“Father Locke?”

Everard raised his head from his work to see Lily Allen standing in front of him. “Yes?”

“I wondered…” The girl fidgeted for a few seconds. “May I change my request with you?”

He reached for his battered ledger and flipped through the pages to the entry for Lillias Allen. “It is unusual,” he said, “but it is possible. Have you rethought your ambition to join Mother’s staff?”

“It isn’t that I don’t admire Mother Locke, because I do,” she said, “I do more than ever, but I…” Lily Allen fidgeted again.

“You have had a change of heart about your ambition,” Everard supplied for her. “You would like, if I have read you rightly, to be assigned to a post here in Cavern. Is that so?” He watched her nod fervently. “There are a few difficulties in that request, none of them insurmountable. First, you are still a minor. To be assigned to a post in Cavern at all, you need to obtain your parents’ consent and the assignment of a local guardian. North Territory law is particularly strict about that. Second, you will need to choose your area of specialization. Presently, you have been undergoing a generalized training course with an emphasis on leadership. Do you wish to continue with that track, or have you changed your mind on that as well?”

Lily Allen clasped her hands behind her. “Sir, I want to train in the kind of work Dr. Zuma does.”

“I understand. Are you certain that you are ready to face the rigors of trauma counseling, even after seeing what you saw yesterday?”

“Yes, sir. That’s what made up my mind for me, sir.”

“I understand,” Everard repeated. He already had in mind two different trauma counselors who might suit the need. “North Territory requires all of its resident medical staff to enlist for four additional years after the four obligatory years are completed. In this way, the army pays for your education and receives your labor in return. You just began your four years. If you begin now and work steadily, you should be able to get your license as a doctor of trauma counseling by the end of that extended period. Are you willing to enlist, rather than remain as a trainee-recruit? Northerners don’t look kindly on people who begin and then give up part way through.”

“I know, sir. I want to do it.” A new thought brightened the girl’s expression with a little awe. “I could be a doctor by the time I’m twenty-two!”

Everard coughed gently. “Your arithmetic is accurate. Well, Allen, I will begin the transfer process, provided we can obtain your parents’ consent.” He stood from behind his borrowed desk. “We should work on that first. Come with me.” He led her out of the office and down the hallway to a stairwell leading up. Two flights up, he took a left and arrived outside the communications office. To the clerk on duty just inside the doorway, he said, “I need to put through a call to Current-town.”

The clerk stood to attention. “Father Locke. There’s a booth open right now. Corporal Lindros, you’re up. Call to Current-town,” she called out.

Her call was answered by another young clerk, who leaned out of a doorway in the far wall. “Father Locke, this way,” he said.

The communications booths in the Cavern army base were all of a pattern: a small desk covered in technology, a small screen on the wall above the desk, one chair, no window except the transom over the door, and no adornment at all. When Everard entered the booth with Lily Allen at his heels, the communications clerk occupied the chair as he adjusted the settings on the equipment. He established the connection, and the screen lit up to show another soldier, this one dark-haired and tanned, wearing the distinctive green of a South Territory uniform. “Cavern headquarters to Current-town,” said Corporal Lindros, “I have Father Locke here.” Then he turned to Everard. “All yours, sir.” 

Everard sank into the chair that the corporal vacated. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, sir!” said the clerk at the other end of the call. “Sergeant Whitton here. How can I help you, sir?”

“Whitton, I need a message sent to Richard and Margie Allen, western bloc. Allen, the address.” He sat quietly while Lily Allen recited her home address to the clerk. Then he resumed. “Their daughter wishes to be assigned to North Territory for her training, and I need their consent in writing. Verbal consent will be sufficient for me to begin the assignment process, of course, so I would like one or both of them to call me here at Cavern headquarters sometime today, if possible.”

“Yes, sir.” Sergeant Whitton repeated back the information for confirmation. Receiving that, he said, “We shall put this into motion at once, Father.”

“Thank you. I’ll be standing by.” Everard stood up. “Thank you, Corporal Lindros. You can find me in the guest offices until 1600.”

“Yes, sir.”

Lily Allen had a buoyant step as she followed Everard back downstairs. When asked, she said, “I can’t believe I’m actually transferring! It’s so exciting!”

“That presumes you can obtain your parents’ consent,” Everard reminded her.

“Yes, sir. But it’s still exciting,” she said, bouncing on her toes at the thought.

“It will take some time to get your parents’ call. You should stay near at hand.” By this point, they had returned to the guest offices. Everard entered the office on loan to his wife. “Cora,” he said. “Perdita. I bring you Trainee Allen.” Concisely he explained the girl’s request change and added, “Her parents will certainly want to speak with her when they call. May she sit with you until then?”

“Of course she may,” Cora replied. “Come and make yourself comfortable, Lily. I’ve already finished most of my meetings for today.”

Lily Allen hurried forward and seized Cora’s right hand in both her slender hands. “I hope you aren’t offended, Mother Locke, about me changing my mind. I said to Father Locke, it isn’t because I think any less of you. Not at all!”

Cora smiled at the girl. “Lily, I know. When you finally find your true ambition, it’s only right to give it your all. I have a lot of applicants who change their minds, either because they underestimated the difficulty of being on my staff or because they find their true ambition during the vetting process. That’s partly why we have the vetting process, really. I’m glad you’ve found something you can put your heart into.”

“Oh, yes,” Lily responded with feeling. “I always thought having soul sympathy meant being an elder and getting into politics, and that never sounded like something I wanted to do. When I found out you’re an elder but you still go out and help fight, I thought that sounded right.”

“South Territory has so few human soul sympathists,” Cora said, “that I can see where you’re coming from.”

