At the Locke house, the morning routine remained much the same as always: breakfast at 0500 hours, after which Coralie and Everard washed dishes while the children prepared for their respective tasks of the day. Their second son, Slate, was the only one without any work responsibilities that morning. He watched his busy siblings idly. Mica was poring over a technical manual for the morning lesson. Larimar was fidgeting with a delicate construction of metal. Linnie was stringing tiny glass beads for a piece of jewelry she was making.
Coralie said to Everard, “I thought it a good chance to invite the Taivas girl’s family to dine with us, as a return for their hospitality.”
“And I asked the Tates to come too.”
He nodded again.
“Which means we’ll have twenty-two people at the table tonight, so I need the outdoor table set up.”
“We can manage that for you. I have a light day today.”
“I asked Kerran his opinion yesterday, and he said he thought rain possible sometime today.”
“We’ll run out the awning while we’re at it.”
Coralie sighed. “That would help. Thanks.”
Slate turned his attention from his parents’ conversation, only to find that Mica had disappeared from the room. He himself got up and headed for the back door.
In the backyard, Slate noticed immediately that the shed doors stood open. He went to look inside and, upon seeing Mica dragging a section of the outdoor table toward the door, paused a few seconds in surprise. “I’ll take this end,” he offered.
Mica dropped the table section, startled. In another moment, he recovered and said, “Thanks.”
Together they dragged all the parts of the huge table into the yard. Then they stood, looking down at the pieces in contemplation. “Dad always does this part,” Slate observed.
“In theory,” Mica said cautiously, “if a human mind invented it, then there should be a human thought perceptible in it… right?”
They turned all the sections upside down on the grass to examine the mechanisms. “This obviously needs to attach there,” Slate said, pointing. “Which means the legs go… on either side? It looks simple enough.”
“We’ll know if we try it,” Mica said.
They had one section fully assembled and upright by the time Everard emerged from the house to join them. “It’s painful to watch you. I’ll show you how it works, and this time, pay attention.” He flipped their work over and took it to pieces again. Then, deftly, he began the process afresh. “Tabletops together first, one, two, three,” he said as he did the work he was describing. “Leg sets go together in pairs first, then you attach them to the tabletops. This way, they slide into place easily. Two sets at each end, note, to stabilize the whole. Take your places at the middle and end.” With Everard at the near end of the long table, Slate in the middle, and Mica at the far end, they righted the table in two smooth stages. “Lower the folded leaves. Make sure the support rods are braced in their sockets. Now do the same for the other side, and we’re done.”
“Awning too?” Slate said.
“You heard your mom. Elder Magire is usually accurate about weather.” Everard had to show them how to raise the long canopy that exactly covered the table and its benches. “That’s all right, then,” Everard observed afterward. “Cora, the table and awning are ready. If you have any other preparations, Slate is here. I need to stop at the office; Nanja and Arata will be waiting for me if I don’t hurry. Mica, are you ready?”
After their departure, Slate went back inside with Coralie to the kitchen. “Mom?”
“Why has Mica been acting so weird ever since… since then,” he finished lamely.
“I don’t know, love, really. How does it seem to you?”
“He acts like he’s a boarder, like he doesn’t really live here. He’s like a stranger.”
“I noticed that, yes,” said Coralie. Her voice was dull.
“And something weird happened a few days ago,” Slate continued. “When I helped Dad with one of his training sessions. The new group, you know. They have a couple of kids with human soul sympathy, and one of them said, ‘You’re too angry,’ and I thought at first he was talking about me, but it was Mica he meant. Mica wouldn’t say anything except he wasn’t angry at me, and Dad said we would settle it when we got home, but I’m sure he forgot, because we didn’t.”
“Wow,” said Linnie from the other side of the family room. She didn’t look up from her work as she added, “That was a lot of talking for you, Slate.”
“I’ve had a lot on my mind,” her brother retorted, “and it has been building up for a while.”
“Sure, but Mom hasn’t gotten a word in while you’ve been talking like that,” said Linnie.
Slate looked to his mother expectantly, but Coralie only said, “I decided to leave the matter of your brother entirely in your dad’s hands. If you need to talk about it, you should discuss it with him.”
