Mica Locke glanced at the doorway again, but the passing footsteps belonged to the town marshal, Tarak Gregory. The marshal peeked in, saw that Father Locke was absent from the room, and passed onward, leaving the stillness of the office undisturbed.
Such stillness was unusual, given that there were eight people present. Mica found himself glancing around to see that everyone was still there, that no one had gotten up and left while he was filing. But no, Lieutenant Jock still worked hard, updating the daily log book. Lieutenant Ietta was still reading a book on pregnancy that her husband had bought for her. Dr. Rao was still reading through a thick case file, delivered to her only that morning. Sergeant Major Calder was in the corner, sitting bolt upright with his eyes closed as he always did while meditating on the statutes. Tarbengar was writing letters to his numerous relatives, but his pencil made scarcely a whisper. Cooper had dozed off with his head on his folded arms. And Waeber looked back at Mica with his usual dazed solemnity, doing nothing outwardly but so deep in his meditations that he didn’t realize he was looking straight at Mica.
When another set of footsteps thudded in the hallway outside, Mica at first didn’t bother to check, since he knew they were too light and quick to be his father’s. But they stopped in the doorway, and Fiola’s voice said, “Excuse me, but Dr. Rao, can you come outside?”
Everyone, Mica included, looked up in surprise. Dr. Rao stood up. “What’s wrong? Tell me on the way.”
Mica grabbed his coat and followed them out.
Fiola said, “We can’t get her to go indoors, because she doesn’t want to affect others, but the longer she stays outdoors, the worse her condition gets. It’s this cold weather. It always sets off her sympathy.”
“Among other things,” said Dr. Rao. “Where is she?”
Fiola led them out the nearest side exit, where they found Sanna squatting on her heels in a narrow, empty courtyard. “Dr. Rao is here, Sanna,” she called out anxiously.
“Good. Stay over there.” Sanna spoke curtly. Her voice carried considerable stress.
Dr. Rao crossed the open ground alone. “Turn your back to me,” she directed. “When I say go, I want you to deplete in a quick, short burst, going all out. All right? Go.” Dr. Rao whipped off one glove and grabbed the back of Sanna’s neck. “Okay, stop. How did it get this bad?” she demanded.
Mica shivered as a wave of intense cold washed through the courtyard. The weather was already cold, below freezing, but this was markedly colder.
Sanna was speaking, but in little more than a murmur. Although he couldn’t hear her words, Mica perceived a disturbing darkness in her thoughts. By the time she stopped murmuring, though, Mica thought she seemed a little lighter.
Fiola beside him fidgeted with anxiety. Her focus was solely on her cousin. “Dr. Rao,” she called out suddenly, “is it safe to come over yet?”
“Just a little longer,” the doctor replied. After another few minutes, she announced, “Now you can come over. Help me help her indoors.”
Mica went forward as quickly as Fiola did. When Dr. Rao would have taken Sanna’s arm over her shoulders to support her, Mica slipped into the place first. “You should focus on her sympathy, Doctor,” he said. “Anyone can do this.”
Dr. Rao, after her first pause of surprise, nodded in agreement. Seeing that Fiola was in place at Sanna’s other side, she said, “Forward, double-quick.”
Mica and Fiola practically carried Sanna between them, back inside and down a hallway to a vacant office. Then Dr. Rao directed them to seat Sanna close to the radiant heat panel in the corner. She went to the thermostat and raised the temperature as high as it would go. She kept her coat on, which warned Mica to do the same. “Now, we’re going to bring you down little by little,” the doctor announced. “Quick bursts, like before, but more measured. We need to get it down to or as close to a three as we can. Ready? Go.”
The room grew suddenly chilly.
“Stop.” Dr. Rao rubbed the back of Sanna’s neck with her thumbs, from the base to the nape. “Can you feel this?”
“A little now.” Sanna shivered.
“We’ll try it again. Go.”
The room temperature, which had not recovered from the last depletion, dropped again.
“Stop.” After almost a minute of neck massage, Dr. Rao said, “What number now?”
“How high did it go?”
“Just before you came— nine.”
