Early in the morning, Sarlota Moor stepped out of her rooms at the Sawtooth Ridge hostel. The early rising was an ingrained habit from home that Sarlota had not been able to shake off while on vacation.
She had asked for rooms on the second floor, in accordance with her father’s insistence that second-floor rooms were the safest at inns and hotels: high enough to discourage break-ins, not so high as to hinder escape due to fire. This was a great article of belief for him, so Sarlota had promised. Just from strolling up and down the hallway at different times of the day for two days, she had concluded that Axel Taivas’ family was not on the second floor. This suited her purposes. In those two days, she had acquainted herself with the parts of town immediately surrounding the army depot and had glimpsed Sanna and Fiola a few times, her nephew Maccani once from a distance, and a few others from the student group. It wasn’t as if she was avoiding them, but this was the day she had chosen for making her presence known to them.
Sarlota walked out the front doors of the hostel and was driven back by a sharp, icy gust of wind.
The hostel clerk smiled at her. “Plenty cold out this morning,” she offered
“So I see,” Sarlota agreed. “I was thinking of going for a walk, but I don’t know…”
“Most folks will stay close to home today,” the clerk said wisely. “Unless you has to go out, like the rangers do. There’s a nice little eatery two doors down, not too far, if you want breakfast.”
“That sounds good,” Sarlota began. Then a group of three charged the doors, entering on a vigorous draft of cold air. She backed away to make room for them.
“Sarlota Moor,” one of them exclaimed. It was Axel Taivas, red-faced from the cold and the wind. He doffed his stocking cap. “Have you made it this far already in your tour of the territories? And just in time to meet a cold front, lucky you! But you’ve just missed your nephew.”
“Missed?” Sarlota repeated in confusion.
“Sanna took all her students except Soren out on patrol with her,” said the smallest of the three, who turned out to be Crystallin Locke. “We’re just back from seeing them off.”
“How long will they be out on patrol?”
Axel answered, “From the sound of it, they’ll stop back into town the day after tomorrow, head out again the following morning, be gone two and a half days again, and be here for a day after that, before the pattern starts up again for another week. But come back to our rooms, if you don’t have any pressing plans. Nana Friga will be glad for some new company, new conversation. This cold weather doesn’t suit her arthritis at all, so she hasn’t been out for a couple days.”
Sarlota followed along after Axel, with Crystallin Locke at her side and the third member of Axel’s party following quietly behind them.
“Nana Friga,” Axel said as he opened the door to a suite on the ground floor, toward the back of the hostel, “look who we found on the way back from seeing Sanna and Fiola off! You remember I spoke to you of Kap Moor’s daughter Sarlota, who’s touring the territories.”
The little elder looked more frail and stooped than the last time Sarlota had seen her. She gazed at Sarlota with clear, welcoming eyes. “Yes, Sarlota Moor. I recall.”
“Good morning, Friga Rohkin,” Sarlota replied. She took the gnarled hands gently between hers. “Axel Taivas mentioned you’re having arthritis pain. If you’d like, sometime later, I can give you an arthritis massage. I’m professionally trained, and my clients back home never complain about me.”
“I don’t want to impose,” Friga said.
Sarlota shook her head. “Not at all.”
“Then I gratefully accept, my dear. I slept poorly last night. Will you eat? We were at breakfast early, so we could eat with Sanna and Fiola, but we have plenty left.”
“I admit, that sounds much more appealing than fighting the wind to go out for breakfast,” Sarlota laughed.
Crystallin appeared at her side. “May I take your coat, Miss Moor?”
Sarlota thanked her and shrugged out of her heavy coat. The suite was warm and comfortable, with thick woolen rugs and drapes. She sat down at the kitchen table as Friga brought out a plate and started to reheat breakfast foods at the stove.
Axel and the other, younger man sat with her. Crystallin poured hot water into an assortment of cups and asked, “Do you like chamomile, or would you rather have some of this ginger tea to warm yourself up with?”
“Ginger? I’ve never tried that,” Sarlota said. “It sounds interesting. I’ll have that.”
“A strip of candied lemon peel?”
“Oh, yes. I’ll try that too.”
“So tell us the latest Cavern news,” Axel said.
Sarlota demurred, “I don’t have very much that you wouldn’t know already. I only left a few days after you. This is my third day in Sawtooth Ridge.”
“And we haven’t seen anything of you in three days?” Axel replied. “Why?”
“Oh, the first day, I came here, got my room, and slept for nearly the whole day,” she admitted. “It was a long ride, and the bus wasn’t at all comfortable. Then, yesterday, I was out, seeing the town, because someone said the weather was due to change and it would be too miserable to go out. And I didn’t like to impose on your family the moment I arrived,” Sarlota added.
“Not a bit.” Friga Rohkin set before Sarlota a full plate of roasted mushrooms, golden scrambled eggs, and sauteed onions. “You never need worry on that point.”
“As Nana Friga says,” Axel rejoined. “Let us know the moment you’re in town.”
Sarlota smiled at them both. “Thank you. That’s very kind. On the subject of news, however, I did bring with me three Cavern newspapers, having heard that Sawtooth Ridge doesn’t get them often. Someone told me they could even be tradable goods here.”
“I believe it,” Axel said. “I would definitely trade something for them.”
“After I finish breakfast,” Sarlota said, “I’ll go up and get them.”
Crystallin said, “If you don’t mind, I can go to your room and get them for you. I have nothing to do right now.”
“Oh, that’s good of you.” Sarlota handed her room key to the girl. “They’re on the bureau.” She turned to follow the girl’s progress out of the suite. “A very good girl. You’re her brother, aren’t you? I don’t know if I ever heard your name,” she said to the younger man, the Locke son she had seen on the Sky-wind visit.
“Mica Locke.” He held out his hand for a handshake.
“Pleased to be introduced to you,” Sarlota responded. “Are both your parents here in town?”
