Gretta Warhite stopped outside the cottage that had been pointed out to her. It was military-bland, except for a prolific border of ruby-red cosmos under the front window. Gretta knocked at the plain white front door.
“Enter,” a woman called from indoors.
Gretta complied. She opened the door and stepped into a cramped single room. Dr. Rao sat on the end of the sofa that faced the window. Behind a screen to the left, someone else rustled and clattered. “Gretta is here,” Dr. Rao announced.
A face emerged from behind the screen. “Make yourself comfortable, dear. I’m nearly done.” She vanished again.
Gretta seated herself opposite Dr. Rao. “Thank you for inviting me, Dr. Zuma,” she called to the woman behind the screen.
“My privilege, Gretta. It isn’t often I get to entertain such a varied group of ladies all at once. I believe we are each from different hometowns. I’m from East Territory, raised right in Beeches. Wyeth here is from Southeast Territory. You’re from the capital. Lily Allen is from Current-town in South Territory, Sanna Taivas from the farthest north of North Territory, and Ietta Knox was born and raised in Southwest Territory.”
“Was she,” said Gretta. “I didn’t know that.”
“That, dear, is my aim for this get-together. I want you to become better acquainted with each other. There has been entirely too much discord in this group, and we old ladies decided there was only one thing to do.”
“That being,” added Dr. Rao, “to cut out the men and spend some time talking, without any agenda or ranks or any of those things that separate us on a daily basis. You’re a little older than the other two, so we feel we can confide this in you frankly.”
Gretta gazed at the older woman in mild surprise. “Does Father Locke know?”
“And gave us his blessing for the afternoon,” said Dr. Zuma as she carried a tiered tray around the screen. She set the tray on the little coffee table in front of Gretta. “First to arrive, first to choose: what looks good to you?”
“It all does,” Gretta admitted. She pored over the tiny cakes, the sandwiches, the confections. In the end, she took a dainty cress and smoked salmon sandwich. “I’ve gotten completely addicted to the fish here,” she confessed. “It’s so much better than anything we can get in the capital.”
“I agree,” said Dr. Rao as she took one of the tuna salad sandwiches. “Northeast has unique seafood. Even in Southeast, it’s quite different. We specialize in shellfish and freshwater fish that live in the shallows. I like those, but there’s just something about this place and its fish…” She bit into her sandwich. “It doesn’t hurt at all that Chii is such a good cook.”
“Chii?” said Gretta.
“That’s an old nickname from my trainee days,” Dr. Zuma said. “An abbreviation of my first name, Chinara. Wyeth is practically the only person who uses it. Most people call me Chinara, except my mother, who has always called me Nara, unless she’s angry at me.”
Gretta smiled. “I know what you mean. My mom always calls me ‘Gretta-girl.’ If she just says Gretta, I know she’s mad at me.”
“Are you from a large family?” Dr. Rao asked.
“Not very big. My parents, me, my younger brother,” Gretta recounted. “Grandparents on both sides, still alive. A couple of aunts and uncles, three cousins. That’s all.”
“Do they mostly lean toward mineral sympathies?”
“Every one of us, yes. Solid, respectable mineral sympathists for as far back as I know. There’s nothing very spectacular or tragic about any of the Warhites or Piatras.”
“Then your family has been blessed,” Dr. Zuma replied. “You ought to be glad for that. I have seen so many who suffered traumatic loss that a solid, respectable, uneventful life seems to me an enviable and a beautiful thing. You need to cherish your family while you have them.”
Gretta cast an eye toward the shawl that covered Dr. Zuma’s prosthetic arm. “You’ve suffered your own loss, from the looks of things.”
“Indeed, I know a little about loss myself.”
“Was that from being on the front lines?”
“I never was assigned to the front, not as you imagine it. Few soul sympathists are, because we’re so vulnerable. This was gained— or lost, however you like to look at it— in trying to restrain an energy sympathist who had gone into cycle. I was part of a second-tier medical unit that treated squads just coming off the front lines. It was stressful work, and one of our junior doctors overloaded his stress levels. His sympathy spiked well over the limit of his conscious control. We brought him back to himself again, but several of us took grievous injuries doing so.”