“That’s too close to the edge, Sanna. Why didn’t you tell your commanding officer when it started?”
“We were out in the middle of nowhere,” Sanna said, “and there wasn’t anything that anyone there could do about it.”
“That isn’t a good reason. Did they bring you back early, or did they send you ahead?”
“They could have sent you earlier, had they known. Go.”
The previous chill had only started to dissipate, but now it redoubled. Mica hunched down in his coat and pulled up his hood.
It took four more of these rapid-depletion bursts before Sanna was able to gauge her sympathy at three, which satisfied Dr. Rao. “Mica,” said the doctor, “find Shy and see if he can warm up one of the staff cars. I mean warm it up,” she warned. “We need the heater on full-blast.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Mica hurried back to the office. His father had not yet returned from the comm office, but Sergeant Major Calder was more than willing, as soon as he heard Dr. Rao’s request. Mica accompanied him. He climbed into the front passenger seat and adjusted the heater to its hottest setting. The car was cold, so it took several minutes before he and Shy agreed that it was warm enough. Mica directed him to drive around to the courtyard nearest the vacant office. Shy pulled up so that the car door, when opened, nearly touched the exit door. Mica ran indoors. “We’re just outside,” he announced.
He and Fiola propped Sanna up between them again for the short walk outside. Once they had the three women tucked away in the back, Mica resumed his place in the front, and Shy drove away from the depot building. They reversed this procedure outside of the hostel. Fiola had both arms around Sanna, so Mica knocked on the door to the Taivas suite.
Crystallin let them in and hovered close by while they settled Sanna into one of the chairs. “Mica,” said Dr. Rao, “ask the front desk attendant if they have an electric blanket. If they don’t, have Shy run you back to the Army Stores to pick one up.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The hostel did not keep electric blankets for their guests, so Mica ran back into the cold and explained the need to Shy Calder. The ensuing drive went rather faster than was sensible within city limits, but Mica was able to purchase the needed item, return to the staff car, and arrive back at the Taivas suite within fifteen minutes. He was slightly out of breath when he let himself in and spread the electric blanket, which he had unpackaged in the car, over Sanna.
“Good,” said Dr. Rao, “they did have one. Turn it up all the way, Mica. That’s good. I’ll stay here and continue treatment until she is stable. You and Shy should go back and tell Father Locke when he’s done with his call.”
Before Mica turned to leave, Sanna said, “Thank you for going to so much trouble, Mica Locke.”
“It’s no trouble,” he replied.
Back at his father’s office, Mica discovered that the call had already ended. The others had told Everard as much as they knew, leaving Mica to fill in the rest, which he did.
His father sighed. “We need to ship her out to the next location soon. Fiola is right in saying this weather does Sanna no good, and there’s worse yet to come in that regard.”
“Are we not going too?” Cooper asked.
“Sanna is finished with her course of study,” Everard answered. “I will, of course, continue to advise her as needed, but she is ready to begin her next stage, her full-time field experience. Eventually, when you and Tarbengar decide on your individual specialties, you’ll do the same.” He turned to Lieutenant Jock. “That reminds me: have you heard from your parents yet?”
Lieutenant Jock held out an envelope. “The afternoon mail brought a letter from them. It had an enclosure for you.”
Everard accepted the envelope and perused its contents. A slight twitch at the corner of his mouth and a quick cough suggested that the letter both surprised and amused him. When he at length set it down, he said, “Allen is making a vivid impression on the hospital staff, according to Dr. Antiri. She’s showing a real gift for getting people to lower their guards. Especially the young male soldiers.”
Ietta laughed. “I have no trouble at all believing that.”
“In her first four days of study, she has refused fourteen proposals of marriage,” Everard added. “Three from just one young man.”
“I have no trouble believing that, either,” said Ietta. “Which young man?”
“The one who gave us the hospital tour,” said Everard. “Private Ruuti Kanen. Dr. Antiri is sure that all three proposals were more or less involuntary, almost unconscious. He is quite taken with Allen.”
This made everyone else smile.
