Pearl Hollow

by

N. Eileen O'Neill

 

Note: This continues the story of the characters introduced in Komachi.

 

After nearly a week of hard travel, the three of them—Gianne, Mard'n and Otti—could finally see their destination ahead and below them. Gianne insisted that the two Simes stop and let her out of the litter that Otti had designed and made. It galled her that they made better time with the Simes carrying her, augmenting only slightly, than if she walked on her own damaged legs. She accepted the practicality of it, but she drew the line at going down to the village in that manner. Besides, if she rode for too long, she would be stiff all over and her legs would feel worse rather than better.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Mard'n stood with Gianne, gazing out over the landscape below them, as Otti dismantled the litter and packed away the pieces. "But you should see it in spring, when the flowers are in bloom. They are every color you can imagine. I haven't been back here since I was in first year, and we won't dwell on how long that's been, but you never forget." 

Except for the narrow trail, the slope that led down to Pearl Hollow was almost completely covered by a blanket of variegated green, broken here and there by pale, jagged rocks that looked like the teeth of some huge predator. Below, partly obscured by mist, the village resembled a collection of upside-down bowls that had been set on a shelf to dry.

Looking down at the landscape, Gianne found herself thinking about the high reaches where she had spent the first two dozen years of her life. The mountainous reaches were far upslope of the temperate altitudes, where Freysea's cities lay like a string of beads across the only part of the planet that would support a large human population. The steam hollows were an equal distance downslope, hot and humid in contrast with the cold of the high reaches. And the vegetation was far more abundant here, astonishing in its variety. But there were similarities as well.

The steepness of the terrain was one common factor. And the relative isolation. On the five-day journey, they had encountered only a few scattered homesteaders and a small party traveling in the opposite direction. Gianne stretched, glad to be away from Quissa's crowded streets. She felt some pain in her legs but disregarded it, talking a deep breath as she expanded her field of life-energy until she felt as if she were dissolving, like a drop of paint in a bucket of water, blending into the surrounding air and rock and plant life. It was a giddy feeling, one she could not have indulged in Quissa without complaints of ‘nageric disturbance' being brought against her. It was one of the many prices she paid for the safety and prosperity of city life. 

Here, she did not have to worry about that, at least not until they got within zlinning range of the village below. Both Simes were in the early part of their cycles, and she knew Mard'n could handle anything she was likely to do, and could shield the younger and weaker Sime if Otti found himself unduly disturbed by her nager. For the moment, she once again enjoyed the freedom she had given up in exchange for security, and it was sweet.

They began the final leg of their journey with Mard'n in the lead and Gianne following, with Otti a few paces behind the two of them. He had not said much during the journey. Mard'n had been reluctant to include the young Sime at first. He could not be sure how long he would be required to stay in Pearl Hollow, where he had been called to assist in the birth of a future channel. The urgent summoning had not included much information, and he was not sure how long ago it was that a young renSime woman has been impregnated by his great-grandfather. "Still strong enough for that, apparently," Mard'n had explained to her when he'd asked her to make this journey with him. "But not to follow through with the birth if the child truly is a channel—I'm not even sure if they know that for certain, and I'm not sure how long before the birth is due. I was asked to go there as soon as possible, and in my family… you do not refuse such a request. It is an obligation. But Pearl Hollow is a tiny village, and I doubt if there is an extra Gen there who is capable of giving me transfer."

So he had asked Gianne to come with him, despite her difficulties with walking. She was not quite sure why she'd agreed to walk away—or be carried—from her safe, ordered and prosperous existence in Quissa, and her lucrative practice of giving transfer to several renSimes every month, for an indefinite length of time. Perhaps her life in Quissa had become a bit too predictable. The idea of seeing a part of the world she knew so little about had intrigued her. It was fortunate she'd never to let any of her clients get too attached to her. Mard'n had, perhaps, been less careful. On learning that of his plans, Otti had demanded to come along and, when Mard'n told him no, had threatened legal action on the basis of dependency. When Mard'n got a polite but very official letter of inquiry on the subject from the Quissan Association of Professional Channels Ethics Board, he decided it might be easiest just to bring Otti along. 

As they descended, Gianne studied the village below. She could glance at it for only a few seconds at a time, because the rugged trail required her to be careful in placing her feet and the end of her sturdy hardwood walking stick. The hemispherical huts were clustered around the base of a cliff, a pale vertical expanse of rock that continued up as far as they eye could see. Looking up, Gianne found herself getting dizzy as she tried to decide where the cliff-face vanished into the milky sky. The air was hot and moist and heavy, and her clothing clung to her body. To the left of the village, a curving expanse of green led gradually upward. To the right, a continuous flow of water fell from the cliff, partly hiding a set of wooden doors that appeared to be set into the face of the rock. Beyond that, the land sloped gradually downward, rocky and bare of plant life. Steam rose from deep vents in the ground.

As they drew closer to the village, she could see more detail. Each hut appeared to be woven of sticks, like the nest of some large bird, but the shape was more similar to a snail's shell laid on its side. The doorways were arched and set at a right angle to the walls, leading into the darkened interior in a way that gave the impression that the entire building was composed of an inwardly spiraling hallway. Thick moss with an abundance of tiny yellow flowers grew heavy on the roofs. A large open area stood near the middle of the settlement, and paths led to the door of each hut; but aside from this, all available ground was covered with crowded, disorganized-looking gardens. Gianne recognized a few of the plants as edible, but most were unfamiliar to her. The entire village looked almost as if it could have grown from the surrounding terrain without human assistance—and it also looked deserted. 

She thought she'd caught a glimpse of someone moving, earlier, but now that she was close enough to see more clearly, there was no one in sight. Gianne stopped as they got within an easy stone's-throw of the nearest building, reluctant to come closer without some invitation or acknowledgement. Where were all the people?

Mard'n did not hesitate, but continued on to the open area in the midst of the village. One of the huts was twice the size of the others, oblong rather than round in shape, and he walked toward it. Like the others, it had no windows, but three people came out as he approached. The one in the lead was a young child, the top of her head not even reaching to an adult's waist. Close behind her, a Sime woman who resembled her, and a Gen man who did not. It was the child who spoke. Her voice was high and not particularly forceful, as might be expected from one so young. But her gaze was tranquil, showing no fear of the three strangers, and she spoke with confidence.

"Welcome to Pearl Hollow, brother. I am Treang, who serves as second channel. Our father the first channel lies ill in his bed and is unable to rise. I would take you to him." 

"Greetings, little daughter." Mard'n gave the girl a ritualistic kiss on the crown of braids that added a couple of finger-widths to her height, as Gianne tried to make sense of what she had heard. The child spoke with an accent, but it was not heavy enough to prevent Gianne from making out her words. She knew that the child was neither Mard'n's sister nor his daughter, and that local custom gave such terms a non-literal meaning. Mard'n had explained that to her during the journey, but how could a child not even halfway to puberty serve as a channel? She glanced at the child's arms, but saw no sign of tentacle sheathes, of course. This was no undersized adult, it was a little girl. She felt lost. And there was something about all three of them—something in their eyes—that made the hair on the back of her neck try to rise up. 

The eyes of the woman and girl were quite striking, a smoky gray that might have held tints of green or burnished gold. The murky light of the bottomlands that made it hard tell for sure, but the light color contrasted dramatically with their skin, which was almost as dark as Mard'n's. And there was something more, a compelling quality that she associated with power. She had seen this before in the eyes of channels and high-capacity Gens, and also in those of people who had ordinary nagers but unusual force of personality. She did not recall ever observing it in a child. The man's eyes were an unremarkable dark brown in color, but held that same look of power. And she could feel the force of his energy-field as well, a combination of pressure and an uncomfortable prickling as it interacted with her own. 

There was something disturbingly familiar about him. She had never seen him before, she was quite certain of that. But he reminded her of someone. She could not concentrate on trying to remember who, not when they were being led through the open patch of ground to the largest of the huts. The tunnel that led inside proved to be a short one, leading to a big open area that occupied about half of the available space. The inner wall to their left continued to curve until it formed another doorway into the remaining half, giving the chamber the shape of a fat crescent. Built into the outer wall of this was a padded shelf, and lying restlessly on this was an old Sime who looked as if he would very much have liked to get up but was not sure he could. Gianne was surprised to think he had managed to get anyone pregnant. Perhaps his debility was recent. When Simes grew seriously ill, they often went quickly. The Gen man took a seat beside him with an unmistakably proprietary air, looking at Gianne for a long moment.

Besides the three who had come in with them, there was only one other person in the room. This other man was also Sime, not young but considerably younger than the man who she assumed to be Mard'n's great-grandfather.

"Younger son and brother." The old channel—for surely it must be he—had a voice like leather that needed oiling. 

"I have come as requested and required." Mard'n's voice was quiet and formal, and while it did not hold a question, it held a suggestion of one. He had warned Gianne that lengthy social pleasantries must be exchanged before anything of consequence could be discussed. 

"You have met your sister-channel Treang and her mother Aibulayne. Aibue, chairs for our guests, they have come far! I am Dosashei, first channel here, in fact the only channel who—" he interrupted himself with a fit of coughing, and the Gen by his side offered him a cup. He took a sip. "Thank you. Where was I. Tez here, you probably have guessed, is my chanarin." He patted the Gen's hand fondly, then gestured at the Sime man. "And this is Zatuen. Perhaps he would be kind enough to get all of us some sweet ale." As Zatuen slipped of the hut, Aibulayne returned with three low stools, and Gianne sank onto one of them gratefully.

"As you know, I am Mard'n, come here from Quissa at the request of our cousins." The question in his voice was stronger now, but still unspoken. "My traveling companions are Gianne, and Otti."

Dosashei closed his eyes briefly, looking as if he'd gone to sleep. Gianne knew he had not, and was neither surprised nor offended when he opened them and looked directly at her. "I always knew Romardarin would do well, but he has surpassed my expectations."

"Gianne was kind enough to agree to stay with me for the duration of my visit here." Mard'n kept his voice carefully neutral. Dosashei blinked, looking deceptively sleepy, and Gianne wondered how much he had picked up from Mard'n nagerically. It was a bit of a sore point between them, because Mard'n had made it clear on more that one occasion that he would like to negotiate an exclusive transfer arrangement with Gianne. But she refused to consider it seriously. Mard'n could come within about seven percent of draining her entire selyn supply, and the one time she'd given him transfer, it had been very satisfying indeed. But if she let him do that on a regular basis, her career as a komachi was over, and what would she do with herself then? She had no other skills. As things were, she enjoyed as much independence as anyone could, living within the constraints of civilization. She knew that an agreement like the one Mard'n had suggested would require him to support her financially, but she would have felt like a lap-pet.

The awkward silence was broken a moment later when Zatuen returned. He carried a tray filled with large stoneware cups, three of which he presented to Gianne, Mard'n and Otti with a courteous flourish. Then he bent and said something to Dosashei in a low voice. The elderly channel murmured something in response, and Zatuen ducked out of the hut again, to return almost immediately with five other Simes.

