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Quess picked up the ring and read the name carved into the inside of the band. "Oh, yes, I recognize it," he said softly. "It belonged to my daughter Lissabee. She was one of our House's best young Companions of her generation." He looked at Bethany with a hungry, wistful expression, like a small child who had been given a much-wanted new toy, and couldn't believe that it was finally his.
Bethany was outraged at the suggestion that she was related to a Donor. "You're wrong," she protested hotly. "My mother's name was Lizzie, and she was an orphan when she married my father."
"Is that what they told you?" Quess asked sadly.
"It's true," Bethany insisted stubbornly.
"I assure you--" the older Donor said with some asperity "--the last time I checked, I was very much alive. So is your Grandmother Nerina." He smiled. "You look quite a bit like her, you know. You also have a pair of uncles, and some assorted cousins. They'll all be glad to know that you've finally been found. Shaeldor has been searching for you for thirteen years."
When Bethany simply pursed her lips and stared skeptically at Quess, Rital intervened. "Perhaps we should hear the whole story," he suggested. "Den, would you heat some more water? This sounds like it could take a while."
"Liss was our oldest child," Quess explained, when fresh tea had been brewed and served, along with some of the chocolate-walnut cookies the Collectorium stocked as a lure for hungry students. "She was beautiful, headstrong, and as talented as her mother. She qualified as a First a month after she established, and we were all so proud of her..." He broke off hastily and took a gulp of his tea.
"A Donor?" Bethany interrupted. "Are you telling me that my mother prostituted herself with Simes?" Her face twisted with disgust.
Quess looked at her calmly, but with a hint of sadness in his eyes as he took in her reaction. "Yes, your mother was a Donor," he confirmed. "And an extremely talented one at that. She was very dedicated to Shaeldor's ideals, and we were all astonished when she announced her intention to marry a young out-Territory Gen named Gerryn Sindle, even though he refused to pledge her House."
"And your House doesn't approve of marrying outsiders?" Den asked.
"Well, it's a bit unusual, particularly for a Companion, though it happens occasionally. I told you Liss was headstrong." The older Donor smiled at the memory. "We only really started to worry when Liss let slip that her husband also refused to donate. That meant that they could only live together when she happened to be assigned out-Territory, or in a border city. Nerina and I wondered what kind of life our daughter could build with a man who rejected so much of what she was, but she seemed happy enough, and a year later she had a daughter of her own." He looked up at Bethany. "You were our first grandchild, and Nerina absolutely adored you. She said it made her feel young, to have a baby teething on her tentacles again."
"Tentacles!" Bethany shrieked.
"Why, yes." Quess lifted an eyebrow. "Your grandmother's a channel. So is your Uncle Lijin, for that matter."
When he saw Bethany's appalled expression, Den hastily sipped at his tea to hide a grin.
"Gerryn's family weren't any happier about the marriage than we were," the older Donor continued. "There was a certain amount of unpleasantness, but when Liss was pregnant with her second child, a channel, her in-laws invited her and her husband to visit. Liss wasn't able to give transfer after her fifth month, and Gerryn had been miserable at the enforced separation from his family. Her first pregnancy had been easy enough, and there weren't any signs of trouble with the second. She decided to risk a brief trip out-Territory, hoping that her husband could manage a reconciliation with his parents." Quess stirred his cooling tea absently. "Unfortunately, her brother-in-law was violently opposed to having a Donor in the family. I mean that literally. The two brothers got into a fistfight, and Liss tried to separate them. She got kicked hard in the stomach, and miscarried. The out-Territory doctors couldn't help her at all, and there wasn't a channel within fifty miles. She died the next day."
"Uncle Jermiah murdered my mother?" Bethany asked.
Quess shrugged. "Oh, I doubt it was deliberate. Does it really matter? She was still dead. Of course, no one bothered to tell the Tecton what had happened, and Nerina and I were out west helping to clean up after an earthquake. It was several months before we learned our Liss was gone. I tried to find her husband and daughter, but I was too late. Gerryn's brother had convinced him that Shaeldor would take you away from him if we could. The whole family had changed their names and moved away, no one would say where."
