At the first clamor of bells, Axel lifted his head from the massage bench. “What’s that?”
Kap Moor had also paused in the middle of bestowing on Axel a vigorous, almost painful back massage. “Something’s happening down the harbor,” he muttered. “Maybe fire… doubt it’s a storm, the weather isn’t right for that.” He listened close as the clamor reached them and passed onward. Then the bells began again, far toward the harbor but rolling nearer, in a pattern of threes. Kap roared, “Three bells! Everybody upstairs! Three bells!”
Axel scrambled upright and strapped on his prosthesis. “What does three bells mean?” he asked, but Kap was already swinging away on his push trolley. Axel grabbed his shirt but didn’t waste time putting it on as he limped toward the common area of the baths.
A stream of dripping clients and an assortment of Kap’s relatives were already hurrying up the stairs. One of Kap’s daughters, Sarlota, noticed Axel and offered him her hand. “How are you with stairs and your new leg, Axel Taivas?”
“Not as nimble yet as I’d like,” he admitted. “What does three bells mean?”
“It means the harbor is under attack by extremists,” answered Sarlota.
Axel braced his hand against the wall and lifted his prosthetic leg to climb the first step. “I thought Northeast didn’t see much action.”
“Not much,” she agreed, “but that isn’t the same as ‘none.’ It happens, but rarely. Careful. The steps are wet.” Sarlota shifted her hold from his wrist to his elbow and shifted her weight so that she steadied him. On the second floor, a wide promenade was already full of clients, so Sarlota said, “Let’s go higher.” She propped him up for another flight of stairs, up to the family’s private quarters. “There’s a sea walk in back,” she suggested. “You can get a good view of the harbor from there.”
Because the bathhouse stood at the edge of the first tier up from the docks, it did command a good view of the harbor, looking from the south-southwestern curve. Two small cutters were cruising around what appeared to be a derelict cargo ship. Axel squinted and shaded his eyes with a hand. Sarlota left him for a minute and returned with a pair of binoculars. “Here, these will help.”
Axel accepted the binoculars and focused them on the ships in the harbor. The cutters were painted with the colors of the Harbor Guardians Guild. The cargo ship appeared to have no one aboard. Axel said, “Is it abandoned?”
“Probably not,” Sarlota replied. “They are below deck, more likely than not. They hate daylight. I’m only surprised they didn’t attack at night.”
“What are they trying to do?” Axel pondered aloud. “They aren’t going fast enough to crash. Are they just trying to run aground?” Then a shudder ran down his back. “Is that ship full of the Decay?”
“Probably so.” Sarlota’s voice was grave. “If they were to seed the harbor here, it’d be a huge victory for them.”
Axel lowered the binoculars. He shut his eyes and wiped a hand over the sudden sweat on his forehead. He couldn’t stop shaking. “They can’t. That… that would be horrific.”
Sarlota’s hand touched his shoulder. She said nothing but stood beside him until the horror of past memories subsided. Overhead, a voice called out, “Signal from the base! They’re on their way to help!”
Sarlota patted Axel’s shoulder. “Look, there’s the signal.”
He opened his eyes and looked northwest, in the direction of her pointing finger. Three puffs of smoke hung in the clear blue sky. As Axel looked, three more small explosions, too far away to hear, left three fresh little clouds of smoke in the air.
Axel raised the binoculars to his eyes again, eagerly scanning the streets in that direction until he spotted the vanguard squad at the stone stairs that led down from the first tier to the harbor level. Then he searched among the uniformed figures. “I knew it,” he muttered. “There she is.”
“Your niece?” asked Sarlota.
“My niece,” Axel said. “Just look at her. I can still see her as a little girl, a little girl with a grownup’s serious face and a gruff little voice, huge eyes always watching, always thoughtful about everything she saw. How did she grow so fast?” He exhaled slowly. Then he chuckled. “If Erno could see her right now, he’d have a heart attack. She’s on the front line.” He watched closely through the binoculars as Sanna and Rusza led off toward the dock that jutted farthest into the water. One of Mother Coralie’s soldiers was right behind them, speaking rapidly. “I wish I could hear what they’re saying,” Axel said wistfully.
“The ship!” shouted the voice above them. “They’re letting down lifeboats!”
