“Everyone ready?” 

Lieutenant Ietta Knox was ready for the question. “Ready, sir.” She handed him her clipboard to review.

“I’m always ready,” said Rusza from the near end of the front row.

Without raising his eyes from the clipboard, Uncle Everard said, “Private Taivas?”

The ensuing slap resounded across the parade ground. Rusza bent forward under the force of Sanna Taivas’ palm against the back of his head. He would have muttered something under his breath, something only his stern neighbor could hear, if it weren’t for the personnel carrier that rolled through the gateway at just that moment. He straightened his back and shoulders. As the carrier rolled to a halt in front of the assembly, Rusza squinted through the windows, but it turned out that he need not have put himself to that much effort. When the door opened, the first person out was his cousin August Yeardley. Rusza grinned.

Uncle Everard walked forward to greet the captain. “Aug, good to see you.”

“Sir.” Aug saluted. 

“Good trip?”

“Fine. We stopped over a day in the capital. Mother Locke sent this with me.” He handed over a small paper-wrapped box. “Edmund and Jude are here already, aren’t they?”

Uncle Everard nodded. “They arrived two hours ago. Come and meet my current group of students.” Against the backdrop of Company G members unloading the carrier, he escorted the captain to the far end of the line. “Elfric Tarbengar of West Territory. Sora Waeber of the capital’s Earth District. Anion Cooper of the capital’s Lightning District. Gretta Warhite of the capital’s Metal District. Maccani Moor of the capital’s Magma District.”

Aug followed along, responding briefly to each introduction, until they reached Lily Allen. Then he said, “You’ve got one of the Allen girls!”

“Are you acquainted?” asked Uncle Everard.

“Not with this one.” Aug grinned at the girl. “But I can always recognize an Allen girl from a long way off. Which one are you, Allen?”

“I’m Lillias. My friends call me Lily, sir.” Her excitement slipped its leash. “Where’s Beni, sir?”

Aug laughed aloud. “Beni is around somewhere, Lillias Allen.” 

Uncle Everard added, “I know you’ve met Private Sanna Taivas already.”

“Private Taivas!” Aug’s grin broadened, and suddenly he scampered back to the bus. “Emmett! Emmett, come here! Remember I told you about that girl? She’s here! Come and meet her!” He hurried back. “Private Taivas, what a surprise! So you joined Father’s newest bunch! I’m so pleased. Emmett, this is her.”

The man to whom he spoke was an alarming figure, his most notable feature being the fact that he was missing one arm and even most of the shoulder. His torso simply sloped down from a shortened collarbone to his waist on the left side. He was a man of at least sixty, with a rugged face and glaring dark eyes. He planted himself in front of Uncle Everard. “This your newest group, Everard? The boys have told me about this one. Introduce me.”

“Yes, sir. This is Private Sanna Taivas, originally of Sky-wind village in North Territory, now of the capital’s Ice District. Private Taivas, this is Drill Sergeant Emmett Brook, one of my early mentors.”

“Sir.” Sanna Taivas bowed slightly.

“Don’t shake hands, eh? I’ve heard plenty about you, Private. These boys came back from the capital last month all wound up like two children after a field trip because of you.”

“I can believe it of Aug,” said Uncle Everard, “but Edmund?”

“Edmund was the worse of the two, in his own way. He kept going on and on about this girl he had met, until half the young ladies in Current-town were jealous, even though he only talked of maybe being able to recruit her to Company G. Ever thought of moving to South, Private?”

Sanna Taivas looked thoroughly flustered for once. “I hadn’t given it much thought, sir.”

“You come to visit us,” said the old man. “We’ll make you welcome. You’d be a novelty at any rate, since cold affinity is unheard-of in our territory.”

Rusza could take no more. “If Sanna Taivas visits you, then maybe I’ll have to come too.”

