knew she was lying perfectly still, that she was being sucked into a whirlpool, tossed violently about while waves of heat and cold beat over her. When she forced for eyes open, she seemed to be suspended over an abyss, looking down into treetops and blue sky. Helplessly, she clutched at the dry grass of the hillock on which she lay as the world changed colors and began to spin . Nausea shook her.
It went on and on. Darkness descended . . . she made her uncertain, and pain blurred her perceptions. Pins and needles tore through her; she was burned and frozen. Convulsions shook her as the world spun again. Somewhere in the back of her mind was the knowledge that she was totally helpless should the Wild Gens find her.
Finally, the worst was over. It was very dark. The setting moon told her it was after midnight. Her head was splitting; touching her temple, she felt blood matting her hair where a bullet had creased her. She was freezing, she ached all over . . . and she was in need. The disorientation had cost her last reserves of selyn.
At least she know where she was now - but not where her horse was. Should she waste time hunting for the animal, which could have run miles after finally throwing her unconscious body? Or would it be better to strike out on foot? It would probably take two days to reach her cousin's home on foot - by that time she would be in the first stages of attrition, but perhaps she would meet someone who would give her a ride - even Raiders, who would be out in force after the Gen raid, might help a victim of that raid without taking special heed of the fact that she was very young and a woman. The Gens would have been back across the border by nightfall, if they hadn't been captured. She decided to strike out at an angle that would bring her to the road in several miles.
Stumbling through the rocks and brush, Risa tried to control her shivering. It was still six hours to dawn, six hours and more before the sun would impart any warmth to the world, but she was beginning to realize that she had under-estimated her need. Already it was tearing at her vitals, stronger than any she had ever felt before.
Perhaps it was the strength of her need that allowed her to sense over such a great distance, for slowly she became aware of a high field gradient off to her left, moving in the opposite direction from the road. Turning toward it, she walked a few yards - but just as she was certain it was a high-field Gen, it disappeared. More sensory distortions? What would a lone Gen be doing out here? Then she remembered: the shrine of the starred-cross. Her father had brought her here when she was ten, showing her the way out of Sime Territory . . . just in case. She remembered his telling her of the legend, that faith in the starred-cross protected Gens from the kill. Then a child, not knowing if she would be Sime or Gen, she had wanted to believe it. Now she no longer hoped it was true - she needed to kill!
If she had not caught that trace of selyn nager before the Gen entered the shrine, she would have passed by without knowing he was there . . . and possibly died of attrition. It crossed her mind that perhaps the starred-cross was working for her tonight. Although she know just where it was, it took her over an hour to make her way to the shrine. Silently, she crept up to the door and opened it. A high field gradient welcomed her, but no hint of fear - an escaping adolescent so exhausted as to have fallen asleep despite his fears? It was warm inside. Her eyes soon made out a figure wrapped in a blanket before the glowing coals in the fireplace. Too large for a recently-established adolescent. A full-grown Gen. What was he doing here? Well, he would regret being here when she woke him - woke him to fear, to serve her need, to relieve the aching cramp in her gut at the same time that his death brought the soaring ecstasy of egobliss.
"Why don't you come over the fire and get warm?"
It was through Risa that the shock of fear jolted. Then she laughed at herself. What fool was this who believed that only Gens could enter the shrine?
The Gen threw off his blanket and began to poke up the fire with a stick of kindling. In the light of the flames that leaped up, she saw that he was huge. All Gens were big, but this was the biggest one she'd ever seen. The flickering light glinted on his blond hair. Risa moved forward as the Gen fiddled with the fire. When he turned, the last sight he would see would be a Sime in attack posture. Surprise and fear together would create that state of intense delight that every Sime craved at the kill. She was not concerned about his size or strength; she had killed Gens almost as big with very little effort, and now her need added to her wiry strength.
Without turning, the big Gen said conversationally, "I know you are in need, but you had best think twice before you attack me."
