Coralie Locke gazed out the window of the personnel carrier. The landscape told her she was nearing the sandstone cliffs of the Leeward harbor region. She checked the time.
“We’re nearly there,” Perdita Jasper said under her breath. “Stop looking at the time. I don’t get why you’re so impatient to see him. You’ve been married to him for nearly thirty years, and I’m sure he hasn’t changed materially since the day before yesterday.”
“But that was on a screen,” Coralie answered, equally quietly. “From a hundred miles away. It has been six weeks and three days since I saw him in person, and that’s a long time.”
“Hopeless.” But the lieutenant gave her an affectionate, if exasperated, glance.
From the seat nearest them, Friga Rokhin said, “You girls have been friends for many years, I take it.”
Coralie blushed a little, but Perdita answered, “Yes, Nana Friga, since we were little children. Our families lived near each other, and we attended the same school.”
“It’s good to cherish these lifelong ties. It soothes my heart to listen to you. You remind me of the friends of my own girlhood.”
Coralie turned so as to see the elderly woman better while they talked. “You must be looking forward to seeing Axel, Sanna, and Soren again.”
“Yes, I am,” Friga said. “The reports are very hopeful. Sanna is growing stronger, and Axel is healing well. I long to see them with my own eyes, and hold Soren again.” Then she sighed.
“Are you tired?” Perdita asked.
“Not much,” answered Friga, “but a little worried. Fiola has been keeping a secret from us all, and she only revealed it to me this morning.”
Coralie looked toward the rear of the personnel carrier, where her daughter and Fiola were chatting together. “Is it bad news?”
“That remains to be seen,” Friga said. “It will be troublesome, if my guesses are right, but much depends on Sanna’s strength. We must put the matter before her. If Axel were stronger…”
“We will stand by you,” Coralie offered, “in case of trouble. You are Sanna’s dependents at present, and that obligates us as her commanding officers.”
Friga bowed her head. “It is a hard thing, having no extended family on whom we may rely. I treasure your kindness.”
“Let me know what we can do.”
A series of deep growls and rumbling snarls broke out in the very rear of the personnel carrier. Coralie shouted, “Bertie! Bertie!” but received no reply. “Matija, go wake Bertie up and make sure he’s wearing clothes. Rina is getting upset.”
Friga said, “Bertie is your animal sympathist, is he not? Which one is called Rina?”
“Rina is Bertie’s wolverine friend,” answered Coralie. “She’s his newest, so she isn’t as used to the traveling as his other animals.”
“After yesterday, Fiola still doesn’t dare look straight at him,” Friga told her.
“I apologize again for that. I warned him, but he forgets most of the time that he isn’t wearing anything. The rest of us have learned to cope with it in our individual ways, but it’s really trying when we travel with guests.”
“You have many concerns, Mother Coralie,” said her staff adjuster Matija as he overheard this last statement. He ran a hand through his thick silver hair in frustration. “We can’t find his shirt, but I made sure he put on his pants.”
“Do we need to stop for Rina?”
“He says no, she’s only bored.”
“Well, we aren’t far away now,” said Perdita. “If we don’t have to make one more pitstop, that’ll be a blessing.”
The driver sang out, “Leeward city limits in sight!”
“Thanks, Kellerine,” Coralie answered. She clapped her hands sharply. “Everyone, get ready for arrival! Girls, put away your work!”
Her staff began clearing away whatever luggage they had unpacked for the long drive. Honey remained seated, calm and observant, having never once touched her bag since boarding the carrier early that morning. Saloma was hunting under seats and through bags for something; she was always inclined to spread out and take over space wherever she was. In the caged-off rear of the carrier, Bertie was wrestling with his wolverine as if he hadn’t heard the warning. “Has anyone found Bertie’s shirt?” Coralie asked loudly.
“Over here,” said Enid, Matijah’s young wife. She lifted a tattered, grubby handful of cloth. “But it isn’t fit to wear for casual, let alone for an arrival at a territorial base.”
“He’s got to arrive as-is, then, because that was his last presentable shirt,” Coralie sighed. “We’ll have to get him outfitted again once we settle in. Girls, come sit up front now. We’re nearly there.”
