“It’s a free day. You should use it to enjoy yourself.”
Kass looked up from her reading to find Sanna watching her. “I’m fine here. I enjoy this much more than wandering around in the cold, looking at some rustic cow-town. I almost never got the chance to read when I was married.”
Since Sanna was not allowed outside in the cold until her sympathy was fully stable, she had given the students a day off and sent them out on their own. Moor had taken Gamble out to show him around the town. Crystallin and Fiola were in and out of the suite, running errands or visiting people Crystallin knew. The child Soren had been so gloomy all morning that his uncle had taken him out for a walk, with the promise of a book to keep for his very own at the end of the walk. Presently, Nana Friga was sitting at the kitchen table, talking with a couple Kass had only met just this morning. The man, by name Matijah something, was older and very handsome, with silver hair and a trim silver beard and deep-set blue eyes. He had a quick and ready smile, as well as a gentle handshake and a deep voice. His wife, Ena, was actually plain by comparison with her husband. Her brown hair and brown eyes were nothing noteworthy, but her voice was soft and her smile kind. It was this Matijah who had taken over from Dr. Rao in the morning so that the older woman could get some sleep after sitting up to watch over Sanna through the night.
Kass held out the book she was reading. “I have a question.” She pointed to the section she meant and explained what it was that didn’t make sense to her. In return, she received a good, sound, short answer that did make sense. She said, “It still floors me, how you know so much when you’re so young. Where did you learn all this about the statutes and teachings?”
“My dad,” Sanna said. “He read all kinds of books. When I got to be old enough, he let me read his books. That’s one of his,” she said, meaning the one Kass held. “Whenever I didn’t understand something, I would sit on his knee and listen to him explain it to me. Then he would ask me questions to be sure I did understand.”
“I wish my dad was like that,” Kass sighed.
Sanna just smiled at her.
“I like that about you,” said Kass. “You don’t ask nosy questions.”
This made Sanna really smile. “I know enough to know that asking questions would just make you feel worse, and I don’t want to do that. You’re so earnest, so dedicated to learning.” After a moment’s pause, she said, “I like that about you.”
Kass laughed. “Thanks.” She sighed again. “For a long time, I haven’t felt like there was anything likeable about me, so it’s nice to hear that.”
“Nothing likeable?” Sanna frowned.
“Being full of bitterness and hate tends to make you unlikeable,” Kass replied, looking away toward the windows. “I’ve been trying to get rid of it all, but it’s hard.”
Abruptly, a cold hand rested on her head. Sanna said, “You were surrounded by bitter, hateful, lying people who didn’t like anybody. No wonder it was hard for you to see yourself as likeable. But you’re free now. Nobody can force you to go back.”
“Isn’t that the wonderful truth,” Kass agreed. “I wake up every morning with that thought. I’m free, and I’m never going back. That’s mostly thanks to you, you know.”
“If I helped, then I’m glad I was able to do it.”
Conversation faded between them. Kass started to read again, but she kept looking up from time to time. It wasn’t hard to notice the depression that had fallen over Sanna Taivas. After yesterday’s spectacle, Kass finally understood why. She had in her thoughts the parting words left to her and the other students by Mica Locke: Don’t leave her alone. Don’t let her think too much right now. She snapped her book shut sharply. “Master Sanna, I want to tell you about it.”
“Are you sure?”
“We’re almost alone right now. Will there be a better time?” Kass asked. “You were talking about your dad. I wished my dad had been more like yours. Mine was weak. I never did find out what Stolle Guslin had over him, but whatever Guslin said, my dad went with it. Never argued, never resisted, just went with it, whatever it was. That’s how I ended up married to Matt. I was more timid back then. Naive, just sixteen. I didn’t much like the Guslin family. They scared me a little, but Dad was so insistent, said I should marry into their family so they could provide for me better than he could. He was so insistent that I said I would. It was lousy from the first. None of them actually hit me; they didn’t go that far. But for the first year, almost the whole first year I was married, the old man referred to me as ‘Matt’s little bitch.’ All he cared about was that I produce sons. I got pregnant once,” she said thoughtfully. “She miscarried. The old man didn’t care, said it was better that way, since she was a girl. From that day, I decided I would never give a child of mine to the Guslin family. I learned what I could, from neighbors and from library books on pregnancy. The old woman thought I was studying up so I had a better chance of getting pregnant again, but I was doing the opposite. I was making sure I never did. And I didn’t. I never regretted it, but I do regret that that probably made them go after Soren when they did, trying to use him as the replacement for the sons I didn’t bear.”
Sanna looked as if she would cry. “What about your mother?”
“Mom? I suppose she just got used to Dad being the way he was and never bothered trying to change him or contradict him. She does good works in the neighborhood. That’s her only real interest. She won’t hear a word that isn’t all bright sunshine and flowers. Whenever I tried to tell her what it was like with the Guslins, she changed the subject. It wasn’t a nice thing to talk of.”
