“You’re not going on?” Fiola exclaimed, dismayed.

Lily shook her head. “I’ve asked to be assigned here. Oh, promise you’ll write often!” She hugged Fiola and Crystallin together. “You’re so clever in how you put things into words, Fiola. And Linnie, you’re so observant.  I want to know everything that goes on. Everything!”

Crystallin felt tears sting her eyes. She blinked hard. “I’ll write.”

“So will I,” said Fiola. “It sounds like we’ll be on the road regularly, but if you send your letters to Linnie’s mom, they’ll always get to me.”

“You’re going to have so many adventures,” Lily sighed. “I almost wish I could join Sky-wind school myself, only I know how useless I’d be as I am. This is where I belong. I know it. But still…” 

Crystallin nodded. “I know. It’s always hard to say goodbye. If Mom lets me travel with her again in the spring, I’ll probably be back here in the third month, maybe the fourth.”

“And I know Sanna will stop here on her way to Northwest Territory next year,” said Fiola, “probably in the early summer. So it isn’t like we can never meet again.”

“It won’t be the same as traveling together, though. Oh, why am I crying?” Lily exclaimed. “I’m so excited to start training for my license.”

The three girls hugged again. “We aren’t leaving until tomorrow morning,” said Crystallin. “Today, let’s make memories.”

“Yes,” Lily said, “let’s. I have my introduction at 0900, and I’ll work until 1700. Let’s plan to meet somewhere at 1730.”

“The Army Stores cafeteria,” said Fiola. “We can have supper there and then visit the Co-op.”

“Will that be all right?” Crystallin asked. “I can lend you some of my allowance.”

“It’s all right,” Fiola assured her. “Sanna decided to give me an allowance too, until I turn fifteen in the spring. It isn’t extravagant, but it’ll cover the Army Stores cafeteria.”

“Why until you turn fifteen?” Lily asked.

“Because then I can enlist and start earning my own wages,” Fiola explained. “Since I’m a student of an itinerant fighting school, North Territory allows for me to be assigned to my school instead of to an army base, as long as I have a guardian’s consent. Since Sanna is my guardian, that’s no problem at all.”

Crystallin made a wry face. “Everyone has a plan except me.”

“You have a plan,” said Fiola, “you’re going to marry Lyndon.”

“That isn’t a plan. That’s just… us,” Crystallin finished lamely. 

The rest of the students were arriving from all directions. Crystallin’s father and Lieutenant Jock were talking quietly as they walked from the administrative building. Everard clapped his hands once, sharply, to call the students to order. “Before we begin, I have an announcement to make. We have delayed our departure for an additional day because Lily Allen has asked to be assigned to the Cavern main hospital, to begin training to become licensed as a trauma counselor. She will be leaving our group today.”

“Today!” Rusza exclaimed. “That’s sudden!”

Lily ran to take Sanna by both hands. “I’ll miss you, Sanna.”

“And I, you,” the older girl said. “But I can’t say it’s a surprise. The part about trauma counseling is a little surprising,” she admitted, “but not the staying here. You do know, don’t you, that your training will keep you busy enough that you won’t have time to meet that husband you talked about.” Her eyes danced.

Lily giggled. “That isn’t why I’m staying.” She sniffled violently. “Will you write to me?”

“When I can,” Sanna said. She suddenly hugged the younger girl. “Take care of yourself.”

Whatever Lily said was muffled against Sanna’s shoulder.

“That sounds fun. I’ll come.”

“Come where?” asked Rusza, peering over Sanna’s shoulder. “Can I come too?”

Crystallin rolled her eyes toward the skies. “It’s supposed to be just us girls,” she said. “We’re going shopping.”

“I can carry shopping. I’m good at carrying shopping. Aunt Hapzah and Aunt Feilin always make me carry their shopping, so I’m almost a professional at it.”

“Oh, let him come,” said Lily as she pulled back from Sanna’s hug and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “As long as he makes himself useful.”

Crystallin’s father cleared his throat quietly. “Linnie.”

She took Lily by the elbow and pulled until Lily caught on. “See you tonight,” Crystallin said to Fiola and Sanna.

“It feels so unnatural,” Lily said, “leaving when the physical training is about to start. I never thought I’d miss it!” She took Crystallin’s hand and swung it. “Come with me to the hospital, at least. I’m so nervous!”

“I’ll walk you there. What is it like, staying with Lieutenant Jock’s mom and dad?”

“Mikki-mom is so funny! She made a huge breakfast this morning and kept saying, Don’t you want just a little more? about everything. I have some of it packed up as my lunch. Why are the beds so high? Mine has a ladder with three rungs.”

“Heat rises,” Crystallin said, “so the higher your bed, the nearer you are to the warm air.”

“Isn’t that interesting? It’s so snug, but I was a little afraid of rolling over and falling all that way to the floor.”

The walk to the army hospital took only a few minutes. Lily was still early for her orientation, so the girls looked around the guest areas: the little meditation room with its thick rugs, the cafeteria looking out onto a compact garden, the reading room full of medical reference books and periodicals. After they had whiled away nearly an hour in this way, Lily shook herself resolutely. “I’m still a little early, but I’d rather just sit outside Dr. Antiri’s door for the rest of my wait.”

