By sunrise, Mother Locke’s personnel carrier was far enough down the road that it had driven clear of the snowfall. Most people were asleep toward the front, where Sergeant Maynard kept the heater roaring. Wyeth was one of the few in the back, awake by necessity. She was playing a game of word associations with Sanna to help them both stay alert. “Border,” she said.
Sanna replied, “Capital.”
“Nice,” Wyeth remarked. “I wouldn’t have thought of that one.
“Market,” Sanna said.
Wyeth thought about that one for a while. “Hereditary estate. What, isn’t that close enough?”
“No, that isn’t it.” Sanna smiled a little. “It just occurred to me, before you answered, that I didn’t know what the correct answer was. I’m so tired.”
“Market,” said Wyeth, “a place where things are bought and sold. The opposite of that could be a hereditary estate, a place which can be neither bought nor sold but must be inherited. Of course, that doesn’t account for bankruptcy proceedings,” she allowed.
“True, but we can let it stand. Aren’t you tired?”
“Of course I am, but not as tired as you. I haven’t had to work as hard, and I can take a quick nap whenever Matijah comes to relieve me. What number are you at?”
Sanna concentrated for several seconds. “On the new scale? Twenty.”
“Give me your hand.” Wyeth massaged the girl’s cold hand between hers and focused on suppressing the girl’s sympathy for as long as it took her to count to ninety. “Now what number would you give it?”
“Right, that’s better. My turn: drive.”
“Walk. Oh, wait— nouns only. Sorry. Drive… drive… apathy. Persuasion.”
“Ah…” Wyeth thought through a few words. “Compulsion. And a drive is a noun, isn’t it? So a walk would have been an acceptable answer.”
Matijah approached them. “My turn, I think. But I don’t do well at word games, so we’ll have to think about something else for a while. Do you know much about card games, Corporal Taivas?”
Thus relieved for a half-hour’s rest, Wyeth stood up and stretched. When she did so, she saw Coralie Locke beckoning to her. Wyeth waited to speak until she reached the front of the carrier. “Did you need me for something, Coralie?”
“I wanted to ask your opinion.” Coralie moved to make room for Wyeth to sit beside her. “I’ve been thinking through possibilities. You keep track of everyone in the army who has human sympathy sympathy, don’t you?”
“There aren’t that many of us,” Wyeth said, “so I think I have a good grasp of personnel. Why?”
“I want to assign one or two to the Sky-wind school. Obviously, it would have to be junior adjusters. Everyone who has seniority and experience is already settled into a permanent position, and not many would be willing to do the traveling. Attending to Sanna would be good experience for a young adjuster, wouldn’t it?”
“Definitely, if you could justify the staffing. We always have a shortage,” Wyeth reminded Coralie, “so people would ask questions about assigning one, let alone two, to an individual’s care.”
“But it wouldn’t be an individual’s care,” Coralie said with some excitement. “I’ve talked this over with Everard. Sky-wind is going to be under my direct command. I’ve had combat soldiers assigned to accompany me, because I end up in dangerous situations, but I’ve never had my own disposal squad before. You know how it is: disposal squads are always local, tied down to one place. Now I have one I can send wherever the need is. It’s just a matter of building the squad up.”
“And with Sanna as its nucleus…” Wyeth let her words trail off.
“Exactly. Exactly! The personnel need to fit the structure of the squad. One adjuster, or even two, will be a necessity. It’ll benefit local squads when Sky-wind goes to assist, and that will ease some of the shortage. Anyone who trains on Sanna’s sympathy will be able to handle practically anything else.”
Wyeth said, “You have been giving this some thought, haven’t you?”
“It really started when they told me there was a source of the Decay in the capital. I went completely blank then, because there was nobody there I could muster to lead the search and disposal, nobody except Edmund and Aug, who I brought with me from Current-town totally by chance. If they hadn’t accompanied me, we would have been helpless. That idea alone terrified me. Why is the capital so ill-protected? Because the need arises rarely? That’s a terrible reason.”
Wyeth hushed the younger woman. “Don’t wake everyone up, now,” she warned, but she had to smile. “You don’t get this worked up very often.”
