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To Den's disappointment, his next transfer assignment was with Tyvi, while Quess would once again have Rital. Den was beginning to be seriously concerned about the older Donor's continued presence. Neither Rital nor Tyvi had any real use for a Donor with Quess's rating, and three months was more than enough time for so experienced a diplomat to evaluate the situation in Clear Springs, and learn whatever might be useful about Den's strategy for dealing with Sinth's political opposition.
Added to the mystery were the increasingly frequent occasions when Den was asked to cover for the other Donor while Quess took care of "personal business" in town. What sort of personal business could a Donor like Quess have in an out-Territory town like Clear Springs? he wondered, when Quess left him in charge of both First Order channels for the second time in a week. Is it Householding business? But Shaeldor specialized in ships and shipping. There was no navigable river closer to Clear Springs than Oxbow on the lower reaches of the Tinusa, although there was a sliderail line from the port as far as Sanger. The Office of Transportation had announced a new connection between Sanger and Clear Springs, but the surveyors had only just begun to map out the new sliderail route between the two cities. It might be as much as a year before the first train would go through.
To ease his frustration in a constructive manner, Den threw himself into the preparations for his upcoming Children's Day. He ordered more pamphlets and some colorful balloons from Valzor, placed a full-page advertisement in the Clarion, and consulted with Ref about refreshments. He even managed to recruit Arth Tinkum's girlfriend, an art student, to do face painting for the younger children.
The staff caught his enthusiasm, and pitched in to help. The entire Sime Center was cleaned from top to bottom, until it fairly sparkled. Seena concocted a furniture polish which gave a soft gleam to wooden furniture; Den hadn't known the walnut veneer on the library bookcases could look so good. Jesper Reft showed off his talent with needle and thread by replacing the worn slip covers on the transfer lounges in the four used collecting rooms. After some thought, Den had one of the three spare collecting rooms emptied of the junk which had been stored in it, and furnished it with a desk and transfer lounge. Some of the parents would no doubt be unwilling to let their children watch an actual donation, particularly if it had to be their own. By including an empty collecting room as part of the Sime Center tour, Den would at least have the chance to discuss donating with each group.
To the Donor's relief, the big day dawned very cold but clear, without a hint of the freezing rain or snow which he had feared would discourage attendance. Save Our Kids occupied the sidewalk half an hour early, and Reverend Sinth's tall, forbidding figure was much in evidence as he deployed his followers for optimum effect. However, OLD SOKS took their places shortly thereafter, with over twenty reinforcements from the Rational Deists. For once, there were enough counterdemonstrators that they could link arms and maintain a clear path into the Center.
The first three families arrived promptly at nine, and helped themselves to muffins, tea, and mulled cider from the tables Ref had set up in the main reception area. One little girl wanted her face painted immediately with "a biiiiig flower, red like my pants." While Arth's girlfriend worked, the girl's mother drifted over to the propaganda table, where she joined a couple and their three older children in looking over the pamphlets. A man who had brought his two sons wanted them to see him donate "right away, we've got to be at Grandma's in time for brunch," so Den sent them off with Rital and Quess. As soon as the little girl's forehead had been adorned to her satisfaction, the Donor approached the other visitors and offered them a tour of the Center.
By ten, the reception area was filled to capacity. There were enough families waiting to donate in the Collectorium to keep Rital and the two Third Order channels busy, and Den was debating whether he and Tyvi should join them, and leave the tours to the staff.
Looking out the window, the Donor noticed that the chill seemed to have discouraged Save Our Kids; nearly half of them were missing. Including Cessly Lornstadt and her two children, Den observed, so I guess she has some sense, after all. Reverend Sinth didn't seem upset by his followers' poor showing; he was screaming threats of damnation at the passing parents as enthusiastically as ever. The turmeric-haired man stood beside him, adding a fervent "Amen!" on the rare occasions when the preacher was forced to pause for breath. However, with so few demonstrators to watch, OLD SOKS and the Rational Deists were able to send about a third of their members inside to warm up, on a rotating schedule.