Crystallin said, “I know what you mean. Where is her office?”

They returned to the foyer, where they consulted the directory on the wall. That only told them that the trauma counseling department was divided between the first and third floors. Crystallin, accustomed to not knowing where she was, went to the information desk and asked, “Where can we find Dr. Antiri’s office, please?”

“First floor, suite 5C,” said the clerk without hesitation.

“Thank you.”

“You do that like you’ve had a lot of experience at it, Linnie,” Lily noted as they followed the signs toward suite 5C.

“I grew up always traveling with my parents. If I didn’t learn where to ask for directions in places like this, I never would have been able to leave our guest rooms,” Crystallin answered. “There it is: 5C.” She pointed toward the pair of glass sliding doors.

“It looks so fancy,” said Lily. “Dr. Zuma said that Dr. Antiri lives here and works here.”

They leaned side by side against the wall opposite the glass doors. “It’s almost 0845. What should we talk about?” asked Crystallin.

“Thanks for staying with me, Linnie. If I stood here by myself, my nerves would be in a tangle by the time I went in.”

“I have a lot of free time,” Crystallin demurred. 

“I know: what’s the latest news from your Lyndon?”

“He’s working on his final project now. He decided to present a research paper about something to do with anticoagulant properties in certain plants. I don’t really understand the details, and neither will his classmates, no doubt about that, but he gets really excited about things like that.”

“When does he graduate?”

“If all goes to plan, he’ll present his paper at the end of this month and get it approved so he can be free for Michael and Helena’s wedding at the end of next month.”

“That’s getting close,” Lily said.

“Lyndon has been working on his paper for six months now. He plans to use it as his work sample when he applies for an official position at his dad’s lab. He always plans ahead. Rusza likes to call him a little old man.”

“Rusza probably hasn’t ever planned ahead by more than a few hours in his whole life,” Lily said.

Crystallin agreed. “They are complete opposites.” She would have said more, but just then the glass doors slid open, even though no one was in front of them.

“Come inside, girls. There’s no need to wait in the hallway,” a voice said through the small speaker grill next to the doors.

Lily and Crystallin looked at each other in sudden trepidation. They obeyed the voice. On the other side of the glass doors, they entered a neat sitting room, but the voice called out to them from the doorway to the right, “This way, girls. In the kitchen, although I don’t suppose you have any way to know it is a kitchen until you see it.” They followed the voice again, entering a small but brightly-lit kitchen.

A small, round woman sat behind the kitchen table. She had a thick tuft of gray hair and direct gray eyes in a round face. A pair of reading glasses hung around her neck. A fragment of what looked like toast rested on one of the lenses. As soon as Crystallin noticed this, the woman looked down and saw the crumb. “Now I must wash them again,” she sighed. She spun in place and rolled across to the sink. “Have a seat, girls. The water is still hot, if you want tea.” Water gushed when the woman waved her hand under the faucet.

Crystallin settled herself at the table, took one of the empty cups and a little teabag from the lazy susan tray in the middle of the table, and poured hot water. She rotated the tray toward Lily, who was more hesitant about making herself comfortable.

“That’s better,” said the little woman in the wheelchair as she rubbed her reading glasses with a white dishtowel. “Now, I can tell just by looking that you must be Lillias Allen.” She nodded toward Lily. “You have that lovely, exotic southern coloration. And you, my dear, who are you? You’re perfectly used to meeting strangers in strange places, and your face looks a little familiar, so I’ll make a guess and say you must be Everard and Cora’s daughter. Am I right?” 

Crystallin nodded. “Yes, I’m Crystallin Locke. Thank you for inviting me in, Dr. Antiri.”

“I have my own share of curiosity,” the doctor said. “It was interesting to follow your conversation outside.”

“Were we too loud?” Lily asked.

“I couldn’t hear you, my dear, but I could sense you. The fluctuating qualities of your souls told me you were both very young, and the anxiety I sensed from you is quite familiar to me after all this time. Yet you calmed quickly and showed an interest in what your friend had to say; you, Crystallin Locke, were radiating pride, so I hazard a guess you were talking about the achievement of someone dear to you. It impressed Lily, and something about it amused her also. I had to believe that it was a conversation between two close girl friends.” Dr. Antiri gazed at them in almost clinical assessment. “But there was something else, as you were talking about your dear one. You’re anxious about something, with the kind of steady, subtle anxiety that tells me you’ve been thinking about it for a while now.”

Crystallin, after the first surprise faded, nodded with an abashed blush. “Yes, that’s… I was talking about how my fiancé Lyndon has his plans all mapped out for when he graduates from public school, and this morning I found out my two best friends both have their futures already in mind, and I… don’t.”

“Not the smallest idea?” asked Dr. Antiri.

Crystallin shook her head.

“Well, my dear, that’s usually the case at your age. It’s far more uncommon to know exactly where you plan to go. Even your friend here had one false start before she settled on trauma counseling. And you have no way to know if this too is a false start,” she added.

“I don’t think it is,” Lily asserted.