Aug’s eyes went round. “Rusza Tate? Well, confound it, you were standing so still, I didn’t recognize you! Have you gotten taller? You have, you’ve gotten taller!” He gave Rusza a quick, hearty hug. “Father Locke has his hands full with this bunch, that’s for sure.”

“Is this the broad-spectrum cousin?” asked the old man.

“This is him: Nirva’s son— or one of them, anyway— Rusza Tate.”

“Too bad I didn’t get Louisa to come with me,” the old man muttered, “she’d be over the moon. Two unique sympathies! Well, we’ll get both of you to visit, and she’ll meet you then. She’s a sympathy researcher, my niece Louisa.”

“We have just enough time to get all of you settled in before supper,” said Uncle Everard, “and we can talk more then. These students are at your disposal for carrying luggage.”

Rusza was one of the group elected to carry crates of equipment from the company’s freight truck to a storage shed near the largest training field. He made eye contact with one of the younger members of the company. “What’s in these?”

“Gear for the training simulations,” he said. “So you’re one of Captain Aug’s capital cousins. I’m Murdoch Hilston, and that one there’s my cousin Falgrim.”

Rusza nodded at the cousin, who looked enough like Murdoch to be a brother instead. “Pleased to meet you both.”

“You know that girl, that Taivas?”

“I do indeed,” said Rusza, “she beats me up on a regular basis.”

“She really as amazing as they say?”

“I’d have to hear what they say, but I think she’s more than a little amazing. And she makes good popsicles.” While they carried crates, Rusza told the pair of cousins stories of what Sanna Taivas had done to him.

At supper, Company G hijacked Sanna Taivas to sit at their table. Aug’s friend, Captain Haigh, sat at the end of that table with a small but noticeable margin between him and the next person. Sanna Taivas was across from him, with a female lieutenant next to her. As usual, Sanna Taivas was doing more listening than talking. She listened intently to Haigh and his lieutenant as they talked about their squad’s regular duties.

“Rusza. Rusza Tate.” A hand waved in front of Rusza’s eyes. Lily was looking at him with curiosity and a little humor in her dark eyes. “You aren’t eating. You’ll be hungry during evening exercises if you don’t eat up.”

Rusza grinned. “That would be bad.” He took up the spoon he had let slip between his fingers during his moment of inattention. The handle had fallen into his creamed spinach, so he licked the spoon clean and then set about clearing his plate. His ears were still attentive to the conversation at the other table, especially when Aug moved down from the other end of the table and started introducing his squad members to Sanna Taivas. 

The students gathered after supper. Rusza looked around him. “Un— Father Locke,” he said, “Sanna Taivas is late.”

“She won’t be joining us tonight. She has an appointment.”

Lily passed by him, again giving him that look of mixed curiosity and amusement. In Sanna Taivas’ absence, Lily and Gretta had to pair up for the exercises. Rusza got paired with Moor, who also kept looking at him as if something were funny.

The after-supper exercises focused on balance and flexibility, which was why Rusza was allowed to participate with the rest of the group. He stretched as far as he could, trying to follow Doc Rao’s advice and let the mechanical energy in his body transfer to things outside himself. Moor remarked on it once, while pushing down on Rusza’s shoulders: “Why am I getting fidgety? What are you doing?”

“Transferring mechanical energy,” Rusza grunted. At that point, his face was nearly to the ground between his knees. “Trying to transfer mechanical energy, at least.”

“Stop transferring it to me,” Moor complained, “it feels weird.”

“I was trying to transfer it to the ground, or at least the grass, but mechanical energy always seems to go toward what’s already moving…”

Several feet away, Lily had folded herself in half and gripped her feet with her hands. Gretta said, “Are you seriously made of nothing but cartilage?” Several feet to the other side, Cooper was devoting all his effort to pushing against Tarbengar’s broad back, but nothing would bend the big westerner farther forward than a ninety-degree angle.

“Switch,” said Uncle Everard. 

