The Arensti Competition
VALLEROY FELT HIMSELF LYING ON SOMETHING FIRM BUT warm and dry.
A pungent sting in his nostrils. Hospital.
Warm light played on his eyelids. Then a voice, low but insistent in a penetrating, almost hypnotic way. A special voice that seemed to soak into his mind carrying with it an undeniable truth. "You can wake up now. You're safe. You're with friends."
Klyd's voice. It was Klyd's voice--but, Valleroy reminded himself fuzzily, mustn't recognize him.
Carefully, he opened his eyes, squinting against the bright sunlight that streamed through an open window and caromed off polished cabinets. Sunlight? He must have been out more than ten hours instead of three!
He thought of trying to get up, but he couldn't move. His whole body was a mass of pain that left him weak.
A slim girl moved to close the drapes, plunging the room into bearable dimness.
Now, Valleroy saw there were other Simes among the Gens in the room. It was hard to tell the Simes from the Gens unless their forearms are bare like Klyd's. His eyes fastened on Klyd's arms and hands. He did have to feign his reaction. He'd never actually seen Sime tentacles so close, and the reality sent his skin crawling.
Six tentacles to each forearm, two "dorsal" along the top, two "ventral" along the bottom, and smaller ones, laterals, always sheathed except in selyn transfer, along each side. Retracted, they lay along the forearms from the elbow to wrist like ropes of gnarled muscle. But when extended they were like pearly-gray snakes, supple, muscular, and hypnotically fascinating.
As Valleroy stared, heart pounding faster and faster, Klyd sheathed his tentacles and shifted the glass he held to his fingers. Then he proffered the opalescent liquid. "Drink this. You'll be feeling better soon, though you gave us a hard night."
"Who are you?"
"Sectuib Klyd Farris of Householding Zeor. I found you unconscious in the mud and brought you here hoping we could save you. Please accept my hospitality." He offered the glass again, softening the lines of his face with the barest hint of a smile.
Valleroy hesitated once more before reaching out to take the glass. But even if it killed him, it would be a welcome relief, so he took the glass murmuring an appropriate gratitude in Simelan. This raised eyebrows all around the room, but didn't keep the Sime girl who had closed the drapes from moving to help Valleroy sit up to drink.
While gulping the vile-tasting potion, Valleroy noted how well arranged the scene was. Simes and Gens mixed freely as they went about the chorus of tidying up the treatment room. The message was graphically clear--these Simes didn't kill Gens. There was very little else in the room he could understand. There were workbenches and glass-fronted cabinets filled with strange objects and weirdly shaped containers. He said, "I've heard about places like this, but I never really believed they existed. You people are--channels?"
"Some of us, yes." Klyd gestured, tentacles carefully sheathed. "Drink it all down, Mr. ...?"
"Valleroy. Hugh Valleroy."
"May I call you Hugh?" Klyd hooked a knee over the corner of the wheeled table on which Valleroy lay.
"You saved my life. Guess that entitles."
"The obligation is mine," Klyd said gravely. "You speak Simelan?"
"Only a little." And that was true enough, thought Valleroy. Except for interrogating prisoners, he hadn't spoken the language socially since his mother's death. And before that, only in secret moments when they were alone.
"Evahnee speaks a little of your language." Klyd gestured to the Sime girl who had closed the draperies. "I will place her in charge of you until you are well enough to leave."
"Sectuib," called one of the Gens approaching. He was a white-haired teddy bear of a man, ageless in the way Valleroy had always pictured his unknown grandfathers.
"What is it, Charnye?"
"Sectuib, you should go now. You should have gone hours ago!"
"So you've been saying. All night. But I'm required here."
"Not any more. Denrau must be worried frantic by now. You're more than nine hours overdue!"
"Ten and a half. But I'm all right."
With a short bark of gentle derision, Charnye seized one of Klyd's hands and pointed to the laterals... the tentacles along the sides of your arm. "Just look!"
Valleroy could see nothing odd, but apparently the others could for it embarrassed Klyd. The channel repossessed his arm and buried it in the folds of his cloak. "I know, but..."
