“Are you leaving so soon?” Tommy sat up on his long sofa.
Father Everard showed no signs of moving from his chair, but he said, “Yes, the visit was only ever intended to last three months. We’ve completed our three months. I want to spend some time at Sawtooth Ridge before the worst of the winter weather sets in, so we really can’t afford to linger.”
“We have to throw a going-away party for you. When exactly are you heading out?”
“Weather permitting, we leave in two days. However, I suggest that this party you have in mind be fairly limited and understated. Taivas is still in mourning, and Tarbengar is from West Territory.”
Mother Coralie turned from the younger man to the older, smiling. “It’s fascinating to watch the two of you together,” she commented at last. “Everard, you have almost no expression at all, while you, Tommy, show everything on your face as soon as it enters your mind.”
“Do I?” asked the chaplain.
“You are easy to read,” Father Everard agreed. “Much easier than Dr. Zuma, anyway. All I can tell about her at the moment is that she has something on her mind.”
Chinara lifted her head at the mention of her name. “Yes. I wondered which road you intend to take Sawtooth Ridge.”
“Due to certain circumstances,” Father Everard said, “we plan to take the northerly route rather than detour west to the capital. But that isn’t what you have in your thoughts,” he added shrewdly. “Do you want to accompany Taivas to her village?”
With a swift, startled lift of her eyebrows, Chinara said, “That is a remarkable guess, if it was a guess.”
“Your question clarified for me what my sympathy couldn’t quite perceive unaided,” Father Everard explained. “Have you asked for leave yet?”
“I was waiting until I was sure,” she replied. “But I spoke with General Murren and with Prisca already about the possibility. They are both amenable, so really, I only need your consent, Father. I take it you already had planned to detour north from Cavern to Sky-wind, since it came so readily to mind for you.”
“I had a request to visit Sky-wind almost six weeks ago. Not from anyone in Sanna Taivas’ party,” he said, “but from Rusza. I told him it was no longer a village but a cemetery. He said that was his reason for wanting to visit. Those words so surprised me at the time that I began making plans at once.
“It is a little surprising,” said Coralie, “until you take into account how attached he has gotten to Sanna’s family. Archet has his boys accustomed to make regular graveside visits to their mother. Maybe he’s coming to think of visiting Sky-wind in those terms.”
Tommy stirred restlessly on his sofa. “I’m curious to see what that young man becomes.”
“As am I,” said Father Everard dryly, “since he has so many potential paths and so little innate sense of purpose.” He checked the time. “Cora, did you say you had arranged to meet with the Glazmere girl again?”
Mother Coralie glanced at the time. In an instant, she was on her feet. “Gracious, I nearly missed it. Thank you, dear. Dr. Zuma, would you come with me?”
Chinara stood and accompanied Mother Coralie out of the chaplain’s office. The air outdoors had a definite taste of early autumn in it, but Mother was focused on what she must say to Glory Glazmere. Chinara grasped Mother’s jacket sleeve lightly until she had her attention. “Does Glory still worry you so much, Mother?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“I believe she has progressed considerably these past few weeks. Seeing the soul influence exerted by the Decay in person seems to have curbed her own careless use of it.”
“Has it? I’m glad. It’s so difficult for me to tell; her attitude seems just the same as when I brought her here.”
“Outwardly, perhaps, but Prisca is pleased with her growth.”
Mother Coralie relaxed perceptibly. When she entered Prisca’s office in the spa, with Chinara right behind her, she greeted both Prisca and Glory warmly. “Our visit here is nearing an end,” she began at once. “We will head to Northwest Territory after a stopover in Cavern for a few days. After my business in Northwest is done, I plan to return to the capital by way of Fortress. Is there anything you would like me to deliver to your brother while I’m there, Glory?”
The younger woman tilted her head forward in a mannerism Chinara had come to recognize as a sign of embarrassment. She said, “Well, there is something… I picked it up, thinking Worth would be interested in it, but I didn’t like to put it into the post because it’s heavy and… and sort of brittle. If it isn’t an inconvenience, Mother Locke, I… May I send it with you?”