Axel kept his focus on Sanna. She was studying the situation out on the water, thinking, weighing her choices. “Some things never change,” he chuckled.
“Like what?” asked Sarlota.
“I can see Sanna thinking hard about what she sees down there. But it looks like Rusza has some ideas too, so she’s hearing him out, thinking about what he has to say. Somebody’s talking to her over her headset too. She has so much to think about.” Axel saw his niece nod decisively and say a few words into her headset microphone. “Looks like they have a plan.”
Sanna took off her boots and socks, rolled up her pants to the knee, and sat on the edge of the dock. As soon as the soles of her feet touched the water, ice started to form and spread. She hopped off the dock, and the ice supported her weight. It had spread under the dock and outward, until a patch of solid ice trapped the nearest small craft. The ice continued to spread as Sanna walked farther out into the harbor. Rusza was behind her, slipping and staggering on the unfamiliar surface. Behind him, the soldier from Mother’s staff was likewise struggling for footing, but the local troops were fairly skating forward after them.
“She has them iced in now,” said Sarlota. “That’s an eastern cargo ship. It isn’t equipped for icebreaking. It won’t be going any farther forward. She has a remarkably strong sympathy.”
“And she can skate,” murmured Axel. “The times I’ve seen her out on the pond, racing Marinen and Nilma… Ah, look at her go…”
The air was still warm under the late summer sun, which made the thick ice start to melt as soon as it was made. A thin layer of meltwater developed atop the ice, and Sanna was taking advantage of it to slide faster across the ice. Steam rose around her from the contrasting temperatures. She was almost upon the nearest lifeboat, where the occupants were trying to break the ice around their hull. They only noticed her when she leaped onto the lifeboat and began incapacitating them one by one. “Like she’s dancing,” Axel murmured. “Just like Marinen used to do.”
That lifeboat’s occupants subdued, Sanna perched barefoot on the stern, looking back. Axel shifted his focus, trying to see what had caught her attention, and found Rusza still floundering on the ice, closing the distance little by little. He was talking as he slipped and slid. Sanna jumped down and skated back to him. Clearly she was advising him on how to maneuver better on the ice.
A squad of Leeward army medics slid past them to the lifeboat Sanna had just left. When they started working over the unconscious extremists there, Rusza pointed at them and nearly fell. Sanna grabbed his arm to steady him. Mother’s soldier caught up to them and latched onto Sanna’s other elbow. Slowly, clumsily, they proceeded across the ice to the lifeboat. Rusza grabbed on for support as soon as he could reach and started talking to one of the medics. The medic had one hand outstretched, palm forward. He gestured with the other hand toward the sun.
Rusza listened, nodded, and stretched his hand out palm first toward the patient like the medic was doing. He looked like he was concentrating fiercely, just like Axel remembered him doing at the Locke family’s picnic, when Sanna had taught him how to chill popsicles.
Sanna patted him on the head, and the Tate boy grinned. “Look, she’s praising him,” Axel laughed. “He’s as bad as Soren about that. I wonder…” he mused.
“What do you wonder?” asked Sarlota.
“If Sanna will marry him someday. They’re such an unusual match,” he admitted, “but they seem to get along really well.”
“What will you do when she marries?” Sarlota asked. “You plan to travel with her, don’t you? Will you still travel with her once she has her own family started?”
Axel lowered the binoculars. For a few moments, he groped for the words he wanted. Then, with a gesture of surrender, he said, “I’d like to. She’s my only family, even when I’m no longer her only family. Family should stay together.”
Sarlota gave him a warm, encouraging smile. “I like the sound of that: not for what one can do for the other, but just for the sake of being together as family.” She was a sturdy, handsome woman of thirty-odd years, Axel noticed, with hands roughened from working in the bathhouse all her life. Her smile turned a little droll as she added, “If only somebody could get that thought into Dad’s head. He wants you to stay on permanently, you know. You’re such a good worker.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Axel replied, smiling, “but Maccani warned me about that at the start. I’ve enjoyed working here, but my first responsibility is to my family.”
“I agree,” said Sarlota.
An explosion startled them and rattled all the windows. Axel lifted the binoculars and scanned the harbor. The source of the explosion was obvious enough from the column of smoke that rose from the cargo ship. Even as Axel focused the binoculars on it, a blur shot across his line of sight and caused a second explosion on the cargo ship’s deck. Axel kept scanning the scene, but Sanna was no longer by the lifeboat where she had been. He located her alarmingly close to the cargo ship, exerting her sympathy to thicken the ice that trapped the vessel in place while troops on shore bombarded the ship with incendiaries.
