It was warm and peaceful in the Taorri family’s kitchen. Outside, the winter winds moaned around the house. Stalworth Glazmere finished his tea and pushed back his chair. “I should go.”

“What time do their buses arrive, Worth?” Skye Taorri asked.

“Glory’s bus gets in at 1105. Dinah’s comes at 1130.”

“You won’t have time to bring the one back and go back for the other,” Skye noted.

“I know. Glory will just have to wait with me.”

A sardonic expression came to Skye’s wan face. “She won’t like that.”

Worth repeated, “I know.”

“Is she really the same pampered princess as always? What have they been doing out in Leeward?”

Worth didn’t take up this line of conversation. He shrugged into his coat. “I’ll be back by noon, if the buses are on time.” He set out, bent before the wind, and caught the usual trolley for the city center. It struck him just then: how many times in the past he had taken this trolley in this direction, heading home from a meeting at Skye’s family home. This time, however, he wasn’t heading home. He couldn’t. There was no such place anymore.

The trolley operator didn’t look familiar to him. Worth wondered if he would see anyone he knew on the way. He hoped he wouldn’t. 

About twenty minutes later, Worth jumped down from the trolley at the end of the block from the bus terminal. He strode quickly up the street, as much to get in from the cold as to make sure he arrived before 1105 hours.

It was just as well that he had planned to wait between buses, because Glory’s bus was ten minutes late. A stream of soldiers exited in a rush for the terminal’s shelter. Once indoors, they scattered, leaving just Glory standing in the entrance. She looked around in anticipation. 

Worth stood up to attract her attention and went to meet her halfway. 

As soon as they met, Glory handed both her bags to him. “I can’t believe how crowded it was!” were her first words to him. “Forget about getting a seat to myself; I was crammed against the window with two women between me and the aisle. They never even asked if I wanted to sit by the window or the aisle.”

“It’s good to see you,” Worth said. He carried her bags back to the waiting area and set them down before he hugged his sister.

“Oh, it’s so nice to be back,” Glory declared, “but Father Locke was as pushy as usual, changing everything around without a warning. Like a man whistling for his dogs,” she said in disdain. “I didn’t even have time to contact any of the girls, though I’m sure I’ll have time for that once we get settled in. Where are we staying, Worth? And why are you just standing around here? Let’s go.

“Dinah will be here in just a few minutes,” Worth said. “Don’t you want to see her?”

“I suppose,” Glory replied doubtfully, “but you know, she hasn’t written to me in weeks. I don’t know if I do want to wait for her. After all, she always turns up fast enough on her own.”

Worth paused, thinking of how much he knew Dinah had given up to stand at Glory’s side. “I need to wait for her, anyway, because she’s supposed to come to the same meeting as we are, and you know how bad she is with public transport. Last time we let her go on the trolleys by herself, she ended up all the way down in Magma District. If one of the guys hadn’t spotted her, she might be there still,” Worth said, grinning at the reminiscence. “Who knows where she might end up if we let her try again.”

“It’s true,” Glory said with a soft giggle. “She can be really stupid about some things. But can’t you just take me there and come back—?”

“Her bus is due in less than ten minutes,” Worth said firmly. “Here, this is for you.” He brought a paper packet from an inner coat pocket.

“What is it?” Glory looked unimpressed and impatient. 

Worth opened the packet and ate one of the crisp cheese biscuits out of it. “Mmm,” he said, “cheese biscuits. No wonder they’re your favorites.”

Glory snatched the packet from him. “I haven’t had these in forever! Don’t eat them!”

“You could have just taken the bag and found out for yourself,” he teased. “Sit, relax, eat.” He followed his own advice, except for eating. He knew he wouldn’t have the entire eight minutes to enjoy the silence. Glory was already halfway through the packet of treats. When she finished, Worth knew, she would probably start complaining again. But it was pleasant to sit together without speaking for even just a few minutes.

As it happened, Dinah’s bus was four minutes ahead of time. Worth saw it pull up in front of the terminal. “That’s the Oasis bus. We should go out and say hi,” he urged his sister.

“Take the bags,” she replied, “so we can head for the trolley right away.”

Since it was a practical suggestion, not just an impatient one, Worth agreed. He carried Glory’s overstuffed bags out into the cold wind. Not many people, he noticed, were on the bus. They all seemed reluctant to emerge into the wintery weather. Worth expected Dinah to come scrambling out as soon as they appeared. That was her usual way. But he and Glory stood outside the bus door for nearly a minute before Dinah appeared.

