Fiola had just stepped out of the guest hostel’s front entrance when she saw Crystallin speed-walking toward her. A young woman followed behind Crystallin at the same rapid pace. Fiola recognized her face from the confrontation with the Guslin relatives. She stiffened.
“You know how I said there’s nothing to do in the mornings but sit and watch the bus terminal,” Crystallin said while she was still at some distance. “I found someone there who wants to join Sky-wind school as a student!”
The young woman seemed to recognize Fiola with the same sense of wariness. “Fiola Tuovali-Guslin,” she said. “Good morning. Don’t be offended; I don’t have anything to do with the Guslins anymore. I’ve even gone back to my maiden name. I’m Kass Ulim.” She stuck out a hand toward Fiola and waited.
Fiola tentatively accepted the handshake. “Why do you want to join our school?”
“I’d like to explain in front of Sanna Taivas,” Ulim said.
“I’d rather hear it first.”
Kass Ulim gazed at her over their lingering handshake, weighing her. “Well, why not? I want to join Sky-wind school for several reasons. The first is that I was impressed by the way Sanna Taivas fought in that duel. She’s strong, but not cruel. The second is that I was impressed by the way Sky-wind style anticipates and outdoes Guslin style. I want to be able to defend myself, in case my ex-husband comes looking for me. The third…” Her gaze intensified. “Is it true that the Sky-wind school is set to travel the world?”
“If you count traveling the territories as traveling the world,” Fiola said.
“Spending very little time in Cavern?”
“A few days a year at most, as far as I know.”
“That’s my third reason. I want to be away from Cavern. I want to see different places and meet new people. I want to be away from everything I’ve known. I’m willing to pay tuition, however much she asks. That, maybe, is a fourth reason. It’s only because of Sanna Taivas, forcing Matt to sell the school, that I have anything at all. She made him settle some of the proceeds on me as reparations. That means I have plenty of ready cash right now, and I want to invest it in learning to fight. Old man Guslin always said air sympathists were worthless. I’ll prove him wrong.”
Fiola tipped her head and gazed at the zealous young woman. Then she tightened her grip on the handshake. “I’m just on my way to meet Sanna now. Come with me.” She brought both Kass Ulim and Crystallin to the training facility where Father Locke was running the students through their morning physical training. They waited by the side, just out of sight, until they heard Father Locke call out, “Wash and drink water, be back here in five.” Then Fiola stepped into the gym. “Sanna! Sanna, can I have a minute?”
Sanna jogged to her side immediately. “What is it, Fiola?”
“There’s someone asking to join the school.” She brought Sanna out into the entryway. Then she stepped back to watch.
Kass Ulim poured out her case, self-introduction and all, before Sanna could even speak a word in her surprise. When she came to the end of her possibly fourth reason, she said, “Please. I know you have no reason to think well of me—”
“Why would I think ill of you?” Sanna replied. “You’ve done nothing to wrong me or mine. I had heard of your decision to leave your husband. Are you doing well? Did he hand over the reparations without making trouble for you?”
Kass Ulim stood with her mouth ajar for several seconds. “I’m… doing well,” she replied. “It was a lawyer who handled the reparations… so… the whole matter went through smoothly.”
“I’m glad to hear that; after the tantrum he threw, I had my doubts. Come inside. I’ll introduce you to the other student you haven’t met yet.” Sanna took the young woman by the hand and led her, still blinking in disbelief, into the gym and introduced her to Maccani Moor.
Crystallin giggled. “I love that. She doesn’t know what to make of her!”
“I had better see this through to the end,” Fiola said. “It sounds like we’re only doing riding lessons this morning. That leaves lunch free, if you want to eat with us.”
“Yes, I’ll do that. See you later!”
The girls parted. Fiola went to join the rest of her school. Maccani Moor was already saying, “I’m glad to hear that. I consider it an investment too. This young lady is the school bookkeeper.” He gestured gallantly toward Fiola. “She can help you work out the tuition matter. It’s good to see someone else recognizes the value of this school. Welcome to Sky-wind school!”
“Where are you staying?” asked Sanna.