“I’m not sure what to say,” Slate admitted. “I mean, it is kind of refreshing, having him talk politely and not lord it over us all the time. But that’s just what makes it creepy at the same time. It isn’t like him.” He sat down on one of the kitchen chairs.
“That’s true,” Larimar said without looking away from his work.
“If you do speak to your dad about this,” said Coralie, “you’re going to have to figure out beforehand what point you’re trying to make. I can’t make it out at all. If you just want to complain, then get it all out now and don’t bother your dad with it. You’ll just irritate him.”
Slate gazed wide-eyed at Coralie, but she ignored his look. He did not pick up the conversation again, but started another. “What else needs done for tonight? I have the whole day free, so I’ll do what I can.”
“Nothing just now,” she replied. “There will be more than enough to keep you busy this afternoon.” Coralie put away the preparations she had been making for lunch, washed her hands, and went through into the back of the house.
Slate said to his remaining siblings, “Mom isn’t being herself either.”
“Does it surprise you?”
“No, Linnie, I guess it doesn’t.”
Their mother came back, dressed in civilian clothes but of a kind she usually reserved for going out to dine with friends. “I’ll be back before 1100 hours,” she said as she put on a wide-brimmed white sun hat.
“Where are you going?” Crystallin asked.
“I am accompanying Grandma Allimae to a visit at the military hospital.”
“May I go with you?”
“Not to the visit,” said Coralie, “but if, as I suspect, you just want to visit Lyndon at the labs, you may go with me as far as the hospital foyer.”
Crystallin hastened to put away her beadwork project.
Slate said, “Who are you visiting?”
His mother was visibly reluctant to tell him, but she did after a long pause. “We are visiting Skye Taorri.”
Slate shut his mouth.
“No, if you have something to say, then say it.”
“It doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.”
“Why doesn’t it?” Coralie challenged him suddenly.
“Why,” Slate echoed, “doesn’t it seem like a good idea to visit a traitor in quarantine for early-stage infection?”
“Yes. Why?” When Slate foundered upon this question, Coralie said, “Allimae says he is making a slow but confirmed recovery. The treatment started early enough that there won’t be any permanent damage. I wish to see for myself how he is and, more to the point, speak to his parents.”
“Slate, love, your thought process isn’t very nimble this morning. Yes, his parents. They have been in quarantine with him this entire time, watching over his recovery and doing the majority of the unskilled work involved in his care, just to spare two more hospital staff members from risking infection.” She glanced at her watch. “I’ll be late if I keep arguing with you. Linnie, are you ready to go?”
When Coralie and Crystallin left the house, Slate grabbed a hat and left with them. They found Allimae Cram already approaching the house. The elderly woman took in the sight of the two extras and said, “Are you on leave for today, Slate? And where are you headed this morning?”
“I…” Slate stopped. “I’m not sure, really.”
Allimae looked to Coralie, who raised both hands in a gesture of disavowal. The elderly woman said, “Then I will bring you with us. Ren will be glad for the company of another man. And I need not ask where you’re going, Miss Linnie. Is Lyndon at the labs as early as this? I thought he was still finishing his public schooling.”
“Today he has afternoon classes,” said Crystallin.
“We will call for you after our visit,” her mother reminded her, “so be ready to leave, even if Lyndon hasn’t left for his classes yet.”
“Yes, Mom, I know.”
Their conversation followed the usual paths, namely the business of Metal District and of the army supply system. Slate listened and spoke rarely; Crystallin only listened. The early sun grew increasingly hot as they walked. The main army hospital complex was situated at the upper end of Metal District, not far from the Government Center. It stood three stories taller than all the surrounding buildings, so it was visible from a distance.
At the entrance, in the cool of the large foyer, Crystallin trotted toward the main stairs, a massive double staircase with an elevator shaft of pierced metalwork rising through its middle. The two ladies led Slate in an entirely different direction, to the left and back along the length of the complex. Little traffic passed along this corridor.
They arrived at an archway where three soldiers lounged, playing a board game like children. As soon as the visitors came near, one of the soldiers sprang to her feet. “Mother Locke and guest… guests?” She looked at Slate in curiosity.
“My second son, Slate,” Coralie explained.