Introductions were made all around. Treang sat on the sleeping-shelf near Dosashei's feet, still as a statue, while Aibulayne and Zatuen remained standing. After a bit, the five newcomers left and were replaced by another small group, this one a mix of Simes and Gens. Gianne was able to understand most of what she heard, but she made little attempt to follow the conversation as people came into the hut to be presented to Mard'n. Instead, she observed closely while keeping her nager as pleasant and unremarkable as she could. The Simes all seemed to favor the style of dress she was used to seeing on Mard'n, colorful knee-length robes and pants that cinched tight at the ankle over soft boots. The Gens wore the same style of pants (which Mard'n had told her was considered necessary to keep small biting creatures that lived in the low brush from crawling under one's clothing) along with a plainer style of tunic that tucked into the pants. 

The villagers spoke with a definite accent, when compared with Quissans or folk from the western reaches. But Gianne could understand what they were saying, aside from a few unfamiliar terms—and many of these could be figured out from context. However, she despaired of being able to pronounce their names correctly. The number of syllables seemed to vary from one usage to another. As Dosashei introduced Mard'n to one group of villagers after another, the longer version of his name might come out as Roh-ahmardarin, one time and be expanded further to Romardin-ahdarinah the next, though it was difficult to be sure because the extra sounds were not fully articulated . If Gianne had any hope that this was just the old man's way of speaking, this was dispelled when he grew tired and Aibulayne took over, her voice cool and precise as she murmured her way through the syllables. 

All of this would not have concerned Gianne so much, except that she had heard these lowlanders—Rachu'karra, as they were called by the Quissans—were most particular about the way their names were said. She had asked Mard'n about this and gotten answers she found evasive. He quibbled with the term Rachu'karra, saying it properly only applied to a small area of the steam hollows, which did not include his ancestral village. She did not accept what was said in Quissa at face value; the folk there were just as quick to say that her own former neighbors in the high reaches were given to eating human flesh, while in fact this was relatively rare. But the business with the names worried her, because Mard'n had not come right out and denied that it was so. Gianne decided she would stay silent as much as she could.

She continued to sit beside Mard'n as adults of all ages continued to make brief visits, singly and in pair and small groups. Aside from Treang, she saw no children. Gianne looked with some interest at a young woman who was visibly pregnant, but she was presented with no special emphasis and soon left the hut alongside the man she'd walked in with.

Mard'n had warned her, but had failed to convey how long these ‘pleasantries' would go on. At some point they were all ushered outdoors so the aged patient could rest. Mard'n returned to his side, perhaps to have a word in private, but was not gone long. And when he returned, there was no chance for Gianne to ask him what, if anything, he had learned.

In the center of the village was a large open area, and there a feast had been prepared. People were seated on low benches and flat stones that surrounded a fire-pit. The indefinite light from the murky sky had faded to dusk while they were indoors, but the roaring fire provided light and heat. A gentle rain had begun to fall but this was ignored. Gianne had been raised in a much colder climate, and it had taken her several months of living in Quissa to get over the idea that to be rained on was to risk death. But the continuous drizzle that fell was warm, really quite soothing after the murky heat of the day.

Gianne was handed a wooden plate and an eating-stick, sharp on one end for spearing solid items and flat on the other for scooping. Bowls of food were being passed around in a circle. As each passed her way, she took what she wanted, judging by smell in the dim light. As she began to eat, she found the food strange but good, a mix of familiar and unknown flavors and textures, and a welcome change from the practical and boring trail-fodder of the past week.

After awhile, several of the younger men and women, mostly Gens, got up and began to dance. Music began, seemingly from nowhere. Glancing around, Gianne saw that some of the village folk had taken shelter in the doorways of the various huts, so that they could play instruments without getting these wet. There were drums, played softly at first, and complex wooden flutes that seemed to require skill with both fingers and tentacles. The music grew more wild, as did the dancing. Gianne watched with shielded regret. The dancers were close to her own age and glistened in the rain, stomping the ground in noticeable contrast with the Quissan attitude that no Gen should ever risk incurring the slightest bump or bruise if there were Simes present. But although her legs were bothering her less than usual that day, she knew she would never be able to join their dance, even if she knew the way of it.

She decided, however, that she was content enough. Her stomach was full, and it was more comfortable than she would have guessed to sit here on a rock in the misty rain. Her clothing became soaked, and yet she did not feel chilled. The air was warm and still, heated further by the fire and the body-warmth of the villagers. The problem of when Mard'n would finally be presented with the patient he had come here to assist belonged to the channel, not to her. She had agreed to accompany him here for a fee, and to give him transfer if he were unable to return to Quissa before he reached that time, which he considered likeliest. Let him worry about the rest of it.

She watched the dancers. Many of them had shed their tunics, the men and some of the flatter-chested women bare above the waist, the more heavily built women wearing a long cloth that bound their breasts into place as they leapt and stomped. Tez, the man whose eyes held such a challenge, was among them. He did not seem as if he belonged. It was hard to say why, but she did not think he was a native of the little village.

It was a combination of things. He was a bit taller than most of the other men, and lighter-skinned than most of the villagers. And there was the matter of his hair. Tez dressed as the others did, but watching the other dancers, Gianne saw that men and women alike wore their hair either cropped short or else braided close to their heads, probably to keep it from clinging to their necks in the constant heat and humidity. Tez wore his mountain-style, as Gianne had never stopped doing—untrimmed, and tied into a cascade down his back like the tail of the mythical horse.

It came to her what seemed familiar about him. It was not the same man, no, she was positive of that—but he bore a fair resemblance to the man who had almost killed her in a knife-fight. And was that the reason why she had distrusted him, and disliked him, from the first moment their eyes had met? If so, it was unfair of her—or was it? Not if her instincts were telling her the resemblance went deeper than the physical, and not if her instincts were correct.

At the outskirts of the gathering, she could see children running in a pack, ranging in age from those barely able to walk to some who looked almost adult, few of them wearing as much clothing as their parents. All had trousers and shoes, but few wore shirts or any jewelry, and none had more than a finger's-breadth of hair. Gianne saw no way to determine their gender, but assumed that the group included both boys and girls, since she saw no children seated around the fire except for lap-babies—and Treang, who sat placidly beside her mother. If the girl felt any longing to join the other children, she hid it well.

Periodically, someone would drop from the dancing for a drink of cool water from jugs that were freely circulating, or would jump into the fray after a rest. A sweating young woman sat beside Gianne and Mard'n, gasping for breath and wiping her face with the free end the cloth that restrained her breasts. Surely she had been introduced—the entire village had, as near as Gianne could tell—but of course she remembered only a few of the names. 

"Join us," she said to Gianne. "It is not difficult to learn, you need not attempt that—" pointing to a man who did a flip in midair, and laughing. "And if you make a mistake no-one will know or care, they like to watch us anyway." This last, with a teasing glance at one of the nearby Simes.

"I cannot, I have an injury."

"Ah." None of the veiled horror she had sometimes encountered in Quissa, which she had eventually figured out was a reaction to the idea of any Gen suffering an injury—a Sime attitude which had somehow infected the Gens of the city as well. Too excessive a counterpart, in Gianne's view, to the mountain callousness toward another's pain. "What about the hunt, tomorrow—is your healing advanced enough to join us in that?"

Gianne felt a wave of completely unexpected longing, far sharper than the pang she had felt at watching the dancers. Automatically, she did her best to muffle the emotion, as one was expected to do with any strong feeling when out in public in Quissa—and this rule held especially true for a Gen as powerful as herself, of course. But Mard'n, sitting quite close by, picked it up with ease despite her efforts.

"You should join Marianke and the other Gens at their hunt, Gianne. They can travel at a pace that will accommodate you." 

Marianke, she repeated silently to herself, knowing that she would never be able to pronounce it correctly. But the young woman seemed friendly enough, and perhaps she would not be as quick to take offense at a well-meaning error as Gianne feared.

Marianke reached for Gianne's shoulder, and time slowed. Mard'n had warned her of this; when she had asked him how true it was that she might offend by saying a name incorrectly, rather than answering directly, he'd replied by saying that he was more concerned that she would react violently if one of the villagers touched her, and that folk in Pearl Hollow were far more given to that kind of casual physical intimacy than was customary in Quissa.

Gianne had plenty of time to make the decision to permit the touch, as Mard'n had warned her she must if the person reaching toward her was another Gen woman, or an elderly Gen man, or a child. Marianke's grip was strong, but Gianne did not sense any intent to intimidate. It surprised her that she did not find the contact objectionable. She had been prepared to endure a stranger's touch, in accordance with the local custom, but had expected the experience to draw heavily on her reserve of self-control.

"Do come with us, Gianne." The village woman gave her name an exotic lilt, almost adding another syllable. "Some who hunt with us are grandparents. Speed is not important. Some of the younger ones dash off into the brush at high speed, and I used to do that myself, but no longer." She patted an ample belly. 

"I should like to accompany you, then, if I would not inconvenience anyone."

"It is decided, then. At first light, we shall gather here, and if I do not see you I shall come seek you out." Marianke picked up a nearby jug of water, took several long swallows, and rejoined the dancers.

After a time the rain grew heavier, and the fire began to sizzle and hiss. Mard'n led Gianne to the hut where they would be staying, where her pack had already been stored. She was relieved to find that her spare clothes were still dry, and changed into them quickly after drying herself with a rough towel that had been left for them, along with other supplies, on a shelf built into the side of the hut.

The building was simple, a small room with three cots and the shelf, lit by an odd web of luminescent material woven into the ceiling. An opening in the wall led to an even smaller chamber with a clay pot for night wastes. Gianne, quite fatigued, lay on one of the beds, but sleep did not come to her immediately. Mard'n ducked back outside, and she was still awake when he returned with Otti.

Tired as she was, Gianne wanted information. She looked at Mard'n questioningly, letting her curiosity show in her nager.

"Things don't move quite that quickly here, I'm afraid." Otti looked alert, as if he had been wondering too but hadn't quite dared to enquire. "The only pregnant woman I have zlinned was a Gen, and it did not appear to me to be a… hazardous pregnancy. When I asked about the matter that I was brought here to assist with, my questions were treated like those of a rude child. I think the message summoning me was delayed, and that I have arrived too late to be of any assistance. But of course no-one will come out and say so. There is another thing, as well. My grantha is dying, but that is another thing that nobody here wishes to speak of. If the two of you had not guessed that when we met him, I felt I should tell you."

He sounded so dejected that Gianne moved over on the narrow bed and gestured for him to lie beside her. Otti, sitting on one of the other cots, got up. "I think I will go and look around the village."

Mard'n raised his head. "Not tonight. Tomorrow, you and I will get a tour while Gianne hunts, but I feel we should remain here until we are shown around by our hosts. Take the viewer from my pack if you don't feel like resting."

Instead, Otti dug into his own pack to find a knot of wood he'd cut from a deadfall, and began carving small bits from it. Gianne was not sure what he meant to make, but the sound was soft and rhythmic and soothing.

So softly that only Gianne could hear, Mard'n told her, "Sleep now. I will do some reading later on, if Otti isn't going to use the viewer, but for now I will just bask in the radiance of your nager."