“No,” Coralie admitted. “But when we visited the Sky-wind village and I saw those rows of mass graves, it made me think what could have happened in the capital. It felt like a warning for me. I’m only responsible for supporting local army units, but Everard has been thinking in the same direction. We’re unprepared, Wyeth. We’ve had one warning. When Everard goes back to the capital after New Year’s, I know he intends to talk with the elders about rethinking some of the training practices for capital soldiers.”
“He has mentioned disposal intelligence once or twice,” Wyeth noted.
“That’s one part of it. But in the meantime, I intend to make the best possible use of Sky-wind school. It’s a first step towards other changes: the capital’s first itinerant disposal squad.”
Wyeth left her with a promise to start reviewing the files of young adjusters. Half her break was gone by then, but she settled into a seat back near Sanna and listened with her eyes closed as Matijah taught Sanna the rudiments of poker.
They reached the crossroads waystation mid-morning. Light flurries swirled through the air as the passengers stumbled out onto the pavement. A young lieutenant saluted Coralie and said, “Rough drive, ma’am? We have hot food and drinks inside. Father Locke told us to be ready for you.”
“Is the bus ready to go?” Coralie asked.
“Fueled up and ready.” The lieutenant pointed to a large greenish-brown vehicle parked off to the side.
Shy said, “I’ll warm it up,” holding out his gloved hand for the keys.
Wyeth raised her voice. “Sky-wind school, transfer your luggage and be inside for food in five minutes. We leave in fifteen.” She followed Coralie’s staff into the waystation’s main building, where Matijah had already guided Sanna out of the cold air.
Crystallin and Fiola were helping Friga Rohkin to one of the mess tables. Fiola could be heard to say, “I guess that’s one advantage of not having any luggage. I miss my new writing kit, but I couldn’t write on a moving vehicle anyway.”
“Father Locke promised to ship all our things after us,” Sanna said hoarsely. “We must be patient.”
Wyeth saw Coralie make a furtive beckoning gesture that drew Crystallin away from Sanna’s family. “Make sure,” Coralie told her daughter in an undertone, “that Slate replaces everything they need before they head out to Current-town. We don’t know how soon the mail will be able to reach them.”
Five minutes saw all of the capital-bound passengers at the mess table with their food. Breakfast had not happened on the long drive, so everyone was hungry— except Sanna, who had no appetite but a raging thirst that they could do nothing about. They had tried on the way, but liquids froze in her mouth. Just in case, Wyeth asked the lieutenant for a mug of boiling water to be brought to the table.
“Let’s try again,” she urged Sanna after the mug arrived. “You need fluids.”
Sanna nodded without enthusiasm.
Wyeth raised the mug close to Sanna’s mouth. “Open,” she said. Then she dribbled a few drops onto Sanna’s tongue.
Sanna swallowed. Her eyes brightened a little. “It didn’t freeze.” Her voice was still hoarse, but after two more dribbles of hot water, she was able to clear her throat. “Again,” she said.
Wyeth was able to empty the whole mug into Sanna’s mouth in increments like this. “Better?”
“So much better,” Sanna agreed. Her voice was almost back to its usual husky timbre.
Sarlota Moor appeared between them. She held out an insulated flask. “Here, take this with you. I bought it for the bus ride. It should keep hot for two or three hours at least. It has a fresh pot of ginger tea with honey and candied lemon peel in it.”
Sanna thanked her. “I’ll return it when we see each other again.”
“No, keep it. I can replace it easily. It’s little enough help to offer you when you’re in so much discomfort. I wish I could do more.”
Sanna thanked her again as she stood with Wyeth’s assistance. “Did… did someone bring food to Uncle Shyam?” the girl asked. “He went straight to the bus…”
“Lieutenant Jasper saw to it,” Wyeth assured her.
“And everyone’s ready?”
Fiola appeared at Sanna’s other elbow. “We’re ready.”
They boarded the old troop bus in the same configuration: Sanna and Wyeth in the back, noncombatants in the front, students in the middle. Mica had claimed the seat nearest the driver’s seat and was asking Shy questions about how it differed from driving a standard army truck. After a few minutes, Wyeth saw Maccani Moor join Mica and Shy’s conversation at the front. “That should do nicely.”
“What should?” Sanna asked.