Crystallin and Fiola made their way up the aisle and settled in the seats across from Friga. Fiola gripped her bag white-knuckled.
“I did as you asked,” Coralie told her, “and asked Everard to keep your arrival a secret.”
“Thank you, Mother Locke,” the girl said. “Oh, it feels like such a long time! I’m nervous! Why should I be nervous, like they’re strangers and not family?”
Coralie smiled. “Could it have anything to do with this secret I hear you’ve been keeping?”
Fiola pulled her bag up in both hands until it hid most of her face. “Sanna is going to scold me. I know she will. I even know what she’ll say. She’ll say, ‘That was wavering on the edge of dishonesty, little Fiola.’”
“And she will be right in saying so,” Friga said. “Omitting the truth on purpose is a kind of deceit, child.”
“I know, Nana Friga, I know.”
“But you don’t repent of it,” the elder noted shrewdly.
“I am sorry. I know I should have found a better way.”
The personnel carrier slowed, but only to stop at a traffic exchange. The base was still several minutes away. When its front gates at last came into view, Coralie stood back up. “Bertie, come out of there now. We’re arriving.”
The young soldier let himself out of the cage and came obediently to sit on the seat next to Friga. “Yes, Mother.”
The personnel carrier rolled to a halt in front of the mess hall. Coralie could see Everard standing at the end of the line of soldiers who waited to greet Coralie and her company. She was quick out the door, but she walked with forced decorum across the packed dirt. “Good to see you,” she said to her husband in her most casual tone.
He gave her the deadpan look that she still could not always interpret after years of marriage, but this time its meaning was fairly obvious to her. Everard bent down to kiss her cheek. “Did you have a smooth trip?”
“Fair. We need to outfit Bertie again, though.”
“Let him go without a shirt while he’s here,” Everard said. “They’ve gotten used to it since Tezelin arrived. Now come.” He took her on his arm and walked her to his line of soldiers. “You remember Emmett, I’m sure.”
Coralie reached out her free hand to the drill instructor from South Territory. “Emmett, it’s good to see you again. Has the training been satisfactory so far?”
“Good enough, Mother Coralie.”
“And of course,” Everard continued, “his two trained chimpanzees.”
Coralie trod on her husband’s foot. “That’ll do, dear. Aug, Edmund, it’s good to see you again so soon.”
They each took her proffered hand in turn.
“Lieutenants Jerry Wilton and Karli Donisthorpe.”
Coralie spoke a few words to the two aides.
Everard paused beside her, watching her face as she spoke. He seemed oddly watchful. Coralie turned to the next soldier in line and then exclaimed, “Rusza, is that you?”
He grinned. “Welcome to Leeward, Aunt Coralie.”
“I didn’t recognize you! You’ve grown taller! And stronger! And you’re standing still! What a transformation!”
“Why does everybody mention standing still?” Rusza asked as he returned Coralie’s hug.
“Because it’s so uncharacteristic for you,” said Sanna Taivas beside him. “You used to be as fidgety as a small child in desperate need of a toilet visit.”
Everard coughed. “That’s an accurate description.”
Coralie moved down the line to greet Sanna Taivas. “You’re looking well, Private. We bring a surprise gift for you… but you don’t seem surprised.”
“It came to the point where I was compelled to tell her and Axel,” Everard explained. “Fiola Tuovali-Guslin, come here, please.” When the girl hurried off the personnel carrier, Everard continued, “Stolle Guslin and his family showed up yesterday after lunch and made quite a disturbance on base. He came again not three quarters of an hour ago and had to be escorted off the base. The guards now have orders not to let him pass until 1700 hours, when his appointment is scheduled.”
“Oh.” Fiola gazed timidly at Sanna.
Sanna held out her arms. As Fiola dove into the embrace, the older girl said, “You should have told us. You weren’t meant to deal with this problem on your own.” She pressed her face against the top of Fiola’s head for a long moment. “And not signing the letters was wavering on the edge of dishonesty. You know that, don’t you?”
Fiola giggled. “Yes, Sanna. I’m sorry.”
