Feleho Ambrov Zeor, Martyr
DURING THE NEXT WEEK, VALLEROY WORKED AT A drafting table in the design room of the Householding factory. The buildings that housed the mills, factory, dye works, and plants of Zeor's industry were a separate complex located at some distance from the court residences.
Zeor, he discovered, made its living from weaving. Once a year, all the weavers in-Territory entered a designing contest, which was held at the city of Arensti, with the winner gaining not only prestige but also the greatest share of sales during that coming year.
As the Arensti Designer, Valleroy found himself in a position of great prestige within the Householding. He was moved from the infirmary to the bachelor's quarters, where he shared a suite with two Simes and a Gen. He was given clothes, blue coveralls with Zeor's crest neatly stitched over the breast pocket, and he was never asked if he was a visitor or a member, but simply treated as a member, though never addressed as such.
He found the innocent trust placed in him to be a serious burden, on his conscience ... so he worked relentlessly to produce a winning design. For hours at a time, he pored over the files of past Arensti winners. He roamed all over the compound quizzing Simes on matters of taste and comparing their responses with the opinions of Household Gens. And he sketched. Often well into the early morning hours, he sketched.
And so it happened that he was returning from his drafting table in the factory complex late one morning. It was too late for breakfast, too early for lunch, and too beautiful a morning for sleeping, so he strolled out into a section of the grounds where he hadn't been before.
The nip of occasional mild frost had turned the leaves to vivid paeans of color that evoked poignant memories of lazy fall days spent roaming with Aisha. He had woven russet leaves into her shining black hair and painted her nude under cascades of bright-clothed branches. And he had loved her. Forever.
He walked down a tunnel roofed with arching branches and floored with fading color. Scuffing through heaps of leaves, he was almost able to feel her hand in his. The tree-lined path seemed to lead on to a promising future.
He tried to imagine what she would say if she were with him at this moment. He could almost hear her womanly voice filled with childlike wonder. "Where does the red in the leaves come from? Where does the green go to? Why do different leaves turn different colors? Why are some years prettier than others? Do you suppose," she would say, "the red is always there masked by the green--the touch of frost like the kiss of a Sime--and the red like the Sime in all of us, exposed to various degrees by our different responses to the kiss--and the beautiful years are only a preview of what all of us together may yet become?"
Valleroy stopped to find a bough bent low across the path. Were those his own thoughts muddled by the fatigue of a prolonged creative orgy? They'd never talked much about Simes, but her conventional Gen background had given her conventional Gen ideas. She couldn't understand Simes enough to analyze them like that. It was one reason he'd never been able to talk marriage to her ... or to any girl he'd ever met.
But it was the kind of thing she would say... pointing out the congruencies between the physical universe and the realm of the spirit. It was the mystic in her that touched the artist in him and gave him such joy.
Each time they had quarreled, he had been driven to seek her out again... one more time... until he had decided he'd have to marry her. And when he went looking for her with this decision, he'd found her gone ... captured.
The emptiness hadn't eased until he'd immersed himself in Zeor's Arensti design. Here, he had found something that fed a part of him that had never been satisfied by police work. There were moments he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to leave Zeor, and there were moments he was frightened by the thought of staying.
Either way, he had to find Aisha. The urgent frustration grew to be a thing he shied away from. He kept telling himself there was nothing he could do but seek refuge in the creation of a winning Arensti design. But there was always the guilt that, while she suffered, he reveled in the unfolding discovery of Zeor and all its many-faceted meanings.
He snapped the bough aside and walked toward the hedge at the end of the tunnel. There was a small opening that led to a narrow, hedge-walled lane. Fresh cuttings were strewn over the leaves, and the painfully straight sides of the hedge still showed moist scars. The scent was intoxicating enough to draw him onward toward the sound of children's voices and the snic-snik of a sprinkler.
He came out through a trellis overhung with a mixture of grapes and berries, already partially harvested. The morning sun pierced Valleroy's eyes, achingly brilliant after the dewy shade.
The area before him was surrounded by a tall, freshly trimmed hedge. Throughout the grounds, dazzling greenhouses were being tended by groups of very active children who knew as much about what to do with a hose as did their Gen Territory counterparts.
Between the newly erected greenhouses, traces of summer crops could still be seen. It was a perfectly normal school garden, Valleroy told himself. Yet it was hard to believe.
All the greenhouses he'd ever seen had been enclosed by panels of glass, but these were covered with sheets of some flexible transparent miracle of Sime chemistry.
Agape, Valleroy watched a team of children directed by a heavily pregnant woman. The children wielded hammers and cutters with a professional dedication as they stretched the sheeting over the frames. These children were older than some of the other groups about the enclosure. Valleroy judged them about the age of changeover, the point at which a child became either an adult Sime or an adult Gen.
In Gen Territory, children of this pre-puberty age were not trusted with hammers, nails, knives, and other dangerous tools. But here, he'd learned, children matured quickly and were ready to assume the responsibilities of an adult just after changeover into a Sime or "establishment," as the Simes termed the beginning of selyn production in the adult Gen.
Curious about this group of children on the brink of every child's greatest fear, Valleroy approached their supervisor. The Householding naturally chose the most competent teacher for this critical age group, so it came as no surprise when he recognized the pregnant woman as Klyd's wife, Yenava.
She was a tall, solidly built Gen with the strikingly handsome features of the Ancients, young and tanned, and alive.
Valleroy stopped a few yards away to watch while two boys cut the last piece of the flexible glazing and nailed it into place as if it were canvas. He gathered his courage and approached Yenava. "Excuse me..."
She turned to him with an instantaneous smile so genuine it made Valleroy want to reach for a sketch pad. Instead he said, "I'm Hugh Valleroy..."
"Yes, the Arensti Designer. Can I help you?"
"I'd like to ask an... awkward... question."
"I'll answer as best I can."
Valleroy cleared his throat and spoke low enough that the children wouldn't hear. "I notice a difference in the children here from those... uh... out-Territory. I was wondering if perhaps they know whether they'll be Sime or Gen?"
She laughed, a spontaneous, delicate laugh, not at him but in surprise. "No, of course not. A child is a child."
There was something classically beautiful about the way she folded her hands over her own child-to-be and regarded those nearly grown ones in her care. "We train them all, equally, in the techniques of surviving changeover. They have nothing to fear, one way or the other. Perhaps that is the difference you see?"
Valleroy didn't have a chance to answer, then or ever. It was almost two weeks later and miles away as a fugitive trapped in an icy cave that he had a chance to think through what she had said.
