When everyone had eaten enough, the dinner party broke into natural groups. The Tate and Locke boys drifted toward the far end of the yard, laughing and tussling together as childhood friends do. The girls, led by Crystallin, drifted after them at a safe distance. Only Sanna remained at the table with the older adults. Soren climbed onto her lap and snuggled against her bosom for a post-dinner rest.
“We can watch him,” Feilin offered, “if you want to go with the other girls.”
But Sanna shook her head. “Thank you, but I’ll just sit for a while.” She watched the activity at the far end of the yard with quiet amusement.
“I know my sister won’t let me talk about amputations at the dinner table,” Archet began.
Hapzah exclaimed, “Ick, no, don’t you dare!”
He grinned. “So I won’t ask you for any details right now,” he continued. “I did wonder, and I wondered if you mind talking about, how you brought yourself to do what you did for your uncle. You were just Crystallin’s age then, weren’t you? Had you dealt with the Decay before that?”
“I had not,” Sanna replied. “I knew what I had been taught. I knew that it was death to let it take you over. I knew that it must have gotten into the village and others were fighting at that moment. And I was angry. Afraid, but more angry than afraid. It was not going to have my family. It had no right to him.”
Archet nodded several times, slowly, as he absorbed her words. Then he said, “I ask this of everyone I meet who has encountered the Decay directly: do you think it has its own will?”
Sanna didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
“You say that with certainty,” Archet observed. “What makes you think so?”
With an apologetic glance toward Hapzah, Sanna said, “Because the severed part was still moving, trying to follow us.”
A general exclamation arose from the older adults. Soren moved restlessly in Sanna’s arms, and the adults hushed each other to keep from waking the child. Archet said softly, but with intensity, “You’re the first person who has given me that answer. Probably very few have ever been in the position you were that day. Most researchers who say the Decay has neither consciousness nor will say that the movements of the infected are due to their own residual volition and not the Decay, but that can hardly be the case in your example, can it?”
“Unless Axel’s leg was its own agent all the while,” quipped Everard.
Axel chuckled. “Not that I ever noticed.”
“If it doesn’t have any will,” Sanna asked, “how does it move from place to place like it does? How do they explain that?”
“They don’t believe it does,” Everard answered. “The theory goes that it only appears to move, in the course of its mindless consumption of everything organic in its path.”
Axel said, “But it doesn’t eat everything mindlessly, not if by mindless you mean indiscriminately. It leaps,” he said with a shudder.
“Sorry to remind you,” said Archet. “It’s an awful thing to be reminded of. Whenever I think of the first time I saw a late-stage infection…” He too shuddered. “More than twenty years ago now, and just thinking about it still makes me queasy.”
“If you didn’t keep talking about it,” his mother noted, “you wouldn’t be reminded of it so often.”
“You’re right, Mom, as usual. Since I brought it up, I’ll change the subject. Isn’t Helena enjoying herself today!”
Every eye turned toward the far end of the yard. Hapzah said, “I think those three are about the age her sisters would have been now. That’s one thing we haven’t been able to provide for her: younger sisters. Younger brothers in abundance, but no sisters.”
“That Lily Allen,” Archet commented. “What part of South Territory does she come from?”
“Current-town,” Sanna said.
“Who are her people?”
Sanna looked to Everard, who said, “The Allen family is numerous, old, and reasonably prosperous. They make up a large percentage of Current-town’s western bloc. They say that an Allen was among the first to set fire to his own home when the Decay was found to have invaded, back in the original town. I’ve worked with at least a dozen Allens in the South Territory army, but Lily’s parents are noncombatants and neither of her elder siblings went beyond their four obligatory years. They operate a hardware and small tools store, as I understand it.”
“Then what is the child doing under your tutelage, Everard?” Apple asked.
“She is an applicant for Cora’s staff.”
“What do you think of her so far?” Coralie asked.
“Promising. She shows a steady and genuine concern for the relationships of those around her, and she is willing to learn new tasks, even if she isn’t familiar with them or even good at them. She does show a tendency to weaken under pressure, and that concerns me, but I’ll know better when I see her out in the field.”
Axel asked, “Will you be taking them out of the capital?”
“As soon as we pass everyone on the essential equipment,” Everard said. “I always start trainees off in one of the less dangerous territories, though. Usually Northeast. They’ll get the opportunity to work with the spa therapists there, helping injured soldiers recuperate. It is a less abrupt introduction to the war for those who have never seen combat’s costs firsthand. I believe it will be beneficial for you too, Sanna, since I haven’t been able to find out that you had any formal aftercare from your own experience.”