“Sir,” Sanna turned to Everard, “may I be dismissed to take my guests to Uncle Axel’s hut?”
“You are dismissed,” Everard assured her. “Rusza Tate, you are not,” he added when Rusza took an impulsive step out of line.
“Sorry, Father Locke.” Rusza resumed his position.
They finished the rest of the greetings and ended up in the general’s office until lunch was served. Coralie listened to all that General Murren wanted to tell her, but as soon as the meeting ended, she tugged Everard out of the office. “Can we be a little late for lunch, do you think?” she asked.
“We can, and no one will remark on it.” He took her on his arm again. They strolled toward the hut reserved for VIP visitors to the base. In reality, the only difference between the VIP hut and all the others was the separate bedroom. Everard turned on the electric kettle in the kitchenette. “Chicory or chamomile?”
While the kettle heated up, he came back to sit beside her. Coralie leaned against him. “I missed you.”
“And I, you,” he said. “How are the boys?”
“Healthy and busy,” Coralie answered. “Slate has gotten his own pass to visit the Taorri family. He goes every few days. He has seen the seizures now,” she added somberly, “but he isn’t deterred. He says Skye seems better for his visits.”
“Whatever can take a quarantine patient out of himself is good medicine,” Everard replied, “so says Archet. I’m glad Slate has chosen compassion. What is Larimar up to?”
“He told me just before I left that his supervisor wants to move him up to senior apprentice.”
“Good! That will both please and challenge him. Will his work hours increase immediately?”
“They already have. Work sounds busy, and Larimar jumped at the chance to join the newest project team, once he had permission.” She paused. “How has Mica been? You never say, except that he’s well.”
“He’s making excellent progress. I’m proud of his growth.”
“Really?” Coralie tipped her head back to look eagerly into her husband’s face. “That is wonderful news! He wasn’t at the arrival.”
“He and Jock offered to finish my paperwork so I could be the first to see you.” Everard kissed her forehead. “They’re at the mess hall right now, no doubt, and he will be happy to see his mother. But before we go meet up with him, I wanted to talk with you about something else.” He disentangled himself from Coralie’s arms and went to the kitchenette to pour the boiling water.
Coralie waited. Her husband never started a new topic of conversation without following it through to its end. If he paused, it was to get his thoughts in order. She watched him set the timer for her beverage to brew for the precise amount of time that would produce its best flavor. His expressionless face did not worry her, although nearly anything could be going on behind it.
“This business about little Soren,” Everard began at last. “I want to involve us both in it.”
“I did tell Friga Rohkin that she could rely on us for support,” Coralie replied doubtfully, “but is that what you mean by involved?”
“They intend to refuse Stolle Guslin, and they’re right to do it, but he will not accept a refusal. I can sense it in him already. He is a man irrationally convinced of his own privilege. The man snaps his fingers to call his wife, as if she were a trained dog,” he said with a rare tinge of disgust in his voice. “I don’t mean to say that Ragata Guslin is by any means subservient like a dog. She has her own way of manipulating events and people that I find equally repellant. They are unsuitable to take custody of a child. More than that, I have contacted Elder Vannhin for information this morning. What I learned makes it impossible that Suvi Guslin would have ever consented to give custody of either Soren or Fiola to his relations.”
“How is Isha,” Coralie asked.
“Spirited,” Everard said. “as always. He asked to be remembered to you with his compliments and to let you know the latest supply convoy made it safely last night.”
“Oh, good. Go on. How will we involve ourselves?”
Everard touched the timer at its first beep. He brought the steaming mug to Coralie and sat beside her.
Coralie sipped the beverage. “Dear, this is chamomile,” she said.
“You always say chicory when you’re trying to be tough, because you think that’s what ‘Mother Granite’ would drink,” her husband explained, “but I know you prefer something milder and less bitter.”
“You know me too well,” she complained.
“Even if I do, it never palls.”
Everard wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “We must mediate this matter on their behalf. If necessary, we must see them through the requisite legal action.”
“Legal action! Will it come to that?”