“Do we really have so few?”

“Less than three percent of the population,” Everard interjected. “And that is why most of them take up civilian leadership roles.”

Lily Allen cocked her head to one side. “Really! So soul sympathists in other territories aren’t always elders? I was so sure that Dr. Zuma was unique.”

“She is,” said Cora, “in that she chose to go into trauma counseling despite having a dominantly active-principle sympathy. It’s much more common for passive-principle soul sympathists to counsel, because their perception of souls is so much keener.”

Everard excused himself from the conversation at that point to return to his own work. He found his next appointment standing in the hallway, looking into the empty office in perplexity. “Good morning, Vannhin,” Everard said.

“There you are. I thought I must have mistaken the time.” Isha Vannhin gripped Everard by the hand firmly.

They sat on opposite sides of the desk. Everard began, “What’s your opinion of Turstin?”

“Straight to business, like always,” replied Isha with approval. “I find him pathetic. He needs building up. Too long without any discipline in his formative years, if I’m reading his file correctly, and no one around him stronger than he, able to show him what real strength looks like. I’m not sure Cadan Puoltamo is the one to show him, either.”

“Give them time,” said Everard. “Even on the journey here, events were conspiring to work valuable changes in Turstin’s way of thinking. Once he settles in and starts to soak in the spirit of that school, who knows what other changes might occur? I would like to have your promise that you’ll check on him regularly, even though he isn’t in your district.”

“Curiosity alone would have goaded me to do that,” Isha laughed, “so I can promise you easily.”

“You understand his situation better than most,” Everard pointed out, “so you’re a better judge of his needs. It occurs to me,” he mused, “that I now have a related problem to work out. The girl he tried to hurt has become so thoroughly enamored of Cavern that she wants to be assigned here for the rest of her four years. It’s a large city, but there is always the chance of those two crossing paths.”

“A South Territorial girl?”

Everard nodded. He pursued his thoughts in silence for a short period. “I had been thinking to ask Jock’s parents to serve as guardians for her, since they are always glad to have young people in their house, but they live in the same district as the Puoltamo school…”

“I don’t expect it to be a problem,” Isha said. “Turstin is on a short leash, a very short leash. I doubt he’ll be allowed off the school’s grounds without an instructor with him. As long as they know to keep an eye out for trouble, it should be fine.”

“You make a valid point,” Everard said. “If Lyra knows, then Turstin won’t get an opening to trouble Allen.”

“What’s the girl’s name?”

“Lillias Allen, usually shortened to Lily.”

“Where will she be assigned?”

“I need to consult with Dr. Zuma and with Cora,” Everard began, “but I have two possibilities in mind. Allen is a passive-principle human soul sympathist, and she professes a wish to train for trauma counseling. My first thought was Dr. Enla at the central hospital, but perhaps that would be too harsh for a girl of fifteen just starting out. So Dr. Maaki might be a better option, since she runs a small clinic and deals with the later stages of the counseling process.”

“How do you remember all these details?” Isha asked. “Are you that well acquainted with those two women?”

“Barely acquainted,” said Everard, “but I need to know my options when I receive a disciplinary case that stems from combat stress. That happens far more often than most people think.”

Isha agreed and said, “Say, I know the fighting schools don’t fall directly under your authority, but do you have any ideas what we can do about the Guslin school? Sadly, they’re in my district, and that makes them my concern.”

“They don’t fall under my authority, but I have heard from the person who does have authority over that school. Her intention is to let the Guslin school die away entirely. Whatever lends itself to that end, therefore, is permissible.”

“Sanna Taivas? That simplifies matters in one sense and complicates them in another sense. Matt Guslin, by all reports, means to try to revitalize the school. No one knows how he means to do it, because everyone knows where the authority lies,” Isha added, “but he has his grandfather’s willfulness.”

“What are the possible avenues of action?” Everard asked.

“He could buy authority back from Taivas, if she were of a mind to let him ransom the school. It doesn’t sound as if she is of a mind for that, so she can force him to liquidate the school’s assets. She would have the right to dispose of the proceeds as she liked. By rights, she owns the Guslin school now.”

“And if she does nothing?”

Isha smirked. “Then the school dies a prolonged death, until all its assets drain away, leaving nothing. Then the property goes into foreclosure. In the meanwhile, the neighborhood around it will almost certainly suffer from what naturally happens around a derelict property.”

“I’ll put the matter before her later today,” said Everard, “and see what she says.”

“When?” Isha asked eagerly. “I didn’t want to disturb the family after what they went through yesterday, but if I go with you, I can deliver the copies I made and ask her in person.”

“My family has arranged to spend the evening with Sanna’s family,” said Everard, “and you’re welcome to accompany us. We meet for supper at the Taivas guest suite at 1645.”

“I’ll be there later. I don’t want to intrude on dinner.” Isha gave Everard a strange glance.

“What’s in your thoughts now?”

“Just noticing that, between the two female students we’ve discussed, one is just ‘Allen,’ but the other is ‘Sanna.’ You so rarely get attached to any of your students.”

Everard considered that. “Perhaps. But Sanna Taivas reminds me of myself in certain ways. That, more than anything, has caused me to think of her as a second daughter. Cora seems to agree on that point. She has grown quite attached to Sanna and Fiola.”

Isha gathered himself to rise. “That’s good to hear. I pray for Suvi’s children every day, but it comforts me to know they have others who take a personal interest in their welfare. I’ll see you this evening, then.”

After the elder left, Jock came in, leading Mica and Rusza. “Good morning, sir.”