“You didn’t think the last one was,” Dr. Antiri challenged her. “You can’t know until you’ve gotten enough experience to judge. That’s why your first year is a probationary year. I’ll show you how everything works and let you see what trauma counseling is like from the inside. Then you’ll know, one way or the other.” She returned her attention to Crystallin. “That’s all you need to do, really. You do whatever is presented to you, and eventually you find your way. Some never do get that overpowering sense of vocation that a few experience. You’re in a slightly more difficult position than most of your peers, in that your parents’ vocations can’t give you any real guidance. But you know that already, don’t you?”

“Dr. Antiri,” Crystallin said, “thank you for the advice.”

“You can tell me I’m being intrusive if you want,” said the elderly woman. “I’m used to it.”

“No.” Crystallin stood up. “I see why Daddy respects you like he does. You see things pretty clearly, and you say what you think.”

“That combination of traits usually appeals to human thought sympathists,” Dr. Antiri agreed.

“I’ll keep trying things. I just don’t know…”

“Few of us do know as much as we would like. Not for certain, anyway. Take this with you.” The doctor wheeled to the counter and wrapped something up. “You look like you need some time to consider.” She handed the little parcel to Crystallin. “Give your parents my regards.”

“Thank you. I will.” After Crystallin reached the hallway, she looked at the little parcel. It was waxed paper, and it contained an oatmeal cookie. She smiled a little and munched on the cookie as she left the hospital.

There was practically nothing to do, with her parents both at work and her friends on duty, so Crystallin went back to the guest suite she shared with her parents. She took some of the writing paper and started another letter to Lyndon, telling him about Lily’s announcement and the conversation with Dr. Antiri. She was right, and I think she said less than she wanted to say because Lily was there, Crystallin wrote. I’m sure she could sense that I’m afraid of not having a plan when everyone else does. Especially you. You’ve always been so sure of where you want to go. It’s as if I might get left behind because I don’t know what I want to do, or what I can do. I’m not especially good at anything. I’m not drawn to any one job. I know I should talk with Mom and Daddy about this, but they’re so busy that I don’t like taking up their time with something I should be able to figure out for myself. What do you think, Lyndon? Is there anything you think I’d be good at doing? But I don’t want to push this off onto you either. It’s my responsibility. She added a few affectionate remarks and signed her name to the bottom of the letter. After she sealed it into an Army postage-paid envelope, she left the guest suite and walked to the nearest post box to start the letter on its way. 

“Linnie!” Rusza jogged toward her. “Where’s your suite? Uncle Everard left a book there, and he says I should read it.”

“Has he run out of work for you to do already? Come on.” She led him back to the suite. “Which book? Take your pick.”

“I can’t believe he travels with so many of them,” said Rusza. “There it is.” He snatched up a slim brown volume with tiny gilt-stamped lettering on the spine.

“Rusza?”

He looked up from the book cover. “What?”

“Have you decided what you want to do as your career?”

“Um…” Rusza looked suddenly a bit flustered. “Well, not exactly, but I’m getting some good ideas. I like this traveling, and being on Uncle Everard’s staff is really interesting, even if I can’t tell anyone most of what’s so interesting about it. I want to enlist, but I’m not sure how that’ll work with… Unless…” He changed directions without warning. “From what Uncle says, there are lots of things I could do, between my sympathy and what he calls my ‘budding abilities,’ but so far, I’m still just getting a feel for everything. Why do you ask?”

Crystallin flopped down on the settee. She had brought up the subject on impulse, and now she wasn’t sure she wanted to confide in Rusza, of all people. “Just thinking about what I might do.”

“Not sure yet? That’s surprising. You and Lyndon are getting married.”

“Yes,” said Crystallin, exasperated, “but we aren’t going to be together around the clock after that. He has his ambition, and that leaves me… where? I don’t know yet. I don’t even know what I’m good at yet.”

“You’re good at nagging,” Rusza replied with a grin. “Is there a job that calls for nagging?”

She threw one of the sofa pillows at him. “You…”

Rusza caught the pillow and threw it back. “Uncle has lots of ideas what I might be good at, stuff I never would’ve thought about on my own. I bet he’d have lots of ideas for you. Ask him.”

“He’s busy.”

“Not that busy.”

“And it isn’t urgent.”

“Maybe not, but it’s important. Don’t tell me he hasn’t given you that lecture yet.”

Crystallin relaxed and giggled. “Yes, I’ve heard the urgent versus important lecture more than once. And speaking of Daddy, isn’t he going to start wondering where you are soon?”

“Yep. I better get back. And you know what? I’m going to tell him.”

She stood up. “Then I’m going with you, because when you tell people things, they end up more confused than when they started.”

Rusza led her to a small conference room, where all the students were bent over maps and documents. Fiola and Sanna were not there; neither was Maccani Moor. “Un— Father Locke, Linnie has something important she has to ask you.”

Crystallin kicked his ankle. “It can wait until you have a free minute.”

Her father stood up. “I can take a few minutes now. Jock, stand in for me.” He led Crystallin out of the conference room to a smaller room nearby and had her sit across the petite table from him. “Tell me your thoughts, Linnie.”

