The wind was rising when the personnel carrier stopped and unloaded its passengers. Father Locke gave orders for the unloading of the freight before turning to the local officers who waited several paces away. “General Murren,” he greeted the foremost one.
“Glad to have you back, Father.” The general was a white-haired woman with a ruddy complexion and a spare figure. “Quarters should be ready for you.”
“Thank you,” said Everard. He beckoned for Axel and Soren to approach. “These are Private Taivas’ dependents, her paternal uncle Axel and his nephew by marriage Soren.”
“Welcome,” the general said, seizing the hand Axel offered. “Taivas— that’s a North Territory name, isn’t it? You probably will meet with no shortage of your fellow territorials here. We’ll make an appointment for you to visit the army spa in the morning. Morning’s the best time.” Her sharp gaze had taken in Axel’s physical condition.
“Thank you,” said Axel. “I appreciate the trouble you’re taking.”
“No trouble,” General Murren replied. “You, young man.” She crouched down to be at Soren’s height. “Have you started school yet?”
Soren met the stranger’s eyes with no apparent discomfort. “Sanna is teaching me letters,” he answered.
“We’ll have you join our first year group tomorrow and see how you like it.” She stood up. “Father, if your lieutenants have everything in hand, why don’t you come with me to see the elders. They mentioned a wish to meet with you as soon as you came.”
Axel stood leaning on one crutch as the trainees hastened around him. As his head turned to track Sanna’s passage, he twitched to find another soldier just behind him. “I didn’t notice you there,” he admitted.
The young man smiled. “And I didn’t want to startle you, although I ended up doing it anyway. I’m Corporal Jem Vindas, dependent liaison. I’ll show you to your quarters.” Jem walked them at a leisurely pace toward a row of cottages behind the main barracks building. “You’ll be in hut 4, just here.” He unlocked the cottage door and then handed the key to Axel. “Meals are provided in the mess hall if you like. Curfew for noncombatants is 2200 hours. If you need anything or have any questions, you’ll find me in the liaison office across the way.” Jem pointed at a ground-floor window not forty yards away from where they stood. “Any questions right now?”
“General Murren mentioned plans for tomorrow,” Axel began. “The army spa for me, and school for Soren. Where…?”
“Nearly opposite ends of the base,” said Jem, “but we’ll send someone to collect each of you after breakfast. There’s a general schedule and map of the base on the back of this door.” To demonstrate, he motioned for Axel to step indoors so he could shut the door and point to the map in question.
Axel scanned it only briefly. “Thank you,” he said, “that’s helpful.”
“I expect you’re tired from the trip. Take your time and settle in,” Vindas advised.
When the liaison officer had gone, Axel took stock of what would be his and Soren’s home for the next three months. It was a single-room cottage divided into areas of usage by a pair of movable screens. Two narrow bunks clung to the wall behind one screen, with two drawers beneath the bottom bunk for storage. A miniscule kitchenette hid behind the other. The cottage also had a small, spartan bathroom with a shower, a sink, and a toilet.
“Where’s Sanna?” Soren complained.
“She’s working right now. We can’t intrude.” Axel could see that the long drive had left the boy in a fractious mood. “Let me see if you can reach the top bunk, Soren. Are you big enough?”
This did not brighten Soren’s mood, but it did give him useful activity for a minute. He was well able to scramble up onto the upper bunk, and the sight from up there gave him pause.
“Do you think you can cope with sleeping up that high?” Axel asked.
Soren nodded vigorously.
“Good. Now hop down and let’s explore a little. The sign says dinner is at 1800 hours, meaning six this evening, so we have lots of time. I’m feeling kind of stiff myself. A walk will do us both good. Then we can tell Sanna all that we saw when she visits us in the evening. Do you agree?”
Soren nodded again. They stepped outside. Axel did not bother to lock the door, since none of their luggage was inside the cottage yet. “Let’s head left first,” he suggested. “You remember which way is left, don’t you?”
Soren stared at his own hands. With some trepidation, he held up his left hand.
“You are correct!” Axel swung on his remaining foot and stabbed his crutch into hard dirt. “Onward!”