“Does it happen so often?” A note of skepticism tinged Gretta’s voice.
“Actually, no,” said Dr. Rao. “It’s uncommon. People like me try to ensure it stays rare. In the capital, it’s nearly nonexistent. There isn’t the strain, either psychological or physiological, in the capital that there is in the outer reaches of most territories. You have a temperate climate and plenty of outlets for your energy sympathists to rely on for depletion. Also, for some odd reason that no one has yet been able to explain, sympathies in general seem to be more moderate in strength around the capital region.”
“And the people most likely to go into cycle gravitate toward the military as a suitable place to use their sympathy,” Dr. Zuma added. She cocked her head a little to the left. “Enter!” she called out.
The front door opened to admit Lieutenant Ietta Knox, Lily Allen, and Sanna Taivas in that order. As soon as Lily Allen saw Gretta, she stiffened, but Sanna Taivas behind her would not let her hang back.
Sanna said, “Thanks for the invitation, Dr. Zuma.”
“Today,” said the doctor, “I’m just Chinara. We’re shedding rank. Have a piece of cake.”
Ietta went straight for the most fragile confection. “Look at this! What a darling bit of sugar. It’s almost a shame to eat it.” But she popped it whole onto her tongue in the next instant. “That’s so good!”
They settled into the remaining seats. Sanna sat between the two doctors, and Ietta sat between Gretta and Lily. “Better eat something,” said Dr. Rao, “or Ietta will gobble down the whole plate.”
“I like good food,” Ietta protested.
“You’re a glutton,” teased Dr. Rao.
“I burn it all off just trying to keep up with Jock,” said the younger woman in complacent tones, “so it’s all right.”
“Lieutenant—” Sanna began, just to be cut off.
“No rank,” said Ietta. “Call me Ietta. Or, if that’s too much for your northern sensibilities, you can call me ‘Mrs. Jock,’ as Rusza Tate has taken to calling me.”
Both doctors laughed over that. “Mrs. Jock,” repeated Dr. Rao. “Where did he come up with that?”
“It’s your fault, Sanna, for telling him to be more aware of my status as a married woman,” said Ietta. “He has called me that ever since.”
“It’s a small matter, if it keeps the peace between you and Jock,” Dr. Rao said firmly, “so it’s for the best. You were going to ask a question, weren’t you, Sanna?”
Sanna smiled. Hesitantly, she began again. “Ietta, I’ve been wondering— what is your sympathy?”
“Human body,” Ietta replied promptly. “It isn’t very strong, though. Mostly passive principle. That’s why I applied for a position on Father’s staff, as a physical trainer. You, for example, are very mysterious. Your body temperature is impossibly low on a regular basis. Really, according to logic, you ought to be in a coma, but you’re one of the most active people I’ve ever met.”
“You do feel weirdly cold to the touch,” Gretta agreed. “Have you always been like that?”
Sanna shook her head. “I was always active, as I remember things, but my sympathy didn’t manifest fully until I was five. I understand that I was really ill for days, and when it was all over, I was like this. Staying active helps me feel warmer.” She gazed across the table at Gretta. “I do envy you your ability to sit and relax, to talk at ease with people so casually. I’m so awkward. All I know how to do is fight and think.”
Dr. Rao rubbed her fingers against the back of Sanna’s hand. “Sanna, that is how you were raised.”
“It’s practically a dictionary definition of a northerner,” Ietta added. “Thinking and fighting. Don’t let it trouble you too much.”
“You are pretty violent, though,” said Gretta. She took another sandwich. “I’ve played girls’ field hockey and lacrosse, and I never saw a girl break someone’s thumb on purpose before.”
“Falgrim Hilston deserved it,” Lily objected. “Taking advantage of a skirmish to feel Sanna up! I tell you, I’ve met plenty of southern boys who deserved to have more than a thumb snapped for that kind of behavior.”
“You’re hard on the men of the south,” Chinara said. “They aren’t all like that, you know.”
“Maybe not all,” Lily acknowledged, “but too many. When I marry, I’ll never choose one of them.”