She could not control her gasp of indrawn breath. He turned to face her. "I am Sergi Ambrov Keon," he said.
"Not all Simes are like the perverts in the Householdings!" she spat. "You've just given me another reason to kill you."
Still not the least fear emanated from him. "You cannot kill me, or any Gen who lives in a Householding. We all know how to kill a Sime who attempts transfer by force . . . and you know how vulnerable you are to pressure on the transfer nerves."
Good God! He did know how to protect himself from attack! The best she could hope to do was kill him some other way, simply because he was a member of a Householding. But her knife had been in its scabbard on her saddle . . . and she dared not augment if she was to have any change of making it home after this detour. Best to leave at once.
As she started to back away, he said, "Don't go. I will serve your need."
"You mean you would kill me!"
"No. I am a Companion. I have no reason to wish you dead. If I prove to you that you can achieve transfer without killing, you may revise your attitude toward the Householdings. Even if I do not achieve that, I will save a life - certainly that of the Gen you would kill this month if you made it to wherever you were going in time . . . and very possible your life as well. You are very close to the stage of attrition after which it is no use to attempt transfer. How did you manage to get into this state?"
To her surprise, Risa found herself answering, "Psycho-spatial disorientation."
"Ah," he said, "then I can help you control the aftereffects of that, too. Come. There's no sense in your suffering any longer. We can talk afterward." He rose to his feet.
Something is his rich deep voice was reassuring - and she read in his emotional aura that he spoke the truth. Could Householding Gens possibly control their emotions to that extent? Perverted as their practices might be, members of the Householdings, both Sime and Gen, were known to kill only when attacked. The whole purpose of the Householdings, they said, was to keep from taking lives.
As she stood hesitating, she could feel her own dizziness, the pain from the blow on the head which she could not heal until she obtained selyn . . . and her burning need. Was this Gen trying to frighten her into engaging in perversion - although a lesser perversion than obtaining selyn from a channel - or had he read her state correctly? She was very much afraid that he was right: if she did not obtain selyn now, she would weaken so much on her way to her cousin's home that, if she got there at all, it might be too late to do anything but die of attrition. The thought made her shudder.
The big Gen was watching her carefully. Now he held out his hands to her. He was wearing the same kind of shirt that Simes wore, so his bare forearms were exposed. Her laterals were already unsheathed, moist with ronaplin. All resistance crumbled. She stepped forward, hands and tentacles gripping her forearms, laterals unerringly locating the transfer points as his fingers wrapped willingly, gently, coolly about her arms.
For the first time in her life she felt a Gen in control. He was calm, actually supporting her weight as she wobbled a bit unsteadily on her toes because he was so tall. He bent his head to meet her lips, and the transfer began not at her pace, but at his.
The experience was . . . incredibly beautiful! Warmth and strength poured into her, erasing pain, soothing battered nerves . . . and then delighting, filling her with a peaceful sensation transfer had never brought before. When it was over, she felt as renewed as always . . . but with none of the raw half-pain/half-pleasure of egobliss. Involuntarily, she found herself thinking. If only it could always be like this! Her own thought shocked her.
The Gen had stepped back, no longer touching her, but now he smiled at her. "I thought you had to be one for the disorientation to drain you so thoroughly."
"You will find it more difficult than renSimes to disjunct, but impossible not to do so."
"What are you talking about?"
"Come sit down by the fire. Think a moment while I heat some soup for you. Don't say anything, or you'll think you have to deny it - but consider seriously whether what you have just experienced is not preferable to killing."
"What are you doing here alone?" she demanded, changing the subject. A Householding Gen traveling with a Sime escort would be subject to anything other Simes might want to do to him.
"I was escorting a new channel to Keon. We . . . were caught on the road in that windstorm a few days ago."
"The tornado near Clawston?"
