At dawn on the first full day in residence at the Leeward army base, Father Locke called roll for his students. Everyone answered except Sora Waeber. Everyone glanced around, only to find the young human soul sympathist lying asleep on the ground. Elfric Tarbengar’s bear cub was snuffling around his head with an exploratory air.
“Is there any chance,” said Rusza Tate, “that it might try and eat him?”
Elfric Tarbengar took no offense. “He won’t try and eat him. A pig would. Bears, no, not unless they’re starved.”
“Moor,” Father Locke commanded, “get him on his feet.” He waited only until the drowsy student was upright before saying sharply, “Waeber, no sleeping during roll call. Didn’t you sleep?”
Sora Waeber yawned prodigiously and mumbled something inaudible.
“Speak clearly, Waeber.”
“A little, sir, but I was up thinking until late.” When asked, Sora Waeber could give no exact time for “until late,” nor any clear account of what thoughts had been so engaging.
“Take an extra lap as your consequence. The rest of you, four laps around the base. Moor, Warhite, set the pace for the first lap. Tate, you know what’s expected of you.”
Rusza Tate said, “Yes, sir,” and separated himself from the group to focus on the exercises that were intended to help him gain control over his mechanical energy.
Sanna ended up in line behind Lily Allen and in front of Elfric Tarbengar. Ahead of Lily, Mica Locke struggled to keep pace after the first lap. Lily slowed down a little to accommodate him. Almost immediately, Father Locke’s voice rang out from the back of the line: “Keep pace, Allen. Don’t pity him.” Father Locke was as observant as always.
After the morning exercises, the group of students washed at the outdoor trough sink on their way to the mess hall. Sanna saw her uncle and Soren waiting at the door. “How are you this morning?” Uncle Axel said through the hubbub of voices in the mess hall.
Sanna hefted Soren’s weight into a more secure position on her back. “Very well. And you?”
“A little sore from all that activity yesterday,” Axel replied, “but even that feels good. I do wonder what they’re going to have me do this morning at my appointment.”
“What time is your appointment?”
They got in line to collect their food. Soren seemed proud to go through the line with his own tray like all the adults, and Axel ended up with nearly twice the serving anyone else got. “Do I,” he said, “give people a powerful urge to feed me, like a puppy or a baby goat?”
“So it seems,” Sanna noted as she looked at his tray.
Father Locke overheard from nearby. “It might have something to do with your body type. Even at your healthiest, you’ve probably never really put on weight, have you? You have that shape. After an extended illness, you look on the brink of starvation. Any cook is likely to want to feed you. If you’ve fallen into the hands of Kap Moor, then Mrs. Kap Moor is certainly going to feed you.”
“How did you know about that?” asked Axel.
Father Locke merely smiled.
Toward the end of breakfast, a soldier approached Father Locke with a clipboard and a small stack of paperwork. Father Locke read each document quickly, signed some of them, made annotations on others, and then skimmed down the page on the clipboard with experienced eyes. “Private Taivas,” he began.
“The class that Soren is supposed to meet today doesn’t convene until 0930. That leaves your little cousin unattended during your uncle’s therapy appointment. I’m giving you a free hour, from 0800 until 0900, so you can watch him during the appointment.”
“Thank you, sir.”
So it happened that Sanna walked to the on-base therapeutic spa with her uncle and cousin. Axel had said, “You two could do whatever you like this hour, you know,” and Sanna had smiled a little and replied, “I know. I am.” She accompanied her uncle to the check-in desk, where he gave his name and answered a few basic health questions. Then the nurse at the check-in desk said, “Mr. Taivas, if you’d go through the door on the left and walk straight down to the end, that will take you to the preliminary exam room. I’ll see your family settled in the waiting room.”
“Thanks,” said Axel.
The nurse, a large young man with freckles and reddish hair, gestured for Sanna to walk alongside him. “Are you just recently arrived in Leeward?” was his polite opening of conversation.
“We arrived yesterday.”
“And what do you think of it so far?”
Sanna pondered that question for a few seconds. “The wind,” she began at length. “The wind makes it feel a little more like home. I’m originally from North, but I have been living in the capital for almost four years.”
“Nostalgic, then. Not everyone likes the wind here, but I find it refreshing.”
Sanna agreed with the friendly nurse. When he brought them to a second-floor waiting area that overlooked a wide training floor, Sanna thanked him and declined offers of tea or juice, a newspaper, or toys for Soren. She finally sank down in one of the upholstered chairs when the nurse returned the way he had come. Soren was already at the railing, looking down on the few patients and their therapists hard at work. “What do you think, my joy?” she asked him.
“Looks fun,” Soren said, fidgeting.
“Perhaps it does,” she allowed, “but for the people being treated here, it’s serious business. We can’t get in their way.”
