Everard Locke watched the students’ faces as the personnel carrier plodded up the slope to the outskirts of Cavern. It had been snowing lightly for the past few miles. Lily Allen had clearly never seen snow before. She gazed out the window, enraptured, like a little girl. Rusza too was twisted around in his seat, exclaiming at the landscape with childlike pleasure.
Between them, Sanna Taivas held Soren asleep on her lap and looked solemn and contemplative. The line of her thoughts was not difficult to guess. She didn’t look out the window at all. Everard glanced down the row to his left, seeing very similar expressions on the faces of Axel Taivas and Friga Rohkin. Fiola dozed in her seat, head tipped sideways to prop her up against the shoulder of Maccani Moor.
Moor returned Everard’s gaze with wry understanding. He nudged Fiola gently to stir her to wakefulness. “We’re almost there,” he announced generally, as if he had never noticed the young girl sleeping against his shoulder. “I’ve never been this far north before. Should it be snowing already?”
“It happens sometimes,” Axel said.
Friga Rohkin added, “This much won’t last. Just a dusting. It’ll be gone almost as quickly as it falls.”
The slope leveled off to reveal a broken line of peaks in the distance. The dull gray sky blurred the boundary between it and the dull gray mountains, but at the base of the mountains was a plain of mostly farmland.
“Have they finished their harvest already?” Rusza, the farmer’s grandson, surveyed the bare fields that stretched out to either side of the road.
“The growing season is much shorter in North Territory than in the capital,” Everard explained. “If they don’t harvest before or shortly after the first frost, they run the risk of losing crops. The first frost can come before the autumn equinox up here,” he added. “Whereas, in the capital, it rarely comes before the end of the eleventh month.”
Shy drove first to the Cavern army base, where most of the students and the rest of Everard’s staff disembarked with their luggage. In exchange, Cora came on board, bringing Turstin’s bag. “Puoltamo school,” she said to Shy. “Do you know the way?”
“More or less,” he answered.
“Get me to the neighborhood,” Everard said, “and I’ll know where to go from there. Rusza, join Dr. Zuma. You’re back on duty.” He watched the young man obey, albeit with a longing gaze out the window toward the other students.
The Puoltamo school complex stood just outside the shadow of the mountain cavern that gave the city its name. It occupied an entire city block on its own. From the outside, it looked like a blank stone wall, punctuated by two open gates in the front wall and one closed gate in each of the other three sides. A no-nonsense sign hung above the right-hand gate, copper letters against a black steel ground, proclaiming the name Puoltamo, nothing more. Shy drove through that gate.
The inside of the school could not have been a greater contrast to the outside. A narrow, two-story building painted spring green with white trim stood between the two gates. It was so narrow, in fact, that from the personnel carrier Everard could see through the building to the other side. This, Everard knew, was called the gatehouse and functioned as a depot for the school. The woman stationed at the gatehouse doorway waved them past with a salute, so Shy followed the drive up to the main building, a robin’s-egg blue, three-story, clapboard house with white trim and a slate tile roof. Raised enclosed walkways stretched out from both sides of the house, connecting it on one side to a line of rowhouses painted buttercup yellow with white trim and slate tile roofs and on the other to a much older and grimmer-looking stone building two stories tall but with windows only in the lower floor. Beyond this old stone gymnasium was a collection of other buildings, Everard knew, but they were hidden from view by the gym.
When the carrier came to a halt in front of the main building, Everard descended first and then reached back to take Cora’s hand as she descended. She did not attempt to put distance between them but latched on to his elbow, probably well aware that Lyra Puoltamo knew her too well to believe the “Mother Granite” myth. Behind them, Dr. Zuma led, Wishart Turstin walked behind her, and Rusza brought up the rear of the procession. Everard leaned down to murmur in Cora’s ear, “I look forward to finding out from Dr. Zuma just what changed when they were on your carrier. Something is different about Turstin.” He turned his attention to the main entrance, where a young woman had just opened the double doors.
“Father Locke, Mother Locke.” The young woman bowed. “Welcome back to the Puoltamo school. Master Lyra is ready to receive you.”