“Good morning, all,” Everard said without looking up. He was already absorbed in one of the training requests that had arrived that morning.

“Mail,” Jock said.

Mica picked up the open pouch and started sorting the contents.

“Tate,” Jock continued, “where’s the mail pouch we brought from Leeward? You packed it.”

“Sorry,” Rusza said, “I put it in with the books. Where should I have put it?”

“In the strongbox with the current files,” Jock answered. He started to dig in one of the wheeled cases that contained Everard’s frequently-consulted reference library. “Time to sort it out.” He spread the contents of the pouch over half the work table. “Three categories: unanswered mail, unprocessed requests, and miscellaneous.” He and Rusza each grabbed a handful of papers to sort. After a few minutes, Jock said, “Mica Locke, here’s a whole pile of unopened mail with your name on it. What is it doing in the official pouch?”

Everard looked up in time to see Mica’s frown of confusion. “I don’t know, sir,” said Mica. “I put it in the stack of documents to be destroyed.”

“Oh,” Rusza blurted. “When I took those to the shredder, I saw these and thought they were put with the others by mistake, since they weren’t opened yet, so I brought them back.”

Everard held out his hand. When his lieutenant placed the stack of letters in his hand, he examined the top envelope. “Mica?”

“Sir.”

“No,” Everard said, “not as your commanding officer; as your dad.”

Mica looked at him in surprise.

Everard simply asked, “Why?”

Mica said, “I don’t need to open them to know what they say. She just wants to put back together her us-against-them coterie. I want no part in it.”

Studying his son for a few seconds, Everard said, “I know that she tried to approach you at least twice in Leeward. Did you refuse all contact with the woman?”

“I did.”

“Help me understand your reasoning,” Everard said. At his son’s look of surprise, he explained, “I can tell that your thoughts on this matter are firmly decided, but that doesn’t tell me why you made the decision. Is it fear? Is it blame? I want to understand.”

Mica seemed to deflate on a long exhale. “You were completely right, Dad. Back then, I only listened to thoughts I already approved, and I knew nothing outside of that. I had fallen into the narrowest of social circles. I overestimated my own sympathy and let others encourage me to keep inflating my opinion of myself. We fed each other’s selfishness and thought we were wise. As soon as I saw her, I could tell that she just wants all of that back. I honestly don’t trust my own strength of mind. If I gave way to her even once, I might start sliding back into that way of thinking. It was comfortable,” he admitted, “and it made me feel good about myself.”

“I understand,” Everard mused. “So partly fear… I heard quite a lot about what you didn’t want: not ease, not a closed society, not false self-esteem. What do you want, Mica?”

Mica laughed self-consciously. “I want what I always used to want. I want to be more like you, Dad.”

“You do take after your mother in the most troublesome ways,” Everard said. “Flattering as it is for me to hear those words, Mica, I must tell you that you and I are very little alike. I want you to be yourself. If you don’t yet know what that means, we can talk it through, you and me and your mother. But as for these letters, ignoring them won’t resolve the issue. You need to make your thoughts as clear to Glory Glazmere as you have to me. It might benefit her to know how you view your former friendship.”

Mica nodded heavily.

Somewhat puzzled, Everard asked, “Now what is it?”

“Nothing, really,” Mica said, but his voice was as heavy as his nod.

“Uncle,” said Rusza, “not that I want to intrude, but that was harsh.”

“Harsh?”

“Yes, he says his one ambition is to be more like you, and you just told him there’s no way that will ever happen. That has to hurt.”

“I didn’t say it to be hurtful. Mica, you’re like your mother. You showed it yesterday, and I rejoiced to see it.”

“Yesterday?”

“You intervened to bring out the harmful thoughts that little Fiola was harboring. You spoke to dispel those thoughts. It nearly brought me to tears. That’s how proud I was. I wouldn’t want any of my sons to be like me, all thought and small consideration for the heart. It’s a defect I’ve struggled against for years now.”

“Sir,” said Jock, “that isn’t the part of you that people want to emulate. I’m sure I speak for Mica when I say that we covet your breadth of understanding and your ability to make the right decision quickly based on all the knowledge you’ve accumulated. I think what he meant was that he wanted those parts of you to also be part of him.”

Mica cast a grateful look toward the lieutenant.

Everard looked from one young man to the other for a moment. “If that is the case,” he said slowly, “then anyone can do that.”

“Not just anyone,” Rusza asserted. “You’re one of a kind, Uncle. Dad often says so.”

“Archet would say something like that.” Everard handed the bundle of letters to Mica. “Read them anyway. Answer them the best you can. If you need my advice, I’ll give it.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

They worked on the backlog of documents for more than an hour before a messenger came from the communications office to announce, “A call from Current-town for you, Father Locke.”

Everard got up. “This might take some time. Jock, if anyone comes asking for me, send Rusza up to the communications office to notify me.” Then he went out, stopped in the doorway to Cora’s office, and said, “Allen, it’s time.”

The girl popped to her feet. “Yes, sir!”

When they arrived back at the communications booth, they found Corporal Lindros chatting with the couple on the screen. Lindros said, “Here they are,” and vacated the seat for Everard.

He introduced himself, listened to the couple’s introductions, and then went straight to business. “This morning, your daughter Lily made a request to change her assignment. Instead of joining Mother Locke’s staff, she now wants to train here in Cavern for a doctor’s license in trauma counseling. To put that request through, I need your consent.”

Richard and Margie Allen looked at each other for a moment. They were both slim and dark-haired, like their daughter, with the same liveliness and transparency of expression. Margie said, “I feared this might happen. Father Locke, may we possibly talk with Lily about this?”

