Down from the Mountains

by

N. Eileen O'Neill

 

Kia-Rho had been in the city for less than two full days when she decided that she would have to get her hands on some money. She’d seldom had any in the past and had always gotten along fine without it. But things were different here.

Enna and Dharl, the village-folk she was staying with, had told her how to obtain some. Really, she supposed they were city-folk now. But they were from the mountains and knew her for what she was. They’d told her that the Simes called channels would pay her well for just a small portion of her life-energy, and when they’d managed to make it clear to her how much money was involved, she’s been amazed. With an arrangement like that, what kept all the folk hereabouts from living in luxury and letting the Simes do all the work? But apparently, living divorced from the Source of Life as they did, they had no great talent for generating this energy.

Enna and Dharl had told her that when she walked the streets, she should keep her own energy-field pulled in tight and as calm as possible, to avoid attracting too much attention to herself. She did not find it difficult to follow their advice. There were so many people here, all packed together like a kettle of khilgaree. Her discomfort with these conditions made it easy to restrain the wild bursts of exaltation which the Daimon-touched sometimes experienced. In fact, the jostling of the crowds often made her hand itch for the smooth comfort of her knife-hilt. That would gain her a little personal space, but she knew it would create an even bigger commotion than allowing her field of life-energy to expand to its natural configuration.

She hadn’t wanted to come here to the city of Palis. If she’d had any expectations for her future, it had certainly not been anything like this. For a young woman of the Daimon-touched, it had seemed a logical progression for her to be inducted formally into the ranks of the Daimon Speakers, and to take on the roles and responsibilities attendant on such a position. Instead, she had been directed to come here, but she had yet to be informed of why, or what she was supposed to do now that she was here.

Enna and Dharl had also told her that she could not simply walk into one of the many places where the channel-Simes performed their duties, as the local folk did. But she was not accustomed to doing what village-folk bade her. They had told her many things, including the fanciful notion that these channel-Simes held authority in the city similar to that of the Daimon Speakers in the mountains. Which just went to show that you couldn’t believe everything you were told. If these channel-Simes appeared to be running things, obviously it was their handlers who were actually in charge. She knew what variety of Simes these were; the rare and valuable strain known in the mountains as the Gifted. They could do many things that other Simes could not, it was true. But they were no brighter than the ordinary kind.

Kia herself had only a very limited experience as a handler. She’d had a pair of hunters once, which she’d taken away from a village woman who she felt was not showing her the proper respect. She’d stolen them from the villager openly, by brute force, for of course the other woman was no match for one who knew the touch of the Daimon.

But the Simes had proven more trouble than she’d anticipated. They were high-strung and temperamental, prone to attacking strangers. Since Kia-Rho traveled, this was a situation they frequently encountered. Their behavior had so annoyed the people of the villages she visited that they sometimes forgot their awe and took her to task over the matter.

She had no trouble controlling her Simes when she concentrated, of course. But it was hard to keep her attention on them, simple-minded creatures that they were. In truth, she’d been hoping they would provide companionship during her long and previously solitary journeys, but they were not capable of much in the way of conversation.

Inevitably, a villager took one of them from her while she was distracted with another matter. Displaying the generosity typical of the Daimon-touched, she’d given him the other one as well. The village man had proven far more adept at handling them than she’d ever been.

When she went to the place of the channel-Simes, it was with the intention of selling as much of her energy as they cared to buy. She’d been told that the channel-Sime would drain it slowly and without passion, to be used in the strange and unnatural technologies she had seen since coming here to the city of Palis. None of this was of any interest to her. She was only concerned with the money.

She saw a building that was marked with the proper symbol, and went inside. There, she saw one of the city-folk sitting behind a table near the door, and the way that he greeted her made it clear that he was gate-keeper in this place. When she explained her purpose in coming there, he showed her to a small room containing a Sime and another man of the city-folk. She was pleased that although he spoke as strangely as the rest of the folk hereabout, the gate-keeper had no trouble understanding what she wanted.

Playing along with the local custom that the Simes were to be treated as if they were in charge, she ignored the handler and asked, "Are you one of those they call a channel?"

"Yes, I am Hajene Tillong. How can I help you?" He did seem better-spoken than most Simes she had encountered, though of course his speech had the same odd quality as all the city-folk.

"You may call me Kia." It seemed odd to be exchanging names with a Sime while his handler stood by in a good imitation of tentacle-brained confusion, but she must learn to abide by the ways of the city. Odd, too, to omit the title to which she was entitled by mountain custom. But she’d been warned that the city-Simes might find the Rho after her name alarming. The Daimon-touched seldom came down from the mountains, but they were known by reputation. She had no wish for any misunderstanding. Using the term for life-energy that Enna and Dharl had taught her, she said, "If you will give me money, I will let you take selyn from me. Is this acceptable?"