“It is likely. Stolle and Ragata Guslin are just that convinced that they will get what they want. Axel doesn’t have the financial resources yet, and Sanna is inexperienced in such matters. She will learn. She’s quite bright enough to learn, but presently she lacks the knowledge.”
Coralie sipped her chamomile tea. “Has she asked you for help?”
“No. She doesn’t yet realize the repercussions.”
“Why are you so concerned for Private Taivas?”
Everard snuggled her closer against his chest. “Not for that reason, I assure you. I have never understood how you continually jump to that conclusion. No, I want her for your staff.”
“Mine? But I thought she wanted to go into disposal work. Has she applied now for my staff instead?”
“She hasn’t, and she doesn’t want to join your staff,” her husband explained. “The one time the topic came up in conversation, she described such an ambition as too ‘extravagant,’ because she could never do all that you do. I thought that opinion sounded very familiar.”
“No wonder it did,” said Coralie. “It’s almost word for word what I said when Mother Kreug told us she had put my name in to succeed her.”
“Yes, so I told her. But I want her to join your staff. Not immediately, but in two or three years, after she has gained more experience and connections. I don’t know if she will succeed you, but she will certainly be a much-needed support for you. I also think you will probably get along well with her.”
“What makes you think that?”
Everard drew back a little and turned Coralie’s face towards his. “She shares a number of my traits. I have learned things about myself from watching her interactions with the other students. It has been similar to the way Mica and Linnie help me learn about you. What if we had had another daughter between Larimar and Linnie, one who resembled me?”
Coralie nodded. “I think I would have liked that.”
“Here we meet a girl of that age who lost her whole family except her uncle,” Everard continued. “She is a girl of ability but few resources and fewer connections. It would be wasteful not to place her in an advantageous situation.”
“I understand you now.” She drank the rest of her tea. “And I’m in agreement. Let’s get rid of these Guslins.”
“When you phrase it that way, it sounds illicit and immoral,” her husband said. He took her empty mug to the kitchenette sink, rinsed it, and set it on the draining board. “Shall we go to lunch now?”
They walked to the mess hall and found that the initial rush was well past. When they had their food, they went to the table where Everard’s students were gathered. Mica stood as soon as he saw his parents’ approach. He held out his arms to hug Coralie. “Mom, it’s good to see you.”
“You look so well!” she replied.
“You too.” Mica moved his tray to make a little more room, so his parents could squeeze into the available space together.
“Mother Locke,” said Lily Allen, “what brings you out here to Leeward?”
“I try not to go more than two years without visiting a territory, and it was coming up on the two-year mark for Northeast. They do such a good job supplying their own needs and see so little conflict that they don’t often ask anything from me. Also, I had a request on behalf of Company G for a consultation on reassigning one of their members. It made more sense to meet them here than wait for their return trip to deal with it. And as a third reason, I needed to check on a staffing assignment I sent here about three months ago.”
Lily smiled. “You sure have your reasons, Mother Locke. But I must say, Father Locke hasn’t been as cheerful as this in weeks.”
“It’s funny, you saying that,” Rusza said, “when he looks just like he always does.”
“You just can’t see it, Rusza Tate.”
Maccani Moor said, “Add it to the list of all the other things he can’t see, Allen.”
“That reminds me, Rusza, I told my mechanical energy sympathist to be ready to work with you. His name is Ambrose Nazarian.”
“Can we start tomorrow?” asked Rusza. “It’s just, I have a lot of work to get through—”
“And he has gotten nosey about the business with the Guslins,” Mica added, “and wants to be free to loiter around the meeting later today.”
“I’m not being nosey,” Rusza protested. “I like their family. I want to help.”
Everard set down his spoon. “You do have a lot of work to finish, but that meeting is a private matter. Unless you’re invited to be present, you’ll stay outside and learn the results afterward. That being said, I would like to observe your training with Ambrose, and I will be participating in the meeting with the Guslins, so it would be as well to delay the training until tomorrow.”
Rusza deflated. “Yes, sir.”
After lunch, the students were leaving the mess hall ahead of Everard and Coralie. Rusza’s voice rang out: “Sanna Taivas! Sanna Taivas!”