“Pleased to meet you, Slate Locke,” the soldier replied. “It’s this way.” She led them into a ward— for so it must have been— full of sunlight from the many large windows. Every wall featured vibrant frescoes, as if the ward doubled as an art museum. The frescoes shared a common theme: they depicted either the virtues encouraged by the statutes of the Only One or the consequences of ignoring those statutes. Slate gazed around with such rapt attention that his mother had to prompt him to hurry his steps.
Their guide brought them to the door of a closed suite, but rather than knock and ask for permission to enter, the soldier let herself inside. “Alessa, Ren, you have visitors.”
The couple to whom she spoke stood up and came forward at once. The man said, “Thank you for coming. I’m Skye’s father, Ren Taorri, and this is my wife, Skye’s mother, Alessa.”
Coralie and Allimae introduced themselves first. Coralie introduced Slate, who bent his head toward the couple.
Alessa Taorri said, “I feel terrible that I can’t offer you proper hospitality, but as you can see…” Her hand swept wide in a gesture that directed their attention to the very basic sitting room.
“Don’t worry about that, Alessa,” the soldier said, “because they are our guests just as much as they’re yours. I have a pot of tea and a plate of treats ready.”
“Oh, Jess,” Alessa said, “thank you for that!”
“Please,” said Coralie, “let’s sit down together. You don’t need to treat this as anything but an informal drop-in visit from friends. How are you doing?” She sat down first.
“Better,” said Ren. “Much better. The doctors say he’s out of danger. Now it’s a matter of resting and healing.”
“I’m so relieved,” said Coralie. “It must lift some part of your worries, just hearing that.”
“Kerran sent this with me.” Allimae held out the canvas shopping bag she had carried all the way to the hospital. “He thought it might be useful, having some of your own things while you’re here.”
Ren and Alessa opened the bag together and started to lift out its contents item by item with delighted murmurs. As they sorted through the mundane personal items as if opening gifts, the soldier Jess returned with a tray of tea and cookies. Coralie took charge of pouring everyone, Jess included, a cup of tea.
“Jess, look,” said Alessa, “the district paper! The Capital Page is good, certainly, but I’ve missed the local news so much!”
“Didn’t I say?” the soldier replied. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a silly, small request. If it will do you good, then the Only One will see that someone provides it.”
“It’s already doing Ren good,” Allimae noted dryly.
Ren Taorri made a vague, interrogative hum at the sound of his given name, but he wasn’t listening. He was already deep into the first page of the local paper.
The ladies laughed.
From the next room, a voice called out, “Who’s there?”
Ren came up out of his perusal of the paper instantly. “He’s awake. I’ll go.”
As the man stood, Coralie asked, “May we speak with him too?”
“If you would,” Ren said.
Everyone but Jess got up to follow Ren into the next room. Ren entered, while Alessa stood just inside the doorway with the guests behind her. “Did you have a good rest? We have some visitors, if you feel up to company.”
“Company,” murmured Skye. The young man lay in a hospital bed, but apart from that, the room was hardly distinguishable from any other guest room. Skye’s eyelids were still heavy from waking. He turned his face toward the open door. “Morning, Mom.”
“Good morning, dear. I want to introduce you to Mother Locke.” Alessa stepped back to let Coralie pass.
Skye was suddenly, fully awake. “Mother Locke. What brings you here?”
“I came to visit with your mother, and to see how you are,” she answered. “But mainly I came as company for someone who has been very worried about you.”
As soon as Allimae Cram entered the room, Skye blushed a deep red. “Why have you come?”
His parents both made the same impulsive gesture, reaching out as if to intervene, but Allimae answered just as bluntly. “I came to see for myself how your recovery is progressing, not to break any bones. How do you feel?”
He studied her face for several seconds. “I have better and worse days, but the worst are over, I think. I hope,” he amended. “I can remember everything that happens in a day, though that may just be because so little happens here.”
“Since this doesn’t appear to be an official visit…” Skye glanced again at Coralie, who shook her head. “Can I ask a few questions?”
“Go ahead,” said Allimae.
“What happened? I remember the dog,” he said heavily, “and slamming the door shut after it, but nothing I remember after that point seems to have been real.”