“You say that very confidently,” said Chinara. “What kind of man do you plan to choose, and do you mean to give him any say in the matter?”
Lily giggled at the remark, as Chinara had meant her to do, but when she replied, she did so in all seriousness. “I thought, before I came to this group, that I just wouldn’t get married if that’s how men were. But then I met Lieutenant Jock.”
“Lily! He’s married already,” Sanna exclaimed.
“Oh, I don’t mean him specifically,” Lily assured her. “It’s North Territory manners I fell in love with. I want to marry a man who has that… that…”
“Another victim,” sighed Ietta, almost gloating. “I know exactly what you mean. It’s that stern formality that gets you, isn’t it? They’re so courteous and proper. Jock wouldn’t even hold my hand when we walked out together until after we announced our engagement. I knew he wanted to, but he wouldn’t do it until he thought it was proper.”
“And even your uncle, Sanna,” Lily said, warming to the subject, “although he’s more talkative, he always stands aside when he sees a woman coming, and he’s so polite! And little Soren is a model little man, so proper and well-behaved. I tell you what, Sanna, if you had a brother who was just like you, I would fall in love with him the second I met him.”
Sanna laughed softly. “You are enthusiastic. I never had a brother, only sisters, but I suppose you would have liked my cousin Valtemer. He was Uncle Axel’s son, just two years older than me. He was sort of shy in groups, so he often came to my house to sit with me and read. He was like a brother to me.”
“You keep saying was, so I suppose he must be dead,” Gretta said.
Sanna accepted the brusque statement with grace. “Yes. They all are, except for Uncle Axel.”
“You don’t have any distant cousins in other villages?” Dr. Rao asked.
Sanna shook her head. “Fiola and Soren do, since their father was a newcomer to the village, but both my parents were from founding families of Sky-wind, so all their relatives lived there. We were a big, close family,” she mused. “We stayed together no matter what happened… until I had to leave.” Then she deliberately changed the subject. “Have you already set your marriage plans too, Gretta?”
“I’m not in a hurry,” said Gretta. “There’s too much to do and see before I settle down to have kids.”
“Cora Locke traveled with all her children,” Dr. Rao pointed out to her, “before and after she took on the Mother title. She still travels with the youngest, Crystallin.”
“That sounds hard,” Gretta admitted. “I don’t think I could.”
“It was a challenge,” Dr. Rao said. “I watched her do it. I was already on Father’s staff when Everard took over from his predecessor, Father Hyron Cornelius. Mica was only six years old then, and Slate was two. Larimar was born shortly after I met the family.”
“You knew Mica when he was six?” said Lily.
“I did indeed. He used to trot around behind Everard, imitating him,” Dr. Rao said fondly. “It was adorable.”
“I once found Soren limping around, leaning on a stick,” Sanna commented suddenly. “I asked him if he was hurt, and he said no, he was imitating Uncle Axel.”
“They do that at that age,” said Dr. Rao.
Chinara said, “Mica still does it.”
“Yes, but the imitation is more sophisticated now,” Dr. Rao replied dryly. “He always did say he wanted to be like his dad when he grew up, but he inherited his mother’s sensitivity.”
They chatted for a while about children taking after their parents. Lily had a number of stories about her siblings, and Ietta turned out to have a twin brother, the revelation of whom led to comparisons between twins and regular siblings. Gretta was the first to ask the two doctors, “Neither of you wanted families of your own?”
Chinara motioned for Dr. Rao to speak first. “I have always been more interested in studying sympathies than anything else. Married life is fine for most, but it never appealed to me. And traveling on Father’s staff has provided me with all the surrogate children I could handle. Chii here is like my eldest daughter. That’s how I get away with calling her Chii,” teased the older woman.
“As for me,” said Chinara, “I had an early disappointment and never met anyone else I liked as well as him.”
“Really?” said Gretta and Lily in unison.
“And that’s as far as that subject goes,” Chinara stated firmly. “Does anyone want more lemonade?”
“I’ll help,” Ietta volunteered.