"Go, Klyd. You had a bad time last month. You owe yourself. Next to me, Denrau is the best Companion in Zeor. You shouldn't make him wait."
"You don't give me orders, Naztehr."
"I do when you're in need! Why are you still here? You're acting as guilty as if you'd burned him yourself!"
Valleroy saw Klyd stiffen at that, but the Sime covered it with a laugh. "Don't be ridiculous! Have I ever hurt anyone?"
"I didn't say you burned him. I said you're acting as if you had. You can't even hear straight any more. You ought to go."
Klyd rose as if aching in every joint. "Charnye, I feel responsible because it happened inside the borders of Zeor. Our situation is precarious enough as is. I don't want to lose this Gen. He could be the key to preventing Gen raids from across the river. But if he dies... "
"He's not in danger any more ...though it is a miracle."
"So, go. You're responsible for the rest of us, too, remember. We'll need your strength tomorrow." He glanced at the window. "Today, I mean."
"Evahnee," called Klyd. "Take good care of our guest." To Valleroy, he smiled and said in English, "She is not a channel, but she is trustworthy. You will be very low-field during the next month, which means you couldn't entice a Sime to attack you if you wanted to. Rest with us securely." He strode away without a backward glance, obviously in a hurry now that he was free to go.
So thought Valleroy, a bit surprised at his ability to follow the conversation, Klyd had been in need last night! No wonder he'd seemed nervous! Even the channels who could take selyn from a Gen without killing and then "channel" it to an ordinary Sime so that the Sime didn't feel the need to kill ...even a channel experienced a personal need for selyn, the energy of life that only the Gen body produced. And when in need, the channel was even more dangerous than the ordinary Sime--to everyone except the highly trained Companions. Valleroy felt lucky to be alive!
On the third morning, they removed the safety rails and, for the first time, he took an interest in his surroundings.
The room was about fifteen feet square, with ample closets and a private bath. In the corner near the window was a small, friendly radiator that worked night and day to keep the early autumn chill out of the air. The walls were lavishly adorned with hand-crafted needlework, some pieces large enough to be called tapestries. One, in particular, pheasants in an autumn meadow with the buildings of Zeor in the background, spoke to the artist in Valleroy.
He read in it a deeply abiding reverence (sic RBW reverence) for Zeor's place in nature's scheme, and his eye returned to it again and again, searching deeper into its meaning. It seemed to Valleroy that the artist had loved Zeor with an intensity far too great to express... painfully great When he asked about it, Evahnee told him that it was a picture of Zeor done by a woman who was dying of an incurable disease. Comparing the picture with the map Evahnee provided, Valleroy decided Zeor had grown since that artist's time.
On the fourth morning, he woke feeling strong enough to swing his legs off the bed, totter to the window, and peek out between the drapes. He was on the second floor of a four-storied building that overlooked a courtyard. On the far side of the court, a Gen was sweeping leaves into a pile while a Sime scooped them into a large sack.
A group of children erupted from the doorway and scattered across the court, disappearing through other doorways. Some of them lugged musical instrument cases half their own size with an earnest determination. They bore these burdens as if they were illustrious status symbols untouchable by lesser mortals. The scene evoked memories of other autumns spent peering from other windows at well-scrubbed schoolchildren. The lucky ones. The silence that bloomed in their wake echoed louder and louder in Valleroy's ears. And, suddenly, he knew he was going to faint.
As his knees buckled, Evahnee's arms took his weight. A moment later, he found himself back in bed, where he lay too exhausted to wonder how she happened to be there at just that moment.
The next morning, the children's voice drew him irresistibly to the window, but he made it back to bed under his own power. For reward, he was allowed to sit up in a chair for an hour after lunch.
By the fifth day, he was making regular (sic RBW regular) trips to the bathroom without any trouble as long as he took his medicine on time. And on the sixth morning, he woke feeling perfectly normal, but ravenously (sic RBW ravenously) hungry. His door was ajar as usual, so he poked his head out into the corridor.
The rich mosaic floor sparkled as if freshly scrubbed. A chemical tang hung in the air. At intervals between book-lined alcoves, showcases displayed everything from pre-Sime artifacts to models made by the schoolchildren. But there was nobody in sight.