Gianne smiled, thinking that while it was true that Simes did not require as much sleep as she did, there was no call for them to talk as though could get by without any at all. Nestled up next to Mard'n and enjoying his warmth, she luxuriated the feeling of getting to lie down and rest, focusing on the satisfaction of relaxing when she was thoroughly tired. Floating in the twilight that lies between awareness and sleep, she heard a change in Mard'n's breathing as he drifted off just ahead of her.

Gianne woke to the sound of voices outside the hut. Enough daylight came through the oddly-angled door for her to see that Mard'n and Otti were gone. She rose and stretched, feeling just a bit of pain, no more than the occasional twinge. A good omen for the day. She ducked through the doorway and saw people gathered around the fire-pit, taking food from where it was piled on one of the benches and eating it standing, for the most part. Marianke greeted her with a smile, and gestured toward the food. It was much simpler than what had been served the night before, cut fruit and small loaves of flat bread, but it was plentiful and fresh.

She sat on one of the benches to eat. When Tez began walking toward her, she was aware of it immediately, but did not look up. She had a strong feeling that there would be trouble between her and this man, but tried to tell herself that she was reacting in a way more appropriate to another time and place.

When he came close enough that she could no longer ignore him, she gazed at him with a kind of neutral inquisitiveness, striving to display no hint of either aggression or fear, though she could feel both of these trying to surface within her.

"Do you prefer your meat raw, or cooked?" His tone was mild, but she wondered if he meant some insult, some reference to what he might imagine of her habits or her background.

"Cooked, if I have a choice about it." Standing, he seemed to loom over her. He was just a bit too close for comfort, but his expression was as unthreatening as his voice. She was determined not to be drawn into the mountain game of veiled threats and clever insults, but found herself giving him a vacant look of simulated stupidity, which was a common gambit among mountain folk who wanted to lull some stranger into feeling superior and relaxing their guard. She returned her eyes to her plate, determined to let the matter go no further. In the high reaches, his behavior would be seen as a threat, and for her to take her eyes off him at this point would be foolhardy—and perhaps offensive in itself. But customs were different here, she reminded herself, spearing a bit of fruit with the eating-stick clenched in her right hand.

A man in his middle years clapped his hands together several times, and Tez turned away and sank to the bench beside her, bare back within easy reach of the fire-hardened wood in her hand. Nothing any mountain Gen would have done… unless, of course, he was very sure of himself. To threaten her and then expose the soft meats on either side of his spine would display a degree of brinkmanship that verged on suicidal. Perhaps it was merely the superficial detail of his mountain-Gen hairstyle that caused her to keep reacting to him as if he were dangerous.

In a few moments, everyone was seated except the man who had gotten their attention by clapping. He waited until the others had settled down, then spoke. "We have a guest, who has come here with our brother, son, and cousin Mard'n. All of you here have greeted Gianne, who comes from Quissa." All of them were looking at her. She wondered if she were expected to rise to her feet, hoping not, because the bench was quite low and she had never found a way to get up gracefully since her injuries.

"In Quissa," he continued, "Gens do not hunt. Instead, they keep food animals in pens like juncts tending their future kills." Everyone had a good laugh over that, while Gianne strove to keep her nager blank. In Quissa, such things were not discussed so bluntly in public, and certainly not treated so lightly. "Perhaps there are things we will have to teach her. Perhaps she will be, in some ways, as a child among us. And perhaps there will be things she can teach us, as we join with her in respect and humility, for she is from a strange place and may bring an unexpected gift of wisdom. To the hunt!"

With this, everyone who was sitting rose and began to gather the spears she had seen resting against the sides of the buildings. They made a rough line with their plates, depositing these into a basin. Gianne waited until Tez had joined the queue before struggling awkwardly to her feet, staff in one hand and plate in the other. At least she managed not to drop the plate. She felt a moment of despair. How could she expect to keep up if things got a bit wild? Marianke might speak of having slowed down after putting on a bit of weight, but that was a far different matter than having legs that did not work properly. She could manage to walk, after a fashion, but running was out of the question. Perhaps they did not quite realize.

They headed off down one of the paths sloping down to the valley, ambling along in no particular hurry, laughing and joking with each other. She had a hard time understanding some of what they said, because sometimes they spoke rapidly with a slight accent, salted with words that sounded entirely unfamiliar. Gianne wondered if she'd been meant to take offense at the remark about Quissans raising animals in pens. It wasn't entirely inaccurate, though most Quissans were vegetarians. Gianne had never lost her taste for meat, but found it was a taste that horrified most of her neighbors.

She smiled to herself as she walked. If the Gens of Pearl Hollow meant to bait her into taking offense, they'd have to do better than that. Given the tone of the remark, it might have been intended as friendly banter, like the affectionate insults that were exchanged freely among friends in the mountains. Which occasionally led to someone pulling a knife in anger, of course, when it went too far…

She'd noticed that all of the Gens here wore knives at their belts, longer than the fighting-knives she had favored in her former life, almost a short sword. Mard'n had told her that these were never used for fighting, and as they walked down the path, she saw that several of them had pulled the knives and were slicing at errant vines that were threatening to impede the trail. It looked more like play than work, but she could see that the vines would eventually block the trail if no-one cut them back. The vigor of the plant life was almost frightening. All around, even with the chattering and laughter of the other Gens, she could hear the cries of animals and an occasional rustling in the deep underbrush.

It was so different than hunting in the mountains, which was done alone or in small family groups, on bare terrain that was rocky and treacherous. There, it was often difficult to find an animal to pursue; here, they were all around, but seeing them was difficult. In fact, she did not see any hunting going on that she could discern, just a certain amount of hedge-trimming. Some of the hunters—men, for the most part—carried short spears, and most of the women had what looked like bundles of sticks, which she assumed was also some kind of weapon. But none of them made any move to use them, and her curiosity about the bundles of sticks remained unsatisfied.

As they walked, she began to relax, her earlier nervousness melting away as if the hot and humid air had leached it from her. It was a waste of time for her to go with them, she realized that now. The sharp moment of longing she'd felt when she was invited was nothing but nostalgia for something she could never recapture. But there was no harm in it, either. It did not look as if she was going to be humiliated. 

The pace was relaxed, and she was not holding anyone back. In fact, she had noticed that the man who appeared to be the leader here, who she'd heard the others addressing as Tcharoll, seemed to have some problems with his legs as well. He walked with a faint rolling motion, subtle enough that it took her awhile to realize that his limitations were probably greater than her own. He compensated well, but from the way he swung his left leg stiff and straight from the hip, she did not think he could bend the knee on that side at all.

They reached a fork in the path, and there was some discussion about which way to go. Not being familiar with any of the possibilities, Gianne paid little attention. She was grateful for the rest, and tried to breathe deeply. The air felt so heavy. She recalled the derision mountain folk had for lowlanders who passed out in the thin air. Ironic if it should be her lungs, rather than her damaged legs, that made her look weak in front of her hosts… an irony she felt unprepared to appreciate. She felt as if her entire body were drenched with sweat, her clothing marked by a few dry spots in odd places but mostly soaked, with a mix of her own perspiration and the moisture she'd picked up from brushing against stray bits of plant life.

"We have a guest with us; it is necessary." With these words, Tcharoll settled the argument, and they turned left instead of right. Gianne wished now that she had paid more attention to the discussion, since it apparently had something to do with her. At least she no longer felt as if she might faint.

A short time later, they left the tunnel of greenery for an open meadow covered with wiry grass, and she could see the sheer cliff-face once more. At its base, a shallow pool was fed by a thin, high waterfall. On the far end of the clearing was a collection of tall, narrow structures that looked much like the huts back at the village itself, but far too small for a person to have entered, even if they had doors. The villagers laid their weapons and other burdens down, and one by one they stood beneath the waterfall, where there was only room for one person. The fall of water was broken not far above them by an outcropping of rock, so the power of the water was not overwhelming. Some merely bent and washed their faces, scooping as they took their turn, and of the ones who stepped directly under the water, several cried out as if in pain, and none of them stayed long.

When Gianne took her turn, she learned why. She had forgotten anything could be so cold, but it felt good. She stayed there, forcing breath into her lungs for several long breaths, before realizing that it might be considered rude to stay too long while others were waiting. She stepped out of the water grinning with delight, wringing excess water from her hair.

The tall structures proved to be targets, and the bundles carried by the women were arrows along with a kind of bow made from two strips of wood. Curiously, Tez had one of these as well, though he was a big man and she would not have guessed he was the type to prefer a less impressive-looking weapon. The few women who did carry the spear were big and well-muscled, so Gianne gathered that it was thought to take some physical strength.

"Will you try the spear or the bow?"

So there was to be a challenge after all. There were two ways to handle that. Tcharoll held an example of one weapon in each of his hands for her to examine. "The bow is generally more suited to women and to kolodarin, and you are both. But you look strong, so perhaps you would be able to handle the spear." There was malice in his remarks, but she was fairly certain it was not really directed at her. There was another unfamiliar term, but this one was fairly easy to pick up from context—an outsider. Tez, the other kolodarin in the group, did not rise to the bait.

One of the smaller women responded by saying, "The spear is suited to those who do not have the brains to use the bow." Other women made low sounds of approval, but unlike Tcharoll's remark, there was no real hostility in the banter. Gianne glanced covertly at Tez and then back at Tcharoll. She could feel the two men not-looking at each other, like a physical pressure.

As interesting as she found that, she had to push it to the back of her mind for now. She was not skilled with either of the weapons she was being offered. She could choose one, demonstrate her ineptitude with it, and be instructed as if she were a child. This might be the most diplomatic. Instead, she pulled a strap of oiled leather from her travel pouch and a stone from one pocket, then took a step away from the others to have enough room. Whirling the sling with one hand while holding her staff for balance with the other, she took in a deep breath, expanding her field as she'd done on the slope above the village. It was a luxury she could not indulge often with Simes anywhere in the vicinity, even one such as Mard'n, and it made her feel more fully alive than she did at any other time.

The sling made a sound like a crazed bird in a suicide dive. She released the stone and it flew as she had bade it, entering the target dead-center. A bit of tension in her center gave way. She was nowhere near as adept as she'd once been, after years of soft living in Quissa. But this first shot would be remembered, and it had flown true.

No hunting was done that day after all. The village Gens all had to try her weapon, and none of them could do much with it, including Tez. If he did come from the high reaches, then it was not from the same region where Gianne had been born. There, the sling was the favored weapon for hunting. Plants with boles straight enough for a spear or an arrow were rare, but rocks were plentiful.

