Everard checked the time. “I sent Taivas in hopes of getting Rusza here on time,” he said, “but that may have been optimistic.”

His wife replied, “They have five minutes. I think I hear them. Rusza must be feeling better, if he’s making that much noise.” She smiled as she said it. “And there they are, all of them.”

Rusza’s voice carried easily across the distance as he said to Soren, “You can never tell when it might happen.” He held Soren in the crook of his left arm. “See? One moment, you’re sitting upright like normal, and the next—” He suddenly hefted Soren over his shoulder like a sack of seed. “Whoop! Over my shoulder, just like that.”

Soren’s chortle of delight made everyone in the approaching group laugh. When Rusza brought Soren back down to sit in the crook of his arm, the child said, “Again!”

“You mean like this?” Rusza hefted Soren over one shoulder, across the back of his neck, and over the other shoulder, so that Soren hung upside down in his right arm, laughing uproariously. Then Rusza flipped him around to his original position, upright in the crook of the left arm.

“Again!”

Sanna intervened, taking Soren from Rusza’s arms and setting the child on his own feet. “You can play more with Rusza Tate later, my joy. Right now, we’re keeping Father Locke waiting.”

“Actually, you come precisely on time,” said Everard. “Everyone, inside.” He held back while Coralie ushered the girls and Axel Taivas indoors. Snagging Rusza by the arm, he examined the boy’s eyes. “The nap did more than I hoped,” he concluded. “How do you feel?”

“Sore,” Rusza confessed. “And embarrassed. Did I puke in front of everybody, Uncle Everard?”

“Nearly,” Everard affirmed. “Moor wasn’t there, but the rest were. But delayed shock isn’t uncommon, and that has been explained to them.”

“Thanks,” said Rusza.

“Your thanks belong to Sanna Taivas. She did the explaining. I expect to hear more this evening about how she learned it herself.” With that, he escorted Rusza indoors and down the corridor to the general’s main conference room. 

They were the last to arrive. Everard took a visual roll call as he stood just inside the doorway. His students were all present. The base’s three human soul sympathists had arrived first and had taken the hosting role at once, ensuring that the students and guests got the food they wanted and a place at the oval table. Elder Friga Rohkin held the honored position as the eldest, with Wyeth Rao at her right. Shy Calder occupied his preferred position in the corner, where he could watch the crowd but not come into accidental contact with anyone. Sanna had gone first to greet Friga and Wyeth, but immediately thereafter she went to stand before Shy, an action that intrigued Everard. The pair chatted for a while, as if they had known each other much longer than they had.

Ietta and Jock intercepted Rusza before he could intrude on this conversation. Jock took hold of Rusza by the shoulders while Ietta examined Rusza up and down, using her sympathy to check for physical dysfunctions. Then they manhandled the boy to the buffet table, where Tommy Ditlev addressed him. Tommy’s voice also carried easily: “You look as if the extra sleep did wonders for you. When I looked in on you this afternoon, I wondered. You had black circles under your eyes.”

“Seems like I slept through a whole parade of people who came to check on me,” was Rusza’s sheepish reply. “You were there this morning, weren’t you? I never heard your name, sir.”

Tommy stuck out a hand. “Chaplain Tommy Ditlev. Now, what can I get you?” He started describing all that was available on the buffet table. 

Glory Glazmere was not in the room, contrary to Everard’s expectations. He made eye contact with Prisca Cornelius and beckoned to her. “Glazmere isn’t here,” he said when she was near enough to hear.

“No,” she agreed, “for once that girl has retreated instead of putting herself forward. I think she saw something today that shook her self-confidence to its foundations.”

“Whatever she saw, Waeber and Allen saw the same, and they aren’t shaken,” Everard mused.

“Waeber and Allen have never been convicted by a judicial board of coercive use of soul influence, Father Everard, and then been shown the ultimate form of coercive soul influence in such a vivid way.”

Coralie came back to the doorway to curl her hand around Everard’s forearm. “Come eat your dinner.”

