“And Irina, she just laughed and said to him, That’s what you say; what do you think, Mr. Tate?” said Rusza Tate. He was flushed with eagerness and high spirits after the previous night’s social.
Maccani Moor said, “Tate, we were there. We heard the whole conversation. I for one am not inclined to hear it again.”
“Sanna Taivas wasn’t there,” Rusza objected. “She left early to put Soren to bed.”
“I’m surprised that you noticed,” was Sanna’s quiet reply. “But I was still there during the conversation you’re describing, and I’m even less inclined to relive it than Moor is.” She had been quieter than usual all morning, and even now, her tone was flat, almost monotone.
“Oh. I didn’t see you there then.”
“No. You didn’t see much besides Miss Demyan all evening.” Sanna turned aside so suddenly that Tate, abstracted by his happy memories of the social, continued on for several more strides alone, while Maccani followed close behind Sanna.
They had arrived at the headquarters for the Polestar ranger company. Sanna had an appointment to meet the commanding officer, a Major Kirill, who had returned from patrol during the early hours of the morning. A young woman raised her head at their entrance. “How can I help you?”
“Private Sanna Taivas, to meet with Major Kirill,” said Sanna in her usual husky voice.
“Ah, the major has been expecting you. Up the stairs, second door on the left. It should be open. If it isn’t, just knock.”
The stairs indicated were narrow, barely wide enough for two to pass ascending and descending. Maccani heard Rusza behind him, scrambling to catch up. Maccani made sure that he and Rusza remained in single file even after the stairs brought them to a wide corridor. Sanna was therefore the first to reach the second door on the left and stood on its threshold to announce her name.
“Inside, inside,” said a voice from within.
Maccani followed, maneuvering so that Rusza had to keep behind him. He stopped on the threshold as Sanna had done.
“May I introduce to you Maccani Moor,” said Sanna, “who is learning Sky-wind style fighting from me? And with him, Rusza Tate, one of Father Locke’s other students, who Father Locke asked me to keep an eye on?”
“You two, inside.” The speaker was a woman of maybe forty. Maccani had a feeling she wasn’t as old as her weathered skin made her look. Two men were also present, seated in comfortable armchairs in front of the woman’s desk. These two regarded all three students with equal curiosity, while the woman stared single-mindedly at Sanna. “You’re the one Father Locke wants me to train in,” she said to Sanna. “Why? You’ll only be here for two or three weeks.”
“Yes, ma’am, on this visit. Father Locke is creating a rotation of assignments for me. I will be assigned to Northwest Territory every autumn.”
“Because of my sympathy, ma’am. Apparently, when I stay for an extended time in any one place, my sympathy begins to affect the climate. It sounds preposterous, I know, ma’am, but Father Locke has investigated and says it’s so.”
Silently, Maccani stepped forward, laid a file folder on the woman’s desk, and stepped back again.
Just as silently, the woman opened the folder and started to skim its contents. She finished the first page and passed it to one of the men as she started on the second page. This chain of silent reading continued onward to the second nan, until the woman had finished the last page, handed it onward, and sat staring at Sanna. “Manny,” she said abruptly.
The second man looked up from his page. “Yes, Major?”
“Go to Father Locke and ask him for a few minutes of his time.”
The one called Manny set his reading aside and left the office. The major, who hadn’t left off staring at Sanna all the while, said to her, “That’s a real impressive portfolio Father has on you, Private. You enlisted when?”
“Last spring, ma’am,” Sanna replied, “at the beginning of the fourth month, as soon as I was declared a legal adult.”
“Eight months,” the major calculated. “Have you had your review yet?”
“You should have. Where were you two months ago? Leeward?”
The major uttered a disgruntled noise that made the remaining man grin. “Theo, you see what I mean? Something doesn’t add up.”
“I see it, D.A., and I agree. I’m interested to hear Father Locke’s reasoning. I can’t imagine what it might be.”
“Ma’am,” said Sanna, “is there a problem with my file?”
“With your file, no,” said the major. “Tell me something about yourself. These two,” and she gestured vaguely toward Maccani and Rusza, “they’re mentioned in the results of your training sims with South Company G. Why are they here at your interview now?”
