“Father Locke,” said Axel just at the bathhouse exit, “may I impose on you to take Soren back to base? He is getting tired.”
“That’s no imposition. We would be glad to escort him.”
“Rusza should carry him,” said Captain Yeardley, “since it was Rusza who wore him out.”
“That isn’t necessary.” Father Everard crouched in front of the drowsy child, scooped him into his arms, and stood. “I haven’t lost the knack.”
“Or the muscles,” Captain Yeardley replied. “I still can’t believe how much development you’ve maintained. How old are you, Father Everard?”
“Sixty,” was the answer.
“Impressive. There’s no other word for it.”
“We’ll go now,” Father Everard said to Axel. “I would prefer to hold the discussion with Sanna in your presence this evening.”
“Yes, I think that’s best. Thank you for your consideration.”
Lieutenant Knox walked alongside his superior officer on the way to the trolley car stop. The boy Soren already had his head resting on Father Everard’s shoulder.
Captain Yeardley noticed this as well. “The little fellow is really comfortable with you, Father. You must have spent a lot of time together.”
“Not as much time as that,” said Father Everard. “But children will trust those who make them feel safe. I have dealt with him just enough that he trusts me.”
“Actually,” said Rusza, “I’ve noticed how kids always glom onto you, Uncle. It’s like they just know.”
“Know what?” asked Father Everard.
Mica said suddenly, “That you’re a good dad. They can sense it.”
“Am I? That’s a relief to hear.”
“Really?” That question came from both Rusza and Mica at once.
“Of course. I never had a father myself, so I have never been certain that I was going about it the right way. I could only take cues from fathers I knew— like your grandfather, Rusza.”
“It feels like I haven’t seen him and Grandma Apple for years,” Rusza said.
“You’ve only been away from the capital six weeks,” Mica pointed out.
“I know, but I’ve never been away from my family before,” Rusza retorted with a blush, “so it feels longer.”
“It will be a considerable time before we head back,” warned Father Everard, “so don’t get too caught up in homesickness.” He tightened his hold around the boy Soren. “You might use those feelings, you know.”
“Yes. There are many who will never see their families again, not until they meet again before the throne of the Only One.”
Rusza walked quietly for most of the return journey after that, until they were within sight of the base. Then he asked, “Will we ever travel to North Territory, our group?”
“Yes,” Father Everard answered. “Why? Do you want to see the northlands?”
“Mm,” said Rusza thoughtfully. “I want to see Sky-wind Village… if it’s allowed,” he finished.
“What remains of the village is open to visitors. It is no longer a village; no one lives there. It’s a cemetery. Do you still want to see it?”
Rusza nodded. “That’s why I want to see it.”
Lieutenant Knox saw, as the boy Rusza did not, the long look that passed between Father Everard and Captain Yeardley. He said quietly, “You are growing, Rusza Tate.”
“Mm?” The boy responded vaguely to the sound of his name being spoken, but he was not attending to anything outside his own thoughts about loss and homesickness.
They entered through the front gate of Leeward army base in time to hear raised voices nearby. Because Father Everard drifted toward the disturbance, Lieutenant Knox followed. The loudest voice was that of an older man, perhaps nearing seventy years, with the fair hair and complexion of a North Territorial. As they came within listening distance, they heard this man demand, “Will you stop stalling and summon him this instant? Or, if you still refuse, will you call your commanding officer?”
The recipient of this demand was Corporal Vindas, the base’s dependent liaison. His face was red with the strain of holding back his temper. His gaze was drawn to their approach. “Father Locke, perhaps you can help us,” he asked in obvious relief.
“If I can,” Father Everard promised, “I will. What’s the trouble?”
“This… gentleman here wants to speak with Axel Taivas,” Corporal Vindas began.
“Who, as we both know, is not on base at present,” Father Everard finished for him. “I understand. Is it a personal matter? I can direct you to his workplace if it is an urgent matter.”
“What? He’s at work? But he agreed to meet me here!” the stranger said, and his voice began again to rise in volume.