“Lead on,” said Everard.
The young woman brought them through a spacious foyer to a suite of offices at the back of the main building. In the antechamber, a man about the same age as Everard stood to greet them. “Everard,” he said as he shook hands with Everard. Then he turned to shake Cora’s hand. “Coralie. It’s good to see you again.”
“Hello, Lang. The school is flourishing, I trust?” Everard asked.
Lang Puoltamo smiled with satisfaction. “Oh, it is. It is! Come through. Lyra asked me not to delay you with conversation.” He brought them to the next door deeper into the suite. Without knocking, he simply opened it and announced, “Lyra, dear, Father and Mother Locke are here.”
“Thanks, Dad.” The woman who stood behind the desk was Lyra Puoltamo herself. She was, as Everard knew, thirty-eight years old, the oldest daughter of Lang and his late wife Inkari, and head of the Puoltamo school for a dozen years now, since her mother’s early retirement due to poor health. She wore her corn-yellow hair in a plaited coronet, as her mother had done before her, but where Inkari had had hazel eyes, Lyra had her father’s blue eyes. “Dad,” she added, “would you find out where Cadan has buried himself and tell him I need him here?”
“Willingly,” he replied.
After Lang had gone, Cora asked, “Is Cadan still resistant to the assignment?”
“He has accepted that it will happen, whether he likes it or not,” Lyra said wryly, “but he isn’t in any hurry to meet the young man.” Her attention had already fastened onto Wishart Turstin. “This is Turstin, I assume?”
“Yes. Private Wishart Turstin of Hacche Mead, South Territory.” Everard turned so that he could see Turstin’s face. “This is Lyra Puoltamo, master of this school and your new commanding officer.”
Turstin did not look pleased, but neither did he look as mutinous as Everard had expected. Instead, he seemed to be seeing something in Lyra’s face that made him uneasy. He leaned toward Rusza and said in an undertone that was still audible in the quiet office, “She related to the one you were talking about?”
Surprised, Rusza said, “To Sanna Taivas? No, I don’t think so. Ma’am, you aren’t related to the Taivas family, are you?”
“No,” said Lyra. “Sanna Taivas… she’s the one who now holds authority over the Guslin school, am I right?” She directed this question to Everard, who nodded. “I’d like to meet that girl someday.”
“She’s with us,” said Everard. “A meeting can easily be arranged.”
“Good. I’ve heard of the duel. I think everyone in Cavern has heard of it,” she said, “especially since the trial finished. The Guslin school is in shambles. With its head gone and everyone aware that the young head has no real authority, they’ve lost most of their students. I want to know what the Taivas girl intends to do with the school.”
“Come to dinner with us and ask her,” Everard offered. “You are acquainted, I think, with my first lieutenant’s parents? They are hosting dinner for us tonight.”
“The Knox couple, yes. Tell them I’ll join you.” Lyra turned her attention back to Turstin. “You, Wishart Turstin. You have a poor reputation. I want a straightforward answer from you: do you believe that women are inferior to men?”
Turstin eyed her in wary hesitation.
“Come, man, it isn’t a complicated question. Speak up. Do you, or do you not? You have a reputation for looking down on all women as inferior. I want to know if it’s the truth about you.”
Her bluntness appeared to have cornered Turstin. He muttered, “I dunno,” but Everard could tell that he was more occupied by the thought of what might happen if he gave the wrong answer. Everard was intrigued to see that Turstin had automatically categorized Lyra with Sanna Taivas as a woman not to be insulted with impunity, although he had not yet seen what Lyra was capable of doing.
“You don’t know? How can you not know your own opinions?” But Lyra was shrewd enough to have read Turstin’s body language and was amused by the reaction she had caused.
The office door opened just then, providing the distraction of a new arrival. Cadan Puoltamo, Lyra’s young husband, fixed his sights on Turstin immediately, without needing any introductions. For his part, Turstin appeared glad for the diversion and ready to assert himself against an opponent he felt confident he could match. When Cadan gave his first name curtly and stuck out his hand, Turstin took the bait. He attempted with Cadan the same dominance handshake that he had tried on Rusza at their first meeting.
