Komachi

by

N. Eileen O'Neill

 

"Pardon me…"

Gianne had noticed the Sime before, one of her neighbors, but never given him a third glance. He’d rated a second look because he was attractive, but she’d never allowed her interest to show in her nager. For one thing, he lived in her building. Too much chance of complications. And for another, he looked to be as much of a foreigner here in Quissa as Gianne herself.

He wore colorful robes that were not typical Quissan attire at all, and his hair was arrayed in a wild tangle of braids that looked completely undisciplined until she noticed how neatly each of them was plaited, like dozens of inky handling tentacles. She’d admired this, and also the way he moved through the courtyard outside their building, like a dark and slender knife-blade. But he had the look of the Rachu’Karra, who were said to be touchy and to have odd customs that she had no desire to learn. Enough trouble to have adapted to the local ways, as she’d had to do to live here.

So when he caught her eye and spoke to her, tentacles moving languidly in the air as if feeling their way through water, she gave him part of her attention but little encouragement. "Yes?" There was something presumptuous about the way he was looking at her, she decided. She didn’t care much for the way he was waving his tentacles around, either. She allowed her field to segue from polite disinterest to a veiled threat. Simes who got even a zlimpse of that tended to think of someplace they had to be, some urgent appointment they were already late for. Most of them. Occasionally, she ran into one who was attracted to the violence at the core of her nager. A potential client. Most of them had serious problems, and this was not the kind of neighborhood they favored, even those who could have afforded it. It was one of the reasons she chose to live there.

Rather than looking alarmed—or unwholesomely fascinated—her neighbor exhaled softly in what seemed to be a suppressed chuckle. Not a renSime, evidently. Annoyed, she intensified the threat and expressed it more artistically, on levels that took unusually acute Sime perception to appreciate.

He took a step back, at least, but his face still did not reveal any strong reaction to what she was doing—which had reached the point where it could have been called an assault under Quissa’s laws. She reigned it in, a little.

"I follow your drift, my Gen friend. No need to beat it to death with a flower-stalk." His way of speaking was entirely Quissan, in contrast with his appearance. Not as exotic as he seemed, unlike Gianne, who tried to look as conventional as possible in the hope of hiding exactly how foreign her outlook was. "I wish to consult with you on a professional matter, at your convenience of course."

She gave up on the death-threat, but let her irritation show clearly. "What sort of thing do you mean?" Not only a higher-level Sime, but a professional as well—a competitor. And he’d clearly enjoyed a good transfer in the last few days. Annoying, because it might have been easier to intimidate him otherwise. To make him go away.

"I have a client." He radiated enthusiasm and optimism, the sort of nageric tone that Quissan culture seemed to demand at all times, especially from Gens. Gianne seldom bothered, but this rho-Sime seemed to have it down to an art form.