"How terrible," Rital murmured sympathetically.
"And you never found a clue to where they'd gone?" Den asked.
"Not until last year," Quess said quietly. "Liss had set aside quite a tidy sum for her daughter in an out-Territory bank, mostly in the form of stock in Shaeldor-owned businesses. She wasn't sure that her children would choose to pledge, you see, when their father had refused. The account went untouched for twelve years, and I assumed Liss's husband didn't know about it."
"He died in a mining accident, not long after my half-brother Zakry was born," Bethany explained.
"Oh," Quess said. "Well, a little over a year ago, someone started withdrawing funds from the account regularly, directing that the stock be sold off."
"That would have been about the time my stepmother died, and Zakry and I came to Clear Springs to live with our Uncle Jermiah." Bethany reached for a cookie, and nervously crumbled it into her napkin.
But at least now she's listening--and believing, Den observed.
"I knew it couldn't be you managing the account--" Quess told Bethany "--because you're still legally a child out-Territory. However, the money could only have been withdrawn by your father or legal guardian. I found out that the checks were being sent to a post office box in Clear Springs. I called in every favor I could and got permission to spend at least a few months trying to find my granddaughter."
"So that's why you kept going downtown," Den said, fighting conflicting emotions. It was a relief to know that he and Rital weren't on trial again after all, but he wasn't terrible pleased to have been kept wondering for so long.
"Indeed," the reason for his distress agreed. "I've been spending as much time in the post office as possible, waiting to see who picked up the mail." He winked at Bethany. "It's not the most efficient way to find someone, and I'm very glad that you showed up here instead."
Bethany looked less sure than ever that she wanted a Donor for her grandfather, much less a channel grandmother and uncle. Still, she was a practical young woman in her own way. It didn't take her throbbing back long to convince her that it might be to her advantage to switch guardians. An overjoyed Quess promised to get Shaeldor's lawyers to work on the papers right away.
The agreement almost ended as soon as it began, when Quess insisted that Bethany let Rital heal her back before the channel took her field down. "I'll donate if I have to--" she grumbled "--but why should I let a snake touch me any other time? They're just bruises; I'll heal fast enough on my own."
Rital finally threatened to expel her from the Sime Center as a walking menace to every Sime within zlinning distance. When she realized that he meant every word, she reluctantly agreed to let the channel treat her, rather than be left to her paternal uncle's not-so-tender mercy.
Den thought that Quess showed remarkable patience with the girl. The older Donor had had some warning about the sort of beliefs her out-Territory relatives might teach her. However, it still must have been a great disappointment to see his beloved daughter's child cringing away from a channel's touch in disgust.
Shaeldor had an excellent legal staff. Within a week, the Clear Springs civil court had awarded custody of Bethany to her grandfather, largely on the basis of Rital's graphic description of how severely the young woman had been beaten. "I won't leave a child with someone who grossly abuses her," Judge Banklin said as she reluctantly announced her decision. "Even if the only alternative guardian's profession is..." she searched for the least offensive way to phrase it, "...not quite as respectable as it might be."
Quess raised a dignified eyebrow at hearing his distinguished career described in such a fashion, but wisely held his peace. Reverend Sinth lacked such control; his outrage was spectacular, even considering his usual response to being thwarted. The preacher launched into a diatribe about "snake-loving seducers who steal the children of the righteous," and had to be forcibly removed from court by the bailiff.
"Of course he's furious," Bethany explained after the hearing, when Quess commented that her uncle had been almost literally foaming at the mouth. "He doesn't care if I live or die, but if what you said is true, my mother's money has been paying for his melic weed, as well as both our living expenses. Not to mention what he's spent on the printing costs for all of those pamphlets Save Our Kids has been handing out. I think he also used my trust fund as collateral for the loan he took out to buy that farm over by Clearston, where he wants to build a prayer retreat."
"I hadn't realized that he'd been misappropriating your money for his drugs and political activities," the older Donor said. "I'll have to get our lawyers to work on recovering it."