Once all of them had taken a turn with her sling, she demonstrated it a few more times, sinking most of her shots. Then she had to try both the bow and the spear, and she did not do well with either of these. The bow required both hands, and she was felt awkward without her familiar staff in one hand to help her balance. Just as she was starting to get a feel for the aiming and releasing of the arrow, she was urged to try the spear instead. She had even less luck with that, and could not even blame her legs. The spear was thrown one-handed, with a stepping motion, and she found she could hold her walking-stick in her left hand while stepping with the right foot, allowing her to throw with her dominant hand. But when she released the spear, it tumbled, and none of Tcharoll's efforts to instruct her seemed to help. She did not really mind, though. Had she been able to best them with their own weapons, she probably would have done so—but she knew it was just as well that she could not, allowing her hosts to reclaim some of the face they had lost when she demonstrated something none of them could match. They were even now, she and the villagers, and that was well enough.

"It grows late," Tcharoll announced at length. "This has been of value, but we will eat no meat today. Instead, we will help the Simes to make use of what they have grown and gathered." There was laughter at this. Much of the villagers' humor seemed obscure to Gianne. "We did not hunt today. It is good to practice, but perhaps some of you are disappointed. To make up for that, those who wish to will convene again upon the morrow, and there shall be no further delay." 

As they began the long trek back to the village, Gianne realized that she was quite hungry, having eaten nothing but a rather unappealing dried mix of nuts, fruits and heavily salted bits of jerky that Marianke had given her. It was the kind of thing that could keep you alive if you were truly desperate, but nowhere near as satisfying as the other food she'd tried in Pearl Hollow.

Dinner was much like breakfast, except the Simes also ate, and the food was more varied. The entire village seemed to be there, but rather than dishes being passed hand-to-hand as they had been the night before, people filled their plates from a low table. They wandered up a few at a time, and then left when they finished eating. It was raining again, but seemed colder and less gentle. There was no dancing and no fire beyond what was required to cook the food. But a rough shelter had been put up over the benches and fire-pit, so that at least it was possible to eat without getting drenched. This shelter was constructed of thin poles of wood supporting a woven canopy, and looked too frail to withstand even a moderate breeze, but at the same time it looked too light to harm anyone if it did fall.

Mard'n seemed in a poor humor, distracted, but she did not feel she should ask him about it until they returned to their hut. He ate a fair amount, for a Sime, but did so with no apparent enjoyment. Gianne reckoned the days on her fingers and concluded that he was not getting too close to turnover, not yet. Sitting close to him, she gave him as much reassurance as she could, given the crowd around them and the fact that she did not know what was bothering him.

When they finished eating, the two of them went back to their temporary home. Otti did not accompany them. When she had seen him last, he had been sitting and eating with the child Treang and her mother Aibulayne. If Mard'n was not concerned that the younger Sime would run into trouble with some unfamiliar custom, Gianne was not going to worry about it either; Otti was the channel's responsibility, not hers.

Mard'n pulled a letter from his travel pack and handed it to Gianne without a word. Crossing his arms, he waited for her to read it.

After half a page of greetings and what looked like extraneous information, the letter finally got to the point: …Your grandfather, despite his advanced years, has impregnated a renSime with a future channel. His heath is not good. Your assistance is needed… 

When she reached that section, Mard'n reached past her to tap at the words with a tentacle that was stiff with anger. His hand was clenched into a fist. "Do you know, none of these words are actually false. He did father a channel. You met Treang when we first arrived yesterday."

It took a moment for Gianne to understand his meaning. She laughed, then regretted it, because he did not seem to find any humor in the matter.

"It appears the delivery of this letter was delayed…. by several dozens of months! It is good to see that both the child and her mother survived without your assistance. Do we leave on the morrow, then?" She thought of the planned hunt with a faint stab of sorrow.

"There was no unreasonable delay." He gestured to the bottom of the document, where had been signed and dated less than a month ago. "And each thing stated here is true, but misleading in the way it is composed. They are in fact asking for ‘assistance', but not with a birth. That inference was left for me to draw. I feel sure that what they really want is for me to remain here and replace my grantha. I doubt he can survive long enough to take his next transfer, and they have no other channel. Our people do not produce many. I understand there was one who left for the city when his Gen indicated a preference for that life, and another who died before changeover while trying to climb a waterfall. 

"My elder cousin, who crafted this duplicitous document, knows that if she had wrote and said what she really had in mind the answer would have been no. Obligation is taught early and well, in our family, but there are limits. Many of the functions of a channel can be performed by a high-order Gen. Tez will have to serve as hanjee until another can be found, or until Treang comes of age. He cannot be of much help to Gens who are sick or injured, but he can give transfer—that is the most important thing, because there are a few more Simes than Gens in the village just now. But I should not like to leave while grantha Dosashei is still so ill, Gianne. When you agreed to come with me, I don't know how long you thought we would be gone…"

He looked at her, not quite putting the question into words, a request clear in his eyes and his nager. "I would be just as happy to stay here for awhile," she admitted, and was rewarded by seeing his spirits visibly improve. He took her by the hand and pulled her closer, trailing handling tentacles over her skin in a very tantalizing way. "Otti is learning some local crafts tonight," he informed her, "and will not be back for some time…"

The next day, Gianne went back out on the trail with the same group of Gens, give or take a few, as the day before. All the ones who had caught her attention particularly, at any rate, were there. Marianke, acting as her guide. Tcharoll seemed to be in charge again, as before. And Tez. A few others she recognized as well, though in most cases she could not recall their names… much less pronounce them.

They took a different trail this time, and rather than unbroken vegetation, they traveled through a mix of wild greenery and cultivated land. People, mostly Simes, worked among the neat rows of plants. Neat but not particularly straight, for although the arable land seemed to be plentiful, it was hilly and broken by jagged fangs of pale stone and deep hollows that often echoed with the sound of dripping water. The crops were arrayed around these features in graceful concentric lines. Slopes too steep to be planted remained wild. 

The day was brighter than the one before, but the sky was still too hazy for the sun to throw a clear-edged shadow, and Gianne knew that it was considered a freakish thing here when it did clear enough for that. Still, shade brought welcome relief when they did come beneath an umbrella of green, even so early in the day. The hunting party sweated heavily from the mild exertion of their walk, and drank freely of the water they carried. The ground was hilly, and it seemed that each time they reached the bottom of a slope, there was a clear stream at the bottom which they could use to refill their water skins and splash their faces. Unfortunately, this was always followed by another upslope, and each one began to seem steeper than the last. 

At length they reached a dry gully, a rare place where the vegetation had not gained much of a foothold. There the group chose to stop. Gianne was not averse to that idea, but wished they had chosen a place shaded from the bright indirect light of day, where it might have been cooler. Gianne looked at the slope ahead of them without enthusiasm, but it did not occur to her to complain. She would drop in her tracks first, and though she was tired, she was a long way from reaching that point.

She noticed most of the group had gathered around Tez, near the path that led upward, so she started to walk in that direction. Tcharoll stopped her with an upraised palm.

"We wait here. The others will bring the game to us, and we must be still and remain ready. Here, stand where you can see the shallow slope and yet not be too visible." He pointed to where he meant. Marianke was also holding back rather than joining the larger group. 

Tez walked over. She could see in his eyes the same power she always noticed when she met his gaze, and she felt sure there was something of mockery there as well. He seemed to be studying her as she stood with Tcharoll and Marianke. 

"Does our guest understand the way of it? You watch for the gnochen. They will come rapidly, and not always smoothly. Be ready, and hope your weapon is adequate to the task. These are not ground-crokken we hunt." His hands described graceful, bounding leaps over the rocky terrain, moving about waist-high. Reading the confusion in her eyes, he elaborated, "Gnocheniken." His tone was suitable for instructing a backward child, or a deliberately obtuse one. He threw back his head and let out an eerily convincing imitation of a bleating cry.

Gianne was surprised into laughing out loud. "Goats! We hunted those in the mountains as well. It seems they can live anywhere."

For a moment, it seemed as though the tension between them would break, as it can after a shared moment of humor. Instead, he narrowed his eyes, evidently feeling the laughter was at his expense. How could he make a sound like that and expect any other reaction? But then, if he was determined to take offense, he would not require much excuse. She gazed back at him placidly, neither rising to the challenge nor attempting to mollify him.

Tcharoll stepped up to Tez, coming between them to claim the focus of the other man's attention. "So go find us some gnochen."

Tez turned away without a word and led his group up the slope, leaping to the top of a rock that he could just as easily have walked around with a grace that made Gianne ache with envy. Once, she would have done that. Perhaps he'd done it to irk the two of them who had difficulty in walking, but she thought it just as likely that he'd done it without thinking, for the simple joy of using his muscles and his balance. It had been that way with her.

"They will be awhile. Rest if you like." Tcharoll settled himself awkwardly against a rock and appeared to go to sleep, though he kept one hand on his spear, keeping it clear of the ground by balancing it across his legs. Marianke hunkered down to watch quick little silvery lizards darting about on the rocky ground, hunting bugs that were almost too small and well-camouflaged to see. Gianne felt she had best move around to keep her muscles from stiffening, so she shifted slowly from one foot to the other as she surveyed the terrain. The hillside to her left, the one she'd been instructed to watch, was verdant with plant life. But it did not yet seem to be time, based on the lack of attention from the other two. She gazed at the cliff directly ahead of her. Too steep for anything more than a few isolated sprigs of green to grow there, it rose up and up into the murk. High in the mist, she could see moving figures, tiny and almost lost from sight in the haze. Marianke noticed where she was looking and commented, "Our Simes are out collecting gemstones. They can be sold upslope for use in jewelry." 

Gianne, mountain born and raised, felt her skin crawling at the thought of how high up they were, and almost directly overhead. The rock was the kind that was slippery when wet, and in the ever-present humidity, it was unlikely to be dry. As if reading her mind, Marianke added, "They never fall. They don't like for us to go up there, though some of us do. But mostly the Simes, they are more suited to it."

After that, there was no more conversation. Gianne found a flat rock to sit on, feeling cooled enough now to enjoy the warmth against her skin. She existed almost as a plant must, basking in heat and light and devoid of thought, making no effort to control her nager as she judged the rock-hunting Simes to be too distant to zlin anything but the vague sense of their presence.

Then an assault of noise blasted though her consciousness. She could not have been more startled if she'd been tossed into ice-cold water. Before her mind could make any sense of what she heard, her field flared out in a reaction that started out as fear and was transformed to blood rage by training that had begun long before she had any nager to speak of. In the mountains, this alchemy was taught around the same time as a child's first words and toilet discipline. 

Marianke and Tcharoll had risen to their feet and looked alert, but not alarmed. The noise resolved itself into men and women yelling, and the crashing of noisy movement through the underbrush.

Gianne readied herself. She had a fair idea what to expect, and saw that both Tcharoll and Marianke had positioned themselves better than she had. Still, she would have a clear shot without too much danger of hitting either of the others.

When the gnochen came into view, she was prepared, and yet found herself reluctant to throw. One of them threw a wild-eyed glance at the sound of her sling, but did not retreat into the woods in the face of the louder and more alarming noises coming from that direction. 

Marianke fired first, but missed. The wild bounding of the animals made it difficult to aim. Tcharoll hurtled his spear and was more successful, bringing an adult to its knees when he caught it in the belly. Marianke tried again, and missed this attempt as well. Gianne found herself thinking that the other woman did well enough at target-practice. Her aim was good and she knew the weapon, but her timing was off. 