“There wasn’t any opportunity when we first came,” Sanna said, “and then life became busy.”
“You should say,” Everard retorted, “that you never told anyone what you had seen and endured. Opportunity would have presented itself, if you hadn’t kept saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ as I know you did.”
Sanna bowed her head. “I won’t say you’re wrong, Father Locke.”
“You sounded a little like Erno just then, Father Locke,” said Axel. “He was always scolding me for being too lax with my own children. ‘If it weren’t for Marinen, I don’t like to think how they would have turned out,’ was what he always said. Even if I hadn’t been in the hospital, I probably wouldn’t have called Sanna out like that, like Erno would have done.”
“Everard has taken me to task more than once for my parenting habits,” Archet said. “I’m of the relaxed school myself. Mine turned out well enough. Mostly,” he added beneath Sanna’s stern gaze.
“And mine are perfect?” Everard said. “No, I have no intention of upholding my parenting methods over any other man’s. I never had a father’s guidance myself, so I can’t claim any superior knowledge. I only point out problems when I see them, and Sanna, you need therapeutic aftercare, not only for the incident with your uncle’s leg but for the cycling incident as well. I have observed you when it comes to depleting your sympathy. You are nearly phobic about it. That is natural, given the circumstances, but it isn’t necessary or healthy.”
She bowed her head again.
Without seeming to shift his attention, Everard called out, “Rusza Tate, you haven’t been cleared for playing like that. Sit down.”
“Were you watching him?” Archet asked, surprised.
“I must. He walks too close to the edge. Until he learns to watch himself, someone else must do it for him.”
“What did you mean by ‘cleared for playing’?” asked Gar.
“Dr. Rao has Rusza on a strict ban against unnecessary motion. She says his mechanical energy is getting stronger. He is supposed to be practicing minimum effective motion. He has, of course, forgotten all about it today.”
The older adults turned to watch as Rusza, seated on the grass, heckled his brothers and the Locke boys in their impromptu wrestling competition. When Lyndon walked around him to get a better view of Fineas being pinned by Slate, Rusza leaned over and snagged his little brother by the ankle, tripping him. Lyndon retaliated immediately by lashing out with his other leg as he fell. Rusza dodged by rolling across the grass, but Lyndon wanted vengeance. The two grappled for a few seconds on the ground. Then they were on their feet, trading stinging swats.
Everard exhaled. He came around the table and scooped Soren out of Sanna’s lap. “Private Taivas, if you would.”
Everard’s voice carried easily to Rusza’s ears, as Everard had intended. Rusza stopped, looked at Sanna rising to her feet, and uttered two words: “Oh, help.” He took off running.
“Keep on the grass,” Everard called, “or it will hurt that much worse.”
The two disappeared around the corner of the house, Rusza sprinting and Sanna pursuing. In another few moments, they reappeared at the opposite corner of the house. Sanna put on an additional burst of speed and closed the lead Rusza had barely managed to gain. No one saw exactly what she did with one of her feet, but Rusza stumbled and rolled across the grass. Sanna pounced. Within a couple of seconds, Rusza was face-down in the grass, with one arm twisted behind his back and Sanna’s knee on his spine at the waist. “You… You… Someday,” he gasped. “Someday…”
“Someday you will start to take responsibility for your own sympathy? We can hope so,” Sanna said. She didn’t sound even slightly winded from the chase.
“Someday,” Rusza said, “I’ll be able to defend myself from you…”
“That’s a possibility. You could learn what I’ve learned, and if you put on thirty or forty pounds of muscle, you could easily overwhelm me in a fight,” Sanna said calmly. “But even if you reach that point someday, if by then you haven’t learned how to assess and control your own sympathy, then you will only be that much more of a danger to yourself and to those around you. And,” she added, “I will still take you down like I did just now. I promise you that.”
Everard carried Soren across the lawn to stand a few feet away from the two. “Rusza, give me a number for your mechanical energy.”
Rusza was silent for a time. “Seven?”
“That sounded anything but confident. Let’s call it eight. What should it be at?”
“Two. Dr. Rao told you that you aren’t cleared to play around unless you’re at a two and can maintain a two without trouble. What do you need to do to get to two?”
“Minimum effective motion,” Rusza answered. “Sir, could you tell Private Taivas to get her knee out of my back? It’s starting to really hurt.”
“Are you going to keep still if she does?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll stay right here.”
“Good boy. Private.”
Sanna retained the armlock she had on Rusza but stood up so that she was no longer kneeling on his back.