“Of course you may. I’d be happy to deliver it for you.”
Glory lifted her gaze to study Mother Coralie for several seconds. “Why?”
“Why what?” Mother Coralie replied in some perplexity.
“Why are you happy to have me ask this of you? I’m pretty much a parolee here. Mica won’t even look at me anymore, and Father Locke just gives me that wary look. There’s no reason why you should care–“
“Oh, but there is,” Mother Coralie said. “There’s a very good reason. If you depend on me, that tells me that your resentment has started to heal. That is why you were sent here: to draw you out of your narrow view of life and into the wider world. I want to see you and your brother and your friend Dinah find a more challenging, more satisfying life than you had in the capital. True, that meant we had to take all of you out of your comfortable lives, but if it makes you stronger and better equipped to face real life, then I count it worthwhile. I hope you can come to see it like that someday too.”
Glory Glazmere tilted her head again. She seemed lost for a response.
“What did you want to send?” Prisca asked.
Glory reached across her desk to pick up a white stone slightly larger than her palm. “It has a shell, a fossilized shell, in it.”
“That’s pretty,” said Mother Coralie as she took the stone in both hands to admire it. “I have one like this in my collection. Smaller, though, and not as distinct. What a fine specimen!”
“You talk like Worth,” Glory said.
“Oh, it’s a common enough failing in mineral sympathists,” Mother Coralie replied with a laugh, “getting too excited over something everyone else thinks is just a rock, nothing special at all. I have just the box for this,” she continued, “to keep it from getting bumped around on the way.”
“It’s a rock,” said Glory, “what harm could come to it?”
“Oh, but it has a slight fracture in it already, just here.” Mother Coralie traced a line across the stone with a light touch. “You can’t see it yet because it’s still small, but the wrong kind of stress might split off this whole portion, and that would ruin the symmetry of the specimen.”
Suddenly, Glory laughed. “I’ll leave it in your hands, then. Worth would be disappointed if he didn’t get to see it in all its symmetrical splendor.”
Mother Coralie smiled. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you laugh, Glory.” She stood. “I’m so glad.”
“Thanks,” said Glory, looking straight at Mother Coralie without any of her usual airs. “Thanks for caring. You aren’t who I thought.”
“Maybe someday we can get to know each other better,” was Mother Coralie’s reply. She turned her attention to Chinara. “I also need to speak to Wishart Turstin.”
“I understand.” Chinara grabbed a pair of sound-cancelling headphones from the shelf next to Prisca’s desk. “I’ll bring these back later.”
Prisca gave her a knowing look but did not remark.
Wishart Turstin was in a room at the end of the administrative building, behind the guard box. The room was fitted out as a kind of cell, with a cot and a folding chair bolted to the floor. The door was not locked, but one of the day guards sat just outside as if on duty there. Inside, Turstin lay stretched out on the cot with a newspaper over his face. He jerked the paper to the floor when the two women entered. “What do you want?”
Mother Coralie held out a paper to him. “Your new assignment has gone through. You will be attached to the Puoltamo fighting school in Cavern as an assistant to one of the instructors there.”
Turstin took the paper, glanced at its contents, crushed it in his hand, and dropped it on the floor. “When do I get out of here?”
“We depart the day after tomorrow.”
“We? What business is it of yours?”
“I am in charge of placements,” Mother Coralie explained kindly, “and since my company is already headed to Cavern, I opted to escort you to your new assignment.”
“Put me on a truck out of here today and then piss off. That’s all you need to do.”
Chinara could sense Mother Coralie’s inward recoil. Chinara breathed a quiet sigh. She took the headphones she held and placed them firmly over Mother Coralie’s ears. Then she turned and, without raising her voice, spoke to Turstin. “Shut your mouth and open your ears for a change, you offensive young ass,” she said. “Mother Locke is giving you your last chance. This new place wouldn’t accept someone like you willingly. She had to do a great deal of persuading and negotiating to get this chance for you, so you ought to be thankful that she, at least, hasn’t given you up as a worthless cause. If you ruin this chance, then the only thing left for you is exile. Do not fool yourself into thinking you can do as you please anymore. If you understand what I’m saying to you, then straighten up, apologize for being rude to Mother Locke, and start preparing yourself for your transfer.”