The preacher suffered a second legal loss a few days later. He had filed suit in the Valzor courts to contest Shaeldor's guardianship of the two Lornstadt children. However, his lawyer's pleas that the elder Lornstadts would want their children raised in their own culture, and in accordance with their own beliefs and traditions, didn't convince the court. Plicera ambrov Shaeldor simply spent a few minutes describing the Lornstadt's culture, then pointed out that the elder Lornstadts were accused of rather serious crimes due to their actions "in accordance with their beliefs and traditions." When she finished by describing how Reverend Sinth had treated his niece, the judge signed the younger Lornstadts over to Shaeldor without even a token pause for consideration of the opposing claim.
Bethany settled into the Sime Center, where Rob Lifton visited her almost every day. She reveled in being able to see him without sneaking around, and seemed to like her grandfather well enough, even if he was a Donor. She even picked up a few words of Simelan, although she refused to devote any serious study to the in-Territory language, insisting, "Plain English is good enough for me."
Still, Den could see that she was not at all pleased three weeks later at dinner, when Quess told her that they were moving to Valzor in a few days. "But I want to stay here in Clear Springs!" she complained. "This is where all my friends are. Why should I go to live in a city full of snakes?"
Quess's lips narrowed at the epithet, but his voice remained calm. "Bethany, you knew I was a Donor before you decided you wanted to be my ward instead of your uncle's. Donors go where the Tecton sends them. There's nothing in Clear Springs which requires my particular skills, so it's surprising I was able to stay as long as I have. Come now," he coaxed. "It won't be so bad. Your grandmother and the rest of the family are very eager to meet you."
"But I don't even speak the language!"
"You'll learn quickly enough," her grandfather assured her. "Besides, Valzor is a border city. There are lots of people there who speak English, particularly the Householders."
Bethany's mulish pout didn't soften.
"You may be an adult by in-Territory standards--" Quess pointed out "--but you can't live out-Territory without a guardian. Would you prefer to go back to your uncle?"
Her shoulders slumped. "All right, I'll go with you to Valzor." She glared at him defiantly. "But I won't be fifteen forever, you know. And when I turn sixteen, I can live where I please, on either side of the border. Right now, going to college at Clear Springs U is looking better and better!"
Rital set his tray down next to Den's and asked softly, "Why is Quess so upset?"
"Bethany just told him she didn't want to live in Sime Territory."
"No wonder he's disturbed," the channel said, picking up his spoon and eating his soup with the appetite a Sime only displayed just after a good transfer.
Rital may not like Quess, particularly, Den realized, but my dear cousin does trust him enough to draw at a decent speed. If I could only convince him to let go like that with me...
"Quess has been hoping Bethany would decide to pledge Shaeldor, so he won't lose her," Rital continued.
"He's a fool, then--" Den observed "--but what can you expect from a Householder? If you don't belong to their House, you're not family, no matter how close the blood relationship is. Remember that old Householding tune, 'Pledge To My House and Marry Me'? The title makes it pretty clear that the first action is a condition for the second." The Donor shook his head in disgust. "If Quess had accepted his son-in-law, he wouldn't have lost Bethany in the first place--and if he doesn't stop trying to turn her into a Householder, he's going to lose her again. As if she'd be any less his granddaughter if she stays out-Territory!"
Still, Den was too happy at the prospect of having his cousin back again to waste much time dwelling on Householding prejudices. As winter faded into early spring, he and Rital found themselves teaching three changeover classes at Buchan's school, in addition to their duties at the Sime Center. The work almost kept Den busy enough that he didn't have time to miss being post. With Quess gone, Rital won't be able to keep himself from going for full satisfaction much longer. He's going to break soon, whether he wants to or not--and this time, I'm going to be ready for him!
The Berrysville Mobile Sime Center had continued to attract a fair number of donors, many of whom were well on their way to becoming "regular donors," according to Arth's classification scheme. The program proved so popular that the Oak Ridge congregation of Rational Deists decided to sponsor a similar event in their own Meeting Hall. With Reverend Sinth's insistent urging, the City Council of Clearston immediately passed an ordinance forbidding such "perverse activities."