“For a little longer,” he said. “Mom needs to continue on to Fortress for work, so I think she won’t stay for much longer. She probably wouldn’t have stayed this long, if she hadn’t been so concerned about Sanna.”
Sarlota glanced around at the faces that had all taken on expressions of worry or discouragement. “Sanna? Is something the matter with Sanna?”
“It’s a long story,” Axel sighed. “I’m not sure it’s a thing that ought to be shared without her consent. But I thought she seemed in better spirits after going out on the cleanup call. Didn’t you think so, Mica?”
“She did,” the younger man said slowly. “She needs to keep busy, doing useful, valuable work.”
“I know,” said Axel, “how easy it is to start brooding when you can’t throw yourself into some activity or other as a distraction. I hope this patrol outing helps too.” He stopped talking when Crystallin returned a few seconds later. “Mind if I…?” Axel said, reaching already toward the newspapers.
Sarlota laughed softly. “Be my guest.”
“I need to get to work,” Mica Locke said, rising. “I’ll stop by this evening to see if there’s anything you need, Elder Rohkin.”
“That’s good of you. Little Linnie, may I trouble you to take care of the cleanup in the kitchen?” Friga Rohkin asked.
“I’d be glad to, Nana Friga,” the girl replied. “Are you finished, Miss Moor, or can I get you something more?”
“I’m satisfied. I’ll just take my tea and get out of your way.” Sarlota loaned her arm to support Friga Rohkin on the way to the sitting area.
“Sit close,” Friga said. “I don’t want to lift my voice. You’re a good, kind young woman, Sarlota Moor. I want to confide something in you.”
“Of course,” Sarlota replied in surprise.
“I want to tell you a little about Sanna, and about Axel. Sanna never had friends of her own age. In part, her sympathy kept people away from her, but in part her personality was never suited to childlike play. She has always been a serious girl. You understand?”
“That was how Axel described her,” Sarlota agreed.
“When she came down from the mountains into the capital, I hoped she would make friends and learn from them how to be young and happy. It so happened that her first friends were Lily Allen… and Rusza Tate.” Friga paused. “Axel likes the boy very much. They are in some ways alike. But I wish… I wish Sanna had befriended some other boy first, someone more reliable and steady of character. She is very innocent about men, especially young men close to her own age. If she had made a different friend first, had had time to get used to male friendship… maybe the Tate boy wouldn’t have turned her head like this. What Axel didn’t want to say earlier is that the Tate boy has gone head over heels for a girl he met here, the very day we arrived. We practically never see him now, and as for his friendship with Sanna… it is finished.”
Sarlota considered these things in thoughtful silence. “That is a hard thing to hear,” she said after a while, “and it must be even harder to say.”
“What worries me the most,” the elderly woman continued, “is how much this reminds me of another time, four years ago. One of Sanna’s neighbors in the village, Nana May, died suddenly after a stroke. The weather was very much like today’s weather, and Sanna was so distraught over that first loss of someone dear to her that… that it led to her sympathy going into cycle. I pray this fresh loss doesn’t have the same effect on her. She has learned how to control her sympathy now, where before she had no such knowledge, but still…”
“She is a kindhearted girl,” Sarlota said.
“That she is.”
“If I can do anything to help, I will. Is this part of your poor night of sleep?”
Friga admitted the truth in this. “I promised Kaisa and Erno that I would take care of her, but I am old. I don’t know how much time I have left, and I’m not as able as I once was. It reassures my heart to have an ally in this. You’re my ally now,” the elderly woman declared.
“I am,” Sarlota said, smiling. “But Axel…?”
“Is a man,” Friga declared, “and though a good man, not far different from the Tate boy in temperament. In that regard, he might be the worst person to deal with her heart. She needs a woman’s support and guidance. You have lived in a city and met many sorts of people. You can advise her.”
“As far as she’ll let me.”
“Sanna isn’t the sort to turn down advice from someone who has knowledge and understanding that she lacks. She seeks out such people. It is her nature.”
Sarlota nodded, but she added, “She and I won’t cross paths very often, but I can write to her.”
“You won’t?” Friga gazed at her steadily. “I think, for as long as Axel travels with her, Sanna will keep meeting you. Do you not think so?”
This brought heat to Sarlota’s face.
“I choose my allies carefully,” said Friga. She lifted one foot and tried to flex it up and down, but the effort made her grimace in pain. “Can a massage really help with my arthritis? I can hardly move my knees and ankles without pain.”
Sarlota knelt down to squeeze the elderly woman’s thin ankle between her thumb and forefinger. “There’s some swelling here,” she noted. “Does this hurt too much?” She began to rub the muscles lengthwise with gentle hands.
“No, it’s pleasant.”
Sarlota removed the house slipper from that foot and worked on the muscles of the arch and the toes. For several minutes, she simply worked on loosening Friga’s muscles and tendons with moderate pressure until she felt them relax. “If that helped,” Sarlota began after a while.
“It has helped,” Friga said.
Sarlota smiled. “Then I’d like to give you a full back massage as well. Tension in the feet and legs never just stops there. But it’s… somewhat public out here…” She glanced toward Axel, who was still absorbed in the newspapers.
“I assume I need to lie down for a back massage,” Friga said. “My bed is the best place, isn’t it? It’s a spacious room they’ve given us, all the more so with Fiola gone for a few days.”
“May I come too?” Crystallin was drying her hands from washing dishes. “I’d like to know if it’s something I can do too.”
“Are you interested in massage therapy?” Sarlota asked.
Crystallin shook her head. “Not exactly. It’s just that my sympathy can sense human bones pretty clearly, and I’ve noticed that some of Nana Friga’s joints are worn down. With Fiola and Sanna gone right now, I want to help however I can.”
“Come with us, then, if Friga Rohkin doesn’t mind.” Sarlota looked to the elder for confirmation.
