A Hatfull of Pins


Ann Marie Olson

Story © 2000 Ann Marie Olson

Chapter 1

      "I'm not going to let you plot and plan out the rest of my life for me, otyet." Aliana snarled. Her father, Vayer, could be the most stubborn creature.
      "Indeed." He said, then she worried. A plotting smile almost as toothy as the river pike showed through his silvering beard. "Then, what are my responsibilities as your father, as you still acknowledge me as such?"
      Aliana backpedaled, mentally and physically. "What does that have to do with anything?" She got ready to bolt. Aliana knew her father could talk her into anything if she gave him enough time to do so and the plane wouldn't wait for anyone or anything.
      "We all have responsibilities, Aliana." He said, looking past her to the door. She gasped and turned.
      "Good day, Aliana." Mikhail smiled, almost as toothily as her father. "Did you think I would let you run off to the Techton without mentioning it to Vayer?"
      "Well, yes." Her eyes flickered to Tzer, tall and slender behind his mate. "You said you wouldn't tell anyone."
      "I didn't. I told my couch." His blue eyes were far too amused. "It just happened Lord Vayer happened to be standing in the same room."
      "Traitor." She spat, literally.
      "Now, now, Aliana." Tzer glared at her. "No nonsense."
      "What, because I'm still a child?"
      "You just proved it to all of us." Mikhail wiped the moisture away with a handkerchief. "Now, what of your father's responsibilities? I believe that was the question he asked."
      "It was." She glared at him over her shoulder. "He wants me to be a good little slave, like the renSimes."
      Vayer sighed. "You know nothing of it, Aliana, to say a thing like that. Perhaps it would be better for you to see more of the world."
      "Yes, please." She begged him. "Anything. I want to be free of this moldering heap of stones. I don't want the Demense. You have another heir now."
      "Visarin is a bit young." Vayer noted. "It will be many years until he is an adult."
      "See, you want out of this prison too." She snarled. "Let me go."
      "Why should I?" His midnight eyes held no anger, surprisingly. Taken aback, she thought for a moment.
      "Because Mir would be harmed more by a reluctant ruler than waiting for Visarin." She bowed her head, finally admitting the truth. "I don't want the Demense. I would mess it up."
      "Experience is the only way to learn, Aliana." Mikhail told her.
      "Then let me get that experience elsewhere. Maybe I can do some good there."
      "The Techton would cripple you if you went to them." Vayer closed his eyes, as if in sorrow. "They geld their lords."
      "Mikhail told me as much." She shivered, still not entirely sure how bad it would be. "But anything is better than destroying Mir because I am unsuited."
      "Is there anyway I could send Aliana to them and be sure they would not geld her?" Vayer asked Mikhail, sounding almost broken. "I would not chain her here against her will, but I would also not wish to have her crippled."
      "I don't know." Mikhail rested his large hand on her shoulder. Timidly, she reached up and clasped it.
      "If you had stated any other reason than the good of Mir, Aliana." her father sighed again. "If they didn't cripple their lords so irredeemably. If, if, if ..." He snarled in frustration.
      "Vanesa was made entire again." Tzer added in.
      "Yes, at very nearly the cost of her life and Sevrin's." Mikhail's hand tensed on her shoulder. "I'll see what I can do, Lord and Ruler Vayer."
      "Enough of the formalities, Mikhail." Her father's grin seemed more than a bit strained. "Can you or can't you?"
      Aliana looked back up at Mikhail, pleading with him with her eyes. Finally he kissed her forehead and said, "No problem."
      Jarmin looked up at the worn brick facade of yet another Sime Center. Did they get the architects of these things by the gross? With a long suffering sigh, he picked up his bags and pushed through the unlatched doors. "Sosectu Jarmin?"
      "Yes" He blinked sleepily.
      "Let me take those for you." His bags were removed from his hands before he could say anything about it. Blearily, he noticed the young voice belonged to an equally young channel. Not again. His eyes closed with weariness. The sun was dreadfully bright this morning, even though his 'post' reaction was over days ago. "What do you have in here, bricks?"
      "Of a sort." He shrugged, thinking they were at least a type of fortification. "Lead on." He nodded, wondering if he had been here before and not really caring.
      "Don't want you to get lost." The young man said and he had to fight not to cringe. Despite the fact his sense of direction was almost as good as any Sime's, the constant jesting references to Gens getting lost wore on his nerves. I see this is going to be one of those months. "By the way, my name is Hajene Farr." Jarmin cringed again as he thought he could hear glass clink as the young man set his bags on the bed. "You really should pad your glassware better." With this he vanished out the door.
      Hajene Farr. Jarmin sat on the edge of the bed and put his head in his hands. That's who I'm going to be having transfer with this month. No polite introductions, no quiet conversations, just dump him in his rooms and get back to work. "How did I ever get stuck in this position?" He asked the wall. It didn't answer. Neither did his heart any more.
      Getting off the plane would have been far easier if she hadn't sneezed as soon as the door opened. Then again. And again. Irritably, she tried to rub at her nose.
      "Can I take one of those?" A heavily accented voice startled her.
      Still sniffling, she almost clobbered the young woman with one of her bags. Shyly, she handed the lighter to her, pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose. "Thank you." Aliana put it away and tried to retrieve her bag.
      "No, I think we are going the same way." She pointed towards a collection of blue-gray structures. "My name is Hana Firman."
      Catching on quickly, "And mine is Aliana Fatimanova Mir nee Fatima."
      "What a mouthful. Even if I hadn't been sent out here to fetch you, I would have a hard time mistaking all of that for any other name." Her grin broadened. "Welcome to Rialite."
      "Is that it?" She pointed to the tall buildings nervously.
      "No, this is just the airport." Hana chuckled. "Where is the rest of your luggage?"
      "My father decided it would be a good idea for me to blend in." She grinned wryly. "All he let me take were a few mementoes. I think he got the idea from one of his brothers." She thought of Sevrin only being allowed to take three things with him into exile among the veiled. "At least he let me have two bags."
      "And I bet you packed them full." Hana's nose wrinkled cheerfully.
      "As full as I could." Aliana realized she was already sweating in the child's motley she had worn on the flight over. "Is there any place we can find a tailor?"
      "Your clothes seem to fit quite well."
      "They're all I have." She blushed a bit. "He wouldn't let me bring anything at all in the way of clothes other than what I had on my back. We are still hip deep in snow at home, even though it is melting quite well." And I'm about to. Aliana fanned herself with her free hand, panting in the harsh sunlight. She sneezed again at the dry air. "Ugh"
      "Lets get your things put up and we'll go find a clothing store." Hana chuckled. "What kind of price range are we looking at?"
      Aliana thought about her budget cautiously, not wishing to tie up any more of her money on frivolities until she had a way to make money than she had to. "Second hand if we can find it."
      "I'm surprised." Hana looked her over. "What you have on your back is worth far more than my entire closet put together."
      Hiding a smile, "Perhaps we can make a deal."
      Actually Hana looked quite fine in the multi-colored shirt. "This is warm. What is it made out of, wool?"
      "Of course." Aliana blinked, startled. "What else?"
      "Synthetics, of course." She grinned right back. "They're cheaper than wool, even though I would love to have a pair of boots like yours." Fortunately or not, they didn't fit so Aliana got to keep them.
      Tentatively, Aliana slid her fingers over the lightweight, plain shirt she had traded Hana for and looked at the pile of other garments. They seemed so flimsy, even though they appeared more sturdy than they looked when Aliana carefully tested a few of the seams. "If you like, I think I can remember how they are made if you can find a cobbler."
      "No, I couldn't afford anything like that." She hung her head shyly. "Theoretically, I should turn out to be a fairly decent Donor, if I don't turn renSime. Maybe then I can afford some fancy clothes."
      "Where are your parents?" Aliana looked around at the rather plain room, with only a handful of cheaply made, mass produced pictures on the wall.
      "Don't really know at this moment." Hana sat on the bed with a thump. "Busy, I suppose."
      Aliana put her arm around her new friend. "Too busy to spend time with their daughter?"
      "Well, yes." She sighed, face turning towards a picture on the desk with a glass cover on it. "I've been here for over a year now, since I'm not likely to be a channel and they didn't want me surprising them. For the most part I get along well with the faculty, so they keep me busy and out of trouble."
      "My change over should be in about a month, hopefully you will establish soon." Aliana hugged her.
      "I would like that, I think." Hana turned her face away shyly. "Oh, I forgot. I was supposed to take you to see the head of the school as soon as I had you settled in."
      "Then get changed and we'll go. You have been doing an excellent job." For a moment Aliana shuddered at how much like her own parents she sounded. "I didn't mean to be so bossy." I didn't mean to sound like I've come from thirty generations of nobility, really. She snorted at herself.
      "You're right, we were still getting you settled, weren't we." Hana chuckled softly and put on some of her remaining light weight clothes. "I think I'll save those for winter."
      "Here, probably wise." It was getting a bit chill as the sun went down, but nothing like home. "Although I would like to find my rooms before we go to the head master."
      "If you like, you could take the one next to mine." She offered shyly. "The head master said you were to have the choice of unoccupied suites on the top floor." Aliana could almost hear the gears turning in Hana's mind at this unusual thing for a new student, still a child. "Although I would like to get to know you better."
      "I would too." She grinned back, trying to settle Hana's nerves. "I'm trying to blend in here."
      Hana was getting more and more curious with every little thing Aliana pulled out of her bags. Then she opened the larger one and Hana couldn't help but gasp. "That is gorgeous." It was a guitar, but nothing like any she had ever seen before.
      "Do you play?" She asked, smiling and running her fingers over the fingerboard. Aliana pulled it out and set in on a stand in the corner of the room after examining it carefully.
      "A little." Her fingers itched to touch it. The instrument looked to be quite old and worn, but a true master's craftsmanship, with all the fine detailing picked out in at least twenty shades of wood. It also looked very much as if the ebony and ivory were real and not synthetic.
      Quickly, Aliana grinned and tuned it. "Here." She handed Hana the valuable instrument. Even more nervous, she tentatively plucked out a simple tune and sang one of her favorite children's songs. The tone was incredible, even though she finally noticed the strings were actual gut and not plastic.
      "Amazing." She breathed when she was done, fingers sliding over the strike plate.
      "It is not the most common instrument for us to play, so I got the pick of the vault when we moved three years ago." Her grin seemed even more shy. "It belonged to one of my father's grandfather."
      Huh? Hana wanted to ask, but part of why she got the job of introducing strangers to Rialite was because she also knew when to keep her mouth shut. "It is probably the second most common instrument for us to play, after the shiltpron."
      "I've seen those." She wrinkled her nose. "I'm afraid I'm a bit more traditional than that." Stranger and stranger. Hana thought, idly letting her fingers drift across the strings. "One of my uncles is a master harper. You should hear him play some day. Magnificent."
      "I would like to hear you play sometime." Hana offered Aliana her guitar back. Black lashes closed over almost equally dark eyes.
      "Sure." She said softly, taking it. Then Hana got an even bigger start. I should have known from the accent. The language Aliana sang in was as alien as the high cheekbones and arresting blue-black eyes. Even though not knowing the meaning of the words, the music itself was fantastically beautiful, more so than many concert performances Hana had heard. She couldn't help but gape as Aliana finished the song and set her guitar back on its stand. "You look like a fish, Hana."
      "That was incredible." She could finally catch her breath.
      "You should hear my uncle." Was all Aliana would say.
      It should be played, not just looked at. Jarmin's eyes flitted over the worn guitar collecting dust despite its glass case. He should have known what famous channel had deigned to play something other than a shiltpron, but didn't want to bother looking at the plate.
      His own fingers itched to feel strings beneath the now barely calloused tips. Idly, his hand remembered the plucking pattern for "Three Roses".
      "Do you play?" The museum curator was looking sadly at the guitar as well.
      "I'm a Donor." He said and walked away quietly, as the curator walked the other direction.
      The interview in the head master's office did not start out well. "What took you so much time, Miz Mir?" Headmaster Harim glared over his desk, tentacles twining around his fingers in irritation. Then Hana spied the swollen roniplin glands and delicately tried to point them out to Aliana.
      "Oh, that's me." She giggled, hiding her face behind her hand. "There was just so much to do, Hajene Harim. The plane ride was so exhausting, I'm surprised I even managed to walk up that long hill." Aliana breathed, sounding like a giddy idiot.
      "That's all right, Miz Mir."
      "Oh please, call me Aliana." She giggled again. "My mother would have kittens at me being a Miz anything."
      "As you wish." Harim actually leaned back in his chair a relaxed a bit. "I can understand about being a bit tired after a plane flight. I'm afraid I don't know a great deal about you, Miz, er, Aliana."
      "You didn't get the records M ..., uh, Mikal Tegue sent you." Her stumbling over the common name caught Hana's attention instantly. It seemed Harim didn't notice it at all.
      "Yes, but they were a bit terse and quite unusual. On parchment, I believe." He picked up a sheet as if it were contaminated. "Besides, Sosectu Mikal has been AWOL for a number of years now."
      Hana could sense Aliana thinking rapidly, "Then ask Sectuib Kaon, I believe she is his immediate superior in Kaon."
      Suppressing a snicker, Hana wanted to applaud at this bit of trickery. Who is this young woman to throw around names like those with such ease?
      "I think I'll pass." Harim snapped to attention and Hana could almost see him zlin around the room. "Although this one requirement will be very hard to do."
      "I trust you, Hajene Harim." Aliana's eyes went wide and liquid. "My family, well, has had bad experiences with such conditioning. It almost killed my aunt and uncle."
      "But if you don't take it, I'm afraid you won't be trusted with any positions of great importance. He says both your parents are high firsts." Harim was looking frustrated again.
      "All I want is to be a nobody, Hajene Harim." She blinked at him, breathing a bit hard. "I don't want anything fancy."
      "All right, but I assure you, youngster, I'll be doing everything in my power to convince you of the wisdom of taking your anti-kill conditioning like any other channel." Harim said and Hana had to bite back a gasp. Aliana wants to refuse anti-kill.
      "It would kill me as certainly as attrition, at least from the experience of my family." She said sadly. "Please."
      "I'll want to back that up with an examination."
      "Go ahead." She smiled brightly. "I wouldn't lie to you."

Chapter 2

      These boots do not go with this outfit. Aliana looked down. "Is there anywhere I can get some more, well, less obtrusive footwear?" Then she realized there was not a boot pull in sight anywhere in the room. Good thing I'm flexible. She began the annoying task of trying to get out of her footwear with her hands alone.
      The young man eyed the boots with more than a bit of avarice. "Not like those."
      "If I wanted another pair like those I would have said so." One of them was being more than a bit sticky.
      "Oh, of course." Hajene Jon scribbled down another note. "Are you usually this defensive?" A tentacle twined about the pen as he stuck it in his mouth to chew on the end.
      Aliana bit back a curse. This person was so nosy. "Only when my boots won't come off." She finally got it unstuck. "Sorry." Giving him her best grin, she returned to standing in front of him. "Better?"
      "Yes, much." He looked up. "If you would stand in front of the black screen."
      "Certainly." She tried not to sigh. For the third day in a row, she had been asked to come in for an examination and she was getting heartily tired of getting run around. "Is any one ever going to give me an examination?"
      Jon looked like a landed fish. "I just did." He blinked. "What did you expect? Some sort of bizarre out territory ritual? We don't bleed people here."
      Time to get canny again. "Well, I am from out territory." She dropped her eyes, feigning shyness again. This was getting even older than the silly excuse for an exam. "Where I come from medical exams are far more, well, hands on." The phrase, 'hands on', seemed to be a magic one for some people around here. Jon sat up straighter and looked towards the door.
      "It wouldn't be a appropriate, even with you still being a child." His tentacles twined nervously. "We, channels, don't touch people much."
      Yes, and if you had children they would die of neglect for a lack of same before their first birthday. Aliana was getting more and more annoyed with these idiots every day she spent here. "Well, it will be less than a month until I am no longer a child. According to some people's calculations it will be only another week and a half." Particularly my own. Her own sense of impending change over was as solid as a clock running backwards, not that she had been asked for any specifics after she had almost blown her cover by telling one of these foolish people exactly when it was to occur. "Has anyone found a Donor for me yet?"
      "Well, there's a bit of a problem with finding high First Order Donors, Aliana." His teeth almost bit through the pen he was chewing on. "We, or at least Hajene Harim, is not entirely certain you would require such a person."
      Aliana suppressed a shiver of fear. "Personally, I don't much care for the idea of going into change over without one."
      "Yes, well, I can understand that." This time he did bite through the pen. Spitting out the extra piece, he looked her over again carefully. "Again, could you tell me why you feel such a thing is necessary?"
      A sigh escaped her lips. "Both of my parents are equivalent of high Firsts, as are all four of my grandparents, beyond that, about half or more were fairly talented channels or Donors." Finally giving in and telling the truth seemed to be a good idea at the time. Jon dropped his pen entirely and gaped at her. "Please, don't tell me it's impossible for someone to know their ancestors so well. I can give you an entire pedigree with the high firsts in red."
      "Oh, I won't." He gulped. "You really are from out territory, aren't you."
      "Yes." She sat on the edge of the desk. "I really don't want to be treated any differently than say, any other child with my potential, but I also don't want to go short in first transfer." Aliana spread her hands trying to show him how caught she was by the situation. "From what I have heard, it is very difficult to control in first transfer.'
      Jon gave her a snort. "Most would say it was impossible."
      "Impossible is for wimps." She grinned at him. It had been one of Nashen's best lines, at least until Vayer threatened to use it for the Mir motto.
      "How old are you?" He looked down at his notes again.
      "Over sixteen, I'll be seventeen in November."
      He whistled. "Old for change over."
      "My mother's and blood grandfather's establishments were even later." She shrugged. "Seems late maturity slid over the larity line in my case. Even though seventeen plus is not too uncommon where I come from."
      "You don't expect any problems?" Now he was thinking. This was much better. Maybe I can work with this one.
      "None at all." She gave him another grin. "It'll probably be a bit long, but not too bad, if I have a Donor. I don't want to end up with channel's transfer for my first."
      "I can understand that." The muscle tension began to loosen in his face.
      Come here little puppet. Aliana thought in the back of her mind. "So you can understand my concerns?"
      "Yes, I think I can." His eyes narrowed in thought. "If you would sit back on the lounge." He waved to the torture device.
      Or at least that was what it looked like to Aliana. She still was very wary of the piece of furniture and sat on the edge of it gingerly. "This is very well designed." Her hand slid across the cold, slick grey vinyl. They could at least make the thing in cheerful colors.
      "It makes our life easier." He misunderstood exactly the way she wanted. "Please." He gestured again. Cringing a bit at the plastic she tried to settle back into the lounge. For an instant the sense of helplessness almost overwhelmed her until she quashed it. "Just relax, all I want is a full lateral exam." In some ways this was even worse, the only contact between them was his tentacles on her wrists.
      Lie back and think of nothing. Mikhail's bitter words came to her and she sighed, now understanding far too well.
      "Something wrong?" He asked, not yet finishing with the fifth contact point.
      "Only something my brother-in-law said." She gave him a shy grin.
      "Have you had any change over training?" He asked after he dismantled the contacts and gave her a towel, paper no less. What am I supposed to do with this? She asked herself, looking at it curiously.
      "Probably very different from what you teach here." If this is any example. At home she would have simply rubbed the tiny traces of roniplin into her skin. Gingerly she dabbed at them, as that was what it seemed Jon would have her do.
      "Then perhaps we should go through the basics." He gave her an unreadable look. "If you would, please go into a state of complete relaxation."
      "Physical or nageric?" Her own skills were excellent, as far as she could go as a child. With Arkay for a father, she would have had to be an idiot to get through childhood without those skills.
      "Uh, both, if you would." His dark eyes looked confused again.
      "Ok." Figuring there was no requirement for speed, she let the mental construct fall into place with the grace of a feather coming to land.
      Jon gasped. Only removing the relaxation from her head and visual system, she raised an eyebrow at him. "You're going to catch flies like that." She replied to his even more dumbfounded look, setting her mind to project a few of the insects investigating the gaping aperture. Aliana knew they wouldn't be visible or zlinnable yet, but the mind practice was useful. As he stared, she ran through one of the most basic child's patterns, a rhythmic little dance. "Good enough?"
      "Um, yes, quite." He gulped again. "Where are you from? Gypsy?"
      "No." She sat up, desperately wanting to be free of the feeling of being trapped. Gingerly, she touched the back of his hand with her fingertips.
      "No, you won't tell me where you are from or your being gypsy?" Jon pulled his hand away as if she had burned him.
      Annoyed, she had to fight not to grab him. The room was chill and the lack of contact between people was rapidly getting under her skin, or not as the case might be. She was actually starting to loose touch with what her own body felt like, almost drifting in space without the nearness of other humans. "No, I'm not going to say where I'm from and I'm not gypsy."
      "How can I get you a first if you won't tell me why?" The honest frustration set her back.
      "Ok, as long as you don't pass in on to all and sundry." This time she did reach out and capture his face, wanting to be very sure of who she was talking to. He trembled in her grasp, but didn't pull away.
      "I won't."
      "Your word?"
      "Yes" He looked straight into her eyes. "I get the feeling lying to you would be a bad idea. You have my word I won't broadcast your origins."
      "Probably, yes." She winked, grinning. "I am from Russia, the daughter of Lord and Ruler Vayer Arkayevich and Sharm Lord Darya Kironova. My father won his rank by being the best for his job, somewhat similar to the way your Sectuibs are picked." Aliana was not going to go into the fact it was not his abilities as a channel, but rather his pure strength of will and mixture of other talents.
      A faint grin began to peek through Jon's previously rather dour expression. "I take it you did not wish to follow in your father's footsteps?"
      "No." She sighed. "I love him dearly, but I had to get clear."
      "I think I can understand." He said. "There are more than a few who have been known to take refuge with the Techton from overbearing parents, although they are usually Donors and not channels. Do your parents know where you are?"
      "Yes" She reluctantly released her hold on him, while her whole body ached for more contact. "Even though I am expecting there to be more than a few odd things to happen this term at Rialite. All of my many relatives have a way of making things happen."
      "Thanks for the warning." He grinned openly. "I think I can manage to be assigned your primary advisor here at Rialite, even though you will probably outstrip me after a month or two. I'm a first, barely."
      "People are people, and you have been far more interested in me as a person than almost anyone else here I've met so far." All except for Hana. The loneliness was already beginning to get to her. "Is there any way you could hunt up that Donor so I could at least say hello to them before I actually begin change over?"
      "I'll try." He said honestly. "I can't promise anything. We might end up having to kidnap one in transit."
      "How awful." She sighed. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
      This month was going very, very badly. "Hajene Farr, is there anything I can do?" Jarmin was about to chew his fingernails off with boredom.
      "Yes, shut up already." He snapped. "Sorry, need." That was always the excuse. Every single time. Jarmin was aching from his hair to the soles of his feet with wanting a transfer, but forfend he say anything about it. After five weeks since his last, and that more notable for its shallowness than its fulfillment, Jarmin was doing his level best not to climb the walls.
      "Apology accepted." He said, not meaning it any more than Farr had. A thread had come loose from the facing of his zipper and he idly picked at it.
      "Will you pay attention." Farr got to his feet and began pacing the room.
      "Yes Hajene." His throat tightened on the words despite his best efforts. The channel's nervous stalking about made him want to scream at the young man.
      "Get out of here, you aren't doing me any good." Farr opened the door.
      "But ..."
      "No buts, I can find better elsewhere." Farr was almost vibrating with anger. "I had an offer to shift assignments this month. I'm going to take it. Even if there's a chance she'll be late."
      "Yes, Hajene." He did his level best to project soothing support.
      "Too bad you can't work like that all the time." The door slammed behind him.
      Slowly he made his way back to the cramped, claustrophobic room he had taken near the top of the building. Even the tiny little slit of a window, with its triple glass for insulation didn't allow a great deal of natural sunlight.
      A girl was riding a horse down near the river. Muddy water sprayed up from its galloping hooves to cover her bare feet. To be so free again. Once he had ridden horses like that, not worrying about what would happen if he fell off or something spooked either of them. Her and her horse's mane were matching banners in the light of the westering sun.
      The animal bucked in pure glee and the girl laughed, digging her heels into its flanks to urge it faster. They raced through the ford, water sheeting over the height of the girl's shoulders. I had been free once. He looked at the card on his desk, 'go south', it said, no destination, no assignment.
      Hana watched Aliana try to fit in. It was a valiant effort, but even half way across the quad, she could still tell the other girl was from way out territory. Not that she did anything so different as to be blatantly obvious, but even the way she carried herself was striking. "Where would you like lunch?" Aliana asked, as soon as she got close enough.
      "Who's paying?" She grinned back, knowing how stingy Aliana was.
      "I am, this time." Aliana's guitar case thumped against her thigh.
      "Don't tell me; you've been busking on the Rialite campus?" Hana closed her eyes, torn between laughter and tears. "You know that's not approved of."
      "So I was told as soon as I set up." Aliana wrinkled her nose. "So I found the boundary line and set up there. The students came to hear me. Security couldn't do a thing, stingy twits. They stood on the other side of the line and listened and then didn't even drop a pin in the hat."
      "You are a troublemaker." Hana giggled behind her hand. "So, how much did you make?"
      "Enough for lunch and new shoes." She waved at her boots. "These are not the most comfortable things to walk in for long periods of time."
      "You did well, busking for a bunch of students."
      "Got a few teachers too, particularly this graying, dark eyed gentleman in rather shabby orange and grey clothes." She shrugged as she put up her guitar and began sorting out a rather impressive pile of cash. Aliana snorted at a few tickets among the mixture. "Suggestions to improve myself or they didn't want them anymore after hearing me."
      "Probably the latter." Hana chuckled, looking at the performances. "Pretty good, I've always wanted to hear Maria Garlin sing."
      "Go ahead." Aliana waved at the pair of tickets. "I'm going to be a bit busy in a few days."
      "Yes, change over." She wrinkled her nose. "I don't know if I should be worried or annoyed. My Donor still hasn't arrived even though Hajene Jon keeps promising me he'll be here any minute now."
      "Can I, well, can I come to your change over party?" Hana looked at her worn and scuffed footwear timidly.
      "I probably won't have one." Aliana grimaced. "None of my family and friends are here. Besides we celebrate birthdays more enthusiastically, they're easier to prepare for and too many in my family have exciting change overs or establishments."
      "I didn't know Gens could have problems with establishment?" Hana felt her eyes go wide.
      "It's very rare." Aliana smiled at her, rather sadly Hana thought. "My grandfather Arkay had a hard time with his until his first transfer, he was sick as a dog, and my uncle, Sevrin, went blind."
      "Wow." She sat heavily on the edge of the bed, thinking. As usual, Aliana took her hand. It was still quite unfamiliar, but at the same time she was really learning to enjoy all the contact. The reminder of another human's presence was something Hana had never really thought she had wanted before. Hana brushed her fingertips over the thick callouses on Aliana's hands.
      "Come on, let's find me some shoes like the ones you have." She pointed down at Hana's rather sorry running shoes. "I'm getting tired of being stared at in the mornings."
      "It isn't the lack of shoes." Hana chuckled. That first morning, when Aliana dragged her out of bed at the crack of dawn to run had been more than a bit surprising. After the first mile, it had been all she could do to practically crawl back to the dorms wheezing and fearing for her very life. Aliana had gone on for another five or so and come back looking even more bright eyed and cheerful than when she left. "None of us are very big on fitness." Except for a handful of Donors who run so they can keep up with their channels more easily. Hana had given in and decided this wasn't so bad an idea.
      "No one exercises here." Aliana gave a great big stretch. "No wonder you lot look like a bunch of either string beans or beets."
      Hana chuckled again. "More like grapes." She winked, and then hissed as she stretched out one her seemingly permanently sore muscles.
      "That was before, you're getting a bit firm for a grape." Aliana got up with her already cat like grace.
      "Ok, soft like the inside of a squash." Hana did like the effect it was already having on her body. "Are you going to keep running and stuff even after change over?"
      "Yes" Aliana said forcefully. "It feels good."
      "You won't have to."
      "Well, then lets just say I don't want to look like a winter dried string bean." Her eyes were bright and cheerful. "Let's go."

Chapter 3

      Aliana was overwhelmed, to put it bluntly. Agape, she looked up at the shelves towering over her head. Her feet were too large for any of the shoes at the second hand shop, so they came to one of the cheapest places Hana knew of. Boxes and boxes of them. Many of them looked the same.
      Confused, she eyed the cryptic numbers on the ends of the boxes. None of them made any sense. "What size do you wear, Miz?" A jittery, older renSime came scurrying out from behind a curtain.
      "Um, I have no idea." Size? What's that? Small, medium, big. None of these boxes have anything like that on them. "Are you the cobbler?"
      "No." She blinked, looking almost a confused as Aliana felt. "What size are those?" She pointed to the boots on Aliana's feet.
      "Mine?" What a silly question? Are we speaking the same language?
      The woman looked at them again. "Custom work?"
      "Yes, of course." Aliana blinked. How else did one get shoes if they weren't second hand or more?
      "I'm afraid you'll have to go uptown for something like that." She turned around and began to walk away.
      "Wait." Hana stepped in. "Hold on."
      "Kids." The woman sighed. "Yes?"
      "Please, all we are looking for is a pair of shoes." Hana tapped her toe.
      "I don't have anything like those." The woman's nose twitched as she flicked a bit of lint off her sleave.
      "And I don't want to pay a fortune for another pair because I've worn these out." Aliana finally got her brain in gear. "I'm new to the area and I've heard you have some of the best deals around. I suppose I could go down to Erni's." She turned to head for the door.
      "No, no, that won't be necessary." The quick scurry of a nervous renSime almost made Aliana grin. "Here, have a seat."
      "Do you have any children?" Aliana put on her best impish smile. "My name's Aliana Mir, by the way."
      "Pretty name." Dark eyes twinkled with renewed good humor. "Yes, a son and two grandchildren, a little boy and a little girl. My name's Liza."
      "How lucky for you." Aliana watched Hana roll her eyes. "I grew up in a big family and always wondered what it would be like to be so close as an only child or with only one other sibling." For some reason Hana was biting her tongue and looking a bit as if she were going to explode.
      "How many?" Liza looked up from her arcane measurements with a very odd device.
      "Four, all brothers." Aliana chuckled. "As the only girl I learned really young how to stand up for myself." She tried to guess this woman would be far more interested in such trivia than in trying to figure out where Aliana was from. Hana was turning an odd shade of red.
      "You poor thing, four brothers?"
      "Yes, even though only one older than I am." Aliana wondered what Tzer was doing these days. He seemed well enough content with Fatima, of course Mikhail as consolation was a definite incentive. "And the youngest is still in diapers."
      "Goodness." Liza turned from examining the shelves. "Your mama must be something special."
      "She is." Aliana made sure to put as much emphasis on this as she could and Liza beamed at her. Going splendidly. "So, as you can guess, I don't have a whole lot in my pockets for fancy clothes now." She shrugged and tried to look small and helpless. "A close friend of the family," Yes, the family servants. "made my boots for me, but now I want to save them for something special." Not the least of which is the fact they make me look like I have far more cash than I have any right to.
      "I can zlin that, youngling." Liza sat with a few of the boxes. "Here, you seem to be about a size nine or so, but awfully narrow."
      Quite honestly, Aliana thought they were dreadful. Cheap canvas and even cheaper rubber soles, but looking at Hana's she realized it was probably the best she was going to do on her tight budget. At least they aren't grey. She picked out a pair in bright green and orange. They fit, more or less.
      At least one of the stops along the way was long enough Jarmin could get out and stretch his legs a bit. Leaving his bags on the train, not that there was anything in them worth stealing, he walked down the boardwalk of the sleepy little town. "Would'ya zlin that Gen." A voice from behind him said.
      "Hush." And then a grunt as if someone had gotten their ribs elbowed. He turned to see a pair of young renSimes staring at him, practically drooling.
      "I apologize if my nager was too provocative." He tried to hold it as tightly to his body as he could, focusing on his hands behind his back.
      "Too pro-what?" The elder blinked at him.
      "Too provocative, too appealing," Still a blank look. "Too tasty."
      "Oh." She chuckled. "Only 'cause my friend here got a bit noisy, don't you be stoppin' the show." She tipped an imaginary hat. "Good day, Sosectu."
      "And good day to you, renSime." He chuckled softly as her friend looked back over his shoulder before she could drag him off. At least someone likes to zlin me. Even if they hadn't been the most savory, he chuckled at the thought, renSimes. Now feeling much better, he spied a bakery.
      The smell of fresh baked, yeasty bread led him into the shop by his nose. Gingerly, he felt in his pockets for any cash. A few coins slid between his fingertips, not enough for anything fancy, but ... then he spied the day old rack.
      He looked over the odds and ends left behind by others more fortunate. There was nothing that really appealed. Better than nothing. He tried to convince himself as he reached for a loaf of cheddar-jalepeno bread.
      "Wait, Sosectu." A rather surprisingly solid renSime told him from behind the counter. "What would you like?" His blue eyes were kind as he looked Jarmin over from head to toe despite the fact Jarmin knew he was not particularly well groomed at the moment. His eyes caught on the salt rolls and half a loaf of sweet bread left from samples.
      "I'm afraid I'm not ..."
      The man just shook his head. "I would be tossing this." He put the bread with its bright candied fruit and nuts into a paper bag. "Here." All Jarmin could do was accept it. "And these would be going to the birds soon." He scooped nearly a dozen of the salt rolls into another. "That will be one-fifty." One eyelid lowered in a wink.
      "Thank you." Jarmin said, letting his gratitude spill over into his field. He counted out the small amount of money and tried to hand it to the man.
      A heavy boned and heat thickened hand folded his over the change. "Keep it, you've already paid enough."
      Idly, Aliana wished they could have afforded one of the better eating places. The rather gelatinous noodles with a tomato sauce were not very good, with a decided lack of seasoning. She sighed, picking at the remaining mushrooms.
      "Something wrong?" Hana had wolfed down her portion as if she were starving, or it had been Azov cooking.
      "No, just a bit homesick I think." She looked at the rather faded and worn signs on the buildings. Everything here seemed to be for sale. "Where do people live?" Most of the buildings were single story, fairly flimsy things. Aliana wouldn't have lived in wood structures like these if she had any choice.
      "Outside town, in their own houses." Hana blinked at her in surprise again.
      "Alone?" Aliana blurted out.
      "Well, yes. Most Simes don't like to live on top of each other." It was a good thing Hana had been apprised of Aliana's peculiar status.
      Realizing the necessity for a distraction before things went to far, yet again, "What was so funny at the shoe store?"
      "I've never seen Liza so friendly to anyone, even a customer before." Hana took a sip of her wine, and then looked around furtively, again.
      Aliana couldn't help but roll her eyes and sigh. "Let me guess, children are not allowed to drink alcoholic beverages normally."
      "Well, no, but the proprietor is Gen, so he missed we are children." Her eyes fell to her plate.
      "Let me tell you a little secret, Hana." Aliana smiled. "Act like you know what you are doing, and most people will believe it. Check please?" She mimicked the actions she had seen another patron make.
      "Certainly, Miz." The waiter replied.
      "See, simple." Aliana winked at her young friend. "People see, or zlin, what they wish to. Liza at the store wanted to zlin a young girl she could help, so I gave her one."
      "Where did you learn such things?" Hana asked as they went back out to the street.
      "My parents I guess." She shrugged, again getting into an area she really didn't want to go. "To me it is automatic."
      "I really don't know how you do it, Aliana." And this made her feel even more disturbed. Although it might have been the ill fitting shoes trying to rub her ankles already.
      "Magic." She wiggled her fingers and giggled. Hana laughed and allowed herself to be distracted by a story Aliana wove about two young people she had seen feeding ducks in the park yesterday. It was at least a distraction for Hana, Aliana however kept asking herself why she kept acting so much like the heir to a Demense and not just another child waiting for change over.
      Still her Donor had not shown up. Irritably, Aliana checked her internal clock again. Less than twenty four hours until it was all to begin. She paced the tiny room, feeling as if she were a cat trapped in a cage. A cat would be a pleasant companion. Aliana sighed as she sat on the bed. Very few people here had pets, and none of the students.
      She missed the small and sometimes not so small creatures who shared the sprawling townhouses of Fatima and Mir dreadfully. In some ways even more than the human inhabitants. Lying on her bed, she hugged the rather flat pillow to her equally flat chest. The phone rang.
      "Hopefully I'm not too dreadful." She grimace and answered it.
      "Jon here. Your Donor finally arrived, even though I'm not entirely sure where from." He sounded more than a bit stunned, even over the horrible electronic device.
      "At your office?" Aliana wiped the last traces of tears from her face. Emotional upheaval is a normal part of change over, silly. She reminded herself.
      "Um, yes, now?" Why else did you call me? Aliana asked herself silently.
      "If both of you don't mind." She had to keep a tight grip on her temper.
      "Uh, no, of course not." And then there was a click. Something had the man seriously rattled.
      "Why me?" Aliana asked the mottled tiles on the ceiling. It didn't answer. She closed her eyes for a moment.
      "I take it you know this person?" Jon gave her aunt Falyana a wide eyed look.
      "Yes, as a matter of fact, I do." She put her face in her hands. Can I cry again now? She asked herself.
      "We all knew when your change over would be, so when Mikhail, excuse me, Mikal found out no one had found you a Donor in time, he sent me over here." Falyana's honeyed alto had more than a few bee stingers left in it still. She was obviously not amused at the situation.
      A tear leaked from Aliana's eye and she looked at Jon pleadingly. "You have relatives, don't you?"
      "Not like her." His chair scraped on the floor as he slithered backwards another few cents.
      Falyana was a nice enough woman, but not one of Aliana's favorite aunts. From the look of it, Aliana was currently Falyana's least favorite relative, or second least after she caught up with who had truly set her up in this situation. With a sigh, Aliana said, "I don't think my brother-in-law had quite the leverage to shove you on an airplane, Aunt Falyana."
      "Well, no, as a matter of fact he wasn't the only one who dragged me, kicking and screaming practically, into this barren wasteland." Falyana's voice grew even more harsh.
      "Let me guess, my father was in on it." She sneezed again and managed to get her own handkerchief out before Falyana could provide one, far too helpfully.
      "All of them." Falyana growled, twitching at the heavy green skirts she wore. "Mine as well."
      "Oh shen." This is going quite badly. Aliana really didn't want to deal with an annoyed sharm lord for her first transfer. Then she saw the single silver bracelet on her Aunt's wrist. Over Falyana's look of disgust at her foul language, Aliana added, "Congratulations." Why me? I do not want a Sharm Lord for my first transfer.
      "It was only last month." Falyana growled. This was even worse. If she was only ascended last month, then who is taking care of her partner this month? Aliana asked herself. "Ivanya is with Lord Gitarin Mir this month." Falyana provided without being asked. Aliana pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger, wishing this would all go away.
      "I'm sorry, Aunt Falyana." She held out her hand to the irate, for good cause, young woman.
      "You better be." Her snarl came out in Russian this time.
      "Miz Falyana." Jon couldn't take sitting back and letting Aliana get hammered on any more. This woman had come stomping into his office making all kinds of outrageous claims and throwing her nager around like a weapon. She turned back to him. Her attention almost hammered him into the floor. I almost had Aliana talking with me. Now she stood like some kind of statue, her face dead white.
      "Yes?" The woman flicked out her heavy skirts again with an irritated gesture.
      "If you aren't Techton, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave." Jon clenched at his own hands, trying not to flinch back any more than he already had.
      "I'm not going to go back after having failed my niece." She tapped her long fingers against her thigh, making the awful bracelet shift against her wrist bones.
      "You won't have. I promise you I am going to find Aliana a Techton trained Donor." Jon had almost managed to snag one. If his luck worked out, the man would be here in about half an hour.
      "Then I'll wait." She took the only other available chair in the office and planted her rather solid behind on it.
      "A moment then." He got up and escorted Aliana out of the room. As soon as he closed the door behind them, he saw Aliana's lip quiver. "Here, here, little one." Even though now, he still didn't quite know what to do, and so only touched the side of her face. Another tear fell from her eye.
      "Sorry to involve you with my family." Her smile only twitched up a corner of her mouth. "They can be a bit much."
      "If Falyana is any example, I can well understand why you wanted to get away from them." That's the understatement of the year.
      "She's not a particularly good example I'm afraid, or at least right now." She sniffled, like any other child. "My father probably leaned on her pretty hard to get her to abandon her partner so soon after ... I'm sorry, I'm babbling."
      "You're a child still, Aliana." He held out both his hands to her this time. Tentatively, she moved closer, as she had so often at first and then he gave her a gentle hug.
      "Thank you." She murmured against his shoulder. "I think I required that." Her hug back was more than a bit desperate.
      "I think you did." He stroked her back as she gave out one bitter sob. "Now, your ... " He looked over her shoulder. "There he is." Jon turned her around in his arms. "Hi Sosectu Jarmin."
      "Hey you old horse thief." His friend's craggy face split into a huge grin. "Isn't she a bit young for you?" He looked far more drawn and hag-ridden than Jon remembered him. There were rumors circulating about Jarmin's health, but Jon didn't want to believe them. Seeing him again, now he wondered how much truth there was to the rumors.
      "Just the right age for you." He chuckled, able to zlin Aliana's instant curiosity on her still childish nager. Even though as he zlinned closer, he realized Jarmin had come just in time. "Good thing I bombed the tracks so you couldn't get back out of town."
      "I was wondering why the conductor practically tossed me out of my nice cozy berth." He finally reached the two of them. "Sosectu Jarmin, meed Miz Aliana Mir, Aliana, meet Jarmin Maris, Donor First." Jon gave her a little shove in the right direction.
      Showing some of the first faint signs of reaction to fields, Aliana quivered a bit as she gave him an elaborate bow. Jarmin's very high field focused entirely on her. Too high. Jon zlinned the stresses of inadequate transfers on his friend's field. Most channels didn't think Donors felt anything, but Jon couldn't help but zlin the way they changed when they didn't get good transfers.
      Once, when Jarmin had been much younger, Jon had been lucky enough to get assigned to him. Now, unfortunately, Jon was too low for him, but he guessed he would suit Aliana quite well from what she had said.
      "I have to warn you, I have another high first in my office trying to claim Aliana." Jon hid his smile at using one of the oldest tricks in the books for capturing anyone's attention, put them in direct competition with another. Aliana shivered again and he regretted his ploy. "Sorry, Aliana. I didn't mean to threaten you."
      "Threaten her?" Jarmin gasped, his field trembling even more unsteadily. "A Donor threatening a channel about to go into change over?"
      Sometimes Jon wondered how high first Donors could know so much about what was going on around them without being able to zlin, but wasn't rude enough to ask. It was obvious they did. "Yes, Aliana's Aunt."
      "I have three others." She sighed. "An embarrassing wealth of relatives." Three Jon's eyebrows tried to run up off his face. How many close relatives does this young woman have?
      "Let's see about this dragon, shall we?" Jarmin grinned down at Jon's young charge, his field now firm in its decisiveness. Much better. Jon zlinned Jarmin's field latch onto his young charge with the tenacity of a bulldog.
      Jarmin would have tried to stop the tides for this young woman at that very moment. When they entered Jon's office, he felt as if he had as much chance of getting rid of this Falyana as he did of stilling the ocean. "She is my niece and I was given the duty to take care of her." Falyana's voice rang with so much irritation she sounded like an actress in a bad melodrama, with her as the villain.
      Aliana trembled against him again. He tentatively offered to let her under his arm. She slithered up against him so fast he wondered if she would rather be inside his shirt with him. "I think Aliana has made her choice." He tried to kick Jon into some kind of action with his field. There was no place he could stand in this room with Falyana to make the channel more comfortable, so maybe if they got this over with as soon as they could, it would be for the best.
      Jon's mouth opened and closed without him saying a word. Of course if I were a channel and Falyana glared at me, I would probably be tongue tied too.
      "She's just a child." The corner of her mouth turned up in a sneer.
      "You were one once." Slipped out of his mouth
      Then he heard Aliana whisper. "No she wasn't" A snort escaped as he tried not to laugh. Then that attention turned on him. It felt as if someone were hammering at him with the wind. He tipped his head up and set his jaw, staring back at her.
      "You're nothing but a Donor yourself." Her sneer increased. Total incomprehension of why that should be an insult left him off balance. "I'm a Donor. I'm the one who should give Aliana first transfer." This was even more confusing. There was a slight change in emphasis between her two uses of the term 'Donor', but Jarmin could not figure out what she was talking about.
      Hissing between her teeth, Aliana growled, "I didn't ask you to be here and I don't want a Donor for my first transfer." Jarmin had to work not to blink and looked at Jon in surprise. Jon spread his hands in a confused shrug. Then they began snarling and hissing at each other in some other language. Jarmin was even more surprised. I thought Simelan was universal. He couldn't make out a single word either was saying.
      Finally Falyana stalked out the door. "And to hell with you, Aliana. I'm not going to stick around to see if you survive." The door slammed behind her. Aliana was now trembling all over.
      Gently, slowly, he turned her towards him. It was only then he realized her eyes were blue and not black, they were so dark. He brushed a bit of her hair back from her face. Her teeth caught at her lower lip. "Little one." He breathed, trying not to stress her further.
      She grimaced and reluctantly began to back away.
      "If you would like a hug?" He tried to ask as softly as he could.
      "Like one." She almost wailed and threw herself into his arms as if she were drowning. Her hands frantically explored his back, clutching at him desperately.
      "I have to keep those ribs." He chuckled softly, wallowing in her so enthusiastic touch. When was the last time? He wondered if anyone had ever been so glad to simply touch him.
      "Would you like some tea?" Jon asked, still feeling a bit raw and bruised around the edges.
      "I'm about to fall over, I'm afraid." Aliana finally relaxed some as Jarmin managed to convince her to sit on the small couch with him. "Sorry to have put you both through that little scene." As Jon's ears were still ringing from the woman's invective, even if he hadn't understood the meaning of half the words, he could sympathize even more with Aliana's position.
      "Then rest here with Jarmin for a bit while we have some." He poured hot water over the tea leaves ready in the pot on the sideboard.
      "I'm not going into change over until tomorrow." She yawned, showing quite a fine set of teeth.
      "You've already started to change slightly, little one." He didn't know why he wanted to use that phrase, but it seemed to fit Aliana in some strange way. "You'll require all your energy for tomorrow."
      "If you say so, Hajene." Her eyes threatened to blink closed. She shivered again and straightened up.
      "Here, let me." Jarmin put a cream colored afghan over Aliana's shoulders. But it was only when he put his arm around her again did she truly relax into a light doze. "You like the contact already, do you?"
      "Missed it." She snuggled against him more tightly and then truly fell asleep. One of Jarmin's eyebrows rose in question.
      "Wait." Jon mouthed, pointing at the girl. Finally she settle all the way into sleep, latched onto Jarmin's side like a limpet. "Now, to answer your question, she doesn't come from around here."
      "I'd guessed as much." Jarmin smoothed Aliana's black hair away from her face. His friend's expression was more protective and gentle than even the normally caring Donor showed. "Does she have any friends here yet?"
      "Only Hana." Jon smiled wryly, handing Jarmin his tea. "She's made a number of fans, but has been quite standoffish to most adults."
      "Fans?" Jarmin asked.
      "Yes, she's been making a fair bit of change busking right outside the Rialite limits." He chuckled, thinking of the little coterie of followers who regularly went to hear her sing and play. Sometimes he even managed to sneak in when there were enough of them to hide his presence.
      "Then why is she wearing nearly rags when her aunt was wearing a fortune in wool and jewelry?" Jarmin's face was gently rubbing against Aliana's hair.
      "Because she's a miser of the first order." He chuckled. "Her brother-in-law is Mikal Tegue."
      "Oh" Jarmin chuckled softly. "I thought he vanished a few years ago."
      "He did, that's the strange part." Or at least part of the strangeness. Jon wondered how far he should go. "She doesn't want this broadcast to the world, all right?"
      "Oh, certainly, Oath of Firsts." Jarmin held up his tea in salute. "She's probably going to be one of us, right?"
      "Definitely, from all I can zlin." Jon returned the salute. "She's probably going to require someone a bit higher than you in a few months, but by then I should have the evidence to get one." It was so frustrating sometimes having to fight for Donors.
      "Is that why you kidnapped me?" He winked as he took a sip of his tea.
      "Exactly. I didn't have enough proof I had to have a high first, particularly one as close to four as I could get." Days of arguing with asinine schedulers with all twelve tentacles up their own ass had made Jon more than a bit short tempered. "You saw what her family sent in way of threat."
      "I don't know Falyana was a threat, Jon." Jarmin's brows wrinkled. "But then I couldn't understand half of what she said."
      "Neither could I, but from her nager it wasn't friendly." That was the understatement of the year.
      "I'm pretty good at reading people, and she did not read friendly at all."
      "Aliana said her father or fathers, I'm still not entirely certain through her accent, made Falyana come here." His fingers drummed on his desktop, tentacles providing counterpoint.
      "I caught that too, fathers, plural?"
      "Some sort of alternates, or oath parents, I have no idea." He shrugged, feeling far too out of his depth. Actually he felt as if he were a rag tied to a post in a windstorm. "All I know is Aliana wants nothing to do with them."
      "Let's see if we can give at least one person in this madhouse something they want." Jarmin smiled and kissed Aliana's fine black hair.