“Possibly and preferably,” Everard agreed. He beckoned Allen forward, surrendering the chair to her.

“Lily!” Both parents exclaimed in unison.

“Mama, Papa,” the girl said, “you’re looking so well! Now, I know you’re worried about me transferring. I expected you would be, but I gave a lot of thought to this.” She explained how she had become acquainted with Dr. Zuma and had come to admire the counselor for all she did for Sanna and her family. “And I know it’s a hard job. I know it is. Mother Locke and I talked about that. I want to help people like Sanna. I can do this. I’ll work hard. Father Locke says that it’s possible I could become a doctor by the time I’m twenty-two!”

By the time Lily’s impassioned speech ended, her parents were both holding back laughter. Again, it was Margie who spoke first. “As long as it isn’t because of the North Territorial boys,” she said. “I had the thought that you had met someone on your first day and decided you were in love.”

“Father Locke?” said Richard. “Can she make a good living at this trauma counseling?”

“There are always positions for good trauma counselors. In the army, a doctor with that specialty automatically ranks equivalent to a captain, and if she changes her mind about living in North, she can take her practice to any of the other territories. Some in that field, when their enlistment period comes up for renewal, decide to enter civilian practice instead. Every civilian trauma counselor I have ever met has had no shortage of patients.”

Richard Allen nodded thoughtfully. He admitted, “That was my chief worry. I suppose it’s a rigorous training program?”

“Fairly,” Everard agreed. “She will join an established counselor’s team as a menial worker, observing the counseling process as a whole until her mentor decides it’s time for her to step into an assistant position. She will be expected to read the literature and sit through lectures when she isn’t working. As I understand it, it’s an immersive experience.”

“Darling,” Margie said to Richard, “see how her eyes shine.”

“Well,” Richard said, “I’ve never seen you so excited over the prospect of hard work, Lily. This seems right for you. You can always come home if it becomes too much for you, right?”

“It won’t be too much,” Lily said softly. “I want you to come visit me after I get settled in, though, so I can show you it won’t. Will you come?”

“All the way to Cavern!” Margie looked to Richard again. “I never! It might be fun, darling. Don’t you think so?”

Richard sighed. “I see I had better think so.”

Everard coughed. “Then she has your consent?”

The couple exchanged another look. “Yes,” said Richard. “We consent.”

“Sergeant Whitton will direct you to the administrative offices, where you may fill out the appropriate forms. I will take your verbal authorization and begin the transfer process at this end.”

“Papa, Mama,” said Lily Allen, “thank you.”

“Take good care of yourself,” Margie replied. “Don’t eat too much of that Northern preserved food, it isn’t good for you. I’ll send you a box of fresh fruit and veg.”

“Mama,” Lily Allen said in a voice of laughing reproof.

Corporal Lindros signed off. Everard led the new recruit down the corridor from the communications office to a different office. To the middle-aged woman watching the entrance, he said, “I have a transfer to initiate. Form TR-02B, and a guardianship assignment form, please.”

“Yes, sir.” The clerk opened a drawer beside her desk, pulled a packet from one hanging folder and an additional packet from another folder. “Anything else, sir?”

“This will suffice for now. Thank you. ” He brought Allen back to his guest office. After jotting down Allen’s basic information on the guardianship form, he passed it to his lieutenant.  “Jock, would you take this form to your parents and ask them if they can take on another temporary guardianship?”

Jock looked over the information, looked to Allen, and said, “Yes, sir. I have no doubt they’ll say yes.” He grabbed his jacket and headed out.

“Rusza, run to the guest housing and ask Dr. Zuma if she will join a meeting in Cora’s office. Any time within the hour will be fine. Stay to show her the way here.”

The boy bounced to his feet. “Yessir!”

“Mica, if anyone comes looking for me, I’m just two doors down.”

“Yes, sir.”

As soon as they entered Cora’s office, Cora asked eagerly, “Did they say yes?”

Allen jumped twice. “I’m transferring!”

“So the matter comes to your hands,” Everard added. “I was considering either Enla or Maaki as potential mentors, but you’re more familiar with the staffing situation.”

Cora began rummaging through the stack of directories on her desk. “Perdy, where’s the medical non-surgical directory? I thought it was here…”

Her best friend considered the disordered desk with a practiced eye. “It was,” she said, “I remember seeing it. There— on your left, under the newspaper.”

“Thanks,” replied Cora. She opened the directory to its index. “Enla… Enla… no, she’s only taking on senior field medics right now. Who was the other?”

Perdita Jasper said, “Maaki, probably Nia Maaki.” She gave Everard an inquiring glance for confirmation.

“Why does that name sound so… ah, yes,  I know why. I had a request for absence from Dr. Maaki day before yesterday. She needs knee surgery. She won’t be taking students until sometime next year, so that option is out. I wonder, though…” Cora flipped a few pages as she thought. “Mmm… it might work… Everard, what about Dr. Antiri?”

“I thought she had retired last year,” Everard said.

“There was talk, but as far as I know, she never did.”

Everard turned to study the fidgety girl beside him. The more he considered the idea, the better he liked it, and he told Cora so. “If she agrees to take on another student, she would certainly provide an excellent learning experience. I doubt there’s much Antiri hasn’t encountered.”

“A memo, Perdy,” said Cora. “To Dr. Karolina Antiri, from Mother Coralie Locke. Greetings, and so forth. I write to recommend to you a young trainee–“

“Recruit,” Everard corrected.