Then his nager changed, depicting a kind of savage desperation, and claiming Gianne’s full attention for the first time in their encounter. He read her reaction and a rather self-satisfied smile crept over his face. "Yes, I thought you might like that. Do you have a few moments to talk?"

~~~~

Curiosity got the better of Gianne, and she found herself sitting with the Sime at a table in the courtyard just outside the entrance to her building. The table was sheltered by an arbor that supported fragrant vines, which hung down in carefully managed trailers that allowed partial privacy without impeding movement. The channel’s name was Mard’n, and he proved to be a talkative one.

"The client I wish to speak with you about lives in the Enclave. I assume you are familiar with that…?"

Gianne nodded. She had a permanent visitor’s pass. She saw no reason to inform Mard’n of this, however. Like most lowlanders, he did not view information as a commodity to be traded. Gianne was happy to let him talk.

"The client, Otti, has not responded to any treatment I can provide. I am prepared to try something less orthodox if you are willing. What you did earlier, when you were trying to get rid of me—I assume you can maintain that in a low-level transfer?"

She nodded again, a curt movement of her head. Sometimes her sparse use of words made the locals nervous. For that matter, her profession was often an offense to Simes like Mard’n. Now that she knew he was an APC professional, she realized that he would have looked up her own records before approaching her. Even if he couldn’t read it in her nager, he would know that she was a practicing komachi—an upper-level Gen who gave transfers to ordinary Simes. Gianne averaged six to eight transfers per month, and lived very well. She was not overly concerned about the resentment of lower-level Gens who feared she might use undue influence on their Simes. The disapproval of professional channels was more of a problem, because they were an organized political force that ran Quissa—and many of the other cities on the face of Freysea—as surely as the Tecton had ruled Old Earth. They had to a bit less heavy-handed about it, perhaps, but they had put several laws into place that restricted the practice of Gianne’s profession. The komachi, who were loosely organized at best, generally thought the APC would outlaw them altogether if they had a free hand.

Mard’n, however, was looking at her with no trace of hostility. "What I would like is for you to come and do an evaluation, at your earliest convenience. I was going to try one more time to give transfer to Otti myself, but I’m starting to doubt that has any chance of success. I know this is short notice. Is there any chance of your having an opening in about three days, if the evaluation is favorable?"

Gianne sketched a brief nod with her nager, not even bothering to move her head this time. She found it restful that the Sime was willing to carry the entire burden of the conversation. "Excellent! When would it be possible for you to visit the client with me?" Gianne stood up and gestured with her walking stick, and was pleased to see that he took her meaning.

Mard’n flagged down a shae-cart operated by a young Sime, and they set off. It was the second-most common way of getting around in Quissa, second to walking, and mostly used for longer trips. Selyn-powered vehicles for personal use were considered decadent, though it had occurred to Gianne more than once that the pumping of their driver’s legs constituted a form of selyn-based energy as well. She always took a cart, even for short distances. She had to walk quite slowly to avoid marring the ambient with sharp stabs of pain from the old wounds in her legs, the right one in particular. Even then, it took a certain amount of mental focus to push away the pain so that it didn’t bother her or anyone else. She preferred to sit down as much as possible, except when exercising in the privacy of her shielded apartment.

There was some compensation for the disability, though. The laws of Quissa forbade any citizen to carry a proper knife, and after having one near her hand at all times for most of her life, it had been difficult to give up carrying it. When she’d first come to Quissa, she’d carried scars that went deeper than her mere flesh, received in the same fight that had produced her physical injuries. She’d come here determined to seek a less violent way of life, and yet it had been hard to go disarmed when she could not sleep thought the night without nightmares of helplessness, defeat and loss. Then someone had offered her the walking-stick to help take the weight from her imperfectly healed leg. If anyone else realized that it was a lethal weapon, they did not mention it, and she was not about to enlighten them on the subject—unless they backed her into a corner, of course.

Mard’n told her a great deal about his client as they rode in the shae-cart, much more than she had any real interest in knowing. He spoke earnestly but formally, using the gender-neutral but larity-specific pronoun, used only by professional channels and by the courts as a general rule. Gianne had always found the usage to be pretentious and artificial. But she found herself thinking more favorably of Mard’n, despite the flood of officious-sounding information. He seemed to care only that something might be done to help this Otti, and not about whether it was his skills and knowledge that provided the answer. He was different than other channels she’d encountered, many of whom seemed threatened by her choice of profession. They felt she was trespassing on their turf, that was part of it. Though not, in Gianne’s opinion, the root of the problem.