Valleroy slipped into the robe they'd given him and padded down the hallway. At the end, it widened into a turquoise-floored reception area facing a high wrought-iron gate very like the entrance to a mental ward. To his right, another corridor branched off, while to his left, tall deep-set window slits filtered sunlight onto the cheerful-looking mosaic floor.
Halfway down the branching corridor, a door slid open. A wheeled stretcher surrounded by attendants emerged and glided past Valleroy. As the attendants opened the wrought-iron gate, Valleroy caught a glimpse of that patient: pale, semiconscious face, Sime arms carefully laced into restraining devices along the sides of the stretcher, pungent reek of a multitude of medications. Then the procession passed through the gate, and was gone.
"Evahnee!" In one glance, Valleroy took in the stained smock and disheveled hair. She must have been up all night with that poor fellow.
"I apologize," she said softly. "I know it's late, but Hrel has had such a hard night."
"That's all right. I've been fine." There was so much more he wanted to say--to ask--but he just couldn't find the words!
"Go back to your room, and I'll bring breakfast."
"Can I help?"
"You can permit me to eat with you."
"Yes, please do." Valleroy mulled that over.. He'd meant could he help to prepare the food. He went back to his room and checked the notes he kept of their language sessions. By the time she arrived with the trays, he had found his error and constructed a speech that he rehearsed nervously while they ate.
For some strange reason, he found himself acutely self-conscious before the girl. For the first time, he was aware of her as a woman, not just a nurse. It made him feel gross and clumsy next to her delicate, Sime grace.
It was a new feeling for Valleroy, who was neither large nor awkward. He stood nearly six feet tall, weighing a hundred eighty pounds, mostly well-conditioned muscle. His skin was weathered to a light brown that almost matched his hair. He knew he was handsome in a rugged sort of way, and he could pass for a rancher or a Border Guard as long as he kept his long-fingered tapering hands out of sight.
It was those hands that usually attracted more attention than his rather common features. They appeared to be grafted onto the heavy-boned, square wrists, and were really better suited to a Sime body. One of the first things Valleroy had noticed about the nurses and attendants who cared for him in Zeor was that neither the Simes nor the Gens ever stared at his hands.
Even now, as they ate together, Evahnee watched his face, not his hands. This somehow gave him courage to try out his speech. "Evahnee, I am well now. I would like to see--Sectuib Farris--and find some way to repay all of you."
"No, you are not well yet. You must stay at least another week. You still require medicine."
"I have no money. I could never repay such a debt."
"You owe us nothing. We are obligated to you because you were injured on our land."
In spite of her simplified wording, Valleroy was forced to say, "I don't understand." It had become his most useful stock phrase.
She repeated her sentence more slowly, emphasizing each word with graceful gestures of her tentacles. Somehow, Valleroy discovered the sinuous amplifications no longer repelled or frightened him but seemed to add meaning to the words.
"I meant," he interjected, "I do not understand why you are still obligated to me when I have received food, shelter, and constant care for almost a week. I work for my bread."
"But you are not fully recovered."
"I feel recovered."
"Only while you take the fosebine." She pushed a glass of the opalescent liquid toward him, and he downed it obediently.
"But if I feel well, isn't there something I can do to earn... "
"Sectuib has called you guest."
"But that was when I was... " He indicated the bed, not knowing how to say "flat on my back." "He seemed like a very nice man." Inwardly, Valleroy groaned. He sounded like a five-year-old! "If I could talk to him again, perhaps we could agree on some payment."
"Hugh, Sectuib is a very very busy person... all the time. You can't just walk into his office and expect to claim his attention. You must have an appointment."
Valleroy gnashed his teeth in frustration. He had to see Klyd and get started on the search for Aisha. "How can I get an appointment?"
Evahnee gave him a "Don't be ridiculous" look that stung him into blurting indignantly, "If I am guest, who is host?"
"Sectuib, of course."
"Out there," he said, gesturing toward Gen Territory in unconscious imitation of the Sime idiom, "a host usually sees his guests occasionally."
