Apple Tate was overseeing her grandsons’ cleanup work in the kitchen when a new shadow crossed the threshold of the open front door. Elder Ingali Safi greeted Gar first, as was proper, but her gaze swept the room until it found Everard and Coralie Locke. “You are here,” she said. “Rumor pointed me in this direction. I understand you’ve taken an interest in the career of a young cadet from my district, Sanna Taivas by name.”
“Is it true that you have an invitation to dine with her family this evening?” Ingali pursued.
Everard nodded again, but with a faintly perplexed look in his eyes this time. “Yes?”
Ingali answered his look rather than his word. “I do think it a good idea. Sanna has a great deal of potential that may never be realized where she is now. She also has an unusual and difficult background that you’d do well to hear straight from her family. I just wanted to warn you that Sanna’s family is struggling financially. They lost everything three years ago, and all of them work– except the boy, who is just five years old. We help them as much as we can, but they don’t see themselves as needing aid as much as others do.”
Coralie spoke up. “How much can we bring without giving offense?”
“I don’t think it’s a matter of giving or taking offense,” Ingali mused. “They aren’t prideful. Every time I go to their house and bring food to supplement our meal together, they rejoice in the plenty. No, I only wanted to warn you not to put a strain on their grocery budget. They are the kind to go without in order to feed their guests.”
“Then let’s do this,” Coralie said to Everard. “Let’s go separately. You pick up the extra food— I’ll make a list for you— and I’ll go ahead to their house. I have some questions to ask, but I don’t want to take up your time talking with Miss Taivas.”
“If you plan to go early,” Everard said, “then ask them also if they consider Mica’s presence offensive.”
Coralie paused. “You mean to bring both of them, then?”
“If I may,” her husband replied. “It’s the old problem of the man transporting a wolf, a goose, and a sack of grain… only, if I can, I would prefer to keep both the wolf and the goose under supervision as often as possible.”
Ingali Safi stared at Everard in puzzled silence, but Coralie merely said, “I see. I will ask, if that is your decision. It makes the numbers uneven, though. One man too many, even if I bring Linnie.”
Ingali said, “That won’t be a problem. There’s a younger girl in the family, so they have three women and two men, counting little Soren. If you bring three men and two women, it will bring the table to an even split.”
“How old a younger girl?” asked Everard.
“I think Fiola is fourteen. “
“Then you should ask too if they mind Rusza’s presence as well.”
Ingali smiled, but Everard was serious, so Coralie said, “I shall.”
Thus they parted at the Tates’ front steps. Everard took Mica and Rusza to his next meeting, with a list of groceries to pick up before coming to the Taivas house. Coralie said to her daughter, “Let’s take the trolley.”
It took a half-hour ride on the city trolley, with two transfers, to reach the Ice District neighborhood where Ingali Safi had directed them. The neighborhood was on the outer edge of the district, almost to the perimeter wall. The houses were small and a little shabby, mostly rentals and one-room cottages. Mother and daughter approached a house painted light blue with white trim. The front door stood open, but a screen door barred the entrance. Coralie knocked and called out, “Hello?”
Deeper inside the house, a man called out in response, “Coming!” Nearly a minute passed before the owner of that voice came into sight. The man leaned on crutches to compensate for his right leg, missing from just above the knee. He looked emaciated, as if he had been ill for a long time, but his expression was cheerful as he pushed open the screen door with his left hand. “How can I help?”
Coralie introduced herself and her daughter. “I know you weren’t expecting any of us until later, but I wanted a chance to talk with Miss Taivas’ family beforehand. Is that an imposition?”
“Not at all,” the man laughed. “I enjoy bragging about my niece. I’m Axel Taivas, by the way, and I’m glad to meet you, Mother Locke.”
“Do call me Coralie,” she replied. As she was ushered indoors, Coralie made a point of not examining her surroundings in curiosity. After her host had brought her and Crystallin to the family area, she said, “So you are Sanna’s uncle. I know almost nothing about her, except that my husband says Sanna impressed him with her maturity and capability.”
“Ah, that doesn’t surprise me, but it’s good to hear,” Axel Taivas said from the kitchen as he filled three cups with iced coffee. “She doesn’t get praised enough, in my opinion. Soren! Come lend me your hands for a minute,” he called out.