They poked around the various buildings and working-spaces of the army base for upwards of half an hour. Axel was lagging long before Soren showed any signs of slowing down, and finally the man had to say, “I’m due for a break, Soren. Let’s find someplace to sit and watch all the people go by.” He hobbled to the shaded walk in front of the mess hall and dropped onto the bench there. He stretched his back and twisted left and right to loosen his muscles. A groan escaped him.
“Walking for a long time must be difficult.”
Axel turned his head to find one of Sanna’s fellow students leaning against the doorpost not far away. “It is,” he said, “but it must be done. The last time I saw a doctor, he told me to do as much as I can.”
“Those crutches aren’t the right size for your height.” The young man came to sit beside Axel.
“It was close enough and all that was available to me at the time. They belonged to one of our new neighbors. Sanna asked around for a while before she found anyone who had any to loan.”
“Did she? I don’t know if we’ve been introduced. I’m Maccani Moor.”
The two men shook hands. Maccani said, “She’s an interesting girl. I can’t figure her out at all.”
“Really? I always thought she was especially easy to understand. She thinks before she speaks and then says exactly what she means. She does exactly what she believes to be right. It’s true that she can be standoffish with people she doesn’t know well, but most of the time that’s because she wants to protect them from her sympathy.”
“Her sympathy,” Maccani echoed. “Thermal energy, isn’t it? I’ve seen it in action. It’s strong.”
Axel nodded several times thoughtfully. “Very strong. Too strong, sometimes.”
“I’m amazed that she can survive with such a low body temperature. I have human body sympathy,” he explained, “and I can sense the functions and dysfunctions of people’s bodies. She’s always about twenty degrees below normal body temperature, except when she’s going all out in physical activities. I’ve never seen anyone like that before.”
“She is fairly unique. Nobody in our family— in our entire village,” Axel corrected himself, “had ever turned up with thermal energy sympathy, so she always stood out.”
“You’re from North Territory, am I right?”
“We were. Sanna can’t live there anymore, due to her sympathy, and since she’s my last living blood relative I decided to stay close to her.” Axel saw the young man’s raised eyebrows and said, “We were originally from Sky-wind Village. It was destroyed by the Decay about three years ago. Everyone of our family died but me, my wife’s nephew Soren over there, and his sister Fiola. Sanna and one of our elders had already moved to the capital for Sanna’s wellbeing, so they survived as well.” Axel watched little Soren trailing behind a squad of new recruits, imitating their marching step the best he could. He smiled a little.
“How long has she been wearing the armband?” asked Maccani quietly.
“Since she left the village. She left because her sympathy cycled out of control and a lot of people were hurt. A lot of people,” Axel repeated. “I myself lost two toes, but they were on the foot I lost in the later incident, so you’d never know now.”
“Your village went through a lot.”
They sat together without speaking until Soren, tired of watching the drills, came trotting back. He looked frankly at Maccani and checked himself from what he had intended to say.
“This is one of Sanna’s new friends, Soren. His name is Maccani Moor.”
“Pleased to meecha,” said Soren.
“The pleasure is mine.” Maccani held out a hand for the boy to grasp. “It’s still a long time until dinner, and I have nothing to do until then. Do you want to see a little of the town? We can take a trolley,” he said for Axel’s benefit.
“Are you from here?”
“My family is. My dad moved to the capital because he fell in love with an inland girl, so I was born and raised there, but we visit here every year. Father Locke gave me the afternoon to visit my family, but if I had gone right away, Granddad would have just put me to work. You should meet him, Mr. Taivas. He has his own physical disabilities, but… well, you’ll have to meet him to understand.”
Axel gathered himself and stood with the aid of his crutches. “Sounds interesting. Let’s go, Soren.”
Maccani brought them on a casual stroll to the trolley stop outside the army base gate. They spent the trolley ride with Maccani pointing out landmarks of interest and being hailed by numerous passersby. “That’s my second cousin twice removed,” he said once. Another time, he said, “Ah, that’s my great-uncle Morze and one of his granddaughters. He has twenty-two granddaughters. Twenty-two! Wouldn’t Rusza Tate faint at the prospect.”
After the first half-dozen of these comments, Axel said, “You come from a big family, do you?”