“Father Locke sent them with me,” Sanna answered, “for his own reasons. He didn’t tell me why. But I have been given some supervisory authority over them for our coursework. I have been training them in the fighting style entrusted to me by my masters, and Rusza Tate I’m supposed to be disciplining whenever his behavior doesn’t meet Father Locke’s expectations.”
“Disciplinary case?” The major shot a sharp look toward Rusza.
“No, ma’am, just heedless in word and deed,” Sanna replied quickly. “His father, Dr. Tate, is like a brother to Father Everard, and Father promised to take Rusza in hand for training.”
“With you as his assistant,” the major supplied. “I see. That makes it even more incomprehensible, doesn’t it, Theo? Oh, this is my aide, Captain Theodot Efimyann.” She waved a hand toward the man. “The other one was Captain Manny Tokin, one of my squad leaders. It’s his squad you’ll be working with on a day to day basis. We’re just back from our regular rotation and aren’t assigned to patrol again for a week, so, barring emergencies, you won’t get much of a view of the real work. On this visit, as you say. But you’ll meet people, and they’ll meet you. That will have to suffice. Every autumn, you say?”
“For how many years?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. Father Locke hasn’t set any limit. If the climate effect, as he calls it, is real, it might be for the rest of my life.”
“Somehow, I doubt that.” The major leaned back in her seat. Her relentless stare shifted to her aide. “Anything you want to ask Private Taivas, Theo?”
He retrieved the rest of the file’s contents from the side table where the absent captain had left them. He tapped the papers into a neat stack and returned them to the folder. “Your first experience against the Decay came before you enlisted, I see. I’ve heard the story. What made you enlist in spite of that?”
Sanna straightened her spine. “Sir. When I finished my public schooling, I only had one skill set to earn a living by: I could fight. Enlisting allowed me to ease the financial burden from my family and protect them.”
The captain asked her a few questions about her family, which Sanna answered bluntly, without flinching. Then he said, “You mentioned a fighting style. You belong to one of the North Territory fighting schools?”
“Yes, sir, in a way.”
“In a way?” Captain Efimyann echoed.
“I hadn’t realized it was a school,” she explained, “not until I had cause to fight a man in Leeward. He was head of a school, and he wanted to take custody of my five-year-old cousin, to teach him his style. Then I found out that my masters had meant to found an official school, based on the style they invented, and that they had decided on me as their inheritor. I have since registered the school officially, according to their wishes.”
The captain said slowly, “But that makes you the master of a fighting school, not a mere member.”
“Yes, sir. That’s why I said in a way. Sky-wind school is just starting out. It isn’t much, as schools go. I only have three students.”
“So far,” Maccani interjected.
Sanna gave him a sharp look to hush him.
Captain Efimyann turned to the major and said, “This just keeps getting harder to explain, D.A., don’t you think?”
The major just barked a short laugh.
“Major Kirill,” Sanna began, “Captain Efimyann, may I ask just what the problem is? What needs explaining?”
“That will keep until we meet Father Locke. I hate repeating myself,” the major declared. “What’s keeping Manny? It shouldn’t have taken him that long to get a reply. He’s getting slow. You, Moor, was it? Go see if you can find my squad leader.”
“Yes, Major.” Maccani turned and retreated down the narrow stairs. Without stopping to acknowledge the clerk, he hurried out into the street and looked both ways. He knew Father Locke had been set up with guest offices in the administrative offices of the main army depot building. From the sidewalk outside of Polestar Company’s offices, he could just see the depot over the roofs of the buildings across the street. As he weighed his options, he had to step back suddenly from a truck that pulled up to the curb with a small screech of tires.
Father Everard climbed out of the passenger door. “Moor,” he said. “Is Major Kirill getting impatient?”
“Yes, sir.” Maccani fell into step behind Father Everard, beside Captain Manny Tokin, the driver of the truck.
When they entered the major’s office, Major Kirill said, “Morning, Father. Manny, what took you so long?”
The squad leader just smiled complacently and returned to his seat. Father Everard said, “Tokin says you think there’s a problem with Private Taivas’ file. What problem do you see?”