“One of the elders on watch recognized the danger,” Allimae answered plainly, “and we destroyed the animal before it could harm anyone. Because none of us possessed disposal-level heat or radiant energy abilities, our thermal energy sympathists had to keep the fire going for the rest of the night. By morning, Coralie here arrived with a specialist who finished the job for us.”
Skye Taorri breathed deeply. “The source?”
“Also disposed of.”
“And the Glazmere woman?”
Allimae looked to Coralie, so Skye also turned his attention to her. She answered, “Everard told me she was consumed entirely by the Decay just after he arrived to assess the situation. Whatever was left of her was destroyed along with the Decay.”
“Good riddance,” said Skye. “She was a greedy, petty, unworthy woman. She should never have been made an elder.”
Again his parents flinched at his harsh words, but Allimae Cram said, “You speak rightly, Skye Taorri. She proved to have a character quite different from her husband’s, whom she was meant to replace. We had started to investigate, but too late. Elder Wingate of Earth District had his suspicions, but when he tried to pursue the inquiry he barely escaped with his life.”
“I don’t know him firsthand,” Skye admitted.
“He’s the youngest of our number, not far from your age,” Allimae said. “Was that the source of your rage, then— Milla Glazmere?”
Skye nodded. “Her corruption became clear to me too late. I came into contact with the Decay while working with her on Worth’s business. She was more candid with me than with them. She gloated over how she had got around the laws and how she would get rich off making jewels out of the Decay while everyone else labored uselessly under foolish restrictions. She believed she was in no danger, that there was no danger. From the first, I felt myself sliding away, becoming another self, but the fascination was…” He reddened again. “Soon I couldn’t restrain myself. Rage, hunger, fear— whatever I felt, I felt it without measure. But never happiness,” he mused. “Never contentment. Never peace of mind, nor peace of any other sort. It was so… noisy.”
“I have heard it described that way,” Allimae said. “Oversensitive, or completely numb. It takes people one or the other of those two ways. It’s a distortion of the soul. You’re blessed that Helena Jeru recognized the symptoms in you as quickly as she did.”
“Jeru?” Skye looked to his parents briefly. “What did she have to do with it? As I recall, she disappeared before Worth made his move.”
“Ah, then you don’t remember,” said Allimae. “You escaped the general roundup and fled into the city. No one is quite sure exactly what you did, but you were caught because you tried to stab Helena and Michael Tate. The Tate boys and Rosamund Fulke contained you, and Helena recognized your infection. Rosamund had you brought directly here for emergency treatment, because Helena said it was still early-stage and hence there was still hope.”
Skye Taorri sat in silence for a while. “Then I owe her thanks as well as apologies,” he said at length in a distracted way. His attention sharpened as his gaze returned to Allimae. “And I am sorry for turning a violent hand against you, Elder Cram. Apologies aren’t enough, I know, but I am sorry.”
“I accept your apology and require nothing more,” said the elder. “I wish also to offer an apology to you and to your parents, because I was part of the committee that suggested that Milla was qualified to step in as elder when her husband died. He was an old friend, and I had not known her apart from seeing her in his company. I should have considered her on her own merits and not let an old friendship guide me. I am sorry.”
Everyone looked at Skye, who looked closely at Allimae. “In my rage, I could only think that all the elders must be as corrupt as she, since they let her do as she pleased. But you destroyed the infection among you, and you came to visit my parents after I brought such shame on them, and you have spoken to me honestly and humbly. You are not like her. I don’t deserve that apology.”
“But if I had not put her forward,” Allimae countered, “you might never have been exposed to the Decay.”
“Perhaps I might have in some other way, at some other time. I can’t say my choices would have been different, however it might have happened. I was ignorant of myself, too confident in my own strength.”
“Then let’s say we are even, and let there be peace between us.” Allimae Cram held out her hand.
Skye Taorri grasped it in a firm shake.
“We don’t want to tire you out,” said Coralie. “We’ll go now and come again in a few days, if that’s agreeable to you.”
“Please,” said Skye’s mother Alessa. “Please come whenever you want.”
Ren and Skye both repeated some variation of this invitation. “Don’t worry about seeing us out,” Coralie said, forestalling Alessa, “because I’m sure you want time together to talk about many things. We’ll see you again soon.”