They resumed their work, with only occasional conversation, and continued for more than an hour interrupted. Then Mica noticed a presence lingering just outside the office. No one was visible in the open doorway. Mica looked to his father, who gestured for him to go out and bring the loiterer in.
To Mica’s shock, he came face to face with Rusza in the corridor. Rusza looked just as shocked for a moment. A beautiful brunette, no more than sixteen or seventeen, clung to his arm. She seemed keyed up, for some reason Mica couldn’t discern. “In,” Mica said.
“I didn’t come to interrupt…” Rusza began in haste.
“In.” Mica stood back and stared until Rusza and his female friend walked past him into the office.
Rusza was still in the middle of his sentence. “… but word has it that Sanna Taivas and Maccani Moor are back in town, and I just wondered if they were here. I can see they aren’t, so we’ll get out of your way.”
“Tate,” said Everard, “stop. Your father asked me to remind you to answer one of his letters.”
“Which one?” Rusza asked warily.
“Any one,” Everard retorted. “He hasn’t had a word from you since before you left Leeward. No one in your family has.” He returned to his paperwork.
“I’ll write.” Rusza’s face had gone tight.
“Come along,” the girl on his arm, presumably Irina Demyan, urged Rusza as she tugged him toward the doorway. “You looked. They aren’t here. Let’s go to Emiliana’s tea party now.”
Before Rusza could answer, Everard said without raising his head, “One more thing, Tate. Archet also wants to know your reason for breaking your promise to Soren. No, before you accuse me, I did not tell him about it, nor did I permit Mica or Linnie to divulge the incident to anyone in your family. I judged it would do no good and only worry your father more. If you really want to know who told him, then you had better write to him and ask him directly.”
“It was just a promise to a little kid,” the girl declared. “It isn’t as big a thing as you’re making it.”
“A promise broken to a child, Miss Demyan, is in my eyes worse than one broken to an adult. Adults have more experience of life and therefore more coping skills. This may be the first time anyone has betrayed Soren’s trust. A child may forget many things, but not the betrayal of his trust.” Everard had not raised his gaze or his voice at any point during this speech. He added, “I find it suggestive that you, Miss Demyan, already know all about it. It suggests to me that you had some role to play in it.”
“Irina didn’t do anything bad,” Rusza said defensively. “I just got busy and forgot the time. That’s all.”
“Busy,” Everard echoed. This time, he did glance briefly upward. Then he went back to his paperwork, as if to say he did not consider such a weak excuse worth discussing. “For two days now, you have been too busy for Soren, even though your company is off-duty. I see.”
“I’m going today,” Rusza said. From the way he said it, Mica knew that he had only just decided as a defensive measure.
“At this point, I would prefer that you didn’t go at all. But I understand clearly that you have decided that my opinion is not worth your consideration, so I will not be surprised if you choose to go anyway. Mica.” He looked up. “Damage control.”
“Yes, sir.” Mica got up and again pulled on his coat.
Rusza looked at him warily.
Mica gestured toward the door. “Go, if you’re going. I’ll follow.”
“You probably need to lead,” said Cooper suddenly. He had his back to the conversation and had refused to turn around since Rusza entered the room, but his voice was brittle with emotion. “By now, he probably forgot how to get there. Say, Tarbengar, what do you think: betraying a child’s trust— it’s almost just like lying to a kid, isn’t it?”
Tarbengar nodded but did not speak.
“And lying to a kid, well, that would be an outright rotten thing to do, wouldn’t it? Totally rotten. Even more rotten than humiliating a friend in public to make a girl laugh. I’m glad none of my friends would stoop that low.”
Tarbengar compressed his lips as he nodded again. “It would be a despicable thing to do.”
Neither one had looked in Rusza’s direction during this exchange, but Mica saw a dark flush suffuse Rusza’s cheeks and neck. He did not acknowledge the barbed comments as he turned to leave.
“What was wrong with them, I’d like to know!” Irina said to Rusza as they walked toward the main exit.
Rusza hushed her.
“Don’t bother, Rusza,” Mica said quietly. “Human thought sympathy. It doesn’t matter if she says rude things out loud or just thinks them. Dad and I can still tell.”