Den's latest tour had reached the empty collecting room, and he was busy explaining once more that it didn't hurt Gens to donate, when he heard a commotion on the other side of the door. Hastily excusing himself, he opened the door and looked down the short hallway which connected the seven collecting rooms with the collectorium waiting area and records room.
There was a loud shouting coming from the waiting room, but a more immediate problem was heading down the hall towards him: Cessly Lornstadt, dragging her children behind her. She saw Den at the same time, and immediately dodged through the nearest door.
It was the collecting room Reyna Tast preferred, and the "in use" light was on, a clear warning that the ambient nager must not be disturbed. The elderly Third Order channel only handled the more experienced Gens, and she was pre-turnover. However, she was working alone. Hammil ambrov Keon, who was her assigned Donor this month, was confined to his room so that he wouldn't pass his cold on to the visitors.
Reyna had insisted on doing her share of Collectorium duty anyway. The only concession she'd been willing to make was that she would leave any families whose "children" had established to Zir or Rital. A child's nager, she had said firmly, wouldn't disturb her in the least, so there was no reason to expect any problems.
But since when do problems arrive only when you expect them?
With visions of disaster spinning before his eyes, Den slipped through the door after Cessly and her children, deliberately using the strength of his First Order selyn field to grasp control of the ambient nager.
His immediate reaction was relief: the transfer lounge was unoccupied, so Reyna had not been disturbed during the vulnerable moment of selyn flow. However, in their haste, the invaders had shoved her elderly client, Mr. Duncan, to the floor. As Reyna stopped him from getting up until she'd had a chance to zlin him for injuries, Den glared at Cessly.
She grinned back at him unrepentantly, jiggling her left wrist, which was by now securely handcuffed to the center post of one of the cabinets which lined the wall behind the desk. Her children had secured themselves in a similar fashion to the legs of the heavy oak desk. They looked timidly up at him, eyes enormous with scared anticipation.
But it was Mr. Duncan who got in the first word, as usual. As Reyna helped him to his feet and guided him over to the visitor's chair, he demanded, "What in tarnation do you think you're doing here, Cessly?"
"Your friends the snakes may have talked their Simeloving collaborators into keeping us away from their victims out on the sidewalk--" she said belligerently, smiling sweetly all the while "--but they'll have a much harder time getting rid of us here! If they want to stop us from talking to their victims today, they'll just have to close down until the in-Territory police get here. That could take days."
She's right, the Donor thought grimly, trying to calculate the travel time.
"However--" Cessly looked at Den slyly "--Chief Tains here in Clear Springs just happens to have duplicate keys to our handcuffs, if you don't want to wait. If you ask him nicely, he might be willing to let you post the Sime Center as Gen Territory long enough for him to arrest us for trespassing under New Washington law. Of course, he's a busy man. He won't be able to respond to your call before the press gets here, so I'm afraid the whole town will be exposed to the truth about donating..."
"The truth about donating?" Mr. Duncan snorted in disgust. "It's about time you learned it, Cessly!" Ignoring Reyna's protests, he struggled to his feet, then stalked stiffly over to the transfer lounge. "If you would oblige, lovely lady?" he asked Reyna politely, as he seated himself and began to roll up his sleeves.
Reyna hesitated a moment, weighing the advisability of trying to take a donation from an angry donor, with a highfield Simephobe in the room. Then her eyes rested on Den, and they began to twinkle with suppressed glee. "Of course," she replied with equal courtesy, signaling the Donor to attend her with a graceful gesture of two handling tentacles. She joined Mr. Duncan on the lounge, seating herself with all the dignity of a Tigue matriarch in a corporate boardroom.
"Not in front of the children!" Cessly squealed, her eyes opening wide in horror.