Rusza was still beside her, unfazed by the cold. He pointed upward and shouted something that brought Sanna’s head up sharply. Axel moved his binoculars a few degrees until he found what had caught the Tate boy’s attention. A lone figure had appeared at the rail of the main deck. It was a boy about Sanna and Rusza’s age. He hung his head and clutched one arm against his side as he limped along the rail, looking down. He staggered and fell forward, plummeting fifteen feet or more to the ice. Axel gasped. He adjusted the binoculars for a closer view. The figure crumpled on the ice was still twitching, but the impact had left a splatter ring. Axel focused his binoculars even closer. The splatter was not the deep red of blood; it was amber-colored, and it glistened on the ice. Then the fallen boy’s head jerked upward. Decay bubbled from his mouth and nose. His eye sockets were already empty and raw, the eyeballs having already been devoured by the parasitic substance that infected his body. Axel started backward a step with an involuntary outcry.
“What?” Sarlota asked, worried. “What did you see?”
“A kid fell from the ship. Late-stage infection,” Axel said in a tight voice. “He couldn’t have been any older than Sanna.” He resumed his observations through the binoculars.
Not far from the infected boy, Rusza skated forward just a few strides before Sanna tackled him around the knees. She was quick to pin him, and the ice made it all the more difficult for him to struggle out of her grasp. He was shouting even so, but Sanna just shouted back. She pounded her fist on the ice next to Rusza’s head. Then she pointed.
Their accompanying soldier raised both hands. Heatwaves shimmered in front of her. The ice under her feet started melting faster, leaving her ankle-deep in slush, but her gaze never wavered from the infected boy, now slowly crawling toward them. The animated corpse was just two or three yards away from them when it burst into flame.
Sanna had released Rusza and was helping him regain his footing on the ice. The Tate boy wore a dazed expression as he stared at the burning body. “Poor Rusza,” Axel said. “His first sight, probably, and it had to be a kid his age.”
“You should put on your shirt at least,” Sarlota said. “You’re shivering. Can I get a blanket for you?”
Axel set the binoculars on the wide railing. He pulled on his forgotten shirt. It was a summer shirt, but even its light fabric made him realize how chilled his body had become. He took up the binoculars yet again and went back to observing his niece out on the ice. When he felt a blanket draped across his shoulders, he said, “Thanks,” without looking away from the two kids standing side by side.
Sanna was speaking to the thermal energy sympathist across the burning body. She gestured toward the ice. The accompanying soldier let her hands fall to her sides. Then Sanna made a sweeping gesture toward the body, extinguishing the fire and freezing the corpse. She spoke again, but this time it appeared that she was speaking into her headset microphone, while the soldier with her waved her hand to beckon another squad of army medics toward them. The medics came and bagged the body, sealing the body bag so that its contents could not escape when they thawed. Rusza had turned his back on the scene under the pretext of surveying the hull of the cargo ship.
But Sanna still had her eye on him. She came alongside him again and pointed up at the hull, but at a section much farther toward the stern. The bombardment had ceased, leaving a comparative silence over the harbor as the pair slid closer to the place at which Sanna had been pointing. Rusza raised a hand to produce a beam of compressed sunlight. His light shone on a rusty patch in the hull. Local soldiers started gravitating toward their position. Some of the soldiers clustered around Rusza and Sanna. These all appeared to be radiant energy sympathists; two of them pointed up at the rusty patch of hull and started to generate laser beams from their pointing fingers. “Ah,” Axel said, “they’re cutting through the hull. I never knew light sympathists could do that.”
From what he saw of Rusza’s profile, the boy had never known it either. He was plying the soldiers with serious questions. After several of them had replied to him, Rusza also pointed a finger toward the hull. At first it seemed that he had only compressed his visible light output by half, but he kept concentrating it until he was able to produce a slender laser light. It didn’t appear to be strong enough to penetrate the metal hull. Sanna patted his head anyway, and this coaxed a slight smile from him.