They traded places, and Rusza braced his hands on Moor’s shoulders. Moor bent slowly forward, stretching his long arms parallel to his long legs until he could hook his fingers around his feet. Rusza pushed lightly.

“Nope,” said Moor’s muffled voice, “that’s as far as I go.”

A pop and a strangled shriek brought everyone around to look at the Cooper-Tarbengar team. Cooper had his legs splayed out, and his upper body was parallel to the ground,  but not by its own volition. Tarbengar held his hand away. “Sorry,” he exclaimed, “I wasn’t thinking.”

Moor rolled to his side, got his knees under himself, and crawled over to the pair just as Uncle Everard reached them. “It’s his hip,” Moor said. “Something gave way. Did you hear it?”

I heard it.” Cooper spoke through gritted teeth. “Do muscles break like bones do?”

“No. They break differently,” Moor retorted.

“Let’s take him to the spa,” said Uncle Everard. “They’ll know exactly what’s wrong with him. Can you straighten up at all?”

Cooper, although in pain, gamely attempted to push himself upright. He stopped at a forty-five degree angle. “I can’t,” he panted. Sweat stood in beads on his forehead, and his skin was ashen.

“Jock, chair lift.” Uncle Everard and Lieutenant Jock took up positions to either side of Cooper, bent, and lifted the young man between them as if he were seated on a chair. “Ietta, carry on in my place.” Then the trio walked off toward the army spa building.

“You heard Father,” said Lieutenant Ietta. “Balance work next.”

They completed the entire regimen, and still Uncle Everard hadn’t returned yet, so Lieutenant Ietta gave them free time and went to see what was going on. Rusza found himself strolling with Lily. “You aren’t yourself tonight,” she said with the same look at him as before. “Even with human soul sympathy, I can’t tell if you’re jealous because someone took away your nanny, or if you’re jealous because they didn’t take you.”

“Nanny? Jealous?” Rusza laughed. “I just don’t feel right anymore without somebody helping me remember to speak rightly, that’s all. I’ve got used to having a… an extra control on my tongue. Who knows what I might say without thinking about it, and I wouldn’t notice.”

“Is that how it is? I think,” said Lily as she curled her hand around his forearm, “that sometimes you say those things because you want Sanna to hit you. I think you like it when she hits you.”

“Like it? You’ve never had her hit you, have you? She hits hard. She doesn’t go easy on me.”

“You just think about what I said, Rusza Tate, and just see if you don’t find that you like it just a little. You can’t hide things like that from a soul sympathist.” Lily giggled. “But it does seem like they’re going to snatch her away, doesn’t it? I understand, I do. She’s not like the rest of us. If she left today and went out to the front, she would do great. She’s strong. She’s tough-minded. She has a strong sympathy and knows how to use it, and she’s getting better and better at controlling it. Company G is one of the best in South Territory. It wouldn’t be so bad for me, since I’m from Current-town and I’d get to see her often once I went home.” Lily looked up at Rusza with compassionate eyes. “You’ve come to be good friends with her, so you’d miss her.”

“If this is being friends,” said Rusza, laughing, but he didn’t finish. “I’ll do what you say, Lily. I’ll think about what you said. The way you say it, it makes some sense, and that’s more than I can say for anything that’s gone through my head today. Ah, I ought to marry you.”

Lily laughed. “You ought to,” she teased. “But you won’t. Let’s go see how Anion is doing.”

“Who?”

“Anion Cooper. Remember— the boy who got hurt?”

“I remember him, I just forgot that was his first name. I only ever call him Cooper. Or Kumquat.” Rusza walked her toward the spa building. They met Uncle Everard and his lieutenants returning from there. “How’s Cooper?” asked Rusza.

“He’s being treated,” said Uncle Everard.

“What happened?” Lily asked.

Uncle Everard was as expressionless as always, but Lieutenant Ietta covered a smile with her hand and even Lieutenant Jock looked like he wanted to laugh. “Adductor strain.”