“I only just got off the bus. I haven’t had time to find a place to stay,” Kass replied.
“Fiola, while we’re finishing up the morning routine, why don’t you take Kass to the hostel and see that she gets situated. Then we’ll meet there after lunch for training. Does that sound good to you?”
“The sooner, the better,” said Kass eagerly.
Sanna smiled at her. “We’ll catch up with you then.”
Fiola took charge of Kass Ulim. The young woman seemed a little dazed still. After they had walked a few blocks, she asked Fiola, “Is she always like that? I expected her to react like you did, because I was associated with the Guslins, but she…” Kass shook her head. “I didn’t expect that at all, really, I didn’t.”
“Sanna’s very kind. Sometimes, I think, a little too kind, but I would never want her to change.”
“I see.” Kass fell into thought. Then she repeated, “I see.”
At the hostel, Fiola waited while Kass worked out her accommodations with the front desk clerk. She was given a room just a few doors down from the suite where Fiola’s family was staying, so it was a simple matter, once Kass had deposited her bag in her own room, to take her down the hall and introduce her to Nana Friga and Uncle Axel. Kass seemed especially pleased to shake Uncle Axel’s hand. “Sir,” she said, “I was moved beyond words when you clocked Matt over the head with your cane.”
“Were you?” Uncle Axel seemed nonplussed by the nature of the compliment.
“I hadn’t had a reason to laugh for a long time before that happened,” Kass explained. “I knew better than to laugh out loud at the time, but sometimes it comes back to me even now and I have a little giggle over it. Thank you.”
Nana Friga gestured to a nearby chair. “Would you mind telling us your story, Miss Ulim?”
“I need to get back,” Fiola said. “See you later, Miss Ulim.” She made her way across town to the Polestar company headquarters, specifically to the stables behind the headquarters. There, she discovered that she was the first of her school to arrive.
The captain, Manny Tokin, greeted her as he would an adult. “Good morning, Miss Fiola!”
“Good morning, Captain.”
“Do you want me to get Dancer out for you?”
“Thank you,” she said, “but I want to try doing it myself, without help.”
“Shout out if you need anything,” he replied.
Dancer was a dainty black mare with a white blaze and one white stocking. She was the best size for Fiola, being only fifteen hands. She was also a little nervy, which meant Fiola needed to get her accustomed to being handled by a small stranger. Fiola cooed under her breath and held out the backs of her fingers for the horse to sniff toward. When Dancer’s velvety nose touched her fingers, Fiola rubbed the backs of her fingers lightly against the bottom tip of the white blaze, working upward slowly until she was scratching Dancer’s forelock. “That’s a good girl,” she murmured. While still in the stall, she stepped slowly back along the horse’s length, stroking Dancer’s back and murmuring softly. Then she brought out the cube of sugar she had taken from the breakfast table. “Do you want this?” she asked. “Of course you do. It’s good, isn’t it?” She had a carrot, broken in rough pieces, that she had gotten Crystallin to wheedle from the mess hall kitchen for her on the previous evening. She fed this to Dancer as well. “See? I’m your friend. I bring you treats.”
With this slow, gentle approach, she was able to saddle and bridle Dancer without any fuss and led her out to the corral.
Captain Manny said, “That’s well done, Miss Fiola. Not bad at all for your second day!” He watched her step into the stirrup and mount. “She’ll dance under you a little at first, see. That’s why we named her Dancer. But don’t worry about that. She’s practically used to you now. You’re going to be best friends, you two. I can tell. Now show us your trot.” He moved so smoothly into the lesson that Fiola was around the corral twice before she realized that he had started teaching her something new.
On the fifth time around the corral, she noticed Sanna and Maccani Moor leaning on the fence, watching her. Rusza Tate was not there, and Fiola had no intention of asking where he was. She guided Dancer toward the pair. “I think I’m getting it,” she said.
“I think you are,” Maccani Moor retorted. “I wish I was quick to pick that up as you!”
Suddenly Captain Manny was behind them. He draped an arm over Maccani Moor’s shoulders. “There’s only one way to get better, Moor. Come along.” And he steered the young man toward the open stable door.