“At my age,” Friga Rohkin said, “what do I care?” Her eyes twinkled. “We can chat, unless I become so relaxed that I fall asleep. I’d like to know more about you, Sarlota Moor. I also would like you to call me Nana, like everyone else does. I even wore Axel down, in the end.”
“Eh?” Axel murmured, not really paying attention.
Friga trudged back to the first bedroom. Sarlota helped her lie down on her stomach, with pillows supporting her in a more comfortable posture. “Tell me as soon as anything hurts,” she warned the elderly woman. “It isn’t supposed to hurt.”
After a few minutes of massage, Friga said, “You’re skilled at this. How did you learn?”
“I apprenticed at the neighborhood clinic, starting when I was nine.”
“So young!” Crystallin exclaimed. “Weren’t you still in public school then?”
“Yes, but part-time. All my siblings attended school part-time so we could work at the bathhouse, from the time we were eight or nine,” Sarlota explained. “Dad’s dream has always been to have all his family around him, working with him to make the business prosper. The bathhouse is… it’s very special to Dad. He loves it as if it’s one of his own kids.”
“So, did all your brothers and sisters get apprenticed like that?”
Sarlota hesitated a few seconds. Then she said, “No, just me. You have to understand that all my siblings manifested sympathies that were useful in the running of the bathhouse. My three older sisters have active-principle water sympathy. Two of my brothers have the same. One has active-principle air sympathy; Dad was really excited about that, because it meant cutting down on the costs of drying laundry,” she said with a laugh. “And my remaining two brothers have active-principle plant sympathy. They help grow food for the kitchen and herbs for bath oils. Then there was me. I’m the only one with a passive-principle sympathy. I could still do the manual labor, but Dad was so set on finding a way that I could contribute with my sympathy… So he started asking around and talking to people, like he does, and he heard from someone that passive-principle water sympathy is second only to human body sympathy for diagnosing the ills of the human body. Well, Dad always wanted one of us somehow to manifest human body sympathy, though we’d never had any in the family, so this sounded almost as good to him. He found me a place in the neighborhood clinic, as I said, and had them teach me different types of massage. Then he had me teach him, so he could offer men’s as well as women’s massage. He isn’t very good at it. Ask Axel,” she added dryly. “Too heavy-handed. But that works for the young and athletic men who come to the bathhouse after a day of hard labor. They swear by Dad’s beatings, as they call them.”
Crystallin laughed. “You have a big family.”
“Dad and Ma have nine of us. Maccani’s dad, my brother, is the eldest. I’m seventh out of the nine, the last of the daughters. And that doesn’t account for my siblings’ spouses— I’m the only one not married— and their children, or Dad’s three brothers, all of whom had more than five children, who all are married, except for Cousin Dale, and all have at least one child. And that doesn’t account for Dad’s cousins, both Moors and Cabistants.”
“Wow,” Crystallin murmured. “I can’t imagine it.”
Friga sighed. “So you learned massage to be useful to your father. What would you have chosen?”
“I don’t dislike massage,” Sarlota said quickly. “I like helping people feel better.”
“That was not what I asked, Sarlota.”
Sarlota caught herself and smiled ruefully. “No, it isn’t, is it? I can feel the tide, you see. I feel it go out, and I feel it return. When I was little, on the rare days when we finished work early and were allowed to go to the shore for walks, I used to hunt in the shallows for things that washed up. It didn’t matter what it was, shell or shoe or trash; it fascinated me. I used to dream of floating out with the tide, just to follow it and see where it went, to see the places it saw. When I grew up and started working full-time at the bathhouse, I met people who weren’t from Leeward or the surrounding area. They talked of the places they came from, and I listened and asked questions about what life was like there. I used to daydream of meeting someone from far away and traveling to all the places I’d only heard about. Well, I’m thirty-five now, and I decided I couldn’t afford to wait for someone to take me away on adventures, so I went by myself. I’ve been saving up money since I was small: gifts from relatives when I was a child, and my wages when I was grown. Originally, it was supposed to be my dowry. I saved quite a lot. Dad always insisted on frugality. It’s a competitive business, spa baths, and Ma is such a spendthrift when she’s left to herself.”
“And now you’re using your dowry to see the territories,” said Crystallin.
“Indeed, I am,” Sarlota replied. “I’m being frugal, which meant taking the cheap-fare express bus, although it was dreadful, but I count that as part of the adventure. I may invest in a small pillow before I move on from here to Fortress,” she noted. “The seats were rock-hard.”
“That does sound exciting… and dreadful,” Crystallin laughed. “How long will you stay here?”
“I’m not sure. They book I consulted said there isn’t much to be seen in Sawtooth Ridge itself, and from what I’ve seen so far, I’m inclined to agree. The scenery is breathtaking, though.” Sarlota felt the elderly woman’s muscles relaxing to the point that she knew she could finish the massage soon. “Would you like to try to nap now, Nana Friga?”
“I would,” murmured the elder. “I feel I might sleep very well for a few hours.”
“That’s good to hear.” Sarlota and Crystallin retreated to the family room, where Axel finally looked up from his paper. Sarlota explained, “We’ve gotten Nana Friga to relax enough to take a nap. She’s been very tense and worried, on top of the arthritis. We should leave her in peace until she feels like waking.”
“Good,” he said. “On the other hand, I’d better wake Soren up. He was up early, then back to bed, and it’ll throw off his whole routine if I let him sleep all morning.” He folded his paper and went back to the bedrooms, returning with the child. “See, Soren? It’s Miss Sarlota Moor. You remember her, I’m sure.”
“Good morning,” Soren greeted Sarlota gravely.
“Good morning,” she replied.
To Axel, he said, “Will Sanna be back soon?”
Axel laughed. “She hasn’t been on the road for three hours yet, Soren. She’ll be back the day after tomorrow, probably in the evening. You have to make do with us for now.”