As soon as Everard sat at Friga Rohkin’s left hand, everyone stopped what they were doing and looked to him. He waved for those not yet at the table to gather around. “We have this space reserved for the rest of the evening. Catering staff will come to take away the dishes in two hours, so you can take your time. If you’re hungry, eat now. If not, we’ll start the discussion. All of this started yesterday before curfew, with a conversation between Rusza Tate and Sora Waeber.” He gestured for the two students to explain further.

They hesitated long enough to exchange a look, with Sora gesturing for Rusza to speak first. So Rusza took up the thread, talking easily about not just the conversation in question but also his subsequent meditations. When he came to a halt, he looked to Everard for direction.

“This led me to arrange for this discussion,” Everard said. “The questions themselves are worth considering, even if we arrive at no definite answers. For that purpose, I have invited guests to participate in the discussion with us. All of you have at least met Dr. Chinara Zuma by now, but I will ask the other two soul sympathists to introduce themselves.”

Prisca Cornelius stood at her place next to Wyeth. “I’m Dr. Prisca Cornelius, senior human soul sympathist on base here. I connect the satellite villages to the base and oversee reintegration of trauma patients into active duty.”

Tommy stood at the far end of the table. “Chaplain Tommy Ditlev here, junior soul sympathist on base. I man the public meeting rooms on base here. My office door is always open, if anybody wants to talk about anything and everything.”

“In addition to these guests, I have also invited the members of Sanna Taivas’ household to join us. Their experiences should give us a different insight into the topics under discussion. Let’s begin at the most basic: why does the Decay exist? Rusza, you should have been taught the explanation for that. Do you remember enough to repeat it for us?”

Startled though he was, Rusza said, “Um, the Decay is something we as humans made, because our ancestors wanted to be equal to the Only One. It infected the people who made it, and we’ve never been able to get rid of it since.”

“You were listening,” said Everard in approval. “What do all of you think: starting from that explanation, how do we best understand the relationship between the Decay and Divine providence?”

A lengthy silence followed as the students looked at each other. It was Mica who spoke first. “Divine providence is, I think, partly a response to the Decay. We have the means to fight it only because such means are provided to us.”

“Good. Divine providence as response to the Decay. Who else? I know there are more thoughts among you than just Mica’s. Don’t shy away from speaking.”

Maccani Moor said, “Well, if we look at both of those points, then I suppose you could say that Divine will is the alternative to the Decay.”

“Interesting,” said Everard. “Expound.”

Maccani raised his eyebrows but didn’t balk at the one-word command. “Like Tate said, the Decay was supposed to be an alternative to dependence on the Only One. That should make the opposite true: Divine providence as an alternative to the Decay. People have a choice between one and the other; you can’t have both.”

“Or neither,” added Tommy, “even though some like to think that neither is a choice. The Decay will always find where there are gaps in a person’s soul.”

“You also believe that it has volition,” said Everard. “Interesting. What brought you to that conclusion?”

Tommy looked to Prisca and Chinara first before answering. “It started when we had a soldier here, not long after I was assigned to the base as chaplain. She was from a family where at least half her relatives were Outsiders, including her father. Long story short, her father was convinced that he could get along without committing to one side or the other. Her mother raised all the children to belong to the Only One. This soldier, she received a report from home that their house was destroyed. The Decay had picked her father out and influenced him until he became a full host. A disposal company from East Territory had to destroy him and a few other Outsider relatives who were terminally infected through contact with him. It went for the one supposedly unaffiliated member of her immediate family, and it sent him after others like him.” He sighed. “That was my first introduction to what can only be described as the strategies the Decay uses. I have seen on rare occasions other things that persuaded me to believe in the existence of corrupt will. And, of course, when you talk to enough front-line soldiers, you start to get a picture of something that knows just what it’s doing.”