By the time Chinara had finished blasting Turstin with her sympathy, Turstin was on his feet with his back to the wall and his face twisted in an expression of terrified resentment. At her last command, his posture became rigidly straight. He blurted out, “M’ sorry,” although it was purely the strength of Chinara’s soul influence that extracted the words from him.
Chinara turned back and removed the headphones from Mother Coralie’s head. “Are you ready to head to your next appointment now, Mother?”
Mother Coralie gave Chinara a long, searching gaze. “Yes, thank you, Dr. Zuma. Let’s go.” Her heart was heavy as she turned away from the South Territorial soldier.
When they parted at Father Everard’s command tent, Chinara went back to the chaplain’s office. There she found both Tommy and Prisca. She handed the headphones back to Prisca with thanks.
“So you needed them,” said the senior human soul sympathist. It was not a question.
“I snapped just after he told Mother Coralie to piss off,” Chinara replied. “He should be on slightly better behavior now for a few days.”
Both of the other two human soul sympathists sighed. Prisca asked, “Are you all right?”
“You know,” was all Chinara said.
“People like him leave a residue,” Tommy agreed. “Best way to clear it away: good company. We have a going-away party to plan!”
“You and your parties,” Chinara said with a smile.
Tommy said, “I like these kids. It isn’t often Father has such a young bunch, and so many of them are just unique. But Father was right: we don’t want to set off Tarbenger’s West Territory sensibilities. What do you think would be a good idea?”
“This is your plan,” Prisca said. “What do you think would be a good idea?”
“Father Everard said limited and understated,” Tommy began, “so I thought, since this group is so young, we could decorate the mess hall a little and have a really nice dinner, invite the staff who had interacted with the students the most, and have them give their advice for the students’ future paths.”
Prisca looked askance at Tommy. “For you, that’s… sensible.”
“Hey,” said Tommy, laughing. “That hurts. No, with these kids, I want to leave them with something that benefits them. Not to mention they’re all underage, except Maccani, and we have the Sky-wind contingent, and Tarbengar.”
“Now the real reason comes out,” Chinara teased.
“I’m serious,” insisted Tommy.
“I know you are. That’s what makes it funny. I’ll tell General Murren and get her consent for it,” Chinara said. “I need to talk to her again anyway about taking leave.” She got up. “I like your idea. We just need to make sure all of the students get some attention. Not all of them have had much interaction with our staff,” she reminded Tommy.
“Understood. I’ll work on that.”
She left the other two soul sympathists and headed for the administrative building. There she found the general available and willing to hear what she had to say. They talked for nearly an hour, with Chinara reporting the latest about Turstin and her own plans for accompanying the students to Cavern, as well as Tommy’s idea for the going-away party. General Murren actually cracked a smile when she heard the latter, but she was amenable to all that Chinara brought up for her approval. She even had ideas about taking some of the staff on an instructional trip to Sky-wind, perhaps the following summer. “Do the reconnaissance for me, Zuma,” she said, “and bring back enough information to make a timetable for us.”
“Thank you, General.”
The next time Chinara saw Father Everard or Mother Coralie was at supper that evening. She drew Mother Coralie aside and asked, “May I have your consent to ride with you to Cavern?”
“With me? I thought you were accompanying Sanna Taivas,” said Mother Coralie.
“I am, but on the way to Cavern, I’m more concerned with Wishart Turstin’s behavior. You don’t have an active electro-magnetic energy sympathist on your staff, do you?”
“No,” Mother Coralie admitted, “and we’ve been talking about that this afternoon, Everard and I. At this point, we’ve only decided that Rusza will ride with my staff as a precaution, since he has both of the energies Turstin can use. But Rusza isn’t…”
“He isn’t mature enough yet to handle disciplinary matters,” Chinara supplied for her. “That’s where I can help.”
