Rusza woke suddenly in a moment of disorientation. He stared upwards, but because the room was totally dark, that told him nothing. Then he remembered: this was Tim Demyan’s room, out on the ranch. Somewhere a few feet to Rusza’s right, Tim was probably still sleeping, since it was only 0410 hours. Rusza relaxed.
He woke suddenly again. Now it was 0530, the time he usually got up. The room was still utterly dark, but Tim was snoring softly. Rusza didn’t want to wake him, so he turned over and went back to sleep. Only this time, he couldn’t fall asleep again. He found himself imagining what Uncle Everard might say when he got into town.
After leaving the social, the Demyan family, less Rolan and Anton, who opted to stay in town, had taken Rusza with them to their ranch house. It hadn’t been his first visit, but it was the first time he had been there at night. Irina’s oldest brother Gavin had been out in the barn, working, when Tim had dragged him out to meet Rusza. It had been a merry evening, running well into the small hours. Gavin had stolen back out to the barn fairly soon after being brought to the house. Mendeley, the third son, had retired to his bed after midnight. By 0115, Pa Demyan had taken several hints from Irina before he declared himself too tired to sit up any longer. He had taken Ma Demyan with him. It would have been just Irina and Rusza soon, but Tim, the second son, had dragged Rusza with him to show him where he would be sleeping that night.
It was a huge house. All six of the Demyan offspring had separate rooms, with the parents in a seventh room and an eighth room set aside for guests. Tim had insisted, however, that Rusza was hardly a guest and should stay in his room like a member of the family. When they arrived there, Tim had loaned Rusza a pair of pajamas that were definitely long enough but hung on Rusza’s lean frame as on a scarecrow. As Rusza climbed into the large bed, he saw Tim bracing a chair under the doorknob. “What’s that for?” he had asked.
“Insurance,” was all Tim had said as he settled himself in a mound of blankets on the floor.
Rusza had been blissfully tired by that time, too tired to pursue the subject. Nor had he been allowed to rest much, for what had remained of the night. At 0310, Pa Demyan had pounded on the door, shouting, “Tim, get up, we gotta get the stock inside. Temperature’s falling hard!”
Jolted by this summons, Rusza had gotten up when Tim did, had gone out with them into the piercing cold, and had done whatever he could to help as they drove as many of their cattle and their horses as possible into the barns. By sunrise, a fierce blizzard had sprung up to fill the air with snow, forcing them to give up on the few remaining cattle.
Gavin had been visibly upset. He had found several head of beef cattle already frozen to death before anyone could get to them. “No use letting it get to you, Son,” had been Pa Demyan’s words to Gavin. “Sometimes you can’t save all of ’em.”
The family had slept late into the morning after that. Breakfast was closer to lunchtime. When Rusza had brought up his leave expiring, Irina had become obstinate. “It’s senseless,” she had said, “going anywhere in this storm. Nobody will expect you back today.” And Pa Demyan had agreed. “None of the trucks will start,” he had added. “I’ve tried them all. Best to wait until the weather eases up.”
So Rusza had yielded to practicality. He thought it possible that Uncle Everard would say something like that too, if he had been there. He spent most of the day in the parlor, listening to Irina play the harp and then the piano, or listening to Ma Demyan talk in a nonstop stream while the two ladies of the house did some kind of needlework.
After supper, he listened to all the same songs again because Pa Demyan had been out shoveling snow and missed out on the earlier concert. The storm had eased up, he said, but the temperature was still too cold to put the stock back out to pasture.
This time, Rusza himself was so tired from his abbreviated night’s sleep that he had been the first to excuse himself and go to bed. Tim had followed after him and again put the chair under the doorknob. This time, Rusza had asked, “What did you mean by insurance, Tim?”
Tim had given him an unreadable glance. “Making sure Irina doesn’t try to sneak in here in the night.”
“She wouldn’t!” Rusza had exclaimed, only to get a wordless smirk in reply.
And now, waiting for morning, Rusza sensed movement in the hallway and turned over instinctively, as he would have done in the barracks. In the dark, he heard the doorknob turn, but the chair was still blocking the door. After three attempts, the doorknob stopped moving and the movement outside passed along the hallway elsewhere.
Rusza sat up and put his feet on the floor. Then Tim’s groggy voice said, “Leave it. It’s just Irina.”
Rusza retreated back into the covers. “How could you tell?”
“Process of elimination. Nobody else would’ve done it.” Tim yawned. “Pa just hammers and yells. You heard him yesterday. Ma taps and chirps. The boys don’t want to be in my room for anything. And she did it once before. Awkward for me, y’know.”