“True,” said Everard, “most of the people who deny corrupt volition are researchers who never see the front lines, not even second-hand. Sanna Taivas, tell them your story about the Decay and volition.” He listened just as closely as everyone else, even though he had heard the story before. After the general exclamation of disgust, he said, “When you stand on the front lines, you will witness things that others won’t believe. This discussion tonight is not intended to answer all your questions. That is impossible. I want you to leave tonight with more questions, not fewer. The more you consider these things, the better prepared you’ll be to deal with what you witness. Allen?”

Lily Allen lowered her hand. “Sir. Does anyone know why the attack today happened? Was the… the Decay connected to anyone in Leeward this time?”

Everard said, “No, this was retaliation. We were expecting something to happen soon. It ended up happening on a larger scale than expected, but not entirely a surprise even so, since the extremists sent a manifesto beforehand.”

“Retaliation? Manifesto?” Lily Allen narrowed her eyes in confusion. “I don’t get it. What were they trying to get back at Leeward for?”

“For destroying the kidnapper and murderer of Orrin Pradta,” Everard replied. “She was one of their number.”

The students gaped at him. Elfric Tarbengar’s face darkened with an ominous scowl. “They dare? They dare call it retaliation when—” He choked on his anger.

Sanna Taivas began speaking in her husky, measured voice. “There is a twisted logic in it. They start from the idea that they, having been enhanced, as they see it, beyond the limits of humanity, have been freed from the rules that restrain humanity, freed to chase after their own pleasures, their own desires. They believe they have the right to strike back against anyone who hinders or even offends them. To most extremist Outsiders, their pleasures and desires take first place over everything and everyone.”

“You speak as one who knows,” said Prisca Cornelius quietly.

“We had frequent dealings with Outsiders at Sky-wind Village. My dad was one of the advocates who, when Outsiders would come into the village with complaints or accusations, heard them out and discussed the matter until all sides reached an agreement. Some of them came at us with no intention of negotiating or discussing, and the village had to fight.” Sanna seemed to be gazing into nothingness, and a small, wistful smile touched her lips. “Dad still tried to discuss things with them, even in the middle of a fight. He was so nimble…”

Axel Taivas chuckled. “That he was. I’ll never forget him trying to talk to a man once while Marinen had the man in a chokehold.”

“Or the time he was explaining, so patiently and so precisely, the statutes about what constitutes legal testimony–in the middle of a brawl,” said Friga Rohkin, “and one of the Outsiders punched him in the mouth, but he just kept on as if he weren’t bleeding from two mashed lips.”

“Nimble and obstinate,” Sanna said. 

“Erno didn’t say much, as a rule, but when he did have something to say,” Axel agreed, “there was no stopping him.”

Elfric Tarbengar had listened to this with scarcely less of a scowl. “Your village was involved with Outsiders that much?”

“We were on the trade route,” Axel replied. “They passed through on their way to and from Cavern. Is that a problem?”

Ignoring the tone, Tarbengar answered the words. “Well, yes. Isn’t it possible that the Decay destroyed your village because you tolerated the presence of Outsiders?”

The room went deathly still, except for Rusza, who stood suddenly from his chair. “Tarbengar, that’s out of line.” He spoke in a voice nothing like his usual, blithe tone. “Apologize.”

Tarbengar looked at him in blank surprise, then around at the rest of the faces. He didn’t immediately understand what he saw, but by the time he returned his gaze to Rusza, the last of the scowl had faded from his expression. “I didn’t mean to offend.”

Apologize.” Rusza emphasized every syllable separately. He trembled with unwonted anger.

“I’m… I’m sorry.” 