"Why not?" Den asked. "We are having a Children's Day here, after all." He walked across the small room, feeling for a spot from which he could control the ambient nager. Unlike many of the Gens Rital handled, Mr. Duncan was an experienced donor who could be trusted not to panic, and he was even managing to control his anger at Cessly fairly well. All Den had to do was keep their uninvited guest's nager from interfering--an easy task, since the Donor was carrying more selyn than anyone else in the room.
He settled for perching on the desk. That was less than perfect, so he'd have to work a little harder, but Reyna's sensitivity wasn't that high, compared with the First Order channels with whom Den usually worked. He could block Cessly's nager well enough, while giving her--and her wide-eyed children--a good view of the proceedings.
"Zeke, Clarinda, you are not to watch," Cessly ordered as Reyna joined Mr. Duncan on the transfer lounge. "This is a grownup thing." She couldn't have said anything better calculated to pique childish curiosity.
"But, Mommy, I'm big now," Zeke proclaimed, with the authority of a full five years.
"So am I," his three-year-old sister chimed in.
"You are not!" scoffed her brother.
"I am, too!"
"I don't want to hear any more backtalk from either of you," Cessly snapped. "Remember, bad children turn into Sime monsters. Cover your faces at once."
The two children cringed at what was obviously a frequent and much-feared threat. Without further protest, they obediently covered their faces with their hands, peeking avidly through the cracks between their fingers. They were far too young to have any clear idea of how the "murdering Sime monsters" their parents hated so much went about killing. So, although Cessly gasped in horror when Reyna completed the transfer contact, her children began to giggle.
"They're kissing!" Clarinda squealed, with all the delight of a child who has caught an adult being naughty.
"Yuck!" Zeke said. "I don't like mushy stuff."
"Give yourself time, son," Mr. Duncan said, sitting up as Reyna released him. He winked. "Another ten years, and you'll be surprised how much fun it is to kiss a pretty lady."
The little boy considered Mr. Duncan's claim for a moment. "Naww," he denied skeptically. Losing interest in "mushy stuff," he returned to more important matters. "Mommy, I hafta go to the bathroom."
"Me, too," Clarinda said.
"I told you to take care of that before we left the house!" Cessly reminded them.
"That was hours ago," Zeke complained. "I hafta go again."
"You'll just have to wait until we get home," she said helplessly.
"Nonsense," Reyna said as she stood, a bit stiffly. Den moved to help her. "There's a bathroom right down the hall that your children are welcome to use."
"But I can't," the boy protested, pulling on the handcuff which chained him to the desk's leg.
"Me, neither," Clarinda chimed in, happily jingling her own.
"Here." Reyna knelt next to the children. "I'll lift the desk, and you two can slip those bracelets right off the ends of the legs."
"You get away from my children, snake!" Cessly demanded.
Ignoring this belated display of parental concern, the channel got a good hold on the edge of the desk and tilted it, augmenting to manage the weight. Den helped the children free themselves, then made sure that there were no small feet or fingers in the way when she lowered the heavy piece of furniture carefully back to the ground.
"There you are," she said kindly. "Let's go find that bathroom now, shall we?"
"Zeke, Clarinda, you sit right back down and behave yourselves!" Cessly ordered.
"But, Mommy, I gotta go to the bathroom," her son explained with childish logic.
"Me, too," his sister lisped indignantly.
"Come with me, then," Reyna suggested, holding out a hand to each, tentacles carefully retracted. Turning their backs on their mother, the children took the channel's offered hands and let her lead them out the door.
Den looked at the outraged Cessly, then at the chuckling Mr. Duncan. The elderly donor shook an admonitory finger at Den, who shrugged to indicate his total innocence. Leaving Cessly chained to the cabinet, the two Gens left the collecting room, ignoring her startled squawk as the Donor turned out the light behind them.
Den escorted Mr. Duncan back to the Collectorium's entrance, and discovered that six additional Save Our Kids members had chained themselves to the waiting room furniture. Ephriam Lornstadt, Cessly's husband, was leading the group in a hymn from his seat by the reception desk, keeping time by clanking the metal cuff which encircled his wrist against the wastebasket.