It was enough for Sanna to watch the little boy run back and forth along the railing, gazing down in fascination at the various pieces of equipment and the exercises that the patients did. She smiled to see how quietly Soren moved, so as not to interrupt anyone below— until he called out, “There’s Uncle!” and waved vigorously.
Sanna came to the railing to join him. Below, her uncle looked up at them and waved back. He was accompanied by another hulking staff member, this one a dark-skinned, black-haired man in khaki pants and a standard-issue t-shirt. When Axel spoke softly to him, the therapist looked up and waved. Sanna saluted, seeing on the man’s shoulder a captain’s insignia. Then she retreated from the railing to her chair again. There she practiced the heat-generating exercises that Dr. Rao had assigned for whenever Sanna felt her own temperature drop.
While Sanna was thus engaged, a stranger arrived in the waiting area. She was in civilian clothes and wore a shawl of cream wool around her shoulders. “May I sit with you?” she asked Sanna. “I have an appointment here presently, and this is such a comfortable place to sit.”
“You are welcome,” Sanna replied.
“What are you waiting here for?” the woman asked.
Sanna explained about her uncle’s appointment in a few words.
“If it isn’t too rude of me to say so, that’s an unusual choice for a girl your age to make. Wouldn’t you enjoy walking around the base out in the fresh air more than sitting here, no matter how comfortable the chairs may be?”
Sanna thought about her response for several seconds before she gave it. “I just wanted to be close at hand, in case Uncle needed me.”
The woman didn’t pursue that line of thought but tried another. “How did he happen to lose his leg?”
“Our village was attacked by the Decay. He was escorting two children to safety when the Decay attacked him and started to dissolve his foot and lower leg.” Sanna stopped.
“It’s amazing that he got help in time.”
“It was,” Sanna answered slowly. “I had moved to the capital the previous year, in company with one of our retired elders. We were on our way back to the village for a visit. We weren’t supposed to arrive until the next morning, but I… I was too impatient to see my family, and I insisted on starting early, even though traveling in the dark in that area was dangerous. We saw firelight from a distance, too much for a bonfire or even a single house fire. We ran. We came upon them as Uncle was urging Fiola to take Soren and run.”
“Soren? Is that…?” The woman looked to the little boy.
Sanna nodded. “Yes. My cousin by marriage. His mother’s sister married my father’s brother. He was just two years when our village…”
“I see. What happened then?”
Sanna breathed a hard sigh. “It is not a pleasant story to hear,” she warned.
The woman pushed apart the edges of her shawl. One of her arms, thus revealed, proved to be a prosthesis. “I’m not a stranger to life’s ugliness.”
Sanna nodded and forced the next words out. “Nana Friga grabbed Fiola and Soren. The village was all afire, burning so bright that I saw the Decay eating at my uncle’s leg. The last time I had seen him, he was on crutches, with that foot bandaged because of something I had done, and now…” She exhaled again. A faint, cold fog streamed from between her lips. “I don’t remember clearly what happened after that, but Uncle was sobbing with the pain, and all of a sudden I had my camping axe in my hands, and the affected leg was… wasn’t attached to him anymore, but it was inching toward him on its own.”
“That must have been terrifying,” the woman said gently. “How old were you then?”
“I turned fifteen the winter after that.”
“You showed strong resolve, for a girl of not fifteen years.” The woman paused. “What about the rest of your family?”
“Uncle was the only survivor. That night, we ran as best we could, after Nana Friga and I bandaged Uncle. We met a specialist group heading up the mountain. The fire had alerted the next nearest village, and they had sent for help, but too late. I was… I was frantic to get back and see my parents and sisters, so I refused to stay behind when Nana Friga went back with some of the specialists. I think she must have known what we would find. She hasn’t ever said so, but that’s what I believe.”
The woman shook her head ever so slightly. “You saw the remains?”
Sanna nodded. “Yes. I needed to know… what had happened.” Before the other could ask, she explained, “The Decay, it can only survive in the far north by going underground. It had tunneled under and collapsed the ground beneath most of the village. Most people were trapped in a sort of pit with the Decay, and… and none of them had a sympathy that was able to fight the Decay.”
“It must have been an ugly sight.”
For some hidden reason, this brought a tiny smile to Sanna’s lips. “Yes, the… the remains were… I could barely stand to look after my first view of them. But there was something beautiful about it too. They had not lain down in despair. They had not left the wounded or the dead to be devoured. They fought however they could. They fought to the last.” A large tear slid down her cheek and froze on the curve of her cheekbone. “They did not let the Decay spread.”
“That,” said the woman, “is a fine eulogy. May it be said of us all.”
“Yes.” Sanna looked up from her musing as Soren suddenly scrambled onto her lap. “All is well, my joy. All is well.”