She peered at him closely for a moment, and then drew back, stifling a giggle. "I shall try to attract your host's attention. Such a joke just might succeed. But, remember, Sectuib is"--she groped in the air as if seeking the words--"well, he's... Sectuib! In many other Houses, the lesser channels carry much of the routine burden. But Klyd works dispensary every day so that each of us gets a turn with him every few months. And his touch is like... " She trailed off, enraptured by a distant vision of paradise.
Valleroy prompted, "Like what?"
"Oh," she said shaking her head sadly, "you wouldn't understand. But Klyd works harder than anybody else in Zeor. It's because of his touch that we are ...what we are." She departed, leaving Valleroy seething with lonely impatience for the rest of the day.
On the one hand, he was a guest. But on the other, he was effectively imprisoned despite the unlocked door because of the role he must play. He'd been advised ...no warned ...not to stray too far from his room without a guide. A rescued Gen casualty wouldn't go on a snooping tour.
As the afternoon wore on, he took his language notebook to the window and sketched the mingled groups of Simes and Gens as they swept back and forth across the courtyard. He tried to capture the singular atmosphere of the Householding, using Klyd's distinctive features--aquiline nose, sensitive lips, concerned brow, intense chin and jaw line--to form the outlines of the scene. The result left him dissatisfied. He tore the page to bits with growing resentment of his helplessness.
Savagely, he drew a grotesque Klyd with horns and tail, donkey ears and a goatee. He added a caricature of himself thumbing his nose with a taunting sneer. The pencil snapped in half between his fingers. He ripped the sketch to shreds.
Tomorrow, he resolved grimly, he would force the lofty Sectuib Farris to talk to him! The channel had been badly scared that their working relationship might be discovered. That was ammunition. Valleroy intended to use it... if necessary.
With that decision made, he settled down to an earnest cram session with his language notes. Simelan was not quite cognate to Valleroy's native English. The syntax was often bewildering, especially in the passive voice. This, the grammar books said, was the result of the different way Simes perceive reality. But even with all their differences, Simes were still basically human. Their most frequently used vocabulary concerned ordinary human matters. With the years of formal study in the Federal Police and his childhood background, Valleroy was able to gather most of the meaning off the pages of a fifth-grade history text he found on the hall shelves.
The book told the story of the Sime wars very differently than Valleroy had learned it in school. According to the Simes, it was the Gens who caused the disintegration of the world civilization of the Ancients. The Gens had been unreasonable about surrendering themselves to the pens. So the sniping and pillage had gone on for hundreds of years, destroying almost all the Ancient artifacts and obliterating most of the Ancient knowledge. Only the Simes had gathered, cherished, and passed on some fragments of the old culture in spite of the beastly non-men who tried to exterminate them.
Puzzled, Valleroy flipped pages rapidly. Such prejudice seemed foreign to the concept of the Householdings. He found the back half of the book taken up with the same account told from a different point of view. Before the channels had arisen, Simes couldn't understand that Gens were people. Since there were still so few channels, most Simes still have to depend on the kill to survive, so they had to deny Gens the franchise. They had to ignore the fact that Gens had rebuilt portions of the world from which they'd scoured most of the Simes and established the territories.
Valleroy read on, intently absorbed now that he'd discovered the book was a comparison of two views. He'd never been totally satisfied with the history taught in the Gens' schools, which he'd attended sporadically. He'd learned to keep his mouth shut to avoid getting thrown out of such schools, but he never learned to believe all he was told.
Most of what he read now, he couldn't quite understand, but it opened vistas of thought about the Simes and the causes of the sudden, catastrophic mutation rate that had destroyed the Ancient world.
By the time Evahnee brought his evening medication, Valleroy was filled with new ideas, and he was even more eager to go out among these strange people to see how they applied their ideals to daily living.
"How have you been, Hugh?"
"Fine but ...alone."
"Yes, that's the word. Have you seen Klyd?"
"Seen, yes. All day."
"Then you arranged it for me?"
"Sorry. No time." She dropped onto the foot of his bed as if she hadn't sat down in hours. "I shouldn't be here now, but I expect to have a few minutes."
"We are working with a new member who is entering his final disjunction crisis, and you know what that's like!"
"I do? I mean, I don't."