Kass took the outstretched hand and squeezed it. “Yes, that’s what I always wished she would have done. Just that. It wouldn’t have mattered if she couldn’t help me out of the lousy life I was in, if she just did that.” She gazed at the girl’s face. “That idiot yesterday, he had one thing right. You’re a natural mom, whether you have kids or not. You’ll always be somebody’s mom. I’m sure of it.”
The smile Sanna gave her was definitely watery.
“If you need to cry, you go ahead while it’s just you and me. Was he your boyfriend?”
Sanna shook her head vehemently and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “No. We have never been anything but friends.”
“Oh.” What the girl did not say told Kass everything she needed to know. “Men are mostly just trouble anyway. Especially weak-minded men like that one. I know it doesn’t help to hear me say it, but if he’s that easily seduced by a bent twig like her, he isn’t worth your time anyway. You’re too good for him, the idiot.”
“Bent twig?” Sanna echoed. She broke into a soft, reluctant laugh. “What does that mean?”
“Skinny and crooked. Just like it sounds.”
Matijah came over from the kitchen to bend over Sanna. “I heard you laugh,” he said. “That’s good. It shows you’re recovering. What number are you at?”
“Five,” Sanna answered after brief consideration.
“Let’s bring that down a little.” He took her hand and massaged it gently from the wrist to the fingertips.
Kass found it interesting that Sanna barely looked at the man except for a glance of gratitude, although he was handsome enough that even Kass, bitter as she was about men in general, found herself admiring his features a little more than she ought. When he had completed the treatment of the hour and returned to the kitchen table conversation, Kass leaned closer and whispered, “Don’t you think him handsome?”
The look of surprise that Sanna cast toward the kitchen table was telling. “Handsome? Well, yes, he is, but why should I have an opinion about him, a married man and older than my father?”
“Well,” Kass said, imitating her tone, “a handsome man is a handsome man. Doesn’t matter how old he is or how married, he’s still nice to look at.”
“Looking is the first step down into corruption,” Sanna said as if quoting. “It does not do to look with desire upon a married woman— man, in this case— because no blessing can come of it.”
“Is that one of the teachings?” Kass asked.
“My dad quoted it every time my sister Anna talked about good looking young men who also happened to be married,” explained Sanna, “so I got to know it very well. She liked a handsome man well enough herself.” Her expression had turned distant and affectionate.
“You must miss your family a lot.”
“More as time passes,” said Sanna. “I thought it would get easier, but…”
Kass grabbed her hand again. “Enough. I’m not here to make you think about sad things. Right now, your job, Master Sanna, is to focus on recovering control of your sympathy and teaching me all the things I need to know about honoring the Only One. I can’t follow the first principle of this school if I don’t know that.”
“True,” Sanna agreed. “It was a great surprise to me that you grew up in Cavern without learning more than the basic statutes.”
“That’s more common than you’d think. There were good people there, but at the same time it’s the sort of place where somebody like Stolle Guslin can get away with all that he did for as long as he did, and nobody intervened. Your village must have been different. So, teach me the ways of your village, like we still live there. It’s the Sky-wind school, remember. I’m living in your village now.”
This made Sanna smile a little. “We had better continue, then.”
They talked over Sanna’s father’s book for most of the next hour before Matijah came over again to give Sanna another adjustment. After that, they had almost no time to get back into their discussion before someone knocked at the door. Kass sprang up before any of the elders could move. She opened the door. “Father Locke, Mother Locke, good afternoon.” She stepped aside to let the couple enter. “May I take your coats?”
They gave her their coats and went straight toward Sanna. Mother Locke knelt down beside Sanna and hugged her; Father Locke beckoned for Matijah to stand beside him and speak for a few moments. Then the two men parted, Matijah to return to the kitchen table conversation and Father Locke to take the chair next to Sanna. “Mica told me what happened yesterday,” he said, very forthright. “I am proud of you, Sanna.”
Sanna gazed at him with her own forthrightness clear in her eyes. “Did he tell you all of it?”
“Yes. That is why we will make sure there’s always someone beside you, until it isn’t a problem any longer. It takes the soul longer than the mind to recover from some things. If Dr. Zuma were here, she would tell you that herself. Now,” he said, in a tone that indicated he was changing the subject, “how are you liking your new career as an instructor?”
“I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing,” Sanna replied with a troubled attempt at a smile.
Father Locke turned to include Kass in the conversation for a moment. “What do you think, Miss Ulim?”
“I like how you explain things, Master Sanna, because it sounds like you’ve thought it all through first and really understood it for yourself,” she said immediately. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, we certainly can’t tell.”