She allowed her energy-field to flare brighter, so that he could see that she had plenty to sell. The effect was remarkable, and made her glad she’d never done this on the street. The channel-Sime stiffened as if struck by Daimon-fire and choked out some kind of unintelligible oath, and his handler turned to gape at Kia-Rho for just a moment before remembering his duty and turning back to his Sime, presumably with the intention of reasserting control. But the channel-Sime’s attention remained on Kia-Rho for a full heartbeat, more than long enough for her to reach a decision.

In the mountains, an opportunity like this had to be seized quickly. If she could believe what Enna and Dharl had told her, the Sime held property in his own right. And her inner senses, the ones she used to sense the presence of the Daimon so that she could call them to her, told her that the handler was weaker than she was. She needed nothing but her eyes to tell her his reactions were none too quick.

Mountain custom decreed that a Sime belonged to whichever of the folk provided the life-sharing that Simes required—what the city-folk called transfer. Perhaps the customs were different here. But then again, perhaps she could make her own rules. Suppose she offered a true sharing of life to the channel-Sime, rather than the kind of thing she’d originally come in here to negotiate. Would he want to return to his inept former handler, after that? She thought not. She was certain that from that point on, as long as she wished it, he would be her channel-Sime—and she would gain a position of respectability here in Palis.

She reached out and took hold of the channel-Sime, drawing him into her energy-vortex. When she achieved a firm link, she felt a kind of soundless click. This told her that luck was on her side--the Sime was far enough past his last transfer to be tempted. Perhaps this was part of the reason she'd been sent to the city. If so, she was fulfilling her purpose for coming here merely by following the voice of instinct, which was often the way such things worked. As she’d expected, the handler stood there as if oblivious to her action, doing nothing until it was too late.

Gifted or not, Tillong was only a Sime, after all. And she had him now. She pulled him toward her, inciting him to attack.

Rather than advancing toward her, he stood frozen in place, eyes wide with alarm—but focused.

That was wrong. She pulled harder, and he moved. But in the wrong direction. He took refuge behind his handler, tentacles digging into the man’s shoulders. And the handler had finally figured out what was going on, and was doing his best to fight her.

The handler was no more a match for Kia-Rho than the village woman from whom she’d taken the two hunter-Simes in just this manner. But somehow, with the handler’s assistance, the channel-Sime was resisting her. She could feel her grip on him weakening, and knew that the moment had passed, that if she were going to win this she’d have done so before that point.

"Get her out of here." With these words, the Sime released his handler’s shoulders and left the room rather abruptly.

The handler stood there looking at Kia-Rho curiously, as if he’d just discovered some fabulous new species of bug, iridescent and glowing and strange to the eye.

He was a big man, strong and healthy-looking, but he was so slow. He would be amazed when he learned how quickly her knife could fly into her hand. If the reactions of his body were no faster than those of his energy-field, her knife would be at his throat—or in it, depending on how badly he provoked her—before he realized what was happening.

She waited for him to make the first move.

"You heard him. Why don’t you run along, now."

If she’d sensed fear in him, or any hint of aggression, she might have felt obligated to give him the chance to make the acquaintance of her knife. But he just looked at her steadily, and her inner senses read nothing to betray his outward calm.

She returned his gaze for long enough to make him understand that she was leaving because she chose to do so, then turned her back on him in open contempt, half-hoping for a cowardly attack. His life-force was stronger than most of the city-folk, strong enough to carry the signal of his intention to her unless he knew how to shield it, which she doubted. But he made no move, and as she allowed the door of the place to swing shut behind her, she knew the moment for that had passed, as well.

Out on the street, she wandered aimlessly, pondering her failure for any lessons it might yield. She could smell food aromas coming from some of the buildings she passed, and she knew that some of these were places that would feed any who entered—if they had money.

Enna and Dharl would give her food, of course, if she returned to their dwelling-place. If she asked, they would probably give her money as well. She found the idea galling.

It appeared the village-folk were right. To obtain money of her own, she would have to go to a different place of channel-Simes, ones who were accustomed to mountain-folk and had been instructed in how to behave toward the Daimon-touched.

But she did not regret her encounter with the channel-Sime who had rejected her. She had learned much from the experience, and would have to take time to consider what it meant. Within her, she could feel annoyance at Tillong and his handler, along with the hunger in her belly. She decided neither of these feelings was any use to her at the moment, and brushed them from her as if removing two bits of dust from her clothing. Then she quickened her pace toward the dwelling of Enna and Dharl, for she was eager to learn what else she could of the city.

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