“I have to admit… I would be thankful for your help.”
“Between us, Rusza and I will keep a lid on him for you.”
“Did somebody say my name?” Rusza pushed his head between them with an engaging grin.
“Yes, but not to call for you. Sanna, take him away,” said Mother Coralie. “He hasn’t been invited to this conversation.”
Sanna Taivas appeared at Rusza’s shoulder, grabbed him by the back of the neck, and steered him in the opposite direction without saying a word. Rusza, by contrast, protested as he went, “I just heard my name and wanted to know what was going on… I didn’t know I wasn’t meant to hear…”
Mother Coralie chuckled. “That’s so useful. I wish we had had her around years ago.”
“They do make an interesting pair,” Chinara agreed. “So I have your permission?”
“Certainly, yes. Everard will be pleased. He has been resisting this plan for exactly the reasons you mentioned: I don’t have an active-duty E-M sympathist on staff and Rusza is still immature.” Mother Coralie hurried back to her table to speak in Father Everard’s ear.
Before Chinara could take a tray at the head of the mess line, Tommy grabbed her elbow and steered her aside. “I’ve hit a snag,” he explained quietly. “I can’t find anybody to give advice for Gretta Warhite. It turns out she hasn’t really interacted with anyone one base except Sergeant Moghada for individualized training, and she says she has nothing to say to the girl. I haven’t spoken to Warhite, so I’m not sure why she has kept to herself so much. Is she shy? Quiet?”
“Neither,” said Chinara, “but I have talked with her enough to guess why.”
“Would you take her on for giving advice?”
Chinara considered the request for a few seconds. “I don’t know what I might say that she would really hear, but I’ll try.”
Tommy’s relief was apparent. “Thanks. That was the last one to arrange. I was starting to worry.” He hastened away on his own business, leaving Chinara to go through the line for food at last.
She pondered the challenge of Gretta’s advice the rest of the evening and through the following morning’s appointments. One of those appointments was with Sanna. In the midst of talking about the upcoming visit to Sky-wind, Chinara spoke without thinking. “How do you feel about Gretta, Sanna?” She knew immediately that she hadn’t approached the topic correctly, because Sanna recoiled slightly. Chinara went on quickly, “It isn’t for the sake of gossip. I have been asked to give Gretta advice that will benefit her going forward from here, and I am at a loss as to what I should say. I know her a little, but you have known her longer.”
“That makes more sense,” Sanna replied, relaxing again. “It is a difficult question. If you were advising any of the rest of us, I would be sure we would welcome the benefit of your experience, but Gretta…” She bit her lower lip. “Sometimes I want nothing so much as to take her by the shoulders and shake her. She has so much, has so many advantages, and she still envies others so bitterly.” Then a conflicted smile came over her features. “She reminds me of Toinia, a woman from my village. Dad used to say about her that she thought very highly of herself, and for good reason, but for all her ability she always forgot why we did what we did. I know Gretta wants to succeed Mother Locke, but I don’t know why she does, and that troubles me. So many people depend on Mother.”
Chinara gazed at Sanna even after the girl finished speaking. Then she stirred herself to speak. “Thank you. That helps. Was this Toinia still in the village at the end?”
Sanna shook her head. “She quarreled with the elders over something they didn’t consider as important as she did, so she moved to Cavern. As far as I know, she never spoke to anyone from Sky-wind again, just over that one disagreement.”
“That’s just what Dad used to say,” said Sanna wistfully.
They finished their appointment, and Sanna went back to join her group. Chinara followed at a distance, just observing the group dynamics. Gretta stood apart in a subtle way, physically aligning herself with the two female soldiers on Mother Coralie’s staff rather than with the students. She still interacted with the other students, but in the same way that Mother’s combat soldiers did, as an adult among children.