At that moment, a knot of boys emerged from the completed greenhouse supporting one of their number between them. The invalid's face was pale enough that, at first, Valleroy thought he'd been injured and was going into shock. But Yenava went calmly to the group and took the patient's arm, her long fingers probing with sensitive competence.
Then she flashed that dazzling smile at the boy and said, "Congratulations, Rual!"
Still hanging limply between his classmates' arms, Rual managed a brave smile and a strangled whisper that barely carried to Valleroy. "Unto Zeor, forever!" Then he was catastrophically sick all over his teacher's shoes.
Retreating hastily, Yenava called to one of the Sime teachers supervising a younger class who were filling pots with soil. The Sime woman made a complex gesture with four tentacles entwined and said something to her class that evoked a cheer. She took a moment to get them back to work. Then she came toward the suffering boy, who was now seated on the ground nursing stomach cramps.
As if nothing extraordinary were happening, she said, "Yenava, how are you?"
"How could I be unwell on such a beautiful day?"
"Good enough. You know," she said, looking at the stricken boy, "your science class seems to have all the luck."
"I've noticed that. Must be the time of day." She looked thoughtfully at Rual. "Arriss, do you think we should ask Klyd to come out?"
A little more concerned now, Arriss kneeled beside the boy. "Feel better yet?"
"No," he gasped. "Why doesn't it stop?"
Valleroy could see beads of sweat forming on the boy's face. His own stomach seemed to be knotting in sympathy. He was a little surprised at himself, calmly watching a beginning changeover, a scene that had always gone very differently at the Gen schools he'd attended. The Sime overtaken by changeover while among Gens was doomed.
Arriss's well-trained fingers and tentacles probed all over Rual's body. Something she did made him vomit again, so she held his head until the heaving subsided. Then she turned to one of his companions. "Get Sectuib. It might be an arrest."
The two women conferred again while the class went back to their tasks as if this happened every day. It probably did, thought Valleroy. The teachers were discussing pregnancy and childbirth rather than changeover while the victim himself appeared to be enjoying the surreptitious glances he was getting from his envious peers.
The morning shadows had grown six inches shorter by the time Klyd arrived followed only by Denrau, the Gen who served as his personal donor and official Companion. The channel threw the boy a searching glance, but stopped to speak to his wife first. "This is much too hard on you."
"I like fresh air, and I like to keep busy."
Klyd's voice dropped to an intense whisper that Valleroy barely overheard. The channel's attention was so totally for his wife alone that it was as if the two of them were isolated in a bubble of privacy. "We'll talk about it later. I don't want you overworking, and that's final!"
"And who's going to take my place?" Her whisper matched his.
"Zeor will survive, somehow." He kissed her firmly on the lips, a passionate tenderness betrayed by one quivering tentacle that brushed her cheek. It lasted the briefest moment, and then he was at his patient's side, intent with concern as if nobody else existed in his world.
Denrau positioned a field kit beside the patient, and the two experts went to work. They repeated the poking and prodding the others had subjected Rual to. Then they progressed to measurements with instruments unlike any Valleroy had ever seen. Under Klyd's soothing voice, Rual's suppressed nervousness disappeared. The channel's patience and confidence never wavered when the boy's attempts to follow directions only resulted in more heaving spasms, this time accompanied by much more pain.
Three times Klyd had the boy-drink down some pink liquid that reminded Valleroy unpleasantly of his own medication. Three times the pink liquid came back mixed with the remains of breakfast. The fourth time the channel tried an orange-colored wafer.
As they waited to see if the wafer would stay down and take effect, the science classes were gathered by their teachers and marched out in orderly lines laughing and shouting enviously as they passed their fallen classmate. When Klyd turned to glance at them, they straightened immediately into solemn angels murmuring, "Good morning, Sectuib."
They waited another few minutes after the last class disappeared through the arbor. Finally satisfied that the wafer would stay down, Klyd helped Rual to his feet while Denrau closed the first-aid kit.
Rual, unlike any changeover victims Valleroy had ever seen before, seemed in perfect control of himself. With only a little help from Denrau's steadying hand, he walked toward the arbor, head high, but legs trembling. Klyd paused beside Valleroy to say, "You ought to sleep."
"What about Aisha? Can she sleep peacefully?"
"No word yet. I'm doing everything that can be done, so there's no reason you shouldn't sleep."
"How would you feel if it were Yenava out there?"
Klyd raked him with a glance that seemed to strip his brain of its very memories. Then the channel did an odd thing. He shot out a hand, one lateral tentacle probing along Valleroy's neck, behind the ear. At the same time, Valleroy felt a strange buzzing in his ears.
Before he had time to move, the tentacle was gone, leaving in its wake only a hot streak on the Gen skin. Klyd dropped his hand self-consciously. "I'm sorry. But I had to know. It's comforting to have one's guesses confirmed."
As if retreating from a dreadful embarrassment, Klyd took off for the arbor at a brisk walk. Valleroy couldn't catch up without running, so he let the channel go. It was time he went to bed, at least for a few hours.
He paced back along the tree-lined path, but the spell of the autumn leaves was broken. It wasn't until well after sundown that he got back to work.
As the days passed, he decided his design would capture the essence of Householding Zeor. He struggled to define that essence. There was pride, yes, but a fluorescent pride masking a self-righteous defiance of Sime society's rejection of the channels and their way of life. Valleroy depicted this with sharp, bright colors.
The people of Zeor had built a wall around their thoughts, accepting members of other Householdings but not Simes who killed or Gens who refused to donate. This was not, Valleroy discovered, without justification. Most Sime farmers wouldn't sell a Householding fresh produce or grain. Therefore, much of the Householding's effort went into farming, which forced them to turn their backs on Gens they could save because there was no way to feed them.
Valleroy depicted this conflict of the channels against prevailing Sime society with geometric lines forming a rigid pattern of three-dimensional hexagons very like a honeycomb. Here and there he allowed one hexagon to have bulging sides, as if stressed almost beyond endurance.
The detail work within each hexagon consisted of flows of color, some sharp, some pastel, and some brilliant but overlaid with pastel veils that blended the sharp differences into one another, denoting the unquestioning way Zeor had accepted him.
As he put the finishing touches on his final sketch, he wondered just how long that acceptance would last. He was still low-field. His body stored very little selyn to arouse any passing Sime. But, he was a Gen, a generator of selyn, the essential energy of life. With each passing day his body produced and stored more selyn, increasing his selyn potential field. Two weeks more, and he would have to donate through Klyd or some other channel of the Householding who would then be able to transfer that selyn to an ordinary Sime whose body could not produce it.