Wondering at her own indolence, she finally stepped forward and released a stone. It caught a half-grown kid near the back of the skull, causing it to stumble. Before she could load and release a second time, an arrow to the throat brought the animal down. It cried out piteously and struggled to rise, turning to look at Marianke for long enough to earn another arrow through the eye. Then the rest of them were gone and Tcharoll stepped in to silence his prey as well, drawing his knife across the creature's throat.

The two dead animals were quickly and efficiently prepared for transport, other members of the hunting party straggling in to help with the task. Tez was one of the last to arrive, limping noticeably and in a poor humor. "Two taken. Did the unusual weapon of our guest prove of any use? Or is it more suited to hunting crokken?"

"She wounded one which was finished with an arrow, but it is Marianke's kill. Have you taken injury?" Gianne heard a definite touch of malice behind Tcharoll's solicitude.

"I took a poor step chasing through the wilds. I am glad to see the effort was not wasted." It occurred to Gianne that she'd been given a favored position in the hunt, due both to her status as a guest and her difficulty in walking. The others had done the greater share of hard, unpleasant work, while she and the two others had enjoyed the more glamorous job. If she were staying here long, it might be resented that she could not be of use in the less exciting role. But she would not be here long, so perhaps she could accept the privileges of a guest in good conscience.

Filled with an impulse to put things on a friendlier basis between them, she turned to Tez. "I hope your injury is slight. I thank all of you for the chance to join in your hunt." 

"You need not concern yourself overmuch. I shall make use of the services of our new hanjee. I feel certain he can put things right." The words were harmless enough but his smile was openly insolent. Why did he go on trying to bait her? If he hoped she would be jealous at the mention of Mard'n, she would disappoint him. And she would leave it to Mard'n to inform these folk that he would not be staying beyond the death-watch for his grantha. 