Reverend Sinth's anti-Sime message found scant sympathy in Clear Springs, though, and the preacher took to the road. He became quite a popular speaker in the more reactionary churches, endlessly repeating his story of how the "sinful, slimy snakes" had stolen his beloved niece. With his access to Bethany's trust fund cut off, he wasn't able to issue as many new pamphlets as previously. However, by all accounts he was making enough in speaker's fees and contributions to Save Our Kids that he didn't have to worry about paying the mortgage on his farmland, or even economize on his drug addiction. It showed: he had lost a great deal of weight as the melic made him forget to eat regularly. His gaunt appearance gave him the otherworldly air of a mystic, and added to his popularity as a speaker.
Then one day, Flora Mills' son Jon, the Mayor of Berrysville, announced that the town's City Council had authorized him to ask the Tecton for a Sime Center. "It's good of the Rational Deists to invite a channel out to Berrysville once a month for us, but there are a lot of people who feel a little uncomfortable going to another denomination's church, even for a secular event. If we can't get a full-time Sime Center, maybe we can convince them to give us a part-time one."
Controller Monruss in Valzor was very intrigued by the idea of a part-time Sime Center. Since there wasn't any precedent for such a thing, he referred the matter to the Office for Interterritorial Affairs. Shortly thereafter, over a dozen diplomatic staff arrived at the Clear Springs Sime Center to conduct the negotiations.
It didn't surprise Den too much that Quess was part of the delegation, although at least he'd brought his own channel with him this time, in the form of his wife, Hajene Nerina. She had the same long, thick, wavy hair as her granddaughter, although hers was silver, not dark brown. Bethany herself come with her grandparents. She was much more comfortable around Simes than she'd been a few months before, and her Simelan had improved to the point that she could carry on a simple conversation. However, she made no effort to conceal how happy it made her to be out-Territory again.
"Do you think she'll stay with you after she turns sixteen?" Den asked Quess over dinner.
"I hope so," the older Donor replied. "Nerina was devastated when we lost Liss, and it's made her so happy to have someone to mother again."
To Tyvi's delight, her son Obis came with the delegation as well, although his only duty had been to escort a channel out to Clear Springs. Once at the Sime Center, he happily took charge of his mother, who was due for a rotation.
The overabundance of channels was a potential problem, as it dangerously lightened the workload for everyone. The task of scheduling each channel for enough work hours to avert entran was complicated by the conflicting demands of the negotiations. On many days, the Collectorium was long closed by the time the weary diplomats made it back to Clear Springs.
The regular donors had become accustomed to their four channels. Many found old apprehensions returning when they were assigned to a stranger, making the channels' task more difficult. One young Second Order channel, Hajene Sumulo ambrov Fijord, proved a special trial.
"Look at this file!" Rital groaned, passing it to Den. "How can I turn a channel with this kind of record loose on our donors?"
Den skimmed the entries relating to Hajene Sumulo's last out-Territory assignment in growing disbelief. "I don't understand. A tenth of the out-Territory donors the kid handled in Sanger never returned, and another twenty percent requested any other channel. He almost managed to scare off an induced out-Territory Gen with First Order potential--twice!--and they brought him along to help negotiate a new kind of out-Territory Sime Center? Have the idiots in Interterritorial Affairs lost what little sense they ever had?"
"Hajene Sumulo was supposed to spend three months retraining at Tien's school for out-Territory immigrants," Rital said, pointing out the relevant entry with a tentacle. "Unfortunately, he seems to have talked his uncle, Sectuib Jerold, into handling the matter privately within Fijord."
"Trust Householders to sweep a problem like that under the rug," Den commented sourly, flipping through the rest of the file. "There isn't even an official reprimand here!"
"I know," the channel agreed. "The errant Hajene Sumulo spent two weeks with his uncle, who pronounced him cured and got him assigned to Interterritorial Affairs. The kid probably sees himself as Quess's successor."
"It appears he's got the connections for it."
"Now, Den," Rital scolded. "I know you don't think much of Householders, but you have to admit that Quess's reputation is well earned."
"So it is," the Donor conceded gracelessly. "What are you going to do about this Sumulo?"