Would he, Valleroy asked himself, be able to suppress his panic long enough to do it? He sat back to admire his design while one hand sought the starred-cross beneath his shirt. When facing a Sime, his mother had told him, you have nothing to fear but fear itself. The starred-cross will keep you safe, if you have faith in it.
Valleroy wasn't sure he had enough faith in the starred-cross, but he knew his design was a winner. It had a soothing depth, almost as if viewing fog-smeared city lights through a mesh fence, and was sure to please the eye of Sime and Gen alike whether they sought deeper meanings or not.
He placed the stiff paper-board into a folio case, tied it with a flourish, and set out for Klyd's office. It was only just dawn, but the channel would probably be at work.
Valleroy strode out of the factory complex, crossed the small orchard on a brick pathway, and took a long hall passage through the buildings of the court. Frost crunched underfoot in mid-October chill, and he was glad to pass into the warmth of the main buildings.
He threaded his way through the maze of corridors expertly. He'd come this way many times. Often he found Klyd and Denrau followed by a swirling retinue. It was the pride of Zeor that here the Sectuib himself visited the aged, supervised, administrated, and settled quarrels. Yet this required him always to move in haste to get back to his main duties of collecting selyn from Gens and dispensing it to Simes who didn't have the channel's ability to draw slowly enough not to kill.
Yet, somehow, Klyd always managed to convey the illusion of unhurried concentration on each person he dealt with. For that moment, each suppliant became the most important person in all existence receiving the full attention of a Sectuib. It was, Valleroy learned, an exhilarating experience. Together with his skill at delegating authority, Klyd's knack with individuals was indeed what made Zeor great among the Householdings.
Valleroy couldn't deny that Sectuib Farris of Householding Zeor was a personage, capable, efficient, and busy. But today was Valleroy's day of reckoning. He'd been off medication for one whole day now, and still he felt as fit as ever. Today, he was going after Aisha ... personally.
His steps echoed in the deserted corridors. Only the farmers working the harvest were up so early, and they had long since gone to the fields. Valleroy broke through the huge double doors that gave onto the courtyard he'd watched from his infirmary window. To his right, another door gave entrance to the building where Klyd worked ... to his left, the infirmary and residences ... straight ahead, the huge barred gates separating Zeor from the Sime city of Valzor. On this side of that high stone wall, the Householders were free to do as they chose. On the other side, any Gen not wearing collar chain and tags was fair game for a quick kill or to be sold to the pens. And out there, somewhere, on the other side of that wall--Aisha.
Valleroy breasted the wave of frigid air and plunged across the deserted court. Halfway to his goal, he heard a faint tapping sound. He stopped in his tracks, holding his breath. There was no wind to stir tree branches. But the tattoo came again, hardly more than a flutter.
Head cocked in concentration, Valleroy moved a few steps toward the outer wall and paused. Again it came, louder now. He moved toward the small postern gate at the left of the big gates. Again that pattering knock, but this time he detected deliberate urgency behind it, as if the knocker now perceived some one coming.
Propping his folio against the wall, Valleroy lifted the formidable bar that secured the outside door against Berserkers or Sime Raiders. Then he yanked the door open, half afraid of what he'd find there.
The bloody scarecrow that staggered into his arms was less shocking than the scenes he'd imagined. Valleroy eased the limp figure onto the cobblestones, almost losing his grip in the slippery blood. Around the man's waist coiled one of the Sime Raider's whips complete with inlaid handle. It seemed to Valleroy a grotesque contrast to the tattered, Zeor-blue coverall.
The man's face and torso were covered with hundreds of lacerations, as if he'd tumbled down a gravel embankment. But, Valleroy saw, most of the blood was coming from his forearms. He peeled back the sleeves to find deeply slashed tentacle sheaths from which the blood spurted rhythmically, but not as profusely as it had. It slowed visibly as Valleroy watched.
"I'll get Sectuib Farris," said Valleroy in his most assuring voice, though he knew this man wouldn't see another dawn.
"Stay, Naztehr!" husked the Sime, marshaling all his strength.
Valleroy paused, transfixed by an odd thrill at the man's use of the most intimate Householding term of membership ... the one thing he'd never been called before. He had to bend close to hear the faint whisper of dying breath. "Tell Klyd... Hrel spies for Andle... Aisha... with Runzi...."
The blood-soaked form went limp, eyes glazed, and Valleroy knew the blood ceased its rhythmic spurting even before he looked. He stood, repeating those strange words... Andle, Runzi... over and over to himself, fearful of forgetting the message from the edge of the grave.
A door squeaked open behind him; boots clattered and Valleroy turned to see Klyd running toward him across the court ... the incredibly swift charge of a Sime in a hurry.
The channel slid to his knees beside the still form, anguish written in every muscle of his back, and a strangled groan escaped his sensitive lips.
Heedless of the caked and congealing blood, the channel took the slashed arms in his hands, tentacles exploring the wounds gently before he swore. "The filthy perverted sub-men! Feleho! I shouldn't have sent you. It was my fault... mine...."
Valleroy watched helplessly as Klyd collapsed across the body, sobs wracking him from head to foot, tentacles still twined about the dead man's arms. Even a channel couldn't bring the dead to life.
Stepping around the channel, Valleroy closed the outer door, sliding the bar into place with a resounding thud. It gave him no feeling of safety.
He turned just in time to see Klyd stumbling toward a sewer grating where he retched violently. Recalling the first time he'd seen a bloody corpse, Valleroy went to his aid.
"No," said Klyd, pulling himself erect. "I'm all right."
"I've seen uglier corpses," said Valleroy.
"So have I, but didn't you see what they did to him?"
"Cut a few arteries ..."
"Arteries! That he could have survived. But the laterals, the selyn transport nerves... " He turned away as if to retch again, but regained command quickly. "And they say weare perverts! If I ever get my hands on the person who did this... !"
"Andle," said Valleroy, beginning to realize the magnitude of the atrocity.
"Andle. Feleho said it. His dying words were... tell Klyd, Hrel spies for Andle... Aisha with Runzi."
"Andle! So that's it! Do you realize what this means?"
"That Aisha is with Runzi... who or whatever Runzi is."
"The Runzi Raiders," said Klyd with exaggerated patience, "are led by Andle's cousin. If they have Aisha, and if Andle finds out who she is... he could use her to smash the Tecton, and without the Tecton to bind us together ... well, no Householding could stand alone!"