“Father,” said the major, “why is this girl still just a private? With these accomplishments, this background, her current duties, she ought to have been made PFC at the least by now!”
“I have a policy of not promoting my own students,” Father Everard replied evenly, “to avoid any appearance of favoritism. I leave that in the hands of the local commander at their following assignment. I do give recommendations, based on my observations, but that is all.”
Major Kirill waved away the explanation. “She’s master of a fighting school. I’ve never come across one who didn’t rank equal to a corporal at the very least. Is she assigned to my company for the next two weeks?”
“Three weeks,” Father corrected.
“Theo, get me the forms I need,” said the major in a voice of grim amusement. “Leave it to the local commander, Father.”
Father Everard coughed. “Don’t get carried away, D.A.”
She barked her short, hard laugh but made no promises. “Manny, you can have her now. For these three weeks, Father, are these two attached to her assignment?”
“Take them too, Manny. I’ll catch up with you later, Father. Sorry to disrupt your day. Really, Manny, you didn’t need to drag him all the way here. Put him back.”
The captain again just grinned and said, “I’ll drive you back, Father Locke.”
“She’s… abrupt,” Maccani observed when they were out on the sidewalk.
Captain Tokin nodded. “Abrupt and a little volatile. You get used to it. She’s a good commander, is our D. A., and we wouldn’t trade her for any other.”
“Major Kirill is originally from Cavern,” said Father as they piled into the truck together. “She moved out here and married one of the locals. You’d call him an invisible husband, Sanna.”
“Around here, he’s known as Mr. Major Kirill,” Captain Tokin added. “D. A. herself calls him ‘Mr. Kirill’ in public. Good fellow, but people tend to forget he’s there. Where do you want me to set you, Father?”
“At the corner,” said Father Everard. As soon as the truck stopped, he got out without another word or a backward look.
“Let’s hit the stables,” Captain Tokin announced. “When we go out on patrol, we spend a lot of time riding. Any of you have any experience with horses?”
“Not I,” Maccani said. He waited a few seconds, but Sanna appeared to be lost in thought, so he said, “Have you ever ridden a horse, Master Sanna?” He knew that form of address would catch her attention.
As he had expected, Sanna shot him the usual long-suffering look. “I rode sometimes. Apart from the main road leading toward Cavern, all our other roads were just mountain paths. Either you walked or you rode.”
“Your friend there,” said Captain Tokin, “he doesn’t talk much, does he?”
“Normally, you can’t shut him up, sir, but yesterday at the social he met a Miss Demyan,” said Maccani.
Captain Tokin laughed. “Oh, that happens all the time. It wears off before long. What was his name again?”
Maccani leaned across Sanna and said loudly, “Rusza Tate!”
Rusza jumped and knocked his head against the window. “What? What?”
“The captain asked you a question. Can you ride?”
Rusza made a face. “The neighbors had a pony they let us ride sometimes, when I was little.”
“It’s a start,” said Captain Tokin. “Here’s the stables.” He parked the truck by the wall next to an open barn door.
From then until lunchtime, Maccani focused on learning how to harness, mount, ride, dismount, and remove harness from a number of horses. He was aware, in a general way, of Rusza receiving the same tutelage, while Sanna helped exercise other horses and talked with various members of Polestar Company. Manny Tokin was affable and relaxed. None of his squad members called him “Captain”; just “Manny”. Every time Maccani had a moment to look around, it seemed he found Manny presenting Sanna to someone new.
“That’s it for the morning,” Manny announced as a bell pealed from somewhere nearby. “When we’re off-duty, we eat separately. I’ll take you back to the depot and your group. Father Locke may want you for something this afternoon; if not, he’ll send you back to me. Stepan, do you mind cleaning up?”
His lieutenant took the reins of the horse Rusza had just dismounted. “Go along, Manny. Do I ever mind?”
So Captain Tokin drove Sanna, Maccani, and Rusza back to the army depot building and parted from them with a blithe wave. Lieutenant Ietta was waiting just inside the door. She beckoned to them. “How do you like Polestar Company? An odd bunch, aren’t they? We’re lunching in the cafeteria.”