Near the southern edge of Quissa, the Enclave looked like an unbroken wall from a distance. Only close up could one see the crystalline blocks that provided natural light to the apartments while maintaining both privacy and security. Some residents were there by choice, while others were not. It was a community restricted to Simes, and while Gens-only dwellings were scattered through the city, this was the only living environment in Quissa that provided an inner courtyard where Gens were forbidden. Each apartment had two doors, one leading to this restricted area and the other leading to the outer world. The structure of the building was like a long, narrow wall whose outer face looked out on a strip of parkland that no-one ever seemed to frequent. Perhaps the blind face of the Enclave was too forbidding. But nobody wanted to be across the avenue from the place, either, and so the deserted stretch of park remained.

Mard’n’s fingers danced on a keypad, faster than Gianne’s eyes could follow, and a door opened. Gianne had expected the door to lead directly into one of the apartments, but instead, there a short empty corridor leading to another doorway and another keypad. She hadn’t been to this part of the Enclave before. Her usual clients here were those who were permitted to come and go at will, or perhaps at most, were restricted to the Enclave during the latter part of their cycles based on an honor system. Simes who had serious problems, but knew their own limits and arranged their own transfers. Otti, on the other hand, was one of those that the channels had decided could be given almost no freedom at all.

Another keypad, and Mard’n went through the door ahead of her, leaving it open. Gianne pushed it closed and had to fight back claustrophobia when it latched. To distract her mind from her sudden longing for the open air, she looked around. Scattered clothing and books marked this as a dwelling, poorly lit and none too well-kept. It could have used a good airing-out. The client was nowhere in sight, which was just as well, given her momentary lapse in control.

"Stay here for a moment." Mard’n crossed the room and went through a darkened doorway. A moment later, he returned, bringing with him a scrawny Sime with a wild tangle of hair and baggy clothes that made it impossible to determine gender.

It bothered her a bit, not knowing if the client were male or female, though at the same time she wondered why it would matter. She could have asked at any time during the ride in the shae-cart, but it hadn’t occurred to her to wonder much until she was actually looking at—her, she decided. Those delicate facial bones almost had to belong to a female face. She would be beautiful if she weren’t half-starved and hyperconscious with agitation—not true need, not with the transfer date still three days away. But Otti would have a hard time understanding that. Only six months old, and she’d never had a truly successful transfer. A Gen with inadequate training had panicked and shenned her in first need, and the supervising channel had apparently botched things up even further with some error that Mard’n had explained but Gianne didn’t understand. Now Mard’n, who’d taken the case because of some connection between his family and Otti’s, was fighting a losing battle to keep the young Sime alive.

Otti had her attention fixed solidly on Gianne, which was a good sign. Gianne realized that Mard’n’s choice of phrase when he’d asked her to do an evaluation was based partly on courtesy. To be sure, she would have to decide on the basis of her Gen senses whether she felt she could give transfer here. But of course Mard’n would be zlinning the two of them together and forming his own conclusion. And, while he was the one with the legal power to make the decision, it would be Otti’s opinion that would matter the most. Mard’n could authorize the transfer and Gianne could offer it, but unless Otti responded to the Gen’s field, there was no chance of success.

"Remain still. I am going to bring si over to where you are standing." There was something remote in Mard’n voice, and he’d lost the endearing trance of hesitancy he’d shown earlier, when negotiating with her to accompany him here. And there was that pronoun again. Gianne felt herself starting to grow annoyed, but this was no time for that, so she took a deep breath and thought of a pool of still water, accepting calmness, becoming calmness and radiating it in all directions.

"That won’t help, Komachi. Try something more like—"

She didn’t wait for him to finish speaking. Something in his voice felt like a challenge, almost a taunt, and she shifted to a nageric stance that was a threat of violence, and at the same time, a promise of something unwholesome but sweet.

The result was more dramatic than she’d expected. Otti sprang at her. Mard’n would have had plenty of time to react, to prevent the attack. Gianne managed to catch a glimpse of his face before the Sime reached her. Mard’n wore a faint smile, without a trace of startlement at his client’s action.

Evaluation, indeed. In theory, she could have used the brief slice of time while Otti was in motion to seize control of the little Sime and prevent her from making physical contact. Instead, she did as she’d learned to do in a place so different from Quissa that it might as well have been another world.