“Oh, yes, I forgot about that rule. But I’m sure Perdy didn’t. See? She isn’t making any corrections. She wrote what needed to be written. ‘I recommend to you a young recruit from Current-town, one Lillias Allen by name, who is eager to begin training for a doctor’s license in trauma counseling. Are you still accepting students? If so,’ and so forth. ‘If not, I would appreciate your insights into a suitable mentor for this case. Yours cordially,’ and so forth.”

“I don’t believe anyone but Perdita could have followed that,” said Everard, amused.

Cora replied, “I know. You should see Jojo try. It takes twice as long as if I wrote it myself, and he practically ends up in a nervous breakdown.”

Lily Allen laughed. “Poor Jojo. He’s the one who keeps the pigeons, isn’t he?”

“I called for Dr. Zuma to meet us here,” Everard informed the women. “She will be a good source of advice.”

“Good,” said Cora, “she might know about Dr. Antiri too. The trauma treatment community is surprisingly close-knit. I usually find that they know most of what their colleagues are doing, even in different territories.”

“I’ll be in my office until she arrives.” Everard went back to his work. He and Mica sat in silence for the most part. Mica was preoccupied by the prospect of writing his letter. Everard merely kept watch to make sure the preoccupation didn’t interfere with Mica’s work. 

Rusza returned first. “Dr. Zuma is here,” he announced.

Everard checked the time in surprise. “Did you make her run?”

Rusza laughed. “No, sir, I met her on the plaza when I left. I just stopped her and asked if she had a little time for your meeting, and here we are.” He dropped into his chair and resumed his work.

Everard returned to Cora’s office to greet Dr. Zuma. He had to wait until Lily Allen’s enthusiasm ran out of words before anyone noticed his arrival. “I see Allen has informed you of the purpose for our meeting. We hoped you might give your advice on the matter. For example, Cora has sent word to Dr. Karolina Antiri as a potential mentor.”

Dr. Zuma looked noticeably surprised. “I see.”

“Have you heard anything about Dr. Antiri’s current status as regards students?”

“I know she finds them hard to come by,” said Dr. Zuma. “Young people find Karolina a little too alarming for comfort.”

“Alarming in what way?” asked Cora. “I’ve always found her very kind.”

“She is kind. It just takes some adjustment to get used to someone who never leaves her office but always seems to know everything happening in the hospital.”

“Never leaves her office?” Lily Allen echoed. “Why not?”

“She is wheelchair-bound,” explained Dr. Zuma, “and some years ago, she persuaded the hospital administration to remodel the counseling offices into a three-bedroom apartment. She lives there, gets her meals delivered from the cafeteria, does all her work there, everything.”

“How does she know everything?” Allen asked.

Dr. Zuma laughed softly. “She doesn’t. She gives the impression she does because of two things. First, she gets regular visits from the chaplains and practically all the doctors. They tend to confide in her. Second, she has a strong passive-principle soul sympathy, to the extent of being able to perceive in remarkable detail from a distance and beyond sight activation. When people enter her office, she has already ‘read’ them.”

“Wow,” said Allen.

“I once heard someone liken Karolina to a spider,” added Dr. Zuma. “If she is a spider, she’s a very gentle one. But she won’t coddle you, Lily. Her job is her life. She won’t stand for any lax attitudes from her students.”

The girl clapped her hands together and bounced on her toes. “I think she sounds wonderful!”

Cora laughed. “Then I hope her response is a positive one.”

“She’ll know what to do with your exuberance,” agreed Dr. Zuma. “You know enough by now, Lily, to understand what you’re signing up for. When you work directly in a hospital, you’ll face emotions at their rawest. You will encounter souls that fairly scream their pain, even when the patient says nothing. I’m pleased that you’re so enthusiastic, but be prepared.”

“Yes, of course. Yesterday was… painful,” Lily Allen faltered. “But if I knew how to help, times like that could be better.”

“That’s the goal, Lily. Hold onto that as your aim. Write to me often. I’ll hear you out, at least.”

Jock appeared in the doorway. He said nothing to interrupt, but Everard met his gaze and saw him nod firmly. “It appears,” Everard said aloud, “that your temporary guardianship has been settled. Ossi and Mikki Knox have agreed to take you, Allen.”

“In fact,” said Jock, “Mom wants you to bring your things as soon as possible.”

“Oh, it’s going so fast!” Lily Allen clapped her hands again. “This is so exciting!”

“Take the transfer form with you,” Everard said to Jock as Lily went around hugging the three women in the office. “You and Ietta can spend the rest of the day with your parents, helping Lily get settled in, and you can bring the form back to the office in the morning.”

“Are you sure, sir?”

“The work is nearly caught up. Spend the day with your family.”

“Thank you, sir. Allen, are you ready to go?”

“I’m so ready! Thank you! And thank you, Father Locke. You’ve done so much for me!” The girl suddenly hugged Everard and then dashed after Jock.

“She’s a whirlwind,” said Cora, smiling. “Chinara, will you be joining us at the Taivas suite this evening?”

“No, I’ve been invited to dine with some colleagues,” said Dr. Zuma in an apologetic tone, “and this evening is the only time they can all gather together in one place. I think having a quiet family dinner, without any medical presence, will be good for the family, though. There comes a time when a counselor becomes another reminder of the trauma. I don’t want to push things past that line. Are you still planning on heading out tomorrow?”

Cora looked to Everard. “With Allen’s change of plans, we’ll delay until we have her matter settled. I also want to see for myself how the Taivas group is doing. I don’t want to rush them,” he finished.

“That’s a good consideration. Then I will probably see you in the morning, Father Everard, Mother Coralie. And a good day to you too, Lieutenant Jasper.” Dr. Zuma excused herself and departed.