"Since he's been officially retrained for an unofficial problem, I can't bar him from the Collectorium unless he trips up again. His assigned Donor, Kamrin, is a member of his House. I don't think there's much chance he'd report his Sectuib's nephew for incompetence, particularly to a Controller who's a nonHouseholder and might take the complaint seriously." Rital looked at his cousin hopefully. "Sosu Kamrin's supposed to do auxiliary translating tomorrow in Berrysville. If I give Sumulo one of the morning shifts at the Collectorium, would you keep an eye on him, and make sure he behaves himself?"
Den sighed and nodded his agreement. "I suppose our changeover class students can wait another day to get their tests back."
"Good. And Den?"
The Donor raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"If the kid does misbehave, take whatever action you think is appropriate, and I'll back you. Maybe our combined authority can intimidate this walking menace enough that he won't tear down everything we've built here."
Warmed by the gesture of trust, Den smiled. "I will."
Hajene Sumulo ambrov Fijord was of average height, with dark brown hair and eyes a few shades lighter. A light spattering of freckles and an arrogant expression made him appear even younger than he was. When Den joined the Second Order channel in the Collectorium the following morning, he rudely went hyperconscious and spent a full minute ostentatiously zlinning the Donor, as if inspecting Den's nager for its acceptability.
"It was very hospitable of Controller Madz to assign me his Donor while Naztehr Kamrin is away--" Sumulo complained in a whining voice loud enough for Tyvi and Obis to hear clear across the room "--but you might have arrived earlier."
Den raised a surprised eyebrow at this attack. "The Collectorium doesn't open for another ten minutes." He pointed out the window. "See, Reverend Sinth hasn't even finished handing out signs and pamphlets yet." Projecting a patently false concern, he asked, "How long has your time sense been distorted, anyway?"
Sumulo gave him a sour look, but just then there was a flurry of shouts on the sidewalk, signaling the arrival of the day's first donors.
"Hi, Sosu Milnan!" Rob Lifton greeted Den cheerfully. He shrugged out of his jacket, then turned to help his grandfather, the feisty Mr. Duncan, to remove a worn sheepskin greatcoat. The young Gen danced over to hang the garments on the coatrack, humming a happy tune all the while.
Mr. Duncan's eyes gleamed with suppressed laughter. "Young love," he explained succinctly. "Young Bethany is coming over for a visit after school."
"I see," Den said, wondering if Quess knew of his granddaughter's continuing involvement with her out-Territory boyfriend.
By this time, Seena had returned from the records room with the two donors' files. Den had taken the precaution of briefing the receptionist on the situation, so that she could avoid assigning Sumulo any Gens likely to be disturbed by the young channel's reputed highhanded manner. Unfortunately, due to the flexibility of youth, Rob had been donating more selyn than his grandfather since his qualification as a GN-2. On paper, he was the steadiest of the two donors.
Den had a sudden vision of disaster, if Sumulo got his tentacles on Rob and reawakened the young Gen's apprehensions. Before Seena could place Rob's file in Sumulo's basket, the Donor smoothly relieved her of the other one. "Mr. Duncan, why don't you come with me and Hajene Sumulo," he suggested, passing the elderly man's file on to Sumulo.
The young channel zlinned Den suspiciously, but Seena had recovered quickly and handed Rob's file to Tyvi. Unable to prove that a violation of normal procedure had taken place, Sumulo didn't object, but instead led the way to their assigned donation room.
The channel went directly to the desk and sat. Without saying a word to either Gen, he opened the file and began to read.
Mr. Duncan raised a pained eyebrow at this discourteous behavior, then lowered himself carefully into the visitor's chair. Turning to Den, who had perched on a stool beside Sumulo, he asked, "So, how long do you think it'll take before Berrysville gets its Sime Center?"
"The Tecton may decide that such a small town can't support even a part-time facility," the Donor warned.
Mr. Duncan chuckled. "Not much chance of that, son," he said confidently. "I've known Flora Mills since we were kids, and I've never heard of any man or woman who could out-argue her. The honorable Mayor of Berrysville is a brave man, but he's got a healthy respect for his mother. He won't dare let the negotiations end until she's satisfied with the results!"