“Add— what?” she asked.

“He strained a groin muscle,” said Lieutenant Jock. “Strained it severely.”

“He has to wear compression shorts.” Lieutenant Ietta was definitely giggling. “I shouldn’t laugh, it isn’t funny, but he’s such a funny kid, making jokes to the staff that were treating him and saying didn’t they have a pair in red since it was his favorite color. At least he’s in good spirits.”

“Somebody should talk to Elfric,” said Lily. “He feels really bad about hurting Anion.”

Uncle Everard nodded to her. “I’m on my way to seek him out now. Thank you for taking note, Trainee Allen.” He looked hard at Rusza. “And you, Rusza Tate, have no business walking out with a girl unchaperoned. Go to the dorm. The Lieutenants Knox will see Lily back to her dorm.”

“Yes, sir.” Rusza obeyed, turning his steps toward the men’s dorm but always looking around him for people he knew. He arrived without seeing anyone familiar beyond the faces of Leeward base staff he had grown accustomed to seeing. In the rec room of the men’s dorm, he found Moor lounging with a local newspaper. Rusza greeted him.

Moor looked at him with laughing eyes. “You always look so forlorn when you’ve been separated from the girls. Let me guess: did somebody catch you walking out with Lily Allen and take her away from you?”

Rusza shrugged. “We went to see how Cooper is doing.”

“Well?”

“Groin muscle.”

Moor winced. “Not nice, that. He’ll be moving slow for a while. Sit, I’ll talk to you for a while.” He made room on the bench beside him.

Sitting, Rusza glanced at the newspaper. “Any interesting news?”

“Just the usual. It was more interesting news to me that we’ve been harboring a celebrity in our midst. Did you know that Taivas was so sought-after?”

Rusza shook his head.

“They’re saying she was instrumental in helping settle the insurrection attempt in her district, and she helped get rid of the contamination in Metal District.”

“Oh.” Then the memory came. “Right. That was her, I guess.” Noticing Moor’s askance look, Rusza explained, “I was there that day, following at Un— Father Locke’s heels. I hadn’t met her yet then, so it didn’t connect for me until just now. That was her with Aug and Captain Haigh. I didn’t meet her, not really, until a while after, when we went to supper with her family.”

Moor gave him another amused look. “You know, if you’re just talking casually with me, you can call him ‘Uncle Everard’ if you want.”

But Rusza shook his head again. “I have to get into the habit, or I’ll forget all the time. I already have trouble getting people to take me seriously.”

“That’s because you don’t behave seriously. But that’s probably just your personality. Are you capable of being serious?”

“I am,” Rusza protested.

They went on like that for a while, chaffing each other, when Moor suddenly said, “Do you ever sit down to talk with Axel Taivas?”

Rusza’s eyes widened. “I’ve talked with him a couple times. Why?”

“Just wondered. He’s working at my family’s bathhouse these days. He has been through a lot, and listening to him helps me make better sense of his niece. They’ve been through some harsh times, both of them. I can’t help wondering how I would fare if I lost all but one or two of my family to the Decay. It’s a different world, out there on the frontiers. Northeast Territory hardly counts. They see very little conflict here. That’s why the South Territory sends their companies here: training experience in exchange for therapeutic rest. I can’t wait until tomorrow.”

“It has to be interesting, at least,” Rusza agreed.

Mica Locke entered. As usual, he acknowledged the other two with his eyes but made no effort to address them or intrude upon their conversation.

Moor was not so restrained. “You’ve lost him again.”

Mica looked backward, exclaimed in exasperation, and went back the way he had come. In another few minutes, he appeared again, steering Waeber by the shoulders. “You can look at the stars through your window,” he was saying, “but you need to sleep. You know you have orders to go to bed and sleep at a reasonable hour tonight.”

“Another mother’s-help,” Moor observed, half to himself. “We have so many problem children in our group.” He shot Rusza that same amused glance.