Rusza heard a thump. He let a little stored sunlight radiate from his hand, revealing Tim’s clumsy search for the light switch.
“Thanks. I’m not used to finding things from down here.” The older young man scratched his head and yawned again. “Best get up. Not much to be done with the weather like this, but there’s no use lying abed.”
This time, after an early breakfast, Rusza said, “What can I do to help out? My grandpa farms, and I know there’s always something that needs doing. I feel bad, just sitting around without doing anything.”
Pa Demyan looked pleased. “We’ve got to fork hay to the stock. Got to keep them from losing weight, if we can. I don’t like using up our hay so early in the season. It shouldn’t be this cold, this early in the season. It’s unnatural.” He complained all the way out to the barns, his breath fogging the cold air in front of his face.
Rusza helped fork hay from one mow until Pa Demyan called a halt. His assistance freed Tim to help with the milking, so all that could be done was finished by 0900.
When they returned to the house, Irina and Ma had a fresh carrot cake and hot tea ready for their refreshment. Rusza accepted a slab of cake but asked for cold water instead. “I got a little overheated while I was working,” he explained.
“Overheated!” Ma cried. “How can anyone get overheated in this weather?”
“I don’t really get cold,” said Rusza. “My sympathy keeps me on the warm side all the time.” He thanked her for the water.
“I made the cake,” Irina announced.
“It’s good,” Rusza said past a mouthful of cake.
After the men had eaten their mid-morning snack, they cleaned up. Ma took Rusza’s dirty clothes from him. “You should eat more,” she said, “you’re so thin! Tim’s clothes just hang on you.” When she returned from the laundry room, she brought Rusza a sandwich.
Irina went to the harp, but Tim said, “Oh, let Ma play. You only know eight songs, and we heard them all yesterday.”
“Ma only knows old hymns,” Irina complained. “And she doesn’t play as well as me.”
“I like hearing the old hymns,” Rusza said. “My Grandma Apple and my aunt Hapzah like to play them.”
“I haven’t gotten to hear Ma play for months,” Tim followed up. “You’re always showing off, Irina, and hogging the piano.”
When appealed to, Pa Demyan said, “What I’d adore hearing is Ma on the piano and Irina on her harp, together. You’re skilled enough, precious, to follow along as your mother plays. My two girls,” he ended fondly.
So the moment of discord ended: Ma Demyan played and sang hymns for an hour, with Irina accompanying her on the harp. Rusza was so relaxed by the last hymn that remembrance came as a jolt to him that the time was 1100, and he still needed to get back to Sawtooth Ridge.
He started the process by asking Ma if his clothes were ready yet. She bustled to the laundry room and was gone for so long that Rusza slipped out while Irina was focused on the fingering for a difficult chord. He found Ma ironing his trousers. “That’s all right,” he said, “it doesn’t much matter if I’m wrinkled. I’ve got to change and get ready to head back to town.
He used Tim’s room to change. Upon emerging, he was intercepted by Irina, who threw her arms around his chest and cried because she didn’t want him to leave. Her momentum nearly staggered him backwards, back into Tim’s room, but Rusza caught his balance and leaned into the embrace. “It’s only a few days,” he said to comfort his girlfriend. “You’ll be in town for the next social and we’ll see each other then.”
“But I don’t want you to go, not ever,” she sobbed.
“That isn’t possible,” laughed Rusza.
“If you really loved me, you’d feel the same.”
“I do,” he said. “I don’t like to part from you, but I have my duties to see to. I’ll miss you.”
“No, you won’t,” Irina retorted, “you don’t love me half as much as I love you!” She let go suddenly and stormed away from him, drawing Rusza in her wake.
The more she reproached Rusza, the worse he felt. Her misery showed in her tears and her reddened eyelids. Eventually, he was taken aside by Pa Demyan. “You know, Son, it’s a man’s duty to keep the women happy. Sometimes you have to know when to give in and just accept the consequences for your girl’s sake. It won’t be anything burdensome. Rurik isn’t a harsh man. A day or two on restrictions, that’s all. Isn’t Irina worth that?”
Rusza looked across the room to where Irina cried on her mother’s shoulder. “Yessir.” So he stayed.
That evening, both Mendeley and Tim objected to another round of Irina’s harp and piano repertoire. Tim said, “Tate, you’ve done a fair bit of traveling, haven’t you? How far have you traveled?”
Rusza said, “I’ve been to Current-town, and to Beeches, and to Leeward and Cavern too.”