The depot in Sawtooth Ridge also had its Army Stores, like the one in Cavern, but the resemblance ended there. Here, the Army Stores was a civilian-oriented shop with a smallish cafeteria tucked away in the back corner. Father Everard had already ordered for them, since they were the last three to arrive. “Wash first,” he said. “Washrooms are over there.” He pointed to the very back corner of the cafeteria.
Maccani didn’t need to prod Rusza now. The sight and scent of food was enough to motivate him through the necessary ablutions with more haste than accuracy, leaving Maccani to follow at a more relaxed pace.
Cooper called out, “What’s Polestar like? We were with Zenith, working with Tarbengar’s brother. You know, I never thought human beings could get so big! No wonder they call him ‘Grizzly’. They’re getting ready to head out to patrol, or we would have gotten to ride horses too.”
“Tarbengar,” Father said.
“I have obtained consent for you to accompany Zenith on this patrol.”
“Thank you, sir!” Tarbengar seemed unusually excitable, to Maccani’s eye.
“Taivas, how did Moor and Tate do this morning?”
“They worked hard, sir.”
“Good. This afternoon, I want you to take Fiola with you. She needs to get acquainted with Polestar Company too. And there was mail for all three of you.”
Without any prompting, Lieutenant Jock produced four letters for Rusza, two for Maccani, and one for Sanna. Maccani looked at his two envelopes. One was from his parents and one from his maternal grandmother Clara. He tucked them into his back pocket for later reading. He was sitting next to Sanna and happened to notice that her envelope had Lily Allen’s name on it. He chuckled. “Did she write it before we left?” he asked.
Sanna opened the envelope and checked the date at the top of the letter. “The day of,” she replied. “I can’t imagine what she could have to say so soon.”
Across the table from them, Rusza exclaimed, “Ha!” He waved the smallest of his four envelopes in the air. “It’s from Irina!” He tore into the envelope and pulled out a slip of paper. “Tea,” he read aloud. “I’m invited to tea at the Demyan house this afternoon!”
Maccani noticed a slight tightening around Father Everard’s mouth, so he said, “Shouldn’t you check that? Tate. Tate, are you listening?”
Rusza looked up with a blank expression that suggested his thoughts were elsewhere.
“Tate! Shouldn’t you check?”
“Your availability. Check to see if you’re free to go. Idiot.” Maccani shook his head.
“Uncle Everard, please,” said Rusza earnestly. “I worked hard all morning.”
Father Everard gazed at him for several seconds. He then turned to Sanna. “What are your thoughts?”
“That you might as well give him leave, sir,” she said in that flat tone, “since even if he went with us, he wouldn’t be with us.”
Maccani noticed that the tightening intensified. He was surprised, then, when Father Everard said, “You may reply and accept the invitation, provided you return by 1600.”
So it happened that it was he and Fiola, not he and Rusza, who accompanied Sanna back to Polestar Company’s headquarters that afternoon, driven in the staff car by Sergeant Major Calder. Major Kirill took one look and said, “I thought the other one was your student too.”
Sanna shook her head slightly. “No, ma’am, he has been learning some of Sky-wind style, but he isn’t an official student. These two are. This is my cousin by marriage, Fiola Tuovali-Guslin. Her younger brother is my inheriting student, but he is only five as yet.” She stood at attention, but Maccani thought she lacked something in her bearing that was usually there.
“This afternoon, I’ll talk you through some details of what Polestar Company does when on duty,” said Major Kirill. “But before that, give me your jacket.”
“My jacket?” Sanna had obviously been caught off guard by the demand. She was slow to begin unbuttoning her regulation uniform jacket, but she did comply.
Major Kirill handed it to a man who may have been nearby since their arrival, but this was Maccani’s first time noticing him. “Mr. Kirill,” said Major Kirill as her only explanation of the man. “Now, into the briefing room.”
Captain Efimyann was there already. He welcomed them and said, “Our patrol follows two routes. We switch off with whichever other company is on duty before or after us.” For a while, he just described each route, how many ranches or farms lay along each, and things the rangers checked for routinely. “We get occasional reports of downed fences, escaped livestock, thefts, and the like, and we investigate each on our way. Sometimes, especially in the springtime, we have landslides, flash flooding, that kind of thing. Then all companies pitch in to put things right, no matter if you’re on duty or off. Questions?”