“I will go back to work,” Everard told his wife. “Let me know when you get a response back to your memo.”

In his borrowed office, he found Mica ready with a sheaf of documents needing his signature. Rusza was sitting quietly on the floor in the corner farthest from the door, performing the relaxation exercises assigned to him by Dr. Rao. Everard accepted the documents and started reading through them. Once he had approved them all, he gave them back to Mica to pack in the official mail pouch.

“Where is Lieutenant Jock?” Rusza asked when he left his corner.

“I gave him the day off to spend time with his family,” Everard replied. “Mica, take down a letter for me.”

It was slower, dictating to Mica, but Everard paused when he saw his son writing feverishly to catch up and repeated himself when necessary. Going slower helped Everard give more consideration to his words, and this made his phrasing better, he thought. When all of the correspondence was dealt with, he said, “I am impressed that you two worked through everything before lunch.”

“Lieutenant Jock set everything up so I didn’t need to ask so many questions,” Rusza said. “And I figured, if I really worked hard in the morning, I might get permission to get the afternoon off…?”

Everard cleared his throat. “I see. Well, there is very little work left for the afternoon now. I will grant you the time off, provided you don’t trouble the Taivas family too much.”

“I won’t!” Rusza was off like a gazehound after a rabbit.

Everard and his son exchanged a glance. “Let’s collect your mother for an early lunch,” he suggested.

They did so, spending more than an hour loitering over their meal in the Army Stores cafeteria. Cora seemed to be enjoying herself immensely, and when they returned to the offices, they found a message waiting from Dr. Antiri, asking them to stop by her office that afternoon.

Mica declined the suggestion that he accompanying them, saying, “I need to give thought to that letter.” While walking toward the army hospital, Everard explained to Cora about Mica’s letter.

They arrived outside a pair of sliding glass doors that opened for them automatically. Inside, a pleasant living room greeted them with sofas and upholstered chairs in abundance, but all were empty. Then a woman’s voice called from an open doorway to the right: “In here!”

The open doorway led them into a small library and office combination suited to the size of the small, stout woman behind the desk. “Father Everard, Mother Coralie, welcome to my office. I’m glad you’re having such a good day. Especially you, Father. Maybe I can make the day even better for you, mm?”

“Dr. Antiri,” said Cora, “it has been too long. How have you been?”

“Equal to the effort needed, more or less,” the counselor replied. “Chamomile for you?” She wheeled away from her desk to a tea tray nearby, where a large teapot steamed.

“Thank you.”

“This girl,” Dr. Antiri said while she poured the tea. “Lillias Allen. Who was her instructor at home?”

Cora tilted her head blankly, so Everard said, “Emmaline Whicher.”

“So no medical background. No, don’t take me the wrong way, Mother,” Dr. Antiri said without turning around. “I consider that a positive. It means I don’t need to teach her to unlearn any strange practices.” She pivoted and wheeled toward Cora, offering her a full cup balanced on a saucer. “One never knows with South Territorials. They don’t really believe in trauma, so they have strange ways of dealing with it. What has the girl been doing so far?”

“She has been training with Everard’s current group,” Cora said. “She had expressed ambition to join my staff, so she was in the middle of the vetting process. Then she met Chinara Zuma.”

“Nara, mm? And the Taivas girl, which combination laid the whole process bare for this girl and inspired her, right?”

“In short, yes,” Cora said.

“Has she been warned about me?”

“Warned? I wouldn’t say warned,” Cora replied, “but Chinara told her a little about you.”

“Then she was warned,” Dr. Antiri said with a chuckle. “I like it. I’ll take her. Where is she now?”

“My lieutenant took her to settle in with her temporary guardians,” Everard answered. “He will bring her to you in the morning.”

“That gives me time to set up a few things. Good! I haven’t had a student worker for eighteen months, and that one quit on me when I told him his crush wouldn’t last.”

“How did you know that?” Cora asked.

“The usual,” said Dr. Antiri, “his supervisor was down that morning, needing to vent some frustration over two young people not doing their work as they should. I got the story from him, along with the extra information that the girl in question pulled something like this every few months. A smart, skilled nursing candidate, but flighty with men. This Allen, how is she with men?”

Cora gave the question a little thought. “Friendly, but not overly friendly. She seems to have high expectations for their behavior.”

“Good enough. I look forward to this.” She brought Everard a cup of chicory without asking. “How has it been, operating a training course with something like Sky-wind thrown into the mixture?”

“Challenging,” said Everard. He sipped his beverage. “This group has little coherence— none of the same backgrounds or expectations— but having the Sky-wind crisis to discuss has challenged several of them in beneficial ways.”

“I had young Majini down here the day you came into town,” Dr. Antiri remarked. “He still hasn’t worked through his own issues with Sky-Wind. Yesterday, I had Karle Dallen in here. His whole school came to me in one lump after they dealt with Sky-wind, and Karle needed to talk some more after meeting the Taivas girl again and being reminded of it all. Nara must have had her hands full.”

“Dr. Zuma has been of immeasurable help,” Everard agreed.

“She’s coming to dinner tonight, she and the rest of the off-duty staff. I’m sure I won’t hear a word about it from her, so I appreciate hearing it from you.”

They discussed local concerns for the remainder of the meeting. By the time Everard and Cora left the counseling suite, it was nearly 1500. Mica was alone in the office, jotting notes on a piece of scrap paper. The paper was almost full of jottings, almost half of them scribbled out.

“Making progress?” Everard asked. 

Mica jerked his head upright, startled. Then he relaxed. “Some. You had a visit from a Captain Ellos. He couldn’t wait, but he left a note.” Mica handed over a piece of paper.