Chapter 4

      Oh, this feels good. Aliana purred as she cuddled up against a nice, human, body in her bed. It had been so long since she had ended up close to someone else in the morning, she didn't want to think about anything else. Sometimes, in the dead of winter, her and her brothers would all pile into the same bed together to share body heat like a litter of puppies.
      "Good morning." A strange voice whispered in her ear.
      "Good morning." She mumbled back.
      "What language is that?"
      "Oh, sorry." She chuckled. "Russian." Aliana repeated her comment in English. "I'm not entirely awake yet."
      "I wouldn't have guessed so." He chuckled back. "I hope you don't mind my sleeping here with you."
      "Not at all." She breathed. "I've missed having people close ever since I got here." Aliana captured one of his hands and held it to her face.
      "I take it you are a lot closer at home." His voice was sliding right past her censors.
      "Yes, my brothers and I would sleep together sometimes in the winter." She snuggled against him even closer. "We were all children, so it didn't really matter. Winters were much colder there."
      "Where is there?"
      "Moskva." She murmured, still feeling far too drowsy and content.
      Jarmin was stunned at this. He had heard of barbaric peoples being found beyond Europe and the far side of the Middle Sea, but to actually meet one. Aliana didn't act or look a thing like a barbarian, even though her aunt was certainly a piece of work. "Then you don't mind finding me here?" Actually he wanted to stay in bed with her all day. He couldn't remember the last time he had slept with anyone else even in the same room. Or failing staying in bed, at least stay in this room.
      "Not at all, you make me feel safe." Her body temperature had already begun its slow climb to Sime normal. An ecstatic moan at even the first signs of changeover was a really bad thing, in Jarmin's opinion.
      He tried to get a grip on his galloping hormones. "That's because I'm a trained Donor." He really didn't want to get her too fixated on him, but didn't quite want to pull away either. No, I really don't want her to go away. Her lithe body next to his was like a dream come true, despite her age.
      "I know that, silly." She nipped at his finger, startlingly intimately for one so young. What do these people teach their children? For an instant fear made his heart pound and then she squirmed uncomfortably. He quashed it and felt her settle back down. "No, I only meant to try to get closer to you for our transfer."
      "I didn't think there was anything else to it." He tried to reassure her.
      "Don't lie." The first hint of adult growl entered her voice.
      "I'm sorry. I don't know what you do and don't expect." He said, entirely honestly this time.
      "Thank you. I didn't meant to snap, either." Her hands began to run over her own forearms. She didn't give me the same excuse. Jarmin had to hold back a wildly inappropriate cheer. Gently, he caught her hands and held them in his own. Her fingers fluttered against his like tiny birds. "I think this is finally it."
      "I think so." He let his own hands run over her arms, finding the traces of fever begin under her skin where her tentacle sheathes would be. "Actually now I know so. Is there any sort of ritual or oath taking you go through?" He thought about some of the households with their quite elaborate rituals for first transfer. Figures they don't do anything for establishment. Bitterness threatened to eat at him again, despite the reassuring presence of someone who was almost a Sime.
      "No, none." She shook her head. "Only, I would rather this be quiet, if at all possible." Bless you. Jarmin hated all the wild goings on when a child became an adult, as if the adults had something to do with the child's success.
      "Do you mind if Jon witnesses?" He asked, wishing he could do more for this rather brave young woman. Even though he did want to be sure she wasn't going to turn out to be more than he could handle. Killed by Sime in First Transfer. Was not what he wanted for his obituary. "Most youngsters want their families around and have plans for a party afterwards."
      "I know, Hana told me about it." She shivered slightly in his arms. "Once upon a time, I had wished for my family to be there with me too. And no, I don't mind if Jon joins us." But she tensed up in his arms anyways.
      "What was that you said about lying?" He asked gently.
      "Caught me." She sighed. "Actually, if I had my preferences, I would like this to be quiet."
      "Your wish is my command, Aliana." He said in jest. She shivered violently, as if terrified. "Hush. I didn't mean to scare you."
      "Only that phrase is too similar to the words of submission." She whispered.
      "Then I won't use it. I was only joking." He tried to caress her entire body at once, running on instinct and entirely forgetting his training. Aghast, he almost stopped.
      "And I am often far too serious." She sighed and softened against him. "Don't mind me. My hormones are simply making me act the idiot." Maybe I shouldn't. He let his hands soften and idly stroke Aliana's body, even though the thin clothes. It was like petting a cat; she purred and pressed back against his hands. Thinking of it that way, he continued and she almost melted into a puddle in his arms.
      "And there you go being too serious again, Aliana." Even the best trained children didn't usually react this smoothly to change over. Maybe I am doing some good. He kissed her head, as he would a child of his own, if he had one.
      "Would you like some tea or bread?" Despite how much he was enjoying the purely sensual satisfaction of being allowed to touch, his stomach was growling. How embarrassing. He noted with dismay. How Gen.
      "Do you have any real bread?" As they sat her expression of desperation became obvious. His chest felt cold without her back against it.
      "Yes, I do." He chuckled, realizing exactly what she meant by some sort of intuition. Carefully, he reached into his satchel and pulled out one of the salt rolls he managed to hoard all this way. It would not do to show some of the things in that bag. She fell on it as if she were starving.
      "Bless you, bless you." She mumbled around a mouthful. "This is like heaven."
      "There was a little bakery I stopped at on my way here where you could get such things. I brought as many as I could carry." This little tiny lie he felt would never be noticed. He handed her a cup of tea and sat next to her, nibbling at his own. "I think they were immigrants, although I never really found out for certain."
      "Probably." She grinned at him. "For some reason it is hard to get good bread here. Most people think it is simply to keep salad off their fingers so they can eat it on the run."
      This description of a sandwich made him laugh. "I'll think of you now every time I eat a sandwich, Aliana."
      "Is that what those things are called." She shook her head. "I had wondered."
      "I'm surprised you are up for food." He eyed the faintest red lines beginning to make their presence on her arms. Her exceedingly odd normality was beginning to make him worry.
      "I've been so desperate for bread, I would probably have eaten it right up to breakout." She licked the last crumbs from her hand. "Now we wait." Her sigh seemed so very lonesome.
      "If you don't mind, I've always liked to sing while waiting if I get some time alone with the young person." He inquired shyly, for some reason feeling as if he could say anything to her.
      "Go ahead." Her smile was inviting. He did, an old ballad of lovers torn by distance and feuding families. She caught the complex refrain after the first time through and sang along with him, her voice already shifting from the clear treble of a child to the richer tones of an adult. When it was over, he looked at her and held out his hand. "You have a magnificent voice, Aliana."
      "I should after nearly fifteen years of training." Her wry half grin was becoming quite familiar. Stunned, he realized she must have begun training to sing almost as soon as she could talk. "I brought my guitar as well, but I don't think playing it would be a good idea right now."
      "I couldn't bring mine." He sighed, thinking of it collecting dust back countless Centers ago and almost as many years. It was something he regretted having to give up, but too many channels complained at the occasional blisters or hand cramps.
      "Go down to my rooms." She gave him directions. "You could play it."
      He did so, and very carefully brought it back, with its stand. For all of her shabby clothes, the instrument would be worth more a year of his income. He saw Hana lurking about and waved her to follow him. "I brought a friend."
      "Hana" Her eyes brightened immediately and he felt his breath catch. "Come in." She looked at him. "I didn't mean to invite someone into your rooms without your permission."
      "I already invited her." He sat in the chair when Hana decided to sit on the floor. After carefully tuning the instrument, his fingers trembling a bit on the ivory of the tuning pegs, he began a lively change over song. Hana knew all the words and sang along enthusiastically, if not very skilled, but then when Aliana joined in on the choruses, her soaring voice, even in the child's tune, was incredible. His sharp ear picked out footsteps in the hall and he smiled down at the guitar.
      Song after song, even though the transitions, Aliana kept insisting on yet another until Jarmin had to finally tell her enough. "You're almost in stage five, Aliana." My hands are about to fall off. Even though the strings were far more gentle to his soft fingers than he would have thought possible.
      "I know, I've just been having such a wonderful time I didn't want it to stop."
      "We can sing and play together another time." He promised, hoping against all common sense he could make it come true. "I would like to hear you play your own guitar."
      "Then I'll have to keep you chained to my wall so the Techton won't steal you away from me." Her eyes were clear and bright, despite the need he knew had to be making itself felt shortly.
      "Come along, Hana." Jon stuck his nose into the room quickly.
      "I know." The girl smiled. "Thank you for this afternoon."
      "You are quite welcome." Aliana said as he put her guitar up.
      "May I zlin you quickly?" Jon asked, almost shyly.
      "Certainly. I didn't mean to kick everyone out." Her eyes got wide as she saw the audience in the hallway. "Oh dear."
      "It's all right." Jarmin sat next to her, not yet engaging her fields so Jon could zlin her clearly.
      "We would like to watch." One of the boldest of them said. "It would be a privilege."
      "All right." She chuckled, looking almost matronly despite her obvious youth.
      "You don't have to if you don't want to." Jarmin reminded her quietly.
      "They have been more than kind to me this last week and a half." Then her breath caught, and her eyes closed briefly. "Oh my." Her unique grin showed again. "That was interesting."
      "Transition to stage six, Jarmin." Jon warned softly. "And yes, high First, well over three, should end up four plus."
      "Slick." He noted, realizing how smoothly Aliana was drifting through the stages of change over for himself only when he saw the membranes on her tentacle sheathes begin to thin to near invisibility. Her breathing was smooth and easy, as if she were riding on each wave of premature contractions with the skill of those fools who insisted on spending half their lives on a surfboard. "May I?" He asked, reaching for her arms.
      She breathed a word which sounded like consent and he gently let his fingers explore her arms, although when Jon reached for her she nodded no, quickly. Her breath hissed between her teeth and her eyes turned truly black as she slipped hyperconcious, her tentacles still not broken out. "This looks like some kind of Zaor exercise."
      "Easy, Jarmin." Jon breathed. "She knows what she's doing better than we do."
      Aliana's breathing returned to its steady pattern, although Jarmin could see her pulse pounding at her throat. He fell into her pattern, sliding towards offering her transfer. Her field still didn't quite engage, so he held steady, waiting. The waiting began to make his own body tremble. She's waiting for something. He realized suddenly.
      In a flash of insight, he knelt in front of her, as close as he could and still let her grab his arms. With a short, sharp almost bark of triumph her hands clamped on his arms, followed in a flash by her tentacles. He froze and waited for her next clue. Her trembling increased. What do I do? Her laterals still hadn't made contact. He leaned forward and made the lip contact himself. Wracking his brains, the only thing he could think of was to pull back and try again.
      Her tentacles reseated and her laterals dropped into place. A savage yank nearly pulled him under. Fire flashed behind his eyes as she drew with more brute strength than he had ever felt before in his life, but surprisingly slowly. Giving in to her wild demand, he felt himself soar with her in the stunning glory of a near perfect first transfer at last. Yes! Howled in his mind, reveling in the nearly forgotten sensations of a transfer at his very limits.
      Aliana had never felt anything so wonderful before in her life. The cold darkness which had almost swallowed her whole was now lying sated beneath the most fantastic rush of warmth and life imaginable. The downward slide continued gently until she found herself looking into a pair of soft, warm brown eyes almost as dazed as her own. "Thank you." She breathed against his lips, meaning it with all her heart. The world of light and heat had vanished completely now and she could so clearly feel every single hair of the man's arms under her hands and what had to be her new tentacles.
      "Thank you, Aliana." His voice was breathy and thrumming with tones she could barely recognize, but knew were good. He swayed slightly and she slid her arms around him to hold him safe. Mine She tried to wrap herself around the wonderful man who had pleased her so very much. Then a tremor of fear shook her. She looked up at Jon. "Jarmin?" She asked quietly. There was something wrong.
      "Let me get these people out of here." Jon turned away and she heard him shoo people out the door.
      "Don't teach her to zlin just yet." Jarmin's soft baritone murmured in her ear, no where near loudly enough for Jon to hear, she thought. "I'll be all right in a bit." He swallowed heavily. Now his voice was thready and uneven. His heart raced beneath her hands.
      "Now, what happened, you two?" Jon sat by them, stroking his friend's back and tracing over her hands in the process. She still hadn't quite figured out how to hold him tightly without squashing her still new tentacles. Jarmin took another deep breath and leaned back. Reluctantly, she let him go. He swayed a bit and she saw his pupils pin as he grimaced.
      "I burned you a bit, didn't I?" She asked sheepishly. "I'm sorry."
      "More like it feels a bit like a few tons of rocks went galloping through my head." He gave her one of his warm smiles, slightly crooked this time. "I wasn't quite sure of what to expect." But despite his obvious physical unease, there was still a look of incredible warmth in his eyes as well.
      "Neither was I." She grinned back at him.
      "Not too surprising." Then he took another of those deep breaths. "I don't want you to zlin because I'm afraid I'm going to end up with a rather sick headache."
      "Fosebine?" Jon asked softly.
      "Probably should." He grimaced, "Although sometime I wonder if I shouldn't just suffer so I don't have to deal with the taste of the stuff." Tentatively, Aliana caressed the side of his face in wonder. Jarmin's eyes widened at her caress and then he smiled shyly and leaned back into it. "Thank you for a wonderful opportunity, Aliana."
      "I hurt you." She grimaced and then wished she knew how to heal him. "I didn't mean to."
      "I know." He kissed the palm of her hand softly. "Even though I would like to get the chance to talk with you before I have to leave though."
      "Leave?" She croaked out. "You just got here."
      "It's my life, far too often." He looked down. "Jon had to do some fast footwork and we're both going to be dealing with snarls of red tape for weeks."
      "But what about next month?" Her hand shook and she tried to still it.
      "He'll get you someone better." Jarmin held her hands still.
      I could ... She thought of using some of her leverage to try to get him to stay. No, if I'm going to become one of these people, I have to learn to deal with them on their level. "I would love to get a chance to talk with you, Jarmin." Aliana said finally. Even though I think he is plenty good enough.

Chapter 5

      Finally Aliana came into the room after what had to be a short nap. "Surprise!" Hana shouted along with a dozen of the other friends Aliana had already made. Jon jumped a foot in the air, but Aliana just laughed delightedly.
      "Thank you." Her dark eyes sparkled as she looked around the small dining area for their part of the dorms. "I was wondering why Jon brought us down this way." The furnishings weren't fancy and the cake was a bit uneven, but Hana had done her best. "You are wonderful friends." Aliana's warmth seemed to encompass all of them and turn the display into a fantasy of crystal and silver, not the cheap paper streamers and plastic forks of reality.
      "Let me see." One of the other children currently living in the dorms with them piped up. Hana turned to shush them, but Aliana only laughed and made a face at her own tentacles. "Where's the instructions on these?" She looked up at her Donor, grinning.
      "Right under the label." He replied, ruffling her damp and newly washed hair. It stuck up all over.
      "Now look what you've done." She tried to smooth it out. Her tentacles twined in it and tried to help. "Ack, where did these come from?"
      "Your arms." Hana pointed out, teasing. Aliana was the most comfortable new Sime Hana had ever seen. Soon laughing and joking with every one equally, she brought them all together as if she were Sectuib of a Household and not just another channel. Sectuib from hundreds of years ago, at that. Hana watched as she made everyone feel at home, including her Donor and Jon in the mostly child crowd.
      "Now, who gets to cut the cake?" She asked, then looked at her Donor slyly. Everyone shouted Aliana should. "No, I think the real hero of this story should." Without a hint of hesitation, she offered him the hilt of the knife. "Donor Jarmin?" Jon sucked in a deep breath and his tentacles twined in nervousness.
      "Thank you." He breathed, looking like she had offered him the Controllership. His dark brown eyes gleamed with such incredible gratitude, Hana had to look away for a moment. Aliana caught her eye and nodded. Yes, I see. Hana nodded back, proud of the way her friend showed her trust in Jarmin. I would follow her anywhere. Hana vowed in her mind, Particularly if I become a Donor.
      Aliana was about to fall on her face, but the children were so thrilled she would spend time with them. She stifled another yawn. The brief nap had barely been enough to get her back on her feet. Jarmin caught her eye and tipped his chin towards the door. "Thank you again, all of you." She smiled broadly, tapping a bit of icing onto young Suzi's nose. "I'm afraid I'm exhausted though."
      "Then go to bed." Hana rescued her, smiling. "I'm glad we could do something for you though. To not have a change over party would have been awful."
      "We had it earlier, when we sang together." Aliana fought to keep from swaying on her feet. "Thank you, Hana. I really appreciate the time you spent with Jarmin and I today. It made everything so much more comfortable." The way her friend's eyes lit at the slight complement was so very sad. "You are like family to me, Hana."
      "I hope not." She chuckled gayly. "Not after some of the stories I've heard."
      "Ok, the family I wish I had." Her new won ability to zlin was beginning to make her even more unsteady. Tentatively, she reached out for Jarmin and found him right at her elbow. Trying not to jump at the surprise, she looked back at him. He ducked his head and his field seemed to bow obsequiously. It was altogether too slimy. "Jon isn't here anymore." She pointed out to him. "You don't have to act for me."
      "But I don't want to upset you."
      "You almost did by sneaking up on me." She wished he would take her arm so she could get out of here.
      "So I did." He finally got the rather unsubtle hint. "I'm afraid I'm only a Gen and have to get to bed early."
      "I don't dare let him out of my sight, someone else might steal him." Aliana tried not to sigh in relief.
      "Then we'll go on without you." Hana said finally.
      Aliana turned her face from the youngest of the children and mouthed, "Thank you." She let Jarmin lead her from the room.
      "Now I know what my brother means when he calls something a 'lats up'." Aliana shook her head and took a deep breath. "That was not an experience I wish to repeat."
      "Then why did you stay so long?" Jarmin was confused. His headache was mostly gone, but when Jon had insisted he accompany Aliana back to her room he knew something was up. A party with a bunch of children had not been in his game plan.
      "Because they deserved it. They all worked so hard to try to make me happy, the least I could do was play along with them." Her face was now drawn with stress as she released her absolutely amazing control. She isn't even twelve hours old yet. "It wasn't as if it cost me all that much."
      "You look wiped out." He said quite honestly. "Let me show you to your rooms."
      "I'm afraid my bed is tiny." Her wry grin was rapidly becoming a thing to tug at his heartstrings every time it appeared.
      Then her words hit through his own muzzyness. "Uh, I didn't mean for us to ..." Her face fell as she pushed herself away from the wall she had been resting against. "Sorry, if you would like, even though you just had transfer, I have room for you as well as your guitar." He tried to cover his faux pas.
      "Not if it's a duty, Jarmin." Her jaw clenched against what he guessed might well be a truly vile temper beneath all her superficial smiles.
      "Only that most channels don't like to be reminded of their dependance on Donors." What made me say such a thing? He cursed his own tired tongue. "Sorry, I meant to say, I don't like to sleep alone either." Now there was an understatement. Usually within twelve hours after transfer he was so shenned depressed he was well on his way to an alcoholic stupor. Even with the slight headache remaining, Aliana allowing him to stay with her was more than tonic for his chronic sense of unease and despair.
      "The first is certainly true, the second?" Her hand tipped up, as if she were offering him a snifter of brandy. It was yet another odd gesture, as if she weren't quite as aware of what her body said as her voice.
      "Admittedly, I do like to have some time alone so I don't have to worry about clobbering you with my field." He took her fingertips in his. One of the few things he had already learned was that she expected to be touched, a lot.
      "We'll worry about that when you are high enough field for it to be a problem." She pulled him closer by his fingertips. "Right now you would hardly disturb a renSime, much less a channel." Her yawn almost turned the last word into something like lord.
      He shook his head and nearly stumbled. "You would think I've been drinking." Like usual.
      "Only that vile white stuff." She made an awful face. "I figured out how to zlin again right before you drank it. Yuck."
      "I should have simply slept until it wore off." His tongue ran off with him again. "Sorry, ..." She put her fingers against his lips.
      "Please, stop apologizing for not being perfect." Her touch was gentle. "If you keep doing so, then I'll have to work even harder to try to be perfect as well."
      Jarmin kissed her fingers. "Yes, Hajene."
      "Not yet, not quite yet."
      The class was deadly dull. After barely four hours of sleep, Jon had quite annoyingly roused her out of bed and handed her a list of subjects. All her classmates were bright eyed and cheerful even though the sun hadn't even risen yet. She stifled another yawn and felt her eyes try to droop closed.
      "What's the limit as sin x over x approaches zero, Aliana?" The teacher broke into her near nap.
      "Uh, 1." She tried to blink the fuzz from her brain as the teacher glared at her. Then she looked up at the board. Oops, she hadn't gone through the proof yet.
      "I think you may well be in the wrong class, Aliana. Please see your advisor." The teacher's field was spiky and disturbing the other students. "Now, Aliana." She said as Aliana almost fell asleep over her notebook.
      "Yes Hajene." She clumsily gathered everything together and trudged out of the room to the hissing murmurs of her fellow students. Finally safe in the brick lined hallway, she slumped against the wall for a moment. This isn't going to work. She staggered back to Jarmin's room after blearily examining her schedule. After rather awkwardly dumping her books on a chair, she slipped off her shoes and slithered back into bed. Aliana was back asleep even before her head hit the pillow.
      Waking up the second time was much, much better. "Good morning, sleepy." Jarmin chuckled softly in her ear. "I would have thought you would have been up hours ago."
      "Jon tried. Calculus, which I learned ages ago, was not enough to keep me awake." She yawned, popping her jaw so loudly she was surprised the window didn't crack. "I am not that much of a morning person. History and regulations are after breakfast. Maybe by then I'll be awake enough to deal with new subject matter."
      "Simes aren't supposed to require much sleep, only a few hours a night."
      "Could have fooled me." Then she chuckled. "Maybe someone forgot to tell the rest of me I changed over."
      "I don't think so." He kissed the back of her neck and then yawned himself. This was a very interesting experience for Aliana and she focused on him as his field twined and twisted through his muscles as he stretched. It was already picking up again, a steady pulse of life growing from the so dim recesses of yesterday. "You wouldn't happen to be hungry as well, would you?"
      "Starving. Jon seemed to think I had no interest in food at all." She turned around so rapidly she almost bopped him on the nose. "Would you happen to be able to spare another of those wonderful salt rolls I seem to remember from about an aeon and a half ago?" Her mouth was already watering in anticipation. After having missed dinner entirely last night, and no breakfast this morning, her stomach was bitterly complaining about its proximity to her backbone.
      "You are an odd little Sime, my new friend." He kissed her on the nose. "It'll be interesting to see what you look like when you slim down."
      "I have absolutely no plans on doing so any more than I have to." She said forcefully, kissing him back. "However your nose is starting to look tasty."
      "Food, I understand." He chuckled, then her stomach rumbled and he stared at it. She shrugged in embarrassment. "Let me sit up." Aliana did so and he pulled an entire bag of the things out of his carry all. Three salt rolls later and two cups of tea, Aliana felt a great deal more like facing the world.
      "Much, much better." She sighed, leaning back against the edge of the bed with him. "What time is it?"
      "Isn't that my line?" His arm had gone around her shoulders again, where it should be. If only I could manage to have him sit with me in my classes. She wished.
      "I know what time it is, but not in relationship to anything." She shook her head and chuckled again. "No one has given me the instructions for my time sense yet either."
      "There's still more than an hour until breakfast is officially over." He looked over at the wall and she finally saw the clock. "Would you like anything else to eat?"
      "No, not right now, but probably about lunch time I'll be starving again." She grimaced and then tentatively added, "Would you mind if I went out for my run?"
      "You don't have to." But he sounded more curious than forbidding. "But if you like, go ahead. I'll join you even as long as you promise not to augment too much."
      "If I augment at all, it's cheating." She grinned at him and got to her feet. "Let me go get something I can get sweaty in."
      "I'll meet you out front."
      Jarmin felt his jaw try to bounce off the ground. Admittedly, yesterday, he hadn't seen a great deal of Aliana's body but still after having slept with her all night he should have felt something. She was as sleek and fit as a jaguar, albeit a juvenile jaguar. She is going to be irresistible as an adult. He tried to force his thoughts away from such inappropriate thoughts. Then she grabbed her ankles and pulled herself down to them.
      Oh, my. No matter how young she was even the thought of what she would look like in a few months would have caused a rather embarrassing reaction if he hadn't gotten singed yesterday. Reminded finally to stretch some, he tried to copy her actions. It had been a number of years since he had run regularly, and he hoped he could keep up.
      Looking down he finally noticed she was barefoot and cringed. "You know there are a lot of rocks and sand out there."
      "I've been running barefoot for years, Jarmin." She wrinkled her nose at him. "I don't want to wear out my one good pair of shoes." And with that she was off, running towards a faint path winding through the hills near the campus. Caught off guard, he struggled after her.
      Breezily, she waved to a few of the gardeners, who made a spectacular double take. He chuckled under his breath at their surprise. "I wonder if it's because you're in the lead, or because you are running un-augmented?"
      "You want to chase me?" She grinned wickedly back over her shoulder and took off at a grueling pace. After the second mile, Jarmin was determined not to give up. After the third, he wondered what he was doing out here. After the forth, he didn't even have the breath to think. Somewhere around five and a half miles or so, she slacked off the pace at last. His lungs were heaving like bellows and he could feel the sweat soak his clothes even in the cool morning air. Finally he caught up with her as she slowed to a walk.
      "Have fun?" She asked, still breathing deeply but evenly. He gulped, speechless, trying to catch his breath. "Oh, you poor thing." She cooed, taking his elbow. He was too tired to even quibble about being called a thing, which he felt like far too often. Salt stung his eyes and she reached over and brushed the worst of the sweat away. "You could have quit. Hana did after her first mile the first time we went out." She pointed back over the hills where he could see quite a few youngsters all running together.
      "But." He gulped again, trying to breathe.
      "Hush" She put her fingertip against his lips. Finally it felt as if he weren't going to die. Then as they walked back onto the quad, he did quail.
      "Uh, Hajene Jon." He managed to pant out.
      "And where were you this morning, Aliana?" His voice was in its most irritated rasp, which Jarmin knew from being a student of his a number of years ago.
      "Lets see, after making my calculus teacher zlin like a fool, myself as well, I gave up and went back to bed. After finally getting something to eat I decided I would feel much better after my morning run. I was going to get cleaned up and make it to my history class in, oh, about twenty minutes, so I would be a few minutes early." She blinked at him, looking far more innocent than anyone with her obvious brains had a right to. "Did I miss something?"
      "You were supposed to report to me immediately after the teacher kicked you out of her class for mocking her." He glared at both of them now. "And what's the bright idea with Jarmin anyways, are you trying to murder him or something?"
      "No" Jarmin leaned back and almost fell on his behind.
      "Walk, friend." Aliana said under her breath. His knees trembled, but he felt much better as he walked in tiny circles in front of his lecturer. "He said he wanted to come with me on my morning run and was too stubborn to give in when he should have." Her wink was directed purely at him, hidden from Jon by a turn of her face.
      "Although if you keep us standing out here on the quad, neither of us will be getting our day going on time." Her crisp words in response to Jon's fuming made Jarmin want to cheer. She was handling him perfectly.
      "Your day was supposed to start about six hours ago." His fingers tapped on his thigh.
      "My body thought that was a completely ridiculous idea, Hajene Jon." She said respectfully, even though the glint her eye told Jarmin volumes about her rising temper. "As was the lack of food."
      Jarmin cut this off before it could go too far. "As her Donor this month, it is my duty to see to my channel's welfare, is it not?"
      "Yes." Jon admitted after having looked as though he had swallowed a bug. Or perhaps it is simply his being down wind. Jarmin checked the air briefly and grimaced at his own over ripeness.
      "Then let me do my job, Jon." He used the channel's bare name quite intentionally. "If Aliana is not the same as the other channels, like say a Tegue is not the same, would you be entirely surprised?"
      "Oh, no, of course not." He finally gave in and smiled at them, even though his nose twitched slightly as Jarmin tentatively tried to stretch out his hamstrings. "What would you recommend?"
      "Set the schedule for a Tegue pace and then slow it down some more. Go ahead and leave out anything Aliana says she has already studied." He saw her grin wildly and had to fight down an answering grin.
      "I think I probably know almost anything but the most advanced subjects and Techton specific things, such as history and regulations." She used her shirt to create a draft for herself. "Math, biology, economics, general politics, general sociology, don't bother with, please. I scanned the books before I started today and I've already gone as far or farther than you go here. I would really like to make sure I have an hour or two in the weight room and gym in the afternoon as well."
      Jon blinked at her, looking like a poleaxed steer. "Um, yes, sure." He muttered to himself some. "If I rip out all of those, it should leave you with enough time to still sleep as you prefer and have the time for this." He waved his hand at both of them. "Not that I understand it at all."
      "Food?" She pleaded. "Time to eat, too!"
      "Um, yes, why don't you set up your own schedule and run it by me?" He bit at his lip nervously. "All I ask is that you don't put off the channeling or other exercises."
      "Of course not, that's what I'm here for, not falling asleep in my calculus class." Her grin was too irresistible this time and he joined in, now feeling entirely human again, although a bit more to eat would not have been found amiss. "Me too" She admitted under her breath. Only when they had gone their separate ways, did Jarmin realize he had not spoken his comment out loud.

Chapter 6

      Aliana's hands slapped at the smooth wood of the parallel bars and slipped. "Shen." She cursed under her breath as she fell to the floor again. At least as a Sime, she didn't fall on her behind as often. Looking up, she remounted and tried the back flip again, this time with more success. The changes her body was still making were messing up her natural balance something fierce and she hated having to rely on augmentation to make up for it.
      Counting out the rhythm in her head, she hand walked down to the end, did another back flip successfully and called it quits with a fancy dismount her brother had taught her years ago. The sound of applause made her almost gape, then she turned and bowed to her tiny audience of one. "Impressive." Jarmin bowed back to her.
      "Hardly." She picked up her towel and wiped the sweat from her face. "Now the rings, there I'm good."
      "I bet." He grinned, taking her hand. "No augmentation?"
      "Only when I'm about to hit my wrists on something." She told him, looking into his wonderful, warm sable dark eyes. "Or about to fall on my butt again. It isn't very well padded."
      "I had wondered what you did here, when everyone else was off at class." He looked around the room. "You should have a spotter."
      "I know, but if I waited for a spotter, half the time I wouldn't get the chance to do anything." She contemplated asking Jarmin if he had the time, but figured he would be too busy.
      "Tell you what." He said with his impish grin making the strong lines in his face crinkle so fascinatingly she had to zlin as well. His field was full of bright good humor, despite being almost on turnover. "If you can stand for a Gen to spot you, I'll move our afternoon session in here with you."
      This was a hard decision. She hated giving up any of her time with Jarmin. She so rarely saw him now except for their daily run and the occasional session in his office. He must have sensed her indecision, as he followed up with an offer she couldn't refuse, "And I'll make it so we get to spend even more time together."
      "Yes" She snapped it up. "Anything. I'll even teach you something."
      "You have been, Aliana." He caressed her face. "You certainly have."
      "What?" She didn't feel she had done anything all that unusual. Other than a few odd preferences, it seemed she had made very little effect on the people around her here. Remember, this is what you wanted. She told herself bluntly.
      "You gave me my self back, Aliana." His thumb caressed her cheek bone. "I was dreadfully lonely and felt as if no one wanted to spend time with me for anything but my selyn."
      "I like you, Jarmin." She said, holding his hand to her face. "Even if we never see each other again in our lives, I would like to know you are doing well and are happy. How could I not?" Sometimes she worried she had given Jarmin an example no one else here would ever live up to. "You are a very kind person."
      "Few people have said so, Aliana." He sighed, letting his eyes fall and his field flatten out. "Most would say I am rather cold."
      "Only compared to Sime body temperature." She stepped forward and hugged him tightly. He started as he so often did when she reached out for him, but each time it became less and less. "You aren't resisting because I'm all sweaty, are you?"
      "No, not at all." He finally relaxed against her. His field twining about both of them was heavenly and warmed her to her toes.
      "Did you get in trouble for asking to stay here with me?" She asked quietly, realizing something was bothering him from the slight tremors in his nager.
      "No, although I think the controller's exact words were 'and shen both of you'."
      "Ouch" She flinched at the vile oath until she remembered, yet again, that word was no where near as vile here. "Sorry ..." Surprisingly, this time he silenced her.
      "I know, little one." He grinned at her. "You don't use such language unless you think no one can hear you. Even though I can't understand a word you're saying when you swear in Russian."
      "Then let me teach you something substantial." Plots clicked into place in her head with an astounding suddenness. "The Techton will probably, eventually, want to send some of their own people to Moskva, why not you?"
      "Because I ..." His grin turned feral. "If I know the language, I'll be one up on everyone else. And it will be a quite valid excuse to stay here and spend time with you."
      "Exactly." She grinned right back and hugged him till his ribs creaked. "You already have a start on it." Aliana hummed a few bars of one of the songs she had taught him.
      He threw his head back and laughed, sending wonderful shimmers through his field. The song she had taught him had been more than a bit bawdy.
      This class looked to be rather interesting. "The care and feeding of Techton Donors, by guest lecturers, tba" Hmmm, who in the world could they have gotten for this thing? She asked herself. It was only a week long class, one of many very short courses scattered through the regular curriculum. As she looked around, she realized there were many unfamiliar faces, including Hajene Jon.
      Blinking, she turned her face and attention away, realizing she probably shouldn't be here, as now she noted there were almost no other very young Channels in the lecture hall. They're the ones who require this class the most. She thought after having heard some of her classmates talking about their Donors as if they were walking meal trays and not living, breathing, feeling human beings like themselves. Then she saw a whole gaggle of them herded in by Hajene Harim. Gaggle is right. She zlinned their shifting and flickering nagers.
      The lights dropped in the auditorium and she dropped her pen. There, front and center stage, was her brother Tzer. She looked over at Jon. Then she felt Jarmin's sweet, comforting presence sit at her side. Jon winked at her and turned his attention back to the stage. Nervously, she took Jarmin's hand and twined her tentacles with his fingers.
      "I didn't think you required this?" He whispered to her under her breath.
      "I was curious." She realized her eyes must be huge and then when the channel in front of them gave her a glare, she toned down her own nageric display.
      "So I see." He patted her hand.
      "Now that I have your attention, our lecturer today, is actually my partner, Mikhail Fatima." He bowed slightly and stepped to the side. With a grace Aliana had barely realized she missed, Mikhail glided forward in full black robes and veil. Even at this distance though, she could still see his arresting blue eyes.
      "I had my mate, Tzer Fatima come forward first, because I know, far better than many, most of you would tune out my little talk as simply being a disaffected alien and not having the brains of a pin because I am Gen." Mikhail's voice carried the heavy accent of the East.
      "Who is that?" Jarmin whispered to her.
      "My brother and brother-in-law." She whispered back.
      "Oh" Jarmin's field quivered, earning them another black look from the channel in front of them.
      "Now, lets get one thing straight. I had been a Techton Donor. I grew up here. I was trained here. I left." His voice grew almost harsh. "It wasn't everyone, but many channels did treat me like a side of beef. All of you most likely find that analogy highly disturbing, think on it.
      "No, Simes don't eat meat, they don't kill here anymore, but while the treatment of Gens has improved tremendously here since Unity, there are still issues which have to be resolved." Now Aliana realized why he was veiled. It wasn't just to protect his identity, but to protect the poor channels near him from his nageric feedback. "It isn't enough to give the majority of humanity here rights. Words on paper don't mean a great deal to someone starving in the street."
      "We pay good money for selyn donation." A rather well cued heckler snapped out.
      "Oh, and so you make sure they feel nothing." His eyes blazed behind his veil. "Did you ever think we might wish to be equals?"
      "Gens don't feel anything in transfer." The same male snapped out.
      "You are quite a useful heckler, can we hire you for our next appearance?" Tzer's grin was as sharp as his knives. The man physically backed off, but even from here Aliana could zlin his field still full of fight.
      "You deny we have any chance at the most tremendous pleasure know to mankind by your own blindness, Hajene." Mikhail let his sleeves slide up to bare his arms and the brilliance of his nager was stunning, laced with the sense of barely tamed lightning. "I'm not going back." The heckler slid down in his chair.
      "Certainly, in the days shortly after the kill and still in many places on the territory borders, Gens do have to be handled carefully." He let his sleeves fall down again. "But isn't a carrot better than a stick?"
      There was dead silence. Jarmin clutched her tentacles, his field twining about them in a stunning display of hope. This time the irritable channel in front of them didn't dare move.
      "I would say so." Mikhail answered his own question. "Techton Donors are the first group who could benefit by being included in humanity." He still wasn't pulling his punches though. I'm glad I'm not down in front. Aliana thought to herself. "All you have to do is show a little consideration."
      Jarmin was sweating like a horse by the time Mikhail's little lecture ended. "I never would have dared say any of those things." He breathed after almost everyone had left.
      "But I bet you've thought them." Aliana said to him quietly.
      "Well, yes." He admitted, turning to her, fearing she would have the pinched and angry look of most of the other channels who had attended. But instead she just smiled at him wryly, that wonderful crooked smile. "I still wouldn't have been so forward."
      "Mikhail had some help." She stroked his hand softly. "Those robes he was wearing shielded the audience from his nager."
      "Oh, I was wondering why half the audience didn't faint or run gibbering in terror." He returned her smile, more relieved than he would have thought possible. "So, is he representative of ..." Then his eyes widened. "That was Mikal Tegue."
      "Yes" The now familiar voice told him and he turned around as quickly as he could. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you." Up close, the clear silver eyes of Tzer Fatima were even more fascinating.
      "Oh, have a seat." He tried to hide his rather awkward grasp on Aliana's hand. I doubt I am good enough for someone related to him. She wouldn't let him go, as if she had caught a particularly tasty fish.
      "A good one, Aliana." Tzer sat down with his partner. I'm not so sure I want to think about that too hard. "Even if he is still a bit squirrely." Jarmin tried to still his sudden attack of shyness. "I don't bite unless invited, Jarmin." Now those silver eyes were trained directly on him and he could almost imagine he felt Tzer zlin him.
      "I don't think I'd be doing that." He licked his lips nervously and Tzer took a deep breath.
      "However he does flirt quite nicely." Tzer blinked a few times. "We will be going into seclusion right after the lecture series, since someone here wanted to do it as high field as possible." He squirmed his way in under Mikhail's arm.
      "It got their attention." Mikhail sighed. "I swear you have to beat some channels over the head with your nager to get them to open their ears and stop zlinning all the time."
      Jarmin chuckled at how many times he had thought the exact same thing. "True, very true. Maybe that's why I find Aliana so fascinating. She listens to me."
      "I'd better, or I'd have all my relatives breathing down my neck." Then she muttered. "If they didn't break it."
      "Hush now." He rased her hand and kissed the back of it, as she had taught him to do. Never before would he have taken such liberties with a channel and still he looked around to be certain no one would correct him for the forwardness. "So you're going to be in fairly hard need by the time you're done?"
      "Both of us actually." He shrugged, a particularly boneless gesture while plastered to Mikhail's side like an oversized cat.
      "Part of the lecture for tomorrow, not snapping at your Donor for being irritable after turnover." Mikhail gave him a grin. "We get pretty cranky too sometimes. I thought there would be at least a few more Donors here."
      "Most of us thought it was yet another round of 'Don't make too many demands on their busy time' and 'Be very careful not to ever, possibly, scare them'." He grimaced at some of his friend's snapping about the upcoming lecture series this morning. "We didn't believe it."
      "Case of boy who cried wolf?" Tzer asked them all.
      "Too many times." Jarmin said quite forcefully. "After what seems like the thousandth time you've been told 'you can't feel any of this' or 'you're making it all up', it becomes really hard to change."
      "So you came because of Aliana?" Mikhail held Tzer even more closely, as if he were trying to wrap himself around his partner. Aliana sighed and tentatively, Jarmin echoed their postures. After a quiver of unknown origin, she gleefully burrowed under his arms and almost into his lap. Mikhail chuckled.
      "Yes, it was a chance to be with her." Awed at her enthusiastic response, he kissed the top of her head and she settled down even more tightly to him, this time in his lap. "I wouldn't have missed that for anything, even another round of 'dumb Gen baiting'." A sharp pinch on his ribs made him yelp. "There are problems with this sort of closeness." He mumbled into her hair.
      "Not from my perspective." Her slender hand rubbed away the sore spot.
      Mikhail laughed at them, not unkindly. "Too bad you won't be able to stay a pair."
      "I know." He caressed her lean body again his own. "Maybe once more I'll be able to satisfy her, but after that I'll have to hand her over to someone else."
      "But, your governors aren't that low."
      "Hush, Tzer." Mikhail murmured.
      "What?" He straightened, so startled he forgot about Aliana. She almost came out of his lap spitting and hissing in fury. "Easy little one." He said, eyeing the two other men cautiously.
      "All right." Mikhail said, almost seeming to zlin him, but from what he had said earlier, Jarmin knew that might well not have been impossible. "Most Techton Donors are working below their potential, as are Techton channels.
      "Most Techton Donors are not trained to their limits, because of the fear of a possible burn." Mikhail's blue eyes bore into his with a startling intensity. "Remember?"
      "Yes" He nodded sadly, thinking of all the times he had been turned down for assignment because it was too close and a safe, much lower, channel could be found for him. "But last month was Aliana's so called 'anti-kill' conditioning." At least she had trusted him that much, to tell him it had been a fake. Although when she offered to strip the excess Jon had left in his systems, he had been very wary and gently refused. It would have put him off cycle with her by a large margin and he was more than willing to put up with some discomfort to be able to give her transfer.
      "Then your current state is not that indicative?" Mikhail blinked. "Hold still a moment and let Tzer zlin you closely, if you don't mind."
      "Sure." He wondered if he should ask Aliana to move off his lap, but Tzer's laterals licked out briefly and then vanished almost as fast as they appeared. "Well?"
      Tzer sighed, seeming to think for a moment. "It's awfully damned close, Mikhail." His eyes narrowed. "Maybe, maybe if we both work him over and Aliana is willing to help."
      "Damned matchmakers!" Aliana suddenly fumed. "I like Jarmin an awful lot, but to be planning out my life this soon is something else."
      "But don't you want him to reach your potential?" Mikhail asked.
      "What about his potential?" Her body trembled in his arms.
      "Aliana, sweet." He tried to calm her. But his own excitement threatened to spill over. To be able to even try to win her. Rang in his mind.
      "Shen you, Jarmin." She blazed, getting to her feet. "I came here to get away from all this maneuvering, not to submit myself to it again."
      "But they only want what is best."
      "Even without my permission." She snarled. "That isn't the way of the Techton or the Unity treaty, it's to respect the right of the individual to choose."
      "The right of the Gen." Now his back was up.
      "Then go to hell with the rest of them." She stalked out, leaving her things behind. Jarmin sighed and looked down. His hands were twining with each other as if he still wanted to grab her and bring her back. He rubbed at his temples, trying to figure out if this was a real headache or only the threat of one.
      "Jarmin, don't let her run off mad." Mikhail said quietly. "We all know she has a temper, but if you let her stew, it'll only get worse.
      "But if she doesn't want me around ..." He spread his hands in supplication. "I'm only ..."
      "Hush" Tzer cut him off. "She's a very young woman who is still insecure about who and what she is. As long as you don't abandon her, she'll forgive."
      "But what about her abandoning me?" He grinned wryly, twisting his hands together even harder. The remembered feel of her weight in his lap was only making her nerves worse.
      "Where's she going to go at Rialite?"
      "Oh Shen." He bolted for the door.