Sanna asked, “What is the frequency of encounters with the Decay?”
“Low, thank the Only One,” said Efimyann. “We haven’t had more than two or three encounters a year since I enlisted. We’re more likely to encounter an angry grizzly, to be honest.”
“Extremists?” Maccani asked.
“Also few. This isn’t the most hospitable region. Plenty of space for hiding, but definitely lacking in the physical comforts. Like shelter, and passable roads, and ready food. Even the Outsiders who ranch around here won’t tolerate extremists. They consider them as cattle thieves. Or sheep thieves.”
“What about you, little cousin?” Major Kirill asked Fiola suddenly. “Don’t you have any questions?”
“One,” Fiola said. “When you’re on duty, do you go both weeks without seeing your families?”
“That’s rare. These routes, they don’t take that long to cover. On an average patrol, we leave early the first morning, travel to a campsite about halfway, make the end of the trail and turn back to return to the campsite on the evening of the second day, and get back here before supper the third day. In the summer, when the days are longer, we sometimes can cover the whole route in a day, turn back the second morning, and be back by midnight that same day. All in all, we’re rarely gone longer than three days at a time.”
“Three days on the road, twice over,” agreed Captain Efimyann, “makes one full week on duty. The seventh day, we meet with the other companies and exchange information before we swap routes. Say we had the east route for our first week’s patrol. Once there and back, a night here, a second time there and back, a night here, and a day of meeting with Daystar Company over what they saw on the north route all week and with Zenith Company over what they can expect to see on the east route.”
“Then we take over the north route from Daystar,” Sanna mused aloud, “Zenith takes over the east route from us, and Daystar goes off duty for a week?”
“Just so,” said Major Kirill. “And at the end of that week, the rotation turns again: Zenith goes north, we go off duty, and Daystar goes east.” A light tap at the door brought Major Kirill to her feet. “Thanks, Mr. Kirill,” she said through the gap between the door and the door jamb. She returned with Sanna’s jacket. “Private Taivas, I’m pleased to say that General Terenti agreed with me and pushed through a promotion for you. Now you’re Corporal Taivas.”
The jacket, when Sanna held it out at arm’s length, had the new insignia already sewn onto the shoulder, above the black-and-white armband. “Major,” Sanna began, but no further speech came to her lips.
“I don’t see why you’re so shocked,” said Major Kirill. “You heard what I said before: with your accomplishments, your background, and your current duties, it would be wrong for your rank not to reflect all that. Now put your jacket on and let your students admire your new insignia, Corporal Taivas.”
“But it’s… it’s too early,” Sanna replied in the same shocked tone.
Captain Efimyann replied, “Young woman, your file is proof that age doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s true that you probably won’t find another seventeen-year-old female corporal in this army, but not because there shouldn’t be one. You’ve earned this promotion.”
“Wait,” said Maccani. “Wait… you’re only seventeen? I thought you said you’re a legal adult.”
“I am,” said Sanna. “An elder in my district helped me file for a declaration of legal adulthood and head of household status after I finished public school. Nana Friga couldn’t work full time, and Uncle Axel wasn’t able to work at all then, so I was the only one left to support the family.”
“I honestly thought you were at least nineteen, going on twenty,” Maccani admitted.
“Seventeen, going on eighteen,” she replied with a rueful smile. “I turn eighteen next month.”
Major Kirill said with a sharp stare, “You had better not use that as a reason to respect your master less, Moor.”
“Not at all,” Maccani declared.
They spent the rest of the afternoon with Captain Manny Tokin’s squad, learning what each should pack for patrol, how much was allowed, what was not allowed, and how it should be distributed in the packs to provide the easiest burden for a horse. Maccani had the chance to talk to the company’s medic, Philippa Agripinna, about the unique aspects of packing for patrol with medical responsibilities. Even in conversation, however, Maccani was aware of the many times Polestar members called Sanna “Corporal” and provoked the girl to a sheepish smile.