Her appearance startled Worth. She was noticeably thinner and more freckled than he remembered. Her eyes looked huge in her thin face. Her right hand was heavily-bandaged. Her step was slow and tentative when she emerged. Most surprising of all, a man followed her out and stood with his hand on her shoulder in a gesture that might have been either protective or possessive.

Worth gave the man a rapid scrutiny. He was dark and lean, with a narrow hawkish nose and wary black eyes. His forehead bore a slight discoloration, like an old bruise, just below the temple. “Dinah,” Worth said, “welcome back. Are you all right to go straight from here?”

She nodded. “Glory, Worth, this is Chaplain Kahn from Oasis. He got summoned the same time I did. Since he doesn’t know the capital, Worth, can you help him find where he needs to go?”

“After we get where we need to go,” Glory announced, “Worth can do whatever he wants. I’m tired of standing out here in the cold. Let’s go, Worth.”

The chaplain’s grip appeared to tighten on Dinah’s shoulder. “Miss Aldine, don’t revert.” His voice was soft, almost inaudible, but he wasn’t done speaking yet. “As for you, Miss Glazmere, I must ask you not to use your sympathy in my presence. You give me a headache. In fact, I would prefer if you didn’t speak at all, even without using your sympathy.”

Worth hurriedly took one of Dinah’s bags and added it to his own burden before Glory could recover from her overload of indignation. “The trolley is this way. Let’s go.” He strode away and trusted that Glory’s instinct would be to follow her luggage.

To his relief, Worth saw that Glory’s reluctance to make a public scene was stronger than her outrage over the chaplain’s remarks. She kept haughtily silent and used Worth as a barrier between herself and Dinah’s companion all the way to the Taorri house. She only spoke when they arrived, and that was just to say, “Where is this?”

“It’s our meeting place,” Worth said. “It’s Skye’s house.”

Glory sighed. “Him.”

“Be nice,” Worth said. He opened the front door for her and for Dinah. The chaplain paused to look at him for a few seconds before following the girls indoors. Worth wondered, as he closed the door after himself, what that look had meant.

Skye’s parents were present when Worth arrived last in the kitchen. Someone else was there too. Skye introduced him: “Mica’s brother Slate.”

Worth went forward and offered his hand, uncertain if the younger Locke would accept. To his relief, Slate Locke gripped his hand in a firm shake. “Skye has been telling me about your work out in Fortress,” he said. “How do you like the Engineering Corp?”

“It’s interesting work,” Worth replied. “What do you do?”

“I’m with Central Supply Corp. Recruit and trainee supply department.” Slate Locke turned his attention to the chaplain. “And you are, sir?”

“Didymus Kahn, Oasis chaplain.” Kahn bowed. “I am supposed to report to this address.” He held out what appeared to be a business card. 

Worth craned his neck to look at it upside-down when Slate took it. It bore an address in Metal District. Slate said, “I see. You might as well wait here. That address is where all of you are to report, after Dad has a few words with you.”

Checking the time, Worth noted that it was a few minutes away from noon.

“He will be here in a few minutes,” Slate was saying. “He asked me to help with the luggage.”

“Can’t we even have time for lunch?” Glory protested. “I’ve been traveling for two days.”

Slate gazed at her without comment for almost a minute, which felt like a sort of comment in itself. He didn’t seem at all like Mica, who Worth was sure couldn’t have resisted making some sort of reply to Glory’s complaint.

Skye’s mother brought Glory a cup of tea. “Let this warm you up,” she said. To Dinah, she asked, “Would you like a cup as well?”

Dinah shook her head. “May I have a drink of water, please?” She took the glass awkwardly in her left hand.

“What happened to your hand, Dinah?” Worth asked.

Dinah shook her head. She took a long swallow of water before she lowered the glass and said, “I… I’d really rather not talk about it, if you don’t mind, Worth.”

Worth’s eyebrows rose. He glanced at Skye and, in so doing, crossed glances with the chaplain by accident. Kahn looked pained. He shook his head in mute warning. “That’s all right,” Worth replied, “you don’t have to. Must be hard to get things done like that.”

“Pretty much everything,” she confirmed.