Chapter 7

      I'm ruining his life. Aliana ran. The hunger in Jarmin's field for what her brothers had to offer had been so overpowering Aliana was surprised he could stand it. She couldn't.
      A low ridge finally hid her from the campus. Still running, she headed for the low, dry, watercourse she knew was out here. Her heart pounded. Finally she made it to the tiny nook at the base of an ancient, rustle leaved tree. She curled in among the roots and put her face in her hands.
      "Everything I've done here has been wrong." She told the lizard sunning itself on a rock. It just looked back at her. Even Hana had been changed, now burbling and bouncing whenever she thought of her future as a Donor. What if she changes over? Too many children here did who otherwise expected to be Donors.
      "At least she's happy." Aliana had managed to convince her to talk with some of the renSimes as well. That had been one nearly unadulterated good thing about this place. Or at least it had been until she overheard one rather depressing conversation.
      "But Tem, I don't got it." A strident female voice drifted to her ears. Aliana made sure her field was tightly tucked in and around her body. "What am I going to do?"
      "Well, pretty one." A male voice wheedled. "I can think of a few ways to get some more cash."
      "I can pay my taxes, but only if my children stay home this quarter." The young woman's voice trembled. "I want them to stay in school."
      "They could go to public school." His voice was still that slimy, cloying wheedle. "Come with me." Aliana's eyes widened. The woman was obviously near transfer and from her guess the man was post as could be.
      "But we're living here so they could go to the Rialite school."
      "They're not going to require such fancy teaching." He cooed, probably trying to sound concerned. "It'll only make them discontent. They'll be happier without it." Aliana had seen what the renSimes learned here in the public schools compared to institutions like Rialite and was torn. But then she remembered a great deal of the work normally done by the plethora of nobility at home was done by rens here. Those children would be very ill paid to have their education cut short.
      "That's what their father said, but it was his ignorance that murdered him." Her voice was harsh with need suppressed sobs. "I don't want my children dead because they couldn't read a warning label. Not for less than twenty."
      The man's field jumped in surprise. Aliana would have figured it would have been more. "I could give you a loan."
      "And then how would I pay it back."
      "I could think of a way." Cloth rustled on cloth. A shiver of ill disguised disgust trembled across the ambient. "You'll like it when you're post."
      "Oh and then I'll have another mouth to feed, again without a husband's help. I don't think so." The slap of worn shoe leather on the stone paving was unmistakable. It was coming her way. Aliana fumbled into her pockets.
      Fingering the worn coin, she debated with herself the merits of what she was about to do. Then she did it. The bright metal tinged and then rolled neatly into the middle of the walk. Looking up from under her eyelashes, she saw the woman pounce on it. Then, before she could look away, their eyes met.
      "You dropped this, I think." The woman held out her hand with the fifty. It was quite a bit of money, but it wasn't as if Aliana couldn't make more.
      "Perhaps." She smiled at the woman's gasp of shock. Her hair, pulled back into a tight not at the back of her head was already graying, but she had the kindest warm brown eyes. Like Jarmin's. Aliana realized. "Perhaps you just found it laying there."
      "I can't." She held out the coin towards Aliana. She folded the woman's trembling fingers over it, stilling her own nager so as not to influence the woman's decisions. The woman shook her head no.
      "Repay it in kind or kindness to the next person who is in a desperate position, when you can." Aliana smiled softly. "That will be plenty."
      "If you say so." The first glimmer of light began to peek through the woman's stressed field.
      "I do." She clenched the woman's fist more tightly about the coin. "I can always earn more."
      "You are a good woman." Her hand trembled in Aliana's grasp. "I'll repay you."
      "I know." Trusting the woman's obvious honesty was one of the easiest things Aliana had ever done here.
      "Thank you, I wish there were only more I could do." A smiled broke across her face.
      "Raise your children as best you can and be well." Aliana tried not to flinch at how close her words came to the ritual words of dismissal.
      "Now I can." The woman turned and almost danced away. A couple skipping steps did intrude, then she walked proudly, her head held high.
      "Pride." At one time Aliana thought she was incredibly proud, but many of her classmates would cause a peacock to blush.
      "If you would, Karis." Jon was quite good at concealing his irritation from everyone but Aliana. She winked at him. A nearly zlinnable bark of laughter was his reply.
      "It's Hajene Lorin" The rather pale and already over slender Sime replied. He flicked back a lock of lank, muddy brown hair. I'm surprised it can move. Aliana had already seen the amount of goo some people put in their hair around here, not to mention the time they spent on it.
      Not yet it isn't. Jon thought so loudly Aliana was surprised the other handful of young channels couldn't hear it. "Then show me." Was all he said out loud, but the muscle on the right side of his jaw twitched with his annoyance. No one else seemed to have any more ability to see what was in front of their face than Sevrin. What Aliana really wanted to do was to show how to do it right, but that didn't seem to be in the nagers.
      As easily as slipping off a cliff, Lorin's field shifted. Why can't I move like that? She managed not to sigh.
      "What is that supposed to zlin?" Jon asked, obvious, to her at least, pain tracing his field.
      "Promise." It strengthened, but was as dull as dishwater. No, that wasn't right, at least dishwater had little interesting floating things in it. Hmmmm... Aliana thought, and added a few glimmers of brown, greasy leftovers to the bland field.
      "Aliana!" Jon snapped. She added the image of sheep's eyeball turning over to look at him from the murky depths. Aliana couldn't help it, the imagery was just too perfect.
      "Yes?" She asked, bracing herself for any possible request he might make. His face had turned a rather interesting shade of green.
      "Since you are so busy showing off, would you mind attempting the exercise?" His fingers were wrapped so tightly in his own tentacles they were turning white.
      As this was what she had expected, she managed to almost make the same speed as Lorin in projecting Gen. She tried to match the warmth of the newly risen sun, peeking out over the hills at home, with tendrils of even brighter heat lacing it, making a contrast to the background. "No, Aliana." Jon snapped, and she quivered, adding a little fillip of fear to the mix, trying to get it right. "Wrong way." His voice raised and then she saw him. His teeth were nearly bared and he was holding Lorin back by the shoulders. Frantically, she tried to return her field to neutral, but it was too slow.
      With a crash, Lorin got loose and fell on her. Aliana twisted her field about her arms, denying him purchase. His fingers dug in anyways. She yelped in the sudden pain and used that to armor herself. Lorin snarled, reaching to make the fifth contact point, even with the uneven laterals. Desperate, she struck out with her field. His eyes rolled up in his head and he crashed against her, instantly unconscious.
      No, not unconscious. His heart beat had stopped. Trying to remember all the things her fathers had said, she made the correct contacts and pushed a heavy wave of selyn at Lorin. Again and again. Finally his field responded, latching onto hers. Her breath sobbed in her throat as his heart started up again. A choked gasp ripped from his throat. He rolled off her and huddled into a ball. I wish I could do that. With a last effort, she managed to arrange her fields in some sort of order.
      Her stomach muscles quivered. Actually all of her was trying to. Slowly, she managed to sit up. Jon's eyes were blazing, despite his steady field. She turned away from him and wept, still holding the tightest rein she could on her nager so he couldn't zlin her reaction.
      After that she was never allowed to zlin or work in the group practice sessions. Jon said it was because she was too dangerous, but Aliana knew it was because she could never gain the kind of control channels here had to have.
      "Jarmin, wait." Mikhail finally caught up to him. "Running after her isn't going to do any good."
      "But ..." And then he clamped down on his nager in the so sickening way Mikhail remembered himself doing. His face turned to Tzer and he locked down even harder.
      "Stop a moment." He said softly, trying to overcome his own revulsion to the slick, glossy, bland field Jarmin was projecting. "Relax."
      "But ..." He repeated, his eyes only flicking across Mikhail to return to Tzer.
      "Stop it." Tzer rested his hand on Mikhail's shoulder. His fingers tightened slightly as Jarmin fought with himself. "Jarmin, please stop falling on your own sword." Tzer's voice trembled. "If you think you are doing the right thing, go the other way."
      Finally the man let loose some of the holds on his field, letting his frantic concern come to the fore. "Better." Tzer breathed, "Keep going."
      "All right." Jarmin ducked his head. It was a very tentative release, but far better than the iron hard rigidity he had been holding. "Better?"
      "Yes, much." Tzer's hand loosened some of its hold on Mikhail's shoulder. "Now, where do you think she went?"
      "Out there?" His field vibrated between control and release. Tzer's fingers dug in so hard they were about to leave bruises.
      "Do you have reason to believe she's going to keep going or hurt herself?" Mikhail asked, trying to get the poor man back on an even keel of some kind or another.
      "No" Finally Jarmin let go. "She'll be back here at least." Even if she never speaks with me again. was painfully clear. Tzer breathed a heavy sigh of relief and let loose his death grip on Mikhail.
      "She'll return to you, Jarmin." Mikhail tried to convince the man of that, even while not entirely sure of it himself. Aliana could be so incredibly difficult sometimes. "Be patient." For that was the one thing he knew Aliana needed as much as she needed selyn.
      "Only because I'm the only Donor here who could satisfy her at all." He mumbled and slowly walked back to what had to be his rooms.
      Mikhail rested his hand on Tzer's. "There goes a man truly hag ridden, my love." He twined his fingers with his partner's.
      "By Aliana?" Tzer asked, but there was no true question to it.
      "No, by the demons of his own making." He sighed, realizing they had a long night ahead of them. "Keep an ear out for him will you? I'm afraid he's likely to do something stupid if Aliana doesn't show up."
      For a moment, Jarmin contemplated going to Jon and unburdening himself on his friend. He won't be a friend long with me in this state. He eyed the half empty bottle. The amber liquid made a mockery of the last golden light trickling through the narrow window at the head of his bed. His head swam, but at least it no longer hurt. And even though his heart did, he barely cared at this point.
      Aliana hadn't returned, even though it had been hours since the end of the lecture. Jarmin's teeth clicked against the neck of the bottle as someone knocked on the door. He took a quick swig and hid it with the empty. "Come in." Jarmin didn't trust his ability to walk at all by this point.
      "Where ... Faugh." Jon pulled back from the open door. "What's with the paint thinner?"
      "Stains." On my soul. Jarmin folded his feet up under him on the bed. "If you are zlinning for Aliana, she isn't here." Obviously not, or I wouldn't be drunk at all. With the practice of many years, he kept the swaying of his body from impacting his field.
      "I can zlin that, unless you have her under your bed?" He looked down, right at where Jarmin had hoped his little peccadillo would be missed. "Jarmin?" Jon looked at him, frowning. Jarmin looked down at his lined hands, only now regaining their string callouses.
      "Yes?" He finally looked up. "Is there something wrong?" He dared the man to say anything, letting his field twine uneasily under the channel's attention.
      "No, no." He shook his head. "I, well, Aliana missed dinner, and you know how unusual that is. I had thought she would be here with you."
      "I doubt if I will ever see her again except for our remaining transfer." Her refusal to help him even possibly meet her future demands ripped through him like a knife, despite all the anaesthetic. I want another drink. He looked at the worn handle of the door pointedly.
      "Did you have a fight?" And then Jon answered his own question, "Obviously not, as you are still very much alive. Let me know if you see her."
      "I will." Jarmin snorted despite himself. Jon let himself back out.
      I wish he had stayed. Jarmin thought as he eyed the bottom of the second bottle. Unwilling to chance getting up and possibly ruining what little pain relief he had already achieved, Jarmin sat in the dark and waited.
      He fished around in his bag, hoping against knowledge there were another bottle in there. Then his hand found the cool, rough hilt of the knife he had been carrying around for years. "Maybe tonight." He told it, letting his fingers wrap around the hilt lovingly.

Chapter 8

      Timidly, Aliana scratched at the door. "Come in." His voice was harsh and scratchy. She stepped into absolute darkness. A small puddle of light spilled at her feet. "Close the door after you." Jarmin growled. Then the smell of alcohol hit her nose. She didn't recognize the flavoring, but to her more sensitive Sime nose, it was overpowering. "If it's Tzer coming to tell me to stop drinking, go away." A mushy, but strong, field blow smashed her into the door. She whimpered and tried to hide her arms behind her back.
      Blindly, she fumbled for the door handle. Gen hands grabbed her shoulders. "Aliana" He gasped, "Oh shen, I'm sorry." His field twisted madly, making her dizzy and disoriented.
      "Stop it, Jarmin." Her stomach tried to revolt at the sickening sensations overwhelming her. "Please." This only made it worse, finally he stumbled and fell to one knee. The pain overrode everything else and she could get her self back under control. "Jarmin, sweet." She knelt with him, trying to think of where everything was in his room.
      "Aliana." He sobbed, collapsing over his knees. "Not like this."
      "Hey, easy." She caressed his short hair, feeling its curls twine about her fingers. "I came to apologize for storming out on you."
      "You don't have to apologize to me, I'm just a Gen." The self-pity in his nager twisted with a self-hatred that cut like knives. "You're a person." He whispered.
      "And I'm just a young Sime." She tried to draw him out, frantically worried about him. Aliana knew his sense of self was incredibly fragile, but this was like trying to zlin through shards of glass.
      "But you're worth something." He snarled, suddenly rising from his knees to tower over her. Hammer blows of pain struck at her still too defenseless self and she writhed beneath his anger. *Help me!* She cried out in her mind. "I'm so much food."
      *Aliana!* Tzer screamed in her mind. Suddenly he was there, crouched over her. Blue light split the darkness, showing Jarmin's hands bearing a knife.
      "NO!" She grabbed for it, cutting her hand to the bone on the blade in her haste to get it away from him. This is why he's so unwontedly aggressive. Pain shattered the hold Jarmin had on her. Still desperate, she ripped it out of his grasp and threw it to sink into the wall, hilt deep. "You can't."
      "You were gone." His voice shook. "The only channel to ever want me."
      "That isn't enough to pin a relationship on." Tzer's face was lit by the light covering his hands as he tried to get the wound to close up. It made a strange mask of light and shadow, showing how very alien some of the Fatima Lords could be.
      "Your hand." He gasped, kneeling with them. "Aliana, how?" His hands wrapped around hers.
      "The knife." As if a key had clicked into a lock, his field called to her with renewed force.
      "I didn't mean for anyone else to be hurt."
      "Like Jon? Like Hana?" She asked, trying to reach for him as well as his field. "Like me?"
      "Like me?" Tzer asked, hands bloody and black in the blue light. "Like Mikhail? Do you think we wouldn't have been hurt, thinking it was our words which drove you to suicide?"
      "I didn't think." Then the self-hatred returned with crushing force, making Tzer hiss. Aliana was too well shielded by her own physical pain, but she still tried to go to him. Tzer's hands clenched on her wounded one. "I never think." Now his anger was turned inward, burning him up from the inside. Her pain turned inward as well as she couldn't manage to reach through her own to help him.
      "Stop" Mikhail grasped the fields in a way Aliana had never before felt. It was as if someone had frozen her limbs and field in ice. Even Jarmin froze, staring at the scene now back lit by the light from the hallway. Someone hit the room lights and Aliana could see Jarmin's lined face drawn into a horror mask of agony.
      "No, Jarmin." She tried to get to her feet. Go to him. Anything. "No. I don't know if I love you, I'm too young, but someday." All she wanted was time. A little bit of it.
      He barked a short bitter laugh, "You weren't even willing to try."
      "Yes I am." But not like this, not under duress. "I want you Jarmin, but I don't know how much. I can't. Give me time." She pleaded, wanting only to be sure. "I've failed at everything I've tried so far, I don't want to fail you too, again and again."
      *I heard you, sister mine.* Tzer sighed. "Jarmin, you're drunk out of your mind and upset. Aliana is young, very young by our standards. Wait a year, two, things will work out or not."
      "I can't." He wailed, pulling at his hair. Her heart went out to him again, he had been trying so very hard to do anything he could to please her. "They'll send me away, make it so I never see her again. She'll go back with you. Something."
      "Jarmin, hush." Mikhail said softly. "Believe me, I do understand and I wield far more leverage now than I ever did before. If something happens to Vayer, Allah forfend, my ass is the next on the throne of Russia."
      The reference to Allah reminded Aliana of her own neglect, even though her faith had never been as strong as many of the rest of her family. *Don't worry about it, Allah doesn't.* Tzer's voice came to her, as if he were speaking out loud.
      "You!" Jarmin sat down heavily. "Not Aliana?"
      The spinning in her head suddenly got worse. "I think I'm going to be sick." she whispered, torn too badly between Jarmin's raging field and her own desperation.
      "Easy, sister mine." Mikhail knelt down and wrapped his nager around her protectively. It helped some, but still. "You're a bit shocky. Rest a moment." His hand was cool against her forehead. "But to answer your question, Jarmin's, yes. The throne, in case of accident, goes to the strongest fighter alive, usually a Gen."
      "A Gen can't fight a Sime." His voice trembled and she gaped at his expression of disbelief.
      "Hardly, Jarmin." She shook her head. "You almost clobbered me, quite by accident I would guess, as I came through the door." Her insides were still trembling, even with Mikhail's support. What she wanted was Jarmin's so sweet kindness, not the overwhelming force of her brother-in-law.
      "But it was the knife which hurt you." He looked down at her hand, finally finishing its healing.
      "Only externally." She took a deep breath and sat up straighter. Mikhail's field slowly retreated. "Come to me, Jarmin." Her hand shook like a leaf as she held it out. "Please."
      "I can't." His attention turned away. "I'm not, well, I won't be ..."
      "Stop, Jarmin." Mikhail said softly. "Stop and think."
      "I meant to say, I don't know if I can be here for you." His breath caught. "If I could."
      "Take what you can get while you can, Jarmin, wait for tomorrow's trials and don't borrow against them." Tzer said, sounding far more like an old man than Aliana ever remembered, although she hadn't spent anywhere near as much time with him after he matured as before.
      "I'll try." His hand finally reached out and caught hers. The cool, solid touch of his fingers was like a lifeline back to the Jarmin she had known before. His incredible sweetness finally glimmered through his own self denial. She pulled his hand to her face, wanting to rub against it like a cat. To taste his presence, even drunk and suicidal.
      "Even though I also recommend you find someone you can truly talk to, Jarmin." Mikhail said. "I'm not Diomid or Vanya Sergei, but I also do understand a great deal of what you must be going through. I had a lover, whom I lost for nearly two years before we were reunited, after barely three months together. It worked out. Please Jarmin, that is not an answer." He pointed to the knife in the wall. "If you truly wish to die, ask Tzer."
      "What?" Jarmin jumped, looking at her brother as if he had grown a second head. "I couldn't." He looked away, but no longer with the dark yearning which had been so very horrid. "I wouldn't want his death on my conscience as well."
      "I'm already junct." Tzer said plainly. "I wouldn't like it, but if you came to me, and asked me honestly for peace, and after we talked it over, I would give it to you if you still wished for it." His voice was rock solid, as was his nager. "It would not be something I would enjoy, but I would be honor bound to fulfill your honest desire for death, if you truly wished for it."
      "Have you?" Jarmin asked, his voice trembling with feelings Aliana prayed had no relationship to eagerness. His field was in such turmoil, she couldn't tell.
      "I'm sorry, I'm not usually this forgetful, there's a bathroom down the hall where we can all get washed up." Jarmin figured Aliana and Tzer must be about to go out of their minds with the heavy copper smell of old blood in the air. Even through his remaining alcohol inducted numbness, he could smell it.
      Tzer's offer had threatened everything Jarmin had ever known to be right and whole with the world. It was as if a serpent, even more seductive than drink, had smiled at him and promised him Aliana's eternal devotion. His breath rattled in his lungs as he thought about it. No He decided, feeling Aliana's silken skin against his benumbed fingers. She is right, there are people who would miss me.
      "You're also still quite drunk, Jarmin." Mikhail fixed him with one of those stares. "How often do you do this?" His eyes flicked guiltily towards the knife. "Not that, the drinking."
      "Often enough." He looked down at his hands. "Usually after transfer though."
      "So you're burying your post reaction in alcohol, not good." Tzer chided. He started the automatic denial of such things and then let his head drop forward. His hand still held Aliana's, despite his wanting to clench it. "Jarmin, you are a mess."
      It won't matter after they send me away from Aliana. He looked straight into Tzer's silver eyes again, bravely. After she is gone, I'll find you then. Jarmin promised himself. "After I get my things in order." He whispered silently and Tzer's eyes held only warmth and pity. Tzer nodded, his eyes flicking closed and accepting the charge with a bravery Jarmin had never before seen in anyone.
      "You don't look at me, Jarmin." Mikhail's voice made his heart pound as he realized the truth of the statement. You don't hold the key to my cage. He acknowledged to himself ruefully.
      "Because you are what I am not and never can be." This time he did look Mikhail in the eyes and felt himself dragged into their depths.
      "Yes, I was a crippled and hamstrung as you are. I had the help of unlooked for friends and the courage to finally say no more to being a second class citizen." Mikhail's lips twitched into a grin. "I actually threatened to kill Sectuib Kaon, my sister, when I finally broke out of my cage. You hold the key, it's your choice." The echoing of Jarmin's thoughts in such a different context set him back.
      Jarmin cringed. "Kill, don't you mean murder?"
      "No, I was going to kill her. I was within a day of transfer and I could have done it way too easily if Tzer hadn't pulled me off." Mikhail clasped Tzer's hand and Tzer's tentacles bound them together. "Gens can kill, don't let the Techton fool you. A renGen can kill almost any channel alive. The only ones who are safe, are those who are so strong, they can keep the Gen at bay physically. Think about it."
      "I will." He took a deep breath. "Why don't we get cleaned up?" Still he didn't trust Aliana's reaction enough to pull her the rest of the way to him.
      "You two have to talk, before transfer." Mikhail stood and Tzer stood with him, so perfectly together they moved as one person. "This is what can be." He raised their bound hands. They left.
      "Aliana?" He asked softly after they returned to his room, at least cleaner than when they had started. "Why did you do it?"
      "Afraid." Her cheeks flushed with an incipient blush. "I don't want to get swallowed up again."
      "But the Techton has swallowed up thousands of lives, and will continue to do so for as long as it exists." He thought of his own betrayed loyalties. The way every time he got to know a channel, they pulled them apart again. The way they had lied and manipulated him over the years, so clearly shown by Mikhail's incredible strength, a strength he had never before seen in any Gen. "Why do you want it to take yours as well?"
      "Because it doesn't manipulate and lie, Jarmin." Her midnight dark eyes turned to him in sorrow. "At least the Techton is straightforward. It doesn't care." This answer chilled him down to the bone.
      "You don't want caring?" He clasped at her hand, tracing the fine scar now marring her smooth palm.
      "Not the kind that destroys everything it touches." Her hand clamped on his. "I want some choice in my life, even if it's only my own destruction."
      This time Jarmin stopped himself before he opened his mouth and thought. "Aliana, think. Do you really mean to say you want to chose your own path to destruction? What of those who care for you?"
      "You heard how much Mikhail doesn't want the throne." Her voice turned harsh and aggressive again. Maybe it was bottled courage, but this time he held her and simply stroked her fine black hair, no longer listening. She struggled against him at first, but when it never even neared augmented strength, he smiled sadly and continued to stroke her back.
      "Better?" He asked when she was done.
      "Yes, much." She buried her face against his chest. "I get so out of control sometimes." Her face burned with her blushes. "I'm afraid I'm not very adult yet."
      "I'd be surprised if you were." He forced a chuckle into his voice. "Even though I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave soon."
      "Why?" She looked up at him, her face blotchy with unshed tears beneath her now dark tan.
      "Because after all this emotional turmoil, I'm going to have to unwind some or I'm going to be very sick." He really didn't want to expose this little one to the unwonderful experience of the usual result of one of his alcoholic binges. Already he could feel it threatening to overcome his iron control.
      "Why did you do it?" She waved to the bottles on the floor.
      "Afraid." He closed his eyes, trying not to let the room's swooping send him over the edge. "Aliana, please."
      "No, not this time." Her eyes turned glass hard as they bore into his. "Not again, either."
      "Go" He demanded, holding back from running to the door himself only by force of will.
      "Oh you poor man." She got up quickly and opened the door. He bolted for it.
      Aliana rinsed out a washcloth and wiped Jarmin's sweating face. "You should have gone." He looked up at her, face dead white, except where it was tinged with green.
      "I made that mistake once today." She wiped off the back of his neck. "Acting like an idiot the same way, twice in the same day, is even a bit much for me." Even though she had to be careful not to touch his skin or his field, being able to care for him in some way was almost a relief. "Come now."
      "I would never say you're stupid." He leaned back against the tiled wall. "You would think I would learn."
      "Are you always this sick afterwards?" She looked into his horribly bloodshot eyes.
      "Usually, yes. Unless I fall asleep first, then it's when I wake up." His wry grin tugged at her heart. "I'm not a very good drunk."
      "Then stop drinking." She told him, caressing his face with the damp cloth.
      "I start and then I can't stop." He closed his eyes and sighed. "Usually there isn't anyone around to witness it though. Most Donors are pretty much ignored for a few days after transfer.
      "Not recently." She grinned at him, wishing there were some way she could fix it. Whatever 'it' was.
      "No, not since I met you." He sighed. "Maybe that's why I overreacted to today so badly."
      "Could be." But she really didn't think so. "Why don't we get you back to bed? These tiles are a bit cold." His color was slowly returning. Gently, she traced the side of his face with a tentacle. He turned to it like a flower seeking the sun. It was the first time he responded so naturally and openly to her. The sensation sent little shivers of warmth up her arms. "Feels good." She breathed, smiling at him encouragingly.
      "I don't know if I want to go back." His return smile trembled. "You're here."
      "I'll be with you." For as long as I can. She promised. "Remember, channels are allowed to sleep with their Donors after turnover." Of course this whole thing is compounded by the fact Jarmin doesn't get to sleep with his partners before turnover for fear he will get attached to someone. Aliana thought. Well, he's already good and attached to me, so no use in fighting the tide now.

Chapter 9

      Jarmin woke to the wildly unfamiliar sensation of a Sime wrapped entirely around his body. Not only a Sime, but his Sime. Vaguely, he remembered Aliana washing him off last night, removing the last traces of his sickness and then pouring him into bed, but not the fact she had removed both their clothes.
      The silky feel of skin on skin made him want to purr forever and never get up. Not thinking about it, he pressed back against her, wallowing in the sensation of being wanted. "Feels good." She purred, stroking his side gently. The heat of her body baked out the last of his aches from overindulgence.
      His brain started working and he looked at the wall. The knife was gone. Looking around, he finally spotted it on the small table next to the big chair where he normally read. "Mikhail and Tzer must have cleaned up in here while we were in the bathroom." She murmured in his ear, in response to the unspoken questions rattling around in his mind like so many dried peas. "They left a note."
      "And it said?" He really didn't want to get up. Having her so close was too wonderful to give up.
      "That we were to sleep ourselves out and when we woke, give them a call." She chuckled softly. "Much as I hate to admit it, I'm rather secretly glad they are going to be taking over for Jon in our training this week."
      "Our?" Excitement tried to make his voice quiver.
      "You sound thrilled about it." She sounded more than a bit dubious. "I came here to learn the Techton way."
      "Then why are you glad at all about your brothers helping you?" He was so relaxed it seemed he couldn't manage to keep control of his tongue. He bit at it, regretting his words immediately.
      "Because I'm not doing very well, Jarmin." She sighed heavily, burying her face against his neck. "Has Jon told you anything about it?"
      "Jon doesn't gossip." He tried to cheer her with a chuckle. "The note he sent me on the train was, 'Come here. I have someone I want you to meet. She's different.' end note."
      "And you went with so little to go on?" The question in her voice was dubious.
      "It was better than simply a date, time and name." He shrugged. "At least I knew gender and Jon." Sometimes they simply sent him where they thought he would become useful, that was even worse. In those cases he often ended up staring at the walls for days on end while someone higher up tried to figure out what they were going to do with him. "It isn't my place to question these things."
      "Have you ever thought of quitting?" She made it sound like such an ordinary question.
      "Why do you think I had the knife?" His mouth ran away with him again and he cringed in anticipation of her reaction. But she only kissed the back of his neck gently and sighed. The unfamiliar sensations from her nearness were teasing him to do something, but he couldn't quite place what. "Neither of us are post." He whispered, trying to figure out why she was doing this.
      "No, but we will be in hard need together and hopefully have transfer." Her breath was warm against his neck. "I would like to get to know you a bit beforehand, this time." The reminder of his own awkwardness for her first transfer stung.
      "Sorry again about being so clumsy last time." He blushed, not only for his words but the way his body seemed to be reacting to her touch. Jarmin had to swallow heavily as he mouth watered for some strange reason.
      "Neither of us really knew." She licked at him again and he shivered with how much this made him ache inside for transfer. "Lets be sure this time."
      Aliana was more relieved than she wanted to think about Jarmin had been distractable from his pursuit on her inadequacies. Then he nailed them right in the black. "What kind of problems have you had in your training?" he caught her hand in his.
      It all spilled out; her ponderousness when unprepared, the attack on Lorin, even her absolute barring from contact with the general class donors.
      "They what?" Jarmin writhed around in her grasp until he was looking her in the eyes.
      "My classmates, those the same age since changeover, have already either worked with the more steady GN's or actually accepted donations." She couldn't meet his eyes. "I've been barred from the GN's until further notice."
      "What happened?" His hand was gentle on the side of her face, not asking her to look at him, simply caring as only Jarmin could do.
      "I broke one too many of the rules I don't understand." She finally looked up, despite her fear of finding the same disgust and rejection on Jarmin's face Jon had shown. But he only looked at her kindly.
      Her lower lip ached from where she had been chewing on it in her newfound bad habit to try to shut away some of her own distress. Gently, he pulled it away from her teeth and kissed it. "Go on." He breathed, absolute acceptance in each syllable.
      "I didn't mean to do wrong." Her voice trembled, even to her own hearing. "Only, the man, GN I suppose I should say, looked and zlinned so nervous I couldn't let him stay like that. Very slowly, so I could make sure he didn't react badly, I let my field show need. Not the frantic need of desperation, but the simple cool, welcoming darkness I would show any Gen." Aliana's voice cracked.
      "Go on, sweet." His voice was soft and low. "I won't mock you."
      "Thank you." She took a deep breath. "Well, at first he sort of looked around, as if he were confused. His nager zlinned unafraid though. He never did zlin fear. The instant he responded to me though, Jon yanked me hypoconcious so fast if felt like my head was splitting. The GN fled.
      "Jon said I shouldn't have tried to influence a Gen to donate against his will." Her heart was pounding again at the rejection and anger Jon had thrown in her face. "But the man, I mean, well, I didn't mean to coerce him, only show him something good." Her lip was quivering again and she bit at it, this time with the salty copper taste of blood filling her mouth.
      "Easy love." Jarmin clutched at her, body and field both. "I believe you. Truly I do." He kissed her bitten lip again, this time his field calling at hers to heal her body. "You did nothing wrong by your standards."
      "Then ... then I did by the Techton's." At first she wanted to deny it, but knew she had and still did hold to her goal of trying to become simply another channel in the machine of the Techton bureaucracy. "I'm going to do right, Jarmin."
      "You did, by any right thinking person's standards." His emphatic tone made her own eyes widen. "There should be nothing wrong in showing someone what they could gain."
      "But he was a renGen, they can't give direct transfer. Here, I should never have promised him any benefit to transfer. He'll never get it." Now she finally figured out what had been so wrong and she damned herself yet again. "I could have crippled that man for life. Promising him something he could never have."
      "You're right, Aliana." Jarmin sighed heavily. "If I, a first, can't get any satisfaction from transfer, certainly a general order donor shouldn't be allowed to dream of such things."
      "How can you say a thing like that. People are people, it doesn't matter what they're rank is. They still deserve the chance for ..." Her lower lip stung again as she bit off her words forcefully.
      "People deserve the chance for happiness, no matter what their station?" Jarmin asked, driving the nails home.
      "Yes" She admitted, mostly unwillingly. "At least in Russia, while the rens may not be free, they are at least happy."
      "From what you have said, neither are the nobles free." This, Aliana could not bring herself to disagree with anymore.
      "No, we're not." This she did admit, as well as the fact she still considered herself one of them.
      "Now, the first thing we are going to do, is try to get Jarmin up to speed so he can help you, Aliana, out after we leave." Tzer had been reluctant to go along with this whole scheme, ever since their father, Vayer had set it up. But fighting the decrees of Lord and Ruler Vayer when he was on a rant was not something he was going to start doing this late in his life. "If you would, Mikhail." He leaned back into the gentle, loving embrace of his partner.
      "I'll be doing most of the work, but I get the feeling I'm going to have to use Tzer's need for a bit of leverage." His field was already twining with Tzer's on the most intimate levels imaginable, then he sank even deeper into Tzer's presence. The wonderful sensations of their bonding made his entire body thrum with pleasure. It was like being a single entity, and that being, greater than the sum of its parts.
      "So I should concentrate on you?" Jarmin's heavily lined face was even more pale and drawn than it had been yesterday after the lecture. *Is this the best time?* Tzer asked Mikhail silently.
      *Yes, he's still off balance and ready to accept. If he were more tightly wrapped, I don't think I could lever myself in. He's old to be ascended this way.* Mikhail's reluctance to try something he had only been told of was painfully obvious to Tzer.
      "Yes, ignore the beautiful Sime in my lap." Mikhail chuckled softly. "Pay attention to your own."
      "I'm not beautiful, brother mine." Aliana's face was also far more drawn than Tzer would have ever imagined it could be. It was as if her time here had worn pain grooves in her skin and bone even deeper than Arkay's.
      It's hardly been four months. Then Tzer's mind ran in little tiny circles. Ins'Allah, fourth transfer, with Jarmin, if he doesn't reject her, she's going to rape him. He passed this message on to Mikhail in a panic.
      *I know it. I'm praying these two will finally wise up and flee before the end of the month. If they stay here, someone's going to end up badly hurt. If you have any thoughts on how to get them to fly free, tell me.* Mikhail's mind voice was almost incoherent with its franticness.
      *I'll try to think on it, but I'm not at my best this time of month.* He let Mikhail go to talk with the young couple for a moment, while he thought. Aliana's eyes caught his briefly.
      *Aliana* He sent, hoping she could still hear him while not stressed.
      *Yes?* Didn't come through quite in words, but more in the sense of a very shy ferret like creature peeking out from its den. With her nearly black eyes, the resemblance was stunning.
      *What are you planning on doing for your fourth transfer?* He sent, letting some of his own concern come through the link. *The Techton bred do not react as strongly as we do to it.* Then he did something he never thought he would do. He sent Aliana the entire nightmare account of what had happened to him at his own fourth. Mikhail gasped as he caught the fringes of it, and kissed him frantically, trying to soothe him. Aliana turned dead white and Tzer could zlin her field freeze and then crumple in a near faint.
      "What did you do to her?" Jarmin's eyes blazed in fury.
      "Now!" Mikhail barked. Automatically, Tzer backed him. Jarmin's eyes rolled up in his head and he did faint. Aliana caught him, her entire attention on her partner. "Lets get out of here." Mikhail whispered in his ear.
      They snuck off, leaving Jarmin to the cosseting of their sister. Tzer blinked, trying to bring back his own common sense. "What did you do?" He finally breathed.
      "I managed to feed everything through, patterns, ascension, and hopefully, the desire to leave." Mikhail's entire field trembled.
      "You had better sit for a moment." Tzer hustled him into a tiny nook hidden by trees and shrubbery. "We have a lecture in an hour and a half, and you have to be up for it." He let his mouth babble while he stroked and petted his love.
      Finally Mikhail took a deep breath and looked at him with a rather worn grin. "At least I don't have to show my face." His hand shook as he took Tzer's, then he began caressing Tzer's arms gently. The feel of his partner's loving hands was as wonderful now as it had been the first time, the day after his own first transfer.
      "I love you." Tzer purred, twining his tentacles gently about Mikhail's hands.
      "And I love you, my beautiful Tzer." Mikhail's smile was far more brilliant, than even the harsh sun here.
      "I don't think that was quite what they had in mind." Jarmin finally managed to get a word in between Aliana's frantic babbling. "I'm fine." I think. He stared around at the surreal landscape surrounding them. The feeling of people closing in on him, kept returning. "If we can get out of here." A sickly, twisting, nipping sensation clawed at him.
      "Easy, Jarmin." Aliana breathed. Her field wrapped around him, a web of black and silver between him and the world. Surprisingly, it was rather effective. "What do we do now?"
      Flee! A voice inside his mind pushed at him. He'd thought of it before, but now ... then he realized there was nothing holding either of them here. "Aliana, lets go, tonight." A bubble of excitement made him sit up straighter. "Neither of us are doing any good here."
      "Wait a minute." She stood with him as he scurried back to his room. "Hold on."
      "What, why?" He knew the grin on his face must be absolutely ridiculous, but he couldn't help it. "No one is expecting us until this evening, if then. Leave a note for your brothers, they'll understand." Jarmin wanted to dance with excitement.
      "What did Mikhail do to you?" Aliana turned his face to hers.
      "He gave me the key, don't you zlin?" He waved his arm at the birds in the tree, the brilliant sunlight, the clouds in the sky. "There isn't anything holding us here but ourselves."
      "What if I don't want to go?" Her lip trembled again. He kissed at it before she could bite it. "Jarmin, Mikhail set a construct in your mind to push you to bolt."
      "I don't care." He took her shoulders and looked into her dark eyes, the very image of night time sky. "Even if he did, what is so wrong with his suggestion. We could make it. No one would question a channel and Donor pair, particularly a pair of firsts."
      "But what about the Distecht?" Her brows knitted and her tentacles twined about and over his arms. "Won't we be suspected of being sympathizers?"
      "Not if we keep moving. I want to see more than the inside of one Center after another. Talk to people. See and zlin who and what they are and want." The idea was growing by leaps and bounds. "I want you at my side."
      "Why me, Jarmin?" Her tentacles clamped down. "If I work hard enough at it, I'm sure I can ..."
      "Can't you see, Aliana, it would destroy you?" He cupped her face in his hands. "Come with me, please. Don't give in to their destroying your heart." What Jarmin truly wanted to say, was 'I love you and want to live with you forever.' but knew now was not the time. In time it would be.
      Aliana didn't want to give up on becoming a Techton channel. Each time she tried, it felt like she was getting closer. She looked into his sable eyes. They were so full of hope and life after last night, she didn't know what to do. The last thing she wanted to do was destroy his new, and most likely very fragile, courage. What she wanted was to be like others, to not stand out, Jarmin's (or Mikhail's, she told herself) wild idea would ...
      A smile crossed her face. If we flee the Techton, then we'll have to be invisible to society. She realized finally, putting it all together. "We won't be able to stay long in any one place for another reason. As soon as people figure out we aren't in transit to another Center, they'll start talking and eventually the Techton will catch up with us."
      "This makes you smile." He caressed her face with his thumbs, chuckling softly. "I knew you didn't want to stay behind."
      "I couldn't let you go." Which was true, as far as it went. She liked Jarmin, a lot. He was the best friend she had ever had. The only thing she hoped, was it wasn't simply because he was her first. Because of that, there was no way Aliana could trust her feelings where he was concerned.
      "Jarmin, I think we should be more prepared than this." There was something Aliana was forgetting and she couldn't think of what. "Let's see, we have my guitar, all our money, we'll have to get clothes and better shoes, what else?"
      His eyes widened as he stared at her. "Selyn."
      Aliana's stomach clenched. "Are you sure? That's theft."
      "The batteries aren't tightly controlled. Many of the ones used here leak horribly. No one cares." He rattled on. "Please, I know I can support you, but I want some back up." Then he flushed, "I'm new to sensing fields, so forgive me if I guess wrong, but I would guess you are no more than ten or twenty percent capacity in your secondary."
      "They've been keeping me fairly low." She grimaced. "After my little explanation, mostly from guess and conjecture, of how to do a splice transfer, Jon hasn't let me get any higher. He said it was a bad example. One of my classmates is a high second with a low second Donor lover. They managed it, barely. His lover was burned quite badly in the attempt."
      "But not killed." Jarmin fumed. "She knew the risk. Who is Jon to say she can't take it?"
      "Safety of all Donors comes first and foremost." Aliana quoted the applicable regulations. She still didn't understand them, but figured some day she would. If they both survived this little excursion. Maybe getting out and seeing more people would explain the whole thing to her.
      "Your safety matters to me, over any regulations." His warm, sweet field promised her things she didn't quite understand yet, but knew were important. "I would like you to be at least at half."
      "So this month ..." She trailed off, thinking of the horrible image Tzer had shown her.
      "So this month we can play it safe." He smiled, warming his field even more. "I want to stretch my abilities, but not to the point where you go short."
      "But my explanation wasn't very good. She got burned." Aliana tried to convince him there was a very real danger there. "My classmate had anti-kill. I don't. I could kill you."
      "So could a train." For the first time he leaned on her with his field the way Mikhail could and she realized this was the strength of all Sharm Lords. Mikhail had ascended Jarmin. Her eyes widened as she stroked his forearms.
      "So could you kill me." She breathed, watching his eyes widen. "Yes, one of the things Mikhail showed you was how to kill. I think we should also talk with them again before we leave. There are too many things we both have to learn how to do before we're on our own."
      "Tonight though." His eyes bore into hers with a determination that was irresistible.
      "Yes, tonight."