The Reverend Jermiah Sinth was conspicuous by his absence. He's willing to risk just about anything to run us out of town, Den thought cynically. Anything, that is, but a regular supply of melic weed. The preacher hadn't enjoyed his forcible withdrawal from the drug during his previous incarceration. While the Valzor jail had its share of illicit smuggling, the preacher had made himself so unpleasant with his constant sermonizing that the dealers in contraband had refused to do business with him. And why should Sinth risk another jail term, when he has followers eager to pay that penalty while he stays home and gets rich describing their misfortunes in his fund raising letters? I somehow doubt they'll see any of the contributions the Holy Terror collects for their "defense fund," either.
The parents waiting to donate were milling around exchanging indignant remarks with each other and the members of Den's tour group, who had wandered down the hall to the waiting room to see what the uproar was about. Rital and Quess were trying to calm them and their excited children, who were watching the chained activists wide-eyed.
The channel looked up when he zlinned Den, and asked ironically, "I don't suppose any of your planning included this sort of thing, did it, cousin?"
"Well, not exactly," the Donor admitted.
"Seena called the police in Valzor, but they can't get here until tomorrow at the earliest."
"The lorshes are counting on that," Den said. He quickly explained what Cessly had said about the duplicate keys and Chief Tain's willingness to arrest the activists for the misdemeanor of trespassing. "Of course, he'd make sure that the incident became a media extravaganza for Save Our Kids," the Donor finished. "They've already called the Clarion."
"We can't allow that," Rital declared.
"Then we'll just have to deal with the situation ourselves." Den looked around thoughtfully, and suggested, "Let's move everyone over to the main foyer for now, where it's quieter. We can set up a temporary waiting area there, and bring the donors in through the staff door, next to the records room. And when the press arrives, leave them to me. I'll give them a story about Children's Day, not Save Our Kids."
"I suppose that might work," Rital said. "What should we do about the demonstrators?"
The Donor inspected their unwelcome guests and shrugged. "They aren't going anywhere."
Ephriam Lornstadt noticed the attention and stopped singing long enough to sneer, "You might as well give up and call Chief Tains, Simelover. You can do nothing to us!"
"An excellent suggestion," Den said, smiling maliciously. "I assure you, we will do nothing to you." With a few quiet orders, he got the staff organized.
When the room had been emptied of out-Territory visitors--or at least the invited ones--Den asked Ephriam Lornstadt if he and his wife had made any provisions for their children.
"I suppose our next door neighbor, Miz Terlin, would look after them for the next few hours," he answered indifferently.
"I meant for the next three years or so--" Den clarified "--while you and your wife are sitting in jail."
"WHAT!" Lornstadt tried to jump to his feet, but the handcuff around his wrist prevented him from standing. "But Reverend Sinth arranged for us to be arrested under out-Territory law by Chief Tains. There isn't any jail time for mere trespassing."
The Donor shook his head. "Your august leader forgot to clear his little scheme with us--" he pointed out "--and we've decided not to go along with it. The in-Territory police will arrest you for disrupting a Sime Center as soon as they can get here. It's a second offense for you, and your wife barged into a collecting room when it was in use. You'll both be in jail for years. So who's going to look after your kids?"
"Well, my sister might take them," Lornstadt said hesitantly. "Although we've never been on the best of terms..."
Den sighed. "How can we contact her?"
Despite the interruption, Children's Day was a major success. Over a hundred families attended, and in about a third of the families, at least one parent decided to donate so that their children could see what it was like. Many of these parents had donated before, and thus had some idea what they were getting into, but under the watchful eyes of their offspring, even most of the new donors managed not to panic.