The professionals had cut an arc around the rust patch. Before their separate efforts met up in a full oval cut, the other soldiers arrayed themselves in a line with their hands raised, palms forward. The two cuts met. At first, nothing happened. Then the oval left by the cut slowly tipped outward and fell. From Axel’s vantage point, there appeared to be just a dark hole in the hull of the ship, but the light sympathists shone their light into the gap. A heavy, purplish haze poured out of the hole.
Rusza’s profile showed the boy tight-lipped and frowning. Suddenly he raised both his hands. The air shimmered with heat. Out of the dark hole rolled a blaze of light and flame, a veritable inferno that startled everyone around him except Sanna. She grabbed him by the shoulders as if steadying him. A wave of bitter cold billowed even as far as Axel’s observation post, but in the direction of Rusza’s uplifted hands, the cargo ship’s hull was melting. The frozen harbor crackled as the ice shifted, melting and refreezing in waves from the two students’ efforts.
The fog over the harbor grew so heavy that Axel’s binoculars were soon useless. He let the hand that held them fall to his side.
“What was that?” Sarlota still waited beside him.
“That was a young man named Rusza Tate,” Axel said, “who has thermal energy sympathy to rival our Sanna’s, but in the opposite direction.” He gave the binoculars back to Sarlota and thanked her. “I think this attack is over, barring cleanup. I should start to make myself useful.” He limped down the stairs to find the displaced clients settled in on the promenade, provided with deck chairs and bathrobes and lap blankets as they watched what could be seen out on the harbor.
Down on the ground floor, Axel found Kap and two of his nieces standing guard behind the front desk. “I think it’s mostly over,” he told Kap.
“That’s unusually fast, if true,” Kap replied. “A minor attack, was it?”
“No, not exactly,” Axel said. “More like, they didn’t account for my niece and her friend. Sanna froze the harbor over, and her friend incinerated the cargo ship they tried to crash.”
“Then I look forward to tonight’s gossip,” Kap said. “The young men will certainly have lots to say when they come for their baths, and not just the old men like always.” He fixed a shrewd gaze on Axel. “You’re worried for your niece.”
Axel nodded. “She’s strong, but she’s still so young. I don’t know how this will hit her afterwards.”
“Go on with you, then, and be there before she returns,” said the old man gruffly. “You’ve earned a day off.”
“It leaves you shorthanded again,” Axel said. “That’s why I came early in the first place.”
“Nothing for you to worry about in that. Most of the morning crowd won’t come down until the all-clear, and then they’ll grab their clothes and go out to see the sights and hear the news. We won’t have a thing to do until evening, when the boys will be back. Take your day off and make good use of it.”
Axel thanked Kap. He went to change clothes and was limping up the street toward the trolley stop within minutes. There he was stopped by a Harbor Guardians Guild patrolman, but he knew Axel by sight from all the time Axel had spent around the bathhouse. The patrolman helped him onto the trolley. The trolley operator was voluble. “Lucky they know your face in this neighborhood, or you might have been taken into custody. There’s a rule, when the three bells ring, that no one’s supposed to be out in the streets but the guardians and the soldiers from the base. You being at the base for recuperation will get you past those that know your face, like just now,” he warned, “but don’t try it in neighborhoods where you’re a stranger.”
Axel agreed. He got the same lecture when he transferred to the trolley car line that went to the base, and again when he arrived at the front gates of the army base. The next person he saw, fortunately, was Corporal Vindas, the dependent liaison, who skipped the lecture and said, “I thought I might see you back soon. You’ve been briefed on the situation?”
“Better than that,” Axel replied, “I watched most of it with a good pair of binoculars from a sea walk on the first tier.”
“Then you know more than I do,” said the corporal with a good-natured smile. “Your elder wanted to see you as soon as you turned up.”
Axel thanked him for this news and excused himself to seek out the guest cottage assigned to Elder Friga and Fiola. As soon as he entered, Soren rammed into his knees and knocked him back against the door. Axel bent to pick the child up and settle him on his hip. “Fiola, would you grab my cane,” he asked. With the assistance of the cane, Axel was able to keep his balance while carrying Soren. “How long has it been since I was able to do this?” he asked Elder Friga.
“You are growing stronger, that’s sure. What news have you heard?”
Before Axel could answer, Fiola and her friend Crystallin Locke came to sit at Axel’s feet, listening intently. He began to recount all that he had seen through the binoculars. At the end of his account, he added, “I expect that Father Everard will be bringing the students back soon.”