Everard scanned the neat handwriting. “Not urgent,” he noted. “He means to return in the morning around 0700. That should be fine. Nothing else? Good.”

They remained in the office until 1600, but no one came to seek him out, so Everard closed up the office. He and Mica went to collect Cora, pulling her away from the never-ending accumulation of supply paperwork. “We promised,” Everard reminded her. “No later than 1645.”

“Of course. Perdy, let’s put everything away.”

Everard heard brisk footsteps approaching in the corridor. “Mica, stand outside the door. If that is an inquiry for me, let them know I’ll be back in the office tomorrow at 0700. If it’s for your mother, take any documents and promise to put them in front of her first opportunity tomorrow. No exceptions.” He shut the door behind Mica and locked it.

“That,” said Perdita Jasper, “was a sly idea.”

“You know how people are,” Everard remarked mildly. “Especially Cora.”

“I don’t think I’m that bad,” Cora protested. “We have an appointment to keep, after all.” Even so, she cast a concerned look toward the door.

“And yet you’re still thinking it might be urgent,” Everard replied. “You still can’t always be relied upon to distinguish between the important and the merely urgent.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Because it continues to be true.”

Perdita Jasper shook her head in amusement. “That’s enough for the tidying. I’ll leave you two to argue over importance and urgency on your own.” She gathered up her coat and attache case and headed out the back way. 

“Have a lovely evening,” Cora called after her.

They went out the back way themselves after Cora found her coat. Mica met them at the end of the corridor. “Major Iannes of the Army Hospital Canteen,” he explained. “He thought we were leaving first thing in the morning, but he agreed to come back at 0800 when I told him Mom would still be here.”

“A chronic offender,” Everard murmured. “Whatever it is, it will certainly be something he could just as well have put in a letter.”

Cora giggled softly. “Probably.”

They returned to their quarters to change for dinner. Crystallin was not there, but Cora said, “She’s already with Fiola, I’m sure.” And when they arrived at the Taivas guest suite, the door was opened to them by none other than Crystallin. She was grinning. “Come, see this,” she urged them.

In the sitting room just beyond the cramped entryway, three people stood in a triangle: Axel Taivas, Sanna Taivas, and Rusza. They were tossing Soren from one to the next in a round. While Everard watched, Sanna reversed the flow suddenly, receiving Soren from Rusza and tossing him back again without warning. Rusza and Soren both laughed. “So that’s how you’re going to play, is it, Sanna Taivas?” Rusza exclaimed. “You won’t catch me by surprise!”

Axel caught Soren and suddenly tossed the boy back at Rusza, who barely reacted in time.

“Ah, not fair! You’re ganging up on me now!” Rusza tossed Soren to Sanna.

Sanna caught the boy and clasped him in her arms. “Father Locke, Mother Locke, welcome.” She settled Soren on her hip. “It’s too crowded now to play, my joy. Let’s get washed up for supper.” She carried the boy through to the bathroom.

Axel turned to greet the newcomers. “So glad you could come,” he said as he gripped Everard’s hand. “We’ve discovered a new form of strength training!”

“I see. I can guess who thought of it first,” Everard replied. “Rusza, how is your energy?”

“Two, three, two, and two,” Rusza reported promptly. 

“Very good.”

“Which one is the three?” asked Cora as she kissed Rusza on the cheek.

“Mechanical, Aunt,” he answered. “And it’s going down, now that I’ve stopped playing.”

“I’m impressed that you’re keeping such close track of your sympathy. Your grandparents will be so glad to see it.”

Axel stretched out his hand to Mica. “Welcome, Mica Locke.”

“Thanks,” said Mica, slow to respond in his surprise. 

“Come sit with us,” Axel said as he ushered them farther in. “Nana Friga and Fiola have something that smells delicious on the stove, but the kitchenette won’t fit more than those two, so the rest of us have been entertaining ourselves however we can.”

“It’s almost ready,” Friga called from the next room. “Sanna, will you check that everything is on the table?”

“She’s helping Soren wash up,” Rusza called back. “I’ll do it.”

The next several minutes were full of activity, but at the end, everyone had squeezed in around the little dining table. Friga Rohkin asked, “Father Locke, would you bless the meal?”

“Willingly.” So Everard proclaimed a brief blessing over their table and time together, after which they set about dividing up the casserole that Friga and Fiola had made.

“It’s shepherd’s pie!” Rusza exclaimed. “I love shepherd’s pie!”

“It’s almost shepherd’s pie,” Friga replied. “It’s a recipe my mother devised for the winter, when vegetables are more scarce. I’ve been teaching Fiola all the old home recipes.”

“That’s so wonderful,” Cora said. “I remember my mother, teaching me the recipes she learned from my grandmother. I still miss being in the kitchen with her.”

“This is delicious!” Rusza said. “May I have some more?”

“How did you eat so fast?” Crystallin asked. “Did you chew any of it?”

“Slow down, Rusza,” Everard advised. “Take your time and savor the food. Your body will process it better.” He himself took a soft dinner roll and split it open with his fork to better soak up the gravy.

“Oh, that’s a good idea.” Rusza grabbed a roll. “Yeouch! Sanna Taivas, did you just stab me with your fork?”

“Pardon me,” she replied evenly. “I’m sure I must have been aiming for my food. I must have missed because your arm was over my plate.”

“Fine,” Rusza grumbled. “Sorry. Excuse my reach.”

Axel grinned. “Ah, the number of times I had just such a conversation with Erno when we were kids,” he sighed. “He did hate having people reach across his plate for dishes.” He rolled up his sleeve. “See? I even have a scar to prove it. Ma was so mad at us that time.”