"If you are quite finished gossiping--" Sumulo complained irritably "--perhaps we could get to work?"
"No reason to be rude, youngster," Mr. Duncan scolded. He rose slowly to his feet, steadying himself on the desk. Ignoring the channel's indignant glare, he walked stiffly over to the transfer lounge and lay down. His gnarled, arthritic hands fumbled at the buttons on his shirt cuffs.
Sumulo waited with growing impatience for the elderly donor to finish rolling up the sleeves of his worn flannel shirt. As soon as his arms were legally offered, trembling slightly with the infirmity of age, the channel grabbed them and unceremoniously pinned his client to the transfer lounge.
According to his chart, Mr. Duncan had never struggled during a donation, not even his first one. However, Den saw the wrinkled hands twitch in protest against the rough handling, then flinch as the channel's handling tentacles clenched tightly to prevent any further movement. The Donor watched closely, prepared to halt the donation if necessary, but after that first instinctive retreat, the elderly Gen relaxed. At least Sumulo's got enough sense not to let the selyn flow become perceptible.
When the young channel released Mr. Duncan, the elderly donor sat up slowly. "You didn't have to be so rough, boy," he complained, rubbing the red marks the handling tentacles' too-tight grip had left on his arms.
Sumulo, who had already returned to the desk, ignored the criticism and continued scribbling numbers on the donor's chart--along with a complaint of his own that the elderly Gen had failed to cooperate, as the Donor saw when he glanced at the notations.
"Hajene Sumulo has much to learn," Den said in oblique apology, as he helped the donor to stand.
"Let the brat learn it on somebody else," Mr. Duncan muttered under his breath.
"Here," the channel said, thrusting the chart into the donor's hands. "Take this back to the waiting room, and they'll settle your account."
The out-Territory Gen took the offered file and made his slow way to the door. He paused in the doorway and looked back at Sumulo. "I don't know what's bothering you, young man--" he lectured "--but you'll never be a professional until you learn some manners. There's no excuse for taking your bad temper out on everyone around you."
"Insolent Gen," Sumulo sneered as the door closed behind the elderly donor. Then the channel turned to Den. "Milnan, I realize that the Houseless are often sorely lacking in discipline, but I expect any Donor who works with me to behave in a professional manner. That means you are to remain silent and leave the donors for me to handle as I see fit. I don't want to hear you questioning my competence again. Do you understand?"
It was one thing for Den to honor Rital's request not to interfere with his treatment of donors; his cousin's ability to handle nervous out-Territory Gens was unquestioned. It was quite another matter to hear the same complaint from the perpetrator of such blatant violations of basic etiquette and Tecton regulations, not to mention common sense.
With an effort, Den controlled his temper. "Hajene Sumulo--" he answered, emphasizing the title "--I'll be happy to stop questioning your competence, as soon as you start showing some. The way you handled Mr. Duncan was a disgrace. I haven't seen such a display of bad manners since Reverend Sinth tried to talk the school board into canceling the changeover classes."
Sumulo flushed, and his tentacles knotted with anger. "You forget yourself, Milnan," he snapped. "I don't think you understand your position."
"Oh, I think my position is clear enough," Den said softly, letting his control relax enough for the channel to zlin the depth of his fury. "I'm wasting my valuable time babysitting a spoiled brat of a Second Order channel who can't be trusted to take a simple donation from a cooperative Gen. A Gen, I might add, whom our Thirds manage to handle without any trouble. This isn't the first time you've mistreated out-Territory donors, according to your file, but it's going to be the last. You are hereby barred from the Clear Springs Collectorium."
Any normal Second Order channel would have been thoroughly cowed by the threat inherent in the First Order Donor's nager. Unfortunately, Sumulo's arrogance exceeded his sense of self-preservation. "Don't you threaten me," he snarled. "My uncle is Sectuib Jerold ambrov Fijord. He won't stand idly by while his favorite nephew is slandered by an anti-Householding bigot like you!"
"Ah, yes, your uncle," Den said, not giving an inch. "He got you out of those three months of retraining at Tien's school, after you messed up in Sanger, but he can't get you out of this."