Chapter 10

      Stripping selyn out of the many batteries was merely annoying and disgusting. Who was the sadist who created these shenned things. She eyed the next in line and then tried to determine how much she had stolen. No more than a bit out of each, so as to not surprise anyone, then she came to the last.
      It was leaking like a broken backed Gen. Selyn trickled out to sink into the poured stone floor. What a waste. She realized it would have all been gone by morning.
      Talk about pouring money away. The relationship between cash and selyn was not as explicit here as at home, but the entire economy here rode on the stuff. I wonder if they reason they don't go to an explicit selyn standard is they are trying to fool themselves into ignoring the relationship. No one here seemed to have the faintest hold on economics at all.
      Being born to Fatima, Aliana had been hearing economic theory since she was literally in her cradle. Vayer and Darya would use the subject for their flirting. Here it seemed to be a dirty little secret. Before she could let more money trickle away, she leaned over and gingerly set herself to make the contacts. Some of these batteries were so old and worn they could give a nasty shock, so she very carefully made sure of her fifth contact before setting her laterals at precisely the same time.
      Good enough. She managed to get to nearly eighty percent in her secondary. Then she zlinned another, smaller, leaking battery. How many of these things are there? After a bit of fiddling and shifting around of selyn, Aliana finally managed to even overfill her secondary while at the same time, leaving all the intact batteries where she had found them.
      Jarmin paced the room nervously. He had originally wanted to be with Aliana while she was messing around with the batteries, but she had dissuaded him by telling him he had to talk with Mikhail alone for a bit. Now he was waiting, not particularly patiently.
      Giving up on trying to wear out the tiles, Jarmin slipped Aliana's guitar out of its case and tuned it. Soon he was wrapped up in the intricate melody line of one of the songs she had taught him. His own Russian had almost improved to the point where he could actually understand the lyrics of most of the songs.
      This one, the latest she had taught him, was about the remaining half of a bonded pair. She was talking about the good times she had with her love and how she looked forward to returning to her at the end of the month. It was only after Tzer's offer, did Jarmin realize the woman in the song was looking forward to her suicide.
      "Such a sad song, as are so many of ours." Mikhail said quietly, sitting at Jarmin's feet.
      "Ours?" Jarmin asked, a bit surprised at how close Mikhail had sat, leaning almost against Jarmin's knee.
      "I am not of the West anymore." Mikhail chuckled softly. "I am Sharm Lord Fatima, one of the rulers of Russia. It would not be appropriate for me to claim anything else." He rested his hand on Jarmin's knee, as if Jarmin were a Sime. "I've gotten used to touching. I'm sorry."
      "No" Jarmin held his hand close. "I've learned to like it, actually. At first it was a bit disturbing, but with practice, it isn't so bad."
      "I should tell you of the time Vayer ended up backing me into a corner so hard I nearly knocked down the tent we were sharing." Mikhail's field seemed to glitter and Jarmin had to focus his eyes to get the alluring sense of laughter not to make him giggle.
      "What happened?" Jarmin hoped verbal words would make his own senses settle. He was becoming more and more uneasy with the information it seemed Mikhail was showering all over the landscape.
      "Will you hold still!" Vayer made an almost hooking gesture with his hands. I had been trying to talk with him about how many people we were expecting to eat at our table tonight. Some how I had gotten tentacled into acting as Vayer's seneschal on the way to Moskva from Warsaw. Maybe it was because I was acting as his Sharm Lord, maybe it was simply because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, possibly it was simply another of his maneuvers to zlin how I would do as a partner for his son, Tzer.
      "I am." My jaw clenched as he stepped forward again. My scalp felt burning hot and my skin as if it were two sizes too small. "Now, how many people are going to be here?" The words must have come out in a harsh grate.
      "What is wrong, Mikhail?" The tension rose again. I could feel the heat of his body and a cold sweat broke out on my forehead. I stepped back and took a deep breath.
      "Nothing, really." I spread my hands, trying to show my innocence. The effect must have been ruined by my sweaty palms. Honestly, I had no true idea what Vayer wanted from me. All my life I had been told to stay away from other men other than for transfer and we were both still a bit post. That the friendship we had already begun to weave was all there could ever be between men. Then I rubbed my own forearms with my hands.
      Now I know this gesture had been a major tactical error if I wanted to keep the distance between us, but then I had no idea what it would mean to Vayer. "Nothing?" His voice dropped to a soft, silky purr.
      My heart hammered in my throat. I knew what it meant when my voice dropped like that, but Vayer? Admittedly he was and is a fascinatingly beautiful man to look at, but of course, at the time, I thought could have no sexual interest in a man. On top of it all, he was and is a channel. I grabbed the insides of my elbows and managed to vaguely stammer something like, "Well, perhaps something."
      "Like?" His hand touched my face. Not the caress of a channel or even a Donor, but that of a lover. I'm afraid I squealed and jumped backwards like some sort of ninny.
      This was a disaster. The backs of my knees hit the edge of the large double cot we had been sharing. I fell over like all the wild stories people tell about clumsy Gens. The sudden shock of it made my nerves snap. Fear almost made me wet my pants as the image of Vayer leaping on me for a kill flashed through my mind.
      Even then I knew he was junct, but I didn't know how very differently these people treated the state yet. As soon as I managed to sit back up, huddled against the wall of the tent, I looked up at him. He was chuckling and shaking his head. "Oh, you poor youngling." He said, sitting on the edge of the cot. "I'm not going to attack you, for transfer or sex."
      "But, you keep, well, you keep touching me." I looked at the finely woven wool blanked I had clutched in my fists. The weaving was so fine, the very softness of the cloth made the palms of my hands sweat even more rather than scratching their itching for contact. "We aren't preparing for transfer." Shyness has always been a major failing of mine, but my confusion seemed to be working overtime to make me talk.
      "No, but don't you like to be touched." As if automatically, his hand stroked the bare arch of my foot. I pulled it back and his face fell. "I'm sorry, I won't if it bothers you."
      "I'm not used to it." Tentatively, I placed my foot back in his reach. Admittedly, I've never had the most attractive feet, unlike, say, Tzer. His, well, to me at least, everything about him is fascinating. Vayer then very softly, let a single tentacle trace over my foot. It was unusual, to say the least, and extremely arousing.
      I'm sorry to have to admit it now, but then, when my body reacted to the gesture, I shyed away from it. "What do you usually do for your post reaction?" Vayer's voice was sliding down to that inviting murmur again. I tried to shy away from that as well by putting on my best, 'I'm a professional Donor and nothing is going to disturb my reserve.' face and nager. This time Vayer pulled away and clenched his arms to his chest as if I had burned him.
      "Gens don't get post." The line rattled off my tongue in the way I had been trained to say for years. Then why are you resembling one, with another man at that? I had to ask my body in disgust. It had never gotten this excited about the other transfer partners I had had, even the women.
      "Oh?" One of Vayer's eyebrows rose and he looked down pointedly. "Then why are you so hard it's making my teeth ache?" Of course he wasn't helping my confusion at all, having gone back to stroking my foot with a concentration of a Sime attacking a Gen. I suppose in one way that was what he was doing, but not for my selyn.
      "Because you keep teasing me." I finally snapped. "Always touching me or standing next to me."
      "But we were like that before transfer." Vayer smiled, digging his fingers into the bones of both my feet now. He had captured them and was caressing them on his lap. It felt so damn good I would have said almost anything to get him to go on. "What is different now?"
      "Now you don't need me." This would have come out a lot more forceful if I hadn't been so dazed by Vayer's messing with my feet.
      "But what if I need more than the nageric from you, what about the sensual and physical?"
      I was stunned at this. I had never even thought of such a thing. Certainly I had messed around some with a few of my classmates, here at Rialite as a matter of fact, but nothing more serious than a bit of fumbling about in the dark, on both our parts. "Don't you have a partner?" I had heard him mention one.
      "Yes, but she isn't here now and you are." Vayer's grin was easy and unforced, not that of a man about to step out on his wife at all. "Darya is not the sort to condemn me for being with another while she is not here. Rather the opposite as a matter of fact, she would condemn me for not offering to comfort my partner and myself after transfer."
      "I appreciate the offer but ..."
      "Hush" Vayer's fingertips touched my lips gently. "I asked, you said no. I'm not going to pressure you." He shook his head sadly. "Our punishments for rape, but nageric and physical are some of our harshest." This I certainly found out later. The Russian punishment for a Sime rapist, and yes it can happen, is a metal ring through one of the lateral sheathes. It destroys all ability for normal transfer. Typically it is left in until death, which is anywhere from a year to three years after the ban is put on. For a Gen rapist, it is entombment with only access to food and water, again until death.
      "What I would like to know though, is why you keep running away from me?" Vayer asked gently, his knuckles digging in to the bottoms of my feet.
      I was so relaxed now I could hardly keep any kind of control over my tongue. "I wasn't really thinking about it. Maybe it's because I associate touching with either transfer or sex."
      Vayer chuckled softly again. "I could have guessed that." He nodded downwards again, grinning. "You've been reacting that way ever since our transfer."
      "Even in the middle of the night?" I could feel my face burn I was blushing so hard. "What have I been doing in my sleep?"
      "Either thrashing about with nightmares or getting very friendly with the blankets."
      I was absolutely mortified. I thought I had been a bit more discreet with removing the evidence of my occasional lapses of self control in the middle of the night.
      "You poor youngling." Vayer said again. "Touch is simply a way to make a friend or lover feel better. It doesn't mean I, or anyone else, is going rape you. And I'm certainly not going to condemn you for a perfectly normal human reaction. I'm as male as you are, Mikhail." This did not sit well with me at all, at the time. The reminder was jarring and almost painful at that very moment. "We, my people, I think, touch a great deal more than yours."
      "Does this mean once I get used to it I'll stop reacting so blatantly?" I was looking for any kind of exit out of this far too intimate conversation. Admittedly, in some ways, it was better talking about it with another man, with a woman I think I would have been shamed into incoherence. "It's embarrassing."
      "Mikhail, you are a normal, healthy, young male." Vayer shook his head again. "If you didn't get aroused easily I would be very worried about you. When I was your age, I had to be very careful of the occasional strong breeze or bare ankle."
      "Then it does go away?"
      "More or less." He smiled softly. "Don't worry so much about it. Relax. No one will pressure you."
      "But you all stand so close." The tightness had returned to my skin as I thought about it. "It's like I can't breathe."
      "Different cultures, Mikhail, or should I say Mikal." He sighed. "I can zlin it when you tense up because you are feeling trapped, but I want to get close to you to comfort you. It is the way I am wired."
      "And I'm wired to get away. To put distance between us." I chuckled finally and shook my head. "You must feel like you are having to shout across the room when you try to talk to me."
      "And you must feel like we are trying to crawl all over you." He grinned back.
      "Yes, exactly." I put my hand over his. "Or worse, my body reacts and then I feel as though I have to get away so no one else will know."
      Vayer laughed kindly. "We all know, it isn't like we can't zlin or sense it. It is simply considered the ultimate in bad manners to say anything about it unless you do so first."
      "So, even if I were naked and, well, rampant, no one would say anything?"
      "No, no one who had any manners would." He grinned back at me. "Particularly anyone male. We've all been there, Mikhail."
      "The great male conspiracy, huh?" I chuckled, thinking how silly this would probably all seem in a number of years.
      "Not really a conspiracy, more a matter of self defense. Most of us, no matter how old we get, still can be a bit, well, unpresentable at inappropriate times." His tentacles twined with my fingers, holding them tight. "Enjoy what you wish, be it a simple touch or something more. Letting someone touch you doesn't mean you have to let them do anything more."
      "But I don't want to lead someone on."
      "Then you won't." Vayer said forcefully. "You explained your desires to me quite clearly. I would not try to change your mind or force you into anything, even if I succeeded, it would be so close to rape, morally and ethically, if not legally, I would be horrified. If I really, really had to find some kind of release, my hands are not broken, nor are the services of the professionals in this army that expensive."
      I blushed so hard I thought my hair was going to smoulder. I must have gaped like a landed fish. "Uh, um, gah."
      "Oh dear." Vayer reached up and brushed tears of laughter from his eyes. "I take it such things are not talked about where you come from?"
      "No" I finally managed to choke out. "Hands? Professionals?"
      "Ins'Allah." Vayer shook his head and looked at me very strangely. I had already learned he used that term when he was looking for strength or at least some sort of confirmation. I was in trouble, and must have blushed even more furiously. "Hands, yes, those things on the ends of your arms. I take it you've never ... Oh dear." Now he blushed.
      "I have no real idea what you are talking about." And I wasn't really sure I wanted to know. This all sounded incredibly perverted to me.
      "Come with me, my young friend." Vayer suddenly stood and brought me to my feet. "Sime and female, I would guess?"
      "Uh, yes, if you are thinking about what I think you are." My mind was running in little tiny circles and going nowhere extremely fast. He was. The woman's name was Yarie and she was an absolute delight. I have no idea how Vayer knew of her, and didn't want to know, since, as he said later, he had no taste for Simes in his bed at all, but she showed me more than a few things that night.
      It was definitely an eye opening experience. Her hands were very skilled as was the rest of her lithe body. I think, in some ways, that was my introduction to the true boundaries of my self. Yarie showed me the entire range of touch, from the most intimate possible to the least. I leaned to touch and be touched and how to deal with physical intimacy in a way I couldn't with someone I was emotionally closer to.
      Jarmin realized he was probably blushing as furiously as Mikhail must have been. "I know there are women who make their living in that fashion, but they do it out of necessity and not desire."
      "It wouldn't work with someone like you or I, Jarmin." Mikhail winked. "Yarie was definitely post and in one of our lulls, she explained it to me. She, and the others who work in that, well, profession short cycle as a part of their trade. Both the Simes and the Gens. They are quite well paid for their work, many of them being freeholders and not of the Demense, they are so well paid. And there were quite a few men who work in that profession as well."
      "What?" Jarmin blinked in surprise. "I wouldn't think women would have to pay for such a thing."
      "It can be very pleasant." Mikhail said. "Very much like not having to worry at all in transfer but having one's partner completely focused on your satisfaction and not their own. At home, Gens are very much in the place of women here. They are expected to be far more domestic and family oriented than Simes. As women here are expected to be more family oriented."
      "That must have been a surprise for you." Jarmin's thoughts were still scurrying around trying to make sense out of all the things Mikhail had said.
      "Yes and no." He grinned. "I'm still a lousy tailor and my embroidery would make a renSime laugh, but Tzer puts up with me anyways. No one's perfect, Jarmin."
      "But you do well enough?" He asked.
      "We compromise." Mikhail's smile was gentle.

Chapter 11

      The scene was so homelike, Aliana's throat tightened. Mikhail was sitting, leaning against Jarmin's knee while Jarmin held a musical instrument in his lap. She could almost see Jarmin in the jeweled and embroidered kador of a Sharm Lord before she stopped herself. I doubt if he wants to be so obviously in the posession of another.
      "Did you have a good time talking?" She asked innocently and had the amazing experience of seeing Jarmin blush furiously. He actually did it quite well, turning a rather astonishing shade of crimson before looking back up at her from Mikhail's rather odd glance at him. "I take it you were talking about things Simes shouldn't know."
      "Actually we were talking about men things." Now her brother blushed slightly, grinning up at Jarmin.
      "Yes, definitely." Jarmin blinked at her, and idly strummed a few chords. It was one of the songs he had taught her, about a Gen who was so down on his luck, he couldn't get laid in a whorehouse, drunk in a bar or killed in the Gen Army. She snickered as she sat down across from her brother.
      "Play, if you would. My curiosity is eating me alive." Mikhail said as he waved Tzer into the room. "I think I remember that tune, but not what is making Aliana so amused."
      "I know a variant." Jarmin said and then together, they sang the rather obscene song. By the end of it, both Mikhail and Tzer were also singing along on the choruses.
      "That is delightful." Mikhail laughed, holding Tzer in tightly. "I may have to translate it if I can. My voice is certainly not up to Russian standards."
      "Hush, neither is mine." Tzer chuckled ruefully. "Aliana was the one of us who got the voice."
      "As I was going to say, since I don't have an incredible voice, humorous or bawdy songs are a lot more suited to my abilities when it comes time to swapping songs." Mikhail's nose twitched.
      "They're pretty good for getting more than a handful of pins in the hat as well." Aliana sighed, thinking Mikhail was quite mistaken in his opinion of her abilities. "I can't make 'em cry like Sevrin does, so maybe if I make them laugh, they'll fill my hat anyways."
      "Hush." Tzer told her, his silver eyes narrowing. "You and Jarmin together are spectacular."
      "That's because he's good at the nageric work." She grinned wryly and felt Jarmin's reaction to the familiar gesture now almost swamp her. I had no idea he liked my grin so much. She looked up at him in wonder.
      "Ah, now I understand why you picked up what I had to teach you so easily." Mikhail told Jarmin. "Most Donors who are also true musicians, not just dabblers with music, learn field manipulations very, very easily. You do it automatically when you sing and play."
      "I don't know if I would call myself anything but a dilettante." Jarmin grimaced. "I love to play, but I'm not that good at it."
      "Skills are learned, Jarmin." Tzer said, leaning over to stroke Jarmin's leg as well. "Musicianship is of the heart."
      "What you are hearing with me, is a great deal of learning, Jarmin." Aliana smiled sadly. "I've never been all that outstanding." It had been one of the few things she had actually wished to be more than ordinary at.
      "Hush, sister mine." Tzer told her, taking her hand. For the first time she twined fingers and tentacles in the gesture of family. Certainly she had seen her many relatives do it, but it seemed oddly awkward at first until Tzer tightened down and drew their palms together. Even though the heavy callouses from bracers and sword training seemed odd after all the soft handed Simes she knew here.
      "As you say, brother mine." She tightened down as well, giving him a rather Sime only hug. This is where the gesture came from. Aliana could feel all the shifts and feelings trace through Tzer's nager with the greatest ease, as if he had opened himself up to her completely. "I love you, and despite all the hassle, thank you."
      "We have a few more goodies for you." His smile was kind. He knows. She shook her head at the foolishness of thinking to hide their running off from Rialite from half of the team who planted the idea in Jarmin's head. "Here." He pulled out a pair of bracers from the bag he had brought with him.
      Aliana's breath whistled between her teeth and she felt her eyes go huge. "For me?" She grinned so broadly it felt as if her face were going to crack. The one thing she had desperately regretted was not knowing how bracers were made so she could have a pair made for herself.
      "Who else, silly." Tzer clucked his tongue at her, in the familiar sound from childhood. "They're too short and wide for me."
      "Who did the fitting?" Her fingers traced over the metal guards lining the openings. They were engraved with the Mir crescent and star, and the midnight blue hand of Fatima had been inset into the backs in lapis.
      "They were actually fitted over Darya's arms and then Vayer had the sockets set to his measure." Tzer chuckled softly. "It was a challenge trying to guess how you would turn out. Chances are you would turn out with Vayer's slight offset to the rear on the ventrals, so we prayed really hard."
      "Actually I think I ended up with slightly less of an offset to the front and more to the outside." She turned her arms over and looked at them closely.
      "Arkay joined in the project and said that was a possibility." Mikhail grinned at her. "I hadn't known how complex those things were until everyone joined in with advice."
      "Only the open ones." She inspected the silky smooth leather and soft felt lining. All the catches seemed to be in the usual places. "Here goes."
      "Wait." Jarmin's field was quivering nervously and he set the guitar down on the bed. "You're going to put those things on your forearms." His eyes were huge and staring.
      "Of course." Aliana was confused. "That's what they're for."
      "They're not retainers." Mikhail chuckled. "Even though Rels thought they were."
      "Here, let me show you." Tzer said. *Thought you would like to zlin an example of how to get into these things.* From all the complaints Aliana had heard about getting into and out of bracers, she was very glad to have an example to follow.
      *Thank you.* She sent. Then she watched and zlinned carefully as Tzer pulled out his own black and silver bracers. They were even heavier than hers, and much, much longer.
      "It took me a bit to get used to them as well." Mikhail said. "Vayer has a pair of Talash half bracers for sand only, but those are hard to come by."
      "I could have used a pair this spring." Aliana grimaced, thinking of the spring sandstorms at Rialite.
      "The sand of the Southerners is far worse than here, from what Vayer says." Mikhail added. "This stuff is no where near as fine."
      "It gets into tentacle sheaths anyways." Aliana wrinkled up her nose. "Ick."
      "The powder fine sand of the south is worse." Tzer told her. "I haven't been there since change over, but I remember visiting Jaffa as a child and getting sand in everything."
      "Now, both of you, watch." Tzer reached in and released the cords the rest of the way. "I should have cleaned these better last time." He grimaced and Aliana could zlin the slight roughness where some grime had built up on the inside of the top releases.
      "I told you so." Mikhail twitted him. And then he reached in the front and held the bracers open as Tzer's fingers slid through. "It's a lot easier with your partner's help, Aliana."
      "I can see that." Jarmin was now watching attentively.
      Now able to zlin, Aliana could follow the intricate maneuvers of Tzer's tentacles as they set the primary catches at the back to clamp down as his hands met Mikhail's. Mikhail's fingers then caught the secondaries while Tzer twisted his wrists into the lateral pockets and let the bracers snap closed. The click of metal from the side bars was startlingly loud in the small room.
      "Like that." Tzer said, holding up his arms, letting the sides fall open to show how the laterals were both protected and still available for use. They closed up again, shielding Tzer from almost any threat short of a firearm.
      "Huh?" Jarmin eyed what had looked like the now defunct torture devices known as retainers. "Those don't look painful."
      "Only when they pinch or rub." Tzer grinned up at him. "This way I don't have to worry about a bit of glass or some idiot with a little stick trying to murder me." Even though to Jarmin's new senses, the way Tzer's field twisted about the metal on the sides was making the skin on his own arms crawl. "See." He held out his arm and Jarmin gingerly let his fingers wrap around Tzer's armored wrist. Tentacles snaked out around the forward lip and caught his hand. "I'm not at all defenseless now."
      "You win." Jarmin laughed. "How do you deal with the distortions in the fields."
      "Cope." Tzer shrugged. "I'm used to it. I've been wearing bracers like this since I became an adult. I feel naked going into a possibly threatening situation without them. The only reason I didn't wear them at the first lecture was so I would scare anyone into hysterics. I would have been much happier with them on."
      "No, I don't think many of the channels in the audience would have been very comfortable with you wearing your bracers." Jarmin concurred. "I would have been more than a bit disturbed."
      "Now you try." Mikhail pointed to Aliana's bracers.
      It didn't take long before Jarmin realized how fiendishly complex the simple looking things were. The web work of lines and catches inside the bracers wove and counterbalanced forces which didn't exist until a Sime's arms were inside them. The problem was getting those forces in place without catching anything.
      "This is worse than a too small athletic cup." Jarmin groused, thinking of all the times he had complained about such a thing. But finally, sweating and tired, they managed.
      Even though having his fingers all over Aliana's arms and hands had a number of other effects on him as well. Now he knew, intimately, her rather personal anatomy in a way he had never known any other Sime's. His own intil was rising with all the contact and he remembered Mikhail's story. Jarmin managed to reminded himself it was only touch before it could affect Aliana too much, he hoped.
      "I don't know how you all did it, but they are nearly perfect." She had the most incredible smile on her face, and surprisingly it was aimed at him.
      "I didn't do it, Aliana." He demurred, looking at Mikhail. "They did."
      "But you are the one who's been fondling me for the last hour." She blushed. "Sorry, you two."
      "It's fine, Aliana." Tzer chuckled. "I can understand getting confused by lust."
      "No, no." Jarmin looked away. "Not lust, just a bit of intil."
      "We don't call them different things, Jarmin. Lust is lust, whether it's for transfer or sex." Mikhail's grin was a bit off and Jarmin realized he had been enjoying caressing Tzer's arms while providing an example. Mikhail simply winked at him. "Less than a week." He sighed, kissing the back of Tzer's hand.
      "Looking forward to it?" Tzer asked, caressing Mikhail's face with his tentacles. Jarmin had to look away and caught Aliana's eye as she did the same.
      "Of course." Mikhail's flicker of knife sharp wanting rocked what Jarmin now knew was the ambient. It then vanished as if it never had been, although Jarmin's heart was still racing with the aftereffects of it.
      "Mikhail." Tzer sounded shocked. "Not in front of my little sister."
      "Sorry." Mikhail did not sound at all repentant. "I want you, my mate."
      "I want you too, sweet, wait though." Tzer's voice was ringing with longing.
      "Ahem." Aliana finally said. "Aren't you two over the silly new lovers stage yet?"
      "No" They said in chorus and Jarmin looked back to see them give each other the most over sweet, cloying gazes of admiration and love he had ever seen. That is what I want. He realized how nearly impossible it was to get. Particularly for someone as flawed as himself.
      Tzer realized he had to get the final stages of this whole masquerade in place or the entire time schedule would be thrown off. Much as he would have preferred to spend the evening talking mush with Mikhail, there was work to do. "So, you now have armor." He told Aliana. "How does it fit?"
      "Great." She shook her wrists and he spotted a bit of shifting.
      "A little loose over the laterals still? You'll grow into the lateral pockets, they are a bit oversized at first because you are still growing there."
      "Yes, I think so." Her tentacles were still awkward in releasing the openings. He slid his own in alongside hers to check the fit.
      They were a bit damp and he caught her slight blush at having leaked a tiny amount of roniplin into the liner already. *That's why the felt is replaceable, sister mine. We all tend to get a little damp when excited.* Gently he shooed the two Gens out to bring them something to eat. His beloved gave him a caress with his field and convinced Jarmin he would require help.
      "Now that we're alone." He looked at the closed door. "I thought I would give you the chance to talk without any fussy Sharm Lords to inhibit you."
      "Oh, Jarmin isn't fussy." She said so fast he knew he had hit it in one. "He's just so inhibited."
      "And you aren't." He tipped her chin up to look at him. "I know you, sister mine. You wouldn't tell your mate you were in attrition until the roniplin was puddling around your feet."
      "True enough." Aliana chuckled softly. "It's just, so, well, so crude."
      "Are you sure the word you are looking for isn't 'prude'?" He teased.
      "Well, some of that too." She blushed even more. "Although it is nice to know other people can be so obvious as well."
      "Let me tell you of my second transfer with Mikhail."
      "Go ahead." She leaned back, still fiddling with her bracers, as he had done so enthusiastically at her age as well.
      It was already getting chilly out. Or at least it felt that way to me.
      "I'm freezing." Mikhail looking up at the threatening sky. I reached out with my senses and almost fell on my nose. The metal of my new bracers made my own lightnings wrap around my arms rather than reach for the sky.
      "Open them first." Nashen yelled from the edge of the practice area.
      "Yes, otyet." This worked a lot better. The storm was still soft and mushy feeling. "This is simply passing through."
      "Yes, good call." Nashen told me and I beamed with pleasure at his praise. Then the chill air licked in along my now exposed arms and my bracers clacked shut. "Although it's a good thing the safeties work on those." He looked at my arms.
      "I'm glad too." I inspected them for any damage by trying to look in the ends.
      "That isn't going to work very well." Nashen looked at me with one of his best, 'I thought my son was supposed to have a brain', expressions. I blushed and looked at Mikhail. "You have to open them to inspect your laterals. Although if you pinched them, you would know it."
      "But" I quivered, looking at Mikhail shyly. "Well, I'm, well..."
      "Meet us inside, Mikhail, if you would." Nashen said gently.
      "Certainly." Then he looked at me. "Later?"
      "Yes" I wanted to be with him so badly, then I realized my new bracers were getting even damper. Uh-oh. If Nashen wanted to look inside them, I would be dreadfully embarrassed. I watched Mikhail's arms swinging easily by his sides as he strode off into the main house.
      "Tzer" My father got my attention back on him by main force and a shock of lightning of his own. "Let's go talk."
      Now I knew I was in for it. Usually he used that tone when I had managed some truly amazing goof. Timidly, I followed him into the small outbuilding with its own washbasin and heater for the convenience of marshalls during the more popular summer days to practice outside. "What did you want to talk about, otyet?" I was afraid I knew; my wrists felt horribly sticky and clammy.
      "Let me see." He held out his hands. Shyly, I held my arms out to him. His fingers and tentacles slid into my bracers. There was no way I could hide it. "You're fine. What's wrong?"
      "I'm all wet." I looked down at our hands, even this, the touch of my own father, made me react.
      "When's your transfer, Tzer?" He asked, popping the releases on my bracers for me.
      "Three days." I wanted to hide my arms behind my back when he removed my bracers. There was roniplin from my wrist to nearly my elbows. "I don't know why I'm doing this."
      "Because you are young and Sime." He smiled and handed me a damp, warm cloth. "I simply have a bit more practice and I wasn't messing around with my partner all day long."
      "But we weren't getting ready for transfer." I tried to get the worst of it off, but knew I had to absolutely reek of roniplin to anyone with a sense of smell. "There was no reason for my body to carry on like this."
      "It doesn't know." He took the cloth from me and with practiced hands managed to not only clean off my arms, but settle some of the worst of my upset. "All your body knows is you were in close proximity to an attractive Gen. You have to do the thinking for your body, it's not too bright."
      "That's pretty obvious." I said. "This morning, when I got up, I found had just about washed Mikhail in roniplin."
      "Was he upset?" My father asked, far more kindly than I thought I deserved.
      "No" I said shyly. "He just said he was enjoying the attention. But he was all sticky afterwards."
      "Warm water cleans up a lot of sticky messes, my son." He chuckled. "Gens like attention. Don't be afraid to tell him and show him that."
      "But it's so crude and vulgar." I realized they were doing it again and tried to put my arms behind my back.
      "Easy, lad." He coaxed my arms out and placed the warm, damp cloth over them. The muscles and glands in my arms relaxed and I felt another trickle of roniplin escape my control. "Like this." He wrapped my forearms in the cloth. "Better?"
      "Yes, much." I sighed, realizing now no matter how much I leaked, nothing would show. "But they even reacted to Arkay."
      "They'll probably react to every high field Gen who crosses your path for the next few months." Nashen smiled at me. "It's normal and healthy. As long as you don't do anything about it, they won't."
      "But it's so obvious." I wailed, feeling more than a bit ashamed. "I just know everyone is looking at me."
      "Carry a soft handkerchief." He smiled at me. "We all do it, lad."
      "Even you?" I was so much younger than he was.
      "Even me." He tapped my nose. "Sometimes Arkay gets a bit, well, friendly and tries to make me unpresentable. It's sort of a game for him. When I get all wet he takes it as a complement."
      "How?" This seemed so very unlikely to me at the time.
      "Because then he knows I want him." He caressed my arms and drew away the cloth. "My wanting him is very important to Arkay. It reassures him I'm not ignoring him. Not that I would, but my getting all bothered over him is very flattering to his ego. I wouldn't trade that for any number of soggy handkerchiefs."
      "Put that way, I think I can understand." I grinned at him. "Sort of like the displays some male birds make for their mates."
      "Exactly so. He preens his nager at me and my tail feathers go into display for him." He chuckled softly. "Even though when he does it in public, it can be more than a bit distracting."
      "Oh, like when he gave you that coy look at court about a year and a half ago and then you fondled his wrists on the dias?"
      "Yes" He blushed furiously. "If I hadn't wanted to be able to consummate the transfer immediately afterwards, I would have taken him right then and there."
      "I remember that little incident." Aliana chuckled, still able to hear the sweet ringing sound of Nashen playing with Arkay's bracelets at the heart of the sound amplification built into the throne room at Fatima. From certain positions around the room you could clearly hear a whisper from across the room, and Nashen had very publicly fondled Arkay's wrists right in one of those places.
      "I think everyone at Fatima does." Tzer grinned back at her. "So you see, it isn't something to be ashamed of, Aliana."
      "But, well, I suppose not." She shrugged, thinking her problems were in a different direction all together.
      "There's something else, isn't there?" He asked gently.
      "Well, yes, more the opposite sort of problem." She looked down. "I'm afraid I'm not very responsive."
      "Mikhail and I have talked about this some, in regards to our own relationship." Tzer looked her in the eyes. "Does Jarmin touch you much?"
      "No, hardly at all." She looked at the guitar lying on the bed. "I'm so afraid I'm going to disappoint him some time, be unable to respond."
      "Mikhail told me most channels here are far more responsive and quicker than we are, Aliana."
      "I noticed that, yes." The fine grained wood of the guitar seemed to blur in her vision.
      "That is why you aren't thriving, isn't it."
      "I'm doing fine." She turned back to him and tried to glare at him, but his eyes held only sympathy. "No, I'm not, Tzer."
      "We, Mikhail and I, figured as much." He clasped her hand again.
      "I've never failed at anything before in my life, and now this." She waived her other hand in the air. "I've failed, Tzer."
      "Would you set a Trakh to win a race against a Teke?" He asked softly.
      "No, that would be foolish." She twined her tentacles with his. "But I'm not a Trakh."
      "No, you're a Teke trying to pull a plow." He grinned. "Be yourself, Aliana."
      "But I just want to be like everyone else." She wailed, wanting to hide in a dark hole and never come out.

Chapter 12

      It was the darkest hour of the morning when Aliana and Jarmin finally set off. "We'd like to get some distance under our feet before anyone catches up to us." Jarmin shrugged his shoulders beneath his improvised pack.
      "Like me?" Jon suddenly appeared in the hallway.
      "Shen" Tzer swore and turned to Jon. Jarmin's scalp itched as electricity made his hair try to stand on end. A breeze drifted down the hallway. He put his arm on Aliana's elbow, wanting to make certain she didn't do anything precipitate.
      His friend's face was drawn and strained. Now Jarmin could directly sense the stresses Jon had been trying to deal with and not succeeding. He lowered his eyes and said quietly, "We're both leaving, Jon."
      "I'm sorry to hear you're going. When will you be back?" The quiet, calm tone seemed to settle the atmosphere some.
      "I don't know if I will." He took a deep breath. "Aliana isn't coping with the Techton system."
      "Believe me, I know it." Jon sighed. "I couldn't seem to get through to her with my teaching."
      "It wasn't your fault." Aliana's nager darkened and stilled. "I was the one who failed."
      "No, the Techton failed you." Jon turned away.
      "Stop." Mikhail said, enforcing his word with his field. "Don't leave like this."
      "Let go of me." Jon's fear rocked the ambient.
      "Wait, think a moment." Mikhail said softly. "Do you really want to say good bye like this?"
      "No" Jon turned back around and stepped towards them. "I'm sorry Aliana. I think we, both of us, gave it our best try."
      "If it truly was my best try, I would have succeeded." Aliana's field was hard and brittle. Gently, as Mikhail had shown him, Jarmin stroked his own field over hers. Jon's eyes widened as she responded to the rhythmic manipulations by loosing some of her tension.
      "What are you doing to her?" Jon's field quavered. "That isn't a Techton practice."
      "No, it isn't." He smiled wryly. "Mikhail taught me a few things as well."
      "I can zlin that." Jon's field began to throb to the same rhythm. Mikhail gathered him into his field and held Jon's steady against the ambient. "Thank you, Mikhail."
      "No problem." He said and all three of the Russians chuckled. It must have been an in joke.
      "I'm really glad I got the chance to work with you, Aliana." Jon said, no longer distressed by the ambient. "Thank you and I hope you do well. I will miss you Jarmin, and I hope we will meet again someday. Or at least write this time."
      "This time I think I'll have the chance." He offered to take Jon's hand. Jon shook his head no and Jarmin sighed. "Someday." He dropped his hand back to his side.
      "I'm fairly post, Jarmin." Jon said, looking down.
      "Then quit being silly." He stepped forward and caught Jon in a hug. The older man almost jumped out of his arms in surprise, and then timidly returned the gesture. His field was so quick and responsive after spending the day with Aliana, Jarmin had to be very careful not to jar him. "Feel good?"
      "Yes" Jon sighed, leaning into him now. "You've changed." He leaned back and actually seemed to look at Jarmin this time. "I think for the best."
      "I think so too."
      Aliana was now the one getting fidgety. "Let's get out of here before Hajene Harim comes traipsing down the corridor as well."
      "He shouldn't, but good plan anyways." Jon finally moved away from Jarmin. "I'll tell him both of you were released for administrative purposes. The local controller is not always on the ball and I think I can fiddle the records well enough to give you a week or so head start before the hunt is on."
      Now I know why the Hunt was banished. There had been one only a year or so ago, but no one had taken any pleasure in it other than the renSime who started the whole mess. The idea of having people trying to hunt her down like any other animal was a hard one to deal with.
      Worse was the idea of someone hunting Jarmin down. Tentatively, she nodded. "Until later, Hajene Jon. I'm not going to say good bye quite yet."
      "Till later then, both of you." Jon's weight shifted nervously, as if he didn't know what to do now.
      She shook her head and gave him a hug. "Silly man."
      "Silly channel." He ruffled her hair. "Be well, Aliana."
      "We'll try." And with that, she hugged her brothers as well and they were off.
      The night air was cool and crisp after the rather stuffy dormitory. Aliana breathed deeply, enjoying the freshness. The train station was kilometers away, but neither of them were in any hurry to look conspicuous by rushing. "I have one errand to run." Aliana looked at the building where the children lived.
      "I thought you might." Jarmin took her guitar from her. "I'll meet you at the station."
      "Thank you." She flitted into the darkened building. Down the stairs to the least desirable sections. At least it isn't damp here. Although from the water marks on the walls, this building flooded with frightening regularity.
      Finally she made it to Hana's rooms. The hinges were well oiled and Aliana slipped inside, not wanting to wake her friend. The growing, pulsing presence of a new Donor greeted her senses and she smiled happily. "Better luck to you, my friend." She whispered and placed her note on Hana's table where she would find it in the morning. At the bottom, Aliana added a postscript containing her congratulations.
      By the time she got back to him, Aliana knew she was beaming with pride.
      "What has you so puffed up?" Jarmin asked, putting his arm around her shoulders.
      "Hana established, TN2 at least." She grinned at him. "I left her a note. I only hope my influence isn't going to harm her future as well."
      "Hush." Jarmin squeezed her shoulders. "You gave me one."
      "Hardly." She leaned back against him. "You were doing all right."
      "No" He shook his head. "I might have been months or maybe even as long as years, but I would have eventually given in."
      Aliana cringed internally at Jarmin's euphemism. It was a part of life she had learned to deal with, but never one she cared for, nor did anyone else she knew. But with the incredible healing abilities of channels or people like Arkay and Diomid, the Rus had learned very early on people had to have an out. When death only came by misadventure or the most painful, purely physiological, degeneration the right to a peaceful, quiet, death had become an obligation promised by her caste.
      Her internal maunderings were finally interrupted by Jarmin's hand rubbing the back of her neck. "Poor little one." He murmured in her ear. "I would never ask such a thing of you."
      "But if you were injured beyond healing or simply aged to the point where every breath was an agony of pain?" She looked into his sable dark eyes, reflecting the setting moon as they waited for the train to pull into the station. "I don't know if that part of my duties is as easy to walk away from as this." Aliana waved her hand towards the school.
      "But is it a duty towards others or yourself?" From the roiling of his field, Jarmin didn't have any answers either.
      "One thing my father always said, is that duty is always, first and foremost to oneself, never to others." She looked up at the brilliant stars overhead, barely dimmed by the low lights on the platform. "I didn't understand him then, I think."
      "I don't think I understand now?" His smile was more than a bit strained. "It seems so very selfish."
      "In a way though, from his perspective, it is the ultimate in selflessness. He was born and bred to rule. As was I, actually." Her hand clenched on the handle of her guitar case. "By giving over one's duty to others, one is giving them the reins and not accepting the burden of that duty."
      "What if the duty to oneself is purely self aggrandizement at the expense of others?" At first Jarmin's question made no sense.
      Then she thought about it and gasped. "How very alien." Her tentacles retracted into hard knots in their sheathes. "Of course such a thing could never happen. No one could be so alone in their life."
      "Now I'm confused." He blinked at her as he offered her a hand onto the train. They settled in at the back of the car, distanced from the other passengers by the darkness as they left the station. "What is stopping someone from taking power for themselves and misusing it?"
      "Why would someone do that?" There was absolutely no way Aliana could even wrap her mind around such a concept. "What could they gain?"
      "Money, control over others, food, clothes, fancy housing, entertainments." He still wasn't making a great deal of sense.
      "From what I know, at home, all those things have to be done with other people. One person can't horde things because they can't control them." She settled back into his arms. He seems to have learned one lesson quite well from Mikhail. The change in his willingness to be close to her was an absolute delight, despite the odd topic of conversation. "If I, for example, were to go back and try to take Mir, or the throne for that much matter, I couldn't." She shivered at the thought.
      "If you wanted to, why not?" His field was calm and relaxed despite his confusion. She tried to relax some, realizing this was simply curiosity and not some sort of strange plan.
      "Because I couldn't." Her mind couldn't wrap itself around the thought. Thinking out loud, she said. "First, I would have to kill Vayer, my father, for the throne itself, or for Mir, if I wanted either for selfish purposes. He wouldn't step aside for me otherwise. Then, if I tried to hold either, it would be like trying to hold smoke. No one would do what I ordered.
      "On top of that, there are the Veiled. They would simply take me away if I tried to do such a thing and install someone else in my place. Probably before I ever invoked challenge on my father." She shook her head in utter confusion. "If a subordinate does not choose to follow, a leader can't do a whole lot to make them obey. Certainly a leader can kill until they find someone who is willing to follow, and lead by threat, but the first time they come up for transfer, they'll be dead. That kind of tyranny went away with the mutation. No one can live alone anymore."
      "Oh" He said softly. "Haven't there been tyrants in Russia's past?"
      "Certainly. Arkay's partner, Lord Ilya Kirovich Kirov was a nasty piece of work. But Kirov went on around him under Arkay's control until Valentine, Ilya's son, came to power. The work and livelihood of the Kirov Demense went on despite the problems at the top. When Valentine failed, he set it up so he would not damage Kirov in his final decline. It is the people who make up a Demense who are the Demense, not its leadership." This still didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense to Jarmin from the confusion in his field. "Think of a ship. The captain of the ship might be absolutely insane, but if the crew is well trained and bound by tradition to their accustomed trade routes, the work gets done."
      "But that doesn't work in times of stress." Jarmin finally pointed out where they were diverging.
      "Then remove the stressors until a better time, when a sane captain is available." She grasped his hand. "The Veiled are the ultimate guardians of our way of life. And, from all evidence, absolutely unimpeachable. Sevrin, one of my uncles tried, from the inside no less. He was manipulated around to the point where he ended up doing exactly what they wanted. It is impossible to fight them. They don't fight with knives or guns, but with information. And that, my sweet, is the ultimate weapon."
      "How so?" He asked, but from his field it was purely for form now.
      "You have to know where to aim a gun, or where to point a knife." She twined her tentacles with his fingers. "You can't fight back against something that doesn't resist and turns all your attacks against yourself."
      "How very surreal." He chuckled softly, settling his weight a bit more comfortably on the hard bench. "By the way, where are we going?"
      "I have no idea." She snorted. "I just bought the cheapest pair of tickets I could find."
      Jarmin woke when the sun made it far too warm to sleep any longer. He was sodden. Between the very warm weight of Aliana in his lap and the metal behind his back, he was cooking. He yawned, inhaling quite a bit of hair. He spit it out. Aliana squirmed and burrowed into his lap even more forcefully.
      It was still amazing to him how soundly she could sleep this close to hard need. Then he realized all the dampness on his arms was not sweat and smiled down at her. Her tentacles had lazily draped themselves about his wrists in her sleep. They twined restlessly, spreading roniplin all over his arms. Good thing we're alone here in the back of the car. He lipped at her hair and then they tightened down for a moment. Good dreams. He noticed, sensing her nager not holding the sharp edge of need nightmares.
      Trees and greenery were passing by the windows of the train. Must have picked north. He almost thought he recognized some of the scenery. A sigh escaped his lips and she woke up. Her tentacles retracted so fast they would have left burns if his arms hadn't been so slick. "I'm sorry." She said, turning her face to him. "I seem to have gotten you all sticky."
      "Call it sweat." He winked. She chuckled softly, but still tried to clean him up some with a square of white cloth. This did not help either of them much. Jarmin knew he was almost at his peak and would reach it some time today. His new awareness also told him it was far, far higher than he had ever been before. His fingers couldn't hold still any longer and they brushed the underside of Aliana's arms.
      "You aren't helping." She looked at him with a bit of a strained grin. Jarmin let his fingers brush over her roniplin glands. "You really aren't helping." Her breath was coming faster, even though she still had the control not to drop hyperconcious. "I think the first priority when we get wherever it is we're going is to find some place for seclusion."
      The purely Russian concept of seclusion must have made his field flare even more than he thought as Aliana groaned and plastered herself against him again. Jarmin had to admit, he was definitely looking forward to a couple of days where the only thing on his mind was Aliana.
      "If you can't keep yourselves under control, I'm going to have to ask you to disembark." The conductor suddenly appeared. "You are disturbing the other passengers." His deference to a channel/Donor pair was crumbling by the second.
      "Good idea." Jarmin's eyes narrowed as he saw the heavy woodland outside.
      "Sosectu?" The conductor's tentacles lashed the air. "We're twenty miles from the nearest town."
      "Perfect." He twined his field firmly around Aliana, convincing her it was time to move. Her eyes were half-lidded as she gazed at him with the most stunning degree of intent he had ever sensed. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble?"
      "No, not at all. We have to wait at a switch in a few minutes." The man's voice trembled.
      It was like manipulating a large doll, Aliana was so wrapped up in her desires for him. The thought made him tremble as well with wanting and the conductor bolted. Soon the train had stopped entirely and he chivied her out. No sooner had they gotten off the train then it started up again.
      "I'm afraid it isn't fancy, my sweet." He waved his hands towards the nearly empty forest lands. "But it is secluded."
      "It's beautiful." She looked up at the moss draped trees. "And I think I zlin a few artificial clearings off that way." As she pointed, her tentacles writhed about her arms. "Oh my, the air feels good."
      It was cool and damp here beneath the heavy canopy. Never before so glad for all the running he had done with her, they quickly vanished into the depths of the forest. The first clearing, barely a mile from the tracks, was nothing more than that. A big, soggy open area.
      The second was slightly better, at least it wasn't a bog. The headed on, both east and north this time. Finally they stumbled over a tiny clearing, this time with a rather decrepit old house. Tentatively, Jarmin tried to find out how solid it was with his own senses.
      "Good work." Aliana leaned on him. The trust she showed by not taking over the chore made him turn to her, his head high with pride. Her eyes closed a bit more and he gave her a gentle kiss. He hadn't meant it to be anything more than a soft, dry kiss of thanks, but Aliana had other ideas. Her lips parted beneath his and as his tongue touched hers, he couldn't help but feel her field latch onto his.
      Oh my. He had to fight not to clutch her to him with all his strength. The very sharpness of the contact was sweeter than anything he had ever felt.
      "I think I like kisses." Her so fascinating grin was more than slightly wicked.
      "I think I do too." He tried it again, this time keeping it soft, but twining his field about her gently. Her knees gave way and he held her close, feeling every single pulse of selyn as if they shared a single heartbeat. He moaned, this time holding her tightly. The rustle of the tree leaves overhead finally reminded him he did have to breathe, no matter how good Aliana felt in his arms. "Let's find someplace a bit more comfortable." Jarmin waved his field towards the cabin.
      "Good idea." She purred, not really letting him go until he was even more dizzy with wanting. Aliana did zlin about her as they crossed the threshold, but that was the extent of her checking. As he had guessed from the outside, it was merely one room, with an old fireplace at one end. All the windows and doors were long gone, but for all that, the place was surprisingly clean.
      Aliana set down her guitar and packs in the cleanest corner and headed back out the door. What is she doing. Jarmin followed suit. "Clever." He saw the makeshift broom she had put together from green twigs.
      "I grew up in a forested area." She grinned at him. "I could probably keep us fed for months here with hardly even working. This is very much like a warmer, more forgiving version of home."
      "Then what can I do to help?" He asked simply. "I'm afraid I don't know much about anything other than towns and cities."
      "If you wouldn't mind unpacking?" She pointed towards the bedrolls shyly.
      "No, not at all." While Jarmin knew domestic chores were not his strong suit, he at least knew how they were done.