All three women exhaled a sigh of relief. “I used to think it was hard, going out into the field with Mom,” said Crystallin, “but it’s so much harder now to stay back and not know anything. Thanks, Mr. Taivas.”
“You’re welcome, Crystallin Locke. I do wonder if Rusza will be all right, after what he saw today.”
“Rusza,” said Crystallin, “not Sanna?”
“I do worry a little about her, but as hard as it was, it wasn’t the first time she has seen horrible things. I got the sense Rusza had never really seen any of this before.”
“Rusza’s thick-skinned,” Crystallin observed. “I’m sure he’ll be fine. Besides, it isn’t the first time. Wasn’t he with Dad when they found the source in Earth District? And he was with Sanna when she found the kidnapper and that little boy who died. He’ll be fine.”
“You know him better than I do,” Axel said, “so I’ll take your word for it.” He lifted Soren in the air and held him at arm’s-length for several seconds. “It’s good to be getting my strength back.”
“Did you feel powerless, watching from afar?” asked Elder Friga.
“How did you know?”
“You haven’t talked this much about being weak or strong since I arrived.”
They conversed a little while longer, until the bells rang again. Crystallin perked up. “That sounds like an all-clear to me.” She stood and ran to peek out the window. “Everybody else is coming out into the open. It must be the all-clear.” She and Fiola were out the door before Axel could gain his feet.
“Let’s go to the mess hall,” suggested Elder Friga, “as it’s almost past lunchtime. The children will probably be hungry when they return.”
The anticipated return didn’t happen until more than an hour after the all-clear sounded. Axel and Elder Friga were sitting on the bench outside the mess hall when Father Everard led the students on foot through the gates. Mother Coralie and her four soldiers brought up the rear. Father Everard shouted, “Wash up! Mess hall in five!”
The students split ranks on the way to the washrooms. Father Everard continued onward to stop in front of Axel and Elder Friga. “Have you been briefed?”
Axel explained about his observations.
“Better yet. I want to ask both of you to join us for a discussion this evening at supper. Some weighty topics have arisen, and I’m certain that the attack will have only strengthened the need for answers in some of the students.”
“We’re willing to help however we can,” said Elder Friga. “What time?”
“We meet at 1645 in front of the administration building. Thank you for your willingness. Because they all know you two as having lived through considerable hardship, they’ll hear your contributions with more than just academic interest. Will you join us while we eat? I expect that you’ve eaten already, but I would like your presence all the same.”
“Of course we will,” Axel said. “We meant to anyway.”
Father Everard disappeared in the direction of the men’s washroom. Axel offered Elder Friga the support of his elbow and escorted her indoors. Almost as soon as they entered the mess hall, they saw Sanna coming from the opposite direction. The tendrils of hair around her face were wet, as if she had splashed water on her face with more than the usual vigor. She hurried to greet them. Axel brushed aside her greeting and hugged her. “You did good work. I saw.” When Sanna leaned back to give him a surprised look, he said, “Kap Moor’s bathhouse has an almost comprehensive view of the harbor.”
Sanna’s surprised look turned to one of mirth and exasperation combined. “Of course it does.” She hugged him briefly and stepped back. “I am very hungry.”
“No wonder,” said Elder Friga, “after all you did this morning. Go get your food. We’ll wait for you here.”
The rest of the students were already gravitating towards the kitchen line. Axel and Elder Friga found a place at one of the empty tables to wait. Sanna joined them presently and brought with her Lily, Rusza, and Mica. Out of nowhere, apparently, Fiola and Crystallin sat down at the table beyond Mica. Crystallin leaned her head on her eldest brother’s shoulder for a moment. “You look tired,” she commented. “Both of you.”
“My stamina isn’t what it should be yet,” Mica said around a mouthful of food. “They had us running supplies for cleanup even before it was all over, up and down the docks and across the ice. I bet I’ll be bruised up spectacularly tomorrow.”
“From running supplies?” Crystallin asked doubtfully.
Mica shook his head. “From falling on the ice.”
Axel looked at Rusza beside him. “How are you doing?”
Rusza paused to swallow his mouthful before answering, “All right. Really tired, but I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“You should be careful how much you eat,” Sanna advised him.