"The Tecton is the central organization of the channels?"
"More than that. Much more. But it's just barely legal. If Andle can prove that I've been trying to find Aisha for Stacy... he could cast doubt on the integrity of all channels... and the Tecton."
"Andle is that powerful?"
"Highly placed in government. He's the leader of the anti-Tecton faction. If Hrel has been spying for him, we must assume that Andle knows I'm looking for Aisha."
"Maybe not ..."
"If not, then why was Feleho killed? I sent him to check the Iburan Choice Auction when I learned they had a consignment from Runzi's Raiders ... and Runzi's Raiders operate near Hanrahan Pass."
"Then Feleho must have found Aisha! And they murdered him and sent him home as a warning."
"It's possible." He pondered, speaking half to himself. "That whip is the kind the Raiders use. They believe us cowards because we don't go armed. It could be Feleho was the victim of an ordinary attack. Or they might have captured him."
"How much could he tell them?"
"Nothing ... except that I wanted the girl."
"That might be enough... "
"Andle has a twisted mind. He might think the Tecton wants her for the same reason he does."
"Where is Iburan? We have to go there."
"We can't. I have to stay here and deal with Hrel. You can't travel without tags, and I don't have any for you."
"If Aisha's there, we have to go. There's got to be a way."
Standing straighter now, Klyd shook his head. "Can't think like this. Help me get the body inside... the children will be awake soon."
Valleroy helped move the body to the infirmary, where he left Klyd to handle the funeral arrangements. He and another Gen went to scrub down the court. The red blood was already turning to brown stains, which they had to scour out of the stones. Valleroy worked benumbed by the rhythmic cursing of the Gen beside him. Death by injury to the lateral tentacles, the organs richest in selyn transport nerves, was the second most horrible death a Sime could know. Apparently, it was so horrible that even the Gens who lived with Simes, understood some measure of Klyd's revulsion.
As the morning shadows retreated across the court, Valleroy took his folio once more, and headed for Klyd's offices. The outer rooms were deserted, all the desks draped in deep blue. He found the channel idling over a cup of tea, which was set in a small cleared space on his desk.
"Come in, Hugh. Have something to drink."
On the stack of papers before him lay a coiled whip, handle uppermost.
"No, thanks," said Valleroy, propping his folio against the side of the desk. "Things like that still affect my appetite."
"Trin tea will settle your stomach. Good for you." Klyd pulled a cup out of a drawer and poured.
"Yes, Sectuib," said Valleroy, meekly accepting the cup.
Klyd looked up sharply. "That's the first time you've ever addressed me... Hugh, that's it! You don't need tags if you wear the Zeor crest!"
"That's only for members, isn't it?"
"Well, you'll qualify in another two weeks anyway. You don't have to return a pledge just to accept our protection."
"Hey, wait a minute," said Valleroy, taking a chair near the corner of the desk. "Don't go so fast. What do you mean I'll qualify for membership in another two weeks?"
"You were planning to donate, weren't you?"
Valleroy could see Klyd's bewilderment. It never occurred to the channel that a Gen might prefer almost any other option than donating. "Well... if I'm still here, I guess I'll have to, won't I?"
"You're frightened! Don't you realize that it is Gen fear that triggers the worst Sime instincts?"
Valleroy gripped the starred-cross and clenched his teeth. Nothing was going to happen to him now.
"That's better. You could travel under the crest of Zeor, but you'll need a Sime escort, and I'm not free until I decide what to do about Hrel."
"Everyone was so happy that night... "
"Yes, of course. It was hard for Hrel, harder than for most. Now we know why. He wasn't totally committed." Thoughtfully, he ran the tip of a tentacle over each fingernail. "He may have overheard our argument that night. He may have reported what he heard. They may have gotten Feleho killed. ..."
"You mean it might have been my fault."
"No, Hugh. Any blame must be affixed only to the one who wielded the knife."
Valleroy took a sip of his tea. It was the hot, savory brew favored by the Simes, but it did have a soothing effect on the Gen stomach. "Do you know what Feleho called me... even before I knew his name or mission?"
"No. I arrived... too late."
"Naztehr. He called me 'Natzehr.' You know how that made me feel?"
"As if I owed him something. Revenge, maybe. He died because he found Aisha for me. He died because I said something where Hrel could hear. So Zeor loses both Hrel and Feleho and no longer has need of me... a spare Gen."
"No Gens are ever 'spare.' Other Simes will come, and we'll be balanced again."
Valleroy sighed. "So what are you going to do with Hrel? If he learns you know about him, he'll be dangerous."
"Not dangerous, no. I'm more worried about the danger to him if word gets around what he's done."
"You're worried about what people might do to him? Klyd, if they did to him the same as he did to Feleho, it would be too good for him!"
Klyd frowned at Valleroy. "Sometimes I wonder if Andle isn't right. Gens are a disgustingly vicious people, sometimes."
Valleroy bounced to his feet, outraged. "Killing a Gen a month isn't vicious?"
Klyd laughed, a single burst of sound, hardly more than a bark. "Yes I guess from your viewpoint it is."
"From your viewpoint, it isn't? If Hrel's a killer, and Zeor stands against the kill, then Hrel's an outsider. Why should you care what happens to him?"
Klyd leaned back in his chair looking up into Valleroy's eyes. "He's disjunct, Hugh. He's ours. Usually we discover spies before they get that far. This time we didn't, so now we've got a real problem. If I turn Hrel out, he'll be killing your people again. If I keep him, maybe the experience will induce him to change allegiances, and then we'll have really won that round over Andle!"
"Is it worth the risk?"
"I don't know. I just don't know." Putting aside his tea, Klyd changed the subject. "What have you got here in the folio?"
"Oh, I almost forgot. I was on my way to show you this when I heard Feleho knocking. What do you think?"
Valleroy extracted the design for inspection. The channel's eyes widened in appreciation. "This... is... beautiful!"
"Do you think your weavers could achieve that depth effect?"
"Possibly. They're very ingenious when they decide something is worth doing. This is for Arensti." It was a statement of a fact so obvious it scarcely needed statement.
"Thank you, Sectuib."
Klyd froze in mid-motion to stare calculatingly at Valleroy. "Am I your Sectuib?"
"What does that mean?"
"Would you donate to me?"
The flatness of Klyd's tone underlined the intensity in the channel's eyes. Valleroy sat down hard in his chair. "I don't know. The last time a Sime touched me... like that... it was horrible. If I could ever trust any Sime, I doubt if it would be that one."
"Would you donate to Zeor through one of the other channels?"