“Yes, yes,” said Rusza. “I’m a problem child. Since my assigned mother’s-help is off-duty tonight, I’ll just go to my room and practice my exercises.” And he took himself off to do so.

The next morning, he woke at 0400 as had become his practice. Because he was required to begin the morning exercise regimen half an hour earlier than the rest, he got up and dressed and went outside without seeing anyone. In the training field where the group usually met, however, he found considerable activity happening. Leeward base staff were setting up some sort of giant airbag at the far end of the field. “What’s all this?” he asked Uncle Everard, who was waiting for him at the near end.

“Preparations for one of the training simulations,” said Uncle Everard. “We’ll use a different field today.” He walked Rusza to a training field at the far end of the base, where an open-sided tent had already been erected. It was the tent that Uncle Everard and his staff used in the field, and the four permanent staff members were all present.

Rusza said, “Morning, Doc. Morning, Sergeant Major. Morning, Lieutenant Ietta. Morning, Lieutenant Jock.”

Each paused in his or her duties to nod or smile at him. Ietta asked, “Are you looking forward to the simulations today?”

“Yeah, I am. What are they simulating?”

“We’ll cover that later today,” said Uncle Everard. “You’d better get started. Five laps, and you aren’t allowed to use your sympathy to bolster your strength this time. Doc?”

Dr. Rao approached and laid a hand on the back of Rusza’s neck. After nearly a minute, she said, “That should do it.”

Rusza did his running as commanded. The five laps left him panting and thirsty, but before he was allowed a drink of water, he had to complete his focusing exercises and prove that his energy levels were still within acceptable limits. He saw the rest of his group approaching from the dorms. Taivas was not among them. Before they reached the tent, however, another group approached from the other side. It was Company G, and Taivas was with them, chatting with unusual animation to Captain Haigh. Rusza set aside his water bottle. Lieutenant Ietta was nearby, so he struck up a conversation with her, ignoring both of the approaching groups.

It was just after Lieutenant Ietta said something that made him laugh that Rusza found himself gripped by the back of the neck and propelled out of the tent for several rapid strides. A foot tripped him, and he wasn’t able to catch himself from falling face-first in the grass because someone had him by the wrist in an arm lock. “Sanna Taivas,” he groaned.

“Lieutenant Knox, may I speak to Rusza Tate privately?” said the voice above him.

“Sure,” Ietta laughed. “He’s all yours.”

A shadow fell over Rusza’s face. In a hard, hushed voice, Sanna Taivas said, “I know that you don’t pay much attention to what goes on around you, but at the very least, can you limit your flirtations to unmarried women?”

Rusza had to splutter a bit to clear the grass from his mouth. “What are you talking about?”

“Lieutenant Ietta Knox is a married woman. Your flirtations with her are making her husband very, very angry.”

“Flir— Can you let me up? I can’t talk with grass in my mouth.” Rusza felt her grip release his arm. He rolled onto his back to find her on one knee next to him, glaring at him. “I wasn’t flirting. I was just talking.”

“With you,” she said, “there seems to be very little difference between the two. You’re behaving in an overly familiar way. Can you not put yourself into Lieutenant Jock’s place? What if you were married, and another man was talking and laughing with your wife as you do with his? Standing close, leaning in as you do? Would it not trouble you?”

Rusza stared at her in silence for a few moments. “I didn’t realize.”

“No, you didn’t. But you can do harm without realizing. You need to apologize to him. Not now, not with so many people around, but soon.”

Rusza nodded. “I will.”

She offered him her hand to help him stand. “Be more aware. You aren’t a child anymore.”

They rejoined their student group. Moor was looking at him in amusement again. “Feel better now?”

“No,” Rusza retorted.

They went through their morning routine, but Rusza spoke less than usual. He went to breakfast in that same thoughtful silence, hardly taking note of anyone. During the free hour after breakfast, he wandered around the base in search of Lieutenant Jock. He found him eventually in the command tent, alone, sorting documents. “Lieutenant Jock,” he started, “may I interrupt?”

