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The preparations for Bethany's coming-of-age party went smoothly enough, if one overlooked a few minor details:
"Sosu Milnan, Grandfather's hired a string quartet to play at my birthday party!" Bethany complained.
"The University Chamber Ensemble has an excellent reputation, I understand," Den said.
"Have you ever sat through one of their concerts?"
"Well, no," the Donor admitted.
"I have." The young woman sniffed contemptuously. "They're boring. Why couldn't he have found a group that plays something interesting, instead of all that musty, old stuff?"
"I'm sure your grandparents will enjoy the music. However, if your younger guests start falling asleep, I'll get out my guitar, and we can sneak off to the library and have a singalong."
"Den, do you know what my granddaughter's done?" Quess demanded angrily. "She's invited Reverend Sinth to the party, and the lorsh has accepted!"
"Hmm, his latest fundraising letter must not have inspired quite as many financial contributions as he claims," the younger Donor observed.
"It's not funny. That hate-filled, drug-addicted fanatic will view this as a Heaven-sent opportunity to make trouble. Literally."
"Of course he will," Den agreed. "But however obnoxious he may be, the man is Bethany's uncle."
"Whose side are you on, anyway?" the older Donor complained. "That's what she said. Repeatedly. She even threatened not to attend the party herself, if her only living relative on her father's side of the family wasn't allowed to come."
Den shrugged. "Then I guess the Reverend is coming. Look at it this way: with all the time he spent in the Valzor jail, he's unlikely to panic at the first glimpse of a tentacle. That's more than can be said for some of the guests you invited."
"Sosu Milnan, could I have a moment of your time?"
"It's about the menu for Sosu Quess's party." The portly chef was wringing his hands in distress. "I was able to purchase a case of quite decent white table wine from that Walnut Crest Winery over by Oak Ridge. However, I don't know what I'm going to do about the food. Sosu Quess wants a variety of in- and out-Territory refreshments, but most out-Territory dishes seem to be meat-based, and Reverend Sinth's been targeting the grocers again. They simply refuse to sell me the quantities of fruits and vegetables I require. There isn't time to order much from Valzor, and it wouldn't be fresh by the time it got here, anyway."
"Don't panic, Ref," the Donor advised. "I'll give Miz Dilson over at the library a call, and ask her to locate some meat-free out-Territory dishes for you. When you know what supplies you require, ask Tohm to have some of his OLD SOKS members buy them for you. That way, the grocers can pretend that they're not selling to Simes. Who knows, they might even forget to double the price they charge us!"
"Hello, Den," Rital greeted, when the Donor finally sought refuge in his cousin's office. "Seena told me you'd probably drop by. About this party?"
"Well, with so many out-Territory Gens trying to socialize with Simes, I'm afraid there could be real trouble. Could you do me a favor?"
"What?" the Donor asked suspiciously.
"Would you take charge of keeping Reverend Sinth out of trouble?"
Despite these minor difficulties, even Quess the Perfectionist had to admit that professional diplomatic entertainers might not have done a better job with the arrangements. By the time the guests began to arrive, the cafeteria had been scoured until it gleamed. The furniture was polished, and the tables on the serving line fairly groaned under an impressive variety of delicacies. The string quartet was playing softly in one corner, and even though Den found himself agreeing with Bethany's opinion of their repertoire, the soft sound added a touch of elegance to the room.
Hajene Nerina had provided a very adult evening gown for her granddaughter: a warm, orange creation with touches of brown. The guest of honor looked charming in it, and it blended perfectly with her grandparents' traditional brown and blue-green Householding livery as she stood beside them in the receiving line.
Bethany had been encouraged to invite as many of her own friends from Clear Springs as she pleased. However, since she had met most of them through her uncle's ministry, no one had been surprised when the majority of the invitations were refused, with varying degrees of politeness.
She had taken the rejection philosophically. "I knew they would drop me when I left Uncle Jermiah to live with Simes," she had explained, with what Den felt was surprising maturity. "Still, losing your friends is better than losing the hide off your back."
To maintain the fiction that the party was a private birthday celebration, not a diplomatic affair, OLD SOKS had been recruited to provide a believable percentage of young faces. Like any starving students, they had jumped at the chance to consume unlimited quantities of free food and drink, even consenting to dress respectably for the occasion. As Den had anticipated, the counterdemonstrators were among the first guests to arrive. After congratulating the guest of honor on reaching her majority, they headed straight for the refreshments table.