A reporter and photographer from the Clarion arrived just before lunch, alerted by Reverend Sinth, to cover Save Our Kids' occupation of the Collectorium. Rital left the media representatives to Den, who simply told them that no one had been harmed and that the situation was under control, pending the arrival of the police. Then the Donor filled their hands with pamphlets and invited them to go on the next tour. While they were looking through the pamphlets, he quietly asked Gati to make sure that the Collectorium was left out of that particular tour, to prevent the newspaper from getting any pictures of the chained protesters. Fortunately, all of the out-Territory witnesses had long since left. The result, as Den had hoped, was a front-page story about Children's Day, illustrated by a photo of smiling children getting their faces painted in the crowded reception area. There was only a passing mention that there had been some disturbance from Save Our Kids.
After the last visitors had gone home, and the reception area had been cleaned of the worst of the detritus they had left behind, Den retired to the cafeteria for a well-earned supper. He served himself a generous bowlful of thick, savory stew, and found a large chunk of Ref's good sourdough bread, made from Jain's mother's recipe, to go with it.
In the dining room, he discovered Reyna and Quess sharing a table with the Lornstadt children. "Do you mind if I join you?" he asked, suiting his actions to his words.
"Not at all," Reyna said cheerfully. "Children, finish your dinners quickly, there's pie for dessert."
Zeke glared at his bowl of stew. "It's all vegetables!"
"Why, so it is," Quess agreed amicably. "Delicious, aren't they?" He took a bite and patted his stomach in appreciation, saying, "Yumm."
Clarinda giggled. "Yumm, yumm!" she said, banging her spoon on the table.
"No, you have to do it like this," Quess said. Taking another bite of stew, he demonstrated, "Yummmm!"
Giggling, both children began eating their stew, punctuating each mouthful with an enthusiastic "Yumm."
"Were you able to get ahold of their aunt?" Den asked Reyna softly.
The channel frowned. "Yes, but she refuses to take them in, and their only surviving grandparent is too frail to care for herself, much less two active youngsters. I don't know what will become of them. We can't keep them here." Clear Springs was considered a hardship post, so none of the long-term staff had children. Short-term visitors were advised to leave their children in-Territory. As a result, the Clear Springs Sime Center had no child care facilities.
Quess leaned back in his chair and sighed. "If no one's claimed them by the time the police get here, I suppose they'll be declared abandoned and become wards of the Nivet Territory Court. We can send them to Valzor with their parents. Shaeldor has a Children's Home in the city, and it's authorized as a foster home. If the court agrees, I can arrange for the kids to stay there, so at least they'll be able to visit their parents occasionally."
"I doubt the court will protest such an easy solution," Den agreed. "However, I don't think the Lornstadts will be too pleased at having their kids fostered by a Householding."
"Can you think of a better solution, if their relatives won't take them in?" the older Donor asked.
"I suppose not," Den admitted.
By this time, Zeke and Clarinda had emptied their bowls. They immediately began to demand their promised pieces of pie. Reyna had finished her own Sime-sized portion of stew, so she and the children left the two hungry Gens to complete their meal and went to explore the delights of the dessert table.
Quess shook his head as he looked after them. "That little Clarinda reminds me of my own daughter," he said wistfully.
"The one who made the model ship you keep on your desk?" Den asked.
"Yes. She died many years ago." His voice had the flat tone of a Donor trying to control strong emotion before it could disturb nearby Simes.
"If you'd rather not talk about it..." Den began.
"Thank you." The older Donor stared into his stew for a long moment, then pulled himself together with a visible effort. "By the way--" he asked "--would you be willing to cover Hajene Rital's Collectorium shift day after tomorrow? I have some personal business to take care of in town."
Den still wondered what mysterious "business" in an out-Territory town like Clear Springs required the personal attention of a Donor with Quess's formidable talents. However, if the senior Donor planned to stay in town and monopolize Den's channel until it was done, Den was more than happy to assist that happy day to arrive. And it will give me a chance to work at overcoming my stubborn cousin's foolish overprotectiveness. "Sure," he agreed. "That shouldn't be a problem. Things have been pretty quiet lately, today's disturbance notwithstanding."