On the physical plane, she offered nothing but cooperation, holding out her hands to facilitate the Sime’s grip. Nagerically, a challenge, forbidding but irresistible: Here it is, take it if you dare.

Otti grabbed her with no finesse, no control whatsoever. This was where she had to walk a very fine line to stay within Quissa’s laws, and even as the transfer began, she was aware that she was under close observation by the channel. Part of her was completely caught up in the practice of her craft, but another, walled-off thought process existed. It was the way of things for a komachi, her way. This other part was very aware that Mard’n, despite his unconventional appearance, was a member of the city’s ruling class. He would write reports, which would be read by those even higher in the hierarchy. It was as natural to these people as respiration.

When Otti broke contact, it felt like a normal termination. From what Mard’n had told her, that was a measure of success all by itself. How Otti would react emotionally was another matter. Gianne tried to do her job without offending Quissan sensibilities too much, but she’d been told that her transfers sometimes came dangerously close to a simulated kill. Which was strange, because that spoke to nothing of what they meant to her. But of course the whole topic was such a cornerstone of Sime psychology, the greatest taboo for civilized Simes, and the thing all of them were afraid, on some level, they might secretly long for.

Otti voiced a wordless cry and went running into the next room. Mard’n followed without looking back, and pulled the door shut behind himself. Gianne settled to the carpeted floor to wait, trying to figure out why she felt as if she had been struck a paralyzing blow to the very core of her psyche.

The smell, that was part of it. Otti had not bathed in awhile, and their brief contact had reversed her opinion about the Sime’s gender. It hadn’t really hit her until after the conclusion of the transfer, but once she got a good whiff of Otti’s body odor, it carried her back in time and space, back to the mountains. Because he’d smelled just like Vai always used to, when they were traveling and sleeping rough. Water was sometimes scarce in the mountains. Even when it was plentiful, it was usually as cold as the kiss of a knife-blade. She’d been none too clean herself, in those days. The whole business was regarded differently in the high reaches. If someone’s scent offended you, you could keep your distance. There was plenty of space, and in general, it was safest not to get too close to anyone unless you knew them well.

In addition to being smelly they had been cold and hungry at times, unwelcome in some places and in physical danger at unpredictable intervals. She doubted it would ever be possible for her to be as happy again as she had been in those days. They had traveled the high reaches together for almost five years, and she didn’t even know if he were still alive. Unlikely, three and a half years after their separation. Unlikely but not impossible. Five or six years was considered a normal life span for a mountain Sime, but Vai had not shown any signs of the usual debility in the time they were together.

He was no ordinary Sime, that was part of it. In a place like Quissa, Vai would have been a channel. Born in the western mountains, he was considered a valuable but dangerous Sime, one that a talented handler could use to heal the sick and the injured. That had been Gianne’s profession in those days, but it had never been like that between them. She had never thought of Vai as property. They had been partners, and in defiance of mountain custom, they had been lovers. Most mountain folk regarded it as bestiality, and some compared it to the sexual use of a child. There were those who merely regarded it with amused contempt, and others who felt it warranted a sentence of death. Of course, there were always some who needed little excuse to kill, in the high reaches.

Gianne had been discreet, and had taught Vai to use the same caution. He was not her intellectual equal; few mountain Simes had the reasoning power of a Gen.

But he was no animal. He was human. I loved him. Sitting on the floor of Otti’s apartment, hugging one knee to her chest, Gianne let herself cry for Vai as she hadn’t done for months, now. She wondered if she would ever finish mourning. Part of her felt it would be another betrayal if she did.

In the end, it wasn’t mountain prejudice that tore them apart and left her, more dead than alive, trying to keep from bleeding to death in a roadside shelter. It had been Vai’s value as chattel, and to some extent, perhaps her own arrogance.

Gianne was big for a mountain Gen, because her mother had been from the lowlands. A woman from the valleys was often bigger, and stronger, than the men of the high reaches. Despite their size, lowlanders won few fights. Even if they could adapt to the thin air, they were pitifully slow, and lacked the early training in knife-play that every mountain child received.

Gianne had inherited her mother’s strength and size and her father’s quickness. She’d been young and strong and fast and had a fine collection of sharp knives, and had won every one of the half-dozen serious fights she’d been in. She had a sensitive Sime to help her avoid groups of two or more Gens. She had been invulnerable. Until the day came when she met someone even stronger and faster than herself, someone who’d decided he wanted Vai.