Sanna gazed at Dancer’s face. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she? So delicate and feminine.”
“For a horse,” Fiola agreed. “But it took some time to get her settled down. Who do you want today? I thought you were doing especially well with that gray one.”
“Ghost? He’s a staid old campaigner, as Dad would say. He knows what he’s there to do, and he does it, whether I help him or hinder him. I thought I would try out the chestnut today.”
“You mean the one they named Chestnut?”
Sanna smiled a little wanly. “It works, as names go.” She strode toward the stables after the men.
“Dancer,” Fiola said, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.” She patted the horse’s neck.
While they exercised the horses, someone in Polestar Company started up a song. Dancer fidgeted at first, but Fiola soothed her with a caressing hand. Most of Polestar Company was present this morning, if not all of them, and they definitely loved to sing. Fiola even noticed Maccani Moor picking up their songs and singing as if he belonged. Sanna merely listened and smiled her enjoyment as she rode.
“Come on, Master Sanna,” Maccani Moor exclaimed, “you sing too!”
She shook her head a little. “I can’t.”
“Can’t sing? I can’t believe that.”
“Oh, you ought to take my word for it. Don’t force me to prove it. I love listening to music,” she explained, “but somehow I’ve never been able to get my voice to match what’s inside my ears.”
“I thought you could do anything,” Maccani Moor laughed.
“No. Actually, there are very few things that I’m able to do well. Thinking and fighting: that sums me up in three words.”
“That isn’t all,” Fiola countered. “You’re good at taking care of people.”
“That,” said Sanna, “ought to be a basic qualification for being human.”
Captain Manny, overhearing this, burst out in a laugh that made Dancer sidestep nervously. “I beg your pardon, Miss Fiola,” he gasped, “but Major! Major, did you hear that? Corporal Taivas says taking good care of people should be a basic qualification for being human!”
The major, from all the way across the corral, barked a sharp laugh. “Should be, but isn’t. I for one can’t do it at all. That’s why Mr. Kirill exists. He takes care of people for me, and takes care of me to boot. You would be shocked, Corporal, at the sheer number of people who have no skill whatsoever at taking good care of people. Don’t shortchange yourself. You have a knack. General Murren thinks so, and she’s one who knows.”
“Are you acquainted with the general?” asked Sanna.
“Oh, women in the army usually keep track of each other. There aren’t as many of us, especially in the northern lands. We don’t get much chance to talk, the general and me, but we keep in touch as best we can. I would wager money that that’s why Father put you in my company. We officer-women need to support each other.”
“Oh, you’ve got her started now,” said Captain Manny.
“I heard that, Manny. I’ll say it as often as I like.”
“And you do say it, Major, as often as you like. I don’t mind, though. I’m on your side. I wouldn’t dare not be.”
The major barked another laugh. “That’s right.”
Sanna smiled at this repartee. She seemed more at ease afterward. She and the chestnut gelding had had some slight differences of opinion at the start of their ride, but by this point she had persuaded Chestnut to jump a low railing at Captain Efimyann’s instigation.
“You two are leaving me in the dust,” Maccani Moor complained.
“Practice, Moor,” shouted Captain Manny. “Practice! You’re doing fine for a raw beginner.”
And it was so, Fiola noticed. Maccani Moor had a gift for watching the people around him and matching his actions to theirs. Already, although he had only gotten on a horse for the first time the day before, he easily managed a canter on his red gelding, called Firebrand. By lunch, he had successfully attempted a gallop. “Whoa,” he shouted. His voice sounded anxious for a change, until Firebrand slowed and stopped. Maccani dismounted and leaned against the horse’s flank. When Fiola rode Dancer over to check on him, he raised his face. “That was a little scary,” he admitted. “Thought I was going to get jolted off.”
“You did all right,” she said. “It looked all right from where I was, anyway.”
“Try it again tomorrow,” said Captain Manny, who had ridden over for the same reason as Fiola. “You’ve got a feel for it now. Lean forward just a little more when you get some speed up. It helps you keep your balance. You want to be straight over your feet.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Maccani Moor admitted.