"Your friends Tohm and Silva feel that's strictly temporary. They're quite worried about Reverend Sinth's latest fundraising effort."
"For that farm he wants to buy out by Clearston, so he can build a church and retreat center?" Den asked.
"Yes. I'm not sure I follow their logic. Aren't churches supposed to promote peace and understanding? And if he and his friends retreat to Clearston to pray, they won't be on your doorstep quite so much."
Den shook his head. "It doesn't work that way, I'm afraid. A church is just a meeting hall, after all, and it's only as peaceful as the person who runs it. A group prayer is a spoken vow, and again, its content is controlled by the person leading it. Sinth will invite people to stay for a few days and bombard them with lectures on how, not just he, but their God, wants them to fight us. Then he'll lead the group in prayers for our destruction. Even people who attended out of simple curiosity will be pressured to honor the vows he's made to God in their names. For some of them, it won't matter that the vow was made without their consent."
"I can understand that some people who attend anti-Sime workshops would at least keep up with the issue, but surely, people won't consider themselves bound to honor someone else's pledge in their names," Quess objected. "That would be ridiculous."
"Really?" Den raised a skeptical eyebrow. "When you established, did you feel bound by your parents' pledge to commit their children to Shaeldor?"
"That's different," the Householder protested.
"If you say so."
As Den had promised Ephriam Lornstadt, "nothing" was done to the seven protesters chained in the Collectorium. As a result, they were too hungry, thirsty, and exhausted to resist arrest when the in-Territory police finally arrived the following evening. Even Cessly was too worn out to smile. Once freed, they were allowed enough porridge and water to blunt their hunger pangs for the benefit of passing Simes, and then they were hustled onto the prison bus for the long trip back to Valzor.
Zeke and Clarinda went with them, under the care of the two Householders among the officers, who had promised Quess to personally deliver the children to Shaeldor's Valzor offices. The diplomat assured Den that his House's lawyers had already prepared a petition for guardianship, "But if we already have physical custody, and we can show that the children are adjusting well, the court is likely to simply rubber-stamp the arrangement, rather than putting the poor kids through six months of temporary care in as many different homes. Children require stability."
When Den and Rital started their shift in the Collectorium the next morning, the only sign of Save Our Kids' occupation was a few scratches on the reception desk, where Ephriam Lornstadt's handcuff had scraped the finish. Fewer Gens came in to donate that day than usual, but Den couldn't be sure if they'd been scared off by Save Our Kids' antics, or if the Gens who would normally have filled the waiting room had simply chosen to donate early on Children's Day, so that their kids could watch.
There was half an hour left to their shift, and the short winter's day was drawing to a close, when they escorted their latest client back to the waiting room, only to find it empty of donors. A glance out the window revealed why: a light snow had begun to fall, and a layer of powder had already accumulated on the frozen ground.
Rital shrugged and told Seena, Reyna, and her Donor Hammil to quit early. "We'll stay until the official closing time, just in case someone decides to stop by and donate on their way home from work."
The cousins helped themselves to trin tea from the pot Seena always kept hot in the records room, then appropriated the most comfortable couch in the waiting room. They watched the snow, talking quietly of nothing in particular. It was something they hadn't had time to do in far too long, and Den hadn't realized how much he missed it. I've got to stop letting differences of opinion, extra duties, or even other Donors come between us, Den decided. What's the use of winning the right to stay in Clear Springs with Rital if I never take the time to enjoy a conversation with him?
The snow thickened, and by common consent, Save Our Kids and OLD SOKS collected their signs and pamphlets and left early.
A few minutes later, Rital sat up with a start. "We've got some business," he said, just before the door opened and a shivering, snow-covered figure stumbled inside. It dropped a heavy knapsack on the floor, then fumbled with cold-numbed fingers at the buttons on its heavy winter coat.
"Bethany Sinth, what are you doing here?" Den demanded, as he recognized the Reverend's pretty niece. It took some imagination, as there were several purpling bruises on her face, and she moved stiffly, like an old woman.