“These sandwiches are getting dry,” said Chinara. She stuffed one into her mouth before hurrying to the kitchenette.
“We’ll finish them up,” said Sanna. She took two of the little sandwiches on her napkin and started in on one.
Gretta took three more, one of each kind. Lily took one and a tiny cake. As they nibbled on these, Dr. Rao told them about another of her “surrogate children,” a man called Tarak from Northwest Territory, and how he had been so determined to marry that he had accepted a bride sight unseen, purely on the recommendation of his commanding officer’s wife. “They are still married today, and they have eight children. He serves as the marshal of Sawtooth Ridge, and his wife is the elder’s senior assistant.”
“With eight children?” said Lily, awed. “She must be busy from dark until dark!”
“It seems really hit-or-miss to me,” Gretta remarked, “finding a wife like that. What if they hadn’t liked each other?”
“That never mattered to Tarak. He wanted a home with a wife of sound character, and that was how she had been recommended to him. Once he had that home, he determined to do whatever necessary to protect it. And Mercia, his wife, had been married once before to a man of quite bad character. She had fled from her previous life and taken refuge in Sawtooth Ridge as an immigrant. She had nothing but the clothes she wore when she ran, found shelter on a ranch whose owner was a close friend to the commander’s wife, and proved herself such a diligent and obliging person that they asked her if she wanted to take the citizenship course. She jumped at the offer. As soon as she passed the course and completed the requirements, she asked if there was any way to earn her keep, to give back to the community.”
“She sounds like a very estimable woman,” remarked Sanna. “I wonder, did she come from the Nazeuna tri—” She suddenly convulsed, flinging her second sandwich across the room.
Gretta choked on her sandwich and sat, coughing and laughing with watering eyes, while Lily patted her back and laughed with her.
Ietta, who had just touched her fingertip to the nape of Sanna’s neck, jerked backwards in astonishment. “What did I do? I only wanted to point out this darling little curl you have back here.”
“Sorry,” Sanna said. “My neck is really ticklish, and I’m so unused to anyone touching it— I didn’t mean to make a mess. Are you all right, Gretta?”
“That,” she gasped, “that was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Chinara came out of the kitchen and picked up the pieces of sandwich. She waved away Sanna’s apologies. “Accidents are accidents because they can’t be helped.”
“Like I said, you have this tiny, perfect curl at the hairline back here…” Ietta approached again with her pointing finger.
Sanna jerked again. Her chin rose as as her head tipped back in a defensive movement.
“I didn’t touch you that time,” protested Ietta.
“You don’t have to touch,” Dr. Rao remarked. “A slight breeze is enough to set her off.”
“That goes beyond ticklish,” Ietta said.
“I usually have my neck covered,” was Sanna’s explanation. Her pale skin was pink with embarrassment. “But going back to what you were speaking of before, Dr. Rao, will our group go to Northwest Territory?”
“You’ll visit every territory at least once, if you stick with Father’s training regimen,” Dr. Rao answered. “And Chii told you we were shedding rank today.”
“I can’t possibly call you by your first name, Dr. Rao, without any honorific at all.” Sanna looked genuinely troubled by the prospect.
“I’m old enough that you can call me Nana Wyeth, as you would one of your village elders,” the doctor offered.
“You aren’t,” Lily exclaimed in amazed disbelief.
“I won’t go so far as to tell my age,” said Dr. Rao with a mischievous smile, “but I am easily old enough to be Chii’s mother, and she must be your mothers’ age.”
“I would’ve never guessed,” Lily said. “I thought you were just a little older than she is.”
“That is very flattering,” Dr. Rao laughed. “But no, I’m quite old enough to answer to the northern honorific ‘Nana.’”
“Nana… Wyeth,” Sanna faltered.
“Do you know,” said the older woman to Chinara and Ietta, “that has a nice feel to it. When are you and Jock planning to have a child or two, Ietta? They could call me Nana.”
“Talk to Jock,” Ietta said. “He has no intention of getting in the way of my career, he says. He even researched natural methods to avoid conception.”
Dr. Rao laughed in clear delight. “Human thought sympathists! What can you do with them?”