Cadan clamped down on Turstin’s hand without mercy. A bone cracked audibly. Turstin gasped and bit down on a cry of agony. Cadan released him. “You’re my assistant,” he said. “I don’t like you, but I’m stuck with you, so understand this: I am more than willing to break a bone for every act of bad manners you commit, until you either learn to be a proper man or you wind up in full-body traction. It’s your choice which way you go.”
Turstin had no answer to make to this. He was too occupied with the pain in his hand and his intention not to show how much it hurt.
“If you’re done, Cadan, take him to the infirmary to get that set,” Lyra said.
Cadan met her gaze and relaxed. He hauled Turstin around by the back of the collar and steered him out of the office.
Everard said, “I’ll go with them. Rusza?” As they followed a side corridor that led to one of the raised walkways visible from the front, Everard glimpsed Shy, sitting in the driver’s seat of the personnel carrier and reading a newspaper. Then they entered the dimness of the old stone gymnasium, where a class was currently in session. The sight of four men walking along the far end of the gym brought the class to a pause. The ten girls stood to attention and chorused, “Good afternoon, Instructor Cadan.”
He acknowledged the greeting with a nod to the other instructor.
When they were beyond earshot, Everard asked, “New instructor?”
“No, sir, not an instructor yet,” Cadan replied promptly. “Anja Ling, one of Lyra’s top students. Has an instinctive sense of principle and practice, so Lyra wants her to try teaching some of the remedial students, just to see if she’ll make an instructor after more experience.”
“She sounds promising.”
“Yes, sir. That’s what Lyra thought.”
They arrived in a series of rooms at the back of the gymnasium. All the curtains were drawn back to let in the weak sunlight. An elderly woman stood at their entrance, not as a formality but in preparation for action. “Dr. Haldis,” Cadan said, “broken hand.”
“Is this the one?” The elderly woman studied Turstin closely. “Come, boy, let me look at it.”
Turstin was in too much pain to give the doctor any trouble. He simply held out his injured hand.
Dr. Haldis Puoltamo, Lyra’s great-aunt, had served as the school’s doctor for at least forty years, to Everard’s knowledge. There were few injuries she hadn’t seen before. She began taping Turstin’s fourth and fifth fingers together with the dexterity of long experience. “Valda,” she said, “would you fetch an ice pack for this boy?”
A child sprang out from one of the alcoves. “Yes, Aunt.” She ran to a freezer in the far corner and returned with the required ice pack.
Everard asked, “Is this your daughter, Cadan?”
“Yes, sir. Valda you’ve seen before. I don’t think you’ve met Noora. Noora, come!”
From the same alcove, a much smaller girl peeked out at the strangers. Seeing her father, however, she toddled toward him with her arms upraised.
Cadan scooped up his younger daughter and presented her with pride. “Lyra’s second daughter, Noora. Noora, this is Father Locke. Say hello.”
The girl gazed bashfully into Everard’s eyes for an instant before burying her face against her father’s chest.
“You and Lyra must be very proud,” Everard said. “Two fine daughters already.”
For the first time that day, Cadan smiled. He looked much younger. “Yes, sir. They’re my treasures.”
“I know just what you mean,” Everard replied.
Voices rang out from the corridor: a young, pained voice and a brisk, commanding one. The younger voice said, “I’m sorry, Instructor Astred, I just couldn’t…”
The brisk voice, belonging to Lyra’s sister Astred, replied, “Was that your best effort? Then you did exactly as I asked. A loss just means we still have work to do.” The pair came into view just as Astred finished speaking. The younger voice turned out to belong to a student, a girl in her early teens, who was supporting her weight on one foot and Astred’s shoulder.
Dr. Haldis was on her feet again. “What happened?”
“She took a training rod to the shin,” Astred said. “I don’t think it’s broken.”
“That’s for me to decide, girl,” retorted the doctor.