“The Moor-Cabistant clan is pretty abundant,” Maccani conceded. “We started from a Moor brother and sister pair of orphans who scrounged their living as dock workers, helping small craft find mooring-places for a coin here and a coin there. Then she married a Cabistant, another dock rat, and they pooled their resources to acquire the equipment to move out into the harbor to guide ships. It’s a tricky harbor: it looks open, but only a certain path down the center is deep enough for most ships from the inlet to the docks. They got a reputation for good guidance, and that led eventually to the founding of the Harbor Guardians’ Guild, a taxpayer-supported company that patrols the docks and mans the twin lighthouses that bracket the inlet. They see that today’s harbor guides keep to honest practices and enforce the law dockside.”
Axel whistled. “Impressive.”
“Whatever anyone says about the Moor-Cabestant clan, everyone agrees that we’re industrious. And prolific. Wait until you meet Granddad. Ah, here’s our stop coming up.” Maccani jumped off first and courteously reached up to help Axel safely down from the trolley platform. Then he led them down the street half a block. He came to a halt outside the open double doors of a shop that had no sign outside. A strong scent of lemon and lavender wafted out. “Granddad! I’m back!” Maccani shouted through the doors. He gestured for Axel and Soren to follow him indoors.
They stepped into a warm, humid, dimly-lit room. A long counter dominated the room, but no one was there until, after a metallic hiss, an old man entered in the most unusual way: he swung in, dangling from one brawny arm by a loop of leather attached to a push trolley on a ceiling track. He came to a practiced landing on the end of the counter. “Maccani! What took you so long? We’ve been waiting for you for hours!” The old man had a smooth, ruddy complexion and sleek gray hair pulled back in a short tail at the back of his neck. His legs were folded beneath him so that it looked as though he knelt on the counter.
“I came in good time,” said Maccani with equanimity. “I want to introduce you to someone. This is Axel Taivas. His niece is one of the other students in my group, and this is his nephew Soren.”
The old man looked Axel up and down. “One leg short, I see. At a guess, it hasn’t been long since you lost it. Two years?”
“Just over three.”
“You must’ve been ill.”
Axel nodded. “I was in the hospital for eight months altogether, and they had to do a second amputation to remove more of my leg.”
“Come in. We’ll set you up. Help him, Maccani.”
Maccani guided Axel and Soren through the half-curtained entrance deeper into the shop. The scent grew stronger when they entered a warm room with benches along one wall and lockers along the other. “Put your clothes and things in one of these. We have spare shorts for new clients. We even have your size,” he said to Soren. When they were stripped down to nothing but the loaned shorts, Maccani led them through another half-curtained doorway to a room even hotter and more humid than the last. Three narrow pools occupied the floor, each one about seven feet long and four feet wide and filled with steaming water. “Start with this pool.” Maccani pointed to the nearest one. “This one has plain hot water that loosens up the muscles and acclimates you to the heat.” He stepped down into the water by way of demonstration.
After dropping into the water, Soren yelped and hoisted himself back out onto the tiles.
“If it’s too hot for you,” Maccani said, “just soak your feet.” He held out a hand to steady Axel. “Sit on the edge like Soren. It’s safer to lower yourself in from there.”
With the production of getting Axel safely into the water finally completed, the two men sank down up to their necks. Axel sighed. “This feels marvelous.”
“Is it too hot for your stump?”
Axel shook his head. “It’s perfect.”
They soaked for ten minutes before Maccani said, “Now that we’re relaxed, we move to the next pool.” He gave Axel a hand so that Axel could sit on the edge of the pool. From there, Axel only had to pivot and scoot twice before he could put his foot in the next pool. “You’re getting the idea,” said Maccani. “This pool has a special blend of salts dissolved in it to relieve aching muscles.”
Axel just sighed again.
“And the next pool has lavender oil added to it, to calm the soul.”
“My soul feels pretty nearly comatose already,” Axel said.
Maccani laughed aloud. “I know what you mean.”
The hiss of metal against metal announced the arrival of Maccani’s grandfather. “At a guess, you’ve been sitting or lying down most of the last three years,” he said to Axel without prelude. “It’s bad for you. Were you an active man before?”
“I was a hunter and tracker for my village,” Axel answered.