Taking this as a cue, Crystallin went to kneel next to Soren. “Do you want to play?”
“Practice,” he said resolutely.
“Oh, do you want to show Miss Sarlota your exercises that Sanna taught you? How many times did Sanna say you should practice each morning?”
“Fifteen,” the boy said. He squatted down on the carpet and braced his hands on the floor. Then, stretching his feet out behind himself, he drew his knees up sharply to his chest, rested heavily on his toes for a moment, and then jumped his feet out behind himself again. Slowly, clumsily, but painstakingly, he repeated this series of movements fourteen more times, muttering each number to himself. Then he stood up, flushed with pride, to gaze up into Sarlota’s face.
“You did fifteen,” she said, “that’s good!”
Soren gave a decisive nod. Then he sat down and started doing sit-ups, counting each one under his breath.
“You’re very hardworking,” Sarlota said after he had finished all his exercises. “You’re going to become much stronger by doing all of that regularly. Do you have book studies assigned to you too? Oh, is that your book?”
Soren shook his head. “Lib’ary book.”
“Oh, a library book, is it? That’s good too,” Sarlota said, “it saves money.” She was honored with permission to sit on Nana Friga’s chair and take Soren onto her lap, so that he could show her all the words he knew out of his library book. When he had read through the small picture book about holidays, he looked to Sarlota, who said, “You hardly needed any help at all! You’ll be needing another library book soon.”
This made Soren whip his head around to cast a longing gaze toward his uncle.
Axel laughed. “It’s awful windy and cold outside, Soren. We’ll have to see if it gets warmer this afternoon, before we walk all the way to the library.”
“Is it far?” asked Sarlota.
“Six blocks,” he replied.
“Which direction, though?” Sarlota asked.
Axel thought for a few moments. “Southeast, more or less. Why?”
“My hometown is called Leeward for a reason,” she said. “We sit in a cove that is sheltered from most of the worst of the storms, and the founders built the original streets to take full advantage of that. There are streets you prefer when the wind is in the northeast and streets that are better when the wind is in the south. You get used to picking your route with the wind in mind. I might go later, to have a look at the library and pick up another book for Soren.”
“I couldn’t let you do that,” Axel protested. “If anybody, I should go. I’m used to the cold.”
They had a lively discussion over the advantages and disadvantages of both of their plans, while Crystallin giggled behind her hand. The compromise they reached was that, if the sun came out by the time Nana Friga woke, they would go together with Soren, so that he could choose his own library book.
“You should go to the store too, while you’re out,” said Crystallin, “and make sure Uncle Axel only buys what’s on the list. Just see what he bought yesterday!” She pulled a long, flat box out from the front door closet. “A game! A party game! The look on Nana Friga’s face when she saw it,” the girl finished with a laugh.
Axel held up his hands in a defensive gesture. “It will come useful, when all the students are together of an evening after their day’s work’s done.”
With a shake of her head, Sarlota said, “When did you buy this?”
“Yesterday,” he said.
“Were you already feeling lonely, before they even left?”
Axel looked surprised. Then he grinned sheepishly. “I probably was. We haven’t had to be separated like this since Nana Friga and Fiola came to us in Leeward.”
“How many are the minimum needed to play it?”
Crystallin looked over the box. “Two.”
“Then three or four of us can play it. Perhaps this afternoon.”
“Or maybe this evening, when Mica comes,” Crystallin suggested.
“Good idea,” Axel said. “It’ll make for a lively evening.”
They idled over herbal tea and chatted about things they had seen since their last meeting. Soren sat listening for a while. Then he went back to pore over his library book by himself, reading each word softly aloud as if he just liked the sound of them. Axel gazed at this for a while. “I can’t stop wondering what Doc would say if he could see that. He wasn’t much of a reader. Didn’t have the patience for it. Nilma was worse— couldn’t pay attention to anything stationary for five minutes without having to get up and do something. Fiola picked up her reading habit from spending time with Sanna, and Doc was so proud.” His mouth curved in a sad smile. “I want to make sure Soren gets the chance to learn as much as he wants.”
Sarlota got up to look past the thick woollen curtains. “It’s clearing,” she said. “Still windy, but with the sun out, it might be bearable. Maybe we shouldn’t wait until Nana Friga wakes up.”
“I’ll stay,” Crystallin said, “just in case she wakes. Fiola asked me if I’d look after her specially while she’s gone.”
“That’s good of you.” Axel stood. “Soren, we’re making a run for the library, while the sun shines. Grab your coat!” He walked to the front closet with hardly a limp to his stride.
“You’re getting on much easier with your prosthetic,” Sarlota noted as she donned her own coat. “Not even a cane now.”
“Yes, but I’m thinking of getting a good walking stick,” he said. “Kass Ulim reminded me of how useful it could be to have one when I travel, since I’m no fighter. I’ve looked around here, but they don’t seem to know that walking sticks exist.”
“You want somewhere with more trees,” Sarlota advised. “We get lots of retired soldiers with prosthetic legs and feet, and they say the best walking sticks come from West Territory.”
“You know so much useful information,” he teased.
The wind still gnawed at them when they stepped out from the hostel entrance, but the sun made it feel a little warmer. Soren grabbed Axel’s hand and then reached out gravely for Sarlota’s hand, so that they walked mitten in mitten down the sidewalk like a family. They hurried from side street to side street, keeping out of the wind as much as possible, on their way to the library. The library turned out to be one of a line of stores, long and narrow, with floor-to-ceiling shelves on the long side walls and an attendant posted next to the door. This girl smiled at their entrance. “Welcome back, Mr. Taivas, Soren. Have you already finished your book?”
Soren held it up with solemn pride. “I can read all of it.”
The attendant praised him, accepted the return, and said, “Now you may choose another one.”
