Sura Novi now stepped into the control room of the small and rather old-fashioned ship that was carrying Stor Gendibal and herself across the parsecs in deliberate Jumps.
She had clearly been in the compact cleaning room, where oils, warm air, and a minimum of water freshened her body. She had a robe wrapped about her and was holding it tightly to herself in an agony of modesty. Her hair was dry but tangled.
She said in a low voice, "Master?"
Gendibal looked up from his charts and from his computer. "Yes, Novi?"
"I be sorrow-laden..." She paused and then said slowly, "I am very sorry to bother you, Master" (then she slipped again) "but I be loss-ridden for my clothing."
"Your clothing?" Gendibal stared at her blankly for a moment and then rose to his feet in an access of contrition. "Novi, I forgot. They needed cleaning and they're in the detergent-hamper. They're cleaned, dried, folded, all set. I should have taken them out and placed them in clear sight. I forgot."
"I did not like to-to..." (she looked down at herself) "offend."
"You don't offend," said Gendibal cheerily. "Look, I promise you that when this is over I shall see to it that you have a great deal of clothing - new and in the latest fashion. We left in a hurry and it never occurred to me to bring a supply, but really, Novi, there are only the two of us and we'll be together for some time in very close quarters and it's needless to be - to be - so concerned - about..." He gestured vaguely, became aware of the horrified look in her eyes, and thought: Well, she's only a country girl after all and has her standards; probably wouldn't object to improprieties of all kinds - but with her clothes on.
Then he felt ashamed of himself and was glad that she was no "scholar" who could sense his thoughts. He said, "Shall I get your clothes for you?"
"Oh no, Master. It be not for you. I know where they are."
He next saw her properly dressed and with her hair combed. There was a distinct shyness about her. "I am ashamed, Master, to have behaved so improperly. I should have found them for myself."
"No matter," said Gendibal. "You are doing very well with your Galactic, Novi. You are picking up the language of scholars very quickly."
Novi smiled suddenly. Her teeth were somewhat uneven, but that scarcely detracted from the manner in which her face brightened and grew almost sweet under praise, thought Gendibal. He told himself that it was for that reason that he rather liked to praise her.
The Hamish will think little of me when I am back home," she said. "They will say I be - am a word-chopper. That is what they call someone who speaks - odd. They do not like such."
"I doubt that you will be going back to the Hamish, Novi," said Gendibal. "I am sure there will continue to be a place for you in the complex - with the scholars, that is - when this is over."
"I would like that, Master."
"I don't suppose you would care to call me 'Speaker Gendibal' or just... No, I see you wouldn't," he said, responding to her look of scandalized objection. "Oh well."
"It would not be fitting, Master. - But may I ask when this will be over?"
Gendibal shook his head. "I scarcely know. Right now, I must merely get to a particular place as quickly as I can. This ship, which is a very good ship for its kind, is slow and 'as quickly as I can' is not very quick. You see" (he gestured at the computer and the charts) "I must work out ways to get across large stretches of space, but the computer is limited in its abilities and I am not very skillful."
"Must you be there quickly because there is danger, Master?"
"What makes you think there is danger, Novi?"
"Because I watch you sometimes when I don't think you see me and your face looks - I do not know the word. Not afeared - I mean, frightened - and not bad-expecting, either."
"Apprehensive," muttered Gendibal.
"You look - concerned. Is that the word?"
"It depends. What do you mean by concerned, Novi?"
"I means you look as though you are saying to yourself, 'What am I going to do next in this great trouble?"
Gendibal looked astonished. "That is 'concerned,' but do you see that in my face, Novi? Back in the Place of Scholars, I am extremely careful that no one should see anything in my face, but I did think that, alone in space - except for you - I could relax and let it sit around in its underwear, so to speak. - I'm sorry. That has embarrassed you.. What I'm trying to say is that if you're so perceptive, I shall have to be more careful. Every once in a while I have to relearn the lesson that even nonmentalics can make shrewd guesses."
Novi looked blank. "I don't understand, Master."
"I'm talking to myself, Novi. Don't be concerned. - See, there's that word again."
"But is there danger?"
"There's a problem, Novi. I do not know what I shall find when I reach Sayshell - that is the place to which we are going. I may find myself in a situation of great difficulty."
"Does that not mean danger?"
"No, because I will be able to handle it."
"How can you tell this?"
"Because I am a - scholar. And I am the best of them. There is nothing in the Galaxy I cannot handle."
"Master," and something very like agony twisted Novi's face, "I do not wish to offensify - I mean, give offense - and make you angry. I have seen you with that oafish Rufirant and you were in danger then - and he was only a Hamish farmer. Now I do not know what awaits you - and you do not, either."
Gendibal felt chagrined, "Are you afraid, Novi?"
"Not for myself, Master. I fear - I am afraid - for you."
"You can say, 'I fear," muttered Gendibal. "That is good Galactic, too."
For a moment he was engaged in thought. Then he looked up, took Sura Novi's rather coarse hands in his, and said, "Novi, I don't want you to fear anything. Let me explain. You know how you could tell there was - or rather might be - danger from the look on my face - almost as though you could read my thoughts?"
"I can read thoughts better than you can. That is what scholars learn to do and I am a very good scholar."
Novi's eyes widened and her hand pulled loose from his. She seemed to be holding her breath. "You can read my thoughts?"