With a nod, Father Locke returned his full attention to Sanna. “I regret to tell you that you’ll probably always get the sense that you aren’t fully qualified to instruct others. I still do. It may have something to do with the fact that none of us ever knows as much as he or she would like to know about a subject. And as you go along, you will learn as much as you teach, possibly more. One of your students will bring up a new line of inquiry that you had never considered, leading you into new knowledge, new understanding. It happens to me rather often. For example, Cooper told me recently that he is interested in training for disposal intelligence; this, in turn, resonated with a line of thought that I have been entertaining recently and caused me to investigate how best to train him, or anyone else with similar interests. I have focused in recent years on leadership training, because I saw a need for it. I’m beginning to see a similar need in this area. We know too little about how the Decay is introduced into our own territory— how it came to enter the capital itself without detection.”
Sanna nodded her agreement. Her eyes lit with interest. “Yes, I had wondered that. Are there many intelligence officers working in the disposal field?”
“Not many, and most of them are in South Territory, where the most Decay trafficking takes place. It is time we spread the knowledge farther afield. Your school may one day want to take on an intelligence specialist of some kind, if you decide to continue working in disposal.”
“It would be an interesting turn of events,” Sanna noted, “if it turned out to be Anion Cooper.”
“Interesting, but not surprising. This is how individual connections are formed into a network. You meet people, exchange knowledge, remain in contact, and sometimes you find that you can benefit one another down the line, where no such thought arose at the time of your initial meeting.”
Mother Locke said, “That’s also how the supply and support system works. I spend most of my time connecting people who can benefit one another, nurturing those connections, distributing manpower and goods from one army base to another. You’ve grown up in a place where everyone naturally knew each other and helped each other as needed. Out in the wider world, these connections need to be fostered deliberately. It’s too easy for people to live side-by-side without really knowing each other.”
Sanna was thinking now; it showed in the small creases between her fair eyebrows and the distant look in her eyes. “Like how it’s possible for someone to grow up a few streets away from a public meeting house but never really learn the teachings.” Her gaze flicked toward Kass, who pretended to be absorbed in her book instead of listening in on a conversation she wasn’t part of.
“Yes,” said Father Locke. “Or how it’s possible for a person to be a district elder and still manage to import the Decay without causing any alarm or being exposed. This idea of training young soldiers in disposal intelligence is growing on me. You’ll find that happening to you as you continue instructing others. You grow as you help others grow.”
The conversation went on from there. Kass kept on pretending that she wasn’t listening, and sometimes she honestly wasn’t. She spent more time considering how alike her young school master and Father Locke seemed, especially when it came to books and learning. She was pleased to see Sanna’s demeanor brighten during the talk, even if it was just talk of learning styles and theories. It engaged Sanna’s attention; the girl leaned forward into the conversation, asking questions and listening to the advice Father Locke gave.
Once, when Kass forgot her pretense of reading, she got caught listening. Mother Locke gave her a tiny smile, as if to say she too thought it a good thing that Sanna was so absorbed in learning how to teach. She herself was saying little and seemed content to listen to her husband and Sanna as they talked. Toward the end of the conversation, she did break in, but only to say, “I can see that you two will be writing long letters, when you aren’t able to sit down and talk about this as you are today.”
Sanna actually laughed. “There’s so much I need to learn, Mother Coralie. Who better to ask?”
“Who better, indeed? And Everard has already told me that he has learned things from observing you.”
“Learned? From me?”
Father Locke said, “Of course I have. Each one of us, however knowledgeable about certain things, has much to learn from others. We all have blind spots, whether in our theories or in our practices. As I said, the teacher learns from the students, just as the students learn from the teacher. You have shown me things about my own character in relation to others.”
This brought spots of color to Sanna’s cheeks. She seemed lost for words.
“As long as one is willing to keep learning, one will keep learning.” Father Locke checked the time. “We should go back to the depot soon. I have an appointment, and Perdita will be growing impatient for Cora to come back. We will check in with you again tomorrow. Rest and keep warm.”
Kass opened the door for the Locke couple after they had said their goodbyes. She went to sit by Sanna again. “You have some really important connections, Master Sanna. They act like you’re their family.”
“They do,” Sanna agreed, “and I consider them as family to me. They have been very good to me, they and their children.” Then she exhaled, and the dullness came back to her eyes momentarily.
“That Mica, and Crystallin,” Kass said. “She’s really sweet. I don’t really get what he’s like, but he seems a good sort, for a man.”
“Yes, I have been surprised repeatedly by how good he is. Our first meeting was not… not what you might call favorable, and I had cause to scold him once when I barely knew him. It’s to his credit that he never showed me any resentment over that, since I’m so much younger than he is. Since then, he has proven himself to have grown in character, to the point where I have trouble imagining how he could have come to… to be in such trouble earlier.”
“Trouble?” Kass asked.