The little wall clock chimed, overlapping a knock at the front door. Skye’s mother went to answer the door and came back with Father Everard Locke. He took in the whole room with a glance. “I have recalled your group,” he said without preamble, “temporarily from your disciplinary assignments in order to have the four of you participate in my new student group. You will work and live under the supervision of my permanent staff. Any insubordination will be subject to strict discipline.” His stare rested for several seconds on Glory. It was almost exactly the same stare his son Slate had given her just a few minutes earlier. Then he went on. “For the next three weeks, you will participate in an intensive course of study and physical training. After that, we depart for South Territory, where you will receive hands-on experience.” His gaze veered toward Dinah. “Ask.”

Flustered, Dinah said, “What are we studying?”

“Disposal intelligence,” Father Locke answered. “More precisely, you are participating in order to assist in the investigation into Milla Glazmere’s case. After our time in South Territory has come to a close, you may return to your previous posts.”

Worth felt a sharp surge of relief. He had been disappointed to leave his new job as an army mason, but he didn’t want to say anything in Glory’s presence.

Father Locke shifted his attention to the chaplain. “You must be Ietta’s cousin Dee. Did your sister explain to you about your summons?”

“Gemi doesn’t explain anything, sir,” the chaplain said dryly.

“You will work with my staff adjuster. She has some ideas about how to manage your sympathy.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If there are no further questions,” Father Locke said, “the personnel carrier is waiting for us.” He led the way toward the front door. When he saw Worth pick up four bags, he said, “With the exception of Dinah Aldine, who is on medical restrictions, everyone carries his or her own luggage.” After a meaningful pause, he said quietly, “Glory Glazmere.”

Worth watched the old man and Glory stare at each other for an awkwardly long time. It only surprised Worth mildly to see Glory back down. She took her bags from him with a face that might have curdled milk in the bottle.

They climbed into the carrier. Chaplain Kahn steered Dinah to the seat behind the driver and sat next to her so that no one else could. Worth looked down the length of the carrier, weighed his options, and chose a place opposite the chaplain. He nodded to Skye when he and Slate Locke sat in the places next to the chaplain.

Father Locke entered last and sat next to Worth. He started asking the chaplain questions about people in Oasis, and the chaplain responded with a polite smile to every question. Their conversation lasted all the way to Metal District, where the carrier pulled up in front of a mansion.

There was no other word for it. It was a mansion. Worth remembered a similarly grand house not far from his grandparents’ home, where he had grown up. It had been a constant irritation to his grandmother, because she couldn’t see why others should live in better style than she did. Worth had never spoken his thoughts on the matter, but he had always preferred their own solid, if rather dark, granite-clad house. He remembered this clearly when he heard Glory exclaim over the grandeur of their destination.

“Men’s quarters,” Father Locke announced, “are in the carriage house behind the main house. Women’s quarters, on the second floor of the main house. Find your rooms, secure your luggage, and report to the mess hall in ten minutes.”

Worth took up his bags and disembarked after his sister. She and Dinah were met by two women and led away, while Worth and the other two men followed Slate through a spacious foyer, into an even more spacious conference room, and out the back door onto a sandstone terrace. Slate brought them to a long outbuilding that showed signs of recent renovation. 

A fair-haired man with a clipboard met them just inside. “Stalworth Glazmere and Skye Taorri, room 3. Didymus Kahn, room 5.” He directed Slate onward, so Slate continued as their guide up a narrow stairway. 

The upper floor buzzed with men’s voices. Worth located the door marked with a 3. Two other men were already inside and had established themselves on the two lower bunks. The older of the two came forward to greet them. “Name’s Fala,” he said, shaking hands with Worth and then with Skye. “Leeward, Northeast Territory.”

The second man bent his head a few degrees toward them. “Onni Valtteri, Cavern.”

“Worth Glazmere,” Worth introduced himself, “a pleasure to meet you. We’re in the upper bunks?”

“Last to come, last to choose, son,” said Fala. His insignia showed him to be a sergeant major. “Better hurry. We’re due in the mess hall in a few.”

Worth tossed his bags onto the upper bunk on the left. “We can sort out the storage later, can’t we?”

“My thoughts exactly,” Fala replied. “Fine by you, Valtteri?”

The northerner nodded. He was already standing in the doorway like a lookout. The likeness was confirmed when he said, “Lieutenant Knox is coming this way.” He stepped out into the corridor.

“Valtteri’s a civilian, a researcher,” Fala explained. “Seems a good guy.” Then he too stepped out into the corridor.