“We haven’t been introduced yet. I’m Father Everard Locke. Your name, sir?”
“Stolle Guslin.” The man was staring at Soren, who was now awake and mildly alarmed by the raised voices. “That boy. Is that boy Suvi Guslin’s son? Give him to me.” He stretched out his hands as if to lift the child from Father Everard’s arms.
With a quick, subtle gesture Father Everard evaded the move. “Stolle Guslin. I’ve heard the name. You are head of the Guslin fighting school. And may I be introduced to your companions?”
“My wife Ragata.” He snapped his fingers to call the older woman forward. “And my grandson Matt with his wife.”
The younger couple did not step forward. The wife, when she approached, went straight to Soren. “It is, it must be. He looks exactly like Suvi! You’re Soren Guslin, aren’t you?”
Soren, to everyone’s surprise, shook his head violently in the negative and buried his face against Father Everard’s shoulder.
“Don’t be shy, little dearie, but come to Gramma,” she crooned, clasping her hands around his torso and pulling, but to no avail.
“It appears that he is frightened,” said Father Everard mildly, “so I recommend giving him some space. Children have their own ways of thinking. It does no good to force them into ours when they are fearful or angry. About your appointment with Axel… you do have an appointment, I assume?”
“To meet here on base,” Stolle Guslin declared, “so that he can hand over my grandson to me.” He made a similar gesture, as if he meant to try again to take hold of Soren.
“That’s very peculiar,” said Father Everard. Again, without seeming intentional about it, he evaded Guslin’s attempt. “Jock, would you look after Soren while we try to clarify what I can only guess must be a miscommunication?” He pulled Soren free and, as he transferred him to Lieutenant Knox’s custody, said, “Don’t be afraid, Soren. Lieutenant Knox will hold onto you. And I think it would be a good idea if you, Rusza, went to fetch Sanna Taivas. In her uncle’s absence, she may be able to explain this for us. Hut 36, Rusza, the cottage with the red cosmos in front.”
Rusza started off at a jog, but Father Everard called after him, “Mind your energies. This is not an emergency, so you need not run.” Then he turned back to Stolle and Ragata Guslin. “I call it peculiar because Axel Taivas is a conscientious man. He would never make an appointment and fail to keep it, and when I spoke to him not half an hour ago, he made no mention of you, none at all. Is it possible that you’ve mistaken the time or date?”
Stolle Guslin pursed his lips in a sour expression. His wife said, “That would be my fault, since I was so eager to see Suvi’s child that, well, I insisted on coming straight here the instant we arrived. The appointment is actually for tomorrow.”
“Ah, we begin to unravel our knots. Of course, Axel wouldn’t have spoken of an appointment that far in advance, not when we were speaking of totally different matters.” Father Everard gave Stolle a sharp, direct stare. “If it isn’t too personal a question, what business do you have with him? I perceive that it involves Soren in some way.”
“I’ve come to claim my rights of custody over my grandson,” Stolle declared.
“Is that so…” Father Everard mused. “And this was agreed upon by both you and Axel?”
Stolle pursed his lips again, and his wife took up the thread of conversation. “The poor child has lost his parents,” she began, “and he’s all we have left of our dead son. It’s only right that–”
“I don’t interrupt to be rude,” Father Everard cut in, “but what about Fiola?”
“Fiola?” Both Stolle and Ragata repeated the name blankly.
“Yes, Fiola,” Father Everard repeated. “Suvi’s daughter. Soren’s elder sister. Do you claim your rights of custody over her as well?” Enough of a pause passed without reply that Father Everard said, “I understand. It may be that Axel would agree to surrender custody of Soren to you, his blood relatives, but he would never do so for Soren alone. There is some dissonance here that makes me uneasy. I will ask you to go to whatever lodgings you’ve arranged in Leeward and return tomorrow at the appointed time.”
“I’ve been writing to Taivas,” Stolle objected, “and he agreed.”