Everard took pity on Tarbengar’s obvious confusion. “It is not considered the thing to do, in the outer villages of West Territory, to have any more contact with Outsiders of any kind than is necessary. Most begrudge even the necessary contact. They believe that public safety and personal piety can only be ensured by separation. But Tarbengar, none of the other territories follow this policy, and even in Fortress the separation policy is rarely upheld with any enthusiasm. It contradicts too many of the Only One’s statutes: to name just one, the statute regarding the duty of every citizen of Hazaak to rescue even Outsiders from infection by the Decay, regardless of whether the Outsider in question is favorable or hostile toward us.” He rested both hands on the table top and leaned forward. “And any one of the human soul sympathists in here could explain to you in detail why it is cruel, to say the least, to suggest that those who have suffered massive losses are responsible for causing those losses by doing nothing other than what is commanded by the Only One.” Even at this, Everard did not yet see the comprehension he wanted to see in Tarbengar’s expression, so he decided to rephrase it as bluntly as possible. “You have essentially accused the people of Sky-wind Village of guilt in their own suffering and deaths.”

“Accused!” Tarbengar’s gaze swept the room again, this time in a look of alarm, and came to rest on Sanna Taivas. “I didn’t mean that. I know it wasn’t like that.”

Everard saw that Sanna was not able to reply, that her thoughts were in sudden confusion, so he said, “The misconception behind the non-contact policy that you were taught, Tarbengar, is that Outsiders are more vulnerable to the Decay than are subjects of the Only One. The truth is that everyone is equally vulnerable. Our only advantage is in our awareness and our willing acknowledgement of our vulnerability. You should have been taught this when you were still a child; it’s part of the statutes, and I know your village is firm on instructing children in the statutes from the earliest possible age.”

Dr. Chinara Zuma had come to stand behind Sanna’s chair by this point. She held Sanna’s shoulders in a firm grip and bowed her head to touch her forehead to Sanna’s fair hair. Her voice was barely audible, her words indistinct, but whatever she said had a calming effect on Sanna. What she did say aloud was, “Sanna? Is it time to tell the rest of the story?”

Sanna drew a deep breath. “All right.”

“May we all hear it?” asked Everard.

She nodded. 

“Do you need me to come sit next to you?” asked Wyeth.

She shook her head. “I’ll be all right.” With another slow, deep breath, she said, “The night it all happened, I went back to the village after I knew Nana Friga and Uncle Axel and the children were safe. When I came, it was… oh, it was a horrific scene. Homes and everything, smashed at the bottom of a huge sinkhole, and at the bottom, a huge mass of the Decay. Whatever wasn’t submerged in the Decay was on fire. There were some still struggling, trying to use the fire to form pockets of defense for the wounded and the dying, but there were so few… I started to search for my family. I couldn’t tell where anything was supposed to be, since it had all been destroyed, so I ran all over. I kept finding… there were bodies crushed by rubble, bodies burned by fire.”

Maccani used her sudden silence to ask, “How many died?”

“Out of a population of just over three hundred,” said Everard, “there were fewer than thirty survivors. Most of them were children. I understand,” he said to Sanna, “that Doc was mainly responsible for that.”

“He would do that,” she said tonelessly. “That’s how he died. He went once too many times into the mist to search for surviving children. That’s what Dad told me, anyway.”

Axel exclaimed sharply, “What?”

She nodded without raising her gaze. “The closer I got to the Decay, the more bodies I found. I saw it in the firelight, surging forward, and I was so angry that I released my sympathy fully. There were bodies submerged in the Decay close to where I was, so I ran. I kicked the frozen Decay, shattered it, kicked the pieces away from the bodies. There were… there were six or seven bodies. One was Anna.” Sanna drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “In one hand, she still held a burnt-out firebrand. Her other hand was holding the hand of our neighbor boy, Aaki. They’d been engaged to be married just before I left the village. It should have been their wedding the next week, and there they were, dead, both of them. The Decay had already started to corrode their bodies. I remember… I remember hearing my own voice, crying… no, howling…”

Dr. Zuma wrapped both arms around Sanna’s neck from behind, pressed her cheek to Sanna’s head, and exhaled a shuddering breath.