Chapter 13

      "Why the fire?" Jarmin asked, surprising her. It had taken her far longer than she wanted to think about to clear the chimney and verify it would draw correctly. Countless birds nests and crooked bricks later, she finally had the fire going to her satisfaction. "It's plenty warm in here."
      "I forgot, you're not from the north, the soggy north at that." She tapped his nose. "One, we'll probably end up having to cook some of our food. Two, the fire dries things out, including us. Mold and mildew in areas like this are downright violent." She chuckled softly and settled back into Jarmin's arms more. "There are certain forms of fungus which grow on human skin."
      "Is that why I ...?" His whole body tensed up and she had the sense of him fighting not to cross his legs.
      "Yes." She laughed gently. The rain was misting down outside, almost warmer than in the morning. "It is nothing to be ashamed of. I hope you got it taken care of before you scratched yourself too badly." He was blushing so furiously she thought his skin would sear her neck.
      "I had a close friend at the time. She sent me to the clinic." His voice was tight and still quite embarrassed. "I had thought I was immune to horrible diseases like that."
      "Parasites and fungus take a bit more killing, sweet." She caressed his now stubbled face. "Do you wish to shave?"
      "I hadn't thought to bother you with the possibility I might cut myself." He held out his hand. It was trembling slightly.
      "Nervous?" She asked, holding it still.
      "Some. More wanting though. I've finally peaked and am waiting for you." He raised her hand to his face and kissed it. The lightest flicker of his tongue over the back of it made her gasp.
      "You've learned more than how to deal with selyn fields from my brothers." She grinned at him. The new forwardness he showed was definitely a major improvement. On the order of chalk to cheese. Thinking of which, she pulled some of the bread and cheese Mikhail had given her out of their packs. "Hungry?"
      "You are?" His warm brown eyes blinked in astonishment. "I couldn't eat a thing."
      "Let me know, later, if you want some." Suddenly she realized exactly what was happening. An entire flutter of butterflies danced in her middle. In some ways, this was even more daunting than first transfer to her. When she realized her mouth was as dry as desert cotton, she shivered, despite the warm room.
      Jarmin saw Aliana's solidity dissolve like sand before a desert rain. "Hey." He tried to attract her attention again with his field, offering calm support. "Aliana." His murmur seemed to fall on deaf ears despite her still calm eyes. Careful to make noise, he slid to his feet and walked across the tiny room. "Come sit with me for a bit."
      She shook her head and visually seemed to come to her senses, but still he could sense her underlying tension. Gently, he stroked the tense muscles of her back. They weren't the rock hard cables of a Sime ready to pounce, but rather they trembled between relaxation and stress. More like a horse trying to shake off flies. "Easy." He purred, inadvertently thinking of the young mare he had trained as a child and how he would speak to her to try to calm her.
      "I'm not a horse." Aliana finally said, looking still a bit dazed. "I was only thinking."
      "Thinking pretty hard, it seemed." Tentatively, he let his arm curl around her strong waist. Her muscles were still trembling, if not quite as hard. "About?"
      "Only about, well, this is my fourth." She looked down at the net of hard rolls and the small, red waxed cheese.
      "It is only tradition that sexual initiation is after fourth transfer." He tried to give her an easy out. Even with the evidence Mikhail had been setting him up for something very much like this. "You could wait until we get to other people."
      "If that is what you want." Her field went dead black, no life, no movement to it at all.
      "Aliana." He gasped, pulling her close. "No, I only, I didn't want to force myself on you." Near to panic himself, despite all his years of conditioning, he reached for her heart. "Please, don't leave me." His voice tightened into a sharp wail. "Don't go."
      "Jarmin, easy." Her hand was tender against his face. Her expression even more concerned than he knew his to be. "Easy, sweet."
      "I thought I was supposed to be the one reassuring you." He focused on her strong, well worn hands, with their alabaster nails.
      "I think I might well know what is going to happen better than you do." Her fingers trembled, callouses tugging gently on the roughened skin of his face. "I, maybe we should have stayed on the train."
      "No" He jerked his chin up and looked into her midnight dark eyes. The golden firelight flickered in their brilliant depths, almost making him believe he could see the night sky in them. "I, I want you, Aliana."
      "I'm the only Sime in miles, of course you want me." Her will seemed to be crumbling beneath both their feet, like the beach at falling tide. "It isn't me."
      "Aliana, hush." He held her face this time, forcing her to look at him. "I would love thee but once, if that may be all thy will to ever give, but I would have thee and rejoice in the having."
      "Someone has been teaching you High Simelan." An echo of her stunning grin played about the edges of her obvious misery. "And I have no idea who."
      "Thy beauty and thy glory have taught me the words of care I would not dare to say otherwise." Jarmin edged nearer and nearer the words he dare not say. Finally, in an effort to try to escape his nearly betraying tongue, "You were the one who taught me those ballads."
      "So I was." Now her grin shone forth in all its brilliance and Jarmin felt the walls around his heart crumple entirely beneath the onslaught of need and want. "I would have thee, Jarmin. This once, perhaps more. I can not say."
      "Then I shall love thee in silence so thy words will not be forced unbidden." He touched his fingertip to her lips before she could answer. All his hopes and dreams were better fulfilled in the not knowing. Her eyes widened in surprise and he cursed his own slip as he realized he used the word lyubeit' or romantic love rather than zaneimat'cya or to make love.
      "Hush" He drew her closer and silenced her with his lips this time rather than his fingertip.
      Aliana's pounding heart echoed her throbbing forearms. He said he loved me. Her eyes widened in wonder. "Hush." He said, field trembling and nearly overflowing its bounds. Even as she zlinned it strained loose and spiraled even higher, twining about both of them in fiery display.
      Basking in his warmth, she wrapped it around her as she would a great sable cloak. Silken and so incredibly alive, as this fur was a part of him as no garment could ever be. "Come with me and be my love, if but for this once, Aliana." His pleading could not be denied.
      She burrowed even deeper into his sense of self, zlinning for she knew not what. All she found was more and more of the heavenly soft heat. "I ..." He silenced her with another of those soft kisses.
      "Later." His eyes were still shadowed. They drank up the light and gave back the promise of life even in the darkest of nights. "I would rather thy tongue be still. I would not risk thy wrath for my arrogance."
      "Jarmin, hush." She held him back this time. "I would know thee and me. I do not know either and never have."
      "I know." His hand slipped the net weighting down her hand to the floor. "I know neither thee nor me, but I would, if thy will be so."
      "It is." She said simply and his field seemed to reach for the sky above them in his response. It was so overwhelming all she could do was let her head fall back and taste his burning with her soul. "Jarmin." She gasped. He nipped lightly at her throat. The sharpness of it drove through her like ice to his fire. Dark need rose up within her, even greater than her first.
      "Easy." His hands rested on her shoulder blades. "We have time now, all the time in the world. Rest with me for a while." Jarmin backed towards the blankets. Stiffly, not wanting to loose touch with him, she let him guide her.
      Her first flush of desire slackened slightly, allowing her to see again. She found him, kneeling at her feet, as if in prayer. "You are so very beautiful, Aliana." His hands reached up, gently wrapped in fists.
      "You are even more so." She placed his hands on the lacing of her trousers. "I would be as thee."
      The now strong muscles of his bare shoulders slid beneath skin barely containing the fountaining pulse of life within him. His fingers fumbled the lacings and she grinned at him and knelt. "Silly man. Expecting to undo knots while in hard need." She knew he was barely maintaining any sort of mental stability at all. Deftly, she slipped her trousers off.
      "Let me." His hands slid beneath her loose tunic. His broad palms caught the soft material of her shirt, pulling it up as well. For a moment, he had her hands trapped. She felt his soft lips touch her chest, directly over her heart. A deep moan rose from her toes to her throat.
      Then her clothes were off and she looked into his now black eyes. The stunning sight made her breath catch. For me? The irreverent thought almost broke the mood. They lightened back to sable and he grinned at her. "Thank you." He breathed, stroking his calloused fingertips down over her ribs.
      "I want to last all night." His low rumble teased at her even more. Her eyes closed half way as she let the feel of the words trace her skin. "Wait a moment." He managed to get up and return before she could complain.
      A warm, nearly hot, damp cloth cleaned the last of the sticky sweat from her face. "Be still." He murmured, slowly, carefully, tracing down her neck. She grinned at him and his eyes flickered to black again. Taking advantage of his distraction, she took the cloth.
      His field trembled as she stroked his face. Black, hot eyes closed as she caressed his solid cheekbones. "Yes" His head fell back and she kissed the base of his throat. The salty taste of him called to her other senses. Sweet fire traced her damp hand as she slid her fingertips around the muscles of his chest. He shivered and called out, a tight, moaning cry.
      The sound of him licking his lips went straight to her arms and she clenched at him. Fine, soft hair pressed against her chest as she clasped him between her thighs. "Easy." His hands slid over her back again, fingertips digging into the lines of muscle along her spine.
      "Not while you're doing that." She nipped his shoulder. He cried out again, grabbing her so hard she could barely breathe. Not that she cared. Salt and musk filled her mouth as she licked at his smooth skin. Light and heat danced beneath the silken feel of him. Her darkness called.
      "No, not yet." He breathed, nipping at her shoulder. This time she called out, trying to drive him forward. "I've always wanted to do this." He murmured, sliding only one of his hands down her arm. Broad fingertips slid between her tentacle sheathes.
      She couldn't reach his other arm and whimpered with the denial of it. "Was that a good whimper or a bad one?" He chuckled softly and his cool fingers brushed her burning hot roniplin glands. "So very damp, my sweet."
      "Want you." She breathed, desperate. "Give me."
      "Not yet." He denied her, fingers sliding easily over her arms. Aliana howled with the pleasure/pain of it. Desire thundered through the ambient. "Not for a long time yet." His low purr made the sense of his sable warmth come even more alive. Lost to the real world, she felt his attention as the very sun warming her on a winter's day.
      Time stretched and broke its bounds. Wave after gentle wave washed ashore and left only traces of itself behind. Heat built to burning then left echoes etched in the flowing sands. Aliana only dimly knew of her own pleading. The dark chill of need rose to rival a clear winter's night.
      A starry arch protected her, shielding her from the bare darkness of the purest depths of need. Then it too fled. All the very stars gathered before her, proffered by a figure robed in purest sable. "To me" it said, offering her the glittering light.
      "Yes" She breathed in the fire. White hot and brighter than any noon, it flooded her mind and body. Higher and ever higher she rose on wings of light, twined about her sable love. Screaming her ecstasy from the farthest sky, Aliana pealed her triumph and joy with her partner leading the way to life and hope renewed.
      Jarmin fell back to reality with a rush of passion he never knew he could hold. Fire to match Aliana's rose in his body with a force that could not be denied. Her lips parted to his. Get a hold of yourself. He finally managed to get a desperate grasp on his frantic lust. It snarled at his stranglehold.
      Panting with the exquisite shock of so deep a longing, he managed to get his eyes opened. Aliana's face was still blank with the sensations that must be coursing through her body. What if she finds out? The panicked thought finally managed to cool his ardor enough to think.
      His hand trembled as he cupped the smooth, perfectly curved arch of her backside. "Yes" Her voice rasped and made his hand clench. "Oh, yes, Jarmin." She ground herself against him.
      "Easy." He reached for every last shred of self control he had remaining to him. Gently, he slipped his thumb around the front of her hip before she could hurt herself. He was ready, and more than ready for her, but wanted it to be perfect.
      "I want you." Her eyes were as black as they had been before. One desire having slid into the other with hardly a ripple. "Now." She demanded.
      "No" He whimpered as the instant she slid onto him he shuddered with passion far too soon spent.
      Her eyes opened and she looked down at him. "I didn't know." She murmured softly. "Relax a moment."
      He couldn't look away and knew he had just shamed himself more than he could ever recover. His entire body trembled, caught between want and cant. "Relax." She purred, stroking his back. "It will be all right in a moment."
      "I wanted to be perfect for you." His voice trembled. "I failed."
      "You were what, a twenty six year old virgin." Her wry grin brought a near chuckle to his throat.
      "Nearly twenty seven." He hid his face against her shoulder, drinking in the fantastic, sweet, tart, musky scent of her body. "This was not how I imagined it."
      "Nor I." She lipped at his ear. "But I am not disappointed. We have time."
      "How can you not be disappointed?" He asked, sighing.
      "Wait and see, sweet." She flicked a blanket about their shoulders.
      And so he did. It was not long until she had him nearly as frantic as he had her earlier. Even then, she waited, teasing him not once or twice, but more until he could think of nothing more than the taste and feel of her body.
      This time when she took him, the velvet feel of her grasp merely made him call out yet again. Strong thighs grasped his hips, riding him. He reached up to stroke her, teasing at her this time. Her back arched and he felt her clamp down on him. He writhed within her hold, reaching to try to find her very center.
      Finally, after countless tremors, she relaxed against his chest. With a wicked chuckle he rolled her over. "Yes" Her fingers and tentacles grabbed his hips, driving him on. He bent his head and flicked his tongue against one of the hard peaks teasing at his chest. Her nails dug in and he nipped. A soft, wordless cry spurred him on.
      He opened his mouth and let his breath cool the hot moisture he had left. Aliana screamed and bucked beneath him, grabbing at him with irresistible force. "Yes, my love." He nipped at her again, lightly this time. She shivered both inside and out. "Give to me this time." His voice rumbled in his chest as he rode her.
      "Anything." Her hand clasped the back of his head. Taking the hint, he played with her, teasing with both teeth and tongue. "Oh God." She moaned, opening to him even further. "Yes."
      Her sweet words were like liquid fire. It spilled over. Now frantic again, he clutched her to him, driving his very heart and soul into her in echo of their transfer.
      Jarmin was limp. "Can you breathe?" He finally asked, unable to even prop himself up an inch. Actually his arms were dead. Completely unresponsive, as was everything else. "Oh my." He gave up on trying to move. She shivered on him again and he gasped.
      "I c'n breath fine." She lipped his hair. "Happy."
      "Was that a question or a statement?" He rubbed the side of his face against hers. She squealed and twitched. This made his whole body quiver again. "Oh, Aliana. Thank you." He breathed in her ear. "Thank you."
      "Thank you, lover." She grabbed him to her, with none of her usual strength. "Oh, God that was wonderful."
      "Um, I thought you were a virgin." He finally realized what had been missing.
      "As much as you were." Her sweet voice was languid and lazy. "My mother cheated though."
      He chuckled softly. "Wise woman." The horror stories some men told had been enough to curl Jarmin's already none too straight hair. Finally he managed to prop himself up on one elbow. "Thank you." He wanted to see her wonderful, fascinating eyes.
      "You already said that." Her grin was almost enough to get him going again, almost. "How did you manage to avoid getting yourself tripped and beaten to the floor?"
      "Um, never got really post enough to want it badly enough." He gave her as much of a chuckle as he could manage. "Didn't seem like it was worth the bother."
      "Poor sweet." Her hand on the back of his shoulders was enough weight to make him collapse again. "I think I did you in."
      "I think so." He murmured into her hair. "Now I know what all the fuss was about. Although it might also be because you are the most perfect woman to ever walk the face of the earth."
      "Hardly." Her hand slid all the way down. He shivered all over. "You, my love are post."
      "Very." He breathed, still unable to move. "Very, very post. I wish we could ..." He bit off his own inappropriate wish.
      "In time." She tossed a blanked over both of them, as the evening had turned rather chill. "I think I would very much like to be your mate, but I would also like to be sure. Neither of us have had much experience with others."
      It was a good save. At least she hadn't told him no. "I'll wait for thee, my love, till winter's sun thaws the heart of Father Frost." He kissed her silken neck. "If thee let me, I'll wait forever and more as long as I can be by thy side."
      "If I didn't know better, I'd guess you'd been taking lessons from Dorityan." Her gentle chuckle relieved him of most of his fears. Good, she isn't going to reject my suit, yet. "Rest my sweet. I'll not leave thee till thy heart is calm."

Chapter 14

      Jarmin could not figure out what was going on. Fine, silky hair tickled his nose. That is not mine. He blinked blearily. No headache. The rest of the inventory was not quite as positive other than the fact he had a warm, lithe, curvy Aliana in his arms.
      "Good morning sleepy." Her cheer warmed him down to his toes, and other things. Trying to get more comfortable was difficult. Muscles protested in places he didn't know he possessed. She groaned and Jarmin could not tell if it was sympathetic aches or anything else. "You're poking me in the back."
      "I know." He muttered into her hair. "My back teeth are floating."
      She chuckled. "Me too." When her hand reached back to stroke his bare hip though, he almost forgot entirely about such things. Then his muscles cramped slightly. "Ouch."
      "Indeed." He almost swallowed a mouthful of her hair. "I think, I am going to have to recover some."
      "A plan." Her easy smooth motion made him green with envy as she flipped back the covers. The cool morning air hit him like a wet blanket. Grumbling under his breath, he managed to lever the rest of himself upright.
      "You look wonderful, Jarmin." Her eyes were still soft and gentle as they slid over his body. "Thank you for last night."
      "Thank you again for not getting upset." He felt himself blush again, both from her intense gaze and his own unease. Jarmin was more than used to being zlinned so thoroughly, but never had anyone looked at his body so intently. "Do I please?"
      "Yes." She helped him to his feet. "And you did, very much. I'm sorry you're so sore this morning."
      "I'm not." The various aches and twinges were fading more quickly than he would have dreamed. "It was worth it. I'm glad you're not."
      "But I was." She chuckled softly and then shook her head no. His hand froze as he reached for his shirt. "I would look at thee." The change to intimate, now, sent a shiver up his spine. He let the garment lie. "Thou art beautiful, my Jarmin."
      "I have to go outside." He felt himself shift his weight from foot to foot.
      "Then go." Her hand rested on the clothes. "If you like, I'll go with you." As she slid to her feet, his eyes tried to roll up in his head. Pressure intensified past pain as he fought the urge to take her.
      "I really have to go." He scurried from the single room. It was even cooler outside. He shivered. Then Aliana pressed up against his back. Heat fought cold through the medium of his body. Her footsteps were easy and even on the forest floor. His were not.
      He gave up on his sore feet halfway to the nearest tree. Standing there, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees, he tried to relax enough to cope. None of his teachers had ever mentioned a situation like this. For the first time in his life, he realized he was entirely on his own, and out of his depth. "Something wrong?" Aliana turned back to him from the tree line.
      "No, of course not." He coughed. "I was enjoying the view." Looking at Aliana, slender and curved at the same time made his problem worse. Then his stomach growled on top of it all. He had hardly eaten for the last week.
      "Oh dear." Her warm hand stroked his shoulder. "You're a bit stuck, aren't you?"
      "Well, yes." He growled himself, annoyed. "I seem to have a plumbing problem."
      "So I see." Her grin was threatening to make an appearance. "Relax, Jarmin."
      His name on her lips did not help. He twitched again with wanting. "Urrr." He glared downwards.
      "No one is within kilometers."
      "I wouldn't be standing here like a flagpole if I thought otherwise." He took the offending object in his hand, trying to force it into some semblance of behavior. She laughed. This was not at all fair.
      "Is this normal for you?"
      "I have no idea." He snarled, waving his arms in the air.
      "Oh dear." She kissed his cheek. "Why don't I go take care of my own problems and perhaps it will help."
      "At least I don't have to worry about a sunburn." The overcast sky seemed to hold them close. He sighed and cocked a hip. "Eventually, I should be able to figure this out."
      "I'll get breakfast on." Her calm steadiness seemed to help and he took a deep breath. Then another. Finally he managed. Biology is such a pain, sometimes.
      Aliana looked up as Jarmin made it back inside. His face, at least, was far more relaxed. She stifled a chuckle as she turned back to her cooking. "Smells wonderful." He breathed the words against the back of her neck.
      "You smell pretty good too." She placed the toasted cheese in the warmed bread. "Hungry?"
      His eyelids dropped a bit as he thought.
      "For solid food, silly." Her lips picked up a bit of his chill as she kissed his nose. "Later for the other. I'm starving."
      "I think you eat better than I do." His chuckle was lazy and relaxed. "Thank you for not warning me redundantly about this being hot." Jarmin blew on the toasted cheese to cool it. "I don't like being treated like a child."
      "I wouldn't dream of it after last night." Aliana took her own and sat next to him. "Tea should be ready in a few minutes. How did you manage to get to be your age and still a virgin."
      "Never felt any overwhelming desire to do anything about it." His simple shrug spoke volumes. "Even when I could feel physical desire, it wasn't enough to make me want to bother."
      "So you thought it was a bother?" After having learned what so many people seemed to find endlessly fascinating about sex, Aliana was surprised anyone would want to do without. Again she thanked her mother for so forcefully recommending Aliana have her hymen removed beforehand.
      "Not now." His length pressed up against hers with the only faintest hint of warm fur. "I hadn't known sex could be more than a way to reproduce and get rid of coital deprivation in channels."
      "What?" She choked on her bread momentarily. His sheepish grin made her grin back. He licked crumbs from his lips, looking far too sensuous and tasty himself. "Um, yes." She lowered her eyes from his hot gaze, looking up at him through her eyelashes.
      "Needless to say, I think it is far more important now." His arm pulled her even closer as he reached for the tea with his other hand. "Yours, m'lady." He offered her one and took the other for himself. "Or at least far more worth my time to pursue." His sable eyes were smouldering over the rim of his glass.
      "You zlin better than I've ever sensed, Jarmin." Her body was straining against its leash to flatten herself against him again. "More relaxed and open."
      "Some would say sloppy and confused." He was normally so straightforward it took Aliana a second to realize this was a joke. She giggled and took a sip of her tea. It hadn't had time to truly steep properly, but at least it was stronger than usual. "I wonder if Donors get the CD's too." He sipped at his tea with a sigh.
      "Yes, or at least Sharm Lords do." Aliana twined her leg around his. "A normal Sharm Lord can't go for more than a few months without the release of being truly post in a significant fashion." She was not going to call it a syndrome, Aliana still grimaced at that linguistic nuance. It was almost as bad as calling someone a change over 'victim'.
      "What happens?" He set down the last of his bread and cheese uneaten. She picked it up and gave it back to him.
      "Well, first they stop eating. Usually within the first month." She glared pointedly at the food until he took another nibble of it. "Most Sharm Lords, unless they are in a very stable, one on one, relationship tend to not want to eat. They get far too thin for their build." Aliana tried to rummage through her own schooling in such things. "They eventually either starve themselves to death or, depending on their talents, go mad."
      "Oh" His voice was hardly a whisper. "When why didn't I ..." He trailed off. "I wasn't too sane, was I?" Jarmin's grin was more than a bit self depreciating and a faint cloud through his nager echoed the overcast outside.
      "No, and you were a sharm lord." She handed him the best of the peaches she had rescued from their packs, and pointed to the raspberries she had gathered from the brambles at the back of the house.
      "But ..." He looked at the fruit for a moment, dubiously. "What's the difference?" She had the feeling he had been going to say something about what he was to do now, but was relieved when he changed tacks.
      "Difference between ... ?" She nibbled on a few of the berries. The sweet, tangy fruit went quite well with the tea.
      "A Donor and a Donor." His eyes seemed to cross slightly and she could feel his field harden in concentration.
      "I think I get it. You are asking about the difference between a Sharm Lord and a sharm lord?" She fed him one of the raspberries while he still kept staring at his peach. He finally got the hint and went back to eating. The scene was very reminiscent of breakfasts at Fatima and she hid her grin behind her tea glass.
      "I think so." He shook his head. Gently, she licked some of the sweet, fragrant juice which had escaped from his lips. "Oh my." Jarmin breathed, giving her a soft kiss back, redolent with the heady, rich tastes of late summer.
      "Let's try this again." She repeated the terms in Russian this time.
      "Now I hear the difference."
      "Good, a Sharm Lord, with the emphasis on the first nageric syllable and not the second, is a Gen who has been ascended. They can sense fields directly and can kill." Her hand clasped his as he gave a faint shiver. "A sharm lord is a Gen who has enough selyn to satisfy a lord, what you would call a channel." The language differences tripped her tongue as she tried to go back and forth between the two.
      "Let me see if I have this straight." This time he took a healthy bite of his peach without prompting. "I and Mikhail are Sharm Lords? Hana would be a sharm lord? and a GN would be ... ?"
      "We don't have general order donors. Even indirect transfer, strips a Gen, the generic for a non peer, by the way, down to the personal levels. In Fatima and Mir, an indirect transfer strips a Gen all the way down as far as a direct transfer does here." Aliana captured his hand again, this time to lick the sticky juice from his fingers.
      "What about the channels?" His question was breathy and distracted.
      "Lords, like Tzer, are the leaders. They can kill, legally, and can do so under their own responsibility, although it would have to be validated by whoever is ruler. Not usually an issue, as most kills are voluntary."
      "Suicides, you mean."
      "Yes" She pressed his now clean hand to the side of her face, glad he had not chosen peace. Jarmin, now far healthier and more self aware than she had ever known him, was an absolute delight to her senses. "Although we give it the euphemism 'peace'." The congruence between Mir and willing death made her shiver. "To go on." She took a deep breath to resettle herself. "The next are lords, which legally is my status. Technically I am a Lord, as I do have the powers of one, but as I have never killed or been ascended, my rank is only that of a lord."
      He blinked at her, looking poleaxed.
      "I know, it's confusing. Don't worry about it. If you ever visit Moskva, it's easy to tell the difference between the two. Lords dress a lot fancier than lords." She winked, looking down at her own lack of clothing. He chuckled, settling back down and this time willingly pulling off another piece of bread. "Sharm Lords wear bracelets to warn everyone else what they are. As they have the absolute right to kill anyone they choose, it makes things a great deal simpler."
      His eyes widened and almost popped out. "Me?"
      "Yes you." She put another raspberry in his still open mouth. He chewed and swallowed dutifully. "With who and what you are, would you kill wantonly?"
      "No, I couldn't." He shook his head. "It wouldn't be right. It would be like trying to weave rocks."
      "Exactly so." She finally relented on trying to stuff him with food. "Sharm Lords are a law unto themselves, but the one thing they all have in common, is compassion. If that is ever damaged beyond recovery, they don't survive long. Remember, Sharm Lords, in some ways are also very fragile, almost more so than Lords. The farther from human norms someone gets, the higher the tightrope they walk over the abyss. Mikhail, now, would destroy himself in months without Tzer. He couldn't withstand the power he controls on his own." It almost destroyed both of them before they completed their bonding. Aliana knew.
      "I grew up, and was taught, that channels were fragile and to be protected so they could save everyone else." His voice was soft, more wondering than confused. "Now you tell me I have to be one of those protected people." Jarmin's fingers tightened on hers. "I don't know, Aliana."
      "Protected and protecting." The phrase from her earliest memories made goose bumps rise on her arms. "Sharm Lords and Lords, in Russia, are the protectors of their people. Not as go betweens, like the channels here. It is the lords who do that work.
      "But the highest levels, they determine the viable population levels for the Demense, how many and how well the Demense can support his or her people. They also give direction to the Demense pursuits. Vayer leads Mir to international trade, leaving Tzer with Fatima to her old haunts of domestic and near trade. Alexandrya of Azov guides him to expanding both the wool and cloth generation to allow for all the immigrants of the last generation. Diomid is still Sharm Lord Sergei, ensuring the health of all our people."
      "Wait a minute. Diomid is a Sharm Lord?" Jarmin looked at her, stunned.
      "Yes, he is probably the best healer the Demense have ever produced." She chuckled softly. "You should meet him some time. I think he would give you a different idea exactly what Gens can and can't do."
      "Oh" Was his only answer.
      "Alexandrya is also a Sharm Lord. Azov seems to be trying to go to Sharm Lord rule. Avilan was the actual leader of Azov for many years, despite his attempts to defer to his partner, Lord Karola." She noted Jarmin's eyes glazing over. "I'll stop now."
      "It's fine." He grinned. "I enjoy hearing about all of this. It's like a window into a different world."
      "It is a different world." And one Aliana was entirely uncertain she ever wanted to return to.

Chapter 15

      This time Aliana slipped into a relaxed doze afterwards. Jarmin's head was still spinning with all the things he'd learned and done in the last day or so. The overwhelming urge to loose himself in Aliana's warmth had finally receded to what he thought was a reasonable level. Never before had his body been so demanding or strident in its desires for anything.
      The harsh ache in his loins had faded with their love play, but still he wondered at it. Aliana echoed his deep sighing breath, pressing her hot body against his chest even more firmly. Of its own accord, his hand stroked the curve of her hip. A frission of wanting made him shiver.
      "What has happened to me?" He asked himself silently. Then, "Is this love?". Aliana's matter of fact acceptance of his raging lust seemed to nearly point to it being normal for her family. A tear tickled the lines worn into his face and he raised his chin. Even if it were only lust, the memory of the open sharing and deliverance she had given him would last the rest of his life.
      "I love thee." He whispered, careful not to wake her. "By all the stars in heaven and hopes of mankind, I love thee." More tears followed the first. His emotions were a shattered jug, spilling over and washing everything around him. Unable to hold back, he held her tightly, crooning a lullaby he hardly even remembered from his own mother.
      Aliana woke to being rocked gently and the sweet voice of Jarmin singing softly in her ear. Ins'Allah, the man is post. She wondered how other Lords dealt with their partner's wild mood swings after transfer. Thinking back on it, Aliana realized she had never seen anyone quite this post. Even when there had been an emergency catastrophic enough to drag her parents out of seclusion, they had been more tightly wrapped than poor Jarmin.
      His pain was making her heart clench. Slowly, she opened her eyes to seen tears streaming down his face as he sang so very softly. "Jarmin, love." She whispered.
      Fire blazed in his dark eyes and then collapsed in another rush of crushing grief, dark enough to make her cry. "You couldn't mean that." Now his voice cracked and shattered.
      "Easy." She fought to keep her mental footing the in treacherous depths of his swirling emotions. They shattered again, making her gasp with pain. "Wrong way, lover."
      The icy chill of self denial gave way to the heat of mere pain again. Aliana took a deep, careful breath. She had never been so grateful for such an ache. "There we go." Now she held him, rocking him gently. Slowly, he hesitantly began to pull his emotions back behind their steel wall. "Not this time." Desperately, she grabbed for him with her mind and her heart.
      A nightmare of fear and sickening shame twisted the ambient into bottomless shadows. "Yes, let it out this time." Jarmin's howl would have shattered the windows anywhere else. Never before had being alone been so horrifying. Aliana could sense his mind slipping beneath the dark waves each time he tried to wall off his emotions. "Come to me, Jarmin." From somewhere, Aliana grasped the image of Mikhail.
      "He wouldn't ..." Jarmin's teeth chattered, his mind now trembling beneath the onslaught.
      "Yes, he would and has, Jarmin." Aliana held him tightly, trying to reach him. "Listen to me, please. Let go of it."
      "I'll hurt you." Steel will clamped down on both of them like a vise. Her teeth clenched so hard she thought they would crack.
      "Give to me, Jarmin." She begged, feeling him slip away one last time. "Please, Jarmin, love, give." The cloying depths of madness receded slightly, showing Aliana Jarmin's terrified shadow kneeling before the lord of hell. "NO!" She screamed, thrusting herself between Jarmin and the insanity waiting for him.
      Icy hands gripped her soul. Emptiness ate at her like acid. Waves of self hatred and disgust pounded her against the shore. Inadequacy and hopelessness tore her heart to shreds. Demons of need clawed her mind. Huddling in the darkness, she found Jarmin, his spirit crushed beneath the weight of years.
      *Come to me, beloved.* She held out her hand to the skeletal figure. Deep sunk eyes almost hidden in its nearly bare skull flinched and it cowered. No, this is Jarmin. Aliana held out the thought of him heathy and vibrant again.
      *Not me.* His voice was hardly louder than the whisper of wind through leafless trees. Empty branches rattled in hollow echoes of speech. *Never for me. I am not.* The susurrus faded into mist, as did the figure.
      Alone, Aliana rocked Jarmin's body against her chest. It breathed, but there was no response. "Too late, too much, not enough, not good enough." The last changed to a howl, echoing in the tiny room. "Oh God, Jarmin, I love thee." The simple words, too late to change fate, too selfish to see. When had his countenance become too handsome for words, with such fine features and strong lines? When had his heart become more precious to her than life itself?
      Long hours passed, as she sat and cried. Even his steadily rising field was dull and lifeless. Murmuring meaningless words, Aliana wished she could have done better. "I'm so very sorry, Jarmin. You are a wonderful human being. I love you. I love thee. God, why?" Her tears blurred even the image of his face. Aliana knew the answer.
      After so much time having repressed his emotions, having them all spill over at once had destroyed his mind. Now all she held was a husk, a faint, far echo of the vibrant, wonderfully alive man Jarmin had once been. Realizing what had to be done, Aliana took his wrists in her hands.
      "No, not like this." She shook her head. Throat tight with even more tears, she reached into his shattered mind, holding it as gently as she could, and had his body sit. Carefully, thoroughly, she washed the figure which had given her so much pleasure, so unselfishly. Aliana had to stop and cry again. Then, she dressed him in the one good set of clothes he had saved through all his travels, bright colors this time, not the monochrome of the Techton.
      Sobbing, she combed out his still short hair, feeling the silky texture of the curls twine about her fingers. "What would you look like if I had been strong enough?" She asked the automaton. "Would our children look more like thee or me? If we had gone with Mikhail and Tzer, would you still be alive? What would you think of Moskva, with the brilliant colors and the wonderful, so very alive people everywhere?" The unanswerable questions made her cry even harder.
      Finally she could put it off no longer. "Perhaps I should have let you go your own way. I don't know how to do this painlessly, my beloved. Forgive me this last torment, for I would not harm thee, even thy empty body for anything." Looking into his face, now empty and cold, she couldn't do it. Gently, she made his body lie back down.
      "I can't." She kissed his still lips. "Perhaps later." Aliana knew what she had to do, but there seemed no rush. Unable to control herself any longer, she let the tears come as they would. Regret bitter as gall tore her into countless pieces.
      At last even her grief had to finish its course. Uneasy at so callous a peace, Aliana put it off further. She tuned her guitar with trembling fingers. "You loved this so very much, Jarmin." Her throat tightened again. After setting aside her sorrow, Aliana began to play. All the songs Jarmin would beg her to play, again and again until he knew them by rote before he learned Russian. Even the ones he had tentatively proffered to her, saying they had been written by friends.
      Love songs with happy endings and ancient ballads of tragedy spilled from her throat and fingers. "I love thee, Jarmin." She said at last. "I would be with thee forever." A minor chord echoed through the silence. "I will be with thee." Her mind made up, she set aside their guitar. Then, she detuned it and placed it safely in its case. "Perhaps someone will find it before it is destroyed by wind and weather." Aliana looked around the tiny room where her life had come to such a crashing halt.
      Kneeling, she prayed to Allah for peace. "Let thy will be done."
      Jarmin heard the thundering voice rumble as if in the distance. With nearly infinite effort, he managed to open his eyes a fraction. Aliana's tear streaked face entered his field of view. What have I done to thee? He asked in the echoing silence of his own skull. "You're alive!" Her cry for joy rocked him back on his nonexistent heels. "Oh God, Jarmin." Her kisses and frantic touches were only known by the dim vision he had of her movement.
      "Let me." She said finally, her magnificent eyes dark with more grief than he would have ever wished on anyone. His eyes opened fully, as it felt like someone else worked the nerves and muscles. Only then did he realized how trapped he truly was. "I can zlin you, faintly, very faintly. Jarmin, I know you're in there. I love thee with all my heart, if only I had known, if only ..." Another tear marred her strong face.
      He wanted to say so many things. He wanted to tell her it would be all right; wanted to show her how much he loved her, no matter what, wanted to hold her close and make love with her. The deathly silence waited for him again and he reached for it. She'll be better off without me.
      "No" Her wail held his mind for a fraction of a second and suddenly a dark figure with wings of night knelt before him. Aliana's face was subtly transformed in the world of the mind, fraught with shadows and harsh planes it never had in the world outside.
      Here he could move and he went to her. Gently, he wrapped his arms around her. "I would not hold thee back for all the delights of your company, Aliana. I love thee to much to shackle thee."
      "Jarmin, love. I would have thee any way thee let me." Her eyes here did show all the stars in their depths. "Please, give me another chance." Her hand was spangled with glitter finer than dust.
      "I've used up all my chances." He tried to remove his warm, fur coat and cover her nakedness with it. As its weight shifted from his shoulders, Jarmin felt the floor dissolve beneath his feet.
      "No, don't go." Aliana's wings wrapped him in a hard, spicy scented cocoon. "Please don't go again. I couldn't stand for it. I love thee Jarmin and wronged thee greatly. Please, let me try to make amends." Her desperation tore at him. Those words he had so hoped to hear, now only filled him with more guilt. "Thee were never given a chance." Her wail seemed to grate like nails on slate. "Anything, anything I can do." Her feathers trembled with a rustle of stiff silk.
      "I never meant to hurt you, Aliana." Tentatively, he stroked the hard but still resilient binding holding him to her. "Ever. I never meant to hurt anyone. I couldn't ask you to haul around my crippled body for no good reason."
      "There is a good reason, I love thee." She caressed his face with her hand, making him look up at her. "I love thee, my bonded mate and would not live without thee."
      "Even as I am." He formed the image of his still and nearly lifeless body. "Outside this place, I am nothing."
      "You are everything to me, Jarmin." Her star spangled eyes bore into his. "No one has ever cared for you or taken care of you. You've cared for everyone else. Let me, let one person care for you, beloved." Echoes seemed to tremble on the plain from beyond their ken. "Please. Anything. Let me." Her stumbling voice called to him.
      "Be free, Aliana." He shook his head. "You've always wanted to be free. Free of the crushing responsibilities you were born to."
      Her wings opened, releasing him back to the chill breeze now tracking across the empty darkness. "Yes, I wanted to be free. I can understand your unwillingness to put up with a feckless, irresponsible child." Sobs echoed the rising wind in their loneliness. "You deserve better." Dark wings fluttered as she knelt again, hiding her.
      Stunned, Jarmin stood for a long moment. A figure robed in white stood behind Aliana. He was an older man, robed in white as Mikhail had been in black. Blond hair trailed to the floor, pooling around his feet. His hand opened to Jarmin, empty. Then he saw the scars across his wrist and he flinched away.
      "No" Jarmin refused the offer and knelt, stroking the leading edge of Aliana's wing. It parted from its mate and she looked up at him. "I'll stay, until we know for sure." He took her cold hands in his, warming them with his breath. "I said I would stay with thee until you were sure of your heart."
      "Now I am sure of my heart and would have thee no matter what." The renewal of hope in her eyes was stunning, Jarmin only hoped he wouldn't fail her again.
      Aliana finally dismantled the contacts. The long period of near transfer made her entire body ache, but it had been worth it. The cabin was so lonely without Jarmin's warm concern following her around. Anything. She only hoped they could get to someone who could help them before the fragile link between his mind and body would fail entirely again.
      Realizing sooner started was sooner finished, she gathered their things and then sat for a moment, looking into Jarmin's eyes. "I wish I knew how to cure you." She smiled wryly, knowing full well how much he enjoyed the gesture. The sable dark eyes seemed to glimmer with pleasure and she kissed him. "This is going to be hard for you, to have me move your body. I know it is, but trust me, please."
      The one sided conversation seemed to steady her own nerves, and she got them both out the door. The sun was long set, but the moon was bright overhead. Jarmin had mentioned the nearest town was north and slightly west of them. Aliana figured as soon as she got within zlinning range, she'd have a plan.
      Wanting to be sure, she checked her pockets. No, her money hadn't multiplied since they left Rialite. With a sinking feeling, she knew there would be far too long a wait until she had the fare to Kaon.

Chapter 16

      Jarmin wished he could turn his face to let the sun warm it more fully. He had regained enough sensation to feel strong things on the skin of his face, and even that let him know he was still truly alive, not merely a ghost bound in a strange sort of purgatory.
      Aliana's strong, sweet contralto had gathered quite an impressive crowd for a late fall afternoon. It had been nearly two and a half long, painful, months while she tried to scrape together the money to get them to Kaon. Children were laughing at the silly rhyming tune, which asked the audience for seed words. Jarmin had never had the quickness of mind to perform it, but Aliana always managed splendidly.
      The sun slanted around under the tree and he had to close his eyes on the scene. At least he could now. In his mind's eye, he replayed their last transfer.
      "Aliana" He caroled, rushing to hold her close.
      "Not this month either." Her wings drooped and dragged behind her. "I'm so very sorry."
      "Hush, love, hush." He stroked the base of her wings. It was odd, but they seemed entirely normal to him in this place. "I love thee with all my heart and have counted each and every heartbeat till we could be together again." His joy at having her here was more than he could stand. He bounced and burbled with glee. "I love thee, I love thee!"
      "Oh love." She chuckled, feathers rustling in amusement. "Such enthusiasm."
      "Yes" He took her hands in his, warming them, as they were always cold here. "I wish we could be here longer."
      "Me too." Her wings wrapped him in their glory. "If only I hadn't been so stupid as to get caught by that shenned guard."
      "Hush." Jarmin held her trembling body close. "We're still together."
      "But we lost everything."
      "We didn't lose everything. We stall have your guitar and we still have each other." The long periods of introspection had given Jarmin a perspective he had never thought to gain.
      "But we had to buy all new clothes, bedrolls, everything." Her darkness over the incident where a city policeman had impounded all their goods for sleeping in the park, illegally, had nearly broken her and he didn't know what to do. "I failed."
      "No, Aliana, we had bad luck." He took her face in his hands, thumbs playing over her high cheekbones. "I love thee, nothing will change that."
      "I'm trying to make my own luck." Her wings spread out to their full length with her agitation. "It isn't working."
      "Talk to people, Aliana." He stroked his hand down her slender body. "They won't hurt you."
      "I know that, Jarmin. I talk to them everyday when I perform." Her entire body trembled beneath his touch.
      "Not just as a performer, as another human being." His fingertips traced over her ribs, now with far too many of them showing beneath flesh which should be firm. "You're burning yourself out, love."
      "But I don't know anyone." Her voice quavered.
      "You never will if you don't talk to them." He wished he could get through to her. "Trust them, Aliana."
      "Like the policeman." Her face dimmed even further, becoming a mere construct of shadows.
      "Yes, if you'd talked to him, told him you didn't know, he would have understood." He knew he stuck his foot in it again when she sobbed. "Oh, love. No one is perfect. Next time you'll know."
      "There won't be a next time." Her mouth tightened into bitter lines. "Now I know not to camp where someone can find us."
      "Aliana, this time, do it. Lets get out of here." He held her shoulders. "Ask. Someone is sure to be going our way."
      "I can't just ask a total stranger for a ride. What if they want to talk to you?"
      "Then leave me behind." He murmured into her shoulder. The fact he was shorter here always fascinated him. "I'm only a burden to you, love."
      "No" She grabbed him, wrapping her wings around him. "Never."
      "Then what, Aliana?" He licked at her bare skin, tasting the alien musk as the sweetest ambrosia. "We aren't getting anywhere like this."
      "No, we're not." Her wings sagged again. He could sense her control begin to waver. It was time to go.
      "I love thee, Aliana." He looked up into her starry eyes. "For now and for always."
      "I love thee, Jarmin." She leaned down and kissed him so very gently he nearly thought he imagined it, but the word of spirit dissolved around him into darkness.
      Aliana leaned back, looking into Jarmin's too blank face. It had been three months now since the disaster. This time he hadn't reproached her for anything, only tried to cheer her up. In some ways it had been worse than before.
      How her hands and arms ached for the feel of him vibrant again in their touch. She looked over at her guitar. If I sell it, we would have plenty of money. Her heart clenched at the thought, but she realized it was the practical thing to do. While it had belonged to countless generations of her family, it was merely a thing. Things could be replaced.
      *No* Jarmin's thought broke into her hers.
      Gasping, she tried to reach for him, but there had been the single word only. His eyes sagged with weariness. "Then so be it, beloved. I would not gainsay thee for anything." Her words were hollow and empty. Then she realized that was exactly what she had been doing.
      "I'll do it this time." She looked down at their still joined hands. "Now."
      *Yes* He sighed, hardly louder than the breeze, but triumphant in his gaze.
      "Now, beloved." Her reply to this first sign of any sort of recovery felt as if a massive weight had lifted from her soul. "We go." After only the most cursory grooming, she got their necessary things together. This hostel was hardly more than a condemned wreck of a building, held together by the failed hopes of people who had no where else to go. The next occupant of their rooms would be grateful for the cheap padding and even cheaper basin she had scrounged.
      Nearly whistling, Aliana got them headed for the door. Without a glance back, they left.
      The road led grey and straight into the distance. At the last minute, Aliana slipped into her bracers. They could possibly be some defense against some maniac wanting their lives. A car hissed along the road behind them.
      Tentatively, she waved her hand. It certainly seemed a large enough vehicle, unlike so many of the ones that had passed so far. It slowed and stopped. Her heart pounded in her throat.
      "Sit up here with me, little lady." The driver reached over and opened the passenger side door.
      "Thank you." Her voice trembled with shyness. She made sure Jarmin nodded his thanks to the driver. The man seemed to not really care about him, only looking at her.
      "Where ye headed, other'n south, that is?" His chuckle at his own joke seemed more coarse than threatening, but still her tentacles clenched into their sheathes. "M'name's Greg, by the way."
      "My name's Aliana and my partner's is Jarmin." She nodded her head shyly again. "We're trying to get to my family in Naveen."
      "Money problems?" His hand reached over. Gingerly, she took it and had Jarmin lean against the back of the front seat, as if he were watching them closely. As she looked at him, Aliana realized he was, his eyes far more alive than they had been since the disaster.
      "Unfortunately." This was not entirely a lie.
      "Money's not everything, little lass." The man squeezed her hand. Then she noted the silvering of his hair and the harsh lines on his face. Greg was not as young as she first thought. "Ye got each other, I see." His tone was more envious than anything else.
      More or less. She wished she could say, but instead substituted, "Yes, we do." Aliana forced herself to give Jarmin a fond glance and much to her surprise, his field flickered into a soft acceptance for a moment. It was so like his earlier sweet good nature, her heart pounded in automatic response.
      "I had m'self a sweetie, long before I became the old man I am now." He gave her a wink. "We were a good team, I still like te think." His rough voice rambled on. "She was very much like ye. Tall, slim, always had warm hands and a warm heart. Miss her te this day."
      "I can understand that." She couldn't help but smile at Jarmin. One eyelid drooped in a wink and she beamed at him. "I wouldn't want to be without Jarmin, for anything."
      "Then ye keep him, lass." Greg put her hand on Jarmin's. "If ye have love, everything else can be worked out. Lin taught me that, as a stubborn kid. Shen I miss her."
      The oath nearly made Aliana flinch, but she had gotten a bit more used to it. "I plan on keeping him." In the best style she could manage.
      The ride from Greg ended hardly more than another fifty miles closer to their destination, but Jarmin was elated. They were moving again. And Aliana had talked to someone other than him. Their soft voiced conversation in the front seat had trailed off to a companionable silence after a while and Jarmin simply enjoyed Aliana's growing comfort with the old man.
      "Here's where I turn off." The car slowed and came to a stop. "Pair of Gens like ye'll have no problems with gettin' a ride. Good luck to you."
      Aliana's breath caught in surprise. Jarmin thought she knew. "Good luck to you, Greg." She got them out of his car. "But ye might want te be careful about yer assumptions." Her tentacles completed their parting handclasp.
      Greg yelped and stared at them. Aliana winked. "Right." He cocked his head at her. "I think I will be. It was good meeting you."
      "And it was wonderful meeting you." She released him with a caress. Jarmin felt his throat go dry with the intimacy of the gesture. Greg's eyes were still a bit wide with surprise as he closed the door and waved. The car hissed off into the night.
      Soon they were alone again. Their footsteps crunched in the gravel at the side of the road. He was nearing exhaustion, but he couldn't ask Aliana to stop for a rest. Some how she knew though, and stopped them. She turned to him and caressed his face. I feel that. He knew his eyes widened. The very faintest sensation of touch filtered through his damaged nerves.
      "Oh God, Jarmin." She gasped, hugging him tightly. "You're coming back."
      He managed a blink of acknowledgement.
      "I take that as a yes." She practically bounced with glee.
      The next car to stop was a rather surly young woman, in a hurry to get to her new job. Boxes and bundles were piled in the back of her car, but they still managed to make room for the two of them. Jarmin dozed as the women sat in near silence.
      He only woke as the sun hit his face. Reaching deep within himself, Jarmin realized they had been traveling most of the night. "Does he have to eat?" The young woman asked.
      "Not yet." Aliana grinned. "We have our own food." Jarmin knew this was a bald lie, as neither of them had been eating well at all, saving as much of their money as possible.
      "Well I am, for once." Her tone changed slightly. "Would you like to join me?"
      "Certainly, Sari." Aliana's voice quavered.
      "Ye wouldn't be hitching rides if ye had any money." Sari's nose twitched. "I've been there a time or two m'self. Big Gen like that has te eat. Let me feed you two before I get on m'way."
      "Thank you." Aliana said, bowing her head. "I'm not, well, I've never been this poor before."
      "And maybe ye'll never be this way again, but be that as it may." She turned the car into a dirt parking lot with a dozen or so other cars and quite a number of large trucks. "Next time ye give someone else a good turn te repay me."
      Aliana looked poleaxed. With an effort which would have made him sweat like a foundered horse if he could have, Jarmin managed to twitch the corner of his mouth up into a near grin. She caught the look and turned to him, wide eyed with surprise. Her hand on his face was even more sensible and he wished he could purr with the wonderful feeling. His nager must have reflected his feelings.
      "How sweet." Sari chuckled. "Maybe we could find you a better ride here."
      "I've really enjoyed your company." Aliana told the other woman.
      "Foo, we've hardly exchanged a few words." Sari turned off the car and got out. "I've been so wrapped up in my own problems, I've hardly had a kind word to say to anyone lately." She stalked around to the front of the car and opened it. "Blasted battery."
      "Can I help?" Aliana got them out, leaving their stuff in the car, all but the guitar.
      "If ye know anyway to fix these things." Sari snarled, staring at it. "Leaks like a sieve."
      "I can zlin that." Aliana tapped her fingers against her thigh. "I, let me take a closer zlin." She leaned her head in under the hood. "Bad cabling, from here to here." Aliana's finger traced the red one.
      "I can replace that, but it'll mean a complete recharge on the battery." Sari grimaced. I don't have the selyn to do it."
      "Get your cable." Aliana winked. "I can strip out the battery, we replace the cable, then I can refill it."
      "Oh." Sari finally grinned at Aliana. "I suppose you could."
      By the time they were done messing with the car, a number of people had gathered around.
      "Would ye take a look at that?" A tall, scruffy looking Gen pointed at the two women.
      "Yep, looks like one channel isn't te good te get her hands dirty." A stringy looking Sime smiled kindly.
      Aliana brushed back a lock of hair, leaving a dark streak across her forehead. He would have given nearly anything to be able to clean it off. Then he felt his breath quicken. Jarmin's eyes widened with the shock of it. How? He wondered in the silence of his mind.
      "Love?" Aliana twined her hand with his. Her nearly silent whisper struck him like a bolt from heaven. Still moved under her control, she gave him the ability to make the gesture he had been hoping for. His hand trembled. "Yes." Her eyes gleamed with the purest joy he had seen since that horrid accident.