Valleroy met Klyd's gaze, trying to avoid the sight of those restless tentacles. "I want to, but I don't know if I'll be able to bring myself to do it. I get shaky just thinking about it."
"Do you have any idea how shaky a Sime gets in disjunction?"
"Yeah. I've seen a couple. Worse than morphine withdrawal."
"Much worse. If they're willing to go through that in order to avoid killing your people, how much are you willing to endure in order to make their sacrifices meaningful."
"I see what you mean. I can't do less, can I?"
"But they live out there." Valleroy swept a hand toward Gen Territory. "And they don't even know about disjunction."
"Does your knowing make a difference?"
"Yes, Sectuib, I think it does."
"Do you know what will happen to me if it is ever known that I injured you?"
"Of a kind that makes Feleho's death look easy and pleasant."
"I didn't think there was anything worse."
"Death by attrition is... far worse. You can't imagine."
"I'd rather not try." Attrition, thought Valleroy, would be a very slow death as the Sime body used irreplaceable reserves of selyn. Valleroy shuddered, almost nauseous.
"Exactly," said Klyd. "It is customary for the Head of Householding to take first donations. Such Heads are usually the most skilled channels in the Householding, able to withstand the onslaught of the normal Gen fears. How could it be explained that you fear me more than any other channel?"
"I see. But it's not a decision that must be made right now."
"Yes, it must, and it must be made with all sincerity. This," he said, indicating the folio with a graceful tentacle, "gives me an idea."
"What is it?"
"It won't work unless you adopt a certain attitude toward me. But it must be a true adoption... one that won't slip out of character under stress."
"I haven't blown the cover yet."
"Yes you did, during Hrel's party. You forget, Simes read emotions as clearly as words."
Valleroy thought about that. He had been angry when the cover called for everything but anger. "What kind of an attitude?"
"That of a member of my Householding. That of a loyal donor who would do anything... anything at all... to see that I never suffer need."
"That's asking a lot."
"It is a very personal commitment, but not an odd one when you consider that the channels are all that stand between you and death. Put yourself in the place of our usual Gen recruit... weeks, maybe months, in the pens--and the pens are as horrible as rumor paints them--finally, one day, the overseer plucks you out of the press. You get your first shower in weeks, your first set of clean clothes in a year, but you can't enjoy it. Within the hour you're doomed. But the treatment in the pens is such that victims almost welcome death.
"Now consider, how would you feel if you discovered that your fate was to be my donor, my property. Despite being a channel, a filthy pervert, I'm still entitled to one donor a month from the pens. I collect as often as Zeor's space permits. But many die each year because it wasn't I who chose them. How would you feel about me, if you were chosen?"
"No matter how scared I might be," said Valleroy thoughtfully, "you still wouldn't hurt me?"
"I have never injured accidentally. I can guarantee that I'll never hurt you again."
Valleroy considered. "Two hundred Simes of Zeor don't kill more than two thousand of my people a year. I guess I owe a lot to Zeor... when the times comes."
"If you travel with me, as my Companion, we can go to the Choice Auction. Maybe we'll find Aisha there. If so, I'll buy her, and that will be that."
"Companion! What makes you think I could impersonate a Companion? I'm nothing like Denrau!"
"Denrau is exceptional. You're good enough."
"That's ridiculous. I'm not even an ordinary donor, let alone one who serves a channel's need!"
Klyd braced his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers, tentacles weaving an intricate dance through the spaces while his eyes remained on Valleroy. "True, you're not yet an ordinary donor, but eventually, if you choose it, you can be a more popular Companion than Denrau."
"How do you know! The very idea scares--"
"Do you question my professional judgment?"
There was enough pride in Klyd's tone to make Valleroy feel he'd demeaned the integrity of Zeor. "Of course not, Sectuib. I wouldn't think of it."
The channel nodded, continuing to weave patterns through his fingers. "For the present, a good act will do. But it must be based on a firm decision for Zeor."
"I pay my debts."
"This will take more than that."
Valleroy stared at the folio propped against the side of the desk. He knew the design within that case, and he knew intimately what each line symbolized. Zeor had become a part of him, if only for a brief moment. It remained for him to become a part of Zeor, if only for a time.
He raised his eyes to the channel, the exotic creature that had changed his life one dark, rainy night. Seated behind an ordinary desk amid piles of documents in an ordinary office smelling of fresh ink and furniture polish, Klyd was altogether too prosaic to be feared. Yet there was something in his eyes, in his voice, in the way he walked, that said he was one of the most important men alive; he knew it, didn't particularly like it, but he accepted it.
And Valleroy accepted it, too. There was nothing wrong with a man taking pride in his accomplishments. Valleroy knew that pride was only the armored shell Klyd had grown around himself to protect... what? Valleroy would never know unless he became a part of Zeor, and suddenly he realized he wanted to know what lay beneath that shell.
As Valleroy studied the channel, the dancing tentacles stilled and retracted into their sheaths. The steepled fingers remained steady, but the channel's eyes searched Valleroy's face, probing each nuance of emotion that accompanied the Gen's thoughts.
As steadily as he could, Valleroy said, "Unto Zeor, forever."
Momentarily, Klyd blinked as if in relief. When he opened his eyes, he affirmed, "Unto Zeor, forever."
"But I still don't know why you think I can impersonate a Companion."
"Let's just say that in your place I could do it for Yenava. Four days from now, we may be back here with Aisha, and all will be settled."
"When do we leave?" Privately, he wondered if all this was worth the homestead Stacy had promised him as reward. If Aisha were already dead... he refused to think about that.
Klyd reached for a stack of papers. "Tomorrow morning, after the funeral. It's a two-day ride to Iburan so we should arrive just in time for the Choice Auction."
"Why not leave now?"
"Hugh"--Klyd gestured helplessly at the work piled before him--"I will be lucky to get away tomorrow without hurting Zeor. Also, Grandfather must be consulted."
"Of course. I must have permission."
"What if he says no?"
Glancing through the folder before him, Klyd continued absently, "Technically, I've been running Zeor for the last four years. But it is good for him to retain some authority. Uselessness is the worst part of old age, even for a Gen, but do you know what it does to a channel?" The question was rhetorical, and Klyd answered it himself with a shudder as he snapped the folder closed. "Come, bring your design, and we'll ask him now."
Klyd took the papers he'd been reading while Valleroy followed with the folio under one arm. As they walked down the hall, Valleroy drew abreast. "What about Hrel?"