"Yes. We took shelter in a barn. Valle and I were both struck by flying debris - and broken glass. He sustained injury to the laterals of his right arm. No Sime healers would treat him . . . and I could not get him to a Householding in time."
"Oh, God!" Risa groaned. She knew it would have made no difference if the Sime had been treated . . . but she could feel the Gen's sense of helplessness.
"But now," he said, "there is a chance I may yet bring a new channel to Keon."
"Then you do know!"
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
He poured steaming soup into a mug and handed it to her, along with a piece of bread. She ate ravenously, and he waited until she had finished before he said, "You are a channel."
"That's nonsense. There are no female channels."
"There are. No female channel has yet been Sectuib of a Householding, so attention has not focused on them. I, personally, know of three."
"Even if it were possible, I have no intention of continuing perverted practices. You saved my life, for which I am grateful. In return, I shall escort you as far as Norlea. There you can get whatever help you need at Householding Carre."
"Thank you. You and I are now in phase. I shall stay at Householding Carre for one month. When you next experience need, consider which will be more satisfying: a kill, or the transfer you experienced tonight."
"I'm no pervert!"
"Neither am I, nor is any member of a Householding. Madame - I do not know your name."
"Madame Risa, you have learned that it is not necessary to kill to live. You have also, in case you hadn't noticed, been conversing with a Gen this last half hour as if he were a person, not an animal."
He talked on, telling her of Zelerod's calculations, which showed that Simes were in danger of eventually wiping out all Gens, and so dying of attrition themselves. Then he made her lie down, and aid her in guiding the healing process of her injury.
In the morning Risa woke feeling well and strong again, and they set off along the back trails for Norlea, Sergi telling her of life in a Householding. It sounded much harder than life in town, and he did not hide the knowledge of raids and martyrdoms. Yet the spirit of brotherhood Risa sensed in his descriptions held a strong appeal.
When she got home, Risa found her twelve-year-old half-brother, Kreg, in great agitation. He had been her responsibility since their father's death, and he was at an age when his identity as Sime or Gen could occur at any moment. Although she had showed Kreg the route to the border and explained the legend of the starred-cross two years ago, she prayed that he would undergo changeover. He was the only immediate family she had, and it was long years since they had forgotten that they had different mothers.
When she slid off her horse - the horse of Valle, the channel who had died in front of their house, Kreg came hurtling out to catch her up in his arms, tears of joy running down his cheeks, oblivious to this breach of adolescent restraint. "Oh Risa! They found Uncle Berob dead! I was so afraid you were dead - or captured."
"No, Kreg," she gasped through her own tears, "I'm all right. And I've made a new friend." For as he hugged her she felt that he had grown even in the three weeks she had been gone. He was getting so tall - as tall at twelve as their father had been! And if he did not remain small and wiry, the chances were he would be . . . Gen.
The thought preyed on her mind all that month. She watched Kreg's hands, trying to tell herself that their size and sturdiness were merely deceptive against his rawboned adolescence. But fear and love struck deeply into her heart. She knew that the proper attitude was, "If he turns out Gen, then he's an animal. Leave him to his fate." But she also knew that most families could not do that. Most parents secretly showed their children the route of the starred-cross when they were about ten. And Gens who became established were told at once by a parent, brother, or sister, so they could flee while they were still low-field. How many actually made it across the border was unknown.
But if Risa did tell Kreg at the first moment she found him producing selyn . . . even if she risked breaking the law by escorting him to the border herself what would he find there? Wild Gens, like the raiders who had killed Berob!
Fervently she prayed that Kreg would know changeover rather than establishment. But now, for the first time, that too haunted her dreams. In the vivid nightmares that followed disorientation, two themes recurred: Kreg undergoing establishment and being killed before her eyes by another Sime who turned to show . . . Risa's face! And Kreg undergoing changeover . . . and killing! Risa had killed; she had seen Gens killed all her life, yet these dreams had as much of the quality of nightmare as the others. Soon she began to recognize Kreg's victim: Sergi Ambrov Keon.