Chapter 17

      "Now where was it you said you were going?" Sari nibbled at the remaining peppers and onions from her fried potatoes.
      "South." Aliana looked at Jarmin again in wonder. The faintest changes seemed greater than any gift she could have ever earned.
      "You go too far south and you'll end up in unclaimed territory." Sari gestured with her fork towards the south.
      "Actually," Aliana took a deep breath. "We're trying to get to Kaon."
      "Why didn't you say so?" Sari snorted. "Hey, Vern!"
      "Whatcha want, sweetheart?" The rather heavy and quite stubbled man shouted back from behind the grill.
      "He's a friend of the family." Sari winked. "Who's goin' te Kaon?"
      Aliana tried not to cringe. Her face flamed with embarrassment. This was not how to negotiate. She bit her lip. Suddenly the scrambled eggs and tomatoes sat like lead in her stomach.
      "I am." A dark, rather saturnine woman leaned against the back of Sari's chair, eyeing Aliana. Chills ran down Aliana's spine, which she firmly repressed.
      "Get out of here, Tamira." Vern's eyes narrowed and his renGen's nager flashed in irritation. "These poor childer don't require your kind of help."
      "Don't say I didn't offer." She stalked out, slapping barely more than the value of her check down on the counter.
      "Sorry, youngins." Vern grimaced. "She's a good driver, but not one I'd trust a pen Gen with. Don't know who else's goin that way."
      "If ye could pay yer way in kind, I'd be happy to take you." This woman seemed far more trustworthy, with a broad face and strong, work lined hands. "I'm deadheading to Norleans from Angels." She shrugged. "No sweat te me te take ye with."
      Never before here had anyone been willing to take payment in kind rather than cash. Aliana wasn't entirely sure. "Kind, as in?"
      "Work, lass." The older woman sat in one of the worn, cracked chairs with a sigh. "Gettin so I don't want te watch my back all hours of the night and drive all day. Ye'd not be after my selyn or my life."
      "Thank you." Aliana lowered her head and took Jarmin's hand. "If you like, we could help with loading and unloading as well."
      "No problem. The dock's run by Kaon. They have their own porters." She grinned. "Why I'm willing to deadhead across half the shenned countryside. Who's yer friend?" Her nager held barely contained curiosity.
      "My husband." She grinned shyly. "He was injured in a work accident. We're trying to get back to my family."
      "Shenned Techton bastards." The driver's snarl turned nasty. "Hardly better than the Distecht, throwing away a man for getting hurt. I'll show ye a way te be free. If ye like, maybe ye can set up like I did."
      "We just want to get home." Any more Aliana had no real idea where home was. All she knew was she wanted to be with Jarmin, however long and however much that would be. Her throat tightened on more tears as the image of Vayer laughing with her over one of Tzer's rather ill planned adventures came to mind. Even the thought of Dimitri, nearly at establishment, growing so tall and strong hit her with the force of a hammer between the eyes.
      "Home is where yer family is dearest." The woman stood and held out her hand. Aliana took it without a second thought. "Yer a bold one for a channel." She winked. "M'name's Erta."
      "Mine's Aliana and my mate's is Jarmin." She prayed Erta wouldn't ask any further questions, but the woman just smiled softly in understanding.
      Jarmin really wished he could shift his weight. His entire body felt as if it were asleep and waking up. Pins and needles traced fiery paths along all his nerves. It had been days since they had joined Erta in her huge truck, now hauling onions from Angels to Norleans.
      The fragrant load had been due to some rather quick talking on Aliana's part and Jarmin felt himself grin at the memory.
      "Come on, Haris." Aliana winked, running her hand over her own forearm. The renSime's eyes widened in shock at the obvious lewd suggestion. "You have a load, we have a driver."
      "But Lif was supposed to take it." One eye closed in half a wink. He was thinking about it.
      "Erta's here." Aliana leaned a hip against the man's scarred and battered desk. "As am I." Her voice dropped seductively. He couldn't reliably sense fields again, but knew from the look on her face she was twining the ambient into more than faintly attractive weaving of light.
      "My wife, she's a few days ahead of me." Haris spread his hand on his desk.
      "Where's she now?" Aliana's grin made Jarmin's heart pound, no telling what it was doing to the poor renSime.
      "At the Center." He said shyly, twining his tentacles about his fingers. "She'll be post tonight. I have three more days."
      "Cruelty." Aliana murmured, placing one tentacle against her lips. "Are they closing up your schedules?"
      "Shen it no." The man slammed the book shut in front of him. "They say it's because of illegal augmentation. She had to lift the crate off Boyr's foot." His brown eyes widened in supplication. "Normally Lis works with me."
      "A good thing for partners." Aliana had Jarmin move closer and placed his hand on her shoulder. She covered it with her own. Haris licked his lips. "Lets say the books got a bit confused. You go home early, post, and we take the inconvenient excess load off your tentacles."
      "How'll I explain it to the controller?" His breathing quickened even more.
      "Emergency transfer by a channel in transit." Aliana turned over her hand. The diamond of her First's ring glinted in the hazy sunlight through the fogged window.
      "Done." Haris' hand covered hers. His eyes rolled up in his head as Aliana's tentacles caught around his wrist. "You are a First, aren't you?"
      "Yes." She smiled, licking her own lips. "Only slightly out of favor at the moment. I won't hurt you or threaten your conditioning."
      "You what?" Erta's eyes got huge as she stared at Aliana. Jarmin felt his now faint grin spread across his face. Aliana's breath caught as she looked at him, caressing his cheek. "Enough of the love play. What did you do?" Erta waved at the loaders, now filling her trailers with onions.
      "A little grease on the tentacles." Aliana purred. "No one but a gentleman named Lif will ever know or care."
      Erta chuckled darkly. "Oh, Lif's a right bastard, well enough." She covered her mouth with her hand. "Serves him right. So, how'd ye do it?"
      "Haris was served with an emergency transfer." Aliana's grin was sharp enough to shave with. "He's probably on his way home right now."
      "Brilliant." Erta laughed. "You've more than paid your way."
      "I wanted to."
      The night air was cool as he and Aliana finally stepped down from Erta's truck. "This is as far as I'm going, you two. Wish it were farther."
      "You've been more than kind, literally." Aliana grasped Erta's hand in both of hers. "Thank you, from both of us."
      "I hope you find your home. If not, look me up." Erta grinned. "I'll be around."
      "And I'll see if I can get you some more work."
      "No, this life's well and good enough for me." Erta waved her hand at the stars overhead. "I make enough to live on and get to see some good people. Well enough as is, I'd say."
      "Then be well, Erta." Aliana's voice seemed too crack on the phrase.
      "I will." Erta wrinkled her nose. The door shut with a thud. Aliana had them both wave as Erta drove off into the night with her trailers still full of onions. The redolent smell still hung heavy in his nostrils. Before this little adventure, Jarmin had been far more fond of onions.
      "Almost there, love." Aliana put her arm around his waist. He could almost feel her. "Are you tired?"
      Exhausted, excited, both, neither, Jarmin wasn't really sure what he was feeling. Then he shivered and he realized what he was feeling was cold.
      "Let's find some place to get warm." Aliana took his hand and they walked off, the wrong direction. Jarmin tried to stiffen in her hold, leaning back with all his might. "What's wrong?" She stopped and asked him. He leaned harder, back the other way. "Oh" She grinned at him. "Wrong way again, huh?"
      "Yes" He croaked out and then panted in startlement. Jarmin blinked, repeatedly.
      "Oh, love." She hugged him close, running her hands over the horrible tingling sensations filling his limbs. "Love, lover, beloved." Her gleeful chortling filled the night. "You are getting better."
      "He's not gonna be much use te ye, I'm afraid." A harsh voice echoed in the darkness.
      Betrayal. Jarmin's first thought thundered through his mind. Then he realized Erta couldn't have set them up. She hadn't originally planned on going this way because of things like this. With frantic speed, Aliana augmented her way into her bracers, hanging from the bottom of her pack, and snapped their ties to their luggage. As if his strings had been cut, Jarmin collapsed under his own weight.
      A whip cracked. Jarmin felt a trickle of pain across one cheek. Aliana snarled, the fighting sound of a mature Sime.
      "Hah, he's a cripple. Easy prey." Jarmin's senses told him there were three other toughs out in the darkness waiting for them. Fortunately, Aliana had set his packs so even when he wasn't under her control, he at least had the semblance of some physical ability.
      "You'll have to go through me first." Aliana growled, tempted into stalking her tormentor.
      Jarmin could sense the trap, but had no way to tell Aliana. His own field writhed, slow and sluggish as nearly crystallized honey. "Poor little Gen." A waft of poor digestion and stale sweat nearly made him gag. "Poor little pen Gen."
      A far too well fed figure stalked around to where Jarmin could see him. These weren't raiders or true thieves, but rather spoiled brats out for a bit of teasing. "Don't." He managed to force out, not wanting to be forced to kill to defend himself.
      "Jarmin!" Aliana shouted. A rustle of leaves and then silence. Aliana! Jarmin screamed in his mind as the young renSime grabbed his wrists. Jarmin got his head turned to the side. It didn't help. His own anguish over Aliana drove the youth to make the fifth contact. His field refused to go flat.
      A back blast like Tzer's lightning ripped through him. Now so much dead weight, the young man fell across his legs.
      Aliana returned from trussing up the two idiots who jumped them to see Jarmin collapsed against his pack. Then she saw the body of another renSime. "Oh, God, Jarmin." She ran to him. His eyes were closed. "Please, look at me." She turned his face to her.
      His eyes opened, showing a darkness she had hoped never to see again. Frantically, she dumped the corpse off his lap and made lateral contact. His field twisted away. "Let me talk to you."
      "No" He whispered, harsh and brittle.
      "Jarmin, love." Her own voice rasped in her throat. "I love thee, let me talk with thee."
      "Evil." His eyes closed again, tears tracking through the lines on his face.
      "No you're not. I am." She bowed her head. "I didn't protect you, again." He froze and she used the chance to make the fifth contact.
      "Of course, channels are supposed to protect Donors." Jarmin's voice was impossibly pure here, even with the dark tremor of disgust lacing it.
      "Hell, Jarmin." She snapped, flipping her wings back. "I should never have run off. It was stupid."
      "Stupid, hardly. You didn't kill." His face was entirely shadowed. "You should never have tried to save me."
      "But you saved me." Aliana truly wished he would let her hold him. "If you hadn't taken him out, he might have gotten the drop on me. I could handle two, three would have been too much."
      Jarmin scoffed at this, "Hardly, Aliana. This entire escapade has been my fault. If I hadn't lost control, if I hadn't talked you into hitching across the country, if I hadn't been crippled and useless ..."
      "Hush." She put her fingers on his soft lips. "Hush, Jarmin. We've both made mistakes. I should have never left you. They didn't have guns. I should have helped you open up before that transfer. I should have listened to you when you first said to cadge rides." He kissed her fingertips in interruption. She moaned, exalting in the feel of his mouth touching her sensitive hand.
      "One last time, Aliana." His lips turned downward in a sorrowful grimace. "I can't go to your home a killer."
      "He deserved to die." Aliana snorted in disgust.
      "For stupidity?" Jarmin snarled, baring his teeth in anger. The show of open emotion made a very inappropriate grin come to Aliana's face. She tried to wipe it away, but it didn't quite go.
      "Stupidity is the ultimate capital offense." Her grin won.
      "What are you grinning about?" Jarmin took a step back.
      "Only your liveliness." She ducked her head shyly. "It's beautiful."
      "After ..." He waved his hand vaguely in her direction.
      "After you spent so very much time locking yourself in a box." She captured his hand. "I love you, Jarmin. Whether the box is internal or external."
      Jarmin pulled his hand away. He paced across the empty plain, back and forth in front of her. The solid grace of his movement made her eyes widen. Thou art so very beautiful, my love. She knelt before him, looking upwards in adoration. Sable flickered aside as his long stride bared his body to her questing eyes. Even in fear and anger, she bathed in the backwash of Jarmin's pure emotions.
      "What are you staring at?" He suddenly stopped and looked at her. She blushed furiously, biting at her lip. Her grin tried to escape again. A nervous giggle escaped. "Aliana?" His long stride exposed even more of his body and she felt her heart flutter. Tentatively, she ran her hand up the back of Jarmin's calf. Thick, dark hair teased at her fingertips and palm. "Are you trying to seduce me, now?"
      "Well, yes." Her grin widened in nervous embarrassment. "Actually."
      "I killed a man." His wail threatened to shatter their little pocket reality.
      "Well, yes." She repeated. "It wasn't as if he didn't deserve it." Her shrug seemed to only infuriate him more. "If you wish to wallow in guilt, go right ahead, but I'm not going to."
      "You are the most alien creature sometimes, my love." Jarmin pulled her into his arms. Her breath caught. This time he didn't keep the fur between their bodies and the feel, remembered and real, of him filling her and fulfilling her sent tremors of heat through the ambient. "I love you for it, Aliana."
      "As I love thee with all my heart, and other parts." She added impishly.
      "You." His hands wandered though, cupping her to him. "I wish." He said simply.
      "I wish we could make love here too."

Chapter 18

      Aliana was scared silly. It was hardly less than a week before their next transfer and they had barely made it halfway from Norleans to Naveen. Jarmin had regressed badly since the incident with the thieves, almost as numb and still as he had been before. One last try. She waved her hand in the air as another car passed by.
      It slowed and stopped. "Thank you, thank you." She sobbed in relief.
      "Ne problem." The driver opened the door for them. "Been there m'self." He chuckled. "Where ye headed?"
      "Kaon." She said simply, "My name's Aliana and my husband's is Jarmin."
      "Quiet, I like that in a Gen." The man winked. "I'll take ye there. Its not out of my way."
      "Bless you." She sighed, getting them both in. "Is there anything we can do for you?"
      "Talk te me, little lady." He patted a parcel next to him on the seat. "I'm a courier for Kaon ye see. Get to spend way too much time on m'own. Name's Iter, by the way. Not much of a name, but the only one I got. See ye been on the road a bit?"
      Iter's volubility took Aliana back. "Since September."
      "Prob'bly feels like f'rever." Iter chuckled. "This run seems like it. Been trakin' back and forth 'tween Naveen and Norleans for years now. Get a little bit on both ends. Have a lass at Norleans and a lad at Naveen."
      "Two wives?" The indiscretion slipped out.
      "Not at the same time. They get along right enough." He winked and acceleration shoved Aliana back in her seat. The speedometer climbed and climbed. "I'm not a one to worry bout such things. Both of them got tired of my sleeping in a different bed every night. Said they wanted me to themselves. Well, none of us got our wish. Now I'm sleepin' alone but fer when I've got m'self a lonely widow to take care of."
      Aliana bit back a chuckle at Iter's glib easiness. Jarmin grinned at them and she had him relax against the seat back. The facial gesture was the first since he had killed. She beamed at him. "Lonely widows can be easier than someone looking for a spouse."
      "Aint that te truth." He slid the car around four others before returning it to its proper lane. Jarmin leaned back and Aliana quickly made sure his safety restraints were secure. "Like Liza lots better. Don't got to worry 'bout no children from her. Not that I don't miss little Gil and Taf." Iter shook his head. "They're the best kids. Just their mums I don't get along with as well these days. You got any sibs?"
      "Yes, four brothers."
      "You poor thing." He reached over and ruffled her hair. Aliana desperately prayed he'd keep his eyes on the road. "Four boys and little you? Musta been wild."
      "Well, the youngest is still a toddler." How do I get away from this madman without giving offense? She asked herself. "We got along pretty well, actually. My older brother and I were pretty close."
      "I know what ye mean. Had m'self an older sister. She got taken away by the shenned Techton." Iter spat out the window in disgust. "Turned out te be a Donor. She said she liked it, but we aint hardly heard from her since. That what happened te your man?"
      "Yes, an accident." She said softly, hating the repeat of this scene.
      "Sectuib Vanesa has some odd people in and out these days. P'raps one a them can help." Iter patted her hand, before braking violently behind a large truck. Even Jarmin's field flickered startlement. "Shenned truck drivers!" Iter pumped his fist out the window. "Takin' up to much a the road. Slow as turtles too." Acceleration slammed Aliana back into her seat as Iter zoomed around the truck. Aliana's heart was pounding. Get me away from this mad man! She wanted out.
      "We hope we can find my family." Aliana said softly as she tried to calm back down. "They visit Kaon regularly."
      "Na then, the Sectuib'll probably let ye in if ye can work. Can ye?"
      "I certainly hope so." She leaned back in her seat.
      "Not necessary te get yer back up." Iter chuckled. "Younguns always getting excited 'bout stuff. When I was your age, I got all hot and bothered 'bout nearly anything. Some a why I got two children and my not hardly six years past establishment." He shook his head and looked at her. Aliana wanted to wave his gaze back to the road. Another truck was looming up ahead. Itar must have seen it out of the corner of his eye. Down the embankment they went. A horn blared. Aliana closed her eyes. The rumble of taut fabric in wind seemed to thunder in her ears. She gritted her teeth. "Shidoni truck drivers!" Aliana felt their tires return to the pavement.
      She opened one eye. "Something wrong?" Itar leaned over towards her. Aliana waved towards the road.
      "Yes, the road's still there." He flicked his head back in that direction. "Ye pregnant? That why yer so white?"
      "No, no, just highly strung nerves." Her mouth felt as if it were filled with cotton, dry cotton.
      "If ye got te stop, jes tell me." His fingers beat an idle, arrhythmic tattoo on the steering wheel. "I know how it goes. Yer hubby there don't look none too good either." Aliana turned to look at Jarmin. He was dead white, with a faint green tinge. Probably no better than I look. "Ye sure yer not breedin? Sometimes a man gets a tech nervous."
      Aliana put her face in her hands.
      "It's all right if ye are. Good thing if I do say so myself. A passel a kids'll liven ye right up." Itar whistled merrily, off-key of course. Aliana cried. It had been one of her favorite songs and he was murdering it. No, put it right, he was killing it. "Ye look like ye could use some more excitement in yer life."
      "I'm more of a home type person." Aliana finally managed to get her tentacles to let go of her fingers. They refused to go back in their sheathes though and restlessly twined until she thought to hold onto the seat beneath her.
      "Good thing for you, ye have a little one on the way then." He winked, the pink tip of his tongue showing through his grin. How do I get away from this mad man? Aliana asked herself desperately.
      "We're going to visit some family. We'll be able to settle down then some." Her voice quavered uncertainly.
      "That's the spirit." Itar punched her lightly on the shoulder, almost knocking her into the door. "I'll get ye there in right good time. We're almost there now, see." He pointed to a huge complex looming off on the right. "Let me just get this package delivered and I'll show you around."
      "Not necessary." She took a deep gasping sigh of relief as the car finally came to a halt. It took her nearly a minute to get her fingers pried out of the seat cushion. They were stiff and unwieldy when she finally managed. "We can find our way from here. Thank you for the ride."
      "Yer quite welcome." Itar shook her hand so firmly it felt like her whole arm was going to fall off. "Good te talk te ye. Take care." He waved jauntily and whistled off.
      Aliana and Jarmin fled around the corner of the building. With a heavy sigh she leaned against the highly stable brick wall, panting. "Safe." Adrenaline was flooding her system. Jarmin actually turned his head to her. He had the most horrified expression on his face she had ever seen. She hugged him. His entire body was trembling. "Oh, love. I'm sorry." She stroked his arms frantically. "I didn't know he was a maniac."
      The he surprised her even more. Jarmin chuckled softly. The gentle quivers of laughter set her off. "It was rather ridiculous, wasn't it?" She grinned. He smiled back. Thinking on it, hysterical laughter began to burble up inside her, displacing her stark terror. Finally they collapsed in a heap, laughing their fool heads off.
      Sevrin overheard the sound of laughter. It was not the normal sort of laughter though, there was a sharp undercurrent of despair and hysteria to it. He pounded down the now familiar stairs and out into the main courtyard. Tipping his head, he located the source. Scanning very carefully where he was going, he almost missed the horrid off-key whistling of Vanesa's favorite courier.
      He ducked behind what he hoped was a wall. The whistling went the other direction. Itar was fast, but he was downright insane and could not be shut up for love nor money. Finally safe, Sevrin tried to remember where he had heard the laughter from. Gingerly, he walked across the open area, listening carefully for automobiles coming up the drive.
      A building almost ran into him. I hate this. He snarled at it. Normally he didn't come out of the wing he shared with Vanesa and their household for exactly this reason. People kept building things and moving things around everywhere else in the huge complex. A rustle of fabric and the odd sound of a cased, stringed instrument stopped him in his tracks.
      "Who are you?" He leaned around the edge of the wall, finding it was part of a building. The distinctive nager of another Russian smacked him right in the face. It was not one he knew though. "Aliana?" He guessed, thinking the person had the distinctive feel of feathers and wings. None of Arkay's other decedents could possibly be unknown.
      "Yes." Her field trembled with nervousness. There was someone else with her. Sevrin turned his face to the stranger. The very faintest sense of fur and warmth trickled from behind walls like stone glass. There was something desperately wrong here.
      Slowly, Sevrin stepped forward. "And your friend is?" His words hesitated, then he gasped. "Oh, love." He turned his entire attention to the stranger. Sevrin let his hands and field trace over the person's form.
      Jarmin had no idea what to do. Aliana seemed to take this odd man entirely in stride and he seemed to know her. Indigo blue eyes and brilliant gold hair set off the most stunningly perfect set of features Jarmin had ever seen before in his life. The man's physical perfection didn't stop there. Sleek muscle and immaculate clothes set off a body he would have desired to possess at any cost had he been Sime.
      Then the strange man touched him, all over, as if he were a horse. Jarmin would have frozen even if he could move. Aliana's hand captured the strange man's. "Quit." The man snapped.
      "Sevrin, back off." She growled slightly.
      "So sorry." A grin played about the man's mouth. "I, uh, well ..."
      "You just got overenthusiastic again." She chuckled. "Sevrin, this is my mate, Jarmin. Jarmin, this is my uncle Sevrin. Now you can examine him if you wish, although I don't know if the courtyard is the place for it."
      "Oh" He said quietly, hands fluttering at his sides. His eyes didn't seem to quite track. It was an odd sensation, as if his face were what he were seeing with. "I'm sorry, Jarmin. Can you ever forgive me?"
      Jarmin couldn't quite manage to force the words out.
      "Thank you." He said softly, stroking his hand over Jarmin's face. "Please, if my touch bothers you, don't try to hide it."
      There was no way Jarmin could say how much he wished he had a choice in the matter, but Sevrin only smiled. "Yes, I can hear you, Jarmin." He did manage a sigh of relief. Faintly, as if he were the sun barely below the horizon, Jarmin could now sense the warmth he knew had to be Sevrin.
      "What?" Aliana gasped, looking back and forth between the two of them. "I can't, unless, well, I can't unless I make full lateral contact and go into his mind."
      "This would be better talked about in privacy, both of you." Sevrin's jaw tightened. "If you would, Aliana." He held out his arm.
      "Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot." She took his arm as well as Jarmin's.
      "At least now I know why Diomid and Kirina showed up this winter as well as Arkay and Nashen. We're a bit full up, I'll have you know." He patted her hand possessively. This time Jarmin was glad he couldn't growl. This Donor was everything he had always wished he could be. Tall, beautiful, elegant, and exquisitely self controlled. "Jarmin, hush." Sevrin told him. "You at least are not a complete and total social nitwit."
      And you are? He wanted to ask.
      "Look at the way I greeted you." Sevrin pointed out with a chuckle. "I would have gone right on groping you until I had you figured out too, if Aliana hadn't pointed out I was acting like an idiot. I might have the best training at certain mental games of anyone abroad in the word, but I am not competent in social settings at all yet."
      "It's only because you can't see the look on people's faces, uncle." Aliana said with a grin.
      "But I can sense their fields flash hot when I embarrass them utterly." He sighed. "I've gotten better, but I still tend to stick my foot in my mouth and chew on it vigorously far too often for my taste."
      Then Sevrin's words struck home and Jarmin felt his own field hesitate faintly.
      "Yes, I'm blind, completely and totally." Sevrin said softly. "My optic nerves were destroyed when I established. Even my optical cortex was damaged. I was trained as a mathematician, geneticist and statistician of the highest order."
      "That may explain why you have the tendency to tell the truth, no matter what." Aliana said cheerfully. Jarmin flinched a bit at her bluntness.
      "True enough, little one." He said as they passed through a set of huge doors held open for them by what looked like liveried servants from hundreds of years ago. Jarmin knew his eyes had gone wide as saucers. Sevrin chuckled. "Our servants, there are six of them, are thrilled to have company. Don't be afraid to let them know your wishes. Vanesa drives them crazy with wanting to do everything herself."
      Then Jarmin managed to stop dead in his tracks. The man from the first dream sequence was standing there in the flesh. "Jarmin, love." Aliana clasped his hand. "It's only Diomid."
      "Yes, I've seen you before." Diomid's voice was a low baritone. "Nearly four months ago, was it?"
      "Yes" Jarmin croaked out, in parody of his once passable voice.
      "If you like, there are some things I can do to alleviate the worst of it." Diomid stepped forward, holding out his hand.
      "Cure?" Jarmin tried to put as much hope into his shattered voice as he could.
      Diomid only looked at Sevrin and touched the other man's shoulder. "Yes?" Sevrin asked and then shook his head no. "I haven't had the time to examine him."
      "I'll require your help on this one." Diomid's hand turned over and Jarmin could see the scars from his dream. "Yes, I tried it Jarmin. Lady death has refused my suit more than once."
      "Good thing, too." An equally fair haired woman said with a snort. "I'd have something to say to her otherwise."
      "I'm sure you would, Kirina love." Diomid grinned up at her. "You'd fight the tides for me, wouldn't you."
      "You are so sweet, my love." She put her arm around Diomid's shoulders. When it didn't go all the way around, Jarmin realized how massive Diomid truly was.
      "So, lets get this show on the road. I'm sure you have many, many things you would like to be able to say out loud."
      "Yes, he's fluttering against my mind like a bird in a cage." Sevrin said in a tone of utter dismay.
      "Sevrin." A tiny, dark haired woman with sharp features said. "That's rude."
      "Usually." He sighed, sounding even more dismayed. "I'm sorry again, Jarmin."
      You're forgiven. He thought carefully, putting a smile on it. I know not to take offense.
      "Sometimes its hard not to." Sevrin told him. "Sometimes I even manage to offend myself."
      "If you would only think before you open your mouth, love." The newcomer looked up at Sevrin, stroking the side of his face.
      "There are things I would rather do with my mouth, Vanesa." His grin was wicked.
      "Sevrin." Her eyes widened. "Not in front of everyone."
      "Well, no, later?" He licked his lips. Vanesa blushed furiously. Even Aliana took a small step backwards.
      "You are as lewd a creature as your father, Sevrin." Vanesa tapped him on the nose.
      "You like it too." His hand slid down over her side.
      "You don't have to say it out loud." She caught his hand and put it back on her face. "Now, what is the plan?"
      "We are going to take Jarmin here up to my rooms and see what we can do." Diomid sighed. "I can't promise anything. If you had come earlier, it would have been easier."
      "But we came as quickly as we could. We didn't have any money." Aliana protested.
      "Why didn't you call?" Vanesa tapped her foot against the floor.
      "Oh" Aliana's face turned dead white. "Oh no!" She wailed and bolted.
      "You go get her, Diomid." Sevrin snapped, "I'll take Jarmin."
      "Hey" Jarmin leaned back in protest. "Fault" He wanted to say it was his fault. He should have thought to call first thing. It wasn't as if he weren't unfamiliar with the technology here the way Aliana was.
      "Don't go blaming now, Jarmin." Diomid told him. "It's too late. Done is done. Get over it and go on." The harsh words should have hurt, but they struck so close to home they were actually reassuring.
      "I'll grab Aliana." Vanesa bolted for the door. "She won't go far without Jarmin."
      Jarmin submitted to the two older Gens leading him off who knew where.

Chapter 19

      Aliana huddled in the darkest corner of the building she could find. Cobwebs would have been a nice touch, so would a few spiders, a few very poisonous spiders. "I did this to him." She hugged her knees to her chest. Knowing she had so badly hurt Jarmin to the point where he went catatonic was one thing, being faced with proof of additional failure was crushing.
      For what seemed like hours, she huddled in the corner of the musty smelling room. It was cold and damp, at least that part of the dungeon was true. She shivered.
      "Here now." Kirina told her softly. "Are you ready to talk about it?"
      "No" Aliana turned her face to the wall. It was clammy with the chill of late afternoon. "Yes." Her hands clasped her knees in front of her. Timidly, she looked up into Kirina's light blue eyes. They were so like her father Arkay's she felt almost as exposed as she would with her father.
      "Which is it?" Her aunt knelt down with her and placed her warm hands over Aliana's. "Come on, you can talk with me."
      "Both" Aliana nearly smiled. "I hurt him, aunt Kirina, I hurt him very badly."
      "Happens." She gave a wry smile and shrugged. "You go on. If you know what's best you keep trying."
      "We did. As soon as I knew," Aliana paused, clenching her hands at the memory. "As soon as we knew it wasn't permanent, we tried to find help, but I failed."
      "Hush little one." Aunt Kirina's voice was gentle and kind. "You only made mistakes. We all do. No one is perfect. You didn't give up."
      "I did, at first. I thought he was dead. I was going to give his body peace." She bit at her lip, now sore again with all her worries. Kirina pulled it loose from her teeth with a gesture so much like Jarmin's she nearly sobbed.
      "Which would have been the right thing to do, if Jarmin had been dead and his body left alive." Kirina's field didn't shift a fraction.
      "But is was only because I couldn't do it, I waited so long, that I knew. And now he's like this, broken, maybe permanently." She wailed, pounding on the floor with her fists. "It isn't fair. I should have known to call. If the delay means he'll be crippled for life, I couldn't stand it."
      "Hush, Aliana." Kirina gathered Aliana into her arms. "You're hysterical."
      "I know that." She spat, despite relaxing finally into Kirina's hold.
      Kirina chuckled softly. "Time brings experience to help us cope with these little crisis in life."
      "You've never had problems like this." Aliana knew she was pouting, but it felt so good to be treated as the child she knew she was again. "I'm all alone." She wailed, letting all the stress and tension out in hystrionics as she had wished to do for the last months.
      "You have Jarmin, you have your family." Kirina said softly, rocking her. "Diomid and I had our own problems, love." Her lips were soft against Aliana's temple.
      "Vayer and Darya didn't." She pouted.
      "Oh yes they did, far, far worse than yours, love." Kirina chuckled softly. "I was a child for most of it, but it was hair raising. Truthfully, when you're in the middle of it, your own problems are the worst in the world, but time does go on."
      "Not without Jarmin." She clutched at her aunt, burying her face in Kirina's long, thick, pale hair. "Not without my mate."
      "Come." Diomid told Kirina and Aliana softly.
      "Is he better?" Aliana's field blazed with new hope. "Will he be all right?"
      "We don't know yet, but we require your help." Diomid's field was as slick and flat as glass, but about as penetrable as steel.
      Jarmin closed his eyes. To say he was terrified would be an understatement of hideous proportions. What are they going to do to me? His teeth chattered. "Let me, first." Sevrin said softly. Diomid left the room. "Now, lad." Sevrin's hand traced over his face. "The first thing we are going to do is get you cleaned up."
      Jarmin felt his face flush. It had been one of the worst parts, being entirely dependant on Aliana for everything.
      "I know." Sevrin crooned. "I know, little one." Broad, enormously strong hands slipped his clothes off. Jarmin shivered. The cold seemed to eat through his remaining nerves like nothing else. Sevrin began to sing. Jarmin didn't recognize the tune, but the beauty of the man's voice was undeniable. "It soothes me." He said softly and then went back to his singing.
      "Poor lad." Sevrin murmured. "Aliana hadn't a clue, did she?" His face was sad. "No, you don't want to see this."
      The smell of himself was almost overpowering and Jarmin realized what had happened. He blushed furiously. "It will be all right. Trust me."
      "Do" He realized. "How?"
      "The same thing happened to me, for different reasons." Sevrin sighed. "Now, I think a bath would finish this job."
      "Yes" He breathed. Despite all their attempts, a hot bath had been a near impossibility for far too long. The sound of water rushing in the tub reminded him of other things and he looked down.
      "I know." Sevrin said softly. "It's all right." With the same deft ease, Sevrin got him cleaned up and back into bed. The pins and needles feeling had returned, making every stroke of Sevrin's hands nearly agony. Diomid walked in and sat on the edge of the bed. "You're nerves are fine, Jarmin."
      "Head?" He grimaced, turning his face away. Jarmin had been desperately afraid he had done all this to himself, some kind of sick way of asking for attention.
      "Yes, you were asking for attention." Diomid told him bluntly, strangely reassuring Jarmin as it had earlier. Diomid's hand seemed to encompass his entire head as he continued, his eyes now unfocused. "Ah, poor lad. You couldn't face your emotions, so you cut yourself off entirely from your body."
      "Help?" He asked, pleading with his eyes.
      "Only with Aliana present." Diomid's light blue eyes seemed to bore into his. Jarmin flinched away from the thought. If she knew he had only been trying to get someone to feel sorry for him ...
      "Stop" Diomid said suddenly. "There is no only about it. You were asking for help, help you had been denied for years. Your mind couldn't take it any more. The part of your mind which makes you whole, your needs, your desires, couldn't be crushed any longer. It had no other way to speak."
      The part of his mind which made him a cripple, Jarmin realized.
      "Yes, it did. You buried your post reactions in alcohol before Aliana. When you experienced it for the first time, your mind refused to be shackled again." Diomid told him. These were things he hadn't even thought of. How does he know all this?
      "Poor healer I'd be if I didn't know." Diomid's thumb caressed his cheek. "You are a very, very sick man, Jarmin. You have sores all over your body from where your clothes rubbed you raw. Some of them are infected. Your liver is on the verge of collapse, first from years of drinking, now from waste products built up from poor diet. Your mind is badly damaged. You ripped lose the concious part of your mind from both your subconscious and your autonomic system. Only the first two are physical, and the second I can only do a limited amount to cure.
      "Your choice, Jarmin. I can say you can't be healed, give you peace, or you face your demons."
      Sevrin gasped. "Diomid! That's as harsh as anything I've ever said."
      "I know." Diomid turned to look at Sevrin. "He has the right to choose, however. I can't do it on my own. He's been treated like a child all his life. The strength to feel has to come from somewhere. If he tries to lock down his emotions again, it will kill him. I won't have Aliana put through this again."
      "Time?" Jarmin asked.
      Diomid's eyes closed momentarily. "Two hours." He pointed to the clock on the wall, directly within Jarmin's view.
      When Aliana returned, Jarmin knew what his decision had to be. "I knew when I asked." Diomid whispered. The vote of confidence made his eyes widen and he felt a smile come to his lips.
      "Yes" He said, feeling Aliana's hand take his.
      "Now, the first thing we are going to do, is deal with the physical aspect of this whole problem." The blankets being flipped down brought a cold draft with them. "Could someone put some more wood on the fire?"
      "Yes, love." Kirina wrinkled her nose at him. "Is there anything else this poor servant can do for you?"
      "Yes, get me some of the Larilin from my bag." He tapped his finger against his lips. "No, scratch that. Did I bring any Halirin?"
      Kirina's eyes got huge. "No."
      "Go ask Arkay if he has any." Diomid ran his hands over Jarmin's body far more expertly than Sevrin had. It felt as if every single contact burned like dry ice on damp skin. "Yes, Halirin. A quarter." Kirina skittered off.
      Next thing he knew, a tall, silver haired, quite old man barged through the door. "Halirin?" He asked, eyebrows raising toward the ceiling. "Of course I have some, in an emergency, it's the only painkiller that works on me, but I don't think it's called for."
      "You never do, Arkay." Diomid pointed Kirina at the door. She left, but not without a backwards glance. "I didn't think you wanted your daughter to hear the rest of this."
      "What about my son?" He sat on a chair, nervously fingering a tiny glass vial.
      "I have to have him here. He's the only one who can talk to Jarmin easily like this." Diomid's eyes were half lidded, as if he weren't telling the whole truth.
      "You're lying. Not a time to be messing with this." Arkay's hand closed around the container. "It is evil stuff, I know."
      Sevrin paled. "I know, otyet. I've seen your records."
      Arkay's eyes closed and he sighed. "It would be putting it mildly to say I am ashamed."
      "Otyet, no. There is no shame in having fallen, only having given up to failure." Sevrin said softly. Jarmin trembled. What are they going to do to me?
      "Let me, Diomid." Arkay's eyes darkened even further. "I know how this works better than anyone alive."
      "Certainly." Diomid slid up towards Jarmin's face. "Do you have a problem with needles?"
      You're going to poke a hole in my skin? Jarmin murbled incoherently.
      "Easy, love." Aliana's hand held his forehead. "It's necessary." Her fingers trembled faintly. The slightest dampness of sweat joined his own on his brow. Diomid's hand slipped over his eyes.
      He closed them. Arkay's breathing was harsh in the silence. "Relax, Jarmin. Don't fight this. Let me talk a moment."
      Jarmin took a deep breath, I'm listening. Diomid took his hand away.
      "Good. This is a drug, the most powerful painkiller we've ever found. The Rus are centuries in advance of Techton medical science. We call it Halirin. It is a derivative of heroin, with a number of other alkaloids producing not only physical analgesia, but mental, nageric and emotional." Arkay took a deep breath. "It is also highly addictive, even more so than its progenitor. I was addicted to it for many years. We will not be giving it to you for more than a few days, but even that is dangerous. I won't give this to you unless you willingly accept the risks."
      Arkay took a deep, gulping breath. "On the other side, it will make it impossible for you to fight down your emotions. If you had experience with the drug, you could, but not unless you had been taking it habitually for months."
      I'll be a raving maniac. Jarmin knew his eyes widened in horror.
      "No. You'll be free of the constraints you've crippled yourself with. You, Jarmin, will have to learn to deal with yourself as you are, not as you think you might be." Arkay's eyes closed momentarily. "It is a shortcut. You might be able to do without it."
      "Arkay." Diomid growled.
      "He has to know." Arkay looked down his nose at the younger man. "He's been treated like a mushroom for years. If he's to grow into a man, he has to make his own decisions."
      "Ouch." Sevrin flinched. "Now I know why people avoid me."
      Aliana grinned and grimaced at the same time. The expression was absolutely delightful. He looked into her dark eyes. "Yes."
      Arkay's hands tried to shake as he filled the syringe. The painfully familiar gesture woke the demon sleeping on his back. It hissed in his ear. You take it, one last time. He banished it with a wrenching effort.
      "Are you all right?" Diomid asked softly.
      "I will be." He cleared the air bubble from the needle. "Memories. If you would." Arkay didn't trust himself entirely and handed Diomid the syringe. His hands clenched as he gave it away. Sevrin sucked in a deep breath between his teeth.
      *I didn't know it still had a hold on you.* His mind voice was more timid than Arkay had ever head from Sevrin.
      *It will all my life, Sevrin.* He sent back with a pained sigh. *Get ready.* Arkay placed himself over Jarmin's feet. Sevrin stared at him then caught Jarmin's shoulders. *Yes, good, he's likely to convulse when the drug hits. He's not in good condition and in need, he's going to get quite a shock.*
      Arkay had to look while Diomid gave Jarmin the injection. Diomid released the tourniquet. Jarmin's back arched and he wailed, a painful, far too familiar sound. "No, no." Jarmin shouted. "Not me. I didn't do it. It isn't my fault. They made me give in. It's mine. She's mine. He's mine. Give me. Mine. Love. I want!" His scream echoed of the walls. "WANT!" He shouted, thrashing in their hands. A howling maelstrom of darkness swept through the room.
      Diomid's hands held Jarmin's face. "No" Jarmin thrashed away. "Aliana. Give her to me. She's mine. I won her. She's my Sime. Only mine. All mine. My one desire. My only desire. Lana, Liana, Ali, Lina, my Lina, my Aliana."
      "Love, Jarmin." Aliana said softly, stroking his face. "I love thee, Jarmin."
      "Like this?" His face fell. Shadows crashed through the room again. Arkay was sweating like a foundered horse. So was Sevrin. "You can't." He thrashed again. "I failed. I failed everyone. I'm no good. Take me."
      "No" Diomid shouted into his face.
      "But, but ..." He tried to turn his face away. A dry sob came from him.
      "Jarmin, I love thee. I want thee with me." Aliana's voice was low and sweet. "I want thee beside me, my heart, my dearest Jarmin."
      "I should have ..."
      "No" Diomid barked again.
      "I failed ..."
      "No" Diomid repeated the word.
      "I love thee, Aliana." He turned back to her with a frayed smile. "I got it out." His tongue slipped between his teeth with his grin.
      "Yes." Diomid grinned back.
      "Two words to your vocabulary?" Jarmin giggled. Then he laughed. "Free, free." His chuckles held more than a slight edge of madness. Arkay narrowed his eyes.
      *Let him be.* Diomid sent him.
      Then Jarmin's giggles degraded back into sobs. "Oh, Aliana. I ruined ..."
      "No" Diomid broke in.
      Jarmin stuck his tongue out at Diomid and sighed. "Spoil all my fun." His pout would have looked far more appropriate on a Diomid's son Dimitri, who was only thirteen.
      "You look like Dimitri." Aliana kissed Jarmin's nose. "Oh, Jarmin." She flung herself on her mate, knocking Sevrin out of the way. "I love thee, I love thee, I love thee." Her repetitions were punctuated with kisses. Arkay had to chuckle. He stroked Jarmin's ankles.
      "Ooooh, feels good." Jarmin flexed his feet with more than a few cracks and pops.
      "You been letting your partners step on them?" Arkay asked with a grin.
      "Not lately." He nuzzled Aliana's neck. Then he nibbled at it. "You taste good. Feel good too. Been too long. Want you, my mate, my love, my heart's desire."
      "Soon, Jarmin." She said softly, still caressing him gently.