A small, fair boy appeared from an adjoining doorway. He trotted to the kitchen obediently.
“Carry this to the low table,” Axel directed, “and make sure it doesn’t spill.”
The boy balanced the serving tray between his hands. With slow, small steps, he started the trek across the room. He had to lean back to keep his balance front-to-back, but his intense concentration was so adorable that neither Coralie nor Crystallin thought of jumping to his assistance. When he had safely deposited the tray before them, little Soren picked up one cup and handed it carefully to Coralie, then offered the second cup to her daughter.
“You did that very well,” said Coralie in admiration.
“Soren is developing water sympathy,” Axel said. “Already he is showing a good sense for the movement of liquids.”
Soren looked intently at Axel.
Axel laughed. “Do you mind if he stays for our conversation? He heard me say, I’m sure, that we would be talking about Sanna, and he adores Sanna.”
“That’s fine. Is he your son?” Coralie asked.
“My nephew by marriage,” Axel said. “Soren’s mother was my wife’s youngest sister. His sister Fiola, my other niece, lives here with us also, and Elder Friga makes five. It was Elder Friga who took this house for us— for herself and Sanna, first, but she welcomed us after we chose to move here to be with Sanna. You said that Sanna’s maturity impressed Father Locke; I said it didn’t surprise me. I said so for good reasons, because I have seen firsthand how much she has been forced to face that should have been far beyond her years.” Axel patted his partial leg. “We were of the Sky-wind village. I see that means something to you.”
Coralie gave a somber nod. “The most destructive attack on one of our territories in the last three hundred years. It was a night of terrible suffering and admirable courage. I am sorry for your loss.”
Axel kept silent for as long as it took him to regain his composure and speak again. “Thank you for those kind words. Sanna and Elder Friga had already moved here for Sanna’s protection, but they were coming back for their summer visit that day. I met them in the road just outside the village. I had been attacked by the Decay just as I had passed the last house. I was trying to get Fiola to take Soren and run without me. It seemed there was no chance for me to escape. The Decay was already eating into the muscles of my foot and calf. I was prepared to die, as long as I could see the two children safely away. They are the last of my wife’s family,” he explained softly.
Soren climbed onto Axel’s lap and leaned against his chest.
Axel smiled down at the boy. “Sanna and Elder Friga reached us then. Elder Friga went first to the children, to get them away, but Sanna ran to me. I told her to go, but she shouted, ‘No!’ and grabbed the camping axe from her pack. Four swings it took her, right here,” and Axel pointed to a space four inches below his stump, “to separate me from my corrupted flesh and save my life. She was fifteen then. She is my last living blood relative, and I hers.”
“None of the other survivors were from the Taivas family?” Coralie spoke with tender compassion.
“None. My family, like my wife’s family, were fighters all, to the very last. My own children as well,” he said, and sighed. Then he shook his head vigorously, as if by the gesture he could shake off the burden of his grief. “I won’t be ashamed to meet with them again in the courts of the Only One, though,” he said in a brighter tone, “because I kept the charge they entrusted to me. Sanna, Fiola, and Soren are healthy and whole. They live, and they live loyally. Dear Sanna— Elder Safi told me what she did during the attempt at insurrection. I had to laugh.” And laugh he did.
“I haven’t heard the story yet, “ Coralie admitted.
“Put briefly,” Axel said, “eight leading young soldiers in her company decided to join the rebel children. They had already imprisoned the company captain and her sergeant. Sanna said she would not stand for disrespect toward the authorities established by the laws of the Only One. They would not turn back from their choice, so Sanna put all eight of them in the hospital to stop them from taking over the company.”
“In the hospital! What kind of sympathy does she have?” Coralie exclaimed.
“Oh, she didn’t resort to her sympathy. She did it with just her two hands. She learned hand-to-hand fighting from my wife Marinen from her early childhood. Marinen was such a maniac about hand-to-hand,” Axel added, laughing again.
“Marinen… Marinen Tuovali?”
“That was her maiden name, yes.”
“The Tuovali family certainly made a name for themselves,” Coralie pondered. “Two sisters in particular.”
Little Soren spoke unexpectedly. “Those two sisters,” he said in oddly adult-like exasperation.