"Maybe Grandfather will have something to say about him." He led the way through a narrow door at the end of the hall, and then up a steep, twisting stairway.
At the top landing, they stopped to gaze at the view. They were now in a penthouse set well back from the parapets of the tallest building at the western side of the court. From the wide windows, along a closed-in colonnade, they could look down on the buildings, the courtyard, the front gate, and beyond to the adjacent town of Valzor.
Valleroy could now see patches of new roofing and off-color stone work where repairs had been made on the court buildings. The Householders didn't often speak of the pogroms against the "perverts," but the building themselves bore mute testimony.
When Valleroy had caught his breath from the climb, the Sectuib led the way along the colonnade, and then through hangings into an antechamber lined with plush red draperies. And there, pacing back and forth in front of the inner door, was Yenava. She was carrying a folder in one hand, and, Valleroy noted, she was wearing new shoes.
She turned, barring Klyd's entrance.
He stopped midway. "Is something wrong?"
"Entran," she said, tight-lipped. "Denrau's with him now.
"He must have been like that all night. You know him. He wouldn't call anybody if he was dying!" Valleroy could see she was on the verge of tears.
"Entran isn't that serious."
Hands on hips, she gave a ladylike snort, "Humph! When was the last time the Master Sectuib"--she looked him up and down--"went through it?"
"The way I work, I have the opposite problem."
"Do I ever have to sit up all night holding your hand?"
"You're in a fine mood this morning."
Valleroy could see the unshed tears swimming in her eyes, and it embarrassed him. If it weren't for the peculiar way Klyd had of creating an island of privacy in full public view, he'd have tiptoed out of the hot domestic scene. But then Zeor was very much like a big, quarrelsome family.
After holding her breath as long as she could, Yenava burst out, "Some morning! First Feleho and now Grandfather... "
"He's not going to die. Denrau is perfectly capable."
"He wouldn't require Denrau if you'd just let him work a little once a while."
Summoning a ragged patience, Klyd shifted his folder to three tentacles and took her shoulders in his hands while with the tentacles of his other arm he tilted her chin up. Two rivulets of tears wandered down her cheeks as he said, "Naavina, you know as well as I do it's not a question of 'letting.' We must face it, sooner or later. He's old, too old to be trusted with the donors. And as for dispensary, his sensitivity is so low that he wouldn't be able to satisfy anyone. He's done all he can do for Zeor. Now it is Zeor's turn to do for him."
For a moment, Valleroy thought she'd accept that. But then she threw the folder she'd been carrying to the floor at Klyd's feet and broke loose from his grasp. "You... unfeeling... beast!" Without waiting for a reply, she tore out into the colonnade and was gone.
Klyd parted the hangings she'd left swinging in her wake and called after her, "You're tired. You'd better get some rest!" He stood in the archway gazing after her as if undecided whether to stay or follow.
Wishing he hadn't come, Valleroy kneeled to gather the papers that had scattered from her folder. They were pictures. A series of drawings made by school-children. Careful lettering on each one made it obvious these were get-well offerings from a class in Zeor history.
Each of the sixty drawings represented some event during Grandfather's time as Head of Zeor. There was battle, carnage, and destruction depicted with an unglazed honesty foreign to the children Valleroy had known. There was a wedding scene, festivals, the dedication of a new building, a disjunction party portrait, a family-tree diagram, even a collage of mementos.
As Klyd turned away from the colonnade, Valleroy tapped the papers into a neat stack and inserted them into the folder. "I think these must be for Grandfather."
Klyd riffled through them absently, nodding. Then he tucked them under his arm with the other folder. Valleroy asked, "Is he really very sick?"
"I trust Denrau. But at Grandfather's age, any little thing ..."
When Klyd didn't finish, Valleroy said, "What's entran?"
As if glad of the opportunity to lecture clinically, he replied, "The channel has nerve systems absent in the ordinary Sime. They are those used in the selyn-channeling techniques. When these systems are not properly exercised, they can produce very... painful cramps. Entran is not lethal, but the complications can be."
"And your Grandfather can't use these systems any more?"
Klyd nodded. "After so many years, the channel's nerves become accustomed to the load. When the work load is removed, the problems are... endless."
Klyd fell silent, looking at the inner door. Valleroy fidgeted uncomfortably, not knowing if he should stay or not.
At last, the door opened. Denrau stood framed by a shaft of sunlight. He looked at Klyd for a long time as if sharing a somber awareness.
Klyd stirred. "How was it?"
The Companion frowned. "Rough. He's all right now, but his reflexes are..." He closed his eyes and sketched the barest shake of his head.
"Did you tell him about Feleho?"
"I had to. I'm still ..."
From within the room, a cracked voice interrupted testily, "Don't whisper like that! I'm not dead yet!"
Klyd fixed a smile on his lips and called, "Your pardon, Sectuib. But after you're dead, voices won't disturb you."
"Get in here where I can hear you!"
"Yes, Sectuib," said Klyd, grabbing Valleroy by an arm and thrusting him hastily through the door. "Hugh, when Grandfather orders, move!"
Valleroy found himself standing in the middle of the floor of the most extraordinary room he'd ever seen.
Directly in front of the door, a canopied bed stood on a dais raised two steps above the floor. Three walls of the room appeared to be nearly all windows overlooking Zeor's fields and factory complex... a sprawling U of buildings set amid a parklike forest. The air in the room was alive with the freshness of autumn, but Valleroy could find no open windows.
The heavy drapes were drawn back admitting sparkling sun. One warm puddle of it lapped at the toes of Valleroy's shoes. Overhead a skylight was draped so that the full heat of the sun wasn't focused on the bed. But at night, Valleroy was sure, the stars lit the room magnificently.
Wherever there wasn't a window, case after ceiling-high case of books lined the walls. The wall behind Valleroy was one enormous, unbroken bookcase except for the huge double door by which they'd entered. And most of those books, thought Valleroy, looked old enough to be from the Ancients.
His hands itched to explore them, but his eye was drawn to the withered figure that lay amid the billowing quilts on the bed. With Denrau on his right and Klyd on his left, the old man shook a newspaper under their noses as if it proved conclusively the world was going to hell. "And just what do you say to this!"
The only newspaper Valleroy had seen in Zeor was the Tecton Weekly, put out by the Householdings. But from where he stood, Valleroy couldn't see what scandalous article was being discussed.
Klyd said, "Probably the same thing you said when you first read it."
The old man looked up slyly. "Then you agree with me?"
Klyd looked at Denrau holding a perfect deadpan as he said, "Only when you agree with me, Sectuib."