“I don’t really remember much of what happened next,” Sanna continued in the same numbed tone, “but I found Mom next. She… she was submerged too, so I broke her out. She was hunched over a lump covered in a thick blanket. When I moved her, the lump moved. It was Metta from Aaki’s family, his sister’s daughter. She was born too early and barely survived, and her lungs… they were always weak, so she needed to take oxygen sometimes. She was under the blanket with one of her oxygen canisters, alive. Mom had saved her. I screamed for the medics to come to her quickly. I was so afraid she might die right in front of me…” Sanna swallowed. “The medics took her away. I kept searching. Then I saw… I saw Dad lying on the ground, half-submerged. I dropped to my knees next to him, and he opened his eyes. He said… ‘I knew it must be you. So cold…’ I started to apologize, but he stopped me. ‘Refreshing,’ he said. He was barely breathing. He asked me, just whispering, about Uncle Axel and the children. I told him they were safe. Then he told me I shouldn’t stay, I should leave the rest to the disposal company, but I just shook my head. I couldn’t just leave by that point. I didn’t want to see, but… but maybe someone else was still alive. So I asked him where I should look. He told me he had last seen Doc running back toward the Decay, looking for survivors because he’d heard a child crying in pain. I asked about Nilma, and he said…” For the first time since she had started talking, Sanna raised her eyes and looked toward Fiola. “I’m sorry.”

Fiola shook her head violently. “No. Keep going.” Her face was pale, her expression tight.

“Dad said Nilma had taken in too much mist from the Decay and… and she went berserk, so Aunt Marinen tackled her. She couldn’t restrain her completely, so she… so she dragged herself and Nilma together into the fire.”

The others around the table exclaimed in shock, except Axel and Jock. In a choked voice, Axel said, “The Tuovali family policy: if by any chance one of them is influenced by the Decay, another one has a duty to destroy that person before he or she can do harm to others. Each of them had an agreement with another as the designated destroyer. It was one of the first things Marinen told me after we married. She and Nilma had a mutual agreement, as sisters and combat partners.”

Sanna said, “That was how I found them. Aunt Marinen still held Nilma in a blood choke. They died together.”

“Blood choke?” asked Rusza.

“A chokehold that restricts blood flow to the head,” said Everard, “as opposed to an air choke, which restricts air intake.”

“What about Valtemer?” Axel asked. “Kaya? Onnika?”

“Dad hadn’t seen Kaya or Onnika for a while. He had so little strength that I hated to question him, but he said Valtemer had gone after Doc when Doc didn’t come right back. Hannah was near Dad, almost near enough for me to touch her when I turned around. She had been injured when Nilma went berserk. It looked like she was just sleeping… she had asphyxiated, between the smoke and the mist from the Decay. I called the medics to come for Dad. Then I went to look for Doc and Valtemer. I found Marinen and Nilma instead. That… distracted me for a little while. But I heard someone crying, and that brought me to Kaya. She was still alive, still struggling to persuade rain out of the parched, smoky air. She was defending Valte’s and Onnika’s bodies. She had taken corrosive burns to most of her upper body, even to her face. She couldn’t see. When I called to her, she didn’t recognize my voice. She just kept asking how far away the Decay was, what direction it had taken, was it receding. I took her in my arms and told her it was all right, and she collapsed against me, crying so hard she barely could breathe for a while. Then she calmed a little. I think the fear passed enough that she had room for the rest of it– the grief, the confusion and questions– because she asked me why everyone had to die like that. She spoke so bitterly about how she failed to protect Valte and Onnika. Was it her fault for being weak, she asked. And in my thoughts I heard Dad,  telling me it wasn’t my fault for weakening everyone when my sympathy went out of control, or for being away when they needed me. If he hadn’t just said those things to me while the medics were trying to hush him and keep him still, I would never have had any words to give Kaya.” Sanna drew a long, deep breath to steady herself. “When she knew it was me, when she heard my words, she… she said my name and smiled. Then it was as if she fell asleep in my arms.”

Axel was crying silently by that point. Everard saw that the entire room was overwhelmed by Sanna’s story, so he said, “Earlier today, you explained the phenomenon of delayed shock in such a way that I could tell you had experienced it for yourself. When did it hit you?”