Gendibal held up a finger hurriedly. "I don't, Novi. I don't read your thoughts, except when I must. I do not read your thoughts."
(He knew that, in a practical sense, he was lying. It was impossible to be with Sura Novi and not understand the general tenor of some of her thoughts. One scarcely needed to be a Second Foundationer for that. Gendibal felt himself to be on the edge of blushing. But even from a Hamishwoman, such an attitude was flattering.
- And yet she had to be reassured - out of common humanity -
He said, "I can also change the way people think. I can make people feel hurt. I can..."
But Novi was shaking her head. "How can you do all that, Master? Rufirant..."
"Forget Rufirant," said Gendibal testily. "I could have stopped him in a moment. I could have made him fall to the ground. I could have made all the Hamish..." He stopped suddenly and felt uneasily that he was boasting, that he was trying to impress this provincial woman. And she was shaking her head still.
"Master," she said, "you are trying to make me not afraid, but I am not afraid except for you, so there is no need. I know you are a great scholar and can make this ship fly through space where it seems to me that no person could do aught but - I mean, anything but - be lost. And you use machines I cannot understand - and that no Hamish person could understand. But you need not tell me of these powers of mind, which surely cannot be so, since all the things you say you could have done to Rufirant, you did not do, though you were in danger."
Gendibal pressed his lips together. Leave it at that, he thought. If the woman insists she is not afraid for herself, let it go at that. Yet he did not want her to think of him as a weakling and braggart. He simply did not.
He said, "If I did nothing to Rufirant, it was because I did not wish to. We scholars must never do anything to the Hamish. We are guests on your world. Do you understand that?"
"You are our masters. That is what we always say."
For a moment Gendibal was diverted. "How is it, then, that this Rufirant attacked me?"
"I do not know," she said simply. "I don't think he knew. He must have been mind-wandering - uh, out of his mind."
Gendibal grunted. "In any case, we do not harm the Hamish. If I had been forced to stop him by - hurting him, I might have been poorly thought of by the other scholars and might perhaps have lost my position. But to save myself being badly hurt, I might have had to handle him just a small bit - the smallest possible."
Novi drooped. "Then I need not have come rushing in like a great fool myself."
"You did exactly right," said Gendibal. "I have just said I would have done ill to have hurt him. You made it unnecessary to do so. You stopped him and that was well done. I am grateful."
She smiled again - blissfully. "I see, then, why you have been so kind to me."
"I was grateful, of course," said Gendibal, a little flustered, "but the important thing is that you must understand there is no danger. I can handle an army of ordinary people. Any scholar can especially the important ones - and I told you I am the best of all of them. There is no one in the Galaxy who can stand against me."
"If you say so, Master, I am sure of it."
"I do say so. Now, are you afraid for me?"
"No, Master, except Master, is it only our scholars who can read minds and. Are there other scholars, other places, who can oppose you?"
For a moment Gendibal was staggered. The woman had an astonishing gift of penetration.
It was necessary to lie. He said, "There are none."
"But there are so many stars in the sky. I once tried to count them and couldn't. If there are as many worlds of people as there are stars, wouldn't some of them be scholars? Besides the scholars on our own world, I mean?"
"What if there are?"
"They would not be as strong as I am."
"What if they leap upon you suddenly before you are aware?"
"They cannot do that. If any strange scholar were to approach, I would know at once. I would know it long before he could harm me."
"Could you run?"
"I would not have to run. - But" (anticipating her objection) "if
I had to, I could be in a new ship soon - better than any in the Galaxy. They would not catch me."
"Might they not change your thoughts and make you stay?"
"There might be many of them. You are but one."
"As soon as they are there, long before they can imagine it would be possible, I would know they were there and I would leave. Our whole world of scholars would then turn against them and they would not stand. And they would know that, so they would not dare do anything against me. In fact, they would not want me to know of them at all - and yet I will."
"Because you are so much better than they?" said Novi, her face shining with a doubtful pride.
Gendibal could not resist. Her native intelligence, her quick understanding was such that it was simple joy to be with her. That softvoiced monster, Speaker Debra Delarmi, had done him an incredible favor when she had forced this Hamish farmwoman upon him.
He said, "No, Novi, not because I am better than they, although I am. It is because I have you with me."
"Exactly, Novi. Had you guessed that?"
"No, Master," she said, wondering. "What is it I could do?"
"It is your mind." He held up his hand at once. "I am not reading your thoughts. I see merely the outline of your mind and it is a smooth outline, an unusually smooth outline."
She put her hand to her forehead. "Because I am unlearned, Master? Because I am so foolish?"
"No, dear." He did not notice the manner of address. "It is because you are honest and possess no guile; because you are truthful and speak your mind; because you are warm of heart and - and other things. If other scholars send out anything to touch our minds yours and mine - the touch will be instantly visible on the smoothness of your mind. I will be aware of that even before I would be aware of a touch on my own mind - and I will then have time for counteractive strategy; that is, to fight it off."
There was a silence for long moments after that. Gendibal realized that it was not just happiness in Novi's eyes, but exultation and pride, too. She said softly, "And you took me with you for that reason?"
Gendibal nodded. "That was an important reason. Yes."
Her voice sank to a whisper. "How can I help as much as possible, Master?"