The three of them exploded in laughter at a long-shared family joke. Valleroy relaxed. Suddenly, Grandfather was just as human as Klyd.
Denrau and Klyd seated themselves on benches near the foot of the bed where the reclining patient could see them. For the moment, Valleroy was left standing on the vast expanse of carpet between the door and the foot of the bed. But, apparently, Grandfather couldn't see that far.
Klyd presented the folder he'd brought up from his desk. "These are the reports you asked for. I hope you find them satisfactory. Production was up ten per cent last month. Sales were seasonal."
"That's not good enough."
"But next year we'll be doing much better. I have the design that's going to win at Arensti this year."
"Well, it's about time. Let's see it. Zeor's reputation, you know."
Klyd motioned to Valleroy, who extracted the design from the folio. He had to step up into the dais at the foot of the bed so Grandfather could see it.
The old man squinted at the design, obviously struggling not to gape. One irrepressible smile quirked the corner of his mouth, but then he got hold of himself. "Might do at that. See what the mill can do with it. I want a complete bolt by the day after tomorrow."
Klyd exchanged indulgent glances with Denrau and signaled Valleroy to put the folio away. "Yes, Sectuib."
"Don't think, youngster, that I'm going to forget what day it is!"
No indulgent glances this time. Klyd said, "Yes, Sectuib."
"Was there anything else?"
"Out with it!"
"I'd like to go to the Iburan Choice tomorrow."
"Whatever for? With Feleho gone, we're Gen-high."
Klyd threw Valleroy an apologetic glance and plunged into his explanation. What it amounted to, as far as Valleroy was able to follow the rapid-fire Simelan, was that, since Valleroy had created such an enviably great Arensti entry, Zeor ought to do all it could to keep him. Since he wasn't married, the first thing Zeor had to do was to provide him with the wife of his choice. He hadn't found anyone within Zeor, and rumor had it that Iburan's Choice this month would be very close to Valleroy's requirements. It was an intricate argument that balanced economic factors against moral obligations and projected profits from the winning Arensti design ... and presumed future winners yet to be created.
At length, Grandfather held up a quavering hand to stem the flood of statistics. "But what about Yenava?"
"We'll be right back, Grandfather ... weeks before she's due."
"Klyd, you went against my advice marrying a Gen. Now she's giving Zeor an heir. She'll die if you're not here to supply that baby with selyn when Yenava's delivered."
"Yenava is a well-trained Companion. I don't expect much trouble."
"Nevertheless, she'll need you. That's one of the obligations..."
"I'll be there, I promise."
"I'm an old man. Nobody listens to me any more. When I was running Zeor..."
"You still run Zeor, Grandfather. I just attend to the details."
"An heir isn't a detail! The gene runs in the family. Zeor must have a Farris heir."
The old man glared at Klyd's bowed head. Finally, he threw himself deep into the pillows and sighed. "You are at least traveling with a Companion?" he asked sarcastically.
"I've selected Naztehr Hugh since he must approve any purchase made in his behalf. I'll leave Denrau in case you require him."
"I won't require him. You might."
"In any event, Denrau will be your donor this month. Naztehr Hugh will take care of me."
Valleroy's command of colloquialisms was still sketchy enough that he distrusted his understanding of that. He might be able to act the part of Companion, but he certainly couldn't serve any channel's need. Klyd knew that. Valleroy hardly had time to frame an objection, though. The old man propped himself up on his pillows and let loose a stream of colorful invective new to Valleroy ... but he did recognize it as the kind of language nobody else in the Householding would dare to use to Klyd.
The channel took the caustic abuse with bowed head. "Yes, Sectuib."
Breathless, Grandfather sank back into the pillows. "But you're going to do it?"
"I must, Sectuib," said Klyd, both humble and stubborn, a combination Valleroy had thought impossible.
"Well, then promise you won't try to qualify him unless Denrau is standing by--just in case..."
"You will have Denrau low-field by then."
"No I won't. Charnye will serve me, just as he always has."
"Denrau has more experience in--"
"And you require his experience more than I! You are Head of Zeor. You are Sectuib here whether you like it or not. All the rest of us depend on you... and you depend on Denrau. It's about time you learned when to take the best for yourself!"
"A lesson," said Klyd softly, "which you learned many years ago but have forgotten."
"Nobody depends on me any more."
"I do, Grandfather."
"Hah!" It was parody of a laugh. "When have you ever taken my advice?"
"Now for example."
"About Denrau ..."
"No, about Hrel."
"Our newest disjunct."
"What's he got to do with Denrau?"
"Not with Denrau, with Naztehr Hugh."
"Naztehr ... ?"
"The Arensti Designer, our newest candidate."
"The Arensti Designer is a Gen?"
"You authorized it yourself, Grandfather."
"Besides," said Denrau, "you liked the design he's submitted." Surreptitiously, the Companion motioned Valleroy to hold the board up again.
One wizened hand came up, ventral tentacles waving at the design. "That one? But wasn't that last year's winner?"
"No, Grandfather. It's the one you authorized for this year's entry."
"Oh, yes, definitely a winner. Day after tomorrow. I haven't forgotten. But what has that to do with Hrel?"
"We have reason to believe he's been spying for Andle."
"Ridiculous. Disjuncts don't spy. They have to be loyal or they'd never make it."
"So I have believed. But Naztehr Hugh is the one who discovered Feleho this morning..."
"Dead?" said Grandfather as if he still couldn't believe. "Our little Feleho, slaughtered!"
"He wasn't dead when Hugh found him. He had a message."
"He told who killed him?"
"Perhaps. He said, 'Tell Klyd, Hrel spies for Andle....' It must have been that discovery that earned him martyrdom."
"Andle!" breathed the old man, suddenly sharp-eyed. "So, Andle killed our little boy! But are you sure? This new Gen, he might have mixed up the tenses, spies for spied?"
"I know it seems impossible, Grandfather, but it can be no other way. It was something Hugh said at Hrel's disjunction party that made me send Feleho into Andle's organization. The only way he could have been caught is if Hrel overheard and reported to Andle... after disjunction."
"It was a genuine disjunction?"
"I served him myself. It was genuine."
"Then Hrel killed Feleho."
"But we can't turn him out."
"No, we can't."
The old man lay back with a sigh. "Times are changing. People are changing."
"How many times have you told me people don't change?"
"That's true. They haven't."
"I don't know what to do with Hrel. I seek guidance, Sectuib."
"For once, perhaps, you'll take some advice?"
"You have a solution?"
"Appoint Hrel to officiate at Feleho's funeral."