“Oh, just those three, trading off as drivers. That’s how the express works: they take three drivers and trade off driving, one after another, for hours, never stopping unless someone needs to stop by the side of the road to relieve themselves. You’d be surprised how few people on the express are willing to draw that kind of attention to themselves. Most go without food and water the whole trip, or find… creative ways of dealing with the waste.”
“I don’t think I want to know anything more about that.” But, as tired as she was, Sanna spoke with dry humor for the first time since the crisis began.
“Then let’s talk about something you will want to know more about. You’ve never been to South Territory before, have you?”
“No. You have, I’m sure.”
“Oh, many times. Even when I was a girl, I went with my parents to Current-town for an annual shopping trip, to get things we couldn’t get at home. It’s a fascinating land.” Wyeth saw that the two Cavern-born students were listening as well, so she went on describing the thick jungle, the sudden rain showers that passed in under an hour, the raucous bird life, the insects and lizards that abounded everywhere. She started talking about the people, the customs, everything she could think of that would interest them. All the while, she kept her hand on the back of Sanna’s neck, exerting her sympathy from time to time in order to keep the girl steady.
In the afternoon, when most of the passengers had dozed off, Sanna said, “What kind of housing are we going to have? Father Locke mentioned once that he had made special arrangements, but he didn’t say anything more.”
“South Territory army units don’t have barracks or dorms. They live in their homes, close together in the same neighborhood. They have built you a house, Sanna, suited to your needs. I understand it’s quite close to Edmund Haigh’s eldest sister’s home.”
“He has a sister?”
“Two sisters, both older than he is. The eldest, Maggie, is an adjuster in the civilian sector. She’s a widow. Her husband died in action… let me see, it must be seven years ago this last summer. She has one daughter, little Tilde. The other sister, Nina, is married to a farmer and lives on the northern outskirts of Current-town, where they have some land. They have, oh, I’ve lost count of how many children they have. More than four, I know that.” Wyeth lowered her voice. “Because I doubt he will tell you himself, and you ought to know, I’ll tell you something else about Edmund: he used to have a younger sister named Goldie. She was murdered, along with Edmund’s parents. To this day, the case has never been solved.”
“How old was she?”
“Twelve years old. This was ten or eleven years ago.”
Sanna gazed at her hands as she clasped them on her lap, but she clearly wasn’t seeing them. Her gray eyes were troubled, and a small frown creased her forehead.
“His older sisters, especially Maggie, do their best to take care of him. He has said that he won’t ever marry, because of the dangers posed by his sympathy.”
“I… I know how that is,” Sanna admitted.
“I know,” Wyeth replied. “I’m saying that he will be able to identify with your problems better than most people, so he will take good care of you. You can rely on him. He is a devout man of stern honor. He holds his squad to the same high standard. They’re a mixed bunch, aren’t they? I know you’ve already met them, but you’ll get to live alongside them now for three months. You’ll find living in South Territory a far different experience than you’ve encountered so far. It’s almost like a different country in some ways, but they too uphold the statutes and the teachings, and they revere the Only One.”
“I’ve started to see that, wherever I meet someone like that, I’m home,” Sanna said.
Wyeth smiled and rubbed the back of Sanna’s neck. This time, the girl twitched at her touch. “That’s a good sign,” Wyeth said encouragingly. “You’re getting ticklish again. You’ve been so numb, it worried me.”
“I never thought of being ticklish as a good sign.”
They stopped twice, once mid-afternoon and once toward sundown, for Soren’s sake. It was adorable to see him get back on the old bus after the first stop, trot down the aisle, and stand at the approved distance from Sanna to report, “Sanna! I went pee outside!” in astonishment.
Axel, behind him, shook his head. “Honestly, it’s like he isn’t a Tuovali at all,” he muttered.
Maccani Moor asked, “Why?”
“Because not one of them ever got bothered about going outdoors,” Axel said. “Not that I ever knew of. Boys especially, but even the girls— it didn’t matter. If one of them had to go, they’d duck behind a bush and go. Well, with the boys, you were lucky if they bothered to find cover at all. Erno almost passed out from outrage, the first time one of them did it in his presence. He was four. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. Of course, you have to keep in mind that I was just seven at the time.”
“A man of the world, then,” Moor said gravely.