“From Current-town to Cavern, and all around the capital,” Ma exclaimed, “just like the saying! Is it really as foreign as they say, that South Territory?”
Rusza thought back to the childhood trips he had taken with his family, to see his mother’s people. “It’s really different,” he confirmed.
“What’s the most amazing sight you ever saw in South Territory?” Tim asked.
“That has to be the Great Rift,” Rusza said. “You go through the thick jungle, everything green and hot and as close on top of you as it can get, and suddenly it opens up to this huge… it looks like a gigantic axe-cut in the ground, with a huge river running along the bottom. They say it’s six miles across at the top of the rift, but at the bottom, if you were in a moored boat, you could almost touch both sides in places. Nobody has ever boated down the whole length of the river. It’s too unpredictable, too wild. Lots of adventurers have died trying.”
“Foolish thing to try,” said Pa. “What kind of livestock do they run down there?”
“I don’t think anyone keeps stock on the same scale they do here. There isn’t the open land you have here in the valleys. Everybody keeps some goats and chickens out in the country,” Rusza amended, “but not herds.”
“What took you to Current-town in the first place?” Mendeley asked. “You being from the capital, I mean.”
“My mom’s people are in South Territory. We went down to visit them every winter.”
“You still have family down there?” Pa asked.
“Lots,” said Rusza. “A cousin of mine was up in Leeward the same time I was, doing some training. He’s a captain in one of Current-town’s best disposal companies.”
“Disposal companies,” Pa said dismissively. “What do they do but ride up and down, poking their noses into people’s lives where they have no right?”
“No, sir, there I have to disagree with you,” Rusza said earnestly. “You only say that because you’ve never come up against the Decay in person. Disposal companies save people’s lives.”
“I heard from Sergeant Leonti that that friend of yours, that Taivas, saved a bunch of Zenith boys at that landslide,” Tim said.
“I believe it,” Rusza said with a touch of pride.
“Who’s this Taivas fellow?” Pa asked.
“Not a fellow, Pa. A lady. She’s with Polestar right now. She’s the one, or so they say, that first noticed the Decay and raised the alarm. Sounds like this wasn’t her first time in the saddle, either. She knew what to look for.” Tim turned back to Rusza. “Where does she come from? Cavern?”
“Not Cavern, but Sky-wind Village.” A look told Rusza that this family had never heard of Sky-wind before. “It was a tiny village out near the northern border of North Territory,” he explained. “It’s a cemetery now. They got attacked by the Decay. Out of about three hundred, less than thirty survived. Sanna lost almost her whole family.”
“Oh dear,” said Ma, “how horrible.”
“Now Sanna’s training for disposal work, to make sure what happened to her family never happens again. I’ve been with her three times now when she went up against the Decay.”
“Not proper work for a woman,” Pa said gruffly. “Why don’t the men take care of it?”
“There aren’t enough who can, I guess,” Rusza said. He suddenly remembered Sanna’s trembling back, bent over the corpse of Orrin Pradta. “I wish she didn’t have to do it either. She suffered enough already, but as long as the Decay keeps attacking people, she won’t be at rest.”
“You’re close friends?” Tim asked.
Rusza said, “I don’t know about that, but she’s definitely my hero. All the things she went through, and she still has it in her to take care of others. She’s really strong, too.”
“Women have a special kind of strength,” said Pa.
Rusza shook his head, smiling a little. “No, I mean she’s physically strong. She isn’t big, just medium-sized, but she can knock me flat on my back without trying. I saw her take a punch in the mouth and keep going like it didn’t hurt. She beat the guy who hit her, too. He was trying to take Soren away. Nasty guy. Sanna protected Soren by dueling the guy as the master of a fighting school.”
Irina said, “Is that why they were calling her master? I just thought she had something weird going with those two men.”
For a second, Rusza felt his jaw tighten. “Sanna inherited a fighting school from her aunt and uncle. She’s an awesome fighter. She was even teaching me some of it for a while.”
“Are you sure it isn’t just an excuse to have men’s hands all over her?” Irina asked with a giggle.
“No. Sanna is strict. She holds to the statutes closer than anybody I know, except Grandpa Gar. She broke a South Territory guy’s thumb once for trying to feel her up during a fight.” Rusza pushed his sudden irritation down. “You don’t know her like I do. She’s one of the best people I know. That’s why she’s my hero.”
Tim interrupted, “Tell us about these three times you saw her take on the Decay. I don’t know much about it, except it takes a head or two from the herds once in a while, and then we have to call out the rangers.”