Her voice was much quieter. “I hear you. You don’t need to shout. What is it?”
“May I sit with your family during your meeting later?”
There was a long pause, during which the doorway cleared to allow Coralie and Everard to join the young pair. Sanna was looking at Rusza with assessing eyes. She said, “I would rather ask a different kind of help from you.”
“I can help?”
“Yes. During the meeting, Soren will stay in the guest hut with Nana Friga. Would you also stay there and keep him busy? I have heard that you played with him yesterday, and he liked that. My uncle and I don’t want him near the meeting.”
“He was scared yesterday,” Rusza agreed. “Even I noticed. I’ll sit with him, sure.”
“Thank you, Rusza Tate. I’ll depend on you for that, then.”
She turned to Everard. “Father Locke, may I have your help too?”
“Cora and I have already discussed how we can help with this,” Everard said, “but I want to hear your thoughts about it.”
“Just being there would be helpful by itself… but Mother Locke, are you sure you want to do that? This involves a man who despises women.”
“He won’t be the first of that kind I’ve dealt with,” Coralie replied, “and since you plan to be there, I wouldn’t think of letting you face that by yourself.”
The young private smiled in sudden and profound relief. “That is very kind of you, Mother Locke.”
“If you and your uncle agree,” Everard said, “I suggest we hold this meeting in General Murren’s conference room. It is large enough for everyone, and it is private.”
“Uncle Axel will have no argument against that. We were just talking about where we should take them when they come. I’ll go tell him.”
“At 1645, go to the administration wing. Someone will be there to show you where the conference room is. I will wait at the gate to be sure your guests don’t try to be clever.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir!” Sanna ran toward the guest housing.
“She is much younger than she seems,” Coralie murmured, for her husband’s ears only.
“I knew you would notice.” Everard walked with her to the administrative wing, where General Murren was more than willing to promise them the use of her conference room. She had a few choice words to say about Stolle Guslin, whom she had known years ago during an assignment to Cavern in North Territory.
“While we’re talking of rotten personalities,” the general said abruptly, “are you here to rid us of that South Territorial ass Turstin, Mother?”
“You’re as blunt as ever, Maude,” Coralie laughed. “Yes, I will. I’m not sure where I can reassign him, though. E-M sympathists qualified to deal with him aren’t that common.”
“Perhaps…” Everard fell into a blind stare.
“He thought of something,” Coralie said to the general. “I wonder what it’s going to be.”
Everard said, “I’ve been hearing so much about northern fighting schools recently, but… what do you think of the Puoltamo school as an option?”
“I don’t know,” was Coralie’s dubious answer. “Turstin’s another of those who never takes women seriously.”
“I know. Think of how much greater the impact would be,” Everard pointed out.
“I do sometimes wonder if you don’t have a cruel streak deep down, my dear.”
“I tried the kind and easy approach, and it made no impact whatsoever. I’m ready to try a sterner approach now. The incident between Turstin and Sanna Taivas will work in our favor.”
“There was an incident?” Coralie replied.
But the general barked a laugh. “You’re right, Father. That’ll do for him just perfectly, being assigned to assist at a northern women-only fighting school! He’ll learn some manners from them!”
“If he survives,” Coralie countered. “But you’re right in saying that the easier route didn’t do anything for him. I’ll contact Lyra Puoltamo and see if she’s willing. Maybe he does need a shock.”
“That other one you sent me certainly did,” Maude Murren said. “She had the snootiest attitude from the start, but I hear she got the shock she needed out in the field.”
“I’ll need to see her while I’m here,” Coralie replied. “Rosamund Fulke asked me specially. She’s concerned about the girl.”
“Hardly a girl, not in age at least, Mother. She’s a grown woman, or would be if she hadn’t been so spoiled by her grandmother.”
“I was thinking in terms of maturity level, not age. Isn’t it strange that Glory Glazmere is four or five years older than Sanna Taivas, but the one I can’t stop regarding as a child still, while the other I need to be reminded that she’s hardly more than a child? I saw a clear glimpse of it today, though.”