“Yes, but to what? Do you have the letter in your possession now, so I can see it?”
“I don’t see what business it is of yours to read my private letters, nor to tell me what I may do or not do,” Stolle declared with dignity.
“Axel and Soren currently hold the status of dependents of my student, and as such I am obligated for their care and protection. What’s more, you are not being forthright with me in this matter, so I am disinclined to trust you. You presently stand on an army base, where I have authority over all who enter. If you intend to flout my authority, then you must leave these grounds.”
“That is Soren Guslin,” Stolle Guslin shouted, “my grandson! I demand you give him to me!”
Lieutenant Knox found himself nearly strangled by the child’s clinging embrace. He heard the tremulous voice whispering, “Not Guslin, not Guslin, Tuovali-Guslin, it’s diff’ernt,” over and over. Lieutenant Knox said, “Is it? I didn’t know that.”
Father Everard turned to him. “What was that, Jock?”
“It’s young Soren,” Lieutenant Knox said. “He keeps repeating something about being different. Tuovali-Guslin, not Guslin. He’s very insistent.”
“Interesting.” Father Everard shifted his attention again. “And here comes Sanna.”
As soon as he heard these few words, Soren lifted his head so abruptly that he struck Lieutenant Knox in the jaw with his forehead. “Sanna!” he cried, holding out his arms.
Lieutenant Knox handed the boy to Private Taivas, since the boy lunged for her and would have plummeted onto his head on the ground otherwise.
“Be calm, my joy,” the young soldier murmured. “Don’t be afraid. What is happening?” she asked generally of the assembled group. Behind her, Rusza Tate was hovering in curiosity, and he had brought Ietta and Drs. Rao and Zuma, along with the two female trainees.
Father Everard explained the situation in a few words, including the detail of Stolle’s refusal to show the letter as proof. “What do you make of it all?” he finished.
Private Taivas considered the question slowly, as was her habit.
“You’re stalling,” Guslin said angrily. “Answer him. Tell him we’re the boy’s rightful family.”
Private Taivas looked at him in surprise. “I was asked to give my views on what Father Locke told me,” she said, “which is no light matter to be answered hastily, Mr. Guslin. I was considering whether to make plain what I know of D- Suvi Guslin’s views on his relations. Since you brought the matter up yourself, then I have no reason to hesitate. D- Suvi Guslin was not on amicable terms with his parents or, indeed, any of the Guslin school. Uncle Axel would be aware of this, so I consider it very unlikely that he would give you custody of Soren, knowing how displeased D- Suvi would be with such a choice.”
“You keep stumbling over his name,” Father Everard noted. “Why?”
“Because nobody ever called him by his name in the village,” Sanna Taivas explained. “To us, he was always just ‘Doc.’”
“Call him that, then, if it’s more comfortable.”
“Thank you, sir. Doc didn’t like being called by his name, not his first name and certainly not his last name. He refused to answer to either. Aunt Nilma would call him by one or both sometimes, if she got angry at him, but otherwise no one did.”
“I begin to see the larger picture. Has Axel mentioned to you anything about the Guslin family seeking custody of Soren— just Soren?” Father Everard asked.
“Nothing at all, sir, and he would have told me.”
“Why would he bother telling you?” scoffed Stolle Guslin. “A teenage girl!”
“He would tell me because he knows how precious Soren is to me,” Private Taivas replied calmly. “You say you have a letter? When did you write to him first?”
When Stolle Guslin started to purse his mouth again, Father Everard said, “It’s a reasonable question. Answer it.”
“A month ago I first wrote to advance my claims,” the older man replied, but grudgingly.
“A month ago? I collect the mail for my uncle every morning, and I have only seen our weekly letter from…” Private Taivas stopped. “Where did you direct your letter, Mr. Guslin? To what address, I mean.”
“Ice District, of course, in the capital!”
A slight twist of the lips came and went from the young soldier’s face. “My uncle has been here in Leeward for six weeks, Mr. Guslin. I suspect that you’ll find, when everything is explained, that you have been corresponding with Fiola, Soren’s sister.”