So Rusza told the story about the source of Decay that had been in the capital. The Demyans listened with varying reactions to that story, but then he told Orrin Pradta’s story. Ma was crying before he was halfway into it, and Tim looked somber. After he related the finding and retrieving of Orrin’s body, he went straight to the attack on Leeward harbor. He felt he was telling it poorly, going back when he remembered important details and losing the thread of the story several times, but Tim’s questions helped him keep returning to the point.
“You mean to tell me,” Pa said at one point, “that this Taivas woman froze the harbor over with her sympathy?”
Rusza nodded. “Yessir, she did. Even when I set fire to the ship to burn out the Decay, she didn’t let the ice under us thaw out. That’s how powerful her sympathy is.”
“Really,” said Irina, “you’re trying to make me jealous, aren’t you, Rusza? Talking so much about this woman, praising her to the skies!”
“It’s just the truth,” Rusza began, but Tim broke in.
“Irina, the grownups are talking, so shut your mouth and listen.”
“Can she play any instruments?” Irina asked.
Rusza considered the question for a few seconds. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen her play anything.”
“Can she sing?”
Again, Rusza had to say, “I don’t know.”
“Can she draw, or embroider, or cook? You talk about how impressive she is, but it sounds like all she knows how to do is fight. She’s really just like a man, isn’t she?”
Tim laughed. “You’ve seen her, Irina. So’ve I. There’s no man alive with a chest like that.”
“I never noticed,” Irina said and sniffed.
“You might not, but any man would. Am I right, brother?” Tim appealed to Rusza.
Rusza leaned over and smacked Tim across the back of the head. “That’s disrespectful to her.” He did have to admit, however, “But it must be said that, once or twice, I blacked out for failing to tap out of a choke hold on account of that… feature,” he said carefully. “It’s very distracting against the side of your face.”
Tim guffawed. “I bet.”
“But like I said, it’s disrespectful to her to talk like that, so don’t.” Rusza changed the subject back to what he knew about the Decay. “That time at Leeward harbor, I saw close-up what the Decay can do to a person. I saw a kid, maybe my age, jump from the upper deck of the ship and splatter on the ice, and the Decay infecting him still made him try to crawl at us.”
Ma Demyan cried out softly in horror.
“It was bubbling out of his mouth and his nose.” Rusza saw it all again in his head. “His eyes were just… gone. Just that orange-brown goop running out of the empty sockets.” He shuddered. “My dad always talks about the first time he saw an infected person, and I never got why he still thought about it all these years later… but I get it now. You can’t forget it. It’s such a disgusting, frightening sight that it stays in your head.”
“What did they do with him?” Mendeley asked.
“When they’re that far infected, there’s just one thing that can be done with them: you have to burn the body at a high enough temperature that the Decay is destroyed.”
“Has anyone ever survived being attacked?” asked Tim.
“Yeah. Sanna’s uncle Axel Taivas was attacked by the Decay the night their village was destroyed. It had him by the foot, and Sanna saved him by taking her camping axe and chopping off his leg at the knee.”
Irina and Ma cried out in repulsion, but Pa said, “Like when you’re out riding the fences and you get down to check something; you fall or get caught in a trap. Happened to my cousin. He had to cut off his own foot with his pocket knife to get out of a bear trap. Crawled five miles before he found a neighbor to help him. Takes nerve.”
“I don’t know how she keeps going,” Rusza admitted. “She’s just that strong. That time, the first time I saw a late-stage infection up close, I made it back to base as far as the mess hall, threw up on the floor, and got taken to the infirmary for rest. But Sanna, she keeps going.”
Irina sniffed. “She talks like a granny. She was sitting with an electric blanket on her lap, just like Granny Mara used to do.”
“Electric blanket?” Rusza thought back, but all he could remember clearly was the hard stare Sanna gave him when she kicked them out. That brought back the last three words he had heard her whisper: Don’t come back. He breathed a quiet, discouraged sigh.
“She’s no fun.”
“Sanna is serious,” Rusza admitted. “Maybe it just comes from being older, and seeing a lot of terrible things. She takes things very seriously.”
“She’s no fun,” Irina emphasized. “And what was her problem, telling me to apologize to a little kid when I never did anything to him?”
“Irina,” Rusza said with all the patience he could gather, “you tackled me across the gut and pushed Soren when you did it. He ended up with rug burn all across his wrist.”
“I was just playing, just like you.”
“I was playing with Soren,” Rusza said. “You were just horsing around. Sanna is really kind, but she won’t put up with anybody who hurts her family. Especially Soren. You know how you are to your dad?”