“Nobody was talking to you,” the girl retorted. “Can’t we get a ride to wherever we’re going? Shake him off? Rusza!” But no matter how much she cajoled, she could not get Rusza to speak a word all during the long, cold walk to the hostel.
Mica said, “You really plan to do this, Rusza?” He sighed. “You have spectacularly bad judgment— and that’s coming from me, with my history of bad judgment.” He stepped around the couple in the hostel entryway, determined that he would at least soften the impact as best he could.
He knocked at the door to the Taivas suite. It was Axel who answered the door. He looked from Mica to the pair behind Mica with a conflicted expression.
“Someone is here to see Soren,” Mica said. “I have no idea what the other one is here for.”
Soren, hearing his name spoken, came trotting toward the door. When he saw Rusza, his face became radiant. “Rusza Tate!” He ran the rest of the way and tackled Rusza around the shins.
Mica walked past Axel and surveyed the room. All of Sanna’s students were present, and Moor’s aunt Sarlota, as well as Nana Friga. Mica’s gaze met that of Maccani Moor. He could see plainly that Moor was thinking, What is that thing doing here? It was difficult to tell which of the two new arrivals Moor was referring to, though. Mica settled on the floor next to him.
Linnie, who had been sitting on the floor next to Fiola, stood abruptly as if to leave.
“Linnie,” said Sanna, “please, don’t go.” She held out her gloved hand.
Linnie accepted it and sat down again at Sanna’s feet.
Rusza was hefting Soren into the air. “It’s good to see you! You’re a little bigger than you were, aren’t you? Heavier, too.”
“Rusza, you’re so good with kids,” the Demyan girl said.
“I love kids. Kids are great.” Rusza swung Soren in a big loop and tossed him so that, for a moment, Soren was flying unsupported. Then he caught the child again. “Especially Soren. He’s my buddy.”
“You’d make a good dad,” the girl continued.
“I hope so, someday,” Rusza said. So far, he had avoided making eye contact with anyone in the room by focusing his eyes on Soren, but when he said someday, he glanced over toward Sanna and away. “Maybe someday my kids can join the Sky-wind school— and probably get beaten up by Sanna Taivas’ kids,” he said with a laugh that did not sound quite genuine.
Mica heard Fiola draw a sharp breath. He looked at her first, but she was looking anxiously toward Sanna, so he transferred his attention there. Sanna was gazing at the young couple with grave eyes and tight lips. She said, “The former may one day come true, but the latter— no. I cannot have children, because of my sympathy.”
“You poor thing,” Irina Demyan said.
“Mm,” Rusza said. “That’s a shame. I always thought you were a natural mom.”
“That’s true,” laughed the Demyan girl. “He always talks about you, how you slap his hand when he’s naughty and teach him how to talk to girls properly. You’re pretty much his mom, aren’t you?”
This even brought Rusza to a momentary halt. Sanna remained grave. “That has never been the case. Perhaps you don’t know: Rusza’s mother died several years ago, when he was just seven years old. The dead can never be replaced.”
“Oh!” Irina clung to Rusza’s arm again. “My poor Rusza, I didn’t know!”
Rusza shifted Soren to his other arm, balancing the child against his hip. “It was a long time ago. How did you know?” he asked Sanna.
“Mother Locke told me.”
He hesitated for a moment. He wanted to say something, but as far as Mica could perceive, he did not know how to say it. His attention slid past Sanna again and landed on the two new faces. “We haven’t met, have we? Rusza Tate.”
Kass Ulim introduced herself by name and nothing more; the newest student, Isaakki Gamble, said his name and, “Formerly of the Guslin school, barely, but I’ve found something far better here.”
“No doubt about that,” Rusza said. “I met that Guslin. Nasty guy. And Sanna Taivas is the best.”
Gamble agreed fervently.
“And what exactly is it you do?” the Demyan girl interrupted.
“The Sky-wind school is a fighting school,” said Sanna patiently. “I am teaching them what I learned from the school’s founders, Soren and Fiola’s parents.”