Not all of Bethany's former friends had deserted her. Rob Lifton arrived promptly, accompanied by his sister, mother, and grandfather. The young Gen looked very handsome in his formal black suit, and only a stern look from her grandfather kept Bethany from abandoning the receiving line in favor of his company.
Quess's older guests trickled in fashionably late. Besides the Berrysville City Council, the diplomat had invited the most politically influential of the regular Clear Springs donors. He hoped that they would provide an additional margin of safety for the renSimes if some of the less experienced out-Territory Gens lost control.
"After all--" he had explained to Den when preparing the guest list "--the object of this exercise is to temper the enthusiasm of the Berrysville councilors with a little healthy caution, not to run them off entirely. It seems most Berrysville residents view this whole part-time Sime Center issue as just another Rational Deist project, easily ignored by those who aren't interested in participating. It won't hurt Mayor Mills and his colleagues to learn first-hand just how much trouble Save Our Kids has caused in the name of avoiding unwanted association with Simes."
As he circulated among the guests with Rital, waiting for his own particular charge to arrive, Den wasn't sure the diplomat's plan was working. While most of the Berrysville delegation was steering nervously clear of the Simes as predicted, the Gen guests from Clear Springs weren't exactly sending the message Quess had intended.
"I tell you, making my little girl get changeover training was the smartest thing I ever did," Principal Buchan told Silique Dramlin enthusiastically. "I got a letter from Jainy last week. She's training for clerical work, and she wants to get a job with the Tecton when she graduates. That way, she can try for an assignment to Clear Springs. She's found herself a young man, too, and he's Gen. So instead of losing my little girl to changeover, it looks like I may just have gained a new son!"
"Didn't Miz Dramlin's son get his establishment certificate at our last mobile clinic?" Den asked his cousin softly.
"Yes--" the channel said "--but his twin sister's still a child."
"It's all a matter of knowing what the public wants," Hank Fredricks confided to Mont Viller. "The Clarion's circulation boomed when I ran that in-depth coverage of the changeover classes."
The councilman looked interested. "Is it true that the series has won a journalism award?"
"Sure is," the newsman confirmed proudly. "It's for 'excellence in providing informative coverage of a timely issue.' We're thinking of running a companion piece on the mobile Sime Centers..."
Den rolled his eyes. "If there's one thing small town City Councils love, it's free publicity for their pet projects," he muttered in his cousin's ear.
"Oh, they're a nuisance sometimes," Mr. Duncan answered Eda Seebourgin's question. "But Reverend Sinth's a lot less influential than he likes to think. Most people here like the changes the Sime Center has brought, and they're willing to vote to keep them from being taken away."
Shen, the Donor thought, that sort of talk's not going to make Quess happy. He guided the channel towards the refreshments, so that he could fortify himself with a bit of the Walnut Crest white.
Tohm Seegrin, looking almost unrecognizable dressed in a dark brown suit and tie, instead of his usual worn sweatshirt and denims, was holding forth over the sliced raw veggies and dip. "...and I hear Reverend Sinth plans to build a private school on the Clearston property, to prevent kids from being exposed to any unwelcome ideas. He's urging his followers to move out of towns where they might be 'contaminated' by the presence of Simes and gather in Clearston, so that they can remain free of Tecton influence."
Mayor Mills and Jules Tansky paused in filling their plates to listen with avid interest. Den rolled his eyes at his cousin, who shrugged in silent reply.
"There's a good precedent for that kind of 'total isolation' retreat from the world, you know," Arth Tinkum commented, waving his wineglass in emphasis. "The Householdings walled themselves off from Sime society for centuries."
"I hope he doesn't say that in front of Quess," Rital chuckled softly, nibbling on a grape. "I don't think our illustrious colleague would appreciate it."
"Especially since the comparison is valid," the Donor agreed.
The channel shrugged again with exaggerated innocence, and changed the subject. "You know, Sinth may find that a private school won't do him as much good as he thinks. Teenagers tend to be rebellious, and only a true fanatic would want to be murdered for turning Sime."
"Let's hope so." Den shot a sly look at the channel. "You know, cousin, in a strange way, Sinth is absolutely right. The Tecton really is out to steal their children--and we're doing a pretty good job of it, too."