To Chinara’s eyes, the change seemed to make scarcely any difference among the other students. Rusza, at least, still acted as he always did around women. Lily still ignored and avoided Gretta whenever possible, as she always had. Sanna was courteous and respectful toward Gretta, but knowing Sanna better now, Chinara could perceive the distance in that courteous respect. As for the rest of the boys, the only one Gretta bothered to interact with was Mica Locke. Maccani she treated with cool condescension, as if he were younger rather than older than she was, especially when he was with Rusza and Sanna.
Chinara shook her head and returned to her office to prepare for her next appointment.
Her duties kept her busy as she prepared to hand over her caseload to Prisca for the duration of her leave of absence. Even when that was finalized, she had her bag to pack. As she said to Prisca, “I haven’t traveled on leave for so many years, I don’t remember what I usually pack.” But she managed to finish her personal preparations in time for Tommy’s party.
Prisca entered the mess hall, took one look at the buffet table, and said, “Just whom did he influence, and how strongly, to get that much smoked salmon?”
Tommy heard this from across the hall and laughed. “I resent that remark. That smoked salmon is a gift from friends of the Taivas family.”
Maccani Moor, standing next to Tommy, had his own remarks to add. “I know for a fact it’s for Axel Taivas because Granddad would never splurge like that for me going away. I don’t know that he would for me coming back, either,” he mused good-naturedly. “He probably wants to leave a good impression on Axel, in hopes Axel will come back and work for him one day.”
“He’s a thoroughgoing businessman, your grandfather is,” said Prisca. “I know him from way back.”
“That isn’t saying much,” Tommy said in a conspiratorial false whisper. “Dr. Cornelius knows everybody from way back.”
“One more remark like that,” Prisca said mildly, “and I shall write to your mother, telling her it’s time she arranged a marriage for you.”
Tommy knelt down and bowed himself to the floor. “I’m sorry I was cheeky, Dr. Cornelius. Please don’t write Mom.”
Prisca winked at Maccani. “I know her from way back too.”
Others began arriving soon after that exchange. Chinara stood back and watched Tommy exert himself as de facto host. He moved the party guests around in such a way that the guests of honor, the students, were evenly distributed among the base’s staff. The only one Tommy couldn’t maneuver, much to Chinara’s amusement, was Rusza. The boy kept getting up and planting himself next to the Taivas family, no matter who else Tommy tried to introduce him to.
When the arrivals had stopped arriving and everyone was seated with a full plate and a brimming cup, Tommy stood up and called the crowd to order. “Thanks to everyone who made time in their schedules for this. Tomorrow, Father Locke and his students are heading out. I wanted them to leave Leeward with something they would find beneficial for their futures, so I’ve asked some of our staff to provide their best advice to the student each knows best. So thanks also to everyone who agreed to take on that responsibility. Because it was my idea, I’ll start us off. Sora Waeber. Are you listening, Waeber? Good, just checking. I was thinking about your future, and just for fun I tried imagining you as an army chaplain. You know, it didn’t seem as far-fetched as it might sound. My advice to you is to make an appointment to visit the chaplain school in Fortress, whenever you make it to those parts on your travels. Will you do that?”
Chinara turned in her seat to look for Sora Waeber. She spotted him well before he emerged from his thoughts to answer, “Yes, sir. I’ll visit.”
“Good. And you, Rusza Tate…” Tommy paused. “Come over here. I know you’re susceptible, so my advice to you will be in the form of two questions.” When Rusza came alongside him, Tommy led him farther to the side, well away from any tables, and slung an arm across the boy’s shoulders. Speaking very softly into Rusza’s ear, Tommy was quick to clap a hand over Rusza’s mouth to hold back the boy’s startled exclamation. “Seriously, do you want everyone to hear this? And no, that isn’t the second question.” Tommy listened to the whispers of a deeply flustered Rusza for a few moments. Then he spoke again into the boy’s ear.
This time, Rusza’s reply was perfectly audible: “I don’t think I do know.”
Tommy straightened. “I expected that. If you don’t, then at least you know what you need to find out, don’t you?” He slapped Rusza on the back. “Think about it.”