So she began, as clearly as she could, to outline what had troubled her for several months now. When she finished, she said, “And I know it isn’t something I have to decide right now, but… it makes me a little anxious.”

“I can see that you’ve been considering this for a long time,” her father began. “You arranged your thoughts in such an orderly way…” He was thinking as he spoke. It showed in the slow, measured cadence of his speech. “It troubles me to think that you have been worrying over this by yourself for so long a time. Your mother and I are often busy, but we are always willing to make time for you. You know this, don’t you?”

Crystallin nodded.

“But you would have held back, if Rusza hadn’t pushed the matter forward.”

She made a slight grimace and said, “I feel like it’s my responsibility, so I don’t want to push it off onto anyone else.”

“In the end, the decision will be yours,” her father agreed, “but during the investigation phase of any mission, the more factual input, the better the results. You’ve traveled with Cora as an unofficial intern for more than a year now. Nothing you’ve seen in that time draws you?”

“Not really. If I have to be really honest… being out on the front scares me more than anything I’ve ever done. I don’t think I’d want to stay in the army after my four years.” If she had said that to her mother, Crystallin would have watched her face to see if she had interpreted this as a form of rejection— but with her father, she knew he would never consider such a thing.

“I understand. That’s helpful,” he said. “It eliminates an entire field. Unfortunately, it’s the field I know best; I might not be able to provide you with much direction in civilian careers. Your mother would be more familiar with that area, since she deals with civilian suppliers and contractors and has more connections in that regard.” Everard Locke leaned forward and rested his hand on Crystallin’s head. “I am pleased that you finally said something, even if it took Rusza to make you do it. You do take after your mother. She says she had no ambition at all until she met me, and that has worried me considerably. Marriage to Lyndon—” He stopped abruptly. “You haven’t changed your mind on that front, have you?”

“No, not at all. I just know I can’t use that as the… the foundation of my whole future,” Crystallin said.

Her father’s eyelids flickered. “That may be the first time I’ve observed you resembling me in such a clear way,” he remarked. He ruffled her hair lightly. “It surprises me. I’m moved.”

Crystallin giggled. “Sorry, Daddy, but just looking at you, nobody could ever tell.”

This time, he mussed her hair a little more roughly. “Sass. Let’s talk with your mother about this sometime soon. In fact, we should ride together for part of the trip to Sawtooth Ridge: you, your mother, your brother, and me. We can discuss things like this, as well as anything else you might have in your thoughts. It has been too long since we last did that. Maybe, if I had done it more often, your brother wouldn’t have landed in so much trouble…”

“Maybe,” Crystallin said, “but I think he still would have ended up there one way or another. I always remember Mica being kind of full of himself. I like how he is now, though.”

“He says he wants to be like me,” her father said. “I don’t know what to make of that. But we can talk about that too, when we sit down together. Do you need any additional money for your outing tonight?”

She shook her head. “I don’t plan to spend much. It’s mostly the time together that matters.”

“That is a rule for relationships that I am still learning. If you have nothing planned for the rest of the morning, would you go to your mother’s office later and ask her to meet us for lunch, if she has no appointments? Thank you, Linnie.” Her father returned to his students, and Crystallin returned to the guest suite to wait until nearer the lunch hour to carry out her father’s request. While she waited, she reread Lyndon’s letter that arrived that morning. It was full of the last details he wanted to add to his graduation project, with a few side comments telling her how the rest of his family was doing. She had already read it through twice when it had arrived in the early mail, but she read it again anyway just to remember his voice and his zeal for his favorite subject.

When the clock pointed to a time nearer lunch, Crystallin went to her mother’s borrowed office. The door stood open, but strangers’ voices drifted out, so Crystallin loitered in the corridor until two soldiers departed from the office. Then she peeked around the doorframe. Seeing only Coralie and Perdita, she said, “Mom, Daddy wants to know if you’re available to join them for lunch.”

“Oh, yes,” her mother said, “that sounds good. Will you come too, Perdy?”

“When he says ‘them,'” Perdita said slowly, “does he mean all the students too?”

“He didn’t specify, Aunt, but it came just after he talked about us sitting down soon as a family,” Crystallin ventured.

Coralie asked, “When were you talking about that?”

“A couple hours ago. It’s a long story.”

“If it’s a family meal…” Perdita looked and sounded reluctant.

“No, you should come too, Aunt Perdy,” Crystallin said. “Please?”

“I’ll come,” Perdita said, “but if all the students are there, I won’t stay.”

“Why not?” Coralie asked. 

“I can’t abide flattery, and that Warhite girl is full of it. We don’t take on trainees because of how glib or winsome they can make themselves. I’m resigned to her joining your staff, but I have no intention of spending my free time listening to her fawn over you.”

Coralie laughed. “Oh, Perdy.”

“Don’t ‘Oh, Perdy’ me, Coralie, when you know I’m right. She thinks what you do is something different from what it really is. I can tell already. She’s one of those.

“All right,” said Coralie. “I understand. I won’t force you to stay.”

