A week passed between the search and retrieval mission and Company G’s departure. Gretta and the other students were conscripted to help Company G pack their equipment.
“This one’s ready for labeling,” Gretta said as she hefted a crate onto the table where Lily Allen and Anion Cooper were responsible for checking off all the luggage as it was packed and applying the correct shipping labels. “Camouflage netting.”
“Got it,” said Anion.
“When are you going to be cleared to help with jobs like this?” Gretta asked.
“They said this week, but this morning all I got was, No lifting yet. I can’t wait,” he moaned. “This is so boring…”
“Hey, Kumquat, I’ve got another one for you!” Rusza slammed a larger crate onto the table right in front of Anion, obscuring the shorter student from sight.
Anion threw his pencil over the crate.
“Missed me,” Rusza sang out. He looked hard at the pencil where it rolled on the floor.
The pencil started to roll back toward the table. It rolled all the way to Anion’s foot.
“There you go. I’m off!”
“Is it just me,” said Anion, “or has he gotten even more energetic lately?”
“He has,” Lily confirmed. “He has been in a really good mood for days now. I have no idea why, since he’s on restrictions for following Sanna into the range of influence that day.”
“Off his head,” Anion commented.
Several of the Company G soldiers entered the warehouse. “Anything more to go?”
“Two more,” Gretta answered. She took the label for the larger crate from Lily and slapped it in its proper place. She followed them out into the bright morning. The fresh air felt chilly after the stuffy air of the warehouse.
Gretta was not alone in feeling the chill. Several of the Leeward soldiers were wearing their jackets that morning, and one of them greeted another within Gretta’s hearing by saying, “Is it my imagination, or has fall decided to start early this year?” But most of the Company G soldiers were thermal energy sympathists and seemed to be enjoying the chill in their short sleeves.
Two of them shouted, “Hey, Ginger, come and give us a hand! Yes, you, Ginger!”
Rusza retorted, “I’m not a girl, you know.”
The two women laughed. “Oh, we know. We never said you were.”
“Then why are you calling me Ginger? That’s a girl’s name.”
“No, no,” said one, “it just means you have red hair. Who would name a girl Ginger? That’d be mean.”
Gretta was near enough to say, “I went to school with two girls named Ginger. In the capital, lots of people grow flowering ginger. They’re really pretty. Hence naming girls ‘Ginger.’”
“In my school,” Rusza added, “there were three girls named Ginger. Talk about confusing!”
“I’ve never been to the capital,” said one of the women. “So, are you going to help us out, Red? Pick up the other end.”
Rusza obeyed the demand and helped the two carry the oversized crate to the truck. Gretta waited for him to finish. The two South Territorial women were joking and laughing with him the whole time. When he finally started back toward the warehouse, the pair called after him, “We’ll call you if we need more help, Red!” and laughed.
“You,” said Gretta on the way back. “You really will flirt with anything female, won’t you?”
“What? What did I do?” he replied.
“Nothing,” Gretta said. “It’s what makes you so much fun to hang around with. Come on.”
They spent the rest of the hour packing equipment under the supervision of the Company G sergeant, until everything was neatly loaded onto the freight truck. Then Lieutenant Ietta appeared and summoned the students to a training field in a far corner of the base. Mother Coralie and her staff were there along with Father Locke and his staff. Gretta drew back her shoulders and stood tall. The training was for close quarters combat, and Mother Coralie showed herself as adept at hand-to-hand as she was at mineral sympathy.
“How did you get so skilled?” Lily Allen asked at one point. She herself showed no aptitude for CQC and was looking shaky and sweaty.
“How?” Mother Coralie smiled. “I learned from Everard, of course. He’s a good drill instructor. Always has been.”
“Father Locke,” Gretta said as the man came along their ranks to check each student’s form, “was Mother Coralie a good student?”
“That depends on how you define a good student, Warhite,” he replied. “Straighten your anchoring leg. That’s better. If you mean, was she naturally talented at this, then I have to say no. But diligence makes for a far better student than talent does, and Cora has always been diligent. Return to neutral stance,” he announced.