She had not gone near Householding Carre since she had left Sergi there, determined to forget everything he had told her. But she couldn't forget. His deep, resonant voice rang in her head, quoting statistics - which she checked telling her over and over that both Simes and Gens were doomed if they could not learn to live together without killing. As her time of need approached again, she made her regular application to the government Pens. Never yet had she had the desire to purchase a Wild Gen at auction, to torment before killing. She told herself it was because it was stupid to spend extra money for something one already paid taxes for. Now it occurred to her that she did not want to face a victim who could talk back to her . . . she had never wanted to admit that Gens were people. Sergi Ambrov Keon had forced her to acknowledge that they were.
A week before her day of need, Risa turned as many of her assets as possible into cash. The morning she was scheduled to pick up the Gen assigned to her, she woke Kreg before dawn.
"What is it?" he asked sleepily.
"Come on, Kreg. Pack up only what you cannot bear to leave behind and only what your horse can carry."
"Where are we going?"
"Where you will be safe, little brother."
His eyes widened in fear. "Am I . . . Gen? Has it happened?"
"No. But I'm taking you where you need not fear it if it does happen, Kreg. And where, if for you it should be changeover . . . you need not kill."
"Is it . . . possible?" He sat up, hugging her. "Risa, is there a place like that, truly?"
Holding him, her tentacles entwining in his hair, she prayed that she spoke truth. "Yes Kreg. You have seen Simes and Gens from the Householdings traveling together."
"He tensed. "They're perverts!"
"Do you even know that that word means?"
"Dirty people. What they do isn't normal. They're sick!"
"Am I sick, Kreg? Or dirty?"
"What do you mean?"
"I did not kill last month, little brother. I do not intend to kill today, or ever again. Will you come with me? Come where you will be my brother, no matter what happens?"
She felt his fear overcome by love. Together they went to Householding Carre. True to his word, Sergi was waiting for her. In horrified fascination, Kreg watched the transfer. He was even more fascinated by Simes and Gens living side by side, and the Sime/Sime transfers he was allowed to observe in the dispensary. By the time they left, two days later, with youthful adaptability Kreg was acting as if he had always lived in a Householding.
It was not so easy for Risa to adapt. At Keon she accepted the responsibilities assigned to her, found herself working harder than ever before, and at first enjoying life as she never had. But by the end of the month, her need was accompanied by the strongest intil she had ever known. Nedd provided her first transfer from a channel, and as that ended for the moment her irritability and difficulty in controlling her physical responses, he, Gevron, and Sergi continued training her to distinguish consciously between her two transfer systems.
Risa's fourth transfer without a kill was even more difficult, and by the time the fifth was due she was in the throes of disjunction. It was worse than changeover, worse than disorientation, and it went on and on despite the medicines that were supposed to relieve it. The worst thing was, she knew how to stop it: all she had to do was kill . . . to return to being what she was by nature.
"If you're so damned normal," she raged to Litith, "why should a Sime have to go through this to disjunct?"
"I've been through it," Litith reassured her. "It's worth it, Risa. "You'll be so glad you did it, dear."
Risa augmented uncontrollably, fighting against her restraints. Her need was not merely a need for selyn, but a desperate need for the kill. Kreg came every day to sit by her, trying to talk to her, to convince her that her pain was all worthwhile . . . and each time he left, Litith or Sergi or Nedd would tell her again, "Kreg will never have to go through this, Risa. Even if he is Sime, because you brought him here, he will never kill, never have to disjunct."
When her pain increased with the passing days instead of receding, and she was unable to accept transfer from either Nedd or Sergi, Nedd tried to explain. "Channels are unpredictable, Risa. They always find it harder to disjunct than most Simes, but you're finding it worse than most channels. On the other hand, you're early. Disjunction usually takes seven or eight months. Risa, once you are through this stage, it's over. You will never feel the need to kill again."