“We’ll work on that tomorrow. You need lunch. Riding takes more stamina than you’d believe until you try it. With practice,” Captain Manny added brightly, “you might even remember to keep your thumbs pointed up!”
“Was I doing it again?” Maccani Moor said.
Captain Manny gave a big, decisive nod.
“Think of it this way: if you were holding two glasses of water instead of the reins, you’d be soaked by now.”
Fiola headed Dancer back to the stable and tended to her with a little guidance from one of the rangers. Then, after a quick wash, she left the stable and found Sanna already waiting for her. Maccani Moor took some time longer, but he too joined them as they headed back toward the depot building. “I told Crystallin I would have lunch with her,” Fiola said. “Is that all right, Sanna?”
“Perfectly all right. You go get her. We’ll change and be waiting in the cafeteria.”
She ran toward the hostel so that she could change out of her own horsey clothes. Kass Ulin was still there, chatting with Nana Friga. She looked up at Fiola’s entrance with an unspoken question in her eyes. “I’m going to change clothes,” Fiola explained. “Then we’re having lunch with Sanna and Maccani Moor at the Army Stores cafeteria. You should come too.” She ducked into the room she shared with Nana Friga, changed clothes, and brushed and rebraided her hair before returning to lead Kass from the hostel. “Crystallin, the girl you met this morning, is probably somewhere in the offices behind the Army Stores,” Fiola explained.
“Isn’t that her, over there?” Kass pointed.
In a narrow gap between two buildings, Crystallin stood facing Rusza Tate. They were engaged in heated conversation. Fiola slowed, stopped, watched. “I don’t think we should interrupt,” she said.
Rusza Tate’s voice rose. “I wouldn’t have even thought that way, if you and Chaplain Tommy hadn’t been so…” His voice sank again.
“Liar!” Crystallin exclaimed, and she stomped one foot. “You were buying it before I said a word!”
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” Rusza Tate said stubbornly.
“Fine with me,” Crystallin said, “I don’t want to talk with you anymore. Ever!” She stood perfectly still and watched Rusza Tate’s retreat. By the time Fiola had drawn near, however, Crystallin was crying. She bowed her head and hugged Fiola as she wept. “I am finished with him. That liar!” Her breath came in shudders that wracked her whole body. But after a few minutes of uncontrolled tears, she straightened. “Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean for you to have to see that. Is it lunchtime?”
Fiola nodded. “Will you be all right?”
“I’ll be all right,” Crystallin said. She glanced at Kass. “Sorry.”
“Men do that to you,” Kass said. “Is he your boyfriend?”
“No,” Crystallin said, “thank the Only One. My brother-in-law, and that’s bad enough.” She was still angry; Fiola could sense her churning pulse and her tensed muscles. She had herself enough under control, nonetheless, to accompany them to the cafeteria, asking Kass questions about her morning as if nothing was wrong. When they saw Sanna and Maccani Moor, Fiola thought she sensed a touch of nausea in Crystallin, but her friend greeted the two with friendly good cheer.
Maccani Moor said, “Master Sanna, why don’t you take Miss Ulim to the cashier first and get her set up with an account? We’ll follow you soon.” The moment Sanna’s attention was diverted, he steered the other two girls back into the main sales floor of the Army Stores, into the shelter of a shelving unit. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong?” Crystallin repeated blankly.
“I have human body sympathy, and I can tell you’re both upset. What’s wrong? It has something to do with Sanna Taivas. You were nearly sick when you saw her.”
Crystallin started trembling again. “It’s… a private matter.”
“Not that private, if both of us are aware of it,” Maccani Moor retorted. “If there’s any problem to do with her, Miss Fiola and I need to know about it.”
“It’s to do with Rusza Tate,” Fiola ventured.
“Oh, that. What makes you so agitated about that, Crystallin Locke?”
Suddenly Crystallin was pouring forth an almost incoherent story about a bracelet that Rusza Tate had bought, and how she had cornered him to ask him what happened to his intention to give it to Sanna and if he had given it to that girl instead, and how he wouldn’t talk about it except to say he couldn’t give it to that girl when it wasn’t bought for her, and all he could talk about was that girl. When her flow of words had tapered off, she wiped her eyes and said, “And I’m scared that this is going to hurt her. She doesn’t need this, after all she went through already. I don’t want him to hurt her.”