Worth was just a step behind Skye in joining their new roommates in the line of men. He thought he saw Mica up ahead, but then he reconsidered. The man he saw was leaner, browner, and much quicker on his feet than Mica. He walked between the chaplain from Oasis and a huge West Territorial. The sight of the latter almost made Worth homesick.

They retraced their path across the terrace, through the conference room, and into the foyer. This time, they took a left into a narrow mess hall. When he settled into his place at the long table, he looked across the table and caught his breath. “It is you,” he said to Mica Locke. “You’ve changed.”

Mica nodded to him. His eyes were watchful, almost wary. “You, too.”

Skye spoke up. “I’ve gotten the chance to get to know your brother, Locke. He and your mother have been good to us.”

“I’ve heard,” Mica said. “I’m glad.”

“Slate said they were making a soldier of you,” continued Skye. “I couldn’t believe it, but it’s true. You look good. Strong.”

Father Locke entered, just as Glory and Dinah arrived with two other women. Worth didn’t have time to speak to his sister, but he was alarmed over her unusual pallor and sluggishness. She didn’t look herself in the least. But Father Locke had started giving directions for lunch, so Worth had to put his concerns aside for the moment. There were about twenty people in the mess hall. They were divided into two lines and sent into the next room, which turned out to be the kitchen, to dish up their food from two sides of a serving table. Then they were sent back to the mess hall and given twenty minutes to eat. At the end of the twenty minutes, Father Locke bid them leave their plates— along with anything remaining on them— and follow him to the conference room.

Worth was placed at a table between Skye and an undersized boy with sun-streaked brown hair. At each seat, there was a notebook and various writing implements arranged neatly on the table. Father Locke stood at the front and said, “This is an intensive course of study intended to train you in the rudiments of disposal intelligence. As such, we will spend the next three hours covering the basics of investigative technique, beginning with the interview process. Our scenario is as follows: there has been a manifestation of the Decay in the capital, and while the incident itself has been resolved, you are part of an investigative team tasked with discovering how the Decay entered the capital, with the end goal of preventing another such incident. All your physical evidence was destroyed with the manifestation. You have the testimony of the disposal team, a variety of witnesses who may be helpful or may be hostile, and that is all. How do you proceed with the investigation under these circumstances?”

That was the beginning. For three uninterrupted hours, Worth and the rest of the group listened, took notes, asked their questions and answered other questions, until Father Locke glanced at the clock and said, “A good beginning. Take a fifteen minute break and then report to the front sidewalk.”

Worth rested his head on the table. “My head hurts,” he moaned.

The boy next to him was leaning back so that his head hung over the back of his chair. “I didn’t know it was going to be so intense. Lieutenant Jock, what comes after the break?”

Father Locke’s first lieutenant stopped next to their table. “Physical training.”

“Oh, good,” the boy said as if he meant it. He left the table with an air of purpose. 

Worth just groaned. He saw Dinah at the next table and suddenly wondered where Glory was. “Dinah, come here a minute.”

She got up, looking just as frazzled as he felt.

“Whatever happened to Glory when she went upstairs?”

Dinah’s expression turned from weariness to distress. “When she found out we were going to live four to a room, she got upset, and one of Father Locke’s staff told her she couldn’t have one of the empty rooms, and then Glory started using her sympathy, and another staff member took hold of her by the back of the neck. All of a sudden, Glory was like that. I think they drained her sympathy or something like that, because I can hardly sense anything from her.”

“She deserves it,” Skye said at Worth’s left, “for using her sympathy as she does. Maybe this will teach her something.”

The fair-haired man that Worth’s other seatmate had called Lieutenant Jock appeared behind them. “Ten minutes until physical training. I recommend that you get a drink of water and use the toilets. Training will last an hour, no breaks.”

“For me, too?” Dinah asked. 

“Your training has been modified to accommodate the medical restrictions,” said Lieutenant Jock. “Sergeant Major Calder is your overseer for now. I’ll introduce you to him.” He led Dinah away.

When Worth exited the conference room, he looked for Mica and didn’t find him. He wasn’t in the men’s restroom either. Worth didn’t know what to think when he did find him at last, already standing at attention in front of the mansion with the other early arrivals. Worth, being one of the last to rejoin the group, kept quiet toward the back as a female trainer announced, “Double file, quick jog!”

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