He himself struggled not to smile when he noticed how little Fiola puffed up with pride at every reminder of her cousin’s new rank. When they returned to the depot building, Fiola was the one who ran into the guest office shared by Mother Coralie and Father Everard to say, “Sanna! Sanna got a promotion! She’s a corporal now!”
Crystallin Locke and Mother Coralie both rose to congratulate Sanna. Maccani edged around the joyful commotion until he stood beside Father’s desk. “Did you arrange this, Father?”
“Arrange? No,” Father Everard replied.
“I took the liberty of glancing at the contents of that folder you sent with me. A copy of the recommendation letter from General Murren, a commendation from Elder Safi of Ice District for her actions during the insurrection, a grateful letter from the mother of that Pradta boy, and your own report of her involvement in taking down that seeding-ship in Leeward harbor. And those were just the first four pages. I didn’t get a chance to look at anything more,” he admitted. “You don’t promote your own students… is that so?”
“But I give my recommendation to the local commander,” Father agreed. “The terms in which I convey my recommendation are mine to choose.”
Maccani couldn’t help but grin. “They are, indeed, Father. She was so shocked and embarrassed. It was cute.”
“Yes, cute. A word I never thought I would apply to Sanna Taivas. But, it must also be admitted, I never guessed she was only seventeen.”
Mother Coralie announced, “I’m going to order a hearty meal in celebration of Sanna’s promotion. What would everyone like?” She turned to Sanna first and insisted until Sanna said that she had liked the “tomato pie thing” that had been served at the previous evening’s social. “Tomato pie,” said Mother Coralie. “Good. Who else? Fiola?”
“Do they have any noodle dishes?” Fiola asked.
“I’ll ask what’s available. Who else?”
“I’d love, just once, a great big slab of roast beef,” said Cooper longingly.
“I think we can arrange that,” Mother Coralie said with a laugh. “Maccani Moor? What would you like?”
“Dessert, of course,” he said. “What’s the local specialty? I’m open to anything sweet.”
“Ah, you’ll see. You’ll see,” she promised as she hastened out of the office, pursued by her lieutenant.
Crystallin Locke threw her arms around Sanna for what must have been the fourth time. “Wait until Lily hears about this! Did you get a letter from her today too?”
“So did I,” said Fiola.
“I didn’t,” Maccani interjected as he planted himself in their midst. “How is she?”
So they talked about the news Lily had conveyed in her letter, which boiled down to the fact that she had read two whole books and a journal article in the course of one morning, and her head was so full that it positively swam with information.
While they were chatting, the door opened to admit Rusza. He looked at the clock. “Fifteen hundred forty-five,” he announced. “Safe!” His step was buoyant, and his expression almost radiant. “You should have come with me. The Demyans are so nice! They have five sons, with Irina as the only daughter and the youngest of them all. Two of their sons are trainees with Daystar Company. They weren’t there this time, since they’re out on patrol, but Ma Demyan said they would be back day after tomorrow, just for the evening, and I can meet them then. And their house is full of things Irina makes. She’s skilled at all kinds of needlework and drawing and painting, and she can sing and play the harp. They have this huge, amazing harp that Dad Demyan bought just so Irina could learn! It was plain when they got it, but Irina painted it with flowers and vines and stuff, so now it looks really pretty.”
Crystallin Locke had been gazing at him with a frown growing between her eyebrows while he chattered. Then she interrupted him in an incisive voice. “We have more important things to talk about, Rusza. Go gossip to someone else.”
“More important things,” he scoffed. “Like what?”
“Like Sanna got promoted to corporal today,” Crystallin fired back.
Rusza hesitated only a moment. “Of course she did. This is Sanna Taivas we’re talking about.” He shifted his gaze to Sanna for a bare instant. “Congratulations, Sanna Taivas!”
“Thank you,” she said. Her voice was again flat and toneless.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Crystallin hooked her arm through Sanna’s arm. “Let’s go sit down. You worked hard all day… unlike some people.” And she walked Sanna toward the sitting area of the office.
“Impressive, Tate,” said Maccani. “I didn’t know you could be that stupid.” Then he too walked away from Rusza.