Fiola hugged Crystallin again. “No,” she agreed, “I don’t want that either.”
“But you aren’t sure,” said Maccani Moor. “You know how straightforward Sanna is. The only way you’re going to settle this for yourselves is by asking her outright if… if she’s hurt by this. Maybe she isn’t, and you’re working yourself up for no reason. Maybe she is, and you can help by hearing her out.”
“Would it help? Really?” Crystallin hiccupped softly as her tears slowed.
The young man smiled a little. “I think it might. It would show her that you care for her. Now, can you go back? Do you need to stop in the restroom?”
Crystallin shook her head. “I’m fine.”
They returned to the cafeteria to find that Sanna was just nearing the end of the account registration process for Kass. Maccani Moor blocked Sanna’s view of Crystallin and Fiola with his body as he came up in line behind her. “All taken care of? I’m famished. Let’s eat.”
They went through the line, loaded their plates, and paid in order: Sanna, Kass, Maccani, Crystallin, and Fiola. By the time they sat down at one of the medium-sized tables, Crystallin seemed almost like her usual self again. If Sanna noticed anything, she gave no hint that Fiola could discern. They talked about the horses and about the members of Polestar Company whom Sanna, Maccani, and Fiola had met. Kass seemed interested in everything, especially in the idea of a rotating assignment to different territories.
“Where will you go after this?” she asked Sanna.
“I think, for the winter, Father Locke decided I should spend three months in South Territory. I’ve never been there,” Sanna said.
“I have,” Crystallin said. “It’s always hot, and the flowers are big and showy, and they just about drown you in their perfume. The people there like to party for any and every reason.”
“I can imagine Captain Yeardley being like that,” said Maccani Moor, “but Captain Haigh?”
“He seems a little different than most southerners,” Crystallin admitted. “But he has that really strong sympathy and is always careful not to harm anyone with it, so that holds him back. That’s what Mom said once, anyway. I went to one of the dances they held. Everyone dresses up like they’re at a wedding. The men wear really elegant suits, and the women wear bright colors and lots of flashy jewelry. I saw an old lady wearing a tiara!”
“That will be different,” said Sanna. “But I look forward to the heat.”
“Is the cold starting to get to you?” Fiola asked immediately.
“Not too much, not yet.”
“You’ll tell us if it does, won’t you?”
Sanna smiled at Fiola. “Yes, if only to warn you.”
“Not that late, Sanna. Tell us before that.”
“It isn’t too bad yet.”
After everyone had finished eating and cleared away their dishes, they all gathered back at the hostel, in the suite where Fiola’s family stayed. Soren ran to hug Sanna, and Sanna lifted him in her arms. “It’s best not to do too much vigorous training right after a meal, so I’ll start by telling you a little about how Sky-wind style began. Does that suit you, Kass Ulim?”
Kass nodded. “Please, do.”
“I haven’t had this talk with you either, Maccani, so it’s the right time.” She sat down with Soren on her lap. “You were there to hear the three principles that Sky-wind style was founded upon. First principle, fight in such a way that the Only One is honored. Second principle: fight with your unique sympathy at the core of your strategy. Third principle: use only the minimum required force to subdue your opponent. Doc and Nilma argued over these three principles for a long time. It was Doc who insisted on the first principle. He never talked about his family background, so I never understood why he was so insistent… but I think I can guess now. He always said, if the Only One isn’t honored by what you do, there’s no point doing it. That’s why it’s the first principle, and everything else follows from that. Does that make sense?” she asked Kass.
“Yes. I know exactly why he insisted,” Kass replied grimly. “It’s the exact opposite of what Guslin style practices.”