"You saw us take him down the hall this morning. You've been hearing him all day."
"Some noise, that's all. What's ...disjunction?" What he'd been hearing sounded like a private quarrel.
Evahnee frowned at him for a moment, and then she laughed as much at herself as at him. "Odd. I'd forgotten you aren't one of us."
"Thank you," said Valleroy. For a moment, he thrilled to the idea that he could pass for one of them, but he pushed his reaction aside. "I still don't know what is disjun ...whatever you said."
"Disjunction. The separation of a Sime from the kill. There is a fundamental difference between killing a Gen for selyn and taking transfer from a channel instead ...at least so I'm told. I've never killed so I wouldn't know. But judging by our candidates' symptoms, it must be quite a difference."
Valleroy drained the medicine and then spent ten minutes on vocabulary before he felt he understood. "I see now. The Simes who live in the Householdings never kill Gens. And any Sime who wants to ...be adopted ...has to disjunct?"
"That's the test for any Sime candidate."
"What's the test for Gens?"
"No test. Merely to donate through the channels."
Valleroy nodded. Might seem trivial to her, but she couldn't know how the very idea petrified a Gen. And, thought Valleroy, if he had to stay here a month or more, he'd have to donate too.
Suddenly, a ragged scream echoed down the hall. Shouts rose over the noise. "Sectuib Farris! Somebody get Sectuib! Hurry!"
Evahnee jumped to her feet. "I knew I shouldn't have left!" She dashed into the corridor, Valleroy right on her heels. Together, they pelted down the hall and skidded to a stop opposite the grilled gate. A tiny knot of Simes on the other side of the grille stared up at a Sime who sat astride the top of the barrier. Among the commands being shouted up at the man, Valleroy deciphered only an occasional "Don't!" and "Wait!"
Presently, a mixed troupe of Simes and Gens pounded from the side corridor with Klyd leading. The channel slid to a stop, looking up at the fugitive. Instantly, everyone fell silent.
The Sime perched atop the gate looked down at Klyd. Slowly, the channel straightened, as if thoroughly in command of the situation now. He motioned to the group around him, and a Gen girl glided out to stand in the open between Klyd and the gate, but a little to one side so that the three of them formed a slim triangle.
The fugitive's eyes riveted on the girl, who returned his gaze calmly. She was about the same age as Evahnee maybe twenty, attractive in a lean way, with coarse hands that bespoke hard work. He was small and wiry like most Simes, but had unusually blond hair that glistened in the dim light.
Klyd stepped forward raising his hands, laterals partially extended in invitation. "To me, Hrel. You can't hurt me. Come. Come to me."
Klyd continued his soft but insistent coaxing in that penetrating, professional voice. Hrel's face crumpled in an agony of indecision. Every time the channel drew Hrel's attention, he eyes drifted back to the girl, his obvious preference. Nobody moved as the three stared at each other, the girl calmly, the Sime hungrily, the channel persuasively.
Measuring the distances with his eye, Valleroy figured the Sime could leap onto the girl and have her dead by the time anybody else could react.
Klyd took another tiny step forward. "I can do it, Hrel. But you must choose me."
Feral eyes darted from Klyd to the girl, obviously wanting her but wishing he wanted Klyd. Seeing Hrel shift his weight preparing to spring, Valleroy unconsciously tensed to leap to her defense.
Klyd stood his ground, apparently relaxed. The girl waited without so much as blinking.
In a flash, Hrel was on the floor beside her, tentacles unsheathed and reaching for her! None of the witnesses moved. With effort, Valleroy checked his half-prepared lunge. The girl remained steady, neither welcoming nor retreating.
Hrel froze in mid-motion, tearing his eyes from his devised victim to see that Klyd was still there, hands outstretched, tentacles ready. Stiff-legged, Hrel jerked around and hurled himself toward the channel. Klyd's laterals twined about Hrel's and their lips met.
Valleroy wanted to watch the transfer, but Evahnee grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around in a joyful dance while bedlam broke loose among the witnesses. Somebody swung the grilled gate open, and before he knew it Valleroy was sucked into the center of a wild celebration. One moment he was dragging chairs out of a closet, another he was spreading a banquet on a buffet table almost as long as the corridor.