Soren looked to Axel, who said, “Go on, take your time looking through the books.” He watched Soren trot toward the children’s books. “That’s another thing: Sanna has taught him such good manners, it’s hardly like he’s a Tuovali.” Axel shook his head. “Amazing. With him as the last male of the line, the family reputation will end up transformed.”
It took Soren only a few minutes before he found a book he liked, another picture book but this one about forest animals instead of holidays. He pointed to the bear on the cover. “It’s a bear.” Then he held it up for the attendant to check out of the inventory.
“Do you like bears?” Sarlota asked him while he waited.
Soren nodded. “Mr. Tarbengar has a bear.”
“Oh, one of Father Locke’s students,” Sarlota said. “I remember. He does have a little cub with him, doesn’t he?”
Axel commented, “I know I was never so close to a live bear as when we rode on the personnel carrier with that cub. It didn’t like the traveling. Poor Elfric had a hard time keeping it calm. Private Hart tried to get him to crawl under the bench seat, but Elfric was too big, so they made a sort of cave in the back, among the baggage, and he had to spend the rest of the trip back there with the cub.”
The attendant said, “You must be talking about Corporal Tarbengar’s brother.”
“Do you know the older brother?” Axel asked.
“By sight and name only, sad to say,” the girl laughed. “He doesn’t seem interested in finding a girlfriend yet.”
“But if he was, you’d like to apply, eh?” Axel laughed with her. “Oh, to be young again.” He accepted the library book and tucked it into the shopping bag slung over his shoulder. “Thank you, miss.”
Soren echoed, “Thank you, miss.”
“Enjoy your book,” the attendant replied as they headed back out into the cold wind.
“Now,” Sarlota said, “what about this list I heard about?”
Axel patted his breast pocket. “Nana Friga makes a list first thing every morning. Lunch, supper, and breakfast the next morning. The kitchen doesn’t have much storage room. No pantry.”
They headed for the depot building, where they found the Army Stores busy with shoppers. Sarlota took a basket. “What’s on the list?”
Axel brought out a small slip of paper. “Canned beans, frozen carrots, a bag of onions, and a few other things.” He gazed at Sarlota in incomprehension for a few seconds. Then, with a start, he handed her the list. “It’s all yours, if you want it.”
“Let me just ask you, Axel Taivas: how often have you done household shopping?”
“A couple times,” he replied. “Why?”
“And how often do you balance household accounts?”
This time, he caught on to the drift of her questions. “Never,” he admitted.
“It’s time you learned. It’s very well, buying a party game on impulse, but you can’t do things like that often and keep within a budget. You take a basket too. You too, Soren. You can help carry groceries too.” She led them down the main aisle, comparing the list in her hand to the helpful signs posted at the end of each aisle. She showed them about calculating unit price instead of just looking at the price label, and how to judge whether buying an item in bulk would really be a better deal or just wasteful. And she checked all the sale-priced meat items, saying, “I noticed Nana Friga isn’t including meat in her meal plans, likely because it’s expensive, but it’s important to include more protein to build up physical strength.” She checked the price of some stew meat and passed over it in favor of a sale ham. “This will go well with eggs,” she said, “and I saw a notice about eggs on sale over there. It’s important to keep an eye out for cheap ingredients that go well together. We’ll ask at the cashier’s counter if they have a current sale flyer. The stores in Leeward usually post their sale prices on boards outside the front door, but I found out in Cavern that they post paper flyers in the neighborhoods around the store. We need to find out what they do here, so Nana Friga can make more precise meal plans and lists. You should ask wherever you go,” said Sarlota. “Often, the locals just know, so no one bothers to tell newcomers, but it will save you a surprising amount of money in the long run if you find out as soon as you get into town.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
Sarlota blushed a little. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lecture.”
“I wouldn’t have ever thought of any of that, so I’m glad you did. I bet your dad has you all trained in the best ways to save money.”
“From when we were old enough to carry a shopping basket,” she agreed.
They collected everything on the list, with the few sale additions that Sarlota picked up, and headed toward the cashiers’ counters at the front of the store. When they reached the head of the line, Sarlota asked, “May we have two shopping bags? How much are they?”
The cashier said, “First time here, ma’am? You get as many as three for free your first time.”
“Well, it’s my first time,” Sarlota said, “but I’m with this gentleman, who has been here before.”
“Oh, Mr. Taivas, yes. He only took one of the free bags, so you can have two more for free.”
Sarlota turned her head to look at Axel. “If someone offers you something useful for free, you should accept all of it. You never know when you’ll need it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a grin. “Is that one of Kap’s mottos?”
“One of his favorites.” She stepped aside so that Axel could pay the bill.
As they were leaving, Axel said, “I can’t believe we got so much food for just that much. It’s less than I spent—” He hesitated, glancing sheepishly at Sarlota. “I’m afraid to admit how much I paid when I went yesterday.”
“I won’t ask,” Sarlota promised.
Outside in the cold wind, they started back toward the hostel, only to nearly collide with two young men. Axel said, “Hey, it’s Cooper and Tarbengar! I haven’t seen you boys in days!”
“Mr. Taivas,” Cooper exclaimed. “How’s it going?”
“Fine, but boring since the students took off this morning. This is Maccani’s aunt Sarlota. She’s still touring the territories.”
Sarlota shook hands with each of the two young men. “Pleased to see you again.”
“How are you keeping busy these days?” asked Axel. “I thought you were out on patrol, Tarbengar.”
“I was,” the big trainee said, “but it was hard on the cub, so Gisler said I should stay in town when we stopped back for rest. I’m looking after his animals too.”
“I’m working as Lieutenant Jock’s assistant now,” said Cooper, “since Tate abandoned his post. He keeps me hopping.”
“Come eat supper with us tonight, if you can,” Axel urged them. “We’re breaking out a new game I picked up yesterday. You’re both welcome to join us for the fun.”
Tarbengar said, “Can I bring my cub?”
“Soren would love to see the cub again, wouldn’t you, Soren?”