The attack had come with no warning. She had never even learned the man’s name. When it became clear that she was outmatched, he’d offered her the chance to go her way and lick her wounds, leaving him with Vai—and her other property, of course. The other tools of her trade, and assorted camping gear.

But how could she go, with Vai standing there and looking at her with such confusion? It would have been better if she had, of course. She knew that now, and perhaps she’d even known it at the time, but she couldn’t walk off as if she’d merely been robbed of—property. She’d attacked in desperate fury, hoping to catch him off-guard. Instead he’d opened her belly, hamstrung her, and left her to die.

Vai hadn’t wanted to go with him, of course. With the last of her strength Gianne had pushed him away. The man would only force the Sime to cooperate—he had the strength to do it—and Gianne didn’t want Vai hurt any more than he had been already. Let one of them live, at least.

Later, as she lay waiting for death, a lone traveler found Gianne. As fate would have it, this was a man whose child Gianne and Vai had treated for a fever. Thus, she survived, to live with the memory of Vai’s puzzlement and anguish as the victor left the site of the conflict with his spoils.

Did he think I didn’t want him anymore?
Did he find out I survived?
Could he possibly still be alive? If so, does he remember me?

She rocked back and forth, allowing the tears to flow, breathing through her mouth because her nose was clogged. She’d thought about trying to find Vai again. But what if she did? Injured as she was, barely able to walk, she could not hope to confront a man who’d beaten her in a fair fight when she was at the peak of her health and strength. To see him from a distance, let him know that she lived, to say goodbye? But what would it mean to him, then, when she walked away and left him forever? Better, perhaps, to let him think she’d died. Perhaps he could find some measure of happiness with his new Gen. He would never care about Vai as she had, but he might be a kind enough master. Vai was well-mannered, and bright for a Sime, and perhaps the man who’d killed to possess him would see the logic in treating his valuable new property well.

It might not be impossible that some affection could grow between them. By mountain standards, the man who’d nearly killed her was not uncommonly vicious. He’d offered her the chance to give up and slink off with a few minor injuries. Not an unprecedented kindness, but unusual. He hadn’t paused to rape her or urinate on her as she lay trying to keep her guts from falling out the deep cut in her belly. He’d left her alive, when he could have finished the job at that point with little danger to himself—though there was some doubt in her mind whether he’d done her any favor. Probably it had been a pragmatic decision, in any event. He might not have wanted to upset Vai any more than he had already.

Yes, it was possible Vai had found some measure of happiness. She wished she had some way of knowing what had become of him. She wished she’d been able to tell him—what? What would she have told him if she’d had the opportunity?

Goodbye, perhaps. She’d never had a chance to say even that much, except for her wordless, frantic effort at nageric communication: Go with him, do as he says, go with him and live.

Never even a chance to say goodbye. Goodbye, find what happiness you can… and I love you.

Eventually, she ran out of tears. Vaguely, she remembered hearing a door close on the other end of the apartment. What did that mean? Had Mard’n gone out into the Simes-only common area that she knew only from descriptions? It was like a small town, she understood, complete with shops and a public courtyard. For the moment, she was glad of a little privacy to pull herself together.

What brought that on? Six months ago, on the third anniversary of her defeat, she’d shed a few tears and tried to remember as much as she could about the good times during those five years. Nothing like this. That had been a planned remembrance, while this had struck her without warning. Otti’s smell, the distinctive odor of an unwashed male Sime, that had been part of it. And the urgency of his attack. That, too, had reminded her of Vai. A mountain Sime knew no other mode of transfer.

The door to the next room was still closed, and she didn’t want to intrude. She found a glass with some water in it and dampened one corner of her shirt, then used that to wipe her face.

She looked at the key-pad beside the door with annoyance. It was designed for fingers, not tentacles—but she didn’t know the combination. She listened, and could hear nothing but silence coming from the next room.

Fortunately, she wasn’t hungry, nor did she have any urgent need to relieve her bladder. If she had, she might have called to Mard’n through the door. She knew that by Quissan standards, it would be no great breach of manners to do such a thing. But it was hard to set aside all of the values she’d been raised with. In the mountains, you didn’t approach someone else’s lair without an explicit invitation. Not only because it might get you killed, but beyond that, it was just plain rude.

Eventually, pragmatism won out over annoyance. She was warm enough, had shelter and had eaten recently. She had no immediate needs. Since there was nothing else for her to do, she curled up on a colorful rug and fell into a half-doze.