"What the shen do you mean by that?" Rital asked, a little offended at the accusation. "The only Clear Springs kids who're in Tecton custody are the young Lornstadts, whose own parents abandoned them in our care, and Bethany. And I'm not sure she really counts, given who her grandparents are."
"I'm serious," Den told his cousin. "People have kids to transmit their heritage to the next generation--cultural, as well as genetic. The Conservative Congregation used to have a viable way of life here, with time-honored traditions, a sense of community, faith to help them through the bad times, and a strong moral code..."
"Strong moral code!" the channel objected. "You call hunting children down like animals and murdering them a moral act?"
The Donor shrugged. "The nice thing about religious moral codes is that since the rules are set up to please whatever god is being worshipped, promoting human welfare is optional. Of course, it helps if the moral code isn't totally self-destructive, but it's surprising what people will put up with if they believe it's divinely sanctioned. As far as Sinth's denomination is concerned, their moral code let them do what was necessary for survival without being crippled by guilt."
"And then we moved into town and changed the rules on them?"
"Exactly." Den waved a hand to indicate the Sime Center. "We changed their time-honored, necessary hatred of Simes into narrow-minded bigotry. Kids are more flexible than adults, particularly when it's their own lives at stake. You know how many youngsters have managed to get a copy of our changeover pamphlets in spite of everything their parents could do. How many of those kids will adopt all of their parents' anti-Sime values when they grow up? Even the ones who establish? We really have destroyed a culture here."
"I see what you mean--" Rital said "--but I'm sure you'll forgive me if I feel that culture's loss is humanity's gain." The channel stiffened, zlinning as he turned towards the cafeteria door. "Speaking of things you'd like to lose, here's Reverend Sinth himself. He's not in a particularly good mood, either."
Den groaned theatrically.
Rital wrapped two handling tentacles around the Donor's wrist and gave a reassuring squeeze. "It could be worse," he pointed out. "His nager doesn't have that frantic edge to it, so I don't think he's chewed any melic today."
"Which means he probably won't cause any more trouble than he actually intends," Den completed the thought. "And that's likely to be as much as he can." The Donor sighed and trudged reluctantly towards the receiving line to greet his charge.
Sinth was congratulating his niece on her birthday with a cloying warmth that made Den want a shower. Bethany seemed to take it at face value, however, eagerly agreeing to her uncle's suggestion that they find time for a long chat later on in the evening, "To remove the unfortunate barrier which has grown up between us."
From the worn spots on the preacher's clothing, and the predatory look in his eyes, the Donor suspected that the man was most interested in removing the barrier between himself and his niece's legacy. He must be desperate, if he hasn't chewed melic today.
Quess must have reached the same conclusion, because he quickly greeted Clear Springs' Mayor Ann Kroag, discretely elbowing Sinth aside so that he could introduce the honored guest to his granddaughter.
The preacher huffed a little in indignation, then apparently decided that making a scene in front of Bethany would be counterproductive. He gracelessly accepted Nerina's offer of Den as an Escort, and headed for the safety of the biggest group of Gens he could find.
Unfortunately, he arrived just in time to hear Eda Seebourgin tell Carla Lifton, "...and so, I expect we'll have our part-time Sime Center open by summer, and maybe earlier. The Rational Deists have put a tremendous amount of volunteer effort into background research and feasibility studies. Thanks to them, we should be able to get the facility up and running within a week or two of the time the final agreement is worked out."
Beside her, her colleagues Silique Dramlin and Mont Viller nodded their agreement.
Reverend Sinth turned an unflattering shade of purple. "You should be ashamed of yourselves!" he admonished them. "None of you are godless Rational Deists, and yet you intend to build this part-time Sime Center on their say-so, despite the teachings of your own faiths. I'm surprised you're able to sleep at night, with such sins on your consciences!"
Eda Seebourgin shrugged. "I'll not deny that I prefer to keep a little more..." she looked around the room and shuddered delicately, "distance...between myself and Simes. But Reverend, I've got to face reality. Berrysville has a lot of Deists, and they've decided that they want a local Sime Center in the Community Clinic. If I want to be reelected next fall, I'd better listen to them despite my personal feelings."
"Because--" Mont Viller chimed in "--crazy as the Deists may be, you can bet your last ballot that every single one of them over the age of sixteen will be at the polls on election day. When your Conservative Congregation can make the same promise, Reverend, we'll be glad to listen to your side of the story."