“I like her,” the general said. “She has what it takes to make a good officer. I’ll look after her as long as she’s here. And I’ll send word to have the other one brought back whenever you give the word, Mother, though it gives me no pleasure to think of her back here so soon.”
“Thanks, Maude. I’ll work something out and let you know.”
Everard led Coralie out to the open-sided tent where Jock, Mica, and Rusza were processing the last of the day’s documents. “Rusza,” said Everard, “tell Cora what happened between you and Wishart Turstin.”
“That? He came up to me, strutting and posing like he was really great just because he had two energy types,” Rusza said, “and he tried to put me down by shaking hands with E-M first and then heat. Sanna Taivas came along and scolded me for going along with him, but he wouldn’t let go. He was dumb enough to tell her, ‘Don’t interfere, woman,’ as if she wouldn’t say anything back. So she kicked the handshake apart, he tried to dodge backward, and she facepalmed him and threw him on the ground, bam! And then, as cool as anything, she says, ‘Cool your head,’ after she froze him to the ground. She was so awesome! But I laughed because it was him instead of me, and she knocked my feet out from under me for it.”
Coralie couldn’t restrain a smile. “It doesn’t sound like you took offense.”
“No,” and Rusza shook his head with emphasis. “I was being totally childish with him. If he was making an ass of himself by showing off, what did that make me for doing the same as him?”
Coralie glanced at Everard in astonishment.
Her husband nodded. “Shocking, isn’t it?”
“What is?” asked Rusza.
Mica said, “Hearing you reflect on your own mistakes.”
“But that wasn’t the end of it,” Everard said. “Finish the story.”
“Lily came up to us, and Turstin grabbed her hand and was hurting her. I moved to pull Lily away from him, but Sanna Taivas kicked him in the head and dropped him where he stood.”
“I’m not sure having Rusza tell the story didn’t leave me with more questions than I started with,” Coralie told her husband, “but at least I understand what Maude meant. Puoltamo it is, as long as Lyra doesn’t object.”
“Puoltamo?” Jock Knox spoke for the first time. “The school?” Then, without warning, the lieutenant chuckled.
They spent the rest of the afternoon there, Everard telling Coralie about the business that had crossed his desk since their last conversation. It was Knox who said, “Sir, 1640 hours.”
“Thank you, Jock. Cora, would you rather go with me to the gates or go to the conference room to wait with the family?”
“The conference room,” she said decisively.
When she arrived, she found one of the general’s aides directing the catering staff in the arrangements of tables and a buffet. “General’s orders, Mother,” said the aide. “She said take good care of Private Taivas and her guests. Will this be enough food, do you think, ma’am?”
“Yes, certainly.” Coralie checked the contents of each serving dish. The little hotpot of melted cheese reminded her. “Tina, could you have the kitchen send another little hotpot like this one and its accoutrements to the guest hut where Friga Rokhin and Fiola Tuovali-Guslin are staying? And some sandwiches. Some of Private Taivas’ guests won’t be able to partake of this.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the general’s aide.
Coralie watched over the last of the arrangements with satisfaction. Before long, another aide arrived with Axel, Sanna, and Fiola in tow. “Come in,” Coralie said. “Axel Taivas, they’ve made you a prosthetic leg! Congratulations!”
Axel stuck out his new limb as if admiring it. “The doctors said I was strong enough and healthy enough that I had no business on crutches anymore, so they ordered this made. It was finished yesterday. Today’s my first full day trying it out.”
“How does it feel?”
“Great! And terrible! My stump is so sore, I can’t describe it. But to only need this for my balance,” he lifted the cane he had been leaning on, “and that only for a little longer, oh, I can’t describe that either.”
“I’m so pleased for you. You look so well! Archet will fall over from the surprise.”
“Nana Friga nearly fell over from the surprise,” said Fiola. “We were so happy to see it!”
“What is all this?” Sanna asked, looking around the conference room.
“General Murren has taken a liking to you, Private Taivas. She has decided to take good care of you and your guests while you’re here.”
Sanna turned slightly pink. “Oh, my.”
This made Axel laugh. “Well, I’m glad of it. I’ve worked up an appetite, practicing with this leg.”
“Shouldn’t we wait for the others?” said Sanna.