The soldier Jess walked them off the ward. She thanked them as they left. On the way back to the foyer, Coralie said to Slate, “Do you still wonder whether it’s a good idea to visit a traitor in quarantine for early-stage infection?”
Slate shook his head. “I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that.”
They collected Crystallin at the foyer and escorted Elder Cram to her home before returning to their own. For the rest of the day, Slate lingered in the family room of his childhood home, helping when his mother called for help and otherwise sprawling on the couch, lost in thought.
Everard returned earlier than usual from his responsibilities, bringing Mica behind him. They were there in time to welcome the first wave of Tates, who arrived at 1600 hours. Apple, Feilin, and Kent carried their family contributions to the kitchen, where Apple and Feilin immediately pitched in to help Coralie.
Everard led his sons and Kent out to the backyard. “I heard that you had an unusual morning,” he said to Slate. “What are your conclusions?”
“I haven’t got as far as a conclusion,” Slate said, “not even one.”
“How is the young man?” asked Kent.
“How do you know?” Slate said.
“You know how news travels around Garden District,” Kent replied. “Mom and Hapzah were already talking about it when they were making lunch. I bet you hadn’t even gotten back to this house yet.”
“That’s a little scary,” Slate observed. “But about your question: they said he’s out of danger, that he had better and worse days, but he needs rest and time to heal. He seemed totally coherent when he talked.”
“I get reports daily, and the general trend of his condition is positive. It will be some time before he can be released yet, however.”
“Can’t he rest at home?” Slate asked.
Everard gave him a steady look. “Not until the seizures stop. You weren’t there during one of those. From the reports I gather that they were nearly constant at first. His parents have endured the brunt of it, to spare others as much as possible, but they have their limits, like everyone. Your mother wanted to encourage them today. No one has been allowed to visit from their community because of the risk. Your mother, with her standing in the military, was able to arrange for admittance with guests. Even with her rank, she had to accept limitations on the visit. No children, no vulnerable persons, a half-hour time limit, and only until mid-morning. The seizures happen most often during the night, and only slightly less often in the late day. Morning finds him the most rested, the most in control of himself.”
“I never would have guessed,” said Slate. “It seemed so easygoing and peaceful there.”
“It isn’t a penal facility,” his father pointed out. “Its purpose is to aid in healing the most pernicious ailment known to humans. They seek to create an environment that is the exact opposite of the disease.”
“I understand Archet goes from time to time,” Kent said. “His people are always trying to find ways to ease the healing process, but he says there’s very little that he can do with his pharmaceuticals.”
“There’s no shortcut,” Everard agreed. To Slate, he said, “He seemed coherent to you, as you said. I understand that he spoke mostly with Allimae. How did that go?”
“They were both outspoken,” Slate answered. “It seemed like they got along really well. I mean, they both apologized to each other.”
The other men looked at Mica after this outburst, but he shut his mouth and met no one’s gaze.
“You weren’t acquainted with Taorri until today, Slate, am I right? But Mica’s reaction should tell you something about the young man.”
“I’d guess it isn’t normal for him to apologize,” Slate ventured.
“Completely out of character,” his father affirmed. “He has a reputation for pride and stubbornness. His apology today took Allimae completely off-guard. How would you characterize his apology?”
Slate gave that question a few seconds’ thought. Then he began by saying, “Now that you said that about him, I have to say it’s believable. The way he apologized was… blunt, very self-controlled, almost businesslike. But not unemotional.”
“Genuine, do you think?”
“Yes, I think so. Mainly because of what he said in response to Grandma Allimae’s apology.”
“She had no intention of making that apology when she arranged the visit,” said Everard. “Later, yes, after she had visited a few times and felt she knew him better, but not today. After hearing all that he had to say, however, she decided to say it today and see what his reaction was. It was, in a way, her way of testing him. She was pleased with his response. She tells me he may very well reach a point where we can reinstate him at his former rank. That was one of my concerns, whether or not we could trust him that far again. He was a decent officer before all this happened. Maybe he will be again, or even a better one.”
Another wave of Tates arrived just then: Michael and his fiancee Helena, Hapzah, Fineas, and Rusza. Rusza saluted. “Good afternoon, sir.”