They closed up the office for lunchtime and put a note on the door. By the time they finished, Everard and Mica were just arriving. Coralie asked, “Is it only us, or are the students eating with us too?”

“I have sent them to listen to a lecture at the hospital,” Everard said. “Lunch will be provided for them there. Where would you like to eat? Or perhaps I ought to ask, what would you like to eat?”

“Do you remember that little grill near the main meeting house?” Coralie asked.

“I do. Shy has the car ready outside.”

Crystallin discovered that she too remembered the “little grill” that her mother mentioned. It was a very compact restaurant with no more than four tables in a smoky main room. Servers came out and grilled meat to order right at the table, or they brought something slow-roasted from the kitchen upon request. “I haven’t been here since I was small enough that I needed to kneel on the seat of my chair,” Crystallin exclaimed. 

“I thought it would be nice to revisit it,” her mother said. “Especially when we have Mica with us this time.”

“It smells amazing,” Crystallin’s brother stated. “What’s the specialty?”

“Meat,” Everard said.

Even Perdita smiled at that. “If I remember,” she said, “they do a very good brisket. And mutton: there was a mutton stew on the menu back then that Linnie liked very much.”

“That’s right,” said Crystallin. “Funny how things come back to you. I picked out all the chunks of meat to eat last, because they were so good, and Larimar stole two of them.”

“Whereupon you slapped him,” said her father, “and a shrieking fight broke out between the two of you. I remember it vividly. Slate nearly had to sit on you, and I dragged Larimar outside to have a talk with him.”

“We weren’t allowed to sit next to each other for days after,” Crystallin finished.

“I bet the servers remember you, then,” Mica said with a rare grin.

They devoted their attention to the server who came to greet them just then. Crystallin blushed when the middle-aged woman said, “And is this your daughter? She’s grown into such a quiet young lady since I last saw her.”

Mica snickered.

Crystallin ordered the mutton stew, Perdita the brisket, and everyone else opted for a grill-at-the-table steak or chop. Everard said, “I also want to order a brisket sandwich and a cup of your vegetable soup, to be sent out to my driver, who insists on staying in the car because of his sympathy.”

“Sergeant Major Calder, right? We’ll take care of him, Father Locke.” She bustled back toward the kitchen.

When Coralie looked at Everard, he simply said, “I come here every visit. Ietta never goes away hungry, and Jock doesn’t need to guard his plate from her. It can be expensive, but it’s well worth the money.”

“That girl can eat like no girl I’ve ever known,” said Perdita.

“My theory,” Everard said, “is that the restrictive dietary practices she experienced while growing up in Oasis had a reverse effect that lingers even now.”

“I can imagine,” murmured Coralie. She gazed around the table. “So I heard something about all of us sitting down together as a family,” she said. “Linnie said it was a long story.”

“I can shorten it,” Everard replied. “Finding that her two new friends have chosen their career paths already and knowing that Lyndon is nearing the next phase of his career path, Linnie has become anxious about her own future. Somehow, Rusza found out and pushed her to tell me, so I suggested we talk it out together on the drive to Sawtooth Ridge.”

“Two sentences,” said Crystallin. “Now I feel silly.”

“Don’t, dear,” her mother responded, “he does this all the time. I wish I’d known, though.”

Before her mother could ask, Crystallin said, “I didn’t think it was right to push the responsibility for my decision onto anyone else, but Daddy made a good point when he said you’d know more possibilities than I would. I don’t have any real goals, and I’m not really very good at anything. How do I decide?”

“Which is why I decided that we need to sit down together for a discussion, some time when we have time. A long drive is the ideal opportunity.”

Coralie mused in silence for a time. Then the server returned with a grill cart and a pile of meat, interrupting the conversation. After everyone finally had food and drink, however, Coralie said, “You like making jewelry, Linnie, and you’re good at it. That’s something.”

“That’s a hobby,” said Crystallin. “What if I can’t make a living at it, or if others don’t like what I make?”

“I like it,” said Coralie. 

“I meant people who aren’t my mom,” Crystallin retorted, but with an affectionate smile.

“I don’t see how my being your mother means my tastes aren’t reliable,” her mother insisted.

“What Linnie means is that you’re biased in her favor, Coralie. The same might be said of me, since I’m your godmother,” allowed Perdita, “but I love this bracelet you made for me.” She touched the engraved pewter cuff bracelet on her left wrist.

“And Perdita hates flattery,” added Everard, “so you can be sure she means that. If you aren’t sure about jewelry-making, consider areas that involve your sympathy. We placed you with your mother to give you a good view of life as a medic, which is where bone-specific mineral sympathists often end up. Since that didn’t appeal to you, you might consider something in the paleontology field.”

“That is way far afield,” Perdita murmured, blotting her lips with her napkin, “but it’s exactly the sort of suggestion you would make, Everard Locke. The sheer amount of education required for—”

Coralie intervened, “That’s a good point, Perdy, but there are jobs in paleontology that aren’t doctorate-level. Fossil-hunting was one of the jobs I considered when I was your age, Linnie. Museums and schools often employ fossil hunters to bring back good specimens for study and display. The problem there is the amount of travel involved. You would be spending months out of the year away from Lyndon. But we don’t have the time to delve right now, Everard, do we? When is that lecture supposed to end?”