“That’s right, you’re a fighter,” the other girl said. “You’re awfully strong, for a woman. My pa says it’s a sign of weak men in a place, when women have to fight.”
“Real women have to be strong,” said Kass Ulim suddenly. “Your ‘pa’ can’t shelter you forever.”
“It’s all right,” Irina Demyan replied, “I have Rusza.”
Sanna breathed a quiet sigh. “We were just in the middle of a session when you came. We should get back to our discussion.”
“Sanna,” said Soren, hanging from the crook of Rusza’s arm, “may I play?”
“Yes, my joy. You may play, now that the opportunity has finally come.” Sanna turned away from them to her students. “I’m sorry, Gamble, but could you repeat what you were saying earlier?”
Rusza took Soren aside to the patch of floor nearer the doorway leading to the bedrooms. They fell to romping on the carpet like two children instead of a child and a young man. Mica could only see them part of the time. Irina Demyan he could see clearly, because she remained standing while Rusza sprawled on the carpet.
After a while, she said, “Can’t I have a chair or something? I don’t want to get my skirt dirty on the floor.”
“The floor,” said Fiola in a crisp voice, “is perfectly clean. Nana Friga wouldn’t have it any other way. It isn’t as if we have cattle dogs rolling on our carpet. The chairs are reserved for our elders and betters. If the floor is good enough for all of us, then it’s good enough for you, Miss Demyan.”
Moor leaned toward her and whispered loudly, “Well spoken, Miss Fiola.”
Irina Demyan slowly sank to her knees next to Rusza and Soren’s rowdy play. A short while later, Rusza could be heard to say, “Gah, Soren, you’ve knocked me down. Oh, oh, you’ve pinned me to the floor. I can’t get up!”
Suddenly the Demyan girl said, “How fun! My turn!” and threw herself forward. She must have landed full on Rusza’s gut, because a sharp Paah! burst from him, followed by a laughing groan.
“Oh, that hurt. A little warning would’ve been good…” Then, in a different tone: “You okay, Soren? Let’s have a look. A little rug burn… Here, my dad swore by this for whenever me or my brothers got rug burn when we were little.” A loud smack of the lips followed. “There. It won’t hurt much longer.”
“What about when I get rug burn?” Irina Demyan’s voice had dropped into a flirtatious tone.
“Irina…” But Rusza said nothing further, and the play recommenced. Suddenly Soren appeared, lofted high above the back of Nana Friga’s chair and falling back down. “Whoop! How about this?” Soren rose slowly, shakily into view, standing but bending forward. As he rose higher, it became apparent that he was standing on the soles of Rusza’s feet and holding onto Rusza’s hands. “Should we let go?” Rusza said. “Think you can do it?”
“Mm, mm!” Soren nodded. His eyes gleamed.
“All right… I’m letting go now…”
Soren stood upright, unaided. He wobbled, but he had good balance for a five-year-old. He waved his arms. “Sanna, Sanna, look!”
Sanna turned in her chair. “That’s impressive!” she said. “Be careful you fall the right way.”
“Yes!” All of a sudden, Soren jumped, tucked his knees and elbows, and fell.
Irina Demyan made an outcry. “Little Soren, are you all right? You shouldn’t jump from such a long way up! Rusza, how could you let him do that?”
“He’s all right,” Rusza assured her. “He’s learning Sky-wind style. You have to learn how to fall so you don’t get hurt doing it. Good job, Soren! You did great! When did you learn that?”
“Sanna let me start training,” Soren boasted. “I train with everybody.”
“So you’re a full student now! That’s great!”
Soren had to show Rusza all his exercises all the way through. Rusza watched with a smile, but his eyes showed Mica thoughts of nostalgia, of vague loneliness. Irina Demyan barely watched. She took advantage of the break in playtime to cling to Rusza’s arm again, making little comments to distract him now and then. After the exercises, Soren brought out his library book and his ragged notebook to show Rusza how much he had learned. This bored the Demyan girl even more, which prompted her to distract Rusza more with her touch and her breath against his ear.
Moor whispered to Mica, “Any idea what that girl’s sympathy is?”
Mica shook his head. He asked, “Miss Demyan, what is your sympathy?”