The young channel's sneer never wavered. "It's your word against mine. Do you think Controller Madz would accept the word of a Houseless nobody over that of a Sectuib's nephew?"
"You may be Sectuib Jerold's nephew--" Den pointed out bluntly "--but I'm Controller Madz's cousin. And his Donor. I don't think he'd take the word of a mere Householder--" Den matched Sumulo's contemptuous tone perfectly "--over mine. Particularly not after he gave me full authority to deal with you as I saw fit."
The sneer finally disappeared from Sumulo's face, replaced by growing alarm. The Donor took advantage of the momentary breach in the brat's defenses to lay down the law.
"Since you don't believe out-Territory donors should be treated with respect and courtesy, we won't ask you to compromise your principles by doing so. There are more than enough competent channels here to handle double our current roster of donors. That won't leave much for you to do, but Controller Madz might be generous enough to let you refill the batteries with selyn collected by the other channels...if you ask him politely. When you're not doing that, you can translate records for Arth Tinkum's research project. Is all of this quite clear, or should I explain it again?"
"I know my rights," Sumulo whined. "Controller Madz can keep me out of the out-Territory Collectorium while he's investigating your ridiculous charges--and that won't be long, once my uncle hears about this. But your precious, Houseless cousin can't bar me from the in-Territory Collectorium as well." The sneer returned. "So don't think you're going to see me crawling to the Controller and begging for the battery work."
"You're quite the little lawyer, aren't you?" Den said, with a feral smile. "Unfortunately for you, there are only a dozen or so in-Territory general class donors in Clear Springs right now. We don't have a separate in-Territory Collectorium like the border Centers." He pretended to consider a moment, enjoying Sumulo's appalled expression. "On the other hand, while entran is hardly a life-threatening problem for a Second Order channel, it can be a nuisance for a Donor to handle. Kamrin isn't responsible for your boorishness, so if any of the Center staff come to me and specifically request to donate to you, I'll allow it. But only if you've managed to treat Arth with respect and courtesy. Is that perfectly clear?"
Sumulo glared his hatred.
"You will follow my rules, because I am going to be watching you very closely." Den matched the young channel glare for glare. "If I am not completely satisfied with your behavior, I will bring formal charges against you--the kind that even your uncle's influence can't keep off your permanent record. Do you understand me?"
As Sumulo finally grasped that Den actually had the authority to impose such a draconian penalty, his defiance began to wilt. "I understand you, Milnan," he muttered.
Den scowled down at the now-cowed channel and barked, "You understand, what?"
"I understand, Sosu Milnan," Sumulo corrected himself with bad grace.
"I hope you do," the Donor said. "Arth should arrive in an hour. I suggest that you use the time to review some of the details of professional etiquette. Our library has an excellent selection of basic texts."
The young channel crept out the door, swearing under his breath--but not too loudly.
Den sighed, hoping that the brat's uncle wouldn't decide to cause too much trouble over the incident. He deliberately relaxed for a moment, letting his anger drain out of him, then returned to the reception desk and paged Zir, who was overjoyed to cover the rest of Sumulo's shift.
Arth was a little less pleased when Den told him that Sumulo was now his official translator. He eyed the glowering young channel nervously, and started when the brat neglected to keep his tentacles politely sheathed. However, the prospect of having full-time help on his project, even if it was a little uncooperative, instead of whatever time Seena, Gati, and Den could spare from their other duties, was enough to win his agreement.
That evening, as Den lingered over an after-dinner cup of trin tea, Sumulo entered the dining room. Under the Donor's eagle-eyed supervision, the young channel had been reasonably polite to Arth as he translated the records. However, the smug smile on the brat's face when he met Den's eyes hinted that his obedience was strictly temporary.
The Donor watched with growing apprehension as the young channel swaggered over to the table where the weary diplomatic staff were eating a late dinner. As usual, Quess was leading the group in their analysis of the day's successes and failures. Sumulo interrupted the senior diplomat and engaged him in an animated conversation. The topic of the discussion was obvious from the frequent glances they sent in Den's direction.