"I feel it now! Nedd - you're lying to me. I'm dying and you know it.
"No, no Risa, we're not going to let you die. We need you. In another day or two you will be well . . . and working in the dispensary."
"You know how. Yes, you have a lot to learn, but for simple donation and transfer you've had plenty of practice with Sergi and Gevron and me. Risa, you are needed, the moment you are through disjunction."
A new wave of nausea turned her inside out, she retched, having nothing to bring up. When the spasm ended, Litith bathed her face and gave her a drink, but the burning need remained. She caught a look of sorrow on Nedd's face. "Where is Kreg?" she asked. "He hasn't been here today . . . or . . . how long?" Her time sense was badly distorted.
He's all right," Nedd assured her.
"Where is he? It's been days, hasn't it? Nedd - I'm dying! I want to see my brother!"
"Check her restraints," said Nedd to Litith.
"Nedd - you can't!"
"They have the right to be together."
"Then . . . make sure he's safe," said Litith. "Don't torment Risa further."
The Sectuib drew his wife aside, lowering his voice, but underestimating the pitch to which disjunction has raised the sensitivity of Risa's nerves. Although he whispered, she heard. "She may be right. I've never seen anyone survive after getting this bad, and we've done everything we know. If I bring Kreg in now, just as he is, it might be just the thing to make her hold on to life."
Then he was gone. Immediately Sergi entered and sat talking to her, trying to distract her from her pain. He was low-field, as were all the Gens who came near Risa now. If she survived disjunction, she would have to accept transfer from Nedd. But he did not think she would survive. To survive, she had to kill!
The killmode flooded her. The room reeked of selyn. High-field Gen! Fury burned through her brain as she strained against the straps that held her. Kill! She must KILL! One lateral, slick with ronaplin, slipped from its restraint. In agony, she reached for the stiff fastenings with that delicate tentacle, seeking desperately to release one arm so that she could reach her prey. Pain seared through the lateral, not meant for grasping or handling, but it was nothing to the pain of disjunction - the pain she must escape! Her prey was there, in reach - she must get free to kill.
The voice was soft, hesitant, edged with tears. She opened her eyes. Kreg! They had kept him from her because . . . he was established. His selyn field tormented her - her heart was being torn in half. On her right side stood Kreg, her brother, tears rolling down his face. For him, she wanted to be well, to overcome the need to kill. But now two handling tentacles of her left are were free, rapidly loosening the rest of the restraints. The other half of her knew only that a Gen stood before her, easy prey if only she could reach him.
Her left arm came free. Instinctively she reached for Kreg, tentacles lashing about his right arm.
"No!" cried Litith, but Kreg waved her back with his left hand. Nedd put an arm about his wife, watching warily.
"I'm not afraid, Risa," Kreg told his sister. "Sergi and Nedd have taught me. I won't panic. Do you want to take transfer from me? I know you wouldn't hurt me."
His left hand fumbled clumsily at the restraints that held her right arm. His utter trust pierced even the ravenous lust to kill that his field produced in her. "No!" she managed in a harsh whisper. "No, Kreg - I don't have enough control. I might burn you. Your first donation must be to a channel in full control."
"All right," he agreed. "Whatever you want, Risa."
She forced her grip to loosen from his arm, slid her hand up to his shoulder, and pulled him down to hug him, her love for her brother overpowering the torment of his nager. And Nedd had taken him from the room before she realized that she no longer felt any compulsion beyond her simple need. "Litith," she said, hearing her voice returning to normal, please get Nedd and Sergi."
Her need served, Risa was immediately on her way back to health. By the next morning she was up and around; in the afternoon she went into the main hall to watch Kreg donate, and for both of them to pledge Ambrov Keon. Everyone who could leave his work for a few minutes was there. Risa was awarded a seat on the low dais. Kreg stood proudly to her right, Sergi to her left. When Nedd beckoned him, the boy stepped forward, his arms at his sides. Gevron, standing between them, held out a hand toward Kreg. The boy ignored him, looking toward Nedd. "If you please, Sectuib . . . I would like to donate to my sister.