The casserole diminished rapidly as the meal progressed. Rusza claimed the last scoop after Friga said, “We can’t keep leftovers, so it all must go.”

Cora and Crystallin volunteered to clear the table and wouldn’t accept a refusal. Sanna carried Soren on her hip while Fiola supported Friga as the group relocated to the sitting area. Sanna called out, “Are you sure I can’t help?”

To this offer, Cora replied, “No, dear, sit and relax. We’re snug in here, just us two.”

Sanna took the chair nearest the radiator, and Soren snuggled on her lap. Fiola settled the elder in the other armchair and draped a small throw blanket over her. “Can I get you anything, Nana?”

“I’m fine,” Friga assured her.

Axel and Everard settled on the sofa, with room left for Cora at Everard’s other side. Rusza stretched out on his back on the rug, groaning, “I’m full…” in a contented voice.

“You’d better be,” Fiola said, “after how much you ate.”

“You’re starting to sound like Linnie,” was Rusza’s only response.

“Since you’re still up, Mica,” Everard said, “turn on the radio. There’s a choral concert from Sawtooth Ridge on tonight.”

“They do have lovely concerts,” Friga said.

Mica turned on the radio and tuned it to the music station. An announcer was just finishing her introduction: “…eighty voices strong, here from Northwest Territory, the Sawtooth Ridge Army Men’s Chorus.” A hush followed, and then a single, powerful note, sung acapella, rang through the sitting room. That note divided into four parts and broadened into an old hymn.

“Wow,” Rusza said over the applause at the end of the hymn, “no instruments or anything?”

“That’s the Northwest Territory tradition,” Everard replied.

The concert went on for an hour. By the end, Soren slept soundly in Sanna’s arms. She stood and carried him away while everyone else talked about the concert. Everard noticed that Mica wasn’t with them. He twisted around in his seat and immediately spotted Mica’s bowed back through the doorway to the dining area. Everard stood and went to check on him. “Still struggling?” he asked, noting that the piece of scrap paper was now almost entirely black with jottings and scribbles.

“I think I have it planned out,” Mica said. “Now I just need to push through the writing.”

Everard went back to the sofa and leaned down to ask Axel, “Do you have any stationery Mica can use?”

Axel said, “Fiola, do you mind letting Mica Locke use your new writing kit?”

“I’ll go get it.” She disappeared through the same door Sanna had taken and returned seconds later with a portable writing desk. “Sanna bought it for me,” she said as she carried it to the dining table.

“It’s nice,” Mica said. 

“I told her she shouldn’t spend extra money on things like this, but she just smiled like she does and said to use it well. See? Extra pens, ink refills, and really nice paper.”

Mica admired the kit, as he was clearly supposed to. “I won’t use much.”

“What are you writing?” Rusza asked from the other room. “A letter?”

“Yes.” From his tone, Mica made it plain that he didn’t want to say anything more.

Rusza, however, didn’t take the hint. “Who to?”

“Just… someone,” Mica said. “It’s not your business.”

“A girl? You’re writing letters to a girl?”

“Why is he only quick to catch on in moments like these?” Mica muttered under his breath. “Just one letter,” he said loudly enough to be heard in the next room. “A matter of business.”

“Oh,” said Rusza, delighted. “A breakup letter!”

“It is not,” Mica insisted. “We were never involved like that.”

Axel laughed. “If it is a breakup letter, then Rusza can probably give you some advice.”

“Unfair,” Rusza complained. “I’ve never had to write a breakup letter! You need a girlfriend first before you can break up with one.”

“And yet,” said Sanna as she reentered the sitting area, “we are unconvinced. Try to keep your voice down please, Rusza Tate, or you’ll wake Soren.”

Crystallin chimed in, “Yes, Rusza, when you say you’ve never had a girlfriend, what you really mean is you’ve never been serious about a girl. It doesn’t mean girls haven’t ever gotten the impression they were your girlfriend.”

“And it is that impression that can cause the most damage,” said Cora. “The question is not whether you have asked the girl to date you. It’s whether you’ve led her to believe that there’s an understanding between you. I know for a fact that your father has had to apologize for you to two angry mothers, and maybe more.”

“Three, at least,” Everard said, “but the third was a father, not a mother, and Archet narrowly avoided violence that time because I happened to be there.”

“Oh.” Rusza gazed at them in surprise. “He never said.”

“Or you never listened,” Crystallin retorted.

Sanna came out to the dining area. She gave Mica a steady, searching gaze. “What matters is kindness,” she said quietly. “I think I know who the letter is for. She seemed to me a bitter person, but my dad often said the bitterest souls need the most kindness.”

Mica dropped his gaze and nodded.

Sanna stood next to Everard as they watched the others caught up in lively conversation. When Everard moved away from the table, just out of earshot from the conversation in the sitting area, Sanna followed him. “You seem happy, Father Locke,” she remarked.

“Happy?” He considered the idea. “I am. Fifty years ago, as a boy, I never imagined how rich other people could make my life. Not just how they think, although that is interesting by itself, but just their presence. And fourteen weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed I could see my son like this. It seems to me that I had lost him, but I’ve found him again. On top of that, my friend’s most troublesome son is showing signs of undeniable growth. I cannot help but be happy with all these blessings.”

“I understand. I myself have been surprised how so much blessing can come out of so much loss. I appreciate your family’s kindness. Just having your company helps more than I can say.”

Everard set his hand atop the girl’s head. “Yet another reason for my own happiness, Sanna. Consider us as your own family from now on.”

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Back to Table of Contents

Back to Home