"Besides, having a part-time Sime Center right in the middle of town might not be a bad thing," Silique Dramlin pointed out. "I'm not the kind of person who donates--" she wrinkled her pert nose in distaste "--but I have to admit that I'm glad to know my son is safely Gen. Not that I'd have asked him to consult a channel to find out, if he hadn't volunteered," she added hastily, as she saw her colleagues' slightly shocked expressions.
I don't think Quess's plan to invoke the councilors' Simephobia is going to work quite the way he expected, Den thought as he followed the fuming Sinth back to the refreshments table. He hasn't considered that most out-Territory politicians are more scared of losing their next election than they are of Simes!
And indeed, the Berrysville City Council seemed united in their choice of location. "There just isn't anyplace else to put a part-time Sime Center," Mayor Mills was explaining to Mayor Ann Kroag over the stuffed mushrooms. "Not downtown, anyway, and it wouldn't do us much good if we had to put it out beyond the city limits. The Community Clinic is right on the town square, just across from the city offices. Can't get more centrally located than that!"
"Besides, if the Tecton bought or rented a storefront, we'd lose revenue from the sales tax," Jules Tansky pointed out. "Not to mention the property tax, if it's declared Sime Territory. What with the library wanting to build on a new wing, and the science teacher over at the high school saying he's got to have more glassware for the chemical laboratory, we just couldn't afford that. We're lucky Doctor Lennard wants to study channels so badly. He might see a few less patients on the days the Sime Center is open, but he's the only doctor in town. He'll make up for it the rest of the week."
"It'll be convenient to have all the medical-type services in one place, too," Mayor Mills added. "Most parents consult their doctor first, if they think their kid might be in changeover. By the time they can get an appointment, never mind a diagnosis, it's often too late to call the Sime Center. This way, we'll have one stop shopping, just like in the big cities!"
I really don't think Quess is going to win this one by scaring them off, Den thought, as Reverend Sinth gave the Berrysville delegation a disgusted sneer and stalked over to the window. He stared down at the sidewalk where he had spent so many hours walking back and forth, in his futile attempt to run the Tecton out of his city.
Flora Mills swept into the room just before the reception line broke up. After congratulating the guest of honor, she turned a gimlet eye on Bethany's grandfather. "So you're Sosu Quess," she said in a penetrating, no-nonsense tone of voice audible clear across the room. "My son tells me you don't approve of our choice of location for the part-time Sime Center. Now, I realize that a city-bred man like yourself might not understand how we small town folks like to decide these matters..."
Shen, Quess isn't going to win this one at all!
It was a slightly harried-looking diplomat who interrupted his guests' conversations nearly an hour later to start the official part of the festivities. Everyone quieted politely and listened as he made a short speech of welcome, then a hum of appreciation broke out as Ref proudly brought out a large cake, decorated with roses made from pink and green icing, and pink candies which spelled out, Congratulations, Bethany!
The string quartet immediately started playing a tune Den didn't recognize. All of the out-Territory guests began singing along. It must be some out-Territory tradition for natal day celebrations, Den concluded after listening to the lyrics for a moment. After all, out-Territory Gens don't usually know when they established.
Bethany blushed prettily as the song ended. "Thank you all for coming to help me celebrate my birthday," she said. "And special thanks to you, Grandfather, for putting so much effort into the arrangements."
Den wasn't quite sure how Bethany meant that last statement. However, Reverend Sinth, who had pushed his way to the front of the crowd so that his niece could see him singing loudly in her honor, seemed to take it as an encouraging sign. He smiled broadly at her, but the expression didn't reach his cold eyes.
"I'm particularly glad that so much of my family is hereó" she glanced towards her uncle "--because I have a very special announcement to make. During the past few months, I've given a great deal of thought to how I want to spend my future."
Beside Den, the preacher stiffened in sudden hope, a movement echoed by Quess and Nerina.
"And so I'd like to take this opportunity to make a very special announcement," Bethany continued. She held out a hand to Rob, who took it proudly. She smiled lovingly at him, then said, "Rob Lifton and I have decided to get married."
Bethany's grandparents flinched visibly at her quiet declaration, but said nothing. Her uncle had less control.