“If you are genuinely all right,” she said, “then it won’t matter. But if it just hasn’t hit you yet, you might feel sick.”
Rusza gazed down at his tray. “I think I’m all right, but, you know, I’m not as hungry as I thought I was when I went through the line.” He pushed the fish stew around for a few seconds with his spoon and then took another bite.
“You worked hard today,” Axel remarked.
“I did, didn’t I? Hey, what are my chances of getting Uncle Everard to let me take a nap this afternoon?”
Father Everard set his tray down at Rusza’s other side. “That depends on the strength of your argument in favor of that nap.”
Rusza uttered a short laugh. “I can come up with something pretty good.” He leaned both elbows on the table and hung his head over his tray. Then, with a deep breath, he straightened his back. “Where’s Moor?”
“He asked for permission to accompany the medics through the rest of their duties.”
“Mm,” said Rusza. He pushed his tray away. “Yeah, I’m done. What was I thinking, taking this much.”
Father Everard paused in his own meal. “Do you feel all right?”
“We went through that before you got here,” Rusza tried to joke, but his hands were trembling.
Axel laid a hand on the boy’s back. “Let’s go outside for some air.”
Rusza only managed to turn around on the bench between Axel and Father Everard before he lurched forward and vomited on the floor. His entire body shook as he retched.
The table cleared with miraculous speed, except Father Everard and Elder Friga, who stayed in their places. Axel braced his hand more firmly against Rusza’s back, saying soothing things as he would have done to his own children when they were small.
Mother Coralie circled around the table to brace Rusza up from the other side. “Oh, I was afraid of this,” she sighed.
“I must say,” Father Everard said, “you’ve come up with what may be the strongest argument for an afternoon nap that I’ve ever witnessed, Rusza.”
“Everard,” Mother Coralie said in a tone of exasperated reproach.
Father Everard set aside his spoon and twisted around on the bench to view the disaster. “I hope you don’t mind taking your nap in the first aid room at the spa.”
Rusza shivered, still heaving although he produced nothing more. Sanna brought the custodial staff, who started cleaning immediately. “Sorry,” Rusza said hoarsely.
“Don’t mind it,” said one of the cleaners. “It happens. At least there was only one of you.”
Father Everard moved as if to rise, but Axel said, “I can walk him to the first aid room.”
“Are you sure?” Mother Coralie asked.
“Absolutely sure. Can you stand, Rusza Tate?”
The boy nodded. He was shaky, but he stood up anyway. He had turned a deep red and refused to look anyone in the eye, so Axel took a grip on the boy’s shoulder with his free hand and took up his cane with the other. They edged around the disaster and the cleaners and headed out the front into the fresh air.
When they arrived at the spa, the front desk attendant took just a glance at Rusza’s haggard face. “First aid room,” she said with decision. She took charge of Rusza, had him strip down to his underclothes and don a clean pair of scrubs so that his vomit-spattered uniform could go to the laundry, and made him wash his face. “Do you want water?” she asked.
“Better not,” he said shortly.
“Then just rinse out your mouth and spit into the sink.” After he had done as she bid, the attendant tucked him into one of the curtain-sheltered beds.
Axel asked, “May I sit with him?”
“If you like, Mr. Taivas,” she replied. “I’ll let Captain Venn know you’re here.”
Within minutes of the attendant’s departure, Captain Stargrim Venn entered. The room immediately felt much smaller. The chief therapist assembled the components of an intravenous drip. “This is just for hydration,” he told Rusza. “You do not look as if you need a sedative.”
“No, sir,” Rusza agreed. His eyes were shut already.
Captain Venn hooked up the IV. When he finished, he looked at the boy’s sleeping face. “How close was he?”
“To the Decay? Right up front,” Axel said. “He saw a boy with late-stage infection set on fire not three yards in front of him.”
Captain Venn sighed. “I wish children his age did not need to see such things.” He stood. “Are you his attendant, Axel? I’ll bring you a paper.”
Axel sat and read the local newspaper all through, even the advertisements, but Rusza slept on, softly snoring. Another medic came through a while after he had set aside the paper, to ask if someone else could read it. The medic brought in exchange a two-week-old newspaper from Cavern. Axel accepted this swap willingly and turned his attention to the news of North Territory.