"But that honor belongs ..."
"Usually. But this is a special case. You can handle the details, I'm sure."
"Yes, Sectuib. And it might work... no"--he warmed to the idea--"it will work! I can see that!"
"Good. Now, while you are busy respecting my genius, perhaps you'll consider my advice about Denrau."
"If Charnye can serve you, he can serve me."
"Charnye is getting old."
"My point, precisely. You require Denrau's flexibility."
"So do you!"
The two glared at each other for several seconds, anger fairly sparkling in the air between them. Then, simultaneously, they burst out laughing. There was no mirth in that exchange, but it said only that they weren't on opposite sides, merely in disagreement about method.
Grandfather caught his breath. "What Zeor needs is a new top-ranking Companion. No, make that two new Companions and a good channel."
"Exactly," agreed Klyd. "Which is why I must qualify Naztehr Hugh. Zeor is growing. We are far too dependent on key individuals."
"Hugh? Isn't that the name of the Arensti Designer?"
"Yes, Grandfather. It is the same man, the one for whom we must purchase a wife so that he will stay with us."
"A good plan. I'm glad I thought of it. Decently talented Companions are hard to find. Tell me, how do you know this one will work out?"
"His perceptivity tested in-range, and we are attuned. We have already achieved an unusual selur nager..."
"When was this?"
"When I was treating Rual in the school garden the other day. I have the greatest confidence in Hugh."
"Confidence isn't enough. Is he well trained?"
"He is totally untrained. He is from out-Territory... "
"But he is the Arensti Designer. Grandfather."
"So I had thought."
"People are changing."
"No, I think they are still the same as ever... surprisingly different from each other."
"A traitorous disjunct and a Companion from out-Territory... all in one month!"
"He is not a Companion yet, Grandfather."
The old man frowned, deeply worried. "Promise me Klyd, promise me in the name of Zeor... don't attempt to qualify this Hugh unless Denrau is standing by--close by--monitoring everything and ready to step in if necessary. We can't afford to lose you."
Klyd was silent.
"I may not live long enough to see that you do it, so promise me, Unto Zeor."
"I can't promise Unto Zeor, Grandfather. But I will promise you."
"Apparently. It runs in the family."
"Humph! Well, am I allowed to meet this candidate, Hugh?"
"He is somewhat more than a candidate. He has vowed Unto Zeor, yet he has not pledged or donated yet."
"I'd still like to meet him."
Klyd beckoned hastily to Valleroy to step up beside him. "I thought you would, so I brought him along."
As if perceiving another presence in the room for the first time, Grandfather measured Valleroy with a sudden penetrating gaze. "So you're all three of these remarkable young Gens from out-Territory I've been hearing so much about. Give me your hand."
Valleroy drew back, a thundering fear pumping his heart faster and faster. The old man's hand flashed out to grab Valleroy's arm, pulling him forward at an awkward angle.
Out of the corner of his eye, Valleroy saw Klyd motion to Denrau, who reached across the bed to intercede. But Grandfather impatiently shook off the Companion's grip. "I won't hurt him! What do you think I am, a junct?"
Heart pounding irregularly. Valleroy saw two protectors trade glances and back off.
"Tell me, youngster, what makes you want to be a Companion?"
Fighting down his fear, Valleroy could think of nothing but the truth. "I'm not at all sure I do want to."
"Aha! Such wisdom is rare in the young. But my grandson has some damn fool notion of running off to Iburan. You go with him, take care of him, and I won't worry so much."
"But, for the honor of Zeor, don't let anyone see you're not our best Companion. We'd be disgraced for letting Klyd run around unprotected."
"You have a dependable feel to you, son. I've always preferred a Companion with a solid nager. When you've qualified, be sure they leave a place in your schedule for me."
"Now get out of here, and let an old man get some well-earned sleep. Had a hard night."
The wrinkled hands loosened and fell away, asleep almost before they touched the quilts. Dazed, Valleroy followed Klyd and Denrau out of the chamber.
Outside, the channel, exchanging relieved glances with Denrau, leaned heavily against the closed door. The Companion glanced at Valleroy, and then he said to Klyd, "Solid nager! I could have felt the oscillations all the way across the room! Klyd, he's senile."
"I know. I thought he'd never make me promise!"
"You handled him just right."
"Nobody handles Grandfather. He's still got the best mind in Zeor. Hrel conducting Feleho's funeral!"
"I admit that's pure genius, and it might even work, but by tomorrow he'll have forgotten who Hrel is."
"That's why he requires you, not Charnye."
"Are you sure you want to risk traveling like this?"
"I don't see any other way. We'll be back in plenty of time to take all precautions with Yenava."
Denrau shrugged. Then he turned to Valleroy and said in nearly flawless English, "I don't think we've been formally introduced, but Zeor doesn't practice much formality."
"So I noticed. I'm very honored to meet you."
"And I, you." He indicated the Arensti folio he'd picked up inside. "I'll take this to the mill office. It really is one of the greatest pieces I've ever seen. A sure winner."
"Thank you. I hope so ... for Zeor's sake."
Denrau headed for the colonnade, but just at the hangings he turned and smiled. "I'll be looking forward to your pledge party. It should be quite an affair." Then he left.
"I get the impression," said Valleroy slowly, "he doesn't have much faith in me."
"Neither do I at the moment. Listen, Hugh if you want to complete your assignment here, you'll have to master that fear reaction. Here..." He took Valleroy's hands, twining tentacles around the Gen wrist. "You see what I mean?"
Valleroy flinched away from the Sime's hot touch, his heart again racing painfully. The muscular, handling tentacles were covered with an incredibly soft, dry, smooth skin like a velvet sheath over steel. They left a lingering sensation on Valleroy's skin that made his hair stand on end.
"Hugh, I'm only reading the gradient... without even token lateral contact! What could you possibly be frightened of?"
Valleroy tried to force his heart to slow down.
"If you're going to travel as my Companion, you're going to have to get used to touching me."
"The Householding rule is to avoid contact..."
"That's for untrained Gens. A Companion is supposed to know when it is permitted and when not... without being told."
"Well, I'm not trained."
"So, I'm telling you. Because of your... accident... you and I are in-phase. As my Companion, you'll be entitled to the same liberties as Denrau would."
"I don't know how to behave like a Companion."
"For performance in front of the juncts, there isn't much to it. Just stay close. You'll learn."
As he followed Klyd down into the court, Valleroy wasn't at all sure he wanted to learn... but he wasn't sure he didn't want to, either.
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