“Yes, Aunt,” Astred said with a grin. She maneuvered her student to a cot in the nearest alcove and then surrendered the girl to Dr. Haldis. “Father Locke, it has been a long time,” Astred said. She jerked her chin toward Turstin. “Is that the one?”
Everard nodded. “Wishart Turstin of Hacche Mead, South Territory. Astred Puoltamo, sister of the school master Lyra.”
“You already injured him,” Astred observed. “You didn’t waste time, Brother. Is that your dominant hand, Turstin? Brother, he won’t be much help as an assistant with his dominant hand injured.”
“Hand or no hand,” Cadan said darkly, “I don’t expect him to be much help.”
“Don’t be like that, Brother,” Astred laughed. “It isn’t as if he’s stupid. He can do the work, I don’t doubt. Maybe he was raised badly, but maintenance doesn’t need good manners. Here, Turstin, you have E-M sympathy, don’t you? That’s what the report said, anyway. My brother-in-law Cadan here needs someone to divide the property maintenance work with him, because Lyra wants him instructing part-time. You do the work and do your best not to get into trouble, and we’ll take good care of you. There isn’t anyone here it pays to start trouble with, anyway, since everybody from our intermediate girls on up has the skill to beat you into a jelly. Be good to us, and we’ll be good to you. Sound like a fair deal?”
Turstin looked worn out by the end of this speech. He merely grunted, “Sure, yeah,” but didn’t make eye contact with anyone.
“I’ll leave him with you, then,” Everard said to Cadan.
When he and Rusza returned to the office, Everard found Cora and Dr. Zuma partaking of afternoon coffee with Lyra. Lyra invited him to join them. “How are they doing?” she asked.
“Astred did some of her talking,” replied Everard, “and wore Turstin’s ears out. Between that and the pain of his injury, he appears to be in a remarkably docile frame of mind.”
“Astred,” Lyra laughed. “She could talk all four legs off a mule.”
“What I want to know,” Everard continued, “is what happened to Turstin while he was on your carrier, Cora. He seems to have undergone some distinct change in his way of thinking.”
Cora looked to Dr. Zuma, who looked thoughtfully at Rusza. “It was Rusza’s doing, actually.”
“Mine?” Rusza said in surprise.
“Yes. It so happens that Turstin can’t read,” she explained to Everard before saying, “He thought you were making fun of him, Rusza, offering to let him look on over your shoulder, remember? Your reaction was so far opposite of what he expected that it startled him.”
“Interesting,” Everard remarked. “Rusza, how did you react?”
“I didn’t, not really. I just thought it wasn’t a big deal.”
“Exactly,” said Dr. Zuma. “You took it as if it were of no importance and offered to accommodate his inability as a matter of routine. He was astonished. And he liked the book. Here.” She handed it back to Rusza. “I read the rest of it to him on the way. Thank you for loaning it.”
“It sounds like a school is just where that young man needs to be,” Lyra declared. “We can teach him, if he wants to learn.”
“No,” Everard said, “make it a matter of requirement, whether he wants it or not. I suspect he was never pushed to try harder at the things that make him struggle. That may be how he turned out as he has. Use the discipline already built into your curriculum to require him to learn, and reward him as you see fit when he complies, as you would with a remedial student.”
“A remedial handyman,” Lyra mused. Her blue eyes gleamed with humor. “It’s a challenge. Cadan is convinced that Turstin will bring the school into disrepute. I don’t think it’s such a big problem. By now, all the neighborhood knows we’re taking him on at your request, so they’ll understand. We’ve certainly been around long enough,” she added, “but Cadan is still fairly new to the school, and so zealous.”
“It’s your school,” Cora said softly, “and he adores you.”
“A little too much, I sometimes think,” said Lyra.
“Never too much,” Cora replied, “but maybe unwisely. It happens that way, when there’s a considerable age gap in a marriage. He’ll mature in time. Just give him time.” She rose to her feet. “We shall see you this evening, so I won’t say goodbye, only until later, Lyra.”
“Until later,” Lyra agreed as she accepted Cora’s hug.