Lieutenant Jock looked up from his work with expressionless eyes. “You already have, so go ahead.”

Rusza bowed at a sharp angle. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you angry.” When he straightened, he caught a look of surprise as it came and went from the lieutenant’s stern face. “I’m not flirting with your wife, honestly, I’m not. I just think of her like an older sister. I always wanted an older sister,” he admitted. “Too many brothers, and none of them in a hurry to get married. There’s Linnie, who’s like a little sister, but no older sisters. That’s all, honestly.”

He waited for Lieutenant Jock to say something, but the older man was in no hurry. “I accept your apology,” the man said eventually. “I believe you. Was it Private Taivas who put you up to it?”

Rusza nodded. “She made me see what it looked like to you, and I’ve felt awful about it ever since.” He sat down at the work table, seeing that the older man no longer seemed as unwelcoming as before. “Can I help with any of this?”

Lieutenant Jock gave him a stack of papers. “Sort these into date order and clip them together.”

They worked side by side for a while before Rusza said, “How was it you met Mrs. Jock in the first place?”

Lieutenant Jock’s eyes narrowed at the appellation, but it looked more like humor rather than disapproval. “‘Mrs. Jock’ was a student, much like yourself, back when I was still just a corporal on Father’s staff. We had nothing in common, but we got along well in spite of that. When the time came for her training to end, she put in a request to stay on staff, and Father approved the request. We’ve been together ever since.”

“That’s nice,” said Rusza, unable to prevent a note of envy from entering his words.

It wasn’t long before Uncle Everard and Mica joined them there. Uncle Everard looked at Rusza and then at Lieutenant Jock. He actually smiled a little. “Are you making yourself useful, Rusza? It’s good to see that you can be serious sometimes.”

“He’s been asking me,” said Lieutenant Jock, “how I met Ietta. You should tell him your story.”

“About how I met Cora? Are you interested, Rusza?” At Rusza’s nod, Uncle Everard said, “She was a trainee, and I a young sergeant in the capital training corps. I might not have noticed her at all, but she signed up for all of my close-quarters combat classes. It didn’t suit her, but she was so diligent anyway that I couldn’t help noticing how hard she worked. From time to time, she would stay after class— to ask for clarification, ostensibly, but in hindsight I suspect she had other reasons. She would never admit it, though.” 

“And you fell in love with her?” asked Rusza.

“Fell in love? No,” Uncle Everard said, “I was still fairly oblivious at that point. It wasn’t until I received orders to transfer to the East Territory training corps that anything came of our connection. When Cora found out, she came to class as usual and stayed after, as she so often did. I was supposedly helping her work on her form for the final assessment. She was the one who brought up my transfer; I had no idea she knew anything about it. When I confirmed what she knew, she asked if she could transfer with me. I answered that that wasn’t how army assignments worked, that the only way one person could be transferred with another was in the case of a married couple. She simply looked at me for a long time and didn’t say anything. I caught on to her line of thought then and asked her if she wanted to marry me. She said, ‘Of course I do,’ and asked me when I could meet with her parents. And that was how we came together.”

Rusza grinned. “That does sound just like Aunt Coralie.”

“She told me afterwards that she took all my classes, not just to spend time with me, but to do her best not to be left behind. She knew that my ambition was to travel to the different territories and learn from the best at each, so she knew the day would come when I would leave the capital. She wanted to support my ambitions, and so she has done ever since. I have wondered,” Uncle Everard mused, “whether she would have found her own ambition, had she not met me, but she says no. She found her ambition when she met me, she says.” His gaze sharpened from reminiscence to attention and landed square on Rusza for a few seconds. “I wonder if you have found any ambition yet.”

“Ambition?”

“And a desire to monopolize female attention is not the sort of ambition I mean,” Uncle Everard warned. “What do you intend to do with your life, Rusza? Think well before you answer me. I want to hear your true thoughts, not your impulses.”