“No,” Fiola answered firmly, before anyone else could speak. “It will be hard enough for me to swallow anything with them in the room. I’m starting now.” She picked up a plate and began selecting from the covered dishes.
Axel said, “I’m inclined to agree with her on that. I am not looking forward to this. Might as well enjoy what can be enjoyed while it can still be enjoyed.” He had a dexterous way of holding a spoon while uncovering the dish, all with the same hand, that made light of his disability. He had spoken honestly about his appetite, because he took a large scoop from every dish.
Coralie took Sanna by the elbow and walked with her to the start of the buffet. “Everard and I will help as much as we can. You can rely on us. I asked the staff to send some of this food to Nana Friga and Soren also, since they wouldn’t get to have any.”
“Thank you,” Sanna said. “That’s thoughtful of you. I know Nana Friga loves her cheese.” She kept glancing at the open doorway.
“Everard will keep them at the gate until the appointed time. Don’t fret. Just eat.”
And at 1700 hours exactly, Everard appeared in the open doorway, leading the Guslin contingent. He said, “This is Mother Coralie Locke, the other elder in charge of the army. That girl next to Sanna is Fiola Tuovali-Guslin, your granddaughter.” His voice remained even, but Coralie could hear the sharp edge beneath the words. “There is enough food for all. Please help yourselves.” And with nothing more than that, he went to the start of the buffet and began to help himself, just as he had advised the Guslins to do.
The Guslins stood in awkward indecision for a few seconds, as if caught on the wrong foot. But the wife, Ragata, nudged her husband until he followed Everard to the buffet.
Ragata, after she had her food and had taken her place beside her husband at the table opposite the Taivas faction, spoke directly to Sanna. “Where is little Soren? I so long to see him again. He reminds me of my Suvi when he was little!”
“He is currently being cared for by an elder from our village,” Sanna replied. “He was so distressed yesterday by meeting you that we wanted to spare him any further distress.”
Coralie winced, but from the way Everard coughed next to her, he was obviously laughing at the girl’s bluntness.
“Distress!” Stolle Guslin was ready to be incensed.
“Did you fail to notice?” asked Sanna. “He nearly strangled Lieutenant Knox, he was that desperate not to be taken away by you. But you seem not to care at all. You care only that you get what you want, no matter what anyone else says or wants. No wonder Doc—” She stopped talking.
“No wonder?” said the other grandson, the one called Matt. “No wonder what?”
“I’ll deal with this,” Stolle barked.
“It’s a fair question.” Axel pushed his plate away. “It has to be said at some point, so I won’t put it off. Doc— Suvi made it clear to me when he entrusted Fiola and Soren to me that he did not want them in your custody. He never wanted them in contact with you at all. If I had been the one to answer your letter, I would have told you that immediately and insisted that you give up the idea for good.”
“How did he ‘make it clear,’” Stolle scoffed.
“With his last words to me. He ordered me to take Fiola and Soren to the capital, to Sanna, and they were to stay with Sanna, whatever she chose to do, wherever she chose to go. Those were his words: whatever, wherever. He said not to take them to you under any circumstances.”
Fiola blotted her lips with the napkin next to her plate. When she spoke, she uttered a remark so coarse and inappropriate that even Everard raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes.
“Fiola!” Sanna exclaimed.
“I’m sorry, Sanna, but if I didn’t say it, they wouldn’t understand. That was exactly what Daddy said to Uncle Axel. I was there. I heard him.”
“Fiola,” said Axel, “I understand why you repeated your dad’s words, but if you ever say it again, I will wash your mouth with soap.”
“I know. I’m sorry, Uncle Axel.”
“How can you eat with that mouth,” he muttered. “You sounded just like your dad.”
Fiola smiled a wistful little smile. “I wasn’t in a position to act on what I knew when we first moved to the capital. Sanna and I were both still in public school, and Uncle Axel was in the hospital. Nana Friga had to take custody of us both. But now Sanna is a legal adult, and I’ve finished public school, so now I can act on what I know Mom and Daddy wanted.”