Everard checked the time. “Forty minutes.”

“I think having this discussion on the way to Sawtooth Ridge is a very good idea,” she continued. “It’s always such a long, boring drive. Now I have reason to look forward to it!”

“It should be interesting,” Mica said under his breath, so that only Crystallin could hear, “if Dad and Aunt Perdita are both involved.”

To redirect everyone’s attention, Crystallin asked, “Mica, what do you plan to do for work now?”

He raised his eyebrows, but seeing as Crystallin did that the other three had fixed their gazes on him immediately, he said, “I consider myself lucky that I don’t have to decide for more than three years. What I’m doing now is fascinating, though. I wouldn’t have any problem continuing where I am, if it were allowed.”

“You’re enjoying working with your dad, then?” Coralie asked with a touch of anxiety.

“Yes, inordinately, but not just that. I like being part of the planning discussions, talking about how best to communicate the lesson objectives to speak to the different thinking styles, reviewing what worked and what didn’t work. It’s fun, and Lieutenant Jock is great to work with. He takes a lot of trouble over me, I think. I was always the oldest brother in the family, but he is almost like my older brother. We have more in common than I thought at first.”

“Certainly more than I anticipated,” said Everard.

“Speaking of Jock,” Coralie said, “I was so surprised at their announcement! For some reason, I was under the impression that they didn’t plan to have children.”

“As I understand it, that was Jock’s belief, since Ietta comes from Oasis and the birth rates there are kept low, but as with food, Ietta seems to have rebounded from her upbringing into the opposite practice. She has declared that she wants at least four, possibly five children, but that she had always been under the impression that Jock didn’t want children, that he disliked them. Now that both have straightened out their misunderstandings, they decided to put matters right.”

“I know I always assumed Jock didn’t like children,” said Perdita. 

Coralie said, “Oh, but Everard, you were the same way when we first married: you just had no idea how to deal with children. Once Mica came, you were enthusiastic about learning all about children.”

“Almost obsessed,” Perdita added. “So many questions…”

“I look forward to seeing how Jock handles it,” Everard agreed. “It was little Soren that changed his mind. I think Soren is the first child Jock has ever observed at close quarters.”

Crystallin said, “That reminds me, Mom, tonight for Lily’s goodbye party, she and Fiola and Sanna and I are going out for dinner and shopping. We planned it this morning.”

“Just the four of you?” Coralie frowned a little.

“Rusza wheedled his way into getting involved,” Mica said, “so they have him too. That’s not to say that Sanna Taivas isn’t far more useful for protection.”

Coralie nodded. “But, to discourage any unwanted attentions from strange men, it’s good that you have a man in the group. Will you need any extra money?”

Crystallin giggled. “That’s what Daddy asked, but I don’t plan to spend much, just to make a few more memories.”

Her mother took out a wallet. “Even so, I want you to get a memento for yourselves if you want. Here.” She handed over several banknotes. “It’s a special occasion. Treat it like one.”

In surprise, Crystallin accepted the offer of money. “Thanks, Mom.”

When she recounted this to her friends that evening, she said, “So get whatever you want for dinner. I’m paying.”

Sanna tried to protest, but it was Rusza who stopped her. “You don’t know how Aunt Coralie is about these things. She’ll want to know what we bought and how much fun we had with the money she gave us. If you don’t spend it for fun like she said, she’ll get this sort of sad look and say, Well, it was yours to do what you wanted with. If that’s what you really wanted… and be disappointed. Trust me. The best thing to do with that money is to use it and enjoy it.”

“Mom really does enjoy hearing people talk about how they enjoyed themselves,” Crystallin added. “Even though she prefers to stay in and be at home.”

At the Army Stores, Rusza ordered a double portion of shepherd’s pie, while the girls ordered a large salad and a platter of thin-sliced cured salmon, rye bread, and mountain cheese to share. They finished their meal with pastries and chicory coffee.

“Aren’t you all hungry still?” Rusza demanded. “You hardly ate anything.”

“Not everyone eats like you, you glutton,” returned Crystallin. “I’m fine. It was exactly enough.”

“Mikki-mom packed so much lunch for me,” Lily said, “that I’m still full from that.”

Fiola said, “I’ve hardly moved all day, sitting with books so long, so I’m not very hungry.” And Sanna agreed with her.

“So let’s go explore the Co-op,” Crystallin finished.

“I haven’t been there yet, but I’ve heard about it,” Rusza said as they walked the darkening city streets. “Do they really sell just about everything?”

“Wait until you see it,” was Lily’s reply.

Upon their arrival, Rusza’s first reaction was not disappointing. Crystallin giggled when she saw him stop in mid-step and tilt his head back slowly as his mouth fell open. “Wow,” he said. 

The Co-op was brightly lit, and all the vendors seemed to be competing for the most eye-catching display of goods. Crystallin and her friends plunged into the evening shopping rush along with everyone else who had stopped after work to make a purchase. Rusza became their landmark when they got separated in the narrow aisles. Lily discovered a booth where braided and beaded ribbon ornaments were sold. She bought one pink and white ribbon for herself and three more matching ribbons. “One for Sanna, one for Linnie, one for Fiola,” she said as she distributed them.