Tez had every right to ask a healing of Mard'n, and Gianne felt sure he would receive it. If he wanted to offer something in return, that was between him and the channel—and the other channel as well, the older one who lay near death. Gianne had no claim on Mard'n, by her own choice. Also, Mard'n had told her he considered Tez to be technically capable of giving him transfer, but not particularly tempting in that regard. So she merely smiled and said, "Yes, Mard'n can fix what is wrong with you… if anyone can." Her peace overture had been rebuffed, and she found herself unable to resist the familiar game this time. No, it was not just his hair that made her react to him this way, and she found herself glancing at the knife at his side. Mard'n had told her that Gens did not settle their differences that way, here—not ever, he claimed. But she was skeptical, because Mard'n had not been raised here, though he was related to half the village. He might not know all of what went on, especially between the Gens.

~~~~

Over the next week, she learned more about the pattern of life in Pearl Hollow. The village was named for the pale, iridescent stone of the surrounding cliffs, and when she looked closely she could see the sparkle was lent by tiny inclusions in the otherwise plain rock. Simes went up the cliffs to find larger deposits of this translucent stone, which could be brought upslope and sold to wealthier communities. The economy of Pearl Hollow was largely self-sufficient, but lacked the technology to produce items such as selyn batteries and viewer-pads. They could trade only small items which were easy to transport, for the steep trails made carts impractical, so anything traded must be carried for many days to the towns where it would be sold. They also bartered with other small villages further downslope. The farms surrounding pearl hollow produced not only food, but also tough, flexible vines ideal for weaving baskets. These were crafted with great skill by village artisans, including Treang's mother Aibulayne, who was teaching Otti how to make the baskets. Gianne saw little of Otti, for he seemed to be spending all his time with the other young Simes in the village. Most of them spent their days in the fields and their nights, except for a brief sleep period, engaged in quiet activities such as basket-weaving. Some of the baskets were traded for pottery, as Pearl Hollow had neither the clay nor the tradition of crafting these items—the wealth of the village, such as it was, consisted of relatively large expanses of fertile soil combined with the patient labor of the villagers. The Gens seemed to Gianne to be less industrious than the Simes. They tended the smaller gardens around the huts, but in a rather indolent fashion, plucking a few weeds and then sitting on a bench for awhile to gaze at the flowers that were scattered amongst the food-producing plants. And some of them hunted, of course, bringing back gnochen or smaller animals to cook. Some worked at crafts as well, but others seemed to do little useful work, while only rarely was any of the Simes caught idle.

Gianne mentioned this discrepancy to Mard'n, who chuckled and shook his head. "Do you hear any of them complaining, either Sime or Gen? Simes must earn their keep, while a Gen may work as hard as he or she likes, or not at all—I should feed you without complaint, if you never lifted a hand to any useful task, if only you will agree to do me one small favor at the end of the month." He grabbed at her playfully, and she moved closer, running a reassuring hand down the length of his forearm. Mard'n had reached turnover earlier that day, just ahead of the rest of the village. Most of Pearl Hollow maintained a common cycle, necessary because only about half of the villagers were committed to permanent transfer bonds. Of those who were locked into pairs or quartets, most of these kept the same cycle as well, not through intent but in some kind of unconscious rhythm of community life. The strain of his own mid-cycle combined with the tension of his grandtha's illness showed in Mard'n's face, and a slight tremor in his field. Gianne led him to one of the narrow cots and encouraged him to lie down so that she could sit on the ground beside him and work. It was relaxing and absorbing, reminiscent of slowly coaxing the tangles out of a ball of her mother's yarn after one of her brothers had been playing with it.

Mard'n had fallen into a half-doze under Gianne's hands when she saw movement in the doorway and looked up. She had neglected to draw the loosely woven mat of reeds across the outer door that would have signaled a desire for privacy, but still she was surprised to see Treang, standing alone near the doorway. The child was seldom seen without the company of her mother, and more recently Otti as well.

"Cousin and brother channel, our father requires your presence, for the time is near." Treang spoke formally, as always, but Gianne heard an unsteadiness in the girl's voice that reminded her of what she had felt in Mard'n's field before she'd begun working on him. She found herself wanting to enfold Treang in her nager, as if she were a channel in fact rather than by convention. 

"Very well." Mard'n followed the child as she turned away, and caught Gianne by the hand, answering her unspoken question as to whether she was to join them.

When they first entered the central hut, Gianne thought at first that Dosashei was unconscious, perhaps even already dead. Then he opened his eyes and held out both hands to Mard'n, who released Gianne long enough to make lateral contact with the other channel for a long moment. The older Sime fell back as if the action had exhausted him.

"I'm not going through another shen-shidoni turnover," he said in a surprisingly strong voice. "In another couple of dozen minutes, I'll fall asleep and just keep heading in that direction. Don't any of you waste your breath trying to talk me out if it. It's too late anyway."

Tez, sitting near Dosashei's head, rested one hand on the channel's shoulder. Treang went to join her mother, who stood with Otti and Zatuen. 

"Romardarin, you'll act as first channel once I am gone. Don't be surprised if Treang surpasses you one day, but you must teach her first. Child, I command you to obey your brother once I am gone, for at that moment he becomes your father in my stead." Treang nodded her acquiescence, and Dosashei turned back to Mard'n. "As for you, I don't want to hear any nonsense about returning to Quissa. When your sister completes her first year, if you feel she has learned all she needs to know, then you may go back then if you still wish to."

"I will not argue this with you now." Mard'n's voice was firm, though roughened by sorrow.

"Good. You won't have any opportunity to argue it with me later either, I can guarantee you that." The dying Sime let out a rusty chuckle, which turned into a coughing fit. Tez tried to offer him some water, which he pushed away. "I'm not looking for a promise from you. I'm simply telling you what you are expected to do. It's not a request. If it will give you comfort to feel abused, maltreated and exploited, you can consider it a direct order."

Another fit of coughing overtook him, and this time he accepted the offered water. He kept his attention on the Gen at his side, apparently having finished with Mard'n. "Tez. I want to thank you for the years you have given me after Calandarea died. Not many Gens would want to stand at the side of a Sime so much older than themselves, during the final years which must end in the sorrow of parting." He ran his tentacles lovingly over the Gen's muscular arms. "Whether you choose to say here, or to leave, carry my memory in your heart." Tez did not speak, but ran his hand over the channel's face, his own head bent so that Gianne could not have seen his face even had she not averted her eyes out of courtesy.

"I would have all of you leave me now, except the child of my heart and body, second channel Treang. My wish for all of you is that you should have lives as long and full as mine has been, and also that you should have the sense to know when it is time to say goodbye."

Tez bent even closer to Dosashei and spoke into his ear. Gianne could not hear his words, but she felt sure he was asking to remain until the end. It was beyond her understanding that the old channel would want to die attended only by a child, but his farewell to the rest of them had sounded very final to her. 

When Dosashei replied, she could pick out isolated phrases: "…very great joy… of those I leave behind, second only to my daughter." But apparently the answer was no, for Tez got up abruptly and strode to the door and though it. Dosashei reached out toward him, in what looked to be an involuntary gesture, and then turned to Treang. His voice sounded much weaker as he said, "There is not much time. Come here, daughter. The rest of you, get out of here now."

They did, gathering in an unhappy little knot outside the hut. Other groups were gathered nearby, with a waiting air about them, but they did not intrude. Tez had gone off a distance and sat alone on an outcropping of rock near the spot where the Simes climbed up the cliff to search for precious stones.

Aibulayne caught at Mard'n's sleeve to get his attention. "Thank you for not upsetting him. I understand that you cannot stay, but it was a kindness to let him believe that you might. One of the other villages will be able to send us a channel, once we write to tell them that you have gone. Not that we are in a hurry to drive you off. Some of us are hoping you will stay until the end of the month." She extended her laterals, going briefly hyperconscious, and Gianne recalled some of the Gens remarking that Treang's mother preferred to get her transfers from the hanjee. Mard'n attempted to smile, but beyond that he made no reply.

After a time, Treang came out of the hut, tears streaming down her face. "He is gone," she announced, loudly enough for all gathered nearby to hear. She paused briefly in front of Mard'n, and nodded with adult formality. With no hint of either rancor or affection, or indeed any inflection at all, she addressed him: "Father and first channel." Then she went to her mother and hid her face in the folds of fabric around Aibulayne's narrow waist, sobbing. It occurred to Gianne that this sad occasion was the first time she had seen Treang exhibit any behavior that she considered normal for a child that age.

Aibulayne led her daughter into their hut, while Zatuen asked for Otti's assistance in preparing the old channel's body. Most of those who had been waiting turned to begin one task or another, their mood subdued but their movements purposeful. Gianne and Mard'n, with nothing to do, remained standing together as people moved around them. Mard'n wrapped his arms loosely around her shoulders, but she had a sense that on another level, he was clinging to her desperately for support. She did her best to provide it, though she thought that he has been wounded in a way that the most soothing nager in the world could not heal. Perhaps she could blunt the edges of the pain, at least.

"There will be a feast of sorts," he informed her. "Not like the day we arrived. There will be no food."

"A feast designed by Simes, then," she suggested, trying to lighten his mood at least a little.

"Ah, but there will be drink. You need not sample it if you do not care to. A local custom. It is said that your ancestors will visit you in your dreams tonight if you do choose to partake of it."

"What about you, do you plan to have any?"

"I think I must."

It took until nearly dusk for the preparations to be complete. A fire was built against the cliff-face, huge and roaring-hot so that it was not safe to come within a dozen paces. Mard'n had warned her, so she was not too surprised when Aibulayne and Zatuen carried the body of the old channel out of his hut and cast it onto the flames. They had wrapped Dosashei in a costly shroud of fabric, and once they had consigned him to the flames they quickly covered him with bundles of aromatic herbs to shield his dignity in death as the cloth burned away. Also to disguise somewhat the smell of burning flesh, that was so much like an animal cooking over a cook-fire. The odor was unmistakable anyway, of course, but did not much disturb Gianne. She felt little appetite, and had smelled burning human bodies before, people who had not died in bed after a long and fulfilling life. 

She thought for the first time in years about her parents. The last time she had gone back to visit them and her youngest brother, she'd found the homestead where she had been raised had been reduced to a charred shell. A neighbor family had given her what details were available: her brother had been away when a group of bandits had attacked, seeing weakness in an older couple living alone, one of them a lowlander with little skill in fighting. When the neighbor had found them, both had been dead and burned almost beyond recognition. Only one of the bandits had lain dead beside them. The neighbors had buried them in the mountain style, by laying the bodies in a crevice and piling rocks atop them, while they'd tossed the bandit off a nearby cliff. They had shown her the place where the bodies had been interred, and one of them had offered additional details which were probably embroidery, for he had not been there. Her father had fought well, the neighbor claimed, wounding several—he has seen the signs of it on the ground. The criminals had intended to take Gianne's mother as a prize in spite of her age, the neighbor added, but she had fought hard enough to force them to slay her instead. Gianne had thanked him for burying her parents, and for the story as well, for he meant well. The folk in Gianne's native mountains were equally given to generosity, and to storytelling, and to savagery.

After the neighbors had left, she sat alone in the ruins of the homestead, for this was before she had begun her partnership with Vai. She looked around in shock, though this was not completely unexpected, trying to reconcile what she saw with her memories. She imagined that she could smell this same familiar odor, burned flesh, though the fire was long enough ago that she might well be imagining it—but she knew that smell, for this was far from the first violent scene she had witnessed, just the first one where the victims had been people she had cared about.

Of her brother, all that had been said was that he'd returned to find his parents dead and had moved on, no-one knew where. The neighbor family had offered him marriage to a likely young daughter but he had refused. They had no young son, but told Gianne she could join them anyway, for she was strong and skilled and could more than earn her keep. She had declined and gone her way. She held in the back of her mind the hope that she would encounter her brother again someday, but she never did.

When the clay vessel containing the Ancestor Drink was passed to her, she hesitated. It was doubtless some drug, and those were readily available in Quissa, though frowned upon by educated folk. She had tried a few anyway, and hadn't cared much for the effect. And supposing it worked as it was supposed to… did she really want to see the shades of her parents? What would she say to them? Her feelings for her parents were a mix of warm nostalgia, unearned guilt—for had she been there, they might not have died—and, increasingly, forgetfulness. It seemed so long ago now, not quite a decade in reality, but she could not quite remember their faces. Her mother's hair had been reddish-gold, a bit lighter than Gianne's, but she had trouble remembering more than that. The face of her father and brothers were also vague in her mind. What bothered her more, for that matter, was that she sometimes had trouble clearly recalling what Vai had looked like as well.

She tipped the vessel and took three swallows, which Mard'n had told her was the customary number, before passing it on. The taste was an odd mix of sweet and bitter herbs, the texture lumpy, as if it had not been well mixed. It lingered in her mouth in counterpoint to the smell from the fire. She waited to feel some effect, drunkenness or dizziness perhaps. The drink was passed around the circle, more wood was piled atop Dosashei's body, and nobody spoke. Though it seemed there was a low chanting, and it bothered her that she could not decide if it were coming from the folk around her or if she was imagining it.

When the drink had made its way around the circle, people began to get up and go to their huts without any further ceremony. Mard'n had hung a mat of reeds between their two cots earlier, explaining that the custom was to sleep apart to dream the ancestor dreams but that he wished to be able to zlin her when he woke. She laid down, feeling tired and filled with grief. She had not known Dosashei well enough for his death to explain this sense of desolation. Perhaps she was merely picking up nageric echoes from the rest of the village.

Long after Mard'n deactivated the light-web above her cot, she lay awake staring up into the darkness. A potion that was supposed to bring dreams, yet kept one awake? After while she closed her eyes, and the darkness of the hut was replaced by a gray mist. There was no sense of transition, and she was sure she was still awake, and yet she was seeing shapes that did not normally appear behind her closed eyelids in a darkened room. 

A man walked out of the gloom. It was not her father. For a moment she thought it was Tez, and thought for a wild moment she imagined that he had followed Dosashei into death, for there was no doubt in her mind the man was dead. Not that he looked it; this was no shambling corpse returned to life as in a tale to frighten children. Nor was she afraid, even after she realized that she faced the man who'd stolen Vai, and nearly killed her in the process, rendering her legs forever stiff and unsteady.