Chapter 20

      Jarmin felt the most insane wash of euphoria he had ever known slide over his mind. It was like looking through glass, glass that transformed the world into glimmers of silky colors. He drifted in its wake, feeling heat slide through his limbs, bringing them back to him.
      He knew he was babbling, but it felt so good. Diomid's face was haloed with golden light. I love you too. Traipsed through what was left of his mind. There were dark, sharp corners beneath the waves but every time one of them poked through the surface, Diomid hammered it down with a large pink mallet.
      Then there was Aliana. Soft, silky, compliant. Her body wrapped around his, a glove made for his long, slender hands. He held those hands against her, slipping them inside her clothes. Warm water slithered over his arms, washing him clean.
      "Easy, lad." Arkay's voice came out of the fog. "You're not post."
      A light on the distant shore beckoned. Moans like foghorns on the cape echoed in his head.
      "No he's so out of it I'm surprised he isn't seeing little green men." Diomid's voice bubbled and chortled to the surface of the blue green sea. Bright silver bubbles burst on the surface. "Goodness, Arkay. How much did you give him?"
      "Three-eighths." A mockingbird dipped its head toward the water. Fascinated, Jarmin saw the white flash on its throat and tail flicker into stars in a black sky.
      "Jarmin, can you hear me?" Silver spray leaped into the sky, glistening against the bright moon. "Arkay, he's hallucinating."
      "Well, yes, what did you expect?" The moon danced behind the echoing songbird. A single dark feather stroked his face. The sound of wing beats echoed like thunder. "It isn't Larilin or hashish."
      "I've never seen Halirin used for this purpose." Rocks slid down the face of the cliff. A gold web of light deflected them out into the dark ocean. Cool water rose from the spring beneath his feet. "Sorry about that, lad." The sweet water was like honey on his tongue. "How do you feel?"
      "Not yet, Diomid." A warm breath of wind tickled his arms. Silky smooth hair traced their length. He moaned and opened his eyes. There were people here. Indigo eyes called to his own.
      "Pretty." He reached for them.
      "Not quite lad."
      They changed to midnight dark. "I'm here, Jarmin." The bed turned slick and soft beneath his hands. He pressed it to his chest. Perfect curves of infinity filled his hands.
      "Aliana." He purred, tasting honey and cloves on his tongue. "Oh, my beauty, my love." The cloves turned to cinnamon and mint.
      "Now I know you are hallucinating." Laughter rang from the farthest stars, freeing them to dance in the night.
      "Not as long as you are here." He buried himself in her hair, smelling the rosemary and citrus scent of her love.
      At first, Aliana was taken aback by Jarmin's extravagant monologues. His words seemed to make little sense, tripping from his tongue like rain. Then, as she listened closer, she could hear the poetry to them. Flashes of sensation, taste, scent, sight, hearing, even touch impinged on her own. The flickers covered the entire spectrum of possibility and then some.
      *Is this normal?* She asked Arkay timidly, wrapping herself around Jarmin after he had deftly removed her borrowed clothes.
      *For Halirin. I gave him a very large dose. He'll be hallucinating for at least another half hour or so.* Arkay sighed, still stroking Jarmin's feet, even through the blankets now covering them. He caught one of Aliana's and rubbed it too. *We'll see how he does when he comes down the first time. We may have to do this more than once.*
      *I hope not.* Diomid's astringent tone made Aliana flatten herself over Jarmin even more protectively.
      *Hush, Diomid.* Arkay snapped back. *My call. I know, to the thirty-second, the effects of Halirin. Better to deal with a brief period of withdrawal once, than to go through a roller coaster with him crashing all the way back to catatonia.*
      "So be it." Diomid sighed, stroking Jarmin's hair back from his face. Jarmin nuzzled his hand, his eyes black and unseeing. "Do you want him to go all the way through transfer like this?"
      "Maybe. An early transfer. I don't want him so post he shatters again. Next month is soon enough to test his strength." Arkay's eyes narrowed again. "I won't be having problems with the blood relationship here." He looked towards the door.
      Nashen walked in and then the faint lines around his mouth tightened. "I had heard, but I didn't know it was this bad."
      "Worse." Arkay said darkly. "We'll be staying here for a few days."
      The only comment Nashen made was a raised eyebrow.
      "Diomid doesn't have the experience with Halirin." Arkay answered the silent question.
      "And you do?" Then Nashen blinked and looked completely stunned. "Oh, Arkay, I didn't know." His first reaction was to coo and cuddle his mate, looking for all the world like a great egret fussing over her chick. "Why didn't you tell me?"
      "It wasn't necessary." Arkay's grin was more than a bit sheepish. "It was quite a few years ago."
      "Of course I'll help." Nashen kissed Arkay on the top of the head. "What do you want me to do?"
      "Keep an eye on us is all." His eyes flickered towards the capped vial.
      "No, Arkay." Aliana reared up out of the bedding. "Don't lie."
      "You're right, little one." His smile was more than a bit crooked. "Keep me from that shenned stuff."
      "Is it that dangerous?" Nashen's eyes went huge.
      "Yes" Arkay growled, his jaw clenched. "Get it out of my sight."
      "Certainly." It vanished and Arkay gave a heavy sigh.
      "Thank you." Arkay grinned wryly. "It's been well over thirty years and I still want it." Nashen gave a low whistle. "Not that badly, but I don't want it open and available anywhere I could easily use it."
      "I think I understand." Aliana thought of the mad rush Jarmin had shown when the drug first hit. She could well understand someone wanting such a thing. Of course she had also gotten the basic teaching about the hell of withdrawal from drugs like it as well. Hopefully, Jarmin would not have such a hard time getting away from it.
      "Right now, little one, you should be concentrating on Jarmin." Arkay's eyes glimmered. "He's your mate."
      "But I don't know what to do." Her voice quivered nearly as much as her hand as she stroked Jarmin's flank. This had been the crux of the issue. Even after the brief period of time he had been with Sevrin, she could see how he had been changed. The hot, painful sores were now clean and healing. And the dark, sour, musky smell which had been growing over time was now gone.
      "We know, Aliana." Arkay grabbed her ankle. "If you like, I, and Nashen can help."
      "What about me?" Diomid's grin was a bit crooked.
      "Or me?" Sevrin chuckled. "This is my home."
      Overwhelmed, Aliana hid her face against Jarmin's neck. The soft feel of his skin made her hum softly. Sinking into the cool, dancing life of his body, the feel of warm fur slithered around her. Aliana sighed and relaxed even more. The faintest hint of salt touched her tongue. Need wasn't yet hard, but she let the cool darkness call to the shimmering life she held in her arms.
      Shadows rustled in the corners. A tiny black mouse looked up at him with midnight eyes. Jarmin reached down and let it run into his hand. It curled up in his palm. Radiating contentment, the rodent sighed. "Hello, little one." He stroked the creature's soft fur with one fingertip.
      "Beloved." Her whiskers twitched cheerfully. "Feels good." The tiny creature butted his fingertip with the top of her head. Minuscule claws grasped the lines of his hand. Her tail tried to wrap around the base of his thumb, but it was too short.
      The feel of it was nearly that of a tentacle and Jarmin blinked. Long, silky black hair had drifted across his shoulder. Tentatively, he brushed it over Aliana's back so he could see her face. "I love thee." He murmured in her ear.
      "Feeling better?" Her hand tracing over his other arm made him flush hot. He licked his lips, feeling the cracks of neglect and dry skin catch on his tongue.
      "Yes, much." Despite the slight swaying of the bed and odd spinning motions every time he moved his head, Jarmin tried to get some of the kinks out of his neck. The instant he moved, aches in all his muscles and joints flattened him back onto the bed. "I think." Memory seemed only a daydream. "Oh, my body hurts." He breathed, realizing a headache was making his eyes tighten in their sockets.
      "I'll bet it does." Arkay's hand came to rest on his chest. "Don't get up." He said softly. "You are still very ill. What do you remember?"
      "Not much." He sighed, running his hand down Aliana's back. Far too many ribs, even for a Sime, were nearly bare beneath his fingertips. Then he looked down at himself and cringed. "I can see why you say I'm not well." Something was standing between himself and the pain the numerous sores and worn places on his skin indicated. "What happened?"
      Arkay grimaced and sighed. "I'm sorry to say this Jarmin, but,"
      Jarmin struggled to sit up. Aliana said, "No, lie back, love." The warm, nearly hot, feel of her body against his was familiar and at the same time entirely alien. Then he noticed she wasn't wearing anything at all and tried to move away. Her face fell and she let him go.
      "Surprised is all." He said softly, placing her hand safely on his chest again. Her fingers twined with his soft hair, teasing at the short curls. A shiver of pleasure at the touch banished the aches. "You like touching me?"
      "Yes, I do." Her grin barely made her lips move, but the memory of far better times made his heart pound at the reminder. "Very much, my Jarmin."
      "You would have me as I am?" The rain pattered down against wavy glass against a gray, overcast sky.
      "I would have thee before any man in the world, Jarmin." Her forceful tone made him look back at her. "I would have thee if ever all I could do would be to look at thee from afar and worship thy brilliance."
      "Good one." Arkay murmured softly.
      "You stay out of this." Jarmin snapped and then blinked. "I'm sorry, I'm not usually so aggressive, but this is none of your business, despite the fact Aliana is your daughter." His tongue tangled with his teeth. "What am I saying? I did not mean to give such double faced apology."
      "You are under the influence of a drug which should help keep you from hurting yourself further until you can learn to heal yourself." Arkay put his hand under Jarmin's chin and tipped his face towards the light. It was stunningly bright and he flinched away. "No, I have to see your eyes." The man's hand was nearly as hot as Aliana's and Jarmin knew any resistance he made would be paid for in pain by Arkay. He let Arkay look, even when tears came to his own eyes.
      "Let go." He snapped and then whimpered.
      Before Jarmin could apologize again, Arkay said, "Good, good, perfect." And shielded Jarmin's eyes from the light. "Better."
      "Much, after nearly blinding me." This time he did bite his tongue.
      "Stop that, Jarmin." Arkay glared at him.
      "I'm being a boor." Jarmin complained, and carefully examined the fine lines of Aliana's hair tracing over his chest.
      "I like it when you speak your mind, beloved. Talk to us." Her grin pulled him out of his reticence.
      "As long as Arkay stops baiting me." Slipped out and he growled at himself. "Argh!" He finally yelled. "Can't I keep anything to myself?"
      "No" Arkay said simply. "You can't. You almost destroyed yourself with your reticence. Now, you have no choice. Relax and enjoy it." His grin was darker than anything Jarmin had ever seen. "The drug we gave you removes your internal censor. It is sleeping happily in a little corner of your mind dreaming of butterflies. Everyone you talk with for the next few days will know this and know you have no control."
      "How embarrassing." His hand slid down Aliana's arm. "Oh, you feel so good." The firmness of tentacle sheathes pulled at his own wants.
      "Would you like to get up and about?" Arkay's voice interrupted Jarmin's absolute fascination with the sleek young woman he held in his arms.
      "Oh, yes." He tore his gaze away from her bare wrist. A few silky fine black hairs seemed to trace towards the back of her hand. Even as he watched, one of her dorsals emerged and seemed to call to him. A low hum began in the back of his throat.
      "If you're going to get up, you have to stop drooling over Aliana." Arkay's tone was more than slightly amused.
      Reluctantly, Jarmin looked up at him. His eyes narrowed. "She's mine." He reached out and clasped her hand.
      "Yes, I am." She chuckled softly. "I'm not going anywhere."
      "That's right." He said, snorting proudly. "I won't let you. You're my Sime."
      "I am." She laughed, shaking her head. "I'm thine, Jarmin."
      "Good." He looked into her dark eyes again. They were soft, gazing at him with near adoration. "Oh, pretty. Pretty Sime." The darkness of them seemed to echo the faint sense of need he had from her. But it wasn't anywhere near as much as he wanted. With a heavy sigh, he tried to look as pitiful as he could.
      "Silly man, I won't be ready for you for a few days yet."
      "Why not?" He knew why, but it didn't seem fair. A heavy sigh blew out his lips. Then he realized he was pouting. "That is truly disgusting." He told himself, nearly chuckling.
      "Why don't we give you something else to think about, young one." Arkay offered him a hand. Gingerly he took it, careful of the swollen, hot joints. "They'll be a lot better after transfer and this storm has passed. I did not always have such an easy life." After Jarmin sat up, hissing slightly at the all over ache in his muscles, he saw the scars tracing up Arkay's wrists and well past his elbows.
      "Those look like they hurt." His finger ran up them, over the large number of bracelets on Arkay's wrist. "Not the bracelets." He added quickly.
      "They did." Arkay took a deep breath. "It was a long time ago. I was burned, repeatedly, badly."
      "Those look like fire scars, not transfer burn scars." Fell out of his mouth.
      "Hush, Jarmin." Aliana flinched back.
      "No, it's good he's asking." Arkay looked tense and drawn. "They are fire scars. My first long term partner went mad. He could start fires with the power of his mind. These," He turned his hands back over, "were the result. He is long dead."
      "Ah." Jarmin shivered. "I've been transfer burned, but Simes tend to keep Gens away from thing which might be even hot here."
      "I would have if I had a choice in the matter." Arkay's mouth turned up in what would have looked like a grin if the rest of his expression hadn't been so grim. "As it was, I survived."
      "If you can survive that, I can survive lots of things." Finally he managed to lever himself to his feet.

Chapter 21

      "This will be huge on me." Jarmin protested as he looked at the rather large bundle of black cloth Arkay had dumped on the foot of the bed.
      "It's either that or Sevrin's and he is even bigger than I am." Arkay gave him one of those looks. For some reason he reminded Jarmin of an old, rather crotchety eagle at that very moment. Arkay threw back his head and laughed.
      "I didn't even say anything this time." Jarmin felt his eyes widen.
      "I know you didn't." Arkay shook his head. "But do I really look that scruffy to you?"
      "No, just old." The taste of shoe leather didn't get any more palatable with time, Jarmin noticed. "You know something, I don't even get this rude when I'm drunk."
      "Obviously, you've never had a broken nose." The very tall, elderly channel who was Arkay's partner raised a silver eyebrow.
      "You're Tzer's father." Jarmin blurted out.
      "Well, yes." Nashen tipped his head. "The family resemblance does tend to be a bit strong. I am Aliana's father as well."
      "And I am Aliana's blood grandfather and acting father." Arkay echoed his channel's gesture.
      "How many fathers do you have." He turned to her.
      "Three." She shrugged. "They multiplied while I wasn't looking."
      "Good trick." He said brightly. "How many mothers?"
      "Only one." She laughed. "Actually my blood parents are still in Moskva, as far as I know."
      "They are." Arkay picked up one of the black garments and shook it out. "I haven't worn this in years."
      "Not since last time you wanted to sleep through a state function." Nashen's comment had all the archness of many of the long standing marriages Jarmin had seen.
      "Here, hold this." He handed the robes to Nashen. "Now, stand still." Arkay's hands seemed to touch him all over, all at once. It was and it wasn't like zlinning. Nashen's tentacles extended. Aliana gave a low growl from behind him. "Hush, Aliana. Nashen can't take transfer from anyone but me." Arkay's voice was nearly as feral.
      "Yes, otyet." Her voice slid around warily.
      "Aliana." Nashen snapped, hard.
      "My Lord." Aliana's field flattened. "At your will."
      "Yes." His eyes blazed. Jarmin felt like he was between a pair of Simes about to fight over a pen Gen, him. "You will obey me in this."
      Aliana's fingers landed on his bare shoulders and he could feel her possessively wrap him in her nager. It felt like the sun made liquid.
      "Aliana." Arkay's eyes went smokey grey. "You will obey."
      "No." Her low snarl seemed to come from some animal not at all human.
      "Stop it." Jarmin covered one of her hands with his. "I'm not going away."
      "Jarmin, step aside." Arkay said softly, gesturing with his hand.
      "No." He refused, watching both of them warily. Nashen's jaw clenched, muscles bunching near his ear. One of Nashen's hands raised and he could see a trace of blue light caress his fingers. All the hairs on the back of Jarmin's neck stood on end. "She's mine."
      "If she goes rogue, she'll be dead." Arkay said flatly and Jarmin felt his weight shift.
      "I won't." He snapped back, staring into Arkay's eyes.
      *Do it Jarmin, or she will go rogue.* Arkay's voice echoed in his skull. *She won't be injured, but she has to know to control her instincts to protect you. Aliana is human, don't steal her humanity like this.* The last made sense as he felt the tension build between Aliana and Tzer's father.
      "I'm sorry, Aliana." He said softly and ducked away from her hands. As soon as Arkay wrapped his arms around him he turned to look at her. "I love thee."
      Aliana looked at Jarmin, so fragile and injured in the clasp of another. Red seemed to tinge the scene. Her laterals throbbed in their sheathes. He's mine. Her mouth watered.
      "Yes, Jarmin is yours, but you have to let me touch him." Arkay said, his field staring at her intently. She zlinned dancing lights, now nearly still, all focused on her. Nashen's breath whistled between his teeth, but Aliana could zlin the rigid control he held.
      The difference between the steel discipline in Nashen's field and her memory of Jon's attempt to teach her discipline broke through the rage threatening to overwhelm her. She bowed her head.
      "Thank you." Nashen sighed, seeming almost to collapse on himself. A flicker of her attention turned to Arkay. Nashen slapped her aside. It only stung a little bit, but she looked up like a fly bitten horse. "Yes, Arkay is mine. I can let someone else zlin him closely, but it takes a control you don't have yet."
      "Then why should I let Arkay do it to him." She knew her tone was surly, but at least her words were good.
      "Because I said so." Nashen's field returned to its steel backed strength. "And you must learn to. Arkay can't steal his selyn. But after transfer, you must allow me or Vanesa to zlin him."
      "I would rather it were you." Muscles relaxed under her nearly forgotten training she had learned as a child.
      "Good. Vanesa is an indifferent fighter at best and I would worry you might hurt her if you struck at her." Nashen sighed. "I hate this." He said to Arkay.
      "I know, love." Arkay sighed in response. "But it has to be done."
      "Why?" Jarmin asked suddenly.
      "Because if she does not learn to deal with her aggression, she might go rogue, kill to defend you when there is no requirement." Arkay's hands rested on Jarmin's shoulders. "We expect people to be more than mere animals."
      "I would hope so." He said brightly. "Oh, sorry Aliana." Jarmin's eyes lowered.
      "You are right." She cocked a hip. "Why don't you get dressed, love."
      Arkay finally felt the stress run out of Aliana and he waved Nashen back. He hated this too, but he hated dealing with a rogue Lord even worse, particularly when it meant the death of someone who held such incredible promise, not to mention his own grand daughter. Jarmin shivered in his hands. Carefully he sensed the drug wearing out of his system.
      Jarmin eyed the black kador dubiously.
      "In it, no one will be able to zlin you." Aliana said, her distinctive grin now returned to its rightful place. Jarmin seemed to melt at the sight.
      "Oh, really, like Mikhail's?"
      "Yes, exactly like." Aliana told him, pulling on her own pants.
      "They also look warm. Warm would be good right now. I'm freezing." Jarmin's teeth chattered. Arkay scanned him a closely as he could. No, it wasn't cold causing the shivers. Jarmin rubbed his arms. A faint trace of sweat shone on his brow.
      "We have something to do first." Arkay's gut clenched at the thought. "If you would, Nashen." He held out his hand.
      "Can I get dressed?" A very faint trace of whine entered Jarmin's voice. Arkay's eyes narrowed even as he accepted the vial from Nashen. He pocketed it.
      "Yes, certainly." He gathered up the Kador and threw it over his shoulder. "First you should put on those." Arkay pointed towards the loose silk pants and tunic.
      Aliana shook them out. "These shouldn't rub." Her grimace as she saw the now healing sores Jarmin's clothes had left on his body was too sad for words.
      "Not your fault, Aliana." Arkay told her. "You didn't know."
      "I should have." Her hand traced over the worst of them, over Jarmin's hip bones and where the shoulder straps of a heavy pack would rest.
      "Aliana." Arkay clucked at her. "Give up trying to land on your own sword. It's messy."
      "Oh" She said quietly and blushed.
      "I'll loan you one of mine if you really want to do it right." Nashen snorted.
      "No" Jarmin protested, almost shivering too hard to get his shirt on. Aliana took it from him and deftly slipped it on him. He caressed her face. It was so sweet. "Thank you for caring for me. I know you did the best you possibly could." His words were beginning to slur.
      "Sit." Arkay took the vial from his pocket. The needle on the bedside table seemed to mock him.
      "Yes, Hajene." Jarmin's field was flattening out. He almost fell. Quickly, Arkay set up a quarter. Forcing himself not to think about it, he clamped Jarmin's upper arm with his hand and deftly injected the drug. Jarmin's head fell back and he gave a great hissing sigh. Arkay shivered in memory. Nashen's hand reached over and plucked the syringe from his hand.
      "Thank you." Arkay realized his heart was pounding. It would feel so good to not have those aches and pains. His demon told him.
      "Shut up." He snarled back at it.
      "Arkay?" Nashen asked, seeming taken aback.
      "Sorry." He looked at his hands. Most of the needle tracks had faded with the years, but some still showed. "Thank you for helping." Arkay didn't want to think of how close he had come to missing with that needle.
      "Any way I can." Nashen murmured.
      When the first rush of pleasure subsided, Jarmin looked at Arkay's white face. "No, I won't ask you to do that again, Arkay."
      "Hush." Arkay said quietly. "I want to help. No harm was done."
      "I'm just a Donor." He grimaced, clenching his hands. "Nothing special."
      "I love thee." Aliana murmured in his ear.
      "Oh." He blushed. "I'm not used to accepting help."
      "Get used to it." Her defiant tone sent a wave of guilty pleasure up his arms.
      "I'm not worthy of it." It seemed his tongue was out of control again.
      "As long as you feel that way, then I'll have to do my best to convince you otherwise." Her thumb smoothed away the tiny spot of blood on his arm.
      "Very well done, youngster." Arkay seemed to be getting control of himself back. "Honestly, I'm not going to do it again. It's too risky."
      "Thank you." Jarmin told him. "I appreciate your honesty."
      Arkay simply stroked the heavy fabric of the robe over his shoulder. "It is the best way." Now Jarmin could see where Aliana got her grin from.
      I want to be like that. The sudden thought surprised him. The strength of the old man was stunning with its depth and richness. This was a man who had lived through horrible things and come out the other side stronger and more human, not broken and shattered by his experiences. Jarmin sat up straighter and looked Arkay in the face. Yes, there were heavy pain lines and stress lines, but there were also deeply carved laugh lines as well.
      "Here." Arkay gestured for him to rise. The robes were heavy, and scented with things he could hardly even think to name, lavender was only one of them. Breathing deeply as it covered his face, he realized much of the scent was Arkay himself. It gave him an odd sense of connectedness with the old man.
      He had been right, it was huge. Fabric pooled around his feet and the sleeves reached well past his fingertips. "Don't suffocate me." He quailed as Arkay tried to cover his face with another piece of cloth.
      "It's only the veil, little one." He said softly.
      "Oh." Jarmin's sheepish grin was soon covered up. A fine cord ran between his eyes, holding up the sheer veil. For a moment, he was looking at it and Aliana giggled at him.
      "It takes a bit of practice." Arkay said softly.
      Jarmin shook his head and tiny metal pieces tinkled on the front edge of the hood. A sense of warmth and quiet he had never known seemed to overwhelm him. Arkay snagged a discarded belt off a chair and then put it back. "Just be careful not to trip over the hem."
      Gingerly Jarmin picked it up in his fingers. "I've never worn a dress before."
      "You look splendid." Aliana turned him back around. "Your eyes are exquisite."
      "They're the only thing showing." He murmured.
      "And your voice." She purred. "I like this."
      "You would." Nashen looked at his partner with an odd, possessive glance. "It is a bit of a power thing, to know you are the only one who is allowed to zlin your partner."
      "It makes me feel safe." Jarmin realized he didn't have to worry about hurting her at all now. A silent shout of glee made him want to dance. "Oh, I like this." He bounced onto his toes.
      "I thought you would." Arkay grinned at him. "I cart the thing around with me because some mornings I just don't want to deal with anyone."
      "And you like to catch naps." Nashen chuckled. "If you let the hood slide down, no one can see if you're awake or asleep. I've even caught the occasional Sime bundled up in one of those, we call them kadors, to hide from the world."
      The sense of absolute freedom was heady. He caught Aliana's eye and she was grinning from ear to ear. "Shall we go?" He offered her his arm.
      "Certainly, m'Lord." She took it and rose to her feet. As soon as he tried to move though, he realized how heavy the thing was. Nearly tripping over the hem, he stumbled. Her fingers tightened on his arm as he caught his balance. Now, far more carefully, he picked up the hem and headed for the door.
      Aliana watched as Jarmin and Sevrin lit into each other again. Anyone who didn't know the two of them would be horrified. She wasn't entirely sure of the matter either.
      "You're an idiot, Sevrin." Jarmin echoed the familiar gesture of flicking his hands to make a point.
      "How so?" Sevrin's field was alight with good humor, despite the snappish tone to his words. "Simes have to be taken care of. They are weaker than we are."
      "After Aliana dragged me across half the countryside?" Jarmin pointed out.
      "Sure, some of them can show some maturity if they have to, but it isn't the norm." Sevrin shrugged. "They're so driven by their bodies."
      "So the Gen is responsible for not getting themselves killed?" Jarmin's field gave a flicker of real trepidation. "How Distecht."
      "No, I wasn't talking about transfer." Sevrin nearly spat. "Get your head out of your arms, Jarmin. There's more to life than that."
      "How so?" Jarmin echoed Sevrin's earlier question.
      "Transfer between peers is a once a month event." Sevrin gave the impression of delicately tiptoeing around the subject. "It isn't the central part of life."
      "So you say." Jarmin gave Aliana such a hot look she quivered inside.
      "There speaks youth and inexperience." Sevrin pointed out. Arkay leaned back in his chair and snorted.
      "Did you have something to add?" He pointed at Aliana's father.
      "No, not at all, you're doing just fine." Arkay's overwhelming field seemed to fill the room, nearly outzlinning Jarmin's. "Go right ahead."
      Sevrin snorted and gave Arkay a gentle swat with his own field. "As I was saying, Simes have to be taken care of. They'll drown if you leave them in the rain."
      "Like some birds?" Jarmin did not zlin convinced. "I'm sorry, but they are people too."
      "I'm not saying they aren't." Sevrin sighed. "Only that they can't see past their own nagers. It's up to us to guide them on long term planning and keep them from hurting themselves."
      "Like children?" Jarmin sounded even more skeptical.
      "Almost." Sevrin stated plainly with a nageric shrug.
      "But Nashen ran Fatima for years without a Sharm Lord at his side." Arkay pointed out, his field blazing with possessive pride.
      "True, some are more mature than others, but still, there is a cost." Sevrin wrapped his fingers around his knee. "Nashen, before Arkay, was very, very fragile in transfer."
      "True enough. At least every other month I would shen out at least once." Nashen flipped his hair back. Arkay caught it and started unbraiding it. "Here?" Nashen turned his head to look at Arkay with almost a preening gesture.
      "I want to touch." Arkay's field warmed and wrapped itself around Nashen. "Besides, we should be in seclusion."
      "In other words, you're amorous." Nashen let the tip of his tongue show between his lips. Arkay leaned forward and kissed it. "Yes?"
      "Very." Arkay draped Nashen's long, silver hair over his wrists. The feel of it interacting with the sensitized nerves made Aliana squirm in her seat. "I love thee." Arkay's voice dropped even more into a purring rumble. "Is it so wrong I want thee?"
      "No, not at all." Nashen reached back and caught Arkay's long, heavy braid. "I want thee with all the need in my soul." He started picking out the knots in the cords Arkay had used to tie off the ends of his hair.
      "Yes, well, as you can zlin, transfer is mutual." Sevrin blushed furiously and looked away. Aliana thought it was extremely arousing, watching the two men running their fingers through each other's hair. "Foreplay is usually done in private."
      "You're a prude sometimes, Sevrin." Vanesa looked up from her book. "Love you anyways though."
      "Um, yes." He coughed into his hand. "As I was saying, Gens have to keep their mind on the long range. Simes don't have the mental equipment for it. Not to say they are entirely limited. In an emergency, I would much rather have Vanesa call the shots. She's quicker off the mark than I am."
      "Thank you." Her arch tone was backed by a nageric chuckle of amusement. "Glad to hear I'm good for something other than getting your field stripped out once a month and bearing children."
      "I would never say such a thing." Sevrin gave a flick of total offense at the suggestion, entirely ruined by everyone else's ripples of amusement to their fields. "It's all biology, Jarmin." He sniffed. "Once they get transfer on their mind, all their brains dribble down into their arms."
      "Hardly." Nashen said dryly. Then Arkay leaned forward and nipped at his neck. His head tipped back and he sighed, his field melting into a black pool of need.
      Arkay chuckled softly. "Oh?" He asked, letting one of his hands glide over Nashen's wrist.
      "Well, there are exceptions." Nashen's eyes slowly came back into focus. "Besides, you cheated."
      "How so?" Arkay's fingertips traced Nashen's arm. "I'm still under control."
      "If you keep doing that, you won't be." Nashen nearly hissed, his display of need darkening even further.
      "As you can zlin," Sevrin coughed again. "Yes, Simes have a difficult time thinking during part of the month."
      "It isn't like you don't get amorous either, Sevrin." Vanesa tapped her fingers on the table in front of her. "Don't listen to him, Jarmin, he's just jealous your transfer is before his."
      "Vanesa." Sevrin's field twined about his body just as someone would pull their skirts away from a mud puddle. "It is easier for us to think about other things than transfer, even in the last twenty four hours."
      "He lies." Vanesa grinned evilly. "He's bad, absolutely hopeless for at least a day before transfer. I'm more stable than he is then."
      "Yes, but I don't go around for an entire week beforehand getting my own arms soggy."
      "You're digging your hole deeper, Sevrin." Jarmin pointed out. "I like it when Aliana touches me like that." His field seemed to invite her closer. Shyly, she went and sat at his feet. He blinked at her in surprise. "I didn't expect you at my feet."
      "I want to be here." All of Aliana's upbringing, all her knowledge of how people interacted clicked into place. "It's safe here." She leaned her head against Jarmin's knee. His fingers twined in her hair. At last. She thought to herself in utter relief. Her hand slid under his robe and she caressed his calf.
      "Feel." Sevrin's field danced in amusement. "She's content there. You're protecting her. It isn't a thing of life or death, but rather comfort and security."
      "Yes, I think I do now." Jarmin's fingers slid around behind her ear.

Chapter 22

      Jarmin's memory of the horrible trek across the country had returned to him, dimmed and distanced by the drug he was taking. He was still of two minds about it. Admittedly, it had gotten him out of the horrible catatonic state he had been in, but now it seemed to have a chain around his throat.
      At least Diomid had showed him how to take it himself. Every four to six hours. It was nearing four. He gave a heavy sigh and wished he didn't have to get up. "Sit" Aliana said and got up. Her arms hung loosely at her sides. Avidly, he watched as her fingers seemed to caress the vial.
      "Look at her, don't focus on the Halirin." Arkay warned gently.
      "I wasn't." He moved his gaze to her forearm, studying the sweeping lines of her tentacle sheathes. "I'm down to an eighth." Jarmin said carefully, trying to keep his mind off the stuff.
      "Good." Arkay said softly. "See if you can go down to a sixteenth."
      Something within him snarled at the idea. "Yes, I will." His jaw clenched on the words.
      He shifted his weight in preparation to turn around. "No, don't." Arkay told him and he shivered. "Don't hide it."
      "At your will." He met Arkay's eyes boldly.
      "Not quite the response I was looking for, but it will do." Arkay's eyes showed a grim amusement. "Your will, Jarmin."
      "Yes, quite." The reminder seemed to make his hand relax. He noted he had drawn nearly a quarter into the syringe and his chest tightened. With a whimper he put most of it back. Only a shade under an eighth remained. His hand trembled as he forced it down to a sixteenth. More, give me more. A voice whispered in the back of his mind.
      "Do you want me to do it?" Aliana asked quietly, her voice trembling. Her face was white and drawn with fear.
      "No." Jarmin realized how addicted he already was to the drug. It was even scarier in some ways than before. Before his life was out of his control because of things he had little or no control over. Now, the control was in his hands. Deliberately, he handed the vial back to Aliana. He didn't want to think of how little there was left, even though it was still not quite half empty.
      The tiny sting of the needle was nothing compared to the sweet rush of pleasure which followed. It was short, but oh it was sweet. Like the clearest breath of wind on a mountaintop or fresh spring water on a summer day. "More." The dark voice told him.
      "Easy, Jarmin." Arkay swallowed heavily. "You're doing quite well."
      He yanked control back and handed the syringe to Aliana. "How so? I want it." His body trembled with how badly he wanted more.
      "As do I. Let it go, think about Aliana." Arkay's voice was nearly as seductive as the one in his mind. "When you're post, you can quit now if you like."
      "I think I would like that." He looked at her and smiled. "I would like that very much. I look forward to making love with thee again." Jarmin captured her hand and slid it under his veil. His tongue slipped between two of her fingers, making them slide against each other easily.
      "As do I." Her eyelids drooped as she gave him a look of utter longing.
      Arkay kept an eye on the two young people. Then he saw Nashen do the same. "Can you wait, beloved?" His own body ached all over with holding back, but he was worried about them. Both he and Nashen would be useless for hours after transfer.
      "Yes, I can." He murmured, lipping at Arkay's ear. "It will mean going into attrition though."
      "Ouch." He leaned back so he could look into Nashen's fascinating silver eyes. "Are you sure?" He wasn't so sure of the idea himself.
      "Yes. I want to keep an eye on them as well." Nashen's voice seemed even less strained than his own. "Lets see if we can kick them off here and now."
      "And follow once we are sure they're safe?" Arkay's nerves quivered a bit at the idea. "I'm not so sure about bedding you in front of my grand daughter."
      "True enough, but she has to learn some time." Nashen's quicksilver field tickled at his chin. Arkay looked into his lover's eyes again. "Besides, you are the most wonderful lover I've ever known."
      "Even better than Avilan." Arkay grimaced.
      "Even." Nashen kissed him on the nose.
      "You missed." He growled, pulling Nashen in closer.
      "I think we should leave." He heard Sevrin say. "No, you stay, Aliana."
      "But they're." Her voice quavered.
      "You too Jarmin." Vanesa said. There was a brief rustle of paper. "We'll be back later, like tomorrow. The bed in the other room is large enough for six, the four of you should have plenty of room."
      "I didn't mean to kick you out of your home." Jarmin protested.
      "We are loaning it to you." Sevrin said and then the door clicked shut behind them. Momentarily, Arkay gave himself over to Nashen's insistent kisses. A heartfelt groan escaped as they ended. More than a bit dazed, he tried to pull back and focus on Aliana. Then Nashen's hands slid up the inside of his shirt. Need as black as night wrenched at his self control.
      "Nashen, love." Arkay breathed into his mate's long silver hair. "We should wait." No matter how much he didn't want to.
      "I was only making sure you still would want me later." His normally fairly high tenor was even sweeter than usual. "I love thee with all my soul, Alahin of my heart's true match." He added in Arabic.
      "I would want thee beyond cost if all the lords of hell did bar my way and all the terrors of darkness threatened my soul." But he couldn't help but clutch Nashen to him. "I really don't want to wait." He breathed as quietly as he could, not daring to send the thought as he was already on the verge of taking Nashen, no matter what their plans might have been.
      Breathless, Aliana watched Arkay grab Nashen. It was quite forceful. Isn't he afraid of hurting him? She wondered of Arkay. Then she wondered if she and Jarmin should really be here.
      "I'm not so sure about this, Aliana." Jarmin's fingers twined in her hair restlessly. "They look a bit involved."
      Then Arkay pulled Nashen's head back by his hair and kissed him, zlinning and looking as if he would devour the slighter Lord. "Oh my." She breathed, unable to zlin away. The sheer eroticism of the scene had her own laterals peeking from their sheathes. "Um, Jarmin?"
      "Yes love?" His voice was thick and strained. "Oh." He breathed as Arkay's fingernails slid over Nashen's tentacle sheathes. Aliana could almost feel the sharp pleasure of the gesture on her own forearms. "Goodness."
      "Um, yes." Arkay finally stopped what he was doing and blinked at them. "As we were discussing." He swallowed heavily and hissed through his teeth as Nashen nipped at his neck.
      "As we were discussing?" Aliana prodded, her hand sliding up the back of Jarmin's leg again. The feel of silk on skin drew her tentacles out even more. They slid the loose leg of his pants up so she could stroke the soft fur on his calf.
      "We were?" Arkay blinked again. "Oh, yes, we were. Um, Nashen, love, a moment?" He licked his lips and Aliana could clearly see his eyes try to roll up in his head as Nashen bit his shoulder. "Please?"
      "All right." Nashen's voice was husky, as if he had accidentally breathed in a bit of smoke, but the only irritation was a growing sense of wanting in the ambient. "I would not deny thee anything, my love." The sensuous dark veil he drew across the ambient though promised things Aliana would not have been able to resist.
      "Yes, Aliana, Jarmin, we had planned to stay with you while you had your transfer." Then he turned his face to Nashen, "Although I get the feeling we're going to end up with a cascade instead." He kissed Nashen on the end of the nose. "Someone here is a bit rambunctious."
      "Yes, you." Nashen rested his chin on Arkay's shoulder. "I'm just a poor little Sime."
      "Foo, a poor, little, amorous Sime." Arkay's hand spread across Nashen's back. "Anyways, go ahead and make yourselves comfortable."
      This was not a soothing thought. Aliana looked up at Jarmin shyly. He looked almost as taken aback. She had not planned on having an audience. What if he graded her performance? Jarmin's expression was identical. A wry grin escaped her control.
      Jarmin's eyes closed and he gave a soft murring sound of encouragement. Her free hand reached out to wave off the lights. It didn't work. "Shen." She muttered under her breath and looked at the light switch. Jarmin chuckled tightly.
      "You swear like I do now." He said softly.
      "I know." Her eyes flickered to her fathers, hoping they hadn't heard. From their involvement in each other, it was doubtful. Gingerly, she got to her feet and turned off the lights. Before she could get back to Jarmin, a match went scritch. Pained, she watched as Arkay lit a small oil lamp. She glared at him. He shrugged back and flicked out the match.
      At least the low light was warm. Trying to concentrate, she drew Jarmin to his feet. He stood, eyes still more than a bit tentative and wary. Zlinning behind her, Aliana led Jarmin into the other room. It was chill, the fire on the hearth having gone out long ago and so few servants to keep such things going. The light of the lamp followed them, Arkay attached to it.
      A low growl of irritation rose from her throat. Arkay only chuckled at her. He wasn't helping. Jarmin shivered slightly as a cool breeze drifted through the room. The smell of rain was being overlain by a hint of frost. It was going to get horribly cold in this room before morning.
      There was a tick of metal on stone near the fireplace. Out of the corner of her attention, she watched Arkay build up a new fire. It was odd seeing him doing such a menial task. Then she realized Jarmin was still gazing at her, getting more perturbed by the moment. "What is it, sweet?" She stroked the back of his hand. He simply flicked his head towards their company. Aliana nodded back as if to say, "I know."
      "It has to be hard having us here." Nashen said softly. "I'm sorry. Does it help any to know I am probably as uneasy about the situation as you are?"
      "Yes, it does." Jarmin said with a deep sigh. "I'm not entirely sure of what I am doing."
      "Which is why we wanted to keep an eye on you." Arkay sat on the apron, holding out his arms for Nashen. "It is hard for me as well. We are usually very private, Nashen and I."
      "I'm afraid you're going to grade me." Aliana blurted out.
      "No, little one." Arkay said, patting the stone next to him. "Come sit a moment, both of you."
      "Certainly." Jarmin seemed willing to do anything Arkay asked. Aliana figured he could have a far worse role model, like say Sevrin. The fire was barely started, but it was already giving off a bit of heat. Arkay blew out the lamp. Orange and red flames flickered among the logs. Deep shadows hid most of the room.
      "Now, most young Lords are paired with older, more experienced Sharm Lords." Arkay put his arm around her. "You are obviously bonded quite tightly to Jarmin. I wouldn't take that away from you, but it isn't as secure as I would like. He's obviously quite inexperienced and at the moment, unable to feel any pain if you accidentally hurt him. Together those two things make a bit of caution wise."
      "I've been a Donor for nearly a decade, Arkay." Jarmin's bold front was more than a bit tragic, all things considered.
      "Ah, but we recently had a case where an ex-Techton Donor nearly got himself killed by his partner because we didn't know what his limitations were." Arkay sighed. "We almost lost both of them. I don't want to take that risk again."
      "You're talking about Tzer and Mikhail, aren't you?" Aliana thought of the image Tzer had sent her. "I never knew why he had been put under ban."
      "What?" Jarmin straightened up. "What was done to that wonderful young man?"
      Nashen grimaced and clutched Arkay's hand. "Tzer thought he could handle being in a large mixed crowd within a day of transfer, his fourth transfer. Mikhail yanked him out of the throne room when he collapsed, but instead of waiting for Tzer to fully recover, he tried to give Tzer transfer anyways. He turned his back on Tzer. Of course, Tzer tried to kill him. Mikhail managed to, somehow, give over control so far he wasn't killed only nagerically raped. Then Tzer was so post, he sexually raped Mikhail, nearly murdering him in the process.
      "It was ugly, to say the least. We sent Mikhail back here, supposedly to heal and put Tzer under ban for his crimes." Nashen waved away Jarmin's question. "We don't recognize a lack of culpability in our legal code. If someone commits a crime, they are punished for it." Jarmin blanched. "Yes, it's harsh, but necessary. We would have far more kills if the defense of being driven to an action by outside forces had any validity. Anyways, the ban is a small metal ring placed through one lateral sheath. It renders normal transfer impossible. Eventually we came here and Mikhail pleaded for Tzer's freedom and won it by standing up to Lord and Ruler Vayer, Aliana's father."
      "We don't want something like that happening again. Your training here is obviously not sufficient to deal with our Lords." Arkay sighed. "I think it is because of what you and Sevrin were talking about earlier. The Techton does not recognize or know how to deal with ungelded channels." He gave a heavy snort.
      "Ungelded?" Jarmin blinked and dropped his veil. His field flared out, even more brilliant for having been hidden from her zlinning for so long.
      "A euphemism." Nashen grinned darkly. "Meaning they are bound by physical means from killing. They are incomplete, without potency, if you will."
      "Oh" He looked at Aliana. "Is that why you never took your anti-kill?"
      "Yes, it was the one condition my father placed on my coming here. He didn't want me unable to return if I chose to in the future." She looked down at their intertwined hands, rubbing her tentacles along the back of Jarmin's.
      "I'm glad he did." Jarmin grinned at her.
      "What?" She looked him full in the face. "You can't mean it. If I had been gelded, I would never have gotten you so post you hurt yourself."
      "Exactly." He leaned down and kissed her. "I would have never known what it is to be entire, literally." He turned to Arkay. "I was effectively impotent. Unable to muster the physical desire for any intercourse beyond transfer."
      "Ins'Allah." Arkay breathed, his eyes widening. "No wonder you are so wary of having anyone else present. Don't worry, little one. Nashen and I will be far too involved in each other to give critiques of your technique afterwards."
      "Even if I want it?" Jarmin's grin was wicked. "I would really like too know more about such things after having led such a sheltered life."
      Arkay's bark of surprised laughter nearly teleported Aliana off the hearth. "You are getting bold. I think I like this one, Aliana."
      "I know I do." She grinned at him, almost as surprised as Arkay.