“I don’t know if we can handle another episode of Rusza, thinking,” said Maccani from two tables over.
“Just for that,” said Tommy, “I’m going to let loose all the people who wanted to give you advice, Moor.” He made a gesture of invitation, and at least a dozen staff members stood up.
Rusza uttered a hoot of laughter.
Chinara smiled with everyone else as the local son endured all kinds of comments from relatives and family friends. The Cabistant-Moor family, as everyone knew, was not only numerous but well-connected in Leeward; and Maccani appeared to be popular among them, despite his upbringing elsewhere.
Eventually, it was General Murren herself who reined in what had nearly turned into a roast. “You Cabistant-Moors and associates, settle yourselves down. I have some advice to give as well.” She waited for the crowd to quiet down. “First, Sanna Taivas, I have something to say to you. You have the makings in you of a natural leader. I know your focus right now is controlling your sympathy, as it should be, but don’t neglect leadership training on account of it. I have heard about your situation. You’re going to be traveling a lot. I have a letter for you to show to the elders and commanders in North and Northwest. Come see me first thing in the morning.”
Sanna looked flustered for a change. She murmured her thanks and dropped her gaze to the table in front of her as her uncle rubbed her back in affectionate approval.
“And you, Mica Locke: I have something to say to you. I knew you when you were a tot. You’ve made bad choices. You’re making up for them now, but I advise you not to forget the bad choices. The only thing bad choices are good for is making you wiser after you turn away from them. So use them, and treasure where you are right now.”
Mica sat stiffly upright, eyes fixed on the general’s face. “Yes, ma’am.”
The general sat back down, so Chinara stood. “Gretta.”
Gretta Warhite was at the table next to Chinara’s. She perked up at her name. “Yes?”
“You once described your background as nothing very tragic or spectacular, as if that were a fault. People do notice tragedy and brilliance more quickly, but it’s steady excellence that accomplishes the most. You are already an accomplished young woman, and you have the capacity for further accomplishment. I wanted to suggest to you that neither brilliance nor tragedy is something enviable. Rather than seeking to be noticed, seek to be focused on your mission. People notice that, too.”
Gretta did not respond outwardly beyond a stiff smile, but Chinara could tell with her sympathy that the young woman was annoyed and then almost immediately dismissive.
Before Chinara had fully settled her weight in her seat again, Captain Venn was on his feet. “Tarbengar, I am sure you’ve collected plenty of thoughts that need sorted through. I’m originally from West Territory too. I remember what it was like. Take your time and weigh those thoughts with care. I have come to know you as a young man deeply concerned with doing what’s right. When you travel to a new territory, you’ll have people telling you different ways to do what’s right, and that’s a hard thing for us. We were never taught to distinguish between what’s right and the different ways to do what’s right, so that will take you some time to sort out. Seek wisdom from the Only One for the weighing, and don’t be too proud to ask for the opinions of the wise.”
Elfric stood at his place, bowed slightly, and thanked Captain Venn before he sat again.
An entire row of medics stood up then. One of them called out, “Anion Cooper!”
Anion blurted, “What?”
The spokesman of the group counted to three, and the whole row said, “Know your limits, and don’t make everything a competition!” in unison.
Laughter broke out all across the mess hall. Anion put his head down in his hands, blushing at the attention, but Chinara glimpsed a grin on the boy’s face between his hands.
Sergeant Domville got up to advise Rusza on how to better control his unruly mouth, which only provoked the crowd to more laughter, but Chinara found her attention drifting back to Gretta, who sat in a pool of silence in the midst of the laughter. Soul sympathy showed Chinara boredom and impatience in the girl. Before long, Gretta rose and quietly left the mess hall.
As Chinara contemplated this, a hand fell heavily on her shoulder. Father Everard spoke under his breath in her ear. “Don’t worry about her. You said only what was necessary, and you said it more tactfully than we would have said it. If she cannot hear it now, then it may be that she will hear it on a later date. The idea has been planted. That is what matters.” He lifted his hand and passed by Chinara on his way to the buffet.