“Excellent use of leverage, Private. Now Rusza, when Private Taivas releases your arm, you are going to sit up and face me, nothing else. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Rusza obeyed.
“Don’t even rub your shoulder. Don’t move until you’ve brought yourself down at least to a solid five. You know what you should do.” Everard said, “Taivas, you keep still also. If you move, you’ll transfer the energy of your motion to him. Everyone else, keep at least six feet away from him until he brings himself back down.”
Rusza spent half an hour immobile, apparently doing nothing. Sanna stood at attention like a white marble statue beside him. Fog began to build around them, thickening in the muggy evening air until Rusza breathed a sigh and his breath streamed white as in winter. “That’s nice,” he said. “Sir, I’m definitely at a five now. Maybe a four.”
“Then you may get up, but only to come over here and sit down again.”
Both went back to the table, to the places they had occupied before. When Sanna sat down, little Soren seemed to come awake all at once and scrambled to sit beside her again. “Sanna,” he said, “my juice is warm.”
She took the glass and swirled her fingertip in the apple juice. Ice crystals formed on the inside of the glass. Then she handed it back to him.
Rusza took up his glass of sweetened sun tea, stirring spoon still in it, and held it out to her.
“Are you five years old?” she asked.
“If it means I get a cold drink, then yes,” he retorted. “Besides that, you were mean to me before. Be nice to me now.”
Sanna took the glass from him. Within seconds, the glass was coated in frost. She handed the glass back to him.
Rusza took it between his hands. The frozen glass hissed from the heat. After rolling the glass gently between his hands, Rusza inverted it and pulled on the handle of the spoon until the frozen tea came out all in one piece. He licked it like a popsicle. “Mmm!”
Soren looked at his own glass, looked at Rusza’s sweet-tea popsicle, and then looked appealingly to Sanna.
“Don’t pick up any bad habits from him,” she warned the little boy. But she took back his glass, put her own spoon into it, and froze it into an apple juice popsicle for him. She rolled the glass between her hands, just like Rusza had done, to loosen the frozen juice until the popsicle slid free.
Lily came running and dropped down on the bench beside Sanna. “That looks so good,” she said. “Would you make one for me too?”
“Pour yourself a drink.” Sanna’s voice held exasperation, but her smile at the younger girl was tolerant. When Rusza’s brothers and the Locke boys edged closer, all holding glasses of sun tea or juice, however, Sanna said to Rusza, “You started this; you help. You should be able to do both hot and cold.”
“It will be good practice for you, Rusza.” Everard gave his glass of tea to Rusza. “You know what the doctor said.”
Rusza made a dissatisfied face. He took the glass, however, and stared at it intently. His breathing slowed and almost stopped. A thin film of frost crept up the glass from his fingers. The tea thickened. When Rusza tried to tip the glass to pull out a popsicle, slushy tea nearly rolled out of the glass onto his lap. “You make it look really easy,” he said to Sanna. “What’s the secret?”
“Secret? As in, the ‘secret’ that I’ve lived with overwhelming cold my entire life? Or the ‘secret’ that controlling it is life or death to me? What secret do you mean? You make heat look easy, but do you have a ‘secret’ for that? You can try focusing,” added Sanna. “The only way I can use heat is by concentrating all my efforts on it. Probably the same is true for you and cold.”
Rusza seemed not to hear the acerbic tone of her reply, taking only the advice from it. He shut his eyes, drew a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. The glass between his hands trembled so that ripples ran through the slushy tea inside it. A strained noise of frustration escaped through Rusza’s nose. Then the ripples hardened into a solid.
“You did it,” said Lily.
“He sounded constipated,” Lyndon said.
Everard took his popsicle. “It’s a start. Do a few more for the practice.”
Lily lined up six glasses and filled each half-full with apple juice. She handed the first to Rusza, who accepted it and bent all his attention on it.
Axel said, “Father Locke, will you give us much warning before you take the children out?”
“They will have a week to prepare,” Everard replied. “Why do you ask?”
“I’ve decided that I need to go where Sanna goes, at least for now. A week should be more than enough time for me to make my own arrangements.”
Everard nodded. “I’ll let my lieutenants know to arrange dependent housing for you.”
Axel, startled, said, “I had no intention of burdening your company. I’ll have Soren with me too, so—”
“It will be a matter of routine. Many of my special students have brought dependents of all kinds with them, so this is far from the first time. Years ago, when I first stepped into my current duties, I traveled with my whole family. Small children are no problem. I once trained a young woman with animal sympathy who brought as her dependents a dozen wild turkey poults that had imprinted on her. Believe me: I’ve dealt with nearly every scenario you can imagine.”