“What signature was on each letter?” asked Private Taivas.
Stolle Guslin jerked a folded paper out of his pocket to check. “There is none,” he admitted. “I assumed, since I wrote to Axel Taivas…”
“That you were answered by Axel Taivas,” the girl finished for him. “But I know my uncle’s writing. It’s nothing like as neat as that. Fiola is the one who agreed to meet you here tomorrow, and that is the only part that puzzles me.” Private Taivas looked to Father Everard. “Sir?”
“I was asked to withhold the information as a surprise,” he replied, although she had not asked in so many words, “but Cora told me that your Nana Friga and Fiola are accompanying her. They are due to arrive tomorrow. The mystery is solved.”
“I will tell my uncle, and we’ll talk with Fiola when she arrives,” Private Taivas said to Stolle Guslin. “Your appointment is for tomorrow after supper. Keep that appointment, and we will settle this matter for good.” She didn’t wait but carried Soren away toward the dormitory, accompanied by the pair of doctors, the pair of trainees, and Rusza Tate.
The crowd began to disperse, the Guslin faction only with reluctance. Lieutenant Knox found himself standing alone with his wife. “That was not a pretty scene,” she remarked. “Are you familiar with this Guslin family? They’re northerners like you, am I right?”
“I am familiar with the reputation of their school,” he said slowly.
Ietta locked arms with him. “Tell me.”
So, as he walked with her toward the commander’s office to retrieve the unfinished paperwork, he told her about North Territory’s tradition of fighting styles and the schools that specialized in different styles. “Guslin style relies strictly on body mechanics,” he said. “They rank fairly highly at the annual tournament each year, but they have a reputation as being harder than necessary on their students. They live only for the reputation of their style. As far as I know, none of them ever left Cavern to use their skills for others, though one of them must have done so— this Suvi they talked about, Soren’s father. He died, I understand, in Sky-wind Village.”
“It’s a strange culture,” Ietta noted. “Fighting schools, but they never go out and fight for real? Strange.”
“Yes… I can understand how it would appear to someone who hadn’t grown up in the culture. Most fighting schools provide manpower for the army. Not many pursue fighting the way the Guslin school does. And the Guslin school doesn’t have a good reputation among the other schools. I have just seen why. Ietta, do you think I would be able to be a ‘good dad’?”
His wife burst out laughing. “You say it as though that’s a technical term. What makes you ask?”
He gave her a worried look. “You don’t answer. Does that mean you think no, but you want to spare my feelings? Because–”
Ietta covered his mouth with her hand. “Stop overthinking. I think you would be an adorable dad. I just want to know where the question came from. You’ve never talked about it before. You surprised me.” She released his face to let him speak.
“Father Everard said that children have their own way of thinking. That ignited my curiosity. When I was holding the boy Soren, I didn’t expect him to understand so much of what passed, but he understood enough to respond with fearful and resentful thoughts. He was very insistent on drawing a line between himself and his father’s relatives, to say that they were not the same.”
“Right,” said Ietta patiently, “but ‘good dad’?”
“Ah, those were Mica Locke’s words. He said children are drawn to Father Everard because they perceive that he is a ‘good dad’.”
“And if Father Locke can do it, why not you,” she said, laughing. “You are too adorable. I would love you see you going around with a miniature you imitating you, like Doc Rao says Mica used to do with Father Locke. I just assumed you weren’t interested in having a family. Does this mean you might be interested?” she asked, leaning close to look fully into his face.
“If it isn’t problematic for you,” he said. His face warmed.
“Oh, it might be problematic,” Ietta teased. “I mean, I have to wait all the way until tonight to start trying. That’s definitely problematic.” She laughed and dropped a light kiss on the end of his nose.
Jock turned away. “We have work to finish.”
“Made you blush,” his wife chanted like a schoolgirl.
“Ietta, please shut up,” he replied, provoking another outburst of laughter from her.