Axel laughed again. “That’s what Elder Friga always says whenever we start talking about Marinen and Nilma, Fiola and Soren’s mom. They were a terrifying pair, those two: the rowdiest girls in the village. Sanna’s dad, my younger brother Erno, said I was crazy to marry Marinen. The Tuovali family never had a long life expectancy, nor did they care to live to an old age. Combat maniacs, the whole family. Marinen wouldn’t marry me unless I beat her at arm wrestling. It took me eleven tries. Nilma married… goodness, wouldn’t you know, I can’t remember his first name… poor man… Suvi, that was it. He was a genuine invisible husband; nobody ever remembered his name, Nilma being the personality she was. But he had a real knack for body mechanics fighting, which is probably the main reason Nilma married him.”
“I met your wife and her sister several years ago,” said Coralie. “Nilma was just sixteen then.”
“They left a powerful impression, didn’t they?” Axel said. “Sanna is very similar in that aspect. She isn’t a beauty, but such a strong character stays in people’s memories.”
The screen door creaked open and slapped shut. In a few seconds, an elderly woman and a teenage girl entered the family area. “Mother Locke,” said the elderly woman, “apologies for not being here to greet you when you arrived.”
“No, it was I who arrived too early,” Coralie said, rising. “You must be Elder Friga. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“I haven’t been an elder since I chose to bring Sanna here, so please call me as the children do: Nana Friga. Is this your daughter?”
“Yes, this is Crystallin.”
Crystallin, already standing, bowed slightly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Nana Friga.”
“You must be about the same age as Fiola here.” Nana Friga prompted the girl to stand forward and introduce herself.
“I am Fiola Tuovali-Guslin.” The girl leaned forward so that her sun-browned face was hidden momentarily behind a fall of white-blonde hair. She had clearly just removed a headscarf after a day’s work in the fields; a faint line of dirt showed across her brow when she straightened.
“We shall wash before we join you,” said Nana Friga.
The pair vanished through the open doorway that led deeper into the house. Coralie and Crystallin sat down again. “It is growing late in the afternoon,” Coralie remarked. “Everard will be arriving soon, so I must ask a question he needs answered before he arrives. You have heard, no doubt, about our eldest son’s role in the recent incident. Will it offend you to have Mica in your house, given that?”
Axel leaned his head sideways. His expression turned to one of compassion. “I had heard, yes. I can vouch for Elder Friga and myself when I say that we will respect Father Locke’s decision, because it must be hard on both of you. I cannot speak for Sanna, now that she has come of age. She does take a dim view of those involved in that incident, as she has shown clearly by her own role in it… but I know she has deep respect for you and for Father Locke. My guess is that she will not refuse him entrance, as long as he is in your company.”
“There is another young man in my husband’s charge,” Coralie continued, “a son of the Tate family. He is… how shall I say it? He means no harm, but his manner toward women can easily be viewed as too forward. Everard also wanted me to ask if his presence would be problematic for your family, since there is a young woman living here.”
“Fiola is quite shy,” said Axel. “If I may ask, is his manner problematic with your daughter?”
“They grew up together, so Rusza treats Linnie as a little sister.”
Crystallin said suddenly, “I’m engaged to marry his younger brother Lyndon, so I don’t pay much attention to Rusza. He’s harmless. He just likes feminine attention.”
Coralie chuckled. “There you have it.”
“I don’t think Fiola will be susceptible, so let the fellow come. I’ll be pleased to welcome one of Dr. Tate’s sons. I hear they are good boys, all of them.”
Crystallin stood up. “I’ll wait on the steps to let Daddy know as soon as he comes.” She left the room.
Coralie smiled at the girl’s departing back. Then, returning her attention to her host, she said, “How would you describe Sanna’s character?”
“Her character,” Axel mused. “From very early in her life, she has been an earnest girl, serious-minded, diligent. My brother and his wife were strict with their daughters, but Sanna hardly needed it, being so strict with herself that Erno sometimes had to chide her for her asceticism. She spent a lot of time alone in her room, away from other children, after her sympathy began to manifest itself. It wasn’t safe for her to play with them. Her thermal energy sympathy tends strongly toward the cold rather than the hot, and she had trouble controlling it from the first. The reason Elder Friga brought her south to the capital was that her sympathy cycled out of control and injured several people critically. She has become stricter with herself since then. I worry that she will become isolated,” Axel confessed. “Not because others reject her, but because she rejects the risk of hurting others. Even us… she entered the army straight from public school mainly because she knew the army would provide all her expenses and would give her separate housing, so she wouldn’t need to wonder if her sympathy was harming any of us during the night.”