Soren nodded vigorously.
“We’ll come,” Cooper promised. “Sounds like fun, and I haven’t had any fun since we got here. See you then!” The two young men headed into a different entrance of the depot building.
Scarcely ten steps farther down the street, Soren let go of Axel’s hand and raced toward a group of young soldiers. “Rusza Tate! Rusza Tate!” he shouted.
One of the soldiers stopped walking and stooped low to pick the child up and toss him high in the air. “Soren!” Then the young man looked around expectantly.
Axel had picked up speed too. “Morning, Rusza.”
“Hey, Mr. Taivas. Sanna isn’t with you?”
“No, she and the students went out on patrol with Polestar Company,” Axel said.
“I saw her with them yesterday, when we came to relieve Polestar,” Rusza said, “but just from a distance. Word has it that she was in on the disposal from the beginning.”
“That is what she’s training for,” Axel said.
Soren broke in, too excited to wait patiently for his elders to finish talking. “Rusza Tate, can we play?”
This made Rusza laugh. “We sure can! But first I have stuff I need to do for work. Maybe tonight?”
“We’re having some of the other students come to supper with us,” Axel said. “You should join us.”
“Sounds great,” Rusza said. “I’ll be there, and we can play.” He tossed Soren up in the air once more and set him on his feet. “See you tonight,” he said with a salute.
Soren came back to his uncle, radiant with excitement. Axel patted him on the head. “Good for you, Soren! Now, let’s get out of the wind so we can set these bags down.”
When they returned to the suite and Soren exclaimed his news to Crystallin, she gave him a weak smile and didn’t reply. After she had taken the child’s coat and hung it up, she relieved Sarlota of the third shopping bag. Then she stood still, watching Soren gather up his library book and his battered notebook, where he practiced his letters and numbers.
“Axel also invited two other young men from your father’s group,” Sarlota mentioned softly, just for the girl’s ears. “One Cooper and a Tarbengar, I believe.”
Crystallin uttered a humorless laugh. “That should make things more interesting, since Anion Cooper is almost as mad at Rusza as I am.”
“I don’t know. Something to do with that girl, no doubt.” She sighed. “I’ll put the shopping away.”
Later, just before lunchtime, Nana Friga woke from her nap and came out to join them. “I feel much improved,” she told Sarlota. “Thank you, my dear.”
“I’m glad,” Sarlota replied. Since they were some steps removed from the others in the suite, she leaned down to whisper the latest news in the elder’s ear. “I didn’t want to intrude. It isn’t my place, after all, but I can’t see this leading to anything but conflict.”
“Very likely,” said Nana Friga mildly. “I have listened to little Linnie’s complaints about him. The most likely thing, from the sound of it, is that he will flee at the first sign of disapproval. Soren will be disappointed, but it can’t be helped. It is better that he see what his playing-friend has become sooner than later.”
The afternoon passed with Soren restless and excited, frequently asking, “Is it suppertime yet?” from about two in the afternoon onwards. Naptime was a fiasco, with Soren coming out of the bedroom twice to ask if he could wait on the sofa. After the second time, Nana Friga said, “If you don’t take your nap, Soren, then you won’t be able to stay up late enough to play; you shall have to go to bed after supper.”
This appeared to startle Soren enough that he scurried back to his bed. Whether or not he slept, he didn’t reappear for nearly an hour.
When Nana Friga got up from her chair to begin preparing supper, Sarlota said, “I have had one letter from my nephew since you arrived here, Nana Friga, and he said you made good, satisfying food. He doesn’t praise easily, so I wondered if I may learn some of your recipes whilst I’m here.”
“Certainly you may. They’re simple enough,” the elderly woman responded. “Meant to nourish hard workers in cold, windy weather. I see,” she said, “that Axel must have done the shopping again today.”
“Under my supervision,” Sarlota made haste to add, as Axel’s head came up in alarm. “I found some good sale-priced items to bulk out your menu, and we finished under budget, with change left over.” She showed Friga the receipt.
“My,” she said, “is this all the ham cost?”
“It was a limited-availability sale,” Sarlota said. “It appears they have those here, where a certain item goes down sharply in price, but there are only a few in stock. We happened to be in the right place at the right time. I picked up a case of eggs on sale too, for more protein.”
“Did you know we were expecting company?”
“Not at that time,” Sarlota said, “but with Sanna’s students around, I thought it would help to have some hard-cooked eggs on hand for snacks.”
“Ah, I can show you something else to make with hard-cooked eggs,” said Nana Friga.
They were still at work in the little kitchen when the first knock at the door resounded. Soren’s quick, light footsteps flew to answer. “Hey, little Soren,” said a male voice. “We’re all done with work. Are we too early? Hey, Miss Crystallin. Mica said to tell you he would be here after supper.”
“All right,” Crystallin said. “Thanks.”
Sarlota went to look. It was Cooper, Tarbengar, and a dreamy-eyed young man. There was no sign of Rusza Tate yet. “Crystallin,” she said, “could you set the table? We’re almost done.”
“Of course.” Crystallin came back from welcoming the visitors. Some of the tension had left her expression.
Axel was chatting with the three young men when Nana Friga called out, “Come to the table; the food is ready.”
With the three young men added to their number, the table felt crowded. Sarlota asked Tarbengar, “Does your cub need anything?”
He leaned sideways to push the bear cub under his chair. “No, ma’am, he already fed.”
The dreamer said quietly, “This looks delicious. Thank you.”
Nana Friga looked pointedly to Axel, who cleared his throat and said, “To the Only One, who provides all things for our good and our enjoyment, we give all thanks.” Then he spooned a large portion of the ham and bean stew onto his plate before passing the spoon to Cooper at his right. “It does look delicious, Nana Friga.”
“Thanks to Sarlota Moor for rescuing the shopping list from your hands, Axel,” was the elder’s smiling retort.
“Indeed,” he said with fervor.