The old man grunted. “I’m Kapak Moor. Call me Kap. Do people think you pitiable, Axel Taivas?”
He shook his head. “I survived. I still have one blood relation left. I’ve been blessed.”
Kap Moor grunted again. “I was born with withered legs.” He patted his folded legs, showing them to be bound up with straps around the thighs and shins. “I’m the first of my family who couldn’t join the family business. They said I might not live to twenty years of age, and if I did, I wouldn’t be able to contribute. A human body sympathist looked at my legs and suggested I bathe them in special salts to stimulate blood flow. I started a bathing spa for my own health, and people started coming to join me. Soon I was making enough of a living to marry, and I had four daughters and five sons, and most of them married and gave me thirty-two grandchildren. I just held my first great-grandchild a month ago. I’m seventy-three years old. So much for the disabled boy who would never live past twenty, who would never be able to contribute,” he said with mild contempt.
“That’s quite a story,” said Axel.
“What do you plan to make of yourself now?”
Axel considered the question for a while, and old Kap did not rush him. “For the present,” he said, “my plan is to stay close to my niece Sanna. She suffered a lot, and I’m all the family she has left. I wasn’t in any condition to look after her as I ought when we first moved to the capital. I want to make up for that now. I need to be someone she can rely on.” Axel grimaced. “She has been supporting me far too long.”
“That means you need your strength back. What’s your plan?”
Axel confessed, “I haven’t figured out a plan yet.”
“Then come here. I know a little something about learning how to function without legs. Are you staying at the base? They’ll have you at their spa in the mornings, always in the mornings. After lunch, come here. We’ll make it a fair trade. I’ll work with you, and you can work around this place. What’s your sympathy?”
Kap laughed. “That’s perfect. Maccani, go take the cover off the circulating pool. We’ll follow after you.” He reached down from his handhold overhead. “Here. We start now.” With nothing but his upper body strength and a little leverage, he helped Axel to sit on the edge of the pool. “If your stump isn’t sore, use it to prop yourself up on the edge of the pool,” he advised. “It’s almost the right length. My soul, man, you hardly weigh a thing. Eat as much army food as they’ll shovel onto your plate. My missus will feed you on the sly when you’re here, if I know her at all. It’s all fuel for the fire. Boy, go fetch that little wheeled board over there. Yes, that’s the one.” When Soren brought a large scooter board over, Kap directed him, “Place it right under me. That’s the way.” The old man lowered himself down until he was nearly touching the board. Then he dropped onto it. “You take my handhold up there, Axel Taivas, and we’ll get you used to maneuvering around this place without crutches. You’ll get stronger, and your back won’t give you so much trouble.” He propelled himself with his knuckles against the floor toward another doorway.
The circulating pool, as Kap called it, was the largest one yet. It was an oval that took up most of the floor. In its middle, a small raised oval platform provided seats out of the water; the outer edge was shallow all around, providing a ledge for sitting submerged. Maccani had just finished rolling up a canvas cover on a roller attached to the far wall. He stepped down into the water and waded across, ready to give Axel a hand if one was needed.
It took Axel a couple tries to get the right combination of momentum and balance in order not to end up dangling from the strap, wildly off-balance on the slippery tiles. “I used to be stronger than this,” he grunted as his arm began to tremble from the strain of supporting his weight.
“You will be again,” said Kap, “and even stronger. I call this the circulating pool, but it only circulates when an attendant is here to persuade the water to go. Let’s see how you do at it.”
Axel settled down in the warm water. “It’s been years since I got a chance to play in water,” he remarked as he ran his hands through the water. “This is good water.” He didn’t increase the movement of his hands, but the water began to flow to his right. He lifted one hand, cupped to contain a few ounces of water. A little cascade leaped from his palm in a perfect arc. When it hit the water, it leaped again in a series of decreasing arcs, like a stone skipping across a pond.
Soren scooped up water in both his hands and stared hard at it. “Uncle Axel, it won’t move.”
“That trick is still too difficult at your level. Try this instead.” Axel scooped up another handful of water. This handful began to swirl around on his palm until he held a miniature whirlpool. “It’s hard to keep all the water in your hands, but if you can do this, then you’re on your way to doing this.” He lowered his right hand palm-downward against the water’s surface. A surge washed along the curve of the pool, growing in strength, until the entire circulating pool was a whirlpool.