She looked up in impatience. “I have plant sympathy.”
“Is that all?” Moor said.
“There’s nothing wrong with plant sympathy,” she said.
Rusza said, “Nothing wrong at all! Half my family has plant sympathy! Dad does, and… and Lyndon, and Grandpa, and Uncle Kent, and Aunt Hapzah…” He put his arm around the girl’s waist, and she leaned into his chest.
Moor let his voice sink back down into a whisper. “I can see why Cooper thought it was soul sympathy, though. Say… maybe Tate is actually a plant.”
At his other side, Fiola made and smothered a little choking sound.
“I mean, plant sympathy, it’s all about stimulating plants to grow or produce fruit as you want, right? And she’s totally adept at stimulating Tate over there.”
Fiola made a tiny squeak. She stood and went toward the kitchen, saying in a suspiciously tight voice, “I need water. Can I get anybody else some water?”
“It’s so funny to make her laugh when she doesn’t think she should laugh,” Moor said to Mica. “It’s too easy, too.”
“I’m glad someone finds something to laugh about here,” Mica replied under his breath.
Then, out of nowhere, Soren shut his library book and planted himself in front of Rusza and the Demyan girl. “I don’t like you,” he said to the girl.
Irina Demyan gasped. “What a nasty thing to say! Naughty!” She looked to Sanna. “Somebody hasn’t been teaching you manners.”
Gently, as if she had not heard this last remark, Sanna leaned forward out of her chair to gather Soren close to her. “My joy, it was rude to say that out loud. Remember what I keep telling you.”
“But she won’t let us play,” Soren declared stubbornly.
“I know. I know that you’re frustrated, because you waited so long. But it still isn’t proper to say it out loud like that, in front of all these people. It doesn’t make anyone the better for hearing it. I wish you wouldn’t do it anymore.” She kissed the top of his head. “And you, Irina Demyan, should apologize to Soren. You are older than he. You know better, but still you ruined his long-awaited playtime.”
“Apologize!” The Demyan girl sounded outraged.
“Yes. You came uninvited, a stranger to our family, and you have spent all this time competing with a five-year-old child for attention. What do you think that makes you?”
Rusza looked as though he was about to laugh.
Sanna’s next words sobered him instantly. “Both of you. Leave. Now.”
The shock on Rusza’s face seemed to pass Irina Demyan’s attention entirely. “Gladly,” she said. She stood in a huff, pulled at Rusza’s elbow until he stood, and dragged him toward the door and their coats.
Mica started violently as, beside him, Maccani Moor began clapping. “Well said, Master Sanna.” The students and Fiola joined him in his applause.
“There is nothing in that dreadful scene worth cheering,” Sanna said dully.
“I’ve been waiting for you to get mad at that ass, and you finally did. To me, that’s worth a hearty cheer,” Moor countered.
Sanna gave him a weak smile. The door closed behind the departing couple. Sanna stood up, put aside the electric blanket, and said, “Please excuse me for a few minutes.”
Mica saw Dr. Rao make a quick dash after Sanna into the privacy of the bedroom corridor, so he got up and followed too. He found the doctor massaging Sanna’s shoulders as Sanna shivered. Mica positioned himself in front of Sanna. “Look at me, Sanna Taivas. Look straight at me.” He gazed into her dull eyes. “I won’t allow it. Do you hear me? I won’t. Dr. Rao is doing what she can to help you control your sympathy, but if you give up, it doesn’t mean anything. You won’t give up. I won’t allow it,” he repeated. “Maybe it seems like it would be easier. It doesn’t matter. Don’t give up. Get yourself under control.”
Her shivering began to subside. Her dull gaze melted into tears.
“I’m sorry,” Mica found himself saying. “I’m sorry, but it’s better this way. It really is. You did the right thing. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, hearing that from someone like me, but you did. Be sure of it. It’s exactly what Dad would say to you.” He realized he was moving as he spoke, wrapping his arms around the girl, pressing her head to his shoulder so that she could cry. Then he realized that he had tears in his own eyes. His voice came out hoarsely as he said, “Be strong.”