“What is this, ma’am?” asked Tarbengar.
“Toast squares with hard-cooked egg, quick-pickled onion, and cheese.”
He took four of the squares, layering them carefully along the rim of his plate so as to leave room for the stew. He popped a fifth square directly into his mouth. “Mm,” was all the sound he made as he chewed.
“Oh, Sarlota, you probably haven’t met Waeber yet. This is Sora Waeber of the capital,” said Axel, dipping his head to his left to indicate the dreamer. “I’m glad you came too, Waeber. What have you been doing lately?”
It took a few seconds before the question appeared to register in Waeber’s mind. Then he said, “Father Locke has given me the chaplain’s handbook to study, and I spend some time talking to Chaplain Whitacre each day.”
“So you are considering that path,” Axel said.
“Yes, Mr. Taivas. It makes use of what I know, and gives me the chance to be useful to the Only One. If I am part of Divine providence, then I ought to know how best to serve.”
“What about you, Cooper? Have you started narrowing down your career options yet?”
Cooper shook his head and swallowed his mouthful. “Only just starting, sir. I want to go full army, but I don’t know where to go from there. Not office work,” he said dryly. “I like helping Father Locke, but I don’t want to spend my life at a desk. I was interested when we went out to investigate that landslide, the day before yesterday, but it hardly started before they had to give up investigating and blow up the source because it was too dangerous. I’d like to know more about that kind of field assignment.”
“It does sound dangerous,” Sarlota noted.
“But, if we can find out how these manifestations start,” Cooper said, “we could prevent them getting too big and maybe prevent more of them completely.”
“Have you talked to Daddy about this yet?” Crystallin asked.
Cooper shook his head. “Too busy so far. I’ve just started thinking about it, and this morning’s mail was huge.”
Tarbengar nodded in heartfelt agreement.
They talked about the landslide incident for most of supper. Sarlota learned far more than she had expected. Then, when the food had all disappeared, Friga and she sent Axel and the young people to the sitting area, out of the way of cleanup. Crystallin ran back and forth, supplying the others with drinks before she settled in on the floor by Nana Friga’s chair.
Someone knocked. Soren’s light footsteps ran to answer, and Mica Locke’s voice said, “Should I not have come?”
“Come in,” Axel said, “do. How are your parents?”
“As usual,” the young man replied. “They send you and Nana Friga their greetings. Mom wants to know if you can all come to dinner at their apartment tomorrow evening.”
“Nana Friga,” Axel called out, “how does that sound to you?”
Rather than raise her voice from across the suite, Friga dried her hands on a towel and hobbled toward the conversation. Sarlota took the opportunity to take over the washing of dishes at a speed more like her own family would adopt. She missed, therefore, the details of the conversation, but she had all the dishes washed and draining on the draining board by the time Friga returned.
“It’s my payment for a good meal,” she said to the look Friga gave her. “You should go out and sit with your guests. I can finish here easily.”
When Sarlota joined the others, she found Soren seated on the floor near Tarbengar’s feet, gazing curiously at the cub. Once, when his fascination goaded him to stretch out a hand toward the cub, the cub gave a plaintive cry.
“He still is nervous of people,” Tarbengar explained to Soren. “If anyone who doesn’t have animal sympathy tried to come near him, he gets frightened. Except for Sanna Taivas,” he observed in tones of perplexity. “He just gets a little confused around her. Gisler says it might be because she has such a low body temperature that she gives off a much fainter scent than other people.”
“Sanna can touch him?” Soren was interested, definitely interested.
“She has done, but she said herself that bear cubs aren’t for petting, so I doubt she would do it if she didn’t need to.”
Soren clasped his hands at his knees and made no further attempt to touch the cub, but watched as it rolled over on the blanket that Tarbengar had spread on the rug. “Will it get big?”
“Bigger than this,” said Tarbengar, “lots bigger, but probably not as big as it should. It was born a runt. Losing its mother slowed its growth even more.”
Suddenly, Soren looked alarmed. He twisted around to crawl to Axel’s feet. “Uncle, I won’t get big? ‘Cause of losing Mommy?”
Axel was startled by the question. He pulled Soren onto his lap. “No, Soren, you’ll get bigger. It isn’t like that for little boys who eat as well as you do, just for little bears. You’ll probably get to be as big as Anion Cooper over there, because that’s how big your dad and mom were.”
“Both of them?” Cooper said. He leaned over to tousle Soren’s fair hair. “Sorry to hear that, kid.”
“Well, you’ve seen Fiola,” Axel said. “She looks a lot like Nilma. Doc was on the shorter side too. If Soren takes after either of them in looks, it’s Doc.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t grow taller than that,” said Mica. “Genetic inheritance is more complex than that. He could end up taking after a grandparent or great-grandparent, or even someone further back, due to a recessive trait. They’ve done studies.”
Tarbenger said, “I didn’t mean to make him think that.” He sounded troubled. “Cubs don’t get any food unless their sows provide it. That’s why he’s stunted. You ate plenty of food at supper, Soren, and that’ll help you grow.”
“But seriously, Tarbengar, I want to know what they feed you out west, to grow somebody as big as your brother,” Cooper said. “Are all your brothers that big?”
“Nobody’s as big as Gisler,” Tarbengar admitted, “But we’re all mostly big. My sisters and my brothers.”
“How many are there in your family?” Crystallin asked.
“Counting Gisler, we’re nine, plus Ma and Dad.”
“Just like my family,” Sarlota interjected. “My eldest brother is Maccani’s father, and he’s the only one who moved away from home.”
Something about that remark gave Tarbengar pause, but he eventually said, “Yes. The rest of my family is all still back in the village.”
Footsteps creaked in the hallway outside. Soren jumped off Axel’s lap and ran toward the door, but the footsteps passed by and faded into the distance. “Who is he expecting?” Waeber asked.