Sanna wiped away another tear with her forefinger. “In the morning. All night, I worked with the disposal squad, looking for more survivors. By morning, it was determined that there were no more. One of the squad members forced me to leave the site and go to the operations tent they had set up. She wanted me to eat something, but I couldn’t. That’s the only reason I didn’t throw up. The medics took charge of me, sedated me and tried their best to warm me up… not that it worked very well,” she added wryly. “I was so shaken that I couldn’t think. It wasn’t until I woke up late in the afternoon that I had enough presence of mind to tell them about my sympathy and what it did to my body temperature. It was then,” she said, “that I found out they hadn’t been able to save Dad. They didn’t want to tell me, but I could tell just from that. He died not long after they took charge of him.”

Everard nodded. He was gently amused to see Soren’s small, fair head appear from under the table as the child climbed onto Sanna’s lap. Soren didn’t understand most of what was said among the adults, but he knew that his Sanna was sad. Everard watched Sanna cuddle the child close against her chest. “One of the common factors in large-scale manifestations of the Decay is a successful cultivation of relations with Outsider communities. In that, the West Territory hardliners are correct, but they are incorrect in viewing such contact as contamination. The more successful a community is in cultivating respect of the Only One among Outsiders, the higher the likelihood of an attack by the Decay. Noticing that common factor is what convinced me that the Decay possesses volition independent of its host,” he added, directing the comment mainly toward Tommy Ditlev. “I went back through the documentation and double-checked, just in case there was extremist activity involved as well, but that factor was only occasionally found, whereas the cultivation factor was a constant. What do you make of that?” He scanned the faces of his students, but most of them were silently pensive, unprepared to voice their thoughts. 

Tommy said, “It suggests to me that vengeance isn’t unique to humans.”

“It is a complicated interrelationship,” said Jock. “Human responsibility, corrupt will, and Divine providence.”

To Everard’s surprise, Sanna Taivas stirred herself to speak again. She turned in her seat to look directly at Elfric Tarbengar. “The majority of the early responders, after the first disposal company came, were Outsiders from the nearby villages. They had seen the fires too. When they saw the extent of the destruction, they went back home for their digging equipment to help bury the dead. One of them, a particular friend of my family from a long time back, he stayed beside me to help identify the dead and organize the burials.”

“Wray?” Friga Rohkin asked softly.

Sanna nodded. “He was deeply grieved to lose so many neighbors like that. Afterward, he offered me a place with his family. I told him I would never leave Hazaak, and he said…” She paused. “He said it was just what he expected me to say, that he would have been a little disappointed if I hadn’t chosen that way. He said my family would be happy to hear me say it.” 

“A kindly man, Wray Melchor,” said Friga. “Erno must have had more of an influence on him than any of us realized.”

“Outsider and extremist aren’t synonymous terms,” Axel said suddenly. “Many of them are no less kind, no less helpful than any of us.”

Jock spoke up. “Only five percent, maybe eight percent at most, of Outsiders can be considered extremists in the common usage of the word. The remaining majority are average people, mostly ignorant of the profound dangers posed by the Decay and very vulnerable to attack.”

“True,” said Ietta, “it isn’t as straightforward as people like to think. For example, where I come from, we almost never face hostilities from those people normally classed as extremists. Those who choose to become hosts to the Decay aren’t the militant ones. They mostly crawl underground and die very quietly.” Her expression was far more somber than usual. “Our struggle is with the Decay merchants. Southwest Territory has no natural sources of the Decay. It gets brought in by sellers who gather it in South Territory and sell it to Outsiders in our territory. We do what we can to stop them, but they have the resources and connections to put up a fierce fight. They often attack Oasis, claiming that they’re just trying to take back land that we developed, land nobody wanted before our settlement put in all that work on it.”

“I often wondered how the Decay could survive in a desert,” her husband remarked.

“It doesn’t,” Ietta replied. “It has to be imported.”