Rusza repeated, “Ambition,” as if it were a strange word.

“You came to me because your father was worried about you. We’re addressing those worries, but when we have done so, what then? Will you go back and work on the farm with your family? Will you find a job in the energy sector? Will you join the army and go to the front lines? What do you intend to do with your life?” Uncle Everard let the series of questions stand in silence.

And the questions held Rusza captive for a long time. He left the documents that were his to sort lying on the table in front of him and stared blankly across the training field. After a few minutes, he spoke aloud to himself: “Don’t want to get left behind…” Another minute or two passed before he started looking at the papers he was supposed to be sorting. He began working again. “All done,” he said, handing the clipped stack to Lieutenant Jock. 

The lieutenant flipped through the stack. “Looks right. Here’s another.” 

“Are these all requests?” asked Rusza.

“The last ones were training requests,” said Lieutenant Jock. “These are disciplinary reports. Sort them by date again, but watch for the ones with the red circle around the date. Those are up for review. They need to be pulled and set aside in their own stack.”

“And these are just for the last week? How many do you get in a month?”

“Enough to keep me busy,” Uncle Everard replied. “Why do you think all of you have so many free hours during the day? I have other work to do besides training you. Even with Jock and Mica to help, it takes hours every day.”

“Maybe I can help?” said Rusza.

“That sounds anything but confident. Do you want to help?”

“If I can,” Rusza answered.

“Then I won’t turn you away. You’re bright enough. You just need to learn confidentiality. Much of the documentation deals with people’s private matters, and I won’t have any of it discussed with anyone. Not with any of your girl friends, not with your family, not with anyone. Can you do that?”

“I can.”

“If you break confidentiality, I have the authority to inflict on you whatever discipline I consider fitting. Keep that in mind.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, Jock, you’ve got another flunky. Use him wisely.”

“Hurrah! I’m a flunky!” Rusza laughed.

They passed a quiet hour with the paperwork. From time to time, Rusza stopped working to go through his exercises. At the end of the hour, Uncle Everard slapped Rusza’s back. “Good work. Let’s check you in with Dr. Rao before we hit the spa.”

They rejoined the group at the army spa for individualized training, and Dr. Rao passed Rusza to participate fully. “You’re doing an excellent job controlling your energies today,” she praised him.

“Did you hear that, Sanna Taivas? I’m doing an excellent job,” said Rusza. 

The northern girl regarded him gravely. Then she reached up and patted his head. “I’m glad to hear it. Keep it up.”

Moor snorted with laughter.

Even Sergeant Domville remarked, “You’re in a really good mood today. Things going well?”

“Really well,” Rusza laughed.

“I hear that you and your group are participating in the training sims this afternoon.”

“Just as observers,” said Rusza.

“Observers aren’t passive,” his therapist countered. “They report to the soldiers on the ground constantly, things they can’t see from their perspective, things they might not notice in the thick of it all. It’s honestly stressful, acting as an observer for combat. We get no end of patients here with trauma-induced disorders from spending too long as an observer. It’s the helplessness. You end up seeing some really horrific things, and you’re too far away to do anything to stop them from happening.”

Rusza was quiet for a while after that. His next comment came out of nowhere during the seated handstand. “What kind of treatment do you give to those observers?”

“They get to see our trauma counselor, Dr. Zuma, among other things. That’s Dr. Zuma, over there.” With his hands occupied,  Sergeant Domville nodded toward the area where Sanna Taivas was jumping rope. “The lady in the shawl.”

Rusza asked, “Why is she with Sanna Taivas?”

“You’ll have to ask your friend about that.”

Sergeant Domville sounded just evasive enough that Rusza followed his casual advice to the letter after the individualized training. The students were to head straight to the mess hall from the spa, so Rusza made sure he got through the baths quickly and was waiting in the entryway to intercept Sanna Taivas.

