David looked at Hepzebah. She looked at David. Presently, she looked at Sil-Chan. "Just K-cousin," she said. "It's close. I'm of the PN's line. One of my boy-children will be picked to succeed David."

"You . . . have children?" Sil-Chan asked.


"Oh, no. I don't even have a mate. And the PN's angry at me, punishing . . ." "The PN isn't that petty," David said. He opened the door, exposed a dim interior into which he motioned Sil-Chan. "My honored guest, Sooma Sil-Chan. Enter my abode and call it your own."

"You know my name?"

"David signed the clearance for the PN," Hepzebah said. She followed Sil-Chan into the house.

David brought up the rear and closed the door.

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Sil-Chan stared at the room -- long with a ceiling which reached away to dim rafters. Windows looked out onto the landing field and the wrecked jetter . . . more windows peered into shadowy woods . . . gigantic rock fireplace at one end, smoke blackened. There was a smell of smoke in the room. Odd projections on the walls. Sil-Chan peered at them, realized they were the mounted heads of horned animals. There was a small fire in the fireplace. David crossed to it, stirred up the flame and added more logs.

Hepzebah touched Sil-Chan's arm, said: "Come over by the fire and let me look at your shoulder. David, get a refresher, a good stiff one."

"Right." David walked off toward a door opposite the fireplace.

Sil-Chan's mind reeled. This entrancing woman was not wed! David was Aitch Aye. What was that? Sil-Chan felt that he had read of such a relationship somewhere in the Library. Heir Apparent! Yes, of course. And Hepzebah was 'of the same line.' Gods of the universe! This pair was royalty!

"Come along," Hepzebah said.

Sil-Chan allowed himself to be led to a low-backed divan beside the fireplace. Flames murmured in the logs. The smell of smoke was stronger here. He stumbled over something that rang musically.

"One of the children left a toy," Hepzebah said. "David's so easy with them." She indicated the divan. "Sit down and take off your jacket. I'll . . ."

"No, really. It's all right," Sil-Chan said. Again, he found himself trapped in her eyes -- the soft look of them here in the shadowed room . . . like some forest animal. She's not wedded. She's not wedded.

"I'll have a look all the same," she said. She put a light pressure on his shoulder and he sank to the divan. It was soft, absorbing and smelled of animal.

Hepzebah bent over him, and Sil-Chan inhaled a mind-rolling musk of perfumed hair. He allowed her to help him out of his jacket and shirt. The jacket was torn at the elbow and he had not even noticed. His flesh tingled where Hepzebah touched him.

"Bad bruise on your shoulder and a scratch above your left elbow," she said. She went to a door beside the fireplace, returned in a moment with a cloth which smelled of unguent. The cloth felt cool and soothing where she pressed it to his shoulder.

"What's a trothing?" Sil-Chan asked.

"The trothers are the clan elders. They decide if a joining will be good for the clan."

He swallowed. "Do you ever . . . wed outside your clan?"

She lowered her eyes. "Sometimes."

Sil-Chan studied the soft oval of her face, imagined that face pillowed beside him. His mission, the Archive's problems, Tchung -- all melted into the distance . . . another planet.

"Drink this."

It was David suddenly standing behind him, preferring an earthen mug that swirled with pungent brown liquid and a biting aroma. Sil-Chan tasted it: hot, tangy and sharp on the tongue. He downed the drink. Warmth filled him. He re-experienced the inner release he had felt after crashing the jetter -- another person. He stood up.

"How does one arrange a troth?" he asked.

She peered up at him, a smile touching her lips. Something smokey and wondering drifted in her eyes. "We have several ways. The PN's K-cousins can take the initiative if the couple ask it."

"What's all this talk of trothing?" David asked. He came around the divan and stood with his back to the fire.

Hepzebah waved a hand in front of Sil-Chan's eyes, leaned close to stare at him.

Sil-Chan said: "What're you. . . ."

"I have the inward eye," she said. "You go very deep. It's Warm and nice in there."

David said: "I asked you . . ."

"If he'll have me, David, I'm going to open the troth," she said.

David looked at Sil-Chan, at Hepzebah. "I haven't been out of the room that long, have I? I just went for a drink."

She touched Sil-Chan tentatively on the wrist. Again, he felt his flesh tingle.

"This is nonsense," David said.

Her hand stole into Sil-Chan's. He felt the perfect fit of her there, the perfection of her beside him.

"Will you wed me, Sooma Sil-Chan?" she asked.

"Hep, you stop this!" David said.

"Be quiet, David," she said, "or I will tell stories about a young man's secret visits to the mainland."

"Now, Hep! You . . ."

"Quiet, I said." Sil-Chan felt himself bathed in a warm glow -- the drink inside him, Hepzebah's hand in his. Wed her?

"I'd go to the ends of the universe to wed you," he whispered.

"Is that a yes?" she asked.

"Yes. Yes."

"But you've only just met!" David protested.

"The trothers will agree with me," she said. "But I already know. The inward eye never fails." She tipped her head, looked up at Sil-Chan from the corners of her eyes. "I find him very attractive."

David appeared angry. "He's just different."

"I'm already certain," she said. "And you heard the question and you heard his response."

"This is too much!" David raged. "You're always doing things like this!"

Sil-Chan experienced a crawling of goose flesh. He felt delirious. All those years of celibacy and devotion to duty and career had melted away.

"He'll never take the name!" David said. "Just to look at him you can tell. You'd best accept Martin as the trothers . . ."

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