Coralie considered this information quietly. In the lull, Nana Friga and Fiola reappeared and went to work in the kitchen. Fiola brought to Coralie a fresh cup of iced coffee and a plate of summer apple slices drizzled with honey. Coralie thanked the girl and then asked, “Fiola, how would you describe Sanna’s character?”
“She’s really strong,” the girl answered unhesitatingly, “and really kind. I don’t know what I would do without her.”
Soren was looking intently at Coralie, so Coralie asked, “And you, Soren? How do you describe Sanna’s character?”
“Sanna is Sanna,” declared Soren, as though he had said the last word on the subject.
Coralie smiled. “You like your cousin very much, don’t you?”
“I love Sanna!”
The adults laughed. Then new voices from the direction of the front door prompted Axel to say, “Fiola, quick, go greet Father Locke and bring him inside.” The man shifted Soren from his lap and struggled to rise with the aid of his crutches.
Coralie helped him steady himself just as Everard and his two charges entered.
Axel reached out a hand to greet Everard. “Father Locke, welcome to our house.”
“Glad to be here. We brought extra food to round out the meal,” Everard said.
Nana Friga hurried forward, drying her hands on a towel. Seeing the two young men each carrying a bag, she said, “Follow me,” and took them to the kitchen. Her voice drifted across the room to the others: “A good wedge of mountain-style cheese! Fiola, get the hotpot out. These are excellent raspberries. Do they come from the Tate farm?”
Rusza said, “No, ma’am, from the neighbors’ farm. Their early-fruiting raspberries really took off this year.”
Everard and Axel had finished exchanging their initial polite remarks. Everard turned toward Coralie. “Did you ask the questions you wanted to ask?”
She nodded. “I feel I have a better grasp of the situation now.”
Everard just looked at her for another few moments. Then he turned to their host again. “I checked, and Private Taivas was scheduled to be off-duty at 1730. I see she has not yet arrived.”
“I was surprised at that myself,” said Axel. “Especially that you arrived before she did.”
Nana Friga spoke up from her place at the stove. “She must have stopped at the public meeting-house to use the meditation room, no doubt about it. If it takes her longer to get here on account of it, well, she means no offense.”
Fiola brought a cup of iced coffee to Everard.
He thanked her and, without raising his voice, commanded, “Rusza, come here.”
The boy obeyed, but Rusza’s attention was clearly still in the kitchen.
“Sit down,” Everard commanded. To Mica, he added, “Stand at attention here,” and he pointed to the floor beside his chair, “until we know that you are welcomed here by all.”
Coralie went to the kitchen to complete the division of the sexes. She found Nana Friga working on a pot of consomme, while Crystallin and Fiola worked together to assemble a platter of fondue foods. “How was it that you came to be the one to move here with Sanna?” Coralie asked Nana Friga.
“I have known Sanna since she was born,” the elderly woman began, “and her parents likewise before her. When she suddenly started showing signs of thermal energy sympathy, her family had no way to help her. They were all air and water sympathists, as was the way in our village. I have air sympathy myself, but in my youth I had a close friend with thermal energy sympathy from outside the village, so at least I had seen something of it. I offered to teach her my small knowledge and help her learn control. My small knowledge proved insufficient. Sanna’s sympathy cycled out of control when she was not yet fifteen. It took us more than eighteen hours to stop her, and many were injured. I chose to take full responsibility for bringing her to a place where she could find the help none of us could give her.”
“Why did none of her family accompany her? Her mother, if no one else?”
“Simply because her family took the worst injuries from her hapless rampage,” Nana Friga replied. “Her mother lost a hand. Her father lost an eye and the skin off his face. Her sisters lost various fingers and toes. They were in no condition to travel. We were returning for our first visit the day the village was destroyed,” Nana Friga finished in an undertone. She glanced at the two young girls by the table, to see that they were not listening. “Sanna has the sight of her family’s injuries, inflicted by her, as her last living memory of them. I know she wrestles with intense regrets because of that. Father Locke’s decision to take interest in her career has given her fresh hope. He has on his staff one of the most skilled, the strongest human sympathy adjusters in Haazak, doesn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Coralie, “Dr. Rao is excellent. My own staff adjuster is one of her protégés.”