Sanna nodded in a thoughtful way. “Whenever he stopped a fight between any of the children, Doc always said to them, If you want to fight, there’s better fights to be had out there, and he would point toward the wilderness. Those fights are worth your time; this is petty kid stuff. Fight for what matters, not for yourself. And everyone knew he fought for what mattered, so they listened to him. But it was Aunt Nilma who decided on the second principle. Doc actually hated his sympathy. He said it was useless in a real fight, useless to fight against the Decay, just plain useless. He and Nilma argued over that almost daily. Nilma would always end the fight by telling Doc that it was he himself who taught her that human body sympathy is the best sympathy— and that made him laugh. They never would explain to me what was humorous about it,” Sanna said with a touch of perplexity.
Fiola bit her lower lip. Kass had her eyebrows raised in disbelief. Maccani Moor wore a look of wry amusement.
“Even Fiola knows,” Sanna said as an aside, “but she won’t say what it means.”
“It refers,” said Maccani Moor, “to a saying that’s fairly common among human body sympathists. I know I’ve heard my uncles on my mother’s side joke about it.” He got up from his chair and crossed to stand next to Sanna. Leaning low, he breathed a few words in her ear.
Sanna’s eyes went wide for a moment. “Oh.”
Maccani Moor returned to his chair. Fiola said, “I can’t believe you told her.”
“Master Sanna is an adult. There’s no reason why she shouldn’t know.”
“I know that,” Fiola said, “but you told her.”
“I couldn’t,” she admitted. “I remember Mom and Daddy arguing about that too, saying things like, I can’t believe you said that when Sanna was around to hear it, and, Are you going to explain it to her? I can’t.”
“Moving on,” Sanna said firmly, “Nilma insisted on the second principle because she said there was no such thing as a useless sympathy. Everything has its place and its strengths, as well as its weaknesses. What was important was learning how to develop the strengths and balance out the weaknesses. She was the one who encouraged Doc to think about how to counter Guslin style with its own weapon. Before that, I think he just wanted to forget everything about it. And since I was learning from both of them, they had to work out a coherent way to fight regardless of what your sympathy was, because all three of us had different sympathies. So Nilma realized one day that we could fight differently, but under the same principle. You said, Kass, that you were told by Stolle Guslin that your sympathy was worthless. That just proves he never left the city and never faced off against the Decay. Air sympathy, especially the high-percentage active-principle type, is crucial to fighting the Decay, because of the mist. Having someone on your side who can turn the wind away from you and get rid of the mist can save your life. Even in a fight with another human being, there are tricks that only air sympathists can use. I can help you figure those out.”
“Please do,” said Kass fervently.
Sanna gave her a gentle smile. Then she returned to her narrative. “But Doc always had to have the last word, so he added a third principle. Again, I didn’t understand his reasoning until I met Stolle Guslin,” she said pensively. “Use only the minimum required force. Father Locke told me about the assault on Jan Kittla.”
“It was well before my time,” Kass admitted.
“Put briefly, Stolle Guslin had a student named Aden Kittla, and he bullied this Aden Kittla shamefully. Aden Kittla was physically strong, but not clever and not good at body mechanics fighting. Stolle Guslin would beat on him, but those beatings didn’t accomplish much because the other was so strong, so one day, to punish Aden Kittla, he waited until Aden’s wife Jan came to bring him lunch one day. Then, with two of his other students holding the husband down, he beat the wife until she was unrecognizable. She didn’t die that day, but she was handicapped for the rest of her life. She only lived about eight years after that.”
Maccani uttered a word that Fiola’s father had often spoken when wrathful.
“Maccani Moor,” said Sanna, “his greater wrong does not justify your lesser one. I understand your feelings. I felt the same when I first heard the story. But don’t use that kind of language. It diminishes you.” She sighed. “But that incident is probably why Doc insisted on adding the third principle. He wanted to be sure that no one who learned his style would ever harm others with it, beyond the bare minimum needed to end conflict safely. It’s a very real danger. Most of the holds and strikes I’ll teach you can be lethal if done incorrectly. That is why no one fights in a real confrontation until I’m sure of your full mastery of the techniques. If you travel with me, you’ll often find yourselves in a dangerous position, but I will protect you until you are able to protect yourselves.” She checked the time. “I think it should be fine to do some physical activity now. Soren, my joy, you get to start training today too.”