~~~~

"I’m sorry, I had to go find a friend of Otti’s from another part of the building… are you all right?"

Gianne sat up. She hadn’t been asleep, not really. But it took her a moment to bring herself back to her surroundings and focus on what the channel was saying. When she did, it scarcely seemed that he’d asked anything that required a reply. But he seemed to be waiting for one anyway.

"How is Otti?"

"Si seems much better. I’m starting to feel some tentative optimism here."

That word again. "He, right?"

"Yes." There was something cautious in the channel’s manner. "Please tell me, are you quite all right? This wasn’t exactly planned, and I take full responsibility if you are upset by the way things developed."

Of course he would have noticed her red, swollen eyes. Apparently he thought this might have been caused by the trauma of an unexpected kill-mode attack from a garden-variety Sime. The idea made her smile. "Post-syndrome. Sometimes it just hits me that way."

"Ah." He still didn’t look happy. Of course, the channels never liked to think that a renSime could have any real effect on an upper-level Gen. Surely she was left unsatisfied on some deeper level. Of course, there was some truth in that. Otherwise, there would be no reason for her to schedule full-capacity secondary transfers with her own advisor every six months or so. But that was none of Mard’n’s business.

"It is up to you, of course, how you want to report this whole incident in the paperwork. I didn’t think it would bother you if things got a little out of control. Because of your background. In hindsight, I definitely should have talked with you more about what might happen, and not just gone ahead based on that kind of assumption."

Ah. So it wasn’t her personal habits he was worried about. It was the APC. She took her lower lip between her teeth to keep from smiling, and noticed in the process that it was a bit sore. He picked up on her improved humor and mirrored it.

"The paperwork. Of course. I feel inspired to write a brief essay in praise of unrestrained and unplanned transfer. That will fill up some space in my report."

His sudden dismay was like watching the sun vanish behind a cloud. As she’d hoped, he mistook the glee in her own nager for enthusiasm about her writing project. She couldn’t hold it in any longer. She burst out laughing, but still managed to say, "I got you. I did! Target sighted, knife released, dead center." He looked so confused that she relented a little, and added, "I feel sure that between the two of us, we can compose a set of brief reports that won’t upset anyone. Due to the severity of the client’s condition, you elected to advance the date of transfer, and I concurred." She could talk that way when she wanted to. She’d had to learn in order to get her license. That didn’t mean she liked it.

"I’ve never met anyone quite like you." There was a hint of chill in his voice now, like mountain air when the sun was near the horizon.

"That is why you are still such a nice, innocent Sime." His reaction to that was a kind of frozen stare. She suspected that he’d thought of some response but didn’t quite dare to say it. In truth, she was tired of playing with him. She wasn’t really hungry, but a light meal followed by a nap seemed appealing at the moment. "Shall we go back, now?"

He took a step toward the door, then stopped, hand extended but not quite touching her face. "You are going to let me heal that, aren’t you?"

It took her a moment to remember about the swollen lip, where Otti had bruised her a bit when he made contact. She found herself strangely reluctant to give that up—and it was such a little thing, not really painful. But Quissan folk had strange attitudes about minor scrapes and bruises, particularly on Gens. The slightest bump or abrasion was reason enough to run to the nearest channel.

"Not here." She gestured at the door with a certain amount of violence, restrained only by the knowledge that it was too sturdy for her to damage. She might even break her fine hardwood stick if she tried. But she wanted out. Immediately.

Mard’n got both doors open, even faster than he had on the way in. If there was some rule about having both of them open at the same time, he was wise enough to disregard it.

Outside, their driver gave them a reproachful look and tucked a book out of sight behind her seat. Mard’n smiled at her, putting enough nageric power into it that Gianne could feel something like the warmth from standing close to a fire. "So sorry, it was unavoidable. You’ll be compensated. Please take us back to the Garden Plaza."

Once the shae-cart left them near the entrance to their building, Mard’n said, "I owe you some compensation as well. And some attention to your face. Si got a little rough, I’m afraid. I probably shouldn’t have allowed it. But it’s been so long since si showed any real enthusiasm."

A little rough. Soft, these Quissans. Not for the first time, she found herself thinking of how much better her leg would have healed if she’d had a channel’s assistance immediately after she was injured. By the time she’d made it down here, it was too late, though they’d been able to improve things for her a bit.

"All right then." She had to say something, because he was standing there looking at her with a certain degree of anxiety. "There’s the paperwork as well, of course. You fill it out however you like, and I’ll sign it." Not strictly per regulations, but she had a bit of leverage on him. He didn’t argue. In fact, he seemed relieved.

"Come upstairs, I have everything we’ll require in my rooms."