Everard sat back to watch the discussion flow at that point. The weight of Sanna’s testimony had lifted enough from most of the students to free them to develop their thoughts according to each one’s natural bent. Elfric’s thoughts were turbulent, but not negative. Maccani was already casting himself into his elders’ conversation, asking shrewd questions. Cooper still seemed overwhelmed, but he gamely followed the discussion as his own thoughts accumulated. Sora, by way of contrast, was purely thinking, not listening at all, until a gap in the conversation prompted him to ask, “How can the Decay exert the same kind of influence that soul sympathy can? I sensed it this morning, and I couldn’t believe it at first. And how is it possible for those Decay merchants Lieutenant Ietta talked about to handle the Decay without coming to harm?”

Prisca Cornelius fielded these questions, leading the discussion off along those lines. Everard noticed that Rusza was sunk deep in a daze that went too deep for conscious thought. He looked exhausted again. 

Everard saw more than coincidence in the event when a member of the Leeward communications corps stuck his head into the conference room a few minutes later and made eye contact with him. He stood. “I have a call waiting. Jock, take over for me. Rusza, come with me.”

As they followed the corpsman across to the operations wing, Rusza said, “I needed to get some exercise. Thanks, Uncle Everard.”

“I did think you looked tired,” Everard told him, “but I brought you along to the call because it’s from Gar.”

“Grandpa?” Rusza perked up a little. “Why is he calling?”

“He is returning my call. I tried to connect with him this afternoon, but he was busy.” He set a hand on Rusza’s shoulder and steered the boy into the communications room ahead of him.

An exclamation burst from the speakers. The entire Tate family appeared to be squeezed into the cramped communications room of the capital’s Government Center. Gar and Apple occupied the two chairs directly in front of the screen. Archet was kneeling on the floor behind them, so that his face showed between them. He had his sister Hapzah’s elbow practically in his ear as she bent over Apple to see the screen better. Kent and Feilin were standing behind Archet, and Rusza’s brothers filled the rest of the space. Rusza threw himself down into one of the chairs in front of the screen. “Look at all of you,” he exclaimed.

“Look at us?” his father said. “Look at you! Has it only been two and a half months? How tall have you gotten? Rusza? Rusza, are you all right?”

Everard sat beside Rusza, who had dropped forward with his face in his hands. “Take it slow,” he said to the boy. To the suddenly worried family at the other end of the call, he said, “It has been a long, rough day.” He explained about the morning’s incident and what Rusza saw. He explained also about Rusza’s collapse, ending with, “He only just got up in time for a suppertime discussion group, where he heard Sanna Taivas talk about her first encounter with the Decay. It has been more than a little overwhelming for him… hasn’t it?” he said to Rusza as the boy finally raised his head.

Rusza nodded fervently. “I’m just so glad to see all of you,” he said in a slightly roughened voice. “And to see you’re all doing well. Can’t we adopt Sanna Taivas and her family?”

His sudden question made his family laugh. Gar said, “Why do you ask that, Rusza?”

The boy took a few seconds to compose himself. Then he said, “It’s just so lonely. I mean, it was lonely when Mom died, but I can’t imagine what it’d be like if I lost all of you, except Uncle Kent and a couple of Aunt Feilin’s sister’s kids.” He shuddered visibly and needed a few more seconds to compose himself again. “I know we can’t take the place of their family, but we could help make it a little less lonely, couldn’t we?”

His family was quiet for a little while. Archet was the first to respond. “I saw what Axel Taivas went through when he found out that none of his family survived except his niece,  and I thought the same kind of things as you, Rusza. I’d be greatly pleased to consider them ours.”

“It would be good for them to have somewhere to go when they stay in the capital,” Everard agreed.

Rusza straightened. “I’m sorry, Uncle Everard. I’ve been taking up your call.”

“I arranged the call so you could talk with your family,” Everard assured him. “It seemed to me that you needed this.”

Rusza’s grin was one of gratitude and embarrassment. “Thanks.”

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