Soren beamed with enthusiasm, and Kass Ulim seemed hardly less excited. They relocated outside, to the rear of the hostel where only the occasional employee passed. There, mostly unobserved, they went through the most basic of basic exercises. Even Maccani Moor submitted to this regression in his training and worked as seriously as Kass Ulim. Sanna would offer them advice that sounded just like what Fiola’s parents would give, and sometimes Fiola had to pause and turn aside until she had her emotions under control again.
Somehow, even though they had returned to the very basics, when Sanna finally called a halt to the training, Fiola and Maccani were both sweat-soaked and sore. The cold air made their sweaty clothes icy, so they all hurried indoors. “Mind if I wash up in your suite?” Maccani Moor said to Fiola. “I can’t bear the thought of running back to the dorms like this.”
“I don’t mind, but you’ll have to take your turn,” she said.
They found Nana Friga and Uncle Axel in the tiny kitchen, cooking up some supper. Maccani Moor inhaled deeply. “Oh, that’s a tempting smell,” he said. “What is it?”
“An old recipe my mother taught me,” said Nana Friga. “Stay and join us for supper, Maccani, if you like.”
“I do like,” he said, “and thank you so much for the invitation, Nana Friga!” So he stayed, wearing a shirt borrowed from Uncle Axel after his shower, and shared their supper of mushroom stew and venison sausages. He chatted with Uncle Axel, who chatted right back with all the animation of a naturally talkative man who has had very few conversations recently. When Kass Ulim excused herself after the meal to return to her room for the evening, Maccani Moor settled into one of the chairs in the sitting area. “I have a theory,” he announced.
“What is that theory?” Sanna asked, smiling slightly.
“My theory is that Crystallin Locke is probably going to show up here soon, and that she will be driven here and picked up later. That means there is a strong possibility that we can beg a ride with her driver, so that we don’t have to walk back to the barracks in this cold,” he concluded.
“It sounds like a likely theory,” Fiola said. When she met the young man’s gaze and saw him lift his eyebrows and tilt his head toward Sanna, she shook her head sharply and flicked her glance over Soren, who was trying to practice one of the exercises that he had learned from Sanna earlier.
“Sanna,” said Nana Friga from the tiny kitchen, “would you like me to put Soren to bed?”
Alarmed, Soren stopped his practicing and ran to cling to Sanna’s leg. Sanna picked him up and held him on her lap. “No, but thank you, Nana Friga,” she replied. “I’d rather spend a little more time with him.” She asked Soren about a library book he was learning to read out of, and he ran to fetch it, bringing it back and climbing onto her lap again to show her the words he knew.
Maccani Moor went over to the kitchen. “Nana Friga, let me help Axel with the dishes. You’ve worked hard making the meal; let us clean up after it.” He would not hear a refusal but escorted Nana Friga gently to the chair she usually used. In another few seconds, he and Uncle Axel were chatting again as they washed dishes.
They hadn’t finished cleaning before the anticipated knock came at the door. Fiola sprang up to welcome Crystallin in. Her brother Mica was with her. He said, “May I come in?”
Sanna replied, “Yes, Mica Locke, and you’re welcome to come whenever you like, so you need not ask again.”
“Thank you.” Mica Locke dropped down on the floor next to the chair Uncle Axel usually chose, while Fiola and Crystallin retreated to the first bedroom for a hurried conference. “Have you asked her?” Crystallin asked.
Fiola shook her head. “I didn’t want to start anything while Soren was awake. If she does get upset, it’ll upset him too. But Sanna wanted to spend more time with him tonight, and I didn’t want to prevent that.”
“I see what you mean. Oh, I wish I had Lily or Helena here,” Crystallin sighed.
“Let’s go back, or they’ll start to wonder if we’re up to mischief.” Fiola led the way back to the main room.
Uncle Axel and Maccani Moor had left the kitchen during the mini-conference. Uncle Axel was asking Mica how the mountains suited him.
“I’m getting accustomed to the altitude,” Mica said, “if slowly. I am glad Dad made me build up my cardiovascular system in the lowlands, or I would be in trouble now. How does this compare to the altitude you’re used to, Mr. Taivas?”