His apartment came as a surprise. Given his manner of dress, she hadn’t been sure what to expect. If she’d had to guess, she would have predicted the kind of comfortable but utilitarian furnishings that said, I’m a busy professional, I have no time to waste on fashion, and don’t care to spend money on frivolous things. Failing that, she might have pictured décor as exotic as his clothing, with a similar cultural motif.

Instead, the walls were hung with a variety of artwork, and there was so much free-standing sculpture that it took her a moment to find any furniture. There wasn’t much, just a couple of chairs and some tables cluttered with interesting carvings.

While she was trying to make sense of all this, Mard’n darted into the next room and returned carrying such an assortment of documents that it took all of his fingers and tentacles to keep them in order. "This won’t take long. Now, I think it’s only fair you should get a bit extra for the trouble we put you through…"

"I’m not a shae-cart driver, Mard’n. I have a set fee. What Otti did was nothing out of the ordinary, for me."

He didn’t look happy. Why did Quissans have such an obsession with money? "I hope you will let me fix that swelling, at least." He set down the paperwork and touched her lower lip with a handling tentacle. When she made no objection, he laid the palm of his hand against her cheek so that he could reach the side of her mouth with one lateral. It felt nice. He slid the tentacle between her lips, which was a natural enough thing to do, to allow access to the inside of her lower lip. But she thought it would have been a more common practice for him to ask her to open her mouth, or to pull the lip away from her teeth with his fingers or his handling tentacles. The way he was doing it seemed more intimate than professional. The feeling was exquisite, and she made no effort to suppress her reaction, nor to hide it from him.

She could feel her mouth tingle with the typical energy of a minor healing, but there was a lot more than that hanging in the air between them. He finished the work, but did not back away. "I didn’t think Gens from your background were allowed to look at Simes the way you’re looking at me right now."