Impromptu musicians tuned up exotic Sime instruments, and somebody created a throne out of a table, a chair and a bedspread.
Bottles were opened. Somebody pressed a glass into Valleroy's hand. Then the triumphal procession entered while the musicians produced a sonorous tune, and the onlookers chanted. Ceremoniously, they installed Hrel on the throne. He seemed a bit dazed by it all, but he essayed a brave smile.
From the back of the group, somebody yelled, "Go on, Sectuib. He's ours!" Amid a chorus of affirmatives, Klyd vaulted onto the table and kneeled before the seated figure, offering a strip of ornately embroidered cloth draped over his hands. An almost tangible silence swept through the onlookers.
Hrel stretched his own hands out to join Klyd's under the cloth. Then Hrel lifted the symbol, displaying it to all those watching silently. At last, he draped it around Klyd's neck like a mantle and raised the channel to his feet. It was a clear act of acceptance of the channel's authority.
Pandemonium burst loose. From somewhere, coarsely woven replicas of Klyd's embroidered mantel were passed out. On close inspection, Valleroy could see it was the same pattern that bordered all the linens he'd been using here. The Householding crest.
A snake dance started in the center of the crowd, now so close-packed there wasn't room for a deep breath. A red-haired Sime girl flipped one of the replica cloths around Valleroy's neck and sealed the investiture with a brief but passionate kiss before he had a chance to be startled. Then she was gone into the swirling throng.
"Quiet! Wait a minute! Quiet!" It was Klyd calling out from his place on the table while Hrel stood beside him.
Silence welled up, drowning the merrymaking. Klyd continued, "Evahnee! Do you have the ring?"
She wriggled forward to present the crest ring to the channel, who promptly slipped it onto Hrel's little finger, calling loudly, "Unto the House of Zeor, forever!" Hrel repeated the phrase with just as much fervor.
In unison, the crowd took up the cry. "Unto the House of Zeor, forever!" Soon it became a chant, and the musicians added a strong rhythm that triggered the snake dance once more. Valleroy was sucked into it as the whole room seemed to be dancing.
From the door, a shout went up. "Clear the way! Space here! Move over!"
The dancing stopped while a Sime holding a tripod high over the heads of the crowd sidled into the room. He reached a point in front of the improvised dais, set up the tripod and attached a black box to it.
All at once, Valleroy knew what it was. He pushed and showed his way through the crowd, forgetting for the moment his wariness of the Simes. This he had to see! One of the legendary cameras of the Ancients. The Simes had resurrected some of the old arts... but this...!
After some careful preparation, the Sime instructed Hrel to pose. With a theatrical flourish, the... photographer... worked a lever.
Puzzled, the Sime bent over his box, tentacles flying. But after repeated failures, he announced, "Sorry, no pictures tonight!"
The disappointment of the crowd was almost palpable as the tripod was carried away.
Klyd called, "Hugh! Step over here a minute!"
Surprised at the sound of his native language after so many days, Valleroy slid through an opening. Klyd squatted down on the edge of the table. "Hugh, can you do a quick portrait of Hrel and me together? Just a sketch, nothing exacting."
"Sure, but I don't have anything to work with."
"That can be arranged." He stood up. "Evahnee, get a sketching board from the mill's drafting room. Hugh's going to make the portrait of us."
This set off a cheer that threatened to raise the roof, but presently another snake dance was started all around the throne. The songs took on a note of restrained ecstasy with the word "Zeor" repeated like an ardent plea.
A long time later, when Valleroy had decided they'd forgotten about the portrait in the wild emotional catharsis, several Simes manhandled a large drafting table into the room and set it up before the dais. Evahnee seated Valleroy on the bench with a cabinet of supplies at his left hand. "If there's anything else you need, just ask."
Valleroy kneaded his fingers wondering if he'd had too much to drink. Gingerly, he selected a likely looking piece of charcoal. The coarse paper was crosshatched with oddly patterned (sic RBW patterned) drafting lines. He turned the paper over and clipped it in place. The reverse was clear of lines, but very grainy. After several false starts, he found a charcoal soft enough to serve him, and then it went quickly.