Sarlota glanced at Crystallin, who showed no inclination to respond. It was Axel who said, “We happened to see Rusza Tate on our walk, and he said he would come to play with Soren after supper.”
Cooper fairly snorted. “Oh, him.” Then he said, “I heard something about a game…?”
Axel brought out the party game. He set it up on a small side table that he placed in their midst while Cooper read out the rules of play. Mica Locke was still gazing toward Soren, who stood hopefully by the door. “Soren,” he called, “will you come and be my partner for this game? I want your help.”
This distracted Soren. He trotted back to the circle of guests. “Help?”
Mica nodded. “I have human thought sympathy, so it’s too easy for me to guess what other people are thinking just by looking at them. That’s kind of like cheating, for games like this.”
“Kind of like?” Cooper echoed doubtfully. “How about, totally like.”
“So I need you to sit with me. I’ll listen to everyone, but I’ll look only at you. I need you to look at them, and I’ll go by what you think.”
“Daddy’s handicap,” Crystallin explained to the others. “He plays that way to give the rest of us more chance at winning.”
Sarlota enjoyed the game thoroughly. She learned that Axel was bad at bluffing, that Waeber got easily misled by the others’ feelings of excitement or dismay, that Cooper could bluff anyone with alarming ease except Soren— he couldn’t bring himself to lie to a child, he said— and that Tarbengar couldn’t bluff at all but had a keen instinct for the truth. Crystallin could bluff, but she sometimes gave herself away by breaking into a giggle. Mica, playing through Soren, still won more rounds than he lost because he worked through the other players’ answers methodically and logically. Soren didn’t really understand all that happened, but he loved the importance of being a partner to the best player. Nana Friga declined to play, saying she would enjoy their antics better as an observer.
And Sarlota usually won the rounds that Mica did not. Axel once asked her, “How do you do that?”
“I guess I’m my father’s daughter,” was her reply.
Two hours passed while they played. After Sarlota won another round, Mica said, “I promised Dad I’d bring Linnie home by 2100. We should get on our way.”
“Can we ride with you?” Cooper said. “It’s cold out there.”
Soren, who had been drooping for some time, seemed to wake up all at once. He looked toward the door. “He didn’t come.”
There was something so forlorn about the statement that Sarlota wanted to pick the child up and hug him. Cooper said, “I had fun playing with you, Soren. Didn’t you have fun with us?”
“That’ll have to do for tonight.”
Waeber knelt down by the child. “The teachings say, whenever you’re cast down in your heart, you should recount what good you do have, and treasure it.”
Soren gazed at him. “What’s cas’down?”
“Sad,” said Waeber, “or disappointed.”
Sarlota could see that Soren still didn’t quite understand, so she joined Waeber. “It means, when you’re sad about anything, you should look around for the good things you do have, and tell the Only One thank you for those things.”
Soren heaved a deep sigh. His eyes welled with tears. “Rusza Tate isn’t coming?”
“Not tonight,” Sarlota said.
Crystallin came and picked Soren up. “Since Sanna isn’t here, I’ll help you get ready for bed in her place, all right?”
After their exit, Cooper said, “I tell you this honestly, if he had shown up, I don’t know what I would’ve done. My mother always told me it’s bad manners for one dinner guest to punch another guest in the face.”
Everyone gazed at him in speechless surprise for an instant before Mica Locke chuckled. “Yes, I’ve heard that too. Why do you want to punch him?”
“First day we were here, I was with him at the social, talking to that Demyan girl. She decides it’s funny to make fun of how short I am, and before you know it, he’s saying outright nasty things about me, just to make her and her followers laugh.” He glowered. “Now, yeah, we used to tease each other from time to time, I admit, but this was public humiliation, plain and simple. Way over the line. Totally offensive— and he knew it. I used to think he was an all right guy, kind of dopey but basically all right. And I’ve had friends who went stupid over girls before. They might disappear for a while, start acting weird, that kind of thing, but this is the first time I ever saw a decent guy go outright nasty, like he’s a different person. I figured at first she must have human soul sympathy, but Father Locke says no. So I have to think I never really knew him in the first place.”
Mica nodded thoughtfully. “I see.”
Sarlota caught a glimpse of a pained expression on Axel’s face, just before Crystallin came back. “Thank you for supper,” she said to Nana Friga and Sarlota. To Axel, she said, “The game was fun. I’d like to play again soon.”
Axel gave her a distracted smile and a nod. He stood motionless for as long as it took the young people to shrug into their coats and leave. Then, still with that abstracted air, he drifted toward the bedrooms.
“Is he…?” Sarlota was unsure if ‘all right’ was the best choice of words, since he clearly was not.
Friga did not need an end to the sentence in order to understand. She said, “He has heard and seen things that trouble him. It’s likely that he will not be able to focus on anything else for a while.”
Axel came back into the sitting area, a crestfallen look on his face. When he finally noticed the two women watching him, he said, “I wanted to write a letter, but Fiola took her kit with her.”
“I have stationery with me,” Sarlota volunteered. “I can go get it from my room.”
“I’d be indebted to you if you would.” Axel’s voice held a heaviness uncharacteristic of him.
Sarlota hurried to the second floor room she was renting, scooped up her packet of letter-writing supplies, and hurried back.
Axel hadn’t moved. When Sarlota pressed the writing materials into his hands, he seemed to return from a great distance. He thanked her, went to the kitchen table, and started working on his letter.
This left Sarlota nothing to do but sit with Friga, listening to the radio news. But her curiosity overpowered her after a short time. She stood up, walked across to stand behind Axel, and looked over his shoulder.
The letter began, My good Dr. Tate: I feel myself indebted to you for all your kindness to me. That’s one reason I’m writing this letter. The other reason is, I’m a father. My children have gone on before me, but it looks like that doesn’t stop me from being a father. So, from one father to another, I need to tell you how much I’m worried about your boy Rusza.