"That’s why I had to leave the mountains and come down here." Not the whole truth, but not entirely false either, and it made a good line.

~~~~

"About Otti," he said some time later, as if resuming an interrupted conversation. If so, Gianne could not recall it. She was half-drowsing again. It wasn’t possible for her to truly sleep with anyone else in the room, not unless it was someone she trusted completely, and that was a short list—her parents and sibs when she was younger, and later, Vai. It felt good to just lie there, though. Mard’n kept running her fingers up and down her spine. He couldn’t seem to stop touching her, even once they had satisfied their mutual lust. She liked that.

"What about him?"

Mard’n got up, and left the room. Too bad. She groped over the surface of the sleeping platform, looking for a blanket, but did not find one. With some regret, she began pulling on her clothes instead. Without the Sime to help keep her warm, the air in the room was too chilly for comfort.

"Here." He returned with square of carved and painted wood that he’d taken from one of his walls. It was covered with an intricate but meaningless pattern that must have taken many hours to complete. Gianne looked at it for a few moments, absorbed. "Si did this, and gave it to me." That word, apparently, was an ingrained habit. There was no help for it. "Si’s given me several, actually. I want you to keep this one."

Gianne considered the offer for just a moment, and decided that it did not carry any hidden obligation. "All right."

"Now, what are your feelings about, ah, sublicensure?" Some Gens charged a fee to channels who wanted to copy their unique field-patterns for use in secondary transfers. Others regarded this as unethical, and refused to accept any compensation for such a thing, on the basis that it cost them nothing. A few found the very idea offensive, and from Mard’n’s tone, he seemed to think she might be one of these. In truth, the whole matter interested her very little. "Feel free to use anything you picked up."

"I appreciate that. I think it will help me with Otti. I might ask you to work with si again at some point, but not right away. I don’t want to risk a persistent fixation. Si really responded to you."

"You might try a little less compassion." Perhaps Mard’n was too Quissan to understand this. For Otti’s sake, she hoped not.

"It would help if you would let me get some additional field readings. I would expect to pay a consulting fee, unless that would violate your principles."

Consulting fees. Principles. She was tempted to give the channel a brisk nageric shake. "You had every opportunity."

"I was distracted." He took her by the wrist. "What I meant, actually, was more along the lines of a simulated transfer. If you’re booked for the next few weeks, I could do it without any actual selyn flow. But I’d prefer an actual training transfer, if you could work that into your schedule."

"I could do that." For a variety of reasons, she usually maintained a high field, which left her a great deal of flexibility.

"Mmm, that would be one way to do it. I could pick up even more using another method." One lateral flicked out to kiss the skin of her inner arm.

Teeth of the Gods, they never stopped thinking about it for long, did they? She’d be surprised if he’d even finished the first quarter of his cycle. She projected the night-time cold of the high reaches at him. "Ah, you don’t want anything like that. You’re a very nice Sime, I think it might be a bit much for you."

His grip tightened. "I’m not as innocent as you seem to think. You have every right to say no, but don’t try to tell me what I want. I can decide that for myself."

Gianne used one fingernail to coax the wandering lateral back into its sheath. It didn’t really hurt them, but they found it unpleasant enough for the technique to be effective. "Desist, Sime." With her nager, she took a very mild tone, since her efforts to discourage him on that level had proved counterproductive.

He let go of her. "Not even a possibility?"

"I’ll see you in three days for the secondary procedure." She picked up the wooden tablet and headed for the door. He followed her.

"If I’ve made you angry, you don’t have to shield me from it. I really wish you wouldn’t mask your emotions that way. You leave now, like this, and I’ll spend the rest of the evening wondering how badly I’ve offended you."

It wasn’t anger she was hiding from him. He’d managed to tempt her, and she thought it was quite possible that he suspected as much. Perhaps it was time to work a month’s vacation into her schedule and make an appointment with her own advisor, though it had only been three months since the last time.

She turned her awareness inward and took a deep breath. Exhaling, she allowed concealment to become true emotional control. Then she turned to face Mard’n. "I’m not angry with you," she said truthfully. "It’s just time for me to go."

Back in her own apartment, she held the artwork he’d given her, unsure of what to do with it. First she looked around her outer chamber, which she used when Quissan custom demanded that she invite someone else into her home. It was furnished well but without any personality, with items selected primarily because the people selling them did not provoke her by trying to sell her any superfluous junk. The bit of art would look entirely out of place there. Her inner chamber, where she slept, was furnished in the mountain style. The walls were concealed by hangings that had originally been designed to disguise bare rock. She’d come to Quissa empty-handed and had bought these later, paying a ridiculous price because she’d wanted them and had more money than she knew what to do with. Eventually, she decided to put the wooden thing on a table, leaning against the wall. Then she laid down on the Quissan-style sleeping platform and curled herself around a cushion. She could smell the scented body oil that Mard’n wore, and of course it made her think of him.

She had a rule against any form of intimacy with her neighbors. Every rule exists so that someone can break it, but they sometimes regretted it when they do. She smiled. It was a Quissan saying. Every year, she grew a little more acclimated to her new environment, though she did not think the process would be anywhere near complete at the end of her life. Not even if she lived to a very great age, which was far likelier here than in the mountains.

She had a rule against primary transfers with channels, too. At first it had been loyalty to Vai, but her reasons for keeping the rule had changed. Unequal transfers gave her control and autonomy. With a Sime at or near her own level, things would be more complicated. It would be too easy to get involved. She’d seen the insidious power that lowland Simes established over their Gens’ lives, and she didn’t think she would ever be Quissan enough to accept that. They ruled from weakness rather than strength, asking Gens to accept restrictions to ease their fears and to protect their delicate nerves. Channels were the worst of the lot. When she shared these observations with local folk, they’d denied it, Sime and Gen alike. But she continued to see it every day.

If she did decide to start doing TN-level transfers, starting with a neighbor would be a very poor idea. But it was hard to erase the memory of Mard’n’s touch. Perhaps if she bathed. But she didn’t want to, not just yet.

Three days from now, in full transfer contact, he would get a clearer look at her true nager than he’d gotten so far. Maybe that would change his mind. If not, well, she would have to think things over.

I suppose I could always move.

She hadn’t been brought up to think too far into the future. In the mountains, things were too unpredictable for that. For now, she was content to put these other thoughts aside and think about how she would handle the secondary transfer. He wanted to get an impression of her field, and she intended to give him what he’d asked for. Moreover, she meant to enjoy the experience.

Allowing her thoughts to drift, she fell gradually into a deep sleep, a faint smile on her face.

~~~~

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