Chapter 23

      Aliana's grin shot through Jarmin like a wave of fire. His heart tripped over and he clenched her hand. Thinking back on her reaction to Arkay and Nashen's little scene in the other room, he felt his eyes grow narrow and his grin even broader.
      "You are thinking wicked thoughts, my love." She purred at him, seeming to soften against him and grow more taut at the same time.
      "Indeed I am." He murmured, sliding his hand up to twine in her hair again. Her eyes widened even more and the first traces of true need were back lit by the heat of the fire behind them. "I think you like this." He sat up even straighter, pulling her down so her head would be slightly lower than his.
      "Jarmin?" Her voice held the same dusky rasp Nashen's had earlier. I did learn something. He chuckled softly at her, making sure it was low and dark. "Oh, my goodness." Her field bent and shimmered into a near crouch.
      The gesture of submission went straight from his ears to his arms. His own field flared, arching over her.
      "Easy, Jarmin, you're playing with fire." Arkay told him softly.
      "But it is such sweet fire." He looked down into her lowered eyes. The dark lashes cast long shadows over her high cheekbones, echoing the dark shadows of her need. Gently, he leaned down and kissed her. It wasn't the innocent kiss of their earlier transfers, but rather a hungry, demanding kiss, ravening at his own need for Aliana. He gasped as they broke it off.
      Aliana trembled in his hands, her own need a frozen pool of black velvet colder than the night outside. Carefully, he wrapped his warmth around her, trying to comfort her. She reared up out of his soft concern, clutching at him. A bar of living light slammed down between them.
      "No" Jarmin said, shaking his head. His hand still cupped Aliana's skull. His fingers massaged her scalp. She relaxed again, sinking against him. The barrier fell away. He heard a quiet sigh of relief. "We'll be alright."
      "Show me." Arkay said plainly. "You almost got yourself fried, Jarmin."
      "I know." He said, and then let his lips brush Aliana's. This time the kiss stayed gentle, only teasing at her need, drawing it out slowly. Her breath hummed in her throat. The vibrations were sweet, teasing at the warmth threatening to drown him. Ever so slowly, he kissed his way down her throat to the base of her neck. Her pulse fluttered against his lips as he moved to the side. "Lets go someplace a bit flatter."
      "Good idea." She said softly, letting him bring her to her feet this time. He was dizzy with wanting her, but now he was learning how to lead. "Yes." She hissed as he slid his hands in and under her clothes. Somehow he had ended up out of his own. Not even thinking about it, he pulled up the blanket on the bed and got into it with her.
      "Oof" He sank into the thick, soft mattress. It was like swimming. Aliana chuckled at him.
      "Featherbed!" She chirped, dragging him over to her. "Oh, I've missed this." Her burrowing in even deeper caught Jarmin by surprise. He chased her down nearly at the wall. "Oh, don't hurt me." Aliana said in a patently falsetto voice.
      "Now I've got you, my pretty."
      Aliana yelped and scooted into his arms. "Cold wall." She protested. Jarmin caressed her bare shoulders. Then his fingertips traced over her upper arms. The perfect curves of her arms fit his hands so perfectly. Unthinkingly, he stroked all the skin on her arms, tracing every nerve and muscle beneath its surface. Soon she was touching him back.
      "Yes" He luxuriated in the wonderful feel of tentacles on his arms. Jarmin had missed this more than he could ever have guessed. They were so very perfect, fitting along his forearms as if they were made for them. A quiver went through Aliana. Shadows flickered against the darkness beneath the covers. A breath of concern made him hesitate. "Oh, love." He stroked her roniplin glands. They were still soft and no where near as hot or full as they should be.
      "Relax against me for a moment." He pulled her into his arms. A dry sob escaped her throat. "Hush." He murmured, curling her up against his chest. "We have time." His breath mussed her hair even more. "Don't worry so, my love."
      "It's hard." She wailed. "Or not, as the case may be."
      "Easy." He murmured, stroking her back. A tendril of concern tickled at the back of his mind. Go away. He thought firmly at the intruder. All he got in response was a nod of approval. "I love thee, Aliana."
      "I love thee, Jarmin." One of her fine, slender hands caressed his face. "I'm sorry."
      "Hush." He repeated. Taking her advice from so many months ago, he simply relaxed and held her. Slowly, gently, he stroked her entire body. Starting at her head and ending at her feet. With each muscle and tendon which gave way to his ministrations, another trickle of sweet desire built between them.
      Finally he reached her arms again. One at a time, he traced the length of each tentacle sheath with his lips and tongue. The dark, musky taste of Sime made him tremble with wanting, but still she seemed to be holding back. At last he reached her laterals. They still lay complacent and quiet beneath his touch.
      Old roniplin scented their openings, but nothing fresh. Gently, he breathed on them, letting his field warm with his own need to give. What do I do? The first trace of frustration snapped at him. Thinking, he realized the old traces were from Nashen and Arkay's earlier display.
      What was Arkay doing? He thought of the way Arkay had been showing his own need but holding it back from Nashen. A grin came to the fore. "I can wait." He murmured, letting his field go still as a deep lake.
      "Oh?" Aliana's field began to come alive. Dark tendrils of need returned, tugging at him gently. Softly, he turned his attention away slightly.
      Aliana tried to hide her shame. Jarmin was being so incredibly sweet, making her feel so very wanted, but her body was not responding. Annoyed with herself, she nearly growled in frustration. Her mind knew she was ready for transfer, but her body was acting as if it were indifferent.
      Every time Arkay or Nashen shifted their weight, she got distracted. Even Jarmin's loving hands on her arms couldn't override her knowledge of the others present. By the time she was ready give up, Jarmin seemed to be as well. It wasn't working. With a sigh, she curled up against him again. Safe in his presence, she let herself drift.
      Arkay was ready to tear his hair out in frustration. He could sense Aliana and Jarmin come close, time and time again, and then back off. Nashen was nearly shivering with denied need at his back and Arkay felt like he was going to burn up at any second. Giving up, he turned to his mate. Under his questing fingertips, he felt Nashen's skin drawn tight over his high cheekbones. "No more, love." He murmured.
      "Thank you." Nashen whispered, resting his chin on Arkay's shoulder. "I can't wait much longer."
      "I know." He slid his hands down Nashen's arms. His forearms were slick from elbow to wrist with roniplin. The smooth feel of it made Arkay's head spin. A wicked thought came to mind. Picking up more than a bit of it on his own hands, he quickly turned around and stroked them down Aliana's forearms. The young Lord gasped and then finally dropped into the world of energy.
      Aliana felt Arkay's hands stroke her forearms with lightning speed. Hot and wet, her tentacles nearly lashed out at him. The feel and scent of roniplin was like rain on parched soil. She moaned as her own body realized how close the warm, fur draped presence of Jarmin was.
      Sinking into his wonderful, sable depths, she felt her tentacles twine about his arms. "Oh yes, my sweet." His fingertips stroked her roniplin glands. They throbbed beneath his touch. Now her own lateral sheaths began seeping moisture. He traced their openings and then, surprisingly, licked it from his fingers. "My sweet love." His field flickered in the darkness, promising her warmth barely out of reach.
      A bolt of lightning seemed to strike through the room. Riding the edge of it, her tentacles clamped onto Jarmin's arms. He leaned forward. Their lips met. Life poured into her, faster and harder than she could ever want. Nearly towed under by Jarmin's need, Aliana opened herself to him. Smooth, quick, and stronger than the tides, Jarmin filled her to the very limit with his own life.
      Jarmin realized what he had done and trembled. As Aliana's lips softened against his, he gave her a gentle kiss. Her warmth was perfectly matched to the clean purity he now felt in himself.
      "Something wrong?" She asked, her voice so wonderfully true in his ears it was all he could do not to grab her.
      "I was a bit strong, I'm afraid." He hoped she would not be upset with him.
      "Thank you." She breathed, sliding her body over his. The hot, solid weight of her against his length made him even harder. "Look what I found." Her muscles slid beneath her skin, rubbing against him.
      "Um, yes." He arched his back, desperately trying not to simply pick her up and move her. But she didn't move on. Too slowly, she simply rocked against him. With a growl, he finally rolled her over. Her tiny, extremely pleased smile was clear to his fingertips.
      As slowly as he could manage, his hands traced down her body. As he lay on his side, someone as warm and firm as Aliana pressed up against him. "I thought someone said this bed was big enough for six." Not that he was complaining. Aliana only rolled over even more and then scooted back against him.
      He was trapped between the two Simes. One of them is male! A flutter of butterflies clustered in his middle. "Easy, Jarmin. I won't do anything you don't want." Nashen's tenor was reassuring. His hands were not. One of them grasped his hand and placed it firmly on Aliana's short curls.
      "Oh my." She gasped as his guided fingers brushed between them.
      "There." Nashen chuckled softly. Her back arched and she slid against him even more insistently. Delicately, he cupped her in his hand. Nashen's tentacles twined with his fingers, moving him back to where he had been. Aliana moaned, quivering against him. Gradually, she opened to him, blooming at his touch.
      Arkay growled, "Are you done playing teacher yet?"
      "Not quite." Nashen breathed. His hand left. Then Jarmin felt it slid back over his hips. They twitched at Nashen's touch. "Easy, lad."
      "I'm not as patient as you are." Arkay's low growl dropped even lower. Nashen's fingers clamped onto his hips. A low hissing moan came from him. Then Aliana slid back onto Jarmin. One small bit at a time, she took him. How'd she do that? Jarmin thought. He nipped at her shoulder, grabbing her even tighter.
      Another sweet ache began to tease at him. Nashen was doing nameless things to him, insistently. They felt wonderful, but Jarmin was entirely unsure about the entire progression. A deep, heartfelt moan came from him. Aliana chuckled softly. The quick flutter of her grasping him lowered his resistance.
      "Yes, like that." Nashen purred. "Relax."
      Overwhelmed by his senses, Jarmin finally gave in entirely.
      Aliana felt Jarmin's grasp go limp. Very little else about him was. It felt so wonderful to have him so close. She wasn't all that post, but his enthusiasm was dragging her along like a whole team of horses. When she finally realized what was happening to him, she couldn't help but chuckle.
      Trapped are you, my love? Aliana could tell his attention was not on her. Giving in cheerfully to his distraction, she waited. Whoever is driving this train must have the stamina of an ox. Jarmin did not. The very instant she felt him taken completely, he drove himself into her and cried out his passion. "Yes, my love." She clasped his hands. He bucked madly, and the harsh, irregular movements finally set her off despite her own distractions.
      Aliana caught Nashen's eyes as the two Sharm Lords collapsed entirely. Jarmin was flat. Arkay was nearly snoring already. Nashen nudged him in the ribs and he rolled over. He grinned at her. "Well broken in now." Nashen whispered.
      "So I see." She grinned back. Jarmin was purring in his sleep. "I don't think I've ever zlinned anyone this content." Her hand stroked his back. He sunk into the bedding even further.
      "Are you?" Nashen asked, cocking his head.
      "Mostly." Then she looked at Jarmin again. "Yes, actually. I was actually glad not to be raging post through that little scene. It felt good, but I could concentrate on him, not myself."
      "Next time around is for you, little one." His tentacles twined with hers.
      "Not if he still needs the attention."
      "You need attention too, Aliana." His grasp tightened and she looked up at him. "It should be a partnership, not a leadership."
      "I don't want leadership." She gazed into his unwontedly serious silver eyes.
      "But if you don't want it, then why do you do it?" A corner of his mouth turned up. "It is part of you, Aliana, bred into you, blood, bone and spirit. The more you run from it, the harder it is to control."
      "I don't want to." She protested again.
      "You have no choice." Nashen's echo of all the things Vayer had said over the years stung. She opened her mouth to complain but he shook his head. "You are going to try to control the people around you. All of us do it. If you don't deal with it, it will run your life as well as that of everyone around you."
      "How can I know what is best for people? They should be able to choose for themselves." She asked plainly.
      "Because your heart is good, Aliana." He chuckled softly. "Or at least that's what I told myself when I ran Fatima. Would you let someone less competent do the job."
      "No, but there are many people who are far more competent than I am." Her hand spread across Jarmin's back. He sighed in his deep sleep, his field lower than she had ever zlinned it, but murbling to itself in contentment. She chuckled at his reaction. "Such as Jarmin, here."
      "Hardly." Nashen shook his head at her again. "He is a sweet man, but not a born leader."
      "Then if I pair with him, he can't lead Mir if something happens to me." Hope began to rise within her again. The last thing she wanted was to get roped into the Demense.
      "True enough." Nashen shrugged. "But it isn't as if Vayer doesn't have a whole stack of alternates for the position."
      "But none of them with Vayer's talents." She looked down at Jarmin again. "You're right, Nashen. I am a leader. It's hard for me to sit back and let someone else bungle the job. I don't want to give him up."
      "Then don't." He tipped her chin back up. "You probably know our history better than I do. Before, most Demense had a quad at their head. Maryam did up until the very end. It is far more stable than the pairs we've ended up with. When Arkay and I are at home, we act was the secondary heads of Fatima."
      "You mean work with Vayer and Darya as their seconds?" Her hand trembled on Jarmin's back. She couldn't believe she was contemplating the idea. It was too far fetched.
      "Ins'Allah, you didn't think they were going to hand it over to you as soon as you hit change over, did you?" Nashen's eyes widened.
      A sheepish grin at her own misapprehension snuck out.
      "Oh, you poor youngster." Nashen nearly dragged her over Jarmin to give her a hug. "No, no, Vayer knew better. He wasn't going to dump the whole mess on your hands all at once." Now she felt ashamed for even having thought such a thing.
      "But he is so overloaded with all the work." She sighed. "He was always talking about wanting to get out and about again, like he did when he was young."
      "Hush, little one." Nashen stroked her back. "He wouldn't do such a thing. For all his feather ruffling, you'd have a hard time prying the Demense out of his tentacles. Chances are you'd never have the Demense entirely to yourself. Visarin is going to be a massively powerful Sharm Lord, far more so than you as a Lord, I'm sorry to say."
      "Because I ran off?"
      "No, luck of the draw." He chuckled. "Darya seems to have gotten the hang of producing really good Sharm Lords."
      "So I'm sort of the bottom of the barrel." Aliana wasn't entirely sure this was a bad thing.
      "I'm afraid so, lass." He gave her a wry grin. "Not that it makes you any less valued as a person."
      "Only that my brothers are stronger." She sighed, still stroking Jarmin's back.
      "Well, yes." He caught her hand. "If you wished to stay here, or go back home, either would be welcome. It's not as if there isn't a place for you."
      "Where?" She waved her hand towards the rest of the room. "Sevrin and Vanesa don't require my services, Mir doesn't, Rodina doesn't, the Techton certainly doesn't."
      "Jarmin does." Nashen said softly, stilling her hand. "Your family does."
      Aliana snorted at him, "Yes, you require me to make your life more difficult."
      "No, little love." He kissed her palm. "All I am saying is there is always a place for you with your family."
      "I want my own family, Nashen." She said with far more heat than she intended.
      "Which is probably why you left in the first place, is it not?"
      "You sound like Diomid." Aliana didn't dare meet his eyes until he tipped her chin up again. His tentacles brushed her cheek. "I don't know what I want."
      "Then learn. You have time." He murmured. "Come on, lets get some tea and sit by the fire."
      "Sounds good to me."

Chapter 24

      Jarmin woke to the low murmur of voices. Aliana's presence was still clear and strong to his senses. Clutching the knowledge to his chest, a slow, lazy smile grew on his face. "Happy?" A low, male voice asked.
      "Oh yes." Other than a few aches and twinges he had rarely felt so good in his life. Jarmin stretched, gradually. By the time he was done, he had the undivided attention of both Simes. "They like that." He grinned.
      Arkay's eyes brightened in a matching grin. "They do." He chuckled and followed suit. "Oh, that feels good."
      "You didn't have to stay still so as not to wake me." Jarmin protested softly.
      "I didn't." Arkay reassured him when he had finished. "I'm just getting up as well. I love waking up when I feel like it rather than when its time to get to work."
      "What kind of work did you do?" He waved his hand at Arkay's arms, "Other than the obvious of course."
      A low rumbling chuckled answered him. "Actually transfer was the least of it, in most ways. Lets see, I was primary midwife for the nobility, what you would call channels and Donors, I ran Kirov as both chief operations officer and later executive officer, then I was chief financial officer for Azov, and finally, for a brief period of time, I was chief operations officer for Fatima. Nashen and I both retired, mostly, about five years ago."
      Jarmin knew he was gaping.
      Arkay's finger under his chin closed his mouth. "Yes, it was a lot of work. When my arthritis began to get too bad for me to work as hard, my children decided to ship us off here for the winters. A good thing I think. My father never did get to retire."
      "What happened to him?" Jarmin didn't know arthritis could be fatal.
      "Vayer, my first blood son, gave him peace." He sighed heavily. "I still miss him, but he would be ancient now, if he were still alive. By the time of his death, he was in great pain every day, all but during the height of summer."
      "Aliana told me of some of the great healing feats you people can manage, even greater than the Techton. Which I have certainly felt, myself." He added quickly.
      "There are limits. When the body attacks itself, as in allergies or some forms of arthritis, we can do little. Degenerative diseases don't respond well to our forms of healing either." He gave a shrug. "Oh it feels so much better to be here where it is much, much warmer than at home." His joints cracked and popped as he flexed his wrists and hands.
      "This is warmer?" Jarmin stuck his nose out from under the blankets briefly and then burrowed back underneath. There was frost on the thick window and he could swear it was creeping along the wall. "It's freezing out there." He barely had gotten a glimpse of Aliana and Nashen curled up together on the hearth, backs to the fire. Aliana had raised her tea mug to him in salute before he disappeared again.
      Arkay chuckled as he returned. "Relatively. The snows haven't really arrived yet at home, probably only a half meter or so. By the middle of next month, the snow will be up over my head and the average daytime high temperature well under ten below, or about ten your scale. At night it gets far colder."
      "That, is cold." Jarmin shivered in sympathetic chill. "I'll stay here, thank you."
      "Admittedly, the heating systems in these buildings are not really even effective, but then it simply doesn't really get cold here." Arkay patted his shoulder. "Although you are chilled. Come here, little one." His hand was nearly burning hot.
      Timidly, Jarmin let Arkay pull him into his arms. "Relax, little one. I have very little taste for Gens in my bed other than as friends. Although did you not enjoy Nashen last night?"
      "Well, yes." He admitted sheepishly. "I had never thought to do such a thing." Most of it was a hazy blur of pleasure, far beyond any but his first time with Aliana. "I didn't mean to steal him from you."
      Arkay laughed loudly. "You couldn't. I wouldn't even think to restrict who he beds or not, particularly when I'm enjoying his pleasures at the time."
      "What's so funny in there?" Nashen's voice was bright with amusement.
      "Gen talk." Arkay shot back with a grin for Jarmin.
      "Oh, we leave you to it them." Aliana said cheerfully and then giggled at something Nashen said.
      "This is good, I think." Arkay seemed to settle back down as he pushed and pulled Jarmin where he must want him. "Yes, much better." It was comforting in way Jarmin hadn't known since he was a young child. He sighed and thought of his long gone parents. "Are they still alive?"
      "As far as I know." He tried to give an indifferent shrug. "We haven't seen each other for years."
      "Poor lad." Arkay hugged him tightly. "You know you can consider any of Aliana's parents yours."
      "After last night." He grinned wryly. "I'm not so sure about that."
      "It would be unseemly for you to bed Darya, Aliana's mother, but Nashen and Vayer certainly wouldn't, and didn't, hesitate." Arkay's hands caressed Jarmin's back. "You are a little one."
      Against Arkay's still massive chest Jarmin understood completely.
      "Poor diet is part of it, I think." Arkay said with a heavy sigh. "Your frame is slightly stunted."
      "I'm not too surprised." He thought of all the abuse he had given his body.
      "No, lack of animal protein, actually, and exercise to go with it." Arkay ran his hands down Jarmin's back. "Speaking of which. Nashen!"
      "Yes, m'Lord." He replied with a chuckle. "No, don't tell me, food?"
      "Yes, lots of it."
      "Right away. You'll be eating in the other room, I assume?"
      "Yes, Jarmin and I both. I mean to feed this lad up proper." Arkay then said more softly. "I assume you like general breakfast foods, correct?"
      "Yes." His stomach rumbled at the reminder. It had been a long, long time since he had eaten much.
      "How do you like your steak?" Then he paused. "It is steak and eggs this morning, right?"
      "Actually I smell sausage from the kitchen, beef sausage if I know Sevrin." Nashen chimed back.
      "Well, anyways, how would you like your eggs?" Arkay asked, as if he hadn't been planning to eat something which would completely disgust his partner.
      "Um, I don't require sausage."
      "Hush." Arkay told him. "You'll like it, trust me. So, your eggs?"
      "Uh," Jarmin felt as if he were being run over by a truck. "Scrambled?"
      "With or without cheese?" Nashen said, even Jarmin knew he hadn't spoken very loudly. "With, right. Anything else special?"
      "Could anyone, possibly, find some mushrooms around here?" Arkay asked plaintively.
      "How about omelettes?" Nashen asked with a chuckle.
      "Sounds great, stuff everything in mine and Jarmin's, leave the cow out of yours."
      "I had planned to." Nashen seemed entirely nonplussed at Arkay eating meat.
      By the time breakfast had gotten there, Jarmin realized the two channels had built the fire up to the point where the entire room had warmed. Arkay had only thrown on a wool tunic, but Jarmin was still chilled and had found a heavy bathrobe.
      As the servants, the only word he could think of for the two renSimes who delivered an enormous tray of food, placed it on the table. Aliana said, "Be well and do your best."
      "At your will, my Lord." They bowed nearly to the floor and scurried off.
      "I never thought I would miss servants." Aliana sighed and began to take a chair. Nashen waved her around to the other side of the table.
      "The ones Sevrin and Vanesa stole from your father were some of his best." Nashen pointed towards the far side of the table. "They're going to be over there, in the draft."
      "Oh." She chuckled. "I had forgotten."
      There was a gentle current of air sliding through the room, from the slightly opened window up the chimney of the fireplace. Jarmin had hardly noticed it before. He sat with his back to the fire and Arkay pulled the cover off the food. His eyes bugged out.
      He had certainly seen Aliana eat like a Gen before, but Nashen and Arkay had struck him as less enthusiastic about food. A large, completely filled, platter appeared before his place.
      Aliana had to hide her grin. Jarmin looked like he was afraid his breakfast was going to reach up and bite him. She watched him, very timidly, look inside his omelette. "Good grief."
      It looked normal to her. Arkay was already digging in and reaching for a roll. "Where did Sevrin get his cook?" The light, fluffy, omelette was sweet with peppers and onions. The earthy taste of mushrooms was heavenly. Then she looked at Jarmin and grinned even harder. He was eyeing the sausage with a glare worthy of any renSime matron.
      "He was a renGen, well, would have been a renGen, who stowed away on their last flight back from Moskva. He's now Inducted." Nashen said around a mouthful of fried potatoes. "He had been understudy at the Fatima sharm and would have been head cook for Mir if he hadn't gotten himself trapped here."
      Finally Jarmin took a small bite. The bliss of his body's reaction to the proper food completely eradicated any unease she might have felt at him eating meat. "This is good!" He dug in nearly as enthusiastically as Arkay. Aliana missed the dark, rich gravy and wonderful sausage but at least she could watch Jarmin eat it.
      He caught her eye and looked down sheepishly. "Go ahead. I'm enjoying your reactions." She grinned. "Eat."
      "I should be telling you that." He pointed with his fork. She stuck a bit of fried potato on the tines. He ate it. "This is different."
      "Yes, yours is fried in tallow." Nashen pointed out. "Both Fatima and Mir don't eat pork."
      "Neither do the other Demense, much. Pigs aren't worth the bother in our climate." Aliana shrugged. "Only half of us can eat them anyways. Cows and sheep do much better, and give things other than meat and leather."
      "Azov has a small sounder of pigs. They are useful for leather." Arkay shrugged. "Filthy animals though."
      "True." Nashen grimaced. "But pigskin really is the best thing for lining bracers with."
      All conversation slowed as they applied themselves to their food. It had been far too long since Aliana had eaten like this. Ever since she left Moskva as a matter of fact.
      "Why is it the Techton insists on starving us poor channels?" She leaned back in her chair with a sigh of creaking wood. Replete with food and selyn, her body purred happily. Jarmin was still shoveling it in and he looked up at her with a startled glance.
      Arkay answered for him, "The Techton channels don't get off their skinny backsides and do anything. When we first came here, Vanesa and Riana didn't eat enough to keep a flea alive. Diomid fixed that."
      "I'm sure Sevrin had something to say about it as well." She chuckled, thinking of how plump, relatively, Vanesa was compared to the other channels she had known here.
      "Yes, well, he's like most Sharm Lords and has to be coerced into eating after turnover." Arkay shrugged, cleaning off his plate with a piece of bread.
      "Not like you wouldn't know." Nashen chuckled. "I'm better at eating after turnover than you are."
      "Mrumph?" Jarmin mumbled around a mouthful of bread.
      "Practice." Nashen laughed. "I was single for many years."
      "How did you manage?" Aliana had always wanted to know.
      "Insofar as selyn requirements, I was nearly the lowest of the Lords." He gave Arkay an infatuated look, which was returned with interest. They beamed at each other. It was dreadfully cute. "Anyways," Nashen chuckled, "I could take transfer from nearly anyone who had managed to get themselves ascended, and more than a few who hadn't." He shrugged and nibbled on a pear Arkay handed him.
      "Not that they were usually very good." Arkay gave him a mock glare. "You weren't too healthy for a number of years there."
      "Well," He shrugged again, "True enough. Avilan was a delight the times I could break in with your triad."
      "We always wondered why you didn't step in on my months off?" Arkay turned it into a question with his tone.
      "Me, have transfer with Lord and Ruler Arkay Sergeyevich? Heaven forfend. I wouldn't have even dared reach so high." He looked downwards. "I was horribly intimidated by Arkay when I was younger."
      "Which would have made it not work." Arkay took Nashen's hand across the table. "You were also very, very skittish in transfer."
      "Yes, well." He blushed.
      "How so?" Jarmin asked quietly, before Aliana could hand him an apple. He looked at it in surprise, and then nibbled at it.
      "I would shen out, nearly a third of the time." Nashen gave a heavy sigh.
      "And that was with Avilan." Arkay said darkly. "I'd bet it was more often with some of the others."
      "It is past." Nashen looked downward again.
      "No, love." Arkay tipped his chin up. "It may be in the past, but you still bear the scars."
      "As do you." He turned over Arkay's hand.
      "True, but at least I talked them out." Arkay's eyes flickered in Jarmin's direction. "Have you?"
      "No." He grimaced and took Aliana's hand under the table. "With most of them, other than Diomid, it was nearly every month. Diomid was actually nearly Avilan's quality, sometimes better. We were closer and even at his age at the time, before he took Sergei from Vayer, he had that incredible empathy.
      "Most of them were not so deft. Sometimes I would go through more than one abort before I managed. With your brother Tyanir, I almost always had to deal with at least one. Usually it was not a serious one."
      "Nashen." Arkay said darkly.
      "Truly, I hadn't even begun to really open up before my body rejected the offered transfer. Actually, I regularly didn't even have the roniplin to make the lateral contacts." He gave a shrug. "It took a lot to get me going." The similarity between Nashen's problem and her own was striking. Aliana listened even closer.
      "Still does, my love." Arkay said gently, stroking Nashen's hand. "Although you don't seem to be distracted as easily."
      "No, being distracted from you would be like being distracted from a tidal wave or the sun, hard to do." He chuckled softly and caressed Arkay's hand in return. "Anyways, transfer was often more of a chore than a blessing. It was something I had to do to survive. Fatima needed me even if no one else did."
      "Avilan needed you too." Arkay grasped Nashen's hand even tighter for a moment. "He did, and still does care for you."
      "He likes both sex and transfer, Arkay." Nashen looked down again.
      "Yes, but not with just anyone. We tried." Arkay tipped his chin up to look at him. "He could be as finicky as anyone else, Nashen. He simply tries so hard to portray himself as a playboy we, Karola and I, didn't talk about it outside the household."
      "Don't tell me he wouldn't bed anything that wiggled their hips at him." Nashen's field twisted with amused doubt.
      "Then I won't, but he won't let them near his bracelets." Arkay gave him an equally amused grin right back. "Once he truly came into his true strength as an empath, which actually took years after my father awoke his powers, he couldn't stand to give transfer to anyone but Karola and you, except in rare cases when someone truly needed his expertise. Avilan is extremely sensitive to emotions, nearly cripplingly so. If Karola weren't so strong, he would have gone mad with it years ago. She gives him, and gave me, a touchstone to reality for a long time."
      "Oh." Nashen's field shone nearly brighter than his blushing face. "Are you sure you should be telling all of us this? It does sort of ruin his reputation as a player."
      "He doesn't really try to show himself that way anymore." Arkay chuckled. "I think his passing sixty-five finally convinced him he wasn't a kid anymore."
      "Be still my beating heart, Avilan, after more than how many grandchildren, realized he is an adult?" Nashen gave a soft chuckle. "Seriously though, I'm glad. And I had wondered why he kept crossing my path. It's not as if I were the most sexy person with twelve tentacles after all."
      "Hush, not true."
      "You, my love, are smitten." Nashen protested.
      "That I am." Arkay grinned right back at him. "But it doesn't change the fact Avilan chased you down, on a regular basis, for over a dozen years. It's not as if he couldn't have had his choice of partners, unlike me."
      "Arkay." Nashen sounded scandalized. "I would have taken you in a heartbeat if I had known you were approachable."
      "But I wasn't really." He said, shaking his head slowly. "I was so afraid of hurting someone, what with this," he turned his hands back over, showing the still visible scars, "and my far too light kill trigger, the risk was too great. Besides, I thought no one else would have me, that they were afraid of me."
      "I was afraid of doing something so offensive I never would get to touch you again." His grin was sheepish and shy. It was so much that of a little boy, Aliana couldn't help but echo it. "Even stolen touches were sweeter than none."
      "I noticed them, Nashen." Arkay grinned wryly. "At one level or another. You seemed so enamored of Avilan's glamour, I didn't think I stood a chance. He was always the more beautiful of the two of us."
      "Hardly." Nashen shook Arkay's hand so firmly his bracelets jangled. "You are stunningly gorgeous. I could look at and zlin you for hours and still be fascinated. Besides, we have wandered off the point. Yes, it hurt when I would shen out of transfer. Usually it wasn't too bad, but far too often in meant spending the rest of the seclusion in a darkened room while my erstwhile partner gallivanted off with another far less hag ridden.
      "Avilan never did that to me. Even at its worst, like the time he took two hard aborts off me in a row before we made it, he always took care of me afterwards. You were there too, as was Karola. Without all three of you, I wouldn't have made it through those years."
      "Feel better about all of it?" Arkay asked quietly, after a long pause.
      "Yes, much." Nashen's long, drawn out sigh of relief gave Aliana hope. Hope it could be so simple. Hope talking about these issues, and bringing them into the open could remove some of the burden of past pain and error. She caught Jarmin's eyes. They were thoughtful and gentle. He had learned something as well.

Chapter 25

      Jarmin was completely stuffed. He had never eaten so much before in his life. Where did it all go? He looked down at his clean plate. A sigh rose as he leaned back in his chair. "I think, I am definitely well fed now." Warmed by the fire at his back, his eyes drooped closed. "I just got up." He snorted in surprise, having been awoken by his own snores.
      Aliana chuckled softly. "And you did again."
      "Did I really fall asleep?" He looked around, realizing all the breakfast dishes had vanished.
      "Yes." Arkay looked up from his knitting. Nashen turned around and looked at him from where he was holding Arkay's yarn, sitting at his feet. "We are all still in seclusion, little one. Do as you please. This is a time to regroup and collect all our scattered wits."
      "What a delightful idea." Jarmin ran his fingers through his hair. "I've never simply sat around and did nothing with friends after transfer." Usually I was too busy getting drunk alone. His memory stung.
      "Would you like to talk about what you did do?" Aliana asked, holding out her hand.
      For a long while, Jarmin thought about it. No one said anything. The click, click of Arkay's knitting needles was soothing against the low hiss and occasional pop of the fire. He got up and stretched again, feeling all his muscles move under his skin, freed of the sensation deadening effects of stale selyn. Aliana patted the couch next to where she was sitting. Jarmin padded across the smooth wood floor and sat next to her. She flipped the corner of a midnight blue and red cover over his shoulders. Although her body heat next to him was plenty warming.
      "Yes, I think I would." He said into the near silence. Arkay put aside his knitting and leaned back in his chair. Nashen set aside the yarn and turned to rest against the chair between Arkay's knees. The silence stretched out into minutes, but there was absolutely no sense of irritation or pressure to speak. Aliana finished covering him up and he crossed his legs on the couch in front of himself.
      No one seemed to care he was taking so long. It was as if they really didn't have anything better to do than wait for him. A wordless pulse of warmth and affection from all three of them reinforced the feeling. He looked up to see them all, calmly, waiting. They really don't. Wonder at this filled his mind with the courage to actually speak.
      "After transfer, immediately after transfer," Jarmin flinched away from the scorn he knew he deserved for having begun so hesitantly. No one said a word. The fire popped loudly and he jumped.
      Arkay smiled, stroking Nashen's hair and nodded at him to go on.
      "Well, immediately after transfer, I usually took care of my channel. I was proud of how post I usually got them." He gulped in a deep breath. Aliana placed a mug of tea in his hand. He blinked at it, then sipped it cautiously. It was sweetened with honey tasting of roses.
      "A good thing, no?" Arkay asked.
      "For them." Selfishness at the answer made him shiver.
      "True." Nashen simply shrugged. "You were doing the best job you knew how at the time." His answer loosened Jarmin's tight throat.
      "But I resented it." The tea sloshed in the cup.
      "Understandable." Arkay said quietly. "I would."
      "Oh." He took another sip. "Well, anyways," Jarmin paused, waiting for the frowns to show up, but none did. "After they were done telling me of all their emotional turmoil which had been buried by need, or them dashing off to their sex partner." He gulped at his tea and then coughed, having breathed more than half of it. Aliana rubbed his back.
      "Did you ever feel any release of emotion after transfer?" Arkay's calm, gentle voice brought him back out of his distraction.
      "I hid it, buried it." He murmured. "It wasn't important." His chin jerked up in defiance, but there was nothing to defy. "They needed me."
      "Yes, they did." Nashen sighed. "As you needed them."
      "Yes!" Jarmin leaned forward. "But they didn't want my problems."
      "Many people, if not taught otherwise, will take comfort without giving it. A child does so, as is right." Arkay looked thoughtful for a moment and then glanced down at Nashen. He nodded as if in answer to a question. "From what I have seen here, channels are encouraged to remain immature. Even more so than at home."
      "How so?" Aliana asked, freeing Jarmin of the necessity of doing so.
      "Children are given comfort and care so they may learn give it as adults. However, if that child is never forced to reciprocate the care when they become adults, they will continue to take and never give." Then Arkay chuckled. "Nashen, hush. No, I am not turning into Diomid. Only my age has mellowed me.
      "Forgive the sidebar commentary. When I was younger I showed little of the psychological insight so characteristic of my family." Arkay grinned wryly, proving again where Aliana got her so distinctive expression from. "I was quite hot headed and too impetuous to listen to the little voice inside my head which knew how to deal with these things."
      Jarmin was still thinking about what Arkay had said about caring and reciprocation. "I have never dealt much with children."
      "Yes you have." Aliana said as dryly as Rialite sand. He chuckled at her tone.
      "All right, children before change over or establishment." He grinned back at her.
      "Donors are more like super adults. They take care of the channels as if they were very large children." Her nose wrinkled with her distaste. "I think that's some of why I couldn't stand working with the Techton. I wasn't raised to remain a child all my life."
      "I would have been sorely disappointed in you if you had." Arkay gave her a hard look.
      "Why for?" Jarmin put his arm around Aliana protectively, feeling insecure at her parent's near disapproval.
      "Because it would have been dishonorable." Aliana said forcefully. "He is right Jarmin. My parents raised me to stand on my own feet, not on someone else's." Jarmin had to chuckle again.
      "So, to go on." He said, feeling far more bold. "After transfer, and after the channel had gone back to work, usually within an hour or two, I was off duty."
      "Didn't you want to stay with them?" Nashen asked, clasping Arkay's hand.
      "No, not at all." He took another sip of his tea. "They were usually not people I would enjoy spending non-working hours with. Often they were younger than I was, and far too full of themselves after transfer. It was, well, irritating to be around them. They were bubbling with emotions and I felt like I had been wrung out like a rag." His sigh ruffled the smooth surface of his drink. "Besides, I couldn't do them any good, low field."
      "What?" Arkay sat up straight, for the first time looking shocked. "Sorry, automatic reaction. I like the chance to enjoy life when I'm stripped all the way down. Everything is so much brighter and more full of life."
      "I rarely was." He shrugged, smiling at Arkay to reassure him. "More often than not I still had ten to fifteen percent of my maximum left."
      "Ouch." Nashen cringed. "I know the Techton doesn't practice shunt transfers, but that is extreme. I would call that a mismatch."
      "So would I now." He shrugged. "So, I usually didn't feel very well after transfer. First there was the emotional load from beforehand, then there was the near miss with being able to feel my own emotions. In some ways I think it was worse, coming close but not really being able reach release."
      "I would agree." Nashen said softly. "Like being sexually aroused and not being able to reach orgasm."
      "Yes, very much like." Arkay joined in.
      "I wouldn't have known." His knuckles whitened on the mug and Jarmin gave thanks for the sturdiness of the vessel.
      "Not even that much?" Arkay asked gently.
      "Barely. I would, occasionally, become slightly aroused in the morning, and a couple of times, in my first year after establishment, I would reach release in my sleep, but that was about it." He had to put his tea down his hands were shaking so badly. Aliana's touch was gentle, but he looked up through star streaked vision to see Arkay approaching him. With a push, he found himself in Arkay's arms.
      "He knows, better than I could." Aliana told him.
      "You are fine." Arkay murmured in his ear. "I am incredibly impressed with you ability to survive, Jarmin. You did very well."
      "But, but, I couldn't." He sobbed.
      "Would you like to be examined by either myself or Diomid to be sure?" Arkay asked quietly.
      "He's normal." Nashen had come over and sat at his feet. "I checked last night."
      "Is that what you call it." Jarmin gave a hiccuping chuckle. "It felt wonderful."
      "Not meaning to doubt your competence, but how would you know?" Arkay asked.
      "I had a long talk with Diomid about a small irregularity I found with you." Even through the tears remaining on Jarmin's lashes he could see Nashen blush. "I wanted to know, so I could keep an eye on it, in case there really was something wrong."
      "You are a wonderful lover, Nashen." Arkay gave Jarmin one last tight hug and then released him to give Nashen one. "I don't know how I ever deserved you." Seeing the interaction between Arkay and Nashen was incredibly reassuring to Jarmin. Now he knew why Aliana was so very stable in some ways. She had good examples growing up.
      Aliana was so very proud of Jarmin. His talking with them was one of the bravest things she had seen in many years. She knew his shame and embarrassment over these issues had to run soul deep, but here he was opening up to near strangers, after having come through a harrowing experience with the destructive powers of those same emotions.
      She brushed the tears from Jarmin's face before they could dry and sting. "I love you, Jarmin." Her murmur was for his ears alone.
      He turned and beamed at her. The pure expression of joy on his face made her heart trip over even faster. It was fascinatingly beautiful. "I love you, Aliana." He caressed her face. "I only hope our love will deepen and strengthen with time as your fathers' has."
      "As do I." This incredible growth was like watching the buds burst in spring, fascinating and heady with new life. Finally they all got themselves settled out again, with Arkay cuddling Nashen tightly to his side. It was a close fit on the couch, but having them near was delightful.
      "To go on, after the channel had left me to my own devices, I was usually alone for a day or two." He took a deep breath, until it got squeezed out of him by both Aliana and Arkay. Jarmin chuckled softly. "I like that." He leaned back into their arms. "It was a good thing I was alone. Usually the first thing I did was to hole up in what ever cubby they stuffed me into at that particular Center and proceeded to get stinking drunk.
      "At first it was only a few bottles of porstan and my own shiltpron playing. Later I skipped the shiltpron and went to hard liquor. It was easier."
      "To do, if not on your body." Aliana said softly.
      "True enough." He gave another heavy sigh. "My body does not react well to excessive drinking. Usually by about two or three in the morning I would be passed out on the floor after being violently ill." His hands were cold in hers. "I learned to bring a basin into the room with me. It was disgusting, but often I would repeat the cycle. Once I started, I couldn't stop. I would do anything for another drink after my first."
      His entire body shuddered. Worried, Aliana caught Arkay's eye. He nodded 'no'. Finally the shivers stopped and Jarmin looked up. "You aren't condemning me." His voice was breathy.
      "No, Jarmin." Arkay said. "I would be a hypocrite of the highest order if I were to condemn you for such behavior. You do know you will never be able to easily face any drug?"
      "No, I didn't." His attention turned outwards again. "Why?"
      "Some people are more easily addicted than others." Arkay gave a heavy sigh. "I am one of those people. It is very easy for me to fall into the lure of drowning any pain in chemicals. We don't know why this happens, only that it is so. Some people can take addictive drugs and never feel their lure.
      "Anyways, from what I have seen here, there is very little knowledge at all about addictive drugs. Most Simes are highly resistant to them, if they are affected by them at all. Caffeine and alcohol affect them far more strongly than they do us, but they are self limiting." Arkay gave a small shrug. "Most Simes get royally drunk or wired on caffeine once and then never do it again. Their bodies, because they don't carry as much body fat, revolt even more violently to such excesses."
      "Some Simes continue to drink heavily as adults, but they usually started as children." Nashen gave a snort. "Not in Fatima or Mir, we don't drink much at all, but some do. We deal with a whole herd of caffeine addicts. Most of our renSimes drink coffee and Arilith."
      "I was never told any of this." Jarmin's tone was soft and curious again. "It was not talked about. No one else in the Techton, that I knew of, drank and no one drinks coffee or black tea."
      "You might be surprised." Arkay told him and he cocked his head. "I've run across more than a few Donors who drink, heavily. Much the same way you did."
      "How do you know?" Jarmin asked.
      "I don't sleep much anymore, and after cornering a few people with serious problems in the middle of the night, we decided to do something about it." Arkay leaned back and cracked his knuckles. "One poor young woman nearly died. I couldn't sit back and let it go on.
      "Nashen and I are becoming a fixture here at Kaon in the winters. Part of why Diomid is here this year is because we are working on setting up a program to deal with the problem. Both Sevrin and Vanesa are backing us to the hilt."
      "The Techton will never believe there is a problem." The dark scorn in his tone was as bitter as last week's coffee. "They think as long as the Gen doesn't die and they don't do anything to limit their selyn production, they're healthy."
      "But it does, badly, damage production." Arkay snorted. "Look at yourself, Jarmin."
      "I don't know if I would have wanted it to go up before Aliana." He gave her a quick hug. "There was no place for it to go. Why don't they catch it? I know they won't take general order donors who have drug problems."
      "Because it is very timing dependant. By the time your next transfer comes around, the alcohol is out of your system." Arkay sounded completely disgusted. "Anyways, most channels here won't bother zlinning a low field Donor, they don't give enough of a damn about a Donor who isn't ripe for transfer."
      "That is an ugly way to put it." Jarmin sank back against her arm. "Not that I haven't thought it."
      "I think this is a good time for a question." Nashen said, quite unexpectedly. "What do you, Jarmin, want to do with your life?"
      "I've never thought about it." He zlinned as if someone had set a bomb off under his nose.
      "You have the freedom now, to do what ever it is your heart desires, love." Aliana said, clasping his hand firmly.
      "What about you?" He turned to her, eyes still wide with surprise.
      "I'm not going anywhere without you, lover." She grinned at his startlement. "If you like, I would probably be happy singing for pins on the quad. Your choice."

Chapter 26

      "I couldn't take you away from working as a channel." He blurted out, still trying to recover from being blind sided.
      "Try again, lover." Aliana told him with a gentle chuckle. "I can't work as a Techton channel."
      "But when, in all the stories, the Donor gives up everything for their channel." This inversion of the natural order of things seemed completely alien. Arkay nearly doubled over laughing. "I didn't think it was humorous."
      "Sorry, Jarmin." He straightened up and wiped tears of laugher from his eyes. Nashen was still chuckling softly, mirth tickling him. Even Aliana was laughing softly. "We aren't laughing at you, little one. Only, well, the idea of a Gen being so submissive to a Sime is, to us, ridiculous."
      "How so? Without channels, most Simes would have to kill to survive." Thoughts were spinning through his head faster than he could dare try to keep up with. What do I want to do?
      "True enough." Arkay gave him another hug. "But without Donors, those channels can't do anything."
      "They can just get another Donor." He lowered his eyes, looking at Aliana's hand holding his. They were so beautiful together. It wasn't as if he wanted to go back on the rolls.
      "Oh, my little friend." Arkay's voice was rich with amusement. "You have no idea the power you wield."
      "I have killed." His stomach turned at the memory, which Aliana had simply brushed aside as if it were nothing.
      "Poor little one." Arkay took him in another of those big hugs. "What happened?"
      "The renSime attacked me. I couldn't get my field to react quickly enough to simply fend him off." Jarmin shivered.
      "How horrible for you." Arkay's glare at Aliana over his shoulder was palpable to Jarmin. "Where was Aliana during all of this?"
      "Fighting off two more of them." He said softly. "It wasn't her fault."
      "Yes it was, Jarmin." Arkay said and Jarmin could sense Aliana shrink away. "You were ill and injured, she should have stayed with you."
      "Yes, otyet." Aliana said timidly. "I was wrong, I knew it when I got back to him. They led me off."
      "As long as you don't do it again and you make up for it to Jarmin." Arkay said, his voice solid as stone. "He was the one who was hurt by your mistake."
      "I didn't know, love." Her face was drawn, her lip quivering. "I am sorry. I didn't know it would hurt you so badly to defend yourself."
      "It is always a painful thing for a Gen to kill, Aliana. You know that." Nashen's eyes narrowed and his field snapped out at her.
      "Stop picking at her, both of you." Jarmin growled at them. "Aliana, I accept your apology. You are young. I don't expect you to be perfect."
      "Thank you." Her grin reappeared. He grabbed her and hugged her with all his strength. "And thank you for last night."
      "I'm afraid I got a bit greedy last night, love." He murmured against her soft, black hair. "Make it up to you next month?"
      "I got what I wanted, your pleasure." She gave him a tight squeeze back. "Call it greedy on my part as well. I wanted to be able to stand back some so I could enjoy your passion more."
      "I've done that." Arkay and Nashen said in unison.
      They all chuckled at the timing and settled back down. "So, what do you want to do?"
      "I've never really thought about it before." He twined his fingers with Aliana's. Her tentacles came out and bound their hands together. "I was always just a Techton donor."
      "Something to think about, Jarmin." Arkay put his hand over theirs. "Why did you become a Donor?"
      "Because I wanted to help the channels." The rote response slipped from his mouth. Then as everyone sat silent, he thought about it. "Because I had to have transfer. I couldn't do without it." He squeezed Aliana's fingers. "I'm sorry love, but it's the truth."
      "More than the former, I would bet." She squeezed back.
      "True enough." He kissed her temple, drinking in the sweet scent and soft feel of her hair.
      "That isn't something to be ashamed of, Jarmin." Arkay chuckled. "I wouldn't want to and Sevrin physically can't, any more than a Sime can go without. Beyond the physical, what would you do? Anything at all, paint blue mud in your navel, dance for complete strangers in bars, sort beads by shape, have wild, passionate sex three times a day, anything."
      "The last sounds like a lot of fun, but I get the feeling I would get tired of it after a while." He gave Aliana a shy smile as she tweaked his nose. "Despite how much I love you, my sweet."
      "I know." She grinned at him. "Go on."
      "I don't know, maybe help other people." He looked at the rain streaked window. "I do, actually, want to help people. I don't want to simply be a leech on anyone."
      "Is that for you or for them?" Nashen asked.
      "For me." He tipped his chin up. "For my own pride." The words tasted good in his mouth. Aliana gave a silent cheer.
      Arkay was no where near as quiet and let out a triumphant shout. "Yes, there we go. What do you want to be proud of?"
      "I want to help people who might not have the luck to find a mate with a wonderful family to help them. The months I spent out of control of my body were horrible. If Aliana hadn't helped me I would be dead now. I don't want it to happen to someone else and have them left to rot." A surge of energy and power rose up within him. "I want to do what Mikhail did at Rialite, but for the Donors. I want to teach other Donors, who might be in the same situation I was in, they don't have to take it."
      "Are you willing to back that up with the hard work its going to take to be able to show someone else how to grow up?" Nashen asked him.
      "The channels, you mean?" He grinned at the other man past Arkay and squeezed his shoulder. Nashen nodded yes. "Yes, I do."
      Aliana looked up from her guitar playing. Jarmin was practically dancing across the open park. There was hardly more than a hat full of pins in front of her, but joy of the children lying at her feet and listening to her music were payment enough. "I did it." He whispered in her ear.
      "Congratulations." She winked back and then turned to her audience. "I'll be back all this week. Tell your folks and friends, will you?"
      "Yes, yes." They jumped up and laughed. "You are the best." One little girl gave her a kiss on the cheek. "This is from me." She dropped a single peppermint in Aliana's hat.
      "Thank you, very much." She told the lass, careful not to show any dismay, lest her mother get at all annoyed. Peppermint was not Aliana's favorite. Soon they all left and she turned her attention to Jarmin. "So, you have a new job?"
      "Yes, I'll be giving lectures at all the major training schools for Donors and channels." The joy in his eyes was indescribable. They lit from within with an amber flame outshining the sun. "And the first school is going to be Rialite!"
      "Hana should still be there, and Jon." She put her guitar away and hugged him tightly.
      "She'll never have to face what I did." He put his hands on her shoulders and leaned back.
      "Let us hope." Aliana smiled at him, that wonderful, wry, half smile which set his heart to racing and his wrists alive.
      "You gave me hope, beloved." Her dark blue eyes were completely unshadowed, even by the last traces of her own insecurities. Their last transfer had been all anyone could have hoped for, all but the laundry.

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