As he sketched, the room seemed to shrink into the lighted bubble containing only himself and his subjects. He gave himself to the task in a euphoria of exquisite satisfaction, as if the frustrated creativity of years was suddenly pouring forth, relieving a tension he hadn't known was there. The joy of these people stirred something deep inside him, filling him until he knew he had to get it down on paper or die trying.
At last, the composition complete, Valleroy sat staring at it as if hypnotized. Klyd's voice pried gently into his reverie. "May we see?"
"Oh!" Valleroy jerked the page off and handed it up by a corner. "Don't smear it."
Klyd showed it to Hrel and then held it up for everyone to see. The gasps of appreciation were a more tribute than gold could have been to Valleroy. Someone started to applaud. Hesitantly, the others picked it up. Soon the room was filled with the roaring sound. Tears started to Valleroy's eyes.
Klyd beckoned the artist up onto the table. Willing hands boosted him while Klyd hauled. His legs were still too shaky for climbing. As Valleroy stood up, the applause crested and then died away as if on cue.
Raising his voice in formal tones, Klyd proclaimed, "We shall have this hung in Memorial Hall!"
The applause started again but Klyd held up a hand, tentacles twined in the "wait-a-moment" sign. "Shall we invite the artist to design our entry in the Arensti Competition?"
The unanimous affirmative was deafening. Spontaneous celebrations started in every corner of the room and spread rapidly. Under cover of the roar, Klyd said, "You may thank the photographer for this lucky break. Now you can stay as long as you like without question. I have twenty operatives out checking leads but not a hint of your Aisha. This could take quite a while."
Valleroy hissed through his teeth, "Aisha may not have quite a while! We've got to discuss strategy. I want to get out and do some work."
"You can't. Not for at least another week." He put both hands on Valleroy's shoulders, whispering, "Hugh, God help me, Hugh, I hurt you much worse than I'd intended. If you can never forgive me, I will understand. But my House is yours until you are ready to leave." He fingered the cloth around Valleroy's neck and chuckled. "You see? They think you've joined us. An honest mistake. But you are welcome here. Now that Hrel has disjuncted, we have room for another Gen."
Valleroy brushed that aside, a cold rage building. "You brought me here because I care about Aisha. I thought that entitled me to look for her with my own eyes!"
"There isn't anything you could do right now."
"How do you know till I've tried? I came here to work!"
"Get hold of yourself, Hugh," whispered Klyd fiercely. "You're broadcasting anger, but this is a gathering of joy. The Sime Government may have spies in this very room who'd just love to discredit a channel for disloyalty as well as 'perversion'!"
Evahnee's voice lifted above the crowd. "Hugh! Would you sketch us too?"
"Go, Hugh. As our Arensti Designer, you'll be able to travel with me to the competition... "
"And just when will that be?"
"It's only eight weeks away now."
"Eight weeks!" Valleroy spat through a wooden smile. "When every minute counts, how can you... "
"Hugh," Klyd soothed, "we have no idea where to begin looking or even if she still lives. And we must search without telling anyone who we are looking for or why."
"You brought me here," gritted Valleroy, "to keep me from interfering! Well, I'll tell you... "
Evahnee's voice came again, concerned. "Hugh?" And she started toward them.
Fuming helplessly, Valleroy eased himself off the table and went to sketch Evahnee and the Gen girl who had offered herself to Hrel at the moment of decision.
As the praise for his work mounted, people formed lines to be sketched. It had been many years since adulation had been lavished on him, and he reveled in it. But every few moments, cold guilt washed away the warmth of easy belonging as he thought of Aisha ...out there, captive in some filthy pen. He was an operative, and he had a role to play. He played it with a grim gaiety that was sometimes genuine.
With dawn paling the sky, Valleroy found himself drawing cartoons while Evahnee captioned them in Simelan. Jokes flew around the room leaving victims gasping in peals of hilarity. Most of the punch lines were obtusely Sime, and when Valleroy did laugh, he knew it was at the wrong thing... but laughter itself is infectious.
When it finally broke up, he was so exhausted Evahnee had to wheel him back to his room in a chair. He didn't remember getting into bed.
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