While Axel was engrossed in the paper, a man entered and pulled up a chair silently to sit by Rusza’s bed. It was with a start of surprise that Axel discovered the addition. “I am sorry,” he said softly. “How long have you been there, Chaplain?”
Tommy Ditlev grinned. “A couple minutes. I know better than to get between a middle-aged man and his newspaper.”
“Should a chaplain of your experience still be such a sassy brat?” Axel shot back.
“I admit to that failing,” Tommy said.
“Just that one? We need to work on that.”
Tommy returned his gaze to the face of the sleeping boy. “I hear this one probably needs a session with Chinara. First sight of some nasty stuff, hmm? Poor kid. The first time is always a bad jolt.”
“I would worry about him more if it hadn’t hit him this hard,” Axel said.
Tommy nodded. “I hear you’re joining the discussion group tonight.”
Axel explained about Father Everard’s request. In return, he heard from Tommy the events that caused Father Everard to hold the discussion. “Rusza has had a busy day,” Axel remarked when he had heard it all.
“What’s your interest here?” Tommy asked.
“First, his father, Dr. Tate, helped me when I was in quarantine, after I lost this.” Axel tapped his thigh. “I owe Dr. Tate, so if I can help one of his boys, I’m glad to do it. Second, Rusza befriended Sanna. She never did have friends her own age, so it does me good to see Rusza drawing her out of herself.” Axel chuckled. “And third, he’s just a thoroughly likeable kid.”
“That’s how he seemed to me, though I only met him this morning.” Tommy stood. “See you tonight, then.”
Axel bid the chaplain good day. In the stillness that reclaimed the first aid room, he settled back in his chair. For a while, he mouthed silent prayers for the welfare of the sleeping boy. At some point, he dozed off and didn’t wake until a quiet knock in the entrance of the first aid room jolted him upright. It hadn’t disturbed Rusza, so Axel got up and pushed back the curtain to see who had come.
Sanna lingered just inside the doorway in uncertainty. Her eyes widened with relief when she saw Axel. She held out an armful of neatly-folded uniform. “I asked at the front desk,” she whispered, “and they said, since I was headed back here, would I bring this with me.”
Axel checked the time. “Is it that late already? You had better wake him up, or he’ll be late for Father Everard’s discussion group.” He pressed the button on the wall that was labeled Assistance.
Voices echoed in the corridor outside: Fiola and Lily Allen, with an occasional laugh that must have belonged to Crystallin Locke. As their voices drew nearer, Sanna leaned over the bed. “Rusza Tate,” she said firmly, “are you well enough to get up?”
He made a sleepy grumbling noise. After she shook him by a shoulder, he opened groggy eyes. “Mm, I wish you could wake me up every morning,” he mumbled.
Sanna flicked his ear.
“No, really, I’m always the first one up, all by myself,” he continued, yawning and stretching his legs. “It’s kind of lonely. It’d be so much nicer if you were there to wake me up every morning, Sanna Taivas.”
Crystallin and Fiola entered in time to hear this. They each held one of Soren’s hands and swung the little boy back and forth between them. Crystallin said, “I knew you would be all right, Rusza.”
“Am I all right?” Rusza retorted. “I thought I was all right last time, and I ended up puking all over the floor.”
“You’re all right enough to hit on Sanna.”
Rusza’s eyes came open fully. “I didn’t!”
“Really? The way you said it, it sounded like you wanted to wake up beside her every morning.”
He shrank back to the other side of the narrow bed, arms raised defensively in front of him. “I didn’t mean it like that. Don’t hurt me.”
“I have learned that you never mean what you say,” Sanna replied. “Be careful, or you’ll pull out the IV needle.”
Rusza turned his attention to his arm in surprise. “When did that get there?”
“You fell asleep while Captain Venn was setting it up,” Axel answered.
“Captain Venn? Was that the lady who brought us in?”
Axel grinned. “He’ll be interested to hear you thought he was a lady. No, Captain Venn came in after the lady left.”
“I don’t remember anybody but the lady.”
Crystallin said, “And that will come as no surprise to anyone who knows you.”
Sanna handed Rusza the cleaned uniform. “You should change. It’s almost time to meet at the administrative building for supper.” She herded the other girls out into the hallway, just as an orderly arrived in response to Axel’s summons.
“Don’t leave without me,” Rusza called after them.