“Why are you talking?” said Stolle. “This is a meeting for adults. Children need to be silent, or be sent out. It’s obvious that Soren is better off with us. He needs to start learning Guslin style, like his father.”
Axel opened his mouth to speak, but Fiola got there before him. “A boy should learn his father’s style, that’s true. And that is why Daddy said to take us to Sanna. Daddy didn’t use Guslin style. He and Mom invented their own style. Sanna is their inheritor. Soren will learn Sky-wind style from her.” Fiola lifted her chin in proud defiance. “I learned it beside her. I know enough to teach him for now, while Sanna is establishing herself in the army. When he’s a little older, he will learn from her directly. We will travel with her, wherever she chooses to go, whatever she chooses to do.”
“Shut your mouth, girl! How dare you talk back to your grandfather,” Ragata exclaimed. “You’re just one of those Tuovali savages, no better than an Outsider, like your mother!”
“Ha! Thank you for the compliment, Grandmother,” retorted Fiola. “Better a Tuovali savage than a Guslin bitch for breeding!”
“Fiola. Enough,” Axel said. Though he didn’t raise his voice, it pierced through the room with clarity. “Don’t sink to her level. And don’t quote that man’s letters. I’m sorry you ever had contact with these people, but what’s done is done.”
Everard perked up in curiosity. “What do you mean, ‘quote that man’s letters,’ Axel?”
Axel deliberately finished chewing his next mouthful, touched his napkin to his mouth, and took a drink of ice water before answering. “Fiola brought all of the letters, those she received and copies of those she sent. Do you remember, Father Everard, telling me how blank and surprised they looked yesterday when you asked them about Fiola? As if they never knew she existed.”
Everard nodded. “Yes, I did say that. Why do you ask?”
“Fiola, show Father Everard the first three letters.”
The girl took from her bag a stack of papers and envelopes bound together with string. Untying the string, she selected two envelopes and a photocopy to pass to Coralie, who passed them to Everard.
He looked at the envelopes first. He chose one and read it carefully. Then he read the photocopy. Only once did he look up from his reading, and then only to glance at Fiola and say, “Circumspect and noncommittal. You’re a fine writer, Fiola.” Then he opened the second envelope and read the letter it contained. “I understand,” he said at last. “Stolle Guslin, were you being deliberately offensive when you wrote this? ‘If the boy indeed has a sister, send her along with him, for we can always use another…’ It’s shameful to repeat the ending, especially when Fiola already quoted it. The sound of it will take a long time to fade from my ears.”
Stolle Guslin pursed his mouth.
Seeing this, Everard said, “True, there is nothing you can say, nothing whatsoever that can justify that insulting piece of vulgarity. It matches what I have been learning of your character.”
Axel pushed his chair back from the table and stood with the aid of his cane. “We have given you the only possible answer. You will not have custody of Soren. Never come near this family again.”
The younger Guslin, Matt, said, “And how is a crippled man going to force us to–”
Axel swung his cane around in an arc and rapped Matt over the skull with its rubber-tipped end. “You would be surprised,” Axel replied in a mild tone.
Sanna also stood. “Doc told me that there is a way to resolve disputes between different schools. The heads of the school duel, and the winner can impose his or her will over the other school for life. As I appear to be head of the Sky-wind school, according to its founders’ wishes, I will fight you under those terms, Stolle Guslin. Father Locke, Mother Locke, will you stand as witnesses?”
“No woman can head a proper school,” Stolle growled.
Everard said, “Lyra Puoltamo would be surprised to learn that. She has outranked your school in every tournament since she took control of the Puoltamo school twelve years ago.”
But Stolle Guslin was staring at Sanna with an almost triumphant smile. “I’ll accept that duel.”
Everard coughed. Then, recovering, he said, “I will tell General Murren to have her staff prepare one of the training fields for the occasion. Cora?” He stood and held out his arm to her.
As they walked alone down the corridor toward the general’s office, Coralie said, “He isn’t taking her seriously as an opponent.”
“Why was that funny to you? He’s a horrible man.”
“Cora, I have seen this girl fight.”
“You think she can win.”
“Think? Better say I believe she can win, beyond any proof or measure.”