"You can't do that!" he bellowed, all traces of his former affection gone as he confronted his niece. "I forbid you to marry that Simelover!"
Bethany blanched, but with the presence of so many witnesses to curb her uncle's tendency towards physical violence, she held firm. With her free hand, she pointed at the cake. "I'm of age now, Uncle Jermiah. On both sides of the border. Neither you nor anyone else can stop me from marrying whomever I please."
Quess and Nerina took the hint and choked back their own objections as Reverend Sinth snarled, "Oh, yes, I can! You can't get married without a proper ceremony, and there's not a Conservative Congregation minister in this or any other town who'll marry you over my objections."
Bethany looked at her uncle steadily. "There are other ministers, of other faiths, who would perform the ceremony."
"You would marry outside the church?"
"If necessary," Bethany warned.
"Do the promises made in your name at your baptism, to be a good and obedient daughter of the faith, mean nothing to you?"
"Very little--" she admitted "--compared with the promises I've made to Rob."
"You realize that I couldn't possibly attend such a travesty of a ceremony?"
"Yes." Bethany's voice was steady, but she was gripping Rob's hand so tightly that her knuckles were white. "My husband and I will miss you, if that is your decision. But it won't change our minds."
Sinth glared at his niece for a long moment, his upper lip curled in contempt. "Then I have nothing more to say to you," he said coldly. "Now, or ever." He turned and stalked for the exit, the crowd parting before him.
Den followed long enough to make sure that the preacher had left the Sime Center, then returned to the party. There was an excited babble of conversation as the guests dissected the delicious tidbit of gossip they had been handed, but the Donor ignored it as he made his way towards the refreshment table. Rob was holding his fiancee for comfort as she trembled with reaction. From his expression, he was enjoying the excuse to hug her tightly in front of everyone, after so many months of forced discretion. Quess and Nerina were standing to one side, pretending that they weren't hurt at learning the news in such an abrupt fashion. Den doubted they were fooling anyone.
It was Carla Lifton, of all unlikely people, who took charge of the situation. With a nervous glance to make sure that Nerina and her tentacles were keeping their distance, she ordered her son to let Bethany go with a peremptory gesture. "Pull yourself together, girl," she scolded kindly, putting a hand on her future daughter-in-law's shoulder and giving it a firm shake. "You have guests to attend. Rob, give her your handkerchief. Annie, make yourself useful and start cutting the cake. You there--" she pointed at Quess and Nerina "--tell those musicians to play something. This is supposed to be a party."
As the cake was distributed, the guests slowly returned to more normal behavior. After all, most of them didn't know Bethany very well. The OLD SOKS contingent did give Rob a hard time for hiding his intentions from them, but at their leader's insistence, they resisted the temptation to follow an anonymously offered suggestion and serenade the happy couple with a ballad's worth of useful advice on some of the more interesting parts of marriage. Den wondered how much of Tohm's consideration sprang from a rudimentary grasp of etiquette, and how much out of a desire to avoid similar trouble at his own wedding, whenever he and Silva finally got around to setting a date.
The Berrysville City Council left in a group when they had finished their cake, and the other out-Territory guests soon followed. The Liftons were the last to leave, although Rob made it clear that his was a strictly temporary departure, which wouldn't last much past dawn.
Not that you'd guess that, from the length of time it's taking him and his promised bride to say good-bye, Den thought with some amusement.
When Bethany returned from seeing the Liftons off, her hair and the orange dress somewhat the worse for wear, Quess stopped pretending to direct the cleanup crew and went to meet her. Bethany tensed, but didn't try to avoid him.
"Your grandmother and I had hoped you'd chosen to make your home with us," he said.
Alyce the groundskeeper, who was approaching need, gasped and moved closer to Den, so that she could use his nager to block the older Donor's painful emotions. When Den concentrated on smoothing the ambient, she relaxed and went back to work.
Despite Quess's gentle tone, Bethany flinched. "That's just it," she explained. "I'm not a child anymore, to live in someone else's home. It's time for me to make my own home, and I've chosen to do that with Rob." She met her grandfather's eyes defiantly.
He nodded slowly in resignation, and said, "I see you have. Be happy in your chosen future, then."
Bethany's jaw dropped for a moment in sheer disbelief at being offered such acceptance. Then she threw her arms around Quess. "Oh, Grandfather, I do love you!"
Proceed to Chapter 16