“It’s pretty,” Sanna said, touching the clear quartz beads interwoven amongst the slender ribbons, “but what do I do with it?”

“You do this.” Lily took Sanna’s ribbon in hand and started to weave the loose ends into a lock of Sanna’s fine, fair hair next to her temple. “The beads at the end hang down like this. That way, you always have a reminder of me close to your thoughts. Oh, this is such a good color for you, Sanna! You should wear more pink!”

“They don’t offer much that’s pink in army kit,” Sanna laughed.

Crystallin and Fiola helped each other affix their own ribbons. Then all four girls admired themselves together in the mirror behind the shop counter.

“What, nothing for me?” Rusza said, grinning.

Lily and Crystallin exchanged a look. “Oh, we should,” said Crystallin. “We must.” She bought a braided ribbon of black and green, with obsidian beads woven into it. “Opposite colors,” she declared. “So that you don’t forget that you aren’t one of us. Bend down.” She wove the loose ends into his red hair.

“Ow,” he muttered. “Can’t you be gentler, Linnie?”

“Your hair is barely long enough, so don’t squirm. You asked for it. There.”

He studied himself in the mirror. “Nice,” he said. “I like it.”

“You would,” said Lily. “Where should we look next?” She gazed up and down the nearby intersection of aisles.

They turned left and browsed an entire row of displays that varied from stationery to small kitchen utensils carved out of stone. Fiola bought a packet of fine-nib fountain pens because, as she explained, “I’ve longed to try them out, ever since I first read about them.” Lily bought a pair of brown woolen mittens with a white silk lining. “They’re so warm!” she exclaimed after she put them on. “And not itchy!” Crystallin tried a pair and agreed, so she bought a similar pair for the trip to Sawtooth Ridge. 

She noticed after a while that Sanna wasn’t buying anything. When in a private side conversation she asked if Sanna needed any money, the older girl smiled. “I don’t need anything. It’s fun enough to watch you three finding little treasures. And I’ll have this to remember the outing by.” She touched the braided ribbon at her temple. “It’s fine.”

Down the next aisle, while Crystallin and Fiola were trying to persuade Sanna to buy a pale pink scarf and beret set, Lily and Rusza were holding a private conversation several feet away. Crystallin noticed this without putting much importance on it. She was disappointed when Sanna said, “No, I have enough hats and scarves that really do the job. This is just ornamental; it can’t protect anyone from the cold.”

“It’s for looking nice,” Crystallin replied.

Sanna laughed again. “It does look very nice, but are you suggesting, Crystallin Locke, that I should wear two hats and two scarves? One underneath to make sure my sympathy doesn’t make others uncomfortable and another on top of that, just to look nice?”

“No,” Crystallin admitted, “you’re right. But it does look good on you.”

“I’ll take the compliment with thanks as a better present than this. You’re a kind girl. I appreciate the thought.”

“Where is Rusza Tate?” Fiola looked around.

“Of course, he’s gone,” said Crystallin. “He was just here. How does he move so fast when he’s so big? I’ll go find him. Besides,” she said when Lily began to object, “there’s something over this way I want to get another look at. I’ll have a look, grab Rusza, and catch up with you in a few minutes.” She hurried off into the crowd.

Her mother’s question had returned to her several times during this shopping expedition. Every time she passed a display of hand-crafted jewelry or ornaments, she thought of whether she could do such a thing herself. There had been a booth, not as brightly lit as the ones around it, where a countertop full of velvet boxes displayed rings and bracelets carved out of bone. Crystallin waded through the crowded aisles until she reached that display. “Excuse me,” she said to the attendant.

The old man jerked his head upright as if he had just been on the verge of falling asleep in his chair. “Yes, miss, what can I do for you?”

“All of these.” Crystallin indicated the merchandise. “Did you make them yourself?”

“Most. I have a grandson just learning the craft, he made a few of the more basic rings. Is there one you’re interested in?”

She touched one of the rings. “I have bone-specific mineral sympathy, and I like making jewelry, but I never thought of making jewelry out of bone. Is it deer antler, mostly?”

“The rings. Deer, elk, sometimes moose, but those don’t come up often. We use shin bones for the larger pieces.”

“I’d like to buy this for my fiancé. How much is it?” Crystallin heard his response and countered with a slightly lower price, based on a small flaw she had noticed in the material. 

The craftsman considered her counteroffer for several seconds before agreeing. “You’re up visiting from farther south of here, aren’t you? You talk like it. If you want to start making some of these yourself,” he said, “my advice is, take woodworking classes. I understand most of the tools are the same. With your sympathy, the bone itself will tell you the rest of what you need to know.” He wrapped up the ring in its individual box and handed it to her. “I hope your young man likes it.”