They went through two more sets of basic stances before Lieutenant Jock shouted, “Endurance run! Tate and Tarbengar, take point.”
“Yes, sir!” the two replied in staccato voices. With the bear cub between them, they led out on the first lap, and the rest of the students fell into step with them in pairs. Gretta ended up paired with Lily Allen at the end of the line. Father Locke and Mother Coralie ran behind them, observing, and held that position for the entire forty minute run. They made no remarks between them that Gretta could hear, but when Lieutenant Jock called an end to the endurance portion of the run and announced the transition to short sprints, Mother Coralie said, “Lily Allen, let’s sit out the first sprint. You need water and shade.”
Lily shot a hard look at Gretta, but she followed Mother Coralie to the command tent willingly.
One of Mother’s soldiers, a South Territorial woman named Saloma, joined them for the sprints. She joined their line between Rusza and Maccani. Rusza said quite audibly, “Whoa, you have amazing legs.”
From his other side, Sanna Taivas slapped the back of his head. Maccani Moor guffawed.
“Ow,” Rusza complained. “I just was asking what kind of training she does to get such good muscle development.”
“Then say what you mean and don’t make remarks that call your character into question,” Sanna retorted. “Think before you speak, Rusza Tate, and I won’t need to correct you.”
“Take up your grenades,” Lieutenant Jock shouted. He looked as though he wanted to laugh, as the South Territorial woman was already laughing. “Ready… and start!”
Gretta sprinted to the far line and threw the weighted canister that represented an alkaline powder grenade. She hit her target, not dead center but near enough, and sprinted back to the starting line.
“I don’t mind if you admire my legs, Tate,” laughed Saloma, “as long as you do it on a look-don’t-touch basis.”
“I really wasn’t– I mean, they are nice legs,” Rusza admitted, “but I really wasn’t trying to make personal remarks. Are you married, Sergeant Knowles?”
“Are you offering, Trainee Tate?”
Rusza sensed movement to his left and hunched down with his arms sheltering his head, although Sanna had not moved to hit him.
“Pillbug!” Saloma yelled with a rowdy laugh.
“Saloma.” Mother Coralie had rejoined them. “If you distract the students, you won’t be allowed to participate.”
“Sorry, Mother,” the soldier replied, still chuckling. “I just get such a laugh out of those two.”
“I understand, but you’re holding up the exercise.”
The next set of sprints was a retrieval exercise, where the students ran to the far line empty-handed and each had to pick up a fifty-pound sandbag across his or her shoulders. Since neither Gretta nor Lily was yet able to take on the sandbag alone, they were always paired up for this exercise and had to bring back one between them. Even with this accommodation, they were still usually the last to finish because Lily was such a slow runner.
“Warhite, Allen, your teamwork is improving,” Father Locke commented as they dropped their sandbag back at the starting line. “You don’t necessarily need the physical strength to do the job alone, provided you work well with your partner in the field. That’s one of the reasons no one is ever supposed to go out there alone.”
“Yes, sir,” they both replied.
“As for you, Tate, you should just stop talking until lunch,” said Father Locke in that droll way he sometimes had. “For your own good.”
By lunch, however, all the students were so tired, hungry, and thirsty that no one was inclined to talk. Their table was the one silent area in the mess hall while the students devoted their entire attention to the meal. But after the first ten minutes, Rusza had finished his first helping and was starting to take an interest in his surroundings again. He saw Crystallin and Fiola approaching and twisted around on the bench to address them. “Linnie, Linnie,” he wheedled, “would you go get this filled up for me again, while you’re up?” He held up his plate.
She gave him a skeptical look. “You can’t do it yourself?”
“My legs are like rubber,” he said, “and I still feel all hollow.”
“We only came over to ask Sanna to come sit with us,” Crystallin said.
“Please?” Rusza wore his most puppyish expression of pleading.
Fiola took the plate from him. “I’ll do it.”
“All right,” Crystallin agreed, ‘if you don’t mind, Fiola.”
Rusza leaned back and threw an arm around each of them. “You two are the best!”