Nedd smiled. "It is fitting that Risa should begin her work as a channel of Keon by accepting your donation, Kreg. Risa?"
She rose. "May I?"
"You are ready."
She could feel Kreg's joy as he approached. Sergi stepped between them, made the contact, then moved back as brother and sister touched lips in transfer. When it was over, they embraced, and a cheer went up from the crowd. Kreg and Risa turned to Nedd, who accepted their oaths and slipped the Householding rings onto their fingers. The boy glowed with happiness, safe in a place where he could be what he was . . . and still be Risa's brother. More than brother, now. "Naztehr," she said, and he whirled to face her.
"Hajene!" he gasped.
"Naztehr Kreg!" "Hajene Risa!" "Welcome to Keon, Naztehr!" "Welcome Hajene!" The congratulations came from all over the room.
The happiness of that day remained a golden memory for Risa, even now, as her thoughts returned to the present. She was sitting on the window sill, while Sergi stood before her, one hand gently supporting her waist.
She looked up into his blue eyes. "Thank you, Sergi. I am quite well now."
"Tomorrow Nedd will be back in the dispensary," he said. "You should get some time off in the next few days."
"I'm all right."
It was as if she had escaped from prison. She need not stay in or near the house now - she could walk out into the spring evening. They strolled through the kitchen gardens, then out along the road toward the fields.
"There are times when I wish I could work in the fields again," said Risa. "It seems such a direct link with the earth, with the source of life."
"Who could be more directly linked with the course of life than a channel?" asked Sergi. "So very few can do what you do, Risa."
"I know. I'm contented in my work, Sergi. Only . . . why can't I do it out under the trees sometime?"
"Why . . . no reason at all. Why don't you tell Nedd?"
Peace swept through her. "I shall. Tomorrow. I shall work in the courtyard, where I can feel the sun in the morning and the sweet shade in the afternoon."
Their walk had brought them to the Householding cemetery. It was weeks since Risa had been here. In the winter it had been a cold, ugly place, the graves of victims of the December raid raw wounds. Now old and new alike were blanketed with soft grass, surrounded by the spring flowers that renewed themselves each year. Sime and Gen alike - no distinctive mark indicated which lay where. Only the trefoiled markers, so terribly many of them, indicated those who had died martyrs to the cause of Unity.
For the first time since she had walked alone on the roadway last December, Risa was able to face the graveyard without a raw stab of pain. As if her own scars of the earth, she felt now only a dim sadness, starting to be overshadowed by joyous memories.
Plucking a sprig of blossoms from a tree, she laid them on the soft new grass of one of the graves - a pledge of her own unity. It was still hard, so very hard, for her to merge her own will with that of the Householding. But . . . there were solutions. Dispensing in the open air was something no one else had thought of - but no one would question Risa's desire to do so.
She would manage. She would find new incentives. Understanding intellectually that the Householdings were the only road to any kind of future for both Simes and Gens did not ease the burden being a channel put on her. But others had sacrificed much more. Concentrating on that, she would find her way to peace.
Risa got up. Twilight had deepened so that even Sime eyes could not read the simple trefoiled marked on the grace, but she did not need to see it to read: Kreg Ambrov Keon.
Sergi was waiting on the path, a dim but familiar form in the gathering darkness. They walked back in silence toward the lights of the house. As they entered the gardens a piping wail rose from the house, another balm to ease the slowly-healing ache in Risa's hart. The baby she had helped to bring into the world, the son of Nedd and Litith. It was a strong, lusty cry of a new life, new hope.
She turned to smile at Sergi, and saw an answering smile. Of one volition, they joined hands, her handling tentacles twining about his arm in confirmation of unity. Hand in hand, Sime and Gen, channel and Companion, they went in to supper.
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