“I don’t know how the numbers compare,” said Uncle Axel, “but it feels familiar. We were up high in the village. Even Cavern is noticeably higher than the capital, but I think here we’re much higher.” He turned toward Fiola. “Are you two girls up to some mischief? Two girls who run to whisper together as soon as they meet usually are.”
“A conspiracy?” asked Mica mildly.
“No,” Fiola said. Her face warmed from the unexpected attention.
“I just had something to ask Fiola. I didn’t…” Crystallin stopped, sighed, and started again. “I promised Mom I wouldn’t stay out too late, so we can’t stay very long. It’s just, I need to ask you something, Sanna. It’s worrying me— maybe for no reason, but I can’t know that unless I ask.” Her agitation from earlier was back.
Sanna looked only mildly surprised. “If I can help ease your worries in any way, Crystallin, I’ll be glad to do so.”
This didn’t bring Crystallin to the point. Instead, it seemed to agitate her feelings a little more. She circled around behind Sanna’s chair and threw her arms around Sanna’s neck. “Can you be my sister, Sanna? I mean, there’s a gap between me and Larimar, and I’m a little jealous of Fiola, so if I could have you as my older sister, I’d be so much happier.”
Astonished, Sanna just reached up to stroke Crystallin’s head. “You are such a dear girl, Crystallin—”
“Mm-mm,” said Crystallin. “Linnie. Everybody in my family calls me Linnie, unless I’m in trouble.”
“Linnie,” Sanna corrected herself. “I’m honored for you to count me as your sister.”
“I’m glad.” Crystallin hugged Sanna tighter. “That’s why I have to ask you something. I don’t want to, but if I don’t, I’ll just keep worrying and I won’t know what to do. Sanna… are you hurt because of what Rusza is doing?”
Fiola saw immediately how Sanna’s gaze went blank and her temperature dropped a little. Sanna kept stroking Linnie’s head automatically. “You’re a dear girl,” she repeated. “But I knew from the start that Rusza Tate didn’t mean anything by his manner toward girls. It’s easy to see the difference, now that he has found someone to be serious about, so I was right. And it isn’t as if he made any kind of promise, to me or to anyone else, so there’s no ethical breach for anyone to resent. One can’t help who one finds attractive, you know, Linnie, whatever your family and friends might have in mind. My focus is on the building up of the Sky-wind school. It’s better that I remain focused on that. This is to be Soren’s inheritance from his parents, after all. I need to serve as a good steward in the meantime.” Because Soren had perked up from a light doze at the sound of his name, Sanna gathered him up and stood. “If you’re headed back, may Maccani Moor and I ride with you?”
Crystallin said, “Of course,” in a dazed voice.
“Then I’ll put Soren to bed, and we’ll go back with you.” She carried Soren out of the main room.
When the door latch clicked, Crystallin said, “What was that? Was it a yes, or was it a no?”
“It was an answer that wasn’t an answer,” said Maccani Moor. He turned to Mica. “What was it?”
Mica seemed morose, almost angry. “It was denial, if you must know. She’s telling herself what she wants to be the truth. So, in the end, it’s a yes, but she can’t accept it yet.” He stood up. “She’s coming back.”
“What are the others up to?” Maccani asked suddenly. “It feels strange to be working separately from the group.”
“Everyone is working separately right now,” said Mica. “Cooper is still on the general course, Tarbengar is out on patrol with Zenith Company to spend time with his brother. Warhite is learning the structure of the army supply system. Waeber is reading through the army chaplain’s manual.”
“Is he seriously thinking of following up on that?” Maccani asked. “It just seems like a peculiar choice for someone like him.”
“He seems to be,” Mica replied as Sanna came out and picked up her heavy winter coat. “It is odd at first glance, but Dad says chaplains are usually odd, one way or another. He thinks it’s a possibility. Thank you for your hospitality,” he said, dividing his words between Nana Friga and Uncle Axel. “It seems we’re going back now.”
Fiola hugged Sanna. “Good night.”
“Until morning,” Sanna replied. Then she hugged Uncle Axel, who loomed behind them. Before she could cross to the door, she was apprehended by Crystallin, who linked arms with her as if escorting her out the door.