“The training is starting to take hold, I see,” Kent murmured.
“At ease,” Everard said. “Have you had a good day off, Rusza?”
“Great! I cut the grass and hauled twelve bags of fertilizer to the farm, and then I helped weed the fields until lunch.”
“And have you kept track of your levels?” Everard asked.
“Did my exercises every two hours and sat totally still for half an hour after lunch,” the boy replied. “Just like Doc said I should.”
“Go, sit at the table and be totally still again until it’s time to eat,” Everard told him. “You need more practice at that.”
“Awww….” But Rusza obeyed.
Michael laughed. “That’s the hardest thing for him to hear: sit still. It always has been.”
“And is therefore that much more worth mastering,” Everard said. “He still hasn’t grasped the fact that it could be a matter of life and death for him to gain control over his sympathy. I dread to think what it may take to open his eyes.”
“Is it that bad?” Immediately Michael took on a worried frown.
“If not for your grandparents’ efforts,” Everard told him, “he would have already had a serious incident.”
Michael jerked his head around to gaze at his younger brother.
“Calm yourself, Michael. He is under Dr. Rao’s care now. She will keep watch over him until she’s sure that he knows how to keep watch over himself.”
New guests arrived, this time from the Taivas household. Axel hobbled across the yard, with little Soren close beside him. “Thanks for the invitation, Father Locke,” he said even before he reached the group. He had to plant a crutch firmly in the sod before he had the balance to take the hand extended to him. “It isn’t often I get the chance to go out in the evening.”
“We’re glad you could come.” Everard took it upon himself to introduce the other men gathered in the backyard, beginning with, “You met my eldest son Mica already. This is my second son, Slate, and my third, Larimar. From the Tate family, this is Kent, Gar and Apple’s second son, and three of their grandsons, Michael, Fineas, and of course you’ve already met Rusza. Everyone, this is Axel Taivas, originally from Sky-wind Village in North Territory.”
A period of general greetings and small talk followed. Axel introduced his little nephew to the group. Soren gazed thoughtfully at each face through the introductions. Slate asked eventually, “Do you want to sit down?”
“It might be good,” Axel admitted. “I haven’t been on such a long walk with this before,” and he gave his crutch a heft.
Slate lent a supportive hand to the man and helped him get settled at the table. The other men began choosing their seats, all on the same side as Axel. Slate ended up between Mica and Rusza.
Before the men had all settled into their places, the women emerged from the house with the food. Slate noticed that an extra girl was among them, talking to his sister Crystallin and another girl who looked similar to Private Taivas.
With the women came Gar, Archet, and Lyndon, the late arrivals. Everard quickly got up to introduce them to Axel, but Archet declared, “Axel Taivas, you’re looking well! I hardly recognized you!”
“You’re acquainted?” asked Everard.
Axel answered, “Dr. Tate looked in on me often when I was first brought to the capital. I told you of how I lost my leg; even with the initial amputation, I was desperately sick. I spent six months in the quarantine ward, cut off from what remained of my family. Dr. Tate was good enough to come sometimes, when he had the time, and talk with me.”
Slate looked at him with new interest. “You were in quarantine?”
“I lost my leg to the Decay when our village was attacked,” Axel said. “I almost died. That six months in quarantine, I battled fever and seizures, nightmares and resentment, the likes of which I had never imagined possible.”
“It does me good to see you,” Archet said. “This is my father, Gerhope, but everyone calls him Gar. This is my youngest son Lyndon, that I told you about. At a guess, Everard has already introduced you to the other three.”
“He has,” Axel confirmed. “Sanna, Fiola, Soren, come and meet Dr. Tate, whom I told you about. This is my brother’s daughter Sanna— she is in Father Locke’s group with your Rusza— and this is my late wife’s niece Fiola and nephew Soren.”
Sanna bowed very low at the waist before Archet. “Doctor, thank you for taking such good care of my family.”
“No, no,” was his reply, “I wasn’t even his primary caregiver. I just stopped by with antibiotics and other supplementary meds.”