Crystallin shook him off carelessly. “And don’t forget it.”
Maccani Moor plucked at Rusza’s other elbow. “Hands off,” he warned, “or do you really believe Sanna Taivas will let you live after you lay hands on her little cousin?”
“Whoops,” said Rusza, glancing around, but he saw that Sanna had already left the table to refill her own plate. “Safe.”
“Unless Fiola tells her you hugged her,” Crystallin said callously. “Or I do.”
“Don’t,” Rusza begged.
Crystallin simply gave him an arch look and walked away.
“Ah, blackmail,” Rusza sighed. “She’s going to make me pay up until she’s satisfied. How did you end up with such a cruel daughter, Uncle Everard?”
“She has her own ways of holding you accountable,” Father Locke replied.
When everyone else had mostly finished eating, Gretta said, “Hey Rusza, want to see something funny?”
“Did you know that Sanna Taivas has a little curl of hair at the nape of her neck?”
Rusza nodded. “I’ve seen it. What about it?”
“Go up behind her and just touch it. I dare you.”
He looked dubious, but he said, “Right,” and stood up to leave the table. “It must be funny, if Mrs. Jock is already laughing.” He walked to the table where Sanna was chatting with an elderly North Territorial woman and the two girls.
“Gretta,” said Ietta with a grin, “that’s just a little mean.”
“Why?” asked Mother Coralie, “what’s going to happen?”
Ietta just said, “Wait and see, Mother.”
Rusza strolled to the other table. The women there greeted him cordially, and he struck up a conversation while his hand hovered at his side.
“He’s lost his nerve,” Anion said.
“Maybe not,” Maccani countered. “He nearly went for it just then.”
“He’s wondering if she will break his finger for poking her with it,” said Mica. “Which isn’t an idle worry. She might.”
“You three are horrible,” Lily remarked.
Rusza made and abandoned another attempt in almost the same moment. He bent forward instead and blew on the curl at the nape of Sanna’s neck, triggering her tickle reflex. Her head jerked back and connected with Rusza’s face. Rusza dropped into a squat with his hands over his face. He groaned.
Anion and Maccani cheered. Ietta clapped. Lieutenant Jock burst out laughing.
Sanna twisted around on the bench. “Are you all right?” She set her hand on Rusza’s head. “I’m sorry! My neck is extremely ticklish. You shouldn’t lean over my shoulder like that.”
He groaned again. “I wasn’t leaning over your shoulder. Gretta dared me to touch the back of your neck, but I was kind of scared that you might break my thumb if I did, so I tried blowing on the back of your neck instead.”
“Get off the floor,” she directed him, “and let’s see how bad it is. So you were trying to avoid one evil and ran face-first into another. There has to be a moral in that somewhere.” She persuaded him to lower his hand so she could see his face clearly. “You’re going to have a black eye, but I don’t think it’ll be any worse than that.”
Rusza grabbed her hand and laid it over his eye socket. “That feels better,” he said.
“I’m not an ice pack,” Sanna retorted.
“But this works.” He pressed his hand over hers to keep her from pulling her hand back.
She made a dissatisfied face. “This is awkward.”
Father Locke got up from his seat with a cough. “Go to the spa’s first aid office and get an ice pack, Rusza.”
A grinning Maccani also rose. “I’ll walk him there before he does something to earn himself another black eye. Get moving, Tate.” He kicked Rusza’s near boot. “Let go of the lady before she hits you again.” He escorted Rusza out of the mess hall as Ietta was explaining how she had discovered how ticklish Sanna’s neck really was.
After a post-lunch free hour, Gretta met the other students outside the spa for their individualized training sessions. Rusza’s eye had swollen up and blackened in a perfect black eye, but he seemed not the least bit deterred by pain. He and Maccani were assigned that day to work with Sanna Taivas on Sky-wind style fighting, and Gretta was near enough to overhear some of their training. Another of Mother Coralie’s soldiers was with them, advising Rusza on his mechanical energy, and Father Locke was taking notes on a clipboard.