Tarbengar was out first. He seemed lost in his thoughts, and Rusza’s greeting went unnoticed. Rusza let him go. When the door opened next, it released Gretta Warhite, walking backwards. After her, Cooper emerged on crutches.

“Cooper! I didn’t know you were up and about already.”

“Barely,” Cooper replied. “But I’m getting the knack of these crutches.”

“Doors are still too much for him,” said Lily as she followed Cooper out of the spa, “so we’re helping out for now. Come with us to the mess.”

“I’ll be there in a bit,” Rusza said. “Where’s Sanna Taivas? I need to ask her something.”

“Her? She was still in the relaxation baths, last time I noticed,” said Gretta. “She takes forever in the hot bath.”

“You surprise me,” Rusza admitted. “I assumed she would be as brisk with the baths as she is with everything else. I guess I just have to wait until she’s out.”

“It shouldn’t be too long,” Lily assured him. Then, “Come along, Anion, we’ll get you to the mess and carry the tray through the line for you.”

Cooper grinned at Rusza. “Look at how attentive they are.”

“Enjoy yourself, Kumquat,” Rusza called after them. He fidgeted until he remembered that he wasn’t to move any more than he had to, and stopped. He stood to attention and held the posture so long that Moor, Waeber, and Mica Locke passed by him without noticing.

At last, the door opened to release Sanna Taivas. She too seemed about to pass by Rusza without noticing, but as she passed she said, “How long do you mean to stand there like a post?”

“I was waiting for you,” Rusza told her as he fell into step beside her. “Are you all right?”

She gave him a surprised sideways look. “I am. Why do you ask so suddenly?”

“Um,” Rusza began, “you were talking to a trauma counselor.”

“Dr. Zuma? Yes, I meet with her every day.”

“Is it because of what happened at home?” asked Rusza. “That time you helped get rid of the source in the Glazmeres’ basement?”

Sanna shook her head. “We have talked about that, but that wasn’t the reason Father Locke arranged for me to meet with Dr. Zuma. All things considered, that incident wasn’t so bad. No, it’s because of what happened to my village. I saw too much, and it’s hard to get beyond that.”

Rusza faltered at that. He strolled alongside her in silence until they reached the mess hall. There, Axel and Soren were waiting for her on the bench. 

Soren ran to leap into Sanna’s arms for a hug. “Sanna!”

Rusza offered his hand as leverage to help Axel stand. “You’re looking well, Mr. Taivas,” he remarked. “Leeward is doing you some good, it looks like.”

“Considerable good,” Axel agreed. “Let’s get our food. I could eat enough for three men, I feel.”

“You aren’t going to the bathhouse today?” Sanna asked. 

“I have today off. Kap said I might like to watch the training simulations.”

“Kap Moor said that?” Sanna used her skeptical voice.

“He did,” Axel protested.

“Did Dr. Zuma have anything to do with putting the idea in his head,” she pressed, “or in yours?”

“Not at all,” Axel said with wounded dignity. “Putting ideas in my head! What sort of thing is that to say to your elders?” He paused and then said, “Anyway, it was Father Locke who put the idea in my head. Why have you never told me that you went back that night? You and Elder Friga! I’ll have a talk with her as well when I see her next. She should have tied you to a tree rather than let you go back and see that. Come here.” He stretched out his free arm.

Sanna stepped forward to lean into her uncle’s hug, with Soren still in her arms. “Don’t blame Nana Friga,” her muffled voice said. “She was still explaining to the medics about you and propping Fiola up. She told me not to go, but I disobeyed.”

“Oh, little Sanna,” was all Axel said.

Rusza, forgotten by the others, stepped forward and stretched his arms around all three of them.

Axel laughed. “Did you feel left out, Rusza Tate?”

“I really like your family,” Rusza said frankly, “and I wish there was something I could do to help.”Axel laughed again. “You are like your dad.”

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