"I'm here to donate, of course," she answered. "Why else would I come to a place like this?"
Den forbore from mentioning that the last time she had come, she had intended to disrupt the Collectorium by spreading horrifying tales about donating. Only her own miscalculations had prevented her from succeeding. Since there weren't any donors present to be scared off by such tactics, the Donor contented himself with pointing out the obvious. "Your uncle won't approve."
"That's why I waited for him to leave," the young Gen said with indisputable logic. "Besides, if I'm lucky, I'll never have to see him or speak with him again." She shivered; whether from fear or cold, Den couldn't tell.
Rital could, though, and fetched another mug of tea. It was only lukewarm, since Seena had unplugged the pot when she left, but it was better than nothing. "Here," he said, urging Bethany to sit on the couch. "This will help you warm up."
She sipped, made a face at the taste, then gulped it down.
When she had finished the tea, and stopped shivering quite so badly, the channel looked at her firmly. "Now then--" he said, his tone leaving no doubt that he wasn't in the mood for nonsense "--perhaps you should tell us the whole story. You might start by explaining how you managed to get beaten so badly. Your back is one large bruise."
Bethany's eyes widened in fear, and she shrank away from the channel. "How did you know that?"
"I can feel your pain," Rital answered. Den unobtrusively moved a little closer to his cousin. "What happened to you?"
"There's no time to explain," Bethany said frantically, wringing her hands in distress. "I've got to catch the evening train, or I'll be spending the next few years in reform school. I don't have the money for the ticket, and donating's the only way I can get it without Uncle Jermiah's permission."
"Now you've really got me curious," Rital said. "I won't lay a tentacle on you until I find out what's going on."
Bethany's shoulders slumped. "My uncle found out I'm still dating Rob Lifton," she admitted with obvious reluctance. "He ordered me not to see 'that traitor Simelover' again. I told him I'd date whom I pleased, and that's when he went berserk. He started beating me with his belt, on and on, and all the time he was saying that he would send me to Reverend Grausal's school for wayward girls. A friend of mine told me about it. They feed you porridge three times a day. You spend all your mornings in chapel, listening to lectures on how sinful and depraved you are, and your afternoons sewing shirts and dresses for Reverend Grausal to sell." She made a face. "That is, if the Reverend doesn't invite you into his study for some 'special counseling.' I understand he likes to inspect the girls' panties, to make sure they're modest enough--while they're being worn." Her voice rose to a shout. "I won't go there, I won't!"
"Where will you go instead?" Rital asked briskly, cutting through her incipient hysteria. "And how will you survive when you get there?"
"I think I'll go to one of the border cities, maybe one with a university like Westfield," she said, after a moment's consideration. "Someplace big enough that a newcomer won't be noticed, and where my uncle's denomination doesn't have too many followers. I might be able to get a job, if I can find someone who won't ask for proof of my age, and in a border town I can earn money donating if I must. I only have to stay hidden for a few months, after all, until I'm sixteen. Then Uncle Jermiah can't touch me." She reached into the pocket of her heavy wool dress. "If I get desperate, I can always sell my mother's ring. She died when I was practically a baby, and it's the only thing of hers I have. Still, I don't think she'd mind, under the circumstances. There are some scratches inside the band, but it's got a diamond, and the workmanship's good. It should be worth quite a bit, don't you think?"
The ring she pulled out had an exquisitely detailed ship carved into the face, with a diamond glittering on the hull. Suddenly suspicious, the Donor took the ring from Bethany and inspected it more closely. Interwoven with the ship design was another crest with which Den was intimately familiar, since it was carved into the ring on his own right hand. The "scratches" to which Bethany had referred were worn but still legible Simelan writing: Lissabee ambrov Shaeldor, and the date, eighteen years before, when she had Qualified and pledged.
More trouble, Den thought. He handed the ring to Rital. "I think we should find out if Quess is back from town yet, don't you?"
Proceed to Chapter 12