“Apart from Nana Friga, you were his only visitor. I believe that did as much for Uncle’s recovery as any medication.” Sanna straightened and glanced at Axel. “They always used to say that Uncle couldn’t live half a day without someone to chat with him.” Her usually stern face showed a sparkle of humor. “Back when I was small, I thought they meant it literally, so I was careful to make sure to talk with Uncle for a little while if I ever saw him alone, to make sure he would be all right for a few hours.”
Axel laughed heartily. “Is that what you were doing? I always wondered why you had such a serious look on your face when you spoke with me.” He sighed. “They did say that, didn’t they? I had forgotten.”
Archet studied the girl with interest. “I’ve been curious about you, Sanna Taivas– not only because of what your uncle used to tell me, but from the things I’ve heard from Everard and my boy Rusza.”
“You can ask all the questions you like,” said Apple, “after we sit down to eat.”
Everyone squeezed in around the table. Slate found himself directly opposite Sanna Taivas. Her little cousin Soren crawled under the table to emerge on the bench beside Sanna. The extra girl claimed the seat at Sanna’s other side. “I’m Lily Allen,” she said to Slate.
“From the new training group,” Slate replied. “I remember.
“I’d worry about you as a man if you didn’t,” said Rusza with a grin. Then the table shuddered suddenly and Rusza yelped. “Taivas kicked me,” he complained.
“Thank you, Miss Taivas,” said Rusza’s aunt Hapzah from down the table. “Feel free to kick him whenever he opens his mouth without thinking.”
“Which is almost every time,” added Fineas.
Archet laughed. “That was one of the things I heard about you, Sanna. You’ve been assigned to a unique set of responsibilities where Rusza is concerned. I hope he hasn’t done anything that seriously offended you.”
Sanna transferred her cool gaze from her food to Rusza’s face for a long moment of thought that made him wriggle where he sat. “After observing him for this long, I have to conclude that he isn’t as big a fool as he sounds. He simply has a habit of saying things that bring his character into question.”
Hapzah gave a hoot of laughter.
“It’s not too different from correcting Soren when he says too much. What do I tell you, Soren?” she asked the little boy. “About what can be said and what can’t.”
Soren swallowed his mouthful of food politely before answering, “Everybody’s ’titled to a ‘pinion, but you got to ask yourself if it’s better to say it out loud or to keep it to yourself.”
“That’s right,” Sanna said.
Soren beamed at her two-word response as if it were high praise.
“Since Rusza Tate is not a five-year-old,” Sanna continued, “and should have learned this lesson years ago, I believe corporal punishment is an appropriate teaching method for him.”
From the end of the table, Everard added, “And since Rusza is more likely to listen to a woman than a man, I asked Private Taivas to keep an eye on his behavior.”
“She bullies me,” said Rusza, but he laughed when he said it.”
“As you can see,” Everard pointed out dryly, “he doesn’t mind at all.”
The conversation turned to Everard’s new training group and their current activities. Rusza and Lily answered more than Sanna. The various dishes circulated up and down the length of the table. A platter of watermelon wedges passed along Slate’s side of the table, and having no room on his plate he handed it off to Mica without taking any. He didn’t pay any further attention to it until he saw the empty platter come to rest on the table in front of little Soren. The boy gazed at the platter with a forlorn face. He ran his fingertip through the leftover juice and licked the juice carefully.
Mica said suddenly, “You like watermelon, Soren?”
The boy answered with just a sorrowful nod.
“I like watermelon too,” Mica continued, “but not as much as you do. Here.” He passed his untouched wedge of watermelon across the table to the boy.
Coralie stood and left the table rapidly. Everard also stood, but less precipitously. “Excuse us.” He followed his wife to the house.
In the ensuing lull, Mica looked more confused than anyone. Lily was whispering to Sanna. It was Gar Tate who said, “You don’t remember, Mica? That was what your father used to say to you children sometimes when he shared his food with you. You used to say it to your brothers too sometimes, imitating your father.”
“But… but why..?” Mica stammered.
Sanna Taivas turned her stare upon Mica. “Mica Locke, haven’t you apologized to your parents yet? How are they to know you’ve chosen a new path if you don’t tell them you’re sorry for your former path? Go quickly! Now!”
Mica stood as if her gaze had been an electric shock. He caught his foot on the bench in his haste to obey and nearly toppled the other men backwards.
“Heedless child,” said Sanna with a shake of her head.