Nor was she angry, as she might have expected. The man—whose name she had never known—regarded her with a faint smile, and no hostility in his gaze. "You are dead, then." Her voice in her own ears was that of someone greeting a casual acquaintance she had not seen in some time.

He signaled yes, with a hand sign known to anyone raised in the stretch of the high reaches where the two of them had met and fought. "I lived by violence and I died by violence," he told her. "But the time has come for me to leave that behind." 

"What of Vai?" She found the calmness of the dream evaporating, even as she told herself it was pointless to question a phantom in a drug-induced sleep. But she had never given up the fantasy of someday, somehow, learning his fate. The man frowned slightly, and she knew he did not understand. "The Sime you took from me," she elaborated. Her outward manner was still calm, but through an effort of will.

"Ah. He would not tell me his name, so I gave him another—it matters little, for he was taken from me in turn. Not by the one who sent me here. He was taken by stealth rather than strength." The figure of the man began to recede into the mist, and his voice grew faint. "I do not think we will meet again, but I would have you know me by name. I was Kedal. I cannot answer your questions, but I leave you to ask them of one who might be able to. Farewell."

He was gone, and another figure came out of the mist. It was Vai. Gianne longed to embrace him, but knew that would not be possible here. He appeared to be standing only a few strides away, but the gap between them was infinite.

"I will regret until the day of my own death that I had to leave you." The words came pouring out of her, unplanned, like water from a broken jug. "I had no choice—you do know that, don't you?"

He merely looked at her, which was as she remembered. Vai, like most Simes in the high reaches, did not have the powers of speech or reason that Gens and lowland Simes possessed. She continued to talk to him anyway, as she had always done. "I hope you found some happiness when I was gone. I hope Kedal treated you well—him, and whoever took you from him."

He looked away, then met her eyes. "The best times were with you," he said. "But—there were times of joy after we were separated, as well." His tone was apologetic. This was more eloquence than the living Vai had ever been able to summon, but other than he fit her memories exactly. Perhaps death had removed some of the barriers from his mind. How could she have thought that her memory of his features was growing vague? She drank in the sight of him thirstily, knowing they would not have much time. 

It surprised her that she did not feel any impulse to weep. To see him once more was an unexpected gift, a cause for joy. She had always imagined that if she ever had the chance to speak with him again, she would have a thousand things to say, so many that she would not know where to begin—but she found that she'd said the main things already, leaving only one: "I love you, Vai. That has not changed, and it never will." She kissed her fingertips and made a tossing motion of her hand, since she knew somehow that it would not be possible to move toward him… dangerous, even, to try.

A tentacle flicked out as if to catch the kiss, then brushed against his own lips. "Kedal treated me well enough, you know. But I could not forget the way he hurt you. So when another Gen let me know that she would take care of me, I snuck away in the night while he slept. Annae was better at running than she was at fighting, and did not want to face Kedal, so we went where he could not find us." He smiled the secret smile that he had so often given her instead of words. "Do not be angry about Annae, Gia. I never completely forgot you, but she was good to me and I loved her as well. The heart has room for more than one. She had to face the end with me, and you must not envy her that, for the time had come. I was nearly eight." Gianne knew that it was rare for mountain Simes to live much more than five years past changeover.

"When I was sick, just before I came here, I hurt Annae's heart by calling out for you. When I see her again, I think she will understand. You understand things here that you did not before. Gens live a very long time, but not forever, and I will see you again someday as well. But for now, I think it is time to say goodbye."

Vai looked at her sorrowfully, but did not recede as Kedal had done. Gianne felt an uneasy warning prickle at the base of her neck. "Yes. Goodbye for now, my love." At last, tears did come to her eyes, and she closed them for a moment—a very brief moment, and opened them to see only the darkness of the hut ceiling. She was so disoriented that she lay for a time thinking that she might have to vomit, but the feeling passed.

She lay awake for a very long time after that, thinking about the dream, if that was what it had been. Time to say goodbye. For a very long time, she had hoped that through some unlikely chance she would encounter someone who could tell her the truth of what had happened to Vai. Or that somehow, she could face the rigors of a mountain climb with her damaged legs and go find out for herself. She was not prepared to say whether the things she had just seen and heard had been real, or the product of a drug combined with the expectation given her by the villagers and her own wishful thinking. But she decided that what she had seen could be the truth in her heart, and the only truth she would ever learn of Vai, unless there was in fact some meeting of old friends and lovers after death. Time, perhaps, to say goodbye to that foolish hope of encountering a fellow-fugitive from the high reaches who would give her precisely the information that she sought. And supposing she had—would she be able to give their story any more credence than her visions this night? Rather less, she thought. Really, she had no desire to return to the reaches even if she could—or even as far as Quissa, for that matter. The thought of making that long climb to the city filled her not only with weariness, but with sorrow as well.

After a very long time, she slept.

The next day, she emerged from her hut to find Otti and Aibulayne waiting for her. She blinked at them in the foggy brightness, still feeling dazed. She would rather have seen Mard'n, but he was nowhere in evidence.

"May we talk to you in private, s'hanjee." Aibulayne seemed distressed, and Otti hovered protectively close, stroking her shoulder. Both of them would be just past turnover, and Gianne tried to project a sense of reassurance at them both. Aibulayne did not visibly relax, which might mean that her anxiety was unrelated to her need cycle—or possibly just that Gianne's focus was poor at the moment.

"Come inside." It was a relief to get out of the bright, indirect light. She'd been headed for breakfast out of habit, but found that she did not really feel hungry.

"You know that hanjee Mard'n is leaving us," Aibulayne began. "Otti has said that you are not bonded to him. We would have you stay behind when he goes. I do not speak just for myself, but for many of the Simes of Pearl Hollow."

"For me as well," Otti added. "I would not ask this of you for my sake alone. I have no right. Though I want very much to stay, and if both you and Mard'n go back to Quissa I imagine I will have to go along. It's not just the dependency. There are no extra Gens here, so I can't ask them to accept a surplus Sime. But if you were to stay, it would be different. You could do as you did in Quissa, and give transfer to us ordinary Simes. Pearl Hollow seems more like home to me than Quissa, even after being here less than a month—and Gianne, I get the impression that you feel the same."

"You are not entirely mistaken about that, Otti. But I think Tez would like to be the s'hanjee here, and he has more right. He has been here longer, and was Dosashei's partner."

"We would rather have you. Otti has told me that you know how to act as komachi, but I do not think that Tez has that skill. I honor him for the care he gave to our hanjee, and never would I say that he should leave Pearl Hollow." Despite these careful words of praise, Gianne had the feeling that Aibulayne did not like or trust Tez—a remarkable attitude for a renSime to take toward a high-level Gen. "Another thing. My daughter Treang, when she comes of age, she would prefer you over him. It would not be appropriate for her to speak of this to you, so I will say it in her place, although the request would more properly come through another Gen."

Gianne took a moment to consider how to respond to a transfer request on behalf of a child of perhaps five or six dozen months. "I do not normally make transfer commitments so far in advance, but I am honored—and will think on what you have asked of me. All of it."

Aibulayne gave a graceful half-bow as she headed for the door. Otti followed her, with a final searching glance at Gianne before he left the hut. She sat on her cot, still more interested in privacy than in food. 

She was still lost in her own thoughts when Mard'n came in, holding a ripe javapple in each hand. He sat down beside her and handed her one, then began eating the other without a word. He moved around so that they were back to back, a common enough way of sitting here in Pearl Hollow, where there were no proper chairs. He leaned on her for support both physically and nagerically, and she enjoyed the closeness in spite of the heat of the day which had already crept into the hut.

She would miss him if she decided to stay. And yes, she was considering it very seriously. How many times during her stay here had she wished that she could do just that? But somehow, it had never seemed like a possibility. Aibulayne's invitation changed that. She said she spoke for others, not just for herself, and Gianne had no doubt of the truth of that. But she did not think Tez was one of these others. 

He was one problem; losing Mard'n was another consideration. It would hurt her to lose what they shared. But she did not know if she could bear to walk away from what she had found here.

"You are quite sure that you will not remain here and be their hanjee?"

"Quite sure." The anger and tension in his voice was clear, even through a mouthful of fruit. "I have spoken to Tez. He plans to remain, and hopes to serve as chanarin to the new channel when one is found. In the meantime, he will not refuse transfer to any who require it. I understand some of the renSimes here do not fancy him as a komachi, but I imagine they will find him more palatable if they hit hard need without reaching an understanding with some other Gen."

"Doubtless you are right." She finished her javapple and stood up. "Will it offend any local custom if I go off by myself today? I may hunt. Or I may simply walk for a bit."

"Not at all. Many wish for solitude after the ceremony of death. It is rare for much to get accomplished the next day, but if you do feel the urge to work, or to hunt, no one will take it as disrespect. It is a day to listen to yourself more than to others, because each of us will face death alone in the end, even if we are surrounded by those who love us."

"Yes." She wrapped her nager tight around her, not wanting Mard'n to wonder too much at the tangle of powerful and conflicting emotions inside her. When she broke contact with him it had a feeling of finality to it. She scooped up a water-skin and her sling, then took her staff from beside the door and walked out of the hut, then toward the trail as rapidly as her legs would carry her.

In truth, her legs seemed better here than they had in Quissa. That was no small part of her reason for wanting to stay. Part of it was the near-constant warmth, which seemed to loosen the muscles. But she thought that the cultural climate was a more important factor. Here, unlike Quissa, it was considered normal for Gens to experience minor physical pain. The Simes seemed able to endure it. Gens ran and jumped, and sometimes fell. Simes were concerned, but not horrified, at a small cut or bruise marring a Gen's flesh.

Running and jumping were still beyond her abilities and probably always would be. But her stride was longer, and her muscles had gained flexibility in the short time she'd been in Pearl Hollow. She'd begun by walking faster and with less reliance on her staff once she'd realized that discomfort, and even pain, were tolerated. On a hunt with the other Gens, she'd even tried moving at a fast walk through the woods, trying to act as a chaser. This had probably been a mistake. She had not been much use, and had been sore for three days. Mard'n had done some healing on her overstressed legs, and Marianke had given her some lotion to rub on the sore places, and urged her to go to the caves for alternating hot and cold baths and to continue stretching… she hadn't needed the second piece of advice. She had very much enjoyed the baths, finding them a novel experience.

And perhaps they had helped. By some miracle, her legs healed with more flexibility than she'd had since before her injuries. Mard'n had warned her that she might not be so lucky if she overextended herself a second time, and she agreed. She was more cautious, but not so much as she'd had to be in Quissa. 

She followed the trail out to the steep cliff known as the Edge. There, a small stream ended at the top of a waterfall, a sheer cliff that dropped away into a misty white nothingness below. She followed the edge of the forest to the spot where the stream broke out of the foliage, well clear of the sheer drop. There she sat by the water, sitting and watching the hypnotic movement as it flowed toward the cliff.

She'd brought her sling, but had no real intention of hunting. She was not yet ready to hunt. She would have to spend some time, first, observing the animals to find a way of hunting alone with the sling.

Because she intended to hunt, but the group method of hunting used in Pearl Hollow would not work for her. She could not chase, and it was not fair to always take the sought-after role of collecting. All the other Gens took a turn at both jobs, except for Tcharoll. He had lived here all his life, and had done his share of chasing when he was younger. He also spent many hours instructing the larger of the young Gens in the proper use of the spear. He had earned the right; she had not. She would devise her own method of hunting. There were other solitary hunters, and perhaps she would ask some of them to share their techniques, but first she would see how much she could work out on her own, through observation. She did, after all, have some experience in the matter.

But the terrain was very different from the high reaches, so she would not be able to use the exact methods that had served her in those days. The first step was to observe, for as many hours as need be, choosing which animal she would take and learning its habits, find the weakness that would allow her to devise a strategy. Perhaps the crokken that Tez had spoken of so dismissively. The lizards were only about the size of a newborn infant, but a brace or two of them always made a welcome addition to the communal meals.

She decided to sit near the Edge for a time, to see if any creature came into the open after she was still for awhile. There was a magnificent tree nearby, with seed pods that might attract some wildlife. If this proved not to be the right place, she could choose another location the next day. She would watch and learn, and in time, she would bring meat to the village. 

There might be other contributions she could make, as well. Perhaps some of the Gens would be interested in learning the ways of making and using the sling, if it indeed proved as suitable for taking smaller game as she felt it would. And she had watched with interest as Marianke and Jennin, an older woman who was her teacher, had grown and prepared medicinal herbs. That has been part of her livelihood once. Perhaps they would permit her to work with them. If they were jealous of their knowledge, she might still be of use in her old profession of healing, for her nager gave her a great advantage when it came to helping any Sime who was ill or injured.

Her eyes continued to scan the edge of the forest, but she found that she did not much care if she learned anything useful that day. Perhaps she had come here for another purpose. If she had put her objectives into words, when leaving Pearl Hollow earlier that morning, she would have said that she meant to think long and hard about whether she truly intended to stay. As she sat considering her plans for fitting into the life of the village, she came to realize she had already made that decision. 

She would never see Quissa again, for she had no belongings that were worth the long and dangerous trek. Her glamorous and lucrative career as a komachi-Gen was largely over, but long as she could give one or two transfers a month, she did not mind too much about that. Nor did she expect to miss Quissa much.

But she felt as if it would cut her nearly in two when Mard'n went back there without her. Time to say goodbye, Vai had told her in the dream, or whatever it had been. She rested her face on one knee, stretching the other leg out awkwardly because she could not comfortably bend it enough to wrap her arms around it. A tear trickled down her face and then onto her leg. She had just come to a peace with losing Vai. Mard'n was a fresh wound, easier in a way because she was not torn from her under such traumatic circumstances—but at the same time, harder, because she had a choice. 