“It does no good to rake up another’s past misdeeds,” said Sanna. “He has more than made up for whatever wrong he did. His parents have every reason to be proud of him now.”
For a while after that, they sat quietly together, not speaking to one another but each pursuing her own meditations, until another knock at the door disturbed them. Kass got up. It was late in the afternoon, but not so late that any of the other Sky-wind students should be gathering for supper. She opened the door and nearly shut it immediately, because on the other side stood the young idiot, Rusza Tate. “What do you want?” she asked him.
He looked startled. “Um, may I speak with Sanna for a little?”
Kass was reluctant, but she knew it was not her suite and therefore not her decision. She stepped back to let him pass, noticing without much interest that the idiot was not wearing a coat despite the cold weather. “Another visitor for you, Master Sanna.”
Sanna did not need the announcement. She was already gazing wide-eyed at the idiot. Her face showed almost no expression. “Rusza Tate,” she said. “What brings you here today?”
He bowed at the waist. “I’m sorry for bringing an uninvited guest yesterday. I should have thought before I came. It’s just, I felt like— I mean, Irina never felt like a stranger to me, and I’ve been wanting all this time to introduce her to you, because you’re my hero, and I didn’t think it would cause so much trouble. I’m sorry.” He stayed bowing forward, waiting, with his gaze fixed on the floor at his feet.
“I never mind guests, announced or otherwise,” Sanna said in a careful voice stripped of all nuance. “That was not the problem. I will put up with trouble, even with insults, if they only affect me, but I will not put up with anyone who mistreats my family. Especially Soren. He was deeply distressed by what happened yesterday, so much so that Uncle Axel has spent the whole day trying to cheer him up today. He is the one you should apologize to.”
“I know,” said Tate. “I will.”
After a few moments of silence, Sanna said, “Well? Is that all you came to say?”
This started the idiot rambling, almost babbling, about the very thing he should have kept silent about: his feelings for the bent twig. He said things like, “I feel like I’ve known her my whole life,” and, “She seems to always know just what I’m thinking.” It was mostly just drivel, stuff Kass had heard from others likewise drowning in the follies of infatuation, and she was on the brink of throwing the idiot out before Sanna had to endure any more of it. But she hesitated, again, considering that it was not her place to do so, and in her moment of hesitation the idiot blurted out, “I’m… I’m planning to ask her to be my girlfriend, but I’m really, really nervous about it. Do you think she’ll say yes?”
Sanna maintained the most solemn of composure, as if she had been transformed into an ice sculpture. She let a few seconds pass before she replied, “That is a stupid question to ask me.” After another few seconds, she continued, “Only she can answer it.” Then some of her composure melted, and she sighed. “Rusza, why are you here?”
The idiot seemed even more nervous. “Right, right, I should go. I have a… a big night ahead of me. I should go and get ready, not dawdle here. Are you… coming to the social tonight?”
“Right. Well, thanks for hearing me out. I’ll just go… get ready.”
Sanna said something so quietly that Kass almost missed it. It sounded like, “Don’t come back.”
Kass didn’t need to open the door for the idiot Tate. She wasn’t fast enough to get ahead of him as he strode out and pulled the door to behind himself. So she went back to sitting by Sanna. All she said was, “What an idiot.”
Sanna did not respond. Suddenly Matijah was looming over them, reaching for Sanna’s wrist, massaging her hand. “What number are you at?” he asked Sanna.
She did not respond.
“Sanna,” he repeated, “what number?”
She sighed. “I don’t know. Six?” Her voice came out thickly.
“Let’s bring you back down. Take deep, slow breaths.” He continued to massage her right hand and then her left hand. “This isn’t doing it,” he said. “Ena, come and give me your company for a little while, will you?
When his young wife came over to join them, to Kass’s surprise she didn’t do anything. She just sat in one of the free chairs and gazed at her husband at work.
“Now, Sanna, I want you to remove your jacket.”
Sanna shrugged out of her indoors jacket one arm at a time, so that Matijah was never out of contact with one of her hands at any moment.
“What do you have on under the shirt?” he asked.
“A tank top,” she said dully.
“Then the shirt comes off too. Now lie down on your face on the couch. Ena, put the electric blanket over her legs.” Matijah began to rub Sanna’s back and shoulders firmly. “That’s better,” he said. “That’s better. Just relax. Breathe deeply. Stay in control.”
Kass knew she saw a series of small convulsions shake Sanna, a certain sign that the young master was crying. Despite the adjustor’s efforts, the room was getting steadily colder.
“You, miss,” said Matijah, looking at Kass with worry in his eyes, “do you know where Dr. Rao’s rooms are? The barracks attached to the depot, at the back. The four-story wing with the green doors. Go there. Bring her here as quickly as you can. Tell her Sanna is going into crisis.”