Nana Friga seemed about to say something more, but just then the screen door slammed. A soldier entered, clad in full winter uniform despite the summer heat. Around her right arm was a black-and-white armband. “I apologize for being so late.” The voice was not quite feminine, being rather husky and abrupt. The face was all that showed beneath the fitted hood of the uniform jacket. It was almost colorless, the only exceptions being a set of pale pink lips and a pair of grey-green eyes.
Everard stood. “No apologies needed, Private Taivas. This isn’t roll-call. I hope we may all enjoy a leisurely meal and conversation. Nothing formal.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll clean up and rejoin you in a minute.” The young soldier strode through the doorway. Her words turned out to be literal, as she returned in one minute. She had exchanged, in that brief time, her insulated uniform for a bulky hooded sweater, jeans, and thick slippers. She wore the armband even over her sweater.
“Before we sit down to eat,” Everard said, “I want to ask if you will allow the presence of my son Mica at the table.”
Sanna looked hard at Mica. Her stare lasted for nearly half a minute. “He is under your supervision for his discipline, isn’t he, sir?”
“Then for your sake, and for his mother’s sake, I won’t refuse his presence.” Sanna looked to the other young man. “Who is this?”
“He too is under my supervision,” Everard said. “Rusza, introduce yourself.”
“Miss Taivas, I’m Rusza Tate.” Rusza not only got up from his chair, but he went forward to stand face-to-face with Sanna.
“I have heard of you,” she replied.
“Really? What have you heard?”
Sanna gave him a look almost as hard as the one she had given Mica. “Nothing to your credit, Rusza Tate.”
“Perhaps I should ask if you object to his presence,” Everard observed. “It was basically the story of the man transporting a wolf, a goose, and a sack of grain. If I can, I prefer to keep both the wolf and the goose under supervision as often as possible.”
An unexpected, dry smile appeared on Sanna’s face. “If the goose may stay, then the wolf may stay also.”
Everard’s sharp laugh was equally unexpected. “You are the first person to catch onto that detail.”
Mica said, “What, I’m the goose?”
“Do you prefer to be called an ass instead?” his father asked, deadpan.
Everyone crowded around the table: men on one side, women on the other, according to Northern custom. The hotpot and platter for fondue occupied pride of place in the center. After Nana Friga prayed the blessing over their meal and companionship, Everard took up his long fork. He skewered a cube of bread first, dipped it in the pot, and ate it gingerly.
“You chose an excellent cheese,” Nana Friga said. “I wasn’t aware that capital folks made mountain-style cheese.”
“We have enough territorials who come from North and Northwest,” said Coralie, “that it became popular a few years ago. You still need to know who makes it, though, because it often isn’t out on the shelf with the other cheeses.” She mentioned a couple of makers’ names and their store locations.
“I’ll remember that, with thanks. I had a batch sent to me two years ago, but there isn’t always someone I know heading this way when I’d like a pot of fondue.”
Sanna was eating pieces of bread and chunks of vegetables dipped in hot cheese as if they were candy. From his place diagonally across from her, Rusza said, “Doesn’t it burn your mouth to eat it that fast?”
“Nothing burns me, Rusza Tate.”
Mica dug an elbow into Rusza’s side. He leaned to that side to whisper in Rusza’s ear.
Rusza responded by holding up a forefinger with sparks of electricity dancing on its tip.
Mica hurriedly straightened. “Don’t blame me for not warning you,” he muttered, “because I did.”
Everard looked at the two, but didn’t remark on their antics. Instead, he addressed his next remarks to Sanna. “If you had the opportunity to take special training, what would you choose?”
Her eyes brightened. “I would like to train in sympathy control for disposal,” she declared without hesitation.
“That is a difficult specialty,” Everard observed. “Your sympathy is certainly strong enough for the work, but are you prepared to face the emotional burden?”
“I am resolved, sir,” she asserted.
“I can put you on that path, but first I want you to meet my adjuster, Dr. Wyeth Rao.”
Sanna’s expression became almost triumphant. “I’d like nothing better, sir.”