She tried to imagine going back with him, and had to face the cold truth that while he meant a great deal to her, it was not enough to make her give up what she had found here. Not enough to make her return to Quissa. Having rediscovered the freedom she'd thought was lost to her forever, she would not give it up again. Not even for the combined pleasures of Mard'n's loving touch and the transfers with her throng of renSime admirers. Her eyes blurred with the threat of further tears as she wondered how he would react when she told him, and if he had already guessed what she intended. 

A noise from the edge of the woods pushed these thoughts from her mind. Now that her thoughts were focused outward again, she could tell that someone was approaching—not an animal. When had she gotten so careless, to let someone creep up almost on top of her like that? All those years in Quissa, she supposed. But now her instincts were reawakened, and she knew precisely who had followed her. She wiped her tears away stealthily, for they were no concern of his, and struggled to her feet just before Tez came into view.

"I do not mean to intrude, but I wished to speak with you privately." She thought the arrogance in his tone and his bearing made the courteous phrasing into a bad joke, but she decided to ignore this. He apparently wanted to perform the dance of threats and insults with her. Perhaps he even thought he wanted to fight, this smooth young man who had no visible scars marring his well-muscled flesh.

"Is it not lovely here? A person could not wish for a more private place to converse." She smiled at him cheerfully and waited. He was the one who had something to say. Let him say it.

"Has the hanjee Mard'n truly decided to leave Pearl Hollow?"

"He has."

"And you are going with him." From the look in his eyes, he had heard otherwise. At least he had not lost much time in getting to the point.

"No, I like it here, and intend to stay." She abandoned the pose of excessive cheer but remained courteous. He shifted from one foot to the other, an expression of anger passing over his face briefly. She continued to radiate calm at him as if he were a nervous Sime.

"I think it is better for you to go with him." He reached down to fondle the handle of his knife, and took a step forward. She did not step back, but she could feel her smile wanting to transform into a snarl of rage. She looked again at his unmarked face, took a deep breath, and willed herself to relax. The smell of the forest was strong in her nose, and without taking her eyes off Tez, she found herself admiring the beauty of her surroundings.

"Peace and harmony, my friend." In the mountains, these ritual words were used when tempers were starting to flare and someone wanted to end a conflict before it came to bloodshed. "Do you mean to quarrel with me over some channel that neither of us has ever met? I cede the Sime to you, if you like… though they are given to making up their own minds in these matters, as you are doubtlessly aware."

"There will be no decision for the new hanjee to make, because you will not be here." He drew the knife from its sheath and took another step toward her. She did take a step back now, because she had no choice. He was almost in striking range, and had caught her flat-footed, her legs still stiff from sitting. She put one foot behind the other, still not really believing he would strike. He did not move with the kind of deadly resolution that normally came before a serious attack.

He waved the big, unwieldy-looking knife like someone threatening a balky milk-goat with a stick, and she laughed. Even knowing it would probably provoke him, she could not help it. Her blood was up, despite her outward calm, rushing through her body like the half-forgotten excitement of junct-mode transfer. "Do you mean to cut me up into little pieces with that?" Her tone was one of idle curiosity. "Perhaps I could be made into a tasty stew." 

For a moment, he hesitated, looking rather baffled by her reaction. Then his expression hardened and he lunged forward, cutting at her half-heartedly, more of a threat than an actual attempt. She brought her walking-staff forward in a hard slash at his wrist, which he evaded. Then he rushed at her with the knife aimed at her neck.

She sidestepped awkwardly and managed to land a glancing blow to his face. She'd aimed for his nose, but the blow caught him high on one cheek, and she judged that it had done little damage. But it seemed to take him forever to turn and face her. It was as if he could not figure out where she had gone. She smiled, and by the time he began to move toward her again, she was more than ready. He drew the knife back as if he meant to hew through a tree bole, and she brought the end of her staff up into his midsection.

It was a softening blow, not meant to kill or maim, and she already had her next couple of moves planned out in her mind. A hard strike to the temple; then, depending on which way his head turned, she might have a chance to end it with a straight thrust into the front of his throat. If that target did not present itself in a pleasing manner… well, then she would have to improvise.

She swung the staff through the air toward his head, hearing it whistle as the rough butt-end moved through the air—and then it stopped, quivering, inches from the side of his head. She realized that no force but her own trembling muscles had prevented the strike from following through. 

The time has come to leave that behind. She could hear Kedal's voice as clearly as if he stood behind her.

She stood there shaking for a long moment before it occurred to her that she still faced an opponent, a bit short of breath but still armed, stronger and sounder of limb than herself—and she was practically offering him the end of her staff. She moved it away from his head, then knocked the knife from his hand with a casual sweep. He held his injured knuckles to his mouth, but glared up at her with an expression that made it clear that he was not ready to quit. She considered hitting him again but found she couldn't quite bring herself to do it. Instead, she used the end of the staff to knock the knife further from him. It skittered along the ground for a fair distance before stopping against a rock, and she decided to see how many times she would have to encourage it before it went over the cliff.

"Stop it, this must stop at once!"

Startled, she forgot about the knife and raised her staff again, watching as a man came rushing toward her. He's fast, too fast by far for me to handle, the analytical part of her mind reported with cold dismay. Then she realized that it was only an augmenting Sime. She relaxed, keeping an eye on Tez to see what he would do.

It was Zatuen, and he ran up to confront her, tentacles writhing with agitation. "No more, it must stop! He is dead, you must stop this and you must come away from here with me."

Tez sank down onto the ground, holding his belly, but he did not look even remotely close to death. He seemed to have lost interest in fighting her, though. She glanced again at the knife on the ground, but Zatuen kept tugging insistently at her sleeve, trying to lead her toward the path that led back to the village. She gave in and followed him. 

He paused as they reached the trail. "We must move swiftly now. It is better if I carry you, for I can run very fast for a bit." He glanced back toward the spot where they had left Tez, and raised one hand with his laterals extended. 

"I thought you said he was dead." Gianne had no desire to be carried.

"Sometimes the dead are vengeful." Zatuen raised his arms to her, unwilling to touch her without permission, but in an obvious hurry to depart. She signaled a reluctant assent with her nager, and he scooped her up as if she were a child. Tucking her walking stick beneath one arm, he began to sprint down the trail at what seemed to her to be a reckless pace. She put her arms around his neck, feeling sure that they must make a comical sight, given that she was both taller and heavier than the Sime.

He brought her most of the way back to the village in this manner, but to her relief, set her down before they encountered anyone. They made the rest of the trip at a more dignified pace, and once they were back in the village, Zatuen began speaking a few words to each person he encountered. Gianne, who felt a sudden hunger for the stash of fruit and flatbread that was always available in the center of the common, did not hear what he was saying to them. But when she looked up from her snack, she found that most of the adults in the village were sitting on the benches and low stones. Mard'n caught her eye and motioned for her to join him.

She did, seeing that everyone else had sat down already, with the exception of Zatuen. Everyone watched him, some talking among themselves. He waited for silence, then said, "I have seen a thing which all of you should know of. The s'hanjee Tez had the desire in his heart to hurt our guest, Gianne, with a knife." Shock moved through the group like skyfire, and again he waited. "She stood prepared to strike him with a stick, though I could zlin that she did not truly wish to."

Aibulayne stood up. "We have heard what Zatuen has seen. I would hear the s'hanjee Gianne tell us what occurred before his arrival." She sat down. Gianne glanced at Zatuen and saw that he was also seated now. She got up, glad Mard'n had chosen one of the taller benches, not too difficult to rise from.

"Tez wanted me to leave Pearl Hollow, and when I would not promise to go, he waved his knife at me and tried to cut me." She swallowed, not sure how much more to say. "I struck him with my stick, though as Zatuen has said, I took no joy in it."

A Sime woman whose name Gianne did not know rose and spoke next. "This is most upsetting, but we must hear all that took place." 

Opening nagerically so that none could accuse her of trying to shield any part of the truth, she recounted everything that had happened during the fight. Her own voice sounded to her as if it came from a distance. Half her mind was back at the Edge, acting as an observer this time. In a way, reconstructing the chain of events was literally child's play for her. In her early training with the knife, her father had required her to give detailed observations after each sparring exercise, recounting every thrust and slash while still gasping for breath from her exertions and rubbing at scrape-marks and bruises from the dull practice blade. She had not even been Treang's age when this training had begun.

When she finished, Mard'n rose fluidly to his feet beside her. Loudly enough for all to hear, he asked, "Why did you not take the knife from him and cut his throat?"

This sounded so odd, so unlike the Mard'n she knew, that she momentarily lost the power of speech. He added, "And dumped his body over the Edge, perhaps."

"It did not seem necessary."

"Thank you." He sat down. Belatedly, she did the same, taking his hand. As usual, his tentacles twined though her fingers as if of their own volition.

Zatuen stood again. "If there is any who would speak, now is the time. I say that Tez is dead among us."

"Dead," others repeated in turn. The word moved around the circle in no particular sequence, sometimes murmured, sometimes harsh with anger. It seemed to move from one set of lips to another like a ball bouncing inside a drum. Gianne felt as if a cold hand had caressed the back of her neck.

When the sound died away, Zatuen asked, "Is there any here who feels he lives? Or any who sees another action to be taken?" There was silence. "An observance is called for."

All of the Simes around the circle began to stand up and slip into the woods. The Gens got up too, but gathered in small groups, or tended to the children, or went into various huts. Mard'n picked up on Gianne's apprehension and said, "They won't go anywhere near him, just keep track of which way he's going. If he tries to head back here, they'll come back and get the hunt party, who will let him know he is no longer welcome." 

Mard'n seemed tired and dispirited. She led him back to their hut and tried to sooth him with her nager, but it didn't seem to be working. "I assume you did everything you could to keep it from coming to this, Gianne. It seems a needless tragedy, when we are leaving anyway. He has just lost Dosashei… and now this. And it creates a serious problem for the village. I will stay past the end of the month for them, to give them time to find someone—if not a channel, then surely another village can spare two or three unpaired Gens. Or perhaps some of the Simes will be able to go stay with relatives downslope. It is a quandary for me, because I do not like to leave until the matter is settled, but I fear they will not make any real effort until after I am gone."

She sat down on the edge of the cot. "Mard'n, I will stay in Pearl Hollow and act as their s'hanjee. Aibulayne had asked me to even before this happened, and I had already decided I don't want to go back to Quissa. That was the reason Tez could not leave me in peace, in truth."

He did not look any happier after hearing this—in fact, he looked stunned. "Gianne, they will not want a Gen to act as hanjee for long, only until they can get a channel here. That is not the custom. There is not much call for a komachi in the hollows. You will not be able to collect selyn from any Gens who feel disinclined to give transfer, and you cannot recharge batteries. This means they must be taken upslope and filled at great expense, to be used only for the most vital purposes." He pointed at the web of light above their heads. "That is a luxury, but people grow used to such things. Not to mention the need for someone to perform healing functionals on all of these extremely active Gens. And once they get another channel, they will expect you to serve as transfer partner to si. If you decline, another high-capacity Gen will be found and you will be largely superfluous. You might be able to entice the occasional renSime, but I don't think you will find that a satisfactory existence."

Sitting here with Mard'n and feeling the pull of his growing need, she could not find the idea of transfer with a renSime very interesting. "As long as they don't come up with a channel who I find obnoxious on a personal level, I do not mind. And I have only met about two Simes in my entire life who I took a dislike to, so the odds are against that. Simes tend to be quite… congenial toward me, whether channels or not."

His eyes narrowed and his body seemed as tense as a drawn bow. "So let me make sure I understand this. You are willing to give transfer to whatever channel they find, young or old, male or female… every month… as long as you do not find that individual personally offensive. I like to think you do not find me personally offensive, and yet how many times have I tried to get you to agree to some arrangement like that? I don't have an exact count. Approximately the same number of times as you have told me no, I suppose."

"That was back in Quissa. As you say, the customs are different here."

"Ah." He was still glaring at her, and it occurred to her that it was not a good time for him to have to think about her giving transfer to anyone else. 

"You must stay here until I can give you transfer, at least. Then you can go back to Quissa if you must." She stroked his face, letting him feel her sorrow.

"I may end up staying longer than that—a lot longer." He had not relaxed, and there was an unspoken question in his eyes and his nager. 

"I thought you said before that you would not?"

"That was, ah, I will be frank. That was before you were part of the bargain." He grabbed her so fast his movement was a blur, wrapping her arms with his handling tentacles but not making lateral contact. She gently eased his intil down a bit. 

His tentacles relaxed and lay against her arms like sky-grass hanging from a tree limb, but his fingers still held her just below the elbows. He smiled, and added, "Let me tell you something about Pearl Hollow, in case you have not guessed already. The Gens here are treated with great deference, and do largely as they please, but they do not hold the real power here. Likewise, channels are granted much honor and indulged in many small ways. But I have learned a few things about the way things are done here. Aibulayne, for example… You may think that she has a position of authority because she is the mother of the future hanjee. It is rather the opposite. She conceived and bore Treang at great personal risk, based on the hope that she might provide the village with a channel some fifteen years in the future. From what I have heard, she managed it through sheer force of will, beginning with the task of talking Dosashei into it. And now, she seems to have executed some rather artful maneuvers to see to it that both of us remain here, as well. You may as well know, if you intend to remain here, that it is the renSimes who actually run Pearl Hollow. And it is much the same throughout the bottomlands."

"They seem to be doing a good job with it." Gianne rested her head against Mard'n's shoulder. She was not certain, from his remarks, whether Mard'n had actually decided to stay or was merely considering it. She suspected that it would amount to the same thing, if she applied a bit of persuasion. "What you say about Aibulayne worries me, though, for Otti's sake. He cares for her. Do you think she merely finds him useful because of his connection with us?"

"She could not hide a thing like that from me. Do you want to know how Aibue feels about our Otti?" He bent and kissed her tenderly, segueing momentarily into passion as if he'd forgotten there was any such thing as need. Then he pulled away and released her, dark eyes gleaming. "There is a great deal of uncertainly and tension in the village just now, and I believe it would settle things down quite a bit if we were to move into the hanjee-house. Shall we gather our things now?" 

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