Soren was washed from the ledge and carried along with the current, giggling all the way around the circuit.
“You’re skilled,” Kap declared. “I never heard that North Territory water sympathists were so strong.”
“For my tracking, I was required to be able to control water six feet or more underground. Sitting right in it is easy compared to that.”
“You can control it without touching it? Let’s see it.”
Axel said, “Go back into the room we were just in.”
Kap scooted back the way they had come. Peals of gruff laughter rang out. “That’s perfect!” He came scooting back. “You’re hired. That level of skill is worth more than mere physical therapy sessions. How long are you in town?”
“We’ll have you built back up within those three months. Who knows, maybe you’ll decide to stay.”
Maccani said, “Be careful with Granddad, Axel Taivas, when he says things like that. He means to get you to stay on, no maybe about it.”
Kap grinned. “Don’t suppose I forgot about you, my boy. I went to great pains to get your father introduced to a nice girl from a family background strong in human body sympathy. I wanted grandchildren with human body sympathy to work for me, and I drew the lucky straw first time out with you.”
Maccani smiled. He stretched his arms over his head as if utterly carefree. “I’m no good to you untrained, though, so you have to be patient.”
“You’re up to some mischief,” his grandfather complained, “I don’t doubt it.”
“If I am,” Maccani replied easily, “it just goes to prove I’m your grandson, you schemer.”
“Cheeky brat,” Kap muttered, but not in any real displeasure.
Axel laughed softly. He spent another quarter of an hour in the circulating pool with them. Then, when he and Soren had gotten out, dried off, and dressed, Kap brought them through into the living quarters behind the spa. And there Axel was introduced to Kap’s “missus,” Naznie, a hearty woman in her late sixties whose first action after the introduction was to present Axel and Soren with cold milk and warm cookies. “You worked hard,” she told Axel, “even though you were a guest.” The look she shot at Kap was pointed and reproachful. “I could sense all that water moving all the way from here. My soul, but you’re skinny! Have another cookie.”
Axel escaped answering by eating another cookie. He had seen Maccani give a slight shake of his head just as he had been about to say he had only been playing around in the water.
Several women, covering a wide range of ages, were bustling back and forth around them. Seeing Axel’s interest, Kap said, “We’re coming up to our busy hours soon. The women’s baths open at half past five, so my daughters and granddaughters are readying everything to welcome the early regulars. Men’s baths are open from noon to four and eight to ten. That’s when I can get the help. I’ll put you on the noon shift, and then from four to five we’ll work on your physical condition. Sound good to you?”
“It does.” Axel shook hands on the agreement.
“Now Maccani’ll see you back to the base in time for supper.”
“Make sure you eat plenty,” said Naznie.
“I told him that already, Ma,” Kap retorted.
They left the old couple slinging retorts back and forth with relish. Maccani said, when he had brought the other two a reasonable distance from the family business, “Never contradict Grandmom. It’ll never end. When she wants to coddle you, you’re going to be coddled, no way out of it.”
They took the city trolley car back to the base. Maccani left them at the door of their cottage. Soren was stumbling with drowsiness, and there was still more than half an hour before dinner, so Axel helped the boy climb up to the upper bunk for a nap. Then he lowered himself onto the other bunk, folded his hands behind his head, and spent the following half-hour in thought.
Sanna knocked and entered. Seeing her uncle lying down, she said, “Are you feeling ill?”
“Just the opposite,” Axel assured her. He told her in a few words the events of the afternoon.
After listening attentively, Sanna said, “I owe Moor my thanks. They sound like estimable people. How do you feel after using your sympathy for such a long time?”
“Relieved,” Axel said.
Sanna smiled. “Good. I’m glad. You’ll start feeling better and better at this rate.”
“And start making some income. You need to be able to use your pay for your own needs, not for supporting your old uncle.”
“I needed to support my family,” she said with a hint of sass. Her eyes gleamed with humor.
Soren sat upright on his bunk. “Sanna!” He toppled over the edge of the bunk into her uplifted arms. “The baths were fun!”
“I’m glad,” she said as she snuggled the little boy in her arms. “Let’s go to dinner together.”