“What a sweet nickname to give a child. You must be very close.”
“Soren is my joy,” Sanna explained, hugging the boy, “because he is alive, when twice within his first two years he so nearly died. I rejoice in him.”
“You have had an eventful life,” the woman said to Soren. “How old are you now?”
Soren snuggled against Sanna’s bosom. “I am five.”
Sanna hugged him close one more time and then set him on his feet away from her. “I’m getting cold again,” she told him. “Sit next to me until I get my sympathy under control.”
He obeyed by hopping up onto the seat of the chair beside her. He perched right on the edge of the seat, swinging his feet side to side.
“Do you have trouble with sympathy control?” asked the woman.
“I always have,” Sanna replied.
“Active-principle thermal energy sympathy with an affinity for cold is uncommon. Does— Did it run in your family?”
“Quite the contrary. My whole village ran to air and water sympathies, with a rare human body sympathy now and then. They said there had never been a thermal energy sympathist born to the village since it was founded. My father once said that it was a good thing I looked so like him, or people might have asked awkward questions about my mother’s fidelity.”
The woman smiled. “It does happen sometimes, though— more often than you might think. Sometimes the Only One throws into our midst something unexpected, something we didn’t realize we needed. I’ve heard something about your village. It started as the outermost of outposts on the northern frontier. For decades after its founding, it was incessantly embattled, until a period of unusual weather set in. The winters grew bitterly cold, and even the summers were cooler than average.”
“I remember,” said Sanna. “That’s how it was when I was a child.”
“This drove the Decay underground and brought a period of relative peace to the area. Outsiders began trading more with the outpost and even in the territorial center. I’ve heard that a fair number of them chose to stay and become citizens during the peace. Instead of choosing to continue as nomads in the harsh outlands, they settled into the other villages around Cavern and strengthened them. But the peace only lasted less than ten years,” the woman said. “The winters suddenly started growing milder and the summers warmer, so the Decay started flourishing again. Do you know when this change started? About three years ago, after a certain girl with an active-principle thermal energy sympathy moved to the capital.”
Sanna gazed at the woman with speechless astonishment.
“I was curious to meet the girl whose sympathy was so strong that it affected whole weather systems. I haven’t introduced myself yet. Forgive my neglect. I’m Dr. Chinara Zuma. Father Locke asked me to meet with you sometimes while you’re here in Leeward.”
“That was your appointment,” Sanna said in realization.
“I have some experience dealing with thermal energy sympathists,” Dr. Zuma continued, “so I was selected as the most suitable to help you. It was a thermal energy sympathist who cost me my arm, in fact.”
Sanna’s expression altered slightly. “I’m sorry about that.”
“Burnt it to cinders,” said the doctor cheerfully, “when his sympathy went out of control.”
Sanna looked at her, aghast.
“We were childhood friends. We still are friends. You know, probably better than most, that only another thermal energy sympathist can counter one who has gone into cycle. I have human soul sympathy, so I was useless to help. But I don’t regret it, not in the least. Do you want to know why?” Dr. Zuma smiled. “Because he had a young family and was a valued member of my squad, and I wouldn’t let him self-destruct if there was anything, anything at all, that I could do to stop him. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I still have a struggle to stop him apologizing for hurting me, even though it has been more than fifteen years since it happened.”
Sanna nodded. “It is hard to get past the first sights after… after coming back to yourself and seeing… seeing the suffering and knowing you caused it. It’s even hard to hear people say not to apologize because you couldn’t help it. Because you know deep inside that you could have helped it somehow, if you had just done something differently.”
“That was why you left home?”
Sanna nodded again.
“We’ll talk a few times each week. If there’s anything you find too hard to talk about, then we’ll change the subject until you’re ready. If you feel like you need to talk more often than scheduled, we’ll talk more often. It doesn’t matter what we talk about, really. It just matters that everything you’ve got stockpiled away deep inside your soul gets a chance to see daylight. Does that sound right to you?”
“Yes. I think… it’s time.”
Dr. Zuma gave her a thorough study before saying, “I think we’ve covered enough today. My office is downstairs. Just ask at check-in if you want to see me outside of our appointments. For now, I leave you in the care of Dr. Rao.”
The other doctor stepped forward from around the corner. “I hope you won’t take offense that I overheard most of what you said. Dr. Zuma wanted me to be on hand, just in case.” She came to take the seat that Dr. Zuma vacated. Then she touched the back of one hand to Sanna’s forehead. “Your sympathy didn’t waver more than the one time. You’re doing well at getting it stabilized.” After a shrewd look, however, she added, “But you shouldn’t need to worry about that when you have so many different emotions to sort through, so Dr. Zuma wants me to suppress your sympathy as much as possible for the rest of the day.”
Sanna relaxed visibly under the doctor’s touch. “Thank you.”