In an elaborate show of unconcern, the Donor leaned back in his chair and pretended to listen to the folk tale Gati was relating to several enthralled listeners on the other side of the room.
"...and when Memoria cracked open the shell of the first walnut the little woman had given her, a splendid dress fell out, made of a shimmering gold fabric so fine it might have been woven from cobwebs..."
Den lost interest in the tale as Quess got to his feet, picked up his tea mug, and started for Den's table. His fellow Householder trailed behind, smirking at the younger Donor behind Quess's back.
Oh, shen, Den thought, working hard to avoid giving Sumulo the satisfaction of zlinning his worry. He had known that punishing such a well-connected channel would have serious consequences. But couldn't they have held off until the brat was safely out of town?
"May we join you for a moment, Sosu Milnan?" Quess asked politely.
There was no reason to delay the inevitable, so Den consented as graciously as he could manage.
"Sumulo here tells me that you've barred him from the Collectorium," the older Donor said, in such a neutral tone of voice that it was impossible for a Gen to guess his feelings.
Den nodded agreement. "So I did." He met Quess's gaze levelly. "I've spent a great deal of time and effort trying to build up this city's roster of donors, with more than a little success, I might add. I'm not going to let my work be ruined because one spoiled young channel won't treat the donors with basic courtesy." He turned his gaze on the defiant Sumulo, and added, "No matter which Householding his uncle runs."
"You see, Naztehr Quess?" the young channel complained. "He doesn't like Householders, so he picks on me."
The diplomat turned to Sumulo with an admonitory look. "I am well aware of Sosu Milnan's feelings about Householders," he said quietly. "I warned you about them, if you'll recall."
Sumulo nodded smugly, then lost his smirk as Quess frowned forbiddingly.
"If you remembered my warning--" the diplomat said "--I fail to see why you immediately set out to prove his misgivings were correct."
"But I didn't do anything!" the channel complained.
"The same way you 'didn't do anything' in Sanger?" Quess asked. "Oh, don't try to deny it. Alex ambrov Slader is a friend of mine, and he told me how you treated the donors there. In detail."
Sumulo squirmed. "They were only stupid out-Territory Gens, and besides, that was before," he mumbled. "I've done nothing to deserve being banned here."
"You call spooking one of our steadiest donors 'nothing?'" Den demanded, bristling with outrage.
"He just wants an excuse to push around a Householder," the channel whined.
Quess silenced them both with a look. "Sumulo, I agree that Sosu Milnan's prejudice against Householders is deplorable." He held up a hand to forestall the channel's agreement. "However, I've never seen him let those feelings interfere with his professional judgment, or with his ability to carry out his duties--a lesson you might learn from him, incidentally."
Den was so astonished at this back-handed compliment that he couldn't frame a response. Sumulo recovered faster. "But my uncle..." he began.
"Your uncle--" Quess repeated "--asked me to look after your interests. At the moment, I believe your interests are best served if I don't interfere with Sosu Milnan's decision."
Den, who had assumed that he would be promptly overruled, barely managed to keep his jaw from dropping in astonishment.
"But Naztehr Quess..." Sumulo whined.
"Don't 'But Naztehr Quess' me, young man," the object of his plea said sternly. "You've been hiding behind your uncle far too often lately. It's time you learned to take responsibility for your own actions."
"But if I can't work in the Collectorium, I'll have entran by the end of the week!" the young channel protested.
"Entran isn't serious in Second Order channels," Quess reminded Sumulo briskly. "If you don't want the discomfort, perhaps you'd better swallow your pride and ask Controller Madz to let you do the battery work. Also, if I were you, I'd start trying to be as helpful as possible to Arth Tinkum and the Gen staff. Now, I really must get back to the discussion." He nodded a polite farewell to them both, and returned to the table where his diplomatic colleagues were still debating the applicability of some arcane piece of interterritorial law.
Sumulo flounced off to the beverage counter and poured himself a generous serving of porstan with which to drown his frustrations, but Den lingered over his cold tea for a long time, wondering if he had misjudged at least one influential Householder, after all.
Proceed to Chapter 13