“I’m sure he will. Thank you.” Crystallin left the display and started scanning the area for sign of the telltale red hair. She glimpsed the top of Rusza’s head over the back of a nearby display, so she made her way around to the next aisle and arrived in time to hear the attendant say to Rusza, “No, indeed, the platinum plating strengthens it. You won’t have the same issues with oxidization as you would with sterling silver alone, and I’ve never heard of anyone having any temperature issues with the platinum plating.”

“Then that’s definitely the one,” Rusza said. “How much?” The attendant quoted a price that made Crystallin’s eyes fly wide open, but to her greater shock, Rusza just said, “All right. Would you wrap it up for me?”

Crystallin saw the attendant pick up a silvery bangle bracelet with two rose quartz carved beads. The beads slid freely along the bangle. The attendant was careful to arrange them side by side together at the lowest curve of the bracelet when she laid it in its box. “Who,” Crystallin said, “are you buying that for?”

Rusza jumped perceptibly. Then he said, “Of all the people I didn’t want to see this, you have to be at the top of the list. What are you doing here?”

“I was looking for you, because you disappeared. Who are you buying that for?”

The attendant looked at Rusza and then at Crystallin. “Is this the young lady?”

“No,” Rusza said sharply, “this is my nagging little sister.”

“Is it for Lily?” Crystallin persisted.

He gave her an almost scoffing glance. “No.”

“Then it’s for Sanna.” Crystallin knew by the sudden compression of his lips that she was right. “You…” She calmed herself. “You know she isn’t like one of your giddy, shallow girlfriends from back home, don’t you? If you give her that, it means something. You know that, don’t you?”

Rusza blushed a fiery red. “I know.”

“Are you serious?”

“Is it really any of your business?” he shot back.

“Yes. I respect Sanna, and Mom and Daddy are fond of her. If you aren’t serious, then I’m going to find a way to stop you.”

He inhaled and exhaled slowly. “I’m… I’m serious. I respect her too, you know. More than anybody else I know. I want to get her to look at me as a man, not like she looks at Soren. I know it’s my fault she looks at me like that, after how I’ve acted, but things are going to change.”

Crystallin studied his face, knowing it made him even more uncomfortable when she did so. After a while, she said, “Are you giving it to her tonight?”

“No, not tonight. Tonight’s for saying goodbye to Lily. I’m just the company porter tonight. I want to find the right time.” He reached out to hand a large number of banknotes to the attendant.

“Where did you get all that money?” Crystallin asked.

“I’ve been saving it.”

“Saving? You? What for?”

“Something not as important,” he replied vaguely. “I didn’t really have anything specific in mind, not until tonight.” In exchange, he received a small parcel wrapped in white paper. He tucked this into his jacket pocket.

The attendant, a woman in her late thirties or early forties, said to him, “Thank you for your purchase, sir. I wish you a good evening.” She looked at Crystallin with a slight smile. “And I wish you a good evening, nagging little sister. The world would be greatly improved if all men had a nagging little sister like you.” Then she winked.

Crystallin’s face heated. “Good evening,” she murmured as she steered Rusza away.

The other girls were exactly where Crystallin had left them. “What did you get?” Lily asked, looking resolutely to Crystallin and not at all at Rusza.

She showed them the bone ring she had picked out. “It’s for Lyndon. He loves plants so much, I thought he might appreciate the carving. It’s… I think it’s a fern,” she said doubtfully. “It was so unique, I couldn’t resist.”

“It’s so detailed,” said Fiola, peering close. “There are little birds in the fronds of the fern. Whoever carved this must have really good eyesight.”

“Or a magnifying lens,” Crystallin agreed.

“Rusza Tate,” Fiola said as she shifted her attention, “help me talk Sanna into buying this coat over here. She’s being frugal, but it’s a good coat. She just keeps saying, I have my army coat, but you can’t wear an army coat to every occasion.” She drew Rusza over to the display where Sanna was lingering.

Lily took Crystallin by the elbow and, in a hushed voice, said, “You caught him, didn’t you? What did he end up buying for her?”

“Did you know?”

“I kept catching him trying to sneak away, so I asked him if we were in his way. He admitted what he was up to, in a vague sort of way, and asked if I would keep you three occupied while he made his private purchase. I tried to stop you, but I couldn’t try too hard, or Sanna would have noticed. So? What was it?” When Crystallin described the bracelet and its price to her, Lily clapped a hand over her own mouth to hold back a squeal. “Oh my, oh my. He’s really serious, isn’t he? I could tell, when you brought him back. He’s all solemn and nervous now. Oh, my! I wish I could be there when he asks.” She groaned. “Why do you have to leave tomorrow morning? Can’t you stay just a few more days so I can be there for the end of this?”

Crystallin smiled at her friend’s romantic anguish. “When it happens, you’ll get full descriptions from me and from Fiola, that I promise you. If he doesn’t wriggle out of it,” she amended. “I just can’t picture him proposing seriously to anyone, let alone to Sanna. You know, there’s every chance she’ll think he’s just joking again, like he always does, and turn him down.”

“That’s true,” said Lily, giggling, “but maybe that’s why he’s being so patient right now.”

“Shockingly patient, for him.”

“Let’s go, before they get suspicious.” Lily linked arms with Crystallin as they joined the other three.

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