The two young men took turns working with Sanna. Whenever Maccani took his turn, Rusza had to sit perfectly still and just follow their movements with his eyes, a restriction that seemed not to sit well with him.
Then Dr. Chinara Zuma arrived. She sat beside Rusza and watched Sanna training Maccani on the various ways to block a roundhouse kick. Gretta saw Dr. Zuma lean over and speak privately in Rusza’s ear. Whatever she said made Rusza blush fiercely and recoil, protesting, “I wasn’t–!” before he caught himself and shut his mouth.
His outburst distracted Maccani just at the wrong time, and Sanna’s kick knocked him sprawling. He was slow to get up, slow enough that Sanna, Father Locke, and Dr. Zuma all came to kneel around him.
Father Locke helped him stand up. “Tate, take Moor to the first aid office for an ice pack and some pain meds, since this is partially your fault.”
The injured duo still hadn’t returned by the end of the hour, when the students split up to clean up and relax in their respective bath facilities. The women showered and changed into the lightweight white singlets that were the traditional covering for women using public baths. Sanna chose the hot bath for her first soak, so for a time she was alone in the hot room while the rest of the women lounged in the circulating pool in the main room.
It was Lily who spoke when Sanna eventually joined them: “What’s on your heart, Sanna?”
Sanna lowered herself into the flowing water. “You don’t take Rusza seriously when he acts like that, do you?”
“Of course not,” said Ietta, “you just can’t take him seriously. He doesn’t mean anything by it ever.”
“Half the time,” Lily added, “at least half the time, he doesn’t even know what he said.”
“I thought I was going to die laughing when he said amazing legs,” said Saloma. “Who blurts out something like that? But that’s what makes him fun to tease. And why did he ask if I was married?”
“That’s Sanna’s fault,” Ietta answered, “for scolding him about flirting with married women. I’m pretty sure he was just making sure he hadn’t offended another husband.”
“Another!” Saloma exclaimed. She uttered a hoot of laughter. “How many husbands has he made mad by flirting with their wives? He’s too oblivious!”
“His obliviousness is one of two reasons Everard took him on,” Mother Coralie said. “He’s a good-hearted boy. If his mother Nirva were still alive, he probably wouldn’t be such an airhead about women, but she died when he was still little.” She had her eyes on Sanna when she spoke. “I appreciate the trouble you’ve taken over him, Sanna. Not many people can get through that obliviousness, but you do. He admires you a lot.”
“He admires your chest, at the very least,” said Saloma. “That doctor caught him at it. I heard Moor teasing him about it in the first aid office.”
Sanna folded her arms over her bosom.
“It’s more than just that,” Dr. Rao assured Sanna.
“Yes,” Mother Coralie added. “He values the fact that you correct him and hold him to a stricter standard. He has said enough that I’m sure of that. Everard is sure of it too.”
“Maybe you’re a stand in for his mother,” Saloma remarked.
Gretta snickered. “Was his mother a violent woman?”
Mother Coralie gave her a steady, serious look that made her stop laughing. “No, but she had a strong conscience and never flinched from telling those she loved when they were straying from what was right. Archet doted on her. He hasn’t really gotten past her death even now. From what Everard tells me, Nirva transformed Archet. He was much like Rusza when he was that age, but once he met Nirva, he never looked at another woman. She was his world, and the boys hardly adored her less.”
“Is that why he has such compassion,” Sanna asked quietly, “for loss and grief?”
“Possibly. He’s a warm-hearted boy to begin with,” Mother Coralie added, “but he watched the death of his mother crush his father, without being able to do anything to help.”
“How did she die?”
“Cardiac arrest, when she was just forty. She had been apparently in good health. No one expected anything of the kind.”
“How old was Rusza at the time?” asked Dr. Rao.
Mother Coralie thought back for a few seconds. “Linnie and Lyndon were both four at the time, so Rusza was seven. Eleven years now,” she mused. “Almost twelve. It seems like both a long time and a short time, somehow.”
“It’s strange, how loss can feel like that,” Dr. Rao agreed.
Gretta climbed out of the circulating pool, and no one commented on her departure.