“Oh, indeed. I already had a crush on Marinen, even then, so I was always playing with her and her sisters and cousins. I can’t say I got used to it, but I stopped being shocked by it.” Axel grinned. “Erno never did.”
They made a genuine stop at a town called Cairns, the acknowledged halfway point between the crossroads and the capital. There, they ate at the army waystation, refueled the bus, stretched their legs, and tried in all kinds of ways to enjoy every moment not on the bus. After half an hour, though, Wyeth rounded them all up and shooed them toward the bus for the last leg of the trip.
They had started at about 0300, and they rolled to a stop in front of the capital’s main hospital at 2215. Soren was sound asleep, carried by Maccani Moor, as the company split. Mica and Crystallin herded the rest of the Sky-wind group toward the trolley stop that would take them nearest to the Locke house; Wyeth took Sanna inside the hospital foyer to check in while Shy parked the bus. The check-in process took long enough that Shy caught up with them just as they left the foyer.
Wyeth viewed it as a sign of Sanna’s exhaustion that the girl did not object to being put in a wheelchair and pushed to an elevator that took them to the sympathy specialties ward. A nurse came to interview Sanna, to take her vitals, and take Wyeth’s statement. Then they were left in the waiting area until the on-duty adjuster was available.
While they waited, Shy paced to keep himself awake. He had his hood pulled up and his indoor gloves on, in deference to the fact that Wyeth couldn’t spare him any of her ministrations. He only paused in his pacing once, when he acknowledged Mica’s arrival.
“They haven’t seen you yet?” Mica glanced around as if seeking someone to complain to.
“No, but we’re checked in, so our turn will come in due course. They have only one adjuster on the overnight shift, and I’m here to stabilize Sanna. And she is much more stable,” Wyeth assured the young man. “Don’t worry. The crisis is past. Now we just need to see to the aftereffects.”
Wyeth could tell that Mica wasn’t doubting her word. He simply needed to hear the reassurance again, so she said, “Absolutely sure.”
Mica sank down into the chair at Sanna’s other side as Shy resumed his pacing. “Good,” Mica breathed. “That’s good.” He leaned his head back against the wall and shut his eyes.
Sanna was facing away from Wyeth, studying Mica. Her hand lifted, hesitated, and then reached out to touch Mica’s limp hand lightly. “It is kind of you to be so concerned for me, Mica Locke. Thank you.”
He opened his eyes and grabbed onto her hand. “Sanna, will you marry me?”
A chair clanged against the wall across from them. Wyeth turned reflexively to see that Shy had walked into the chair in the midst of his pacing. He bent down to rub his shin, but his astonished eyes were on Mica.
Sanna seemed even more surprised. She repeated, “Marry?” in a faint voice.
“I know I’m not your first choice,” Mica said, “but I admire and respect you more than any young woman I have ever known. And I know it will take time to live down what I’ve done. I wouldn’t ask you to make our engagement public until I’ve had time to restore my reputation. My parents would rejoice to have you as a daughter, and Linnie already thinks of you as her sister.” Mica gazed at Sanna intently. What he saw in her face must have indicated her thoughts to him, because he suddenly looked distressed. “Is it my past?”
“No, not at all,” she said gently. “As far as I’m concerned, you have already proven yourself. I’m honored, deeply honored, that you made me this offer.”
“I would hurt you,” she said. “My sympathy could even kill you. I won’t take that risk. I have decided that I won’t marry. It’s better that way. My duty is to the school I inherited, to build it up so that Soren may inherit it from me.”
“I would make a good instructor,” Mica said.
“No doubt about it.” Sanna’s voice sounded even more exhausted. “But I can’t marry you, Mica. I’m sorry.” When she moved to take her hand from his grasp, he wouldn’t let go.
“I meant everything I said,” Mica said.
Sanna replied, “So did I.”
“I don’t understand,” he replied. “It was a clear, reasoned answer… but it was the wrong answer.”
“Logic isn’t always all-sufficient,” she told him.
Mica just sighed. He retained his hold on her gloved hand, however, until the nurse came to collect Sanna at 2240. Then, after she was gone, he just stayed in his chair, staring at the floor between his feet.
Wyeth exchanged a look with Shy.
Shy said, “Come with us, Mica Locke. We’ll treat you to dinner and a glass of wine. You look like you need it.”