Pa Demyan nodded. “My little girl, my precious girl.”
“Well, Soren is like that to Sanna. She calls him her joy. Think of what your dad would do if somebody shoved you and knocked you sprawling so you got scraped up. Sanna was going easy on us. You never even apologized to him,” Rusza said. “I still need to apologize to him myself. Poor kid.”
“What poor kid?” Irina said. “He gets pampered.”
“No, he doesn’t. Sanna is strict with him too. I think she’s taking special care raising him because his parents are both dead.”
“What,” Pa Demyan said, “she isn’t his mother?”
“No.” Rusza had to shake himself inwardly to avoid remembering the conversation with Sanna about children, and about his mother. “Soren and his sister Fiola are her cousins by marriage. They lost their parents, so Sanna has guardianship of them.”
“She must work very hard,” Ma Demyan murmured.
Irina stood up. “I’m tired of all this talking. Let’s have some music. I want to dance with Rusza.” She went to the radio and switched it on. The program currently playing sounded like an organ recital.
“Good luck dancing to that,” Tim said.
Irina switched it off irritably, but her mother said, “Oh, don’t— it sounded so lovely.” So Irina switched the radio back on, flounced to her chair, and took up her needlework project.
That night, after lights out, Tim said, “So, this Sanna Taivas… I’m thinking, next time we’re down for a social, I might ask her to walk out with me.”
“What’s so surprising about that? She sounds like a good woman, I’m looking for a good woman, and I do like curves. We should talk, see if we get along together. A strong, devout woman with plenty of nerve is just what a man needs, living out here in mountain country.”
Rusza found himself saying, “I don’t think that would work.”
“Why not? Nothing wrong with me, is there?”
“No, no, it’s just, Sanna has to travel. I mean, her sympathy is so strong, she can’t settle down in one place.”
“What do you mean, can’t settle? What’s her sympathy got to do with it?”
So Rusza explained how Sanna’s thermal energy sympathy had been proven to change the weather wherever she went, and how Uncle Everard had made a plan to keep that from happening. “I think she’s probably headed for South Territory next, after she finishes working with Polestar Company.”
“All this traveling,” Tim said with a sigh. “Say, that reminds me: you like traveling?”
“What do you like about it?”
Rusza didn’t need to think about it. “Seeing new places and meeting new people. It’s never boring.”
Tim was silent for a few moments. Then he said, “Are you really willing to give that up to work on the ranch?”
The doorknob twisted. Tim barked, “Go to bed, Irina, I mean it! Your own bed!” so loudly that Rusza jumped. As if it hadn’t happened, Tim went on to say, “Yeah, give it up. Irina will never want to travel. She hates traveling. I like you, Tate. I think she’s lucky she has you, but are you really going to be happy on the ranch? You come from a farming family. That can’t be much different than ranching. You don’t get vacations. We might go down to town for a few hours once or twice a week, but that’s it.” He waited through the silence. “Just thought I’d ask. It’s something to think on.”
Rusza was beginning to do just that when Tim started talking again. “You said that Sanna Taivas’ sympathy is strong enough to change the weather. You think maybe this cold snap is because of her?”
“I don’t know,” Rusza admitted. “I thought it took some time for the effect to kick in. I’ve heard that cold weather is hard on her. Just like I never really get cold, she never really gets warm.” He was thinking about what Irina had said, about Sanna sitting with an electric blanket over her legs. It was something he had never seen happen before. She had not been like herself, not when he and Irina had visited nor on the day after. The thought left him restless.
He was awake early again the following morning. The thought was growing on him that he should check on Sanna, just in case. He lit the room just enough to see what he was doing but not so much that he woke Tim. Once he was dressed, Rusza moved the chair and let himself out into the hallway.
Ma Demyan was the only one up. She was bustling around the kitchen, laying out breakfast ingredients. When she saw Rusza, she said, “You must be hungry. Let me get you something to eat.”
“Irina isn’t up yet?” he asked.
“Goodness, no,” was Ma’s reply, “she’s rarely out of bed before sunup… only when she has a friend to stay, and not always then, as you can see.” She cracked eggs into a hot skillet. Then she poured him a cup of black tea. “I expect you have to head back today.”
“Mm,” Rusza said as he added a cube of sugar and a splash of cream to his tea.
“It isn’t good for you to give way to Irina all the time,” she said, “without a thought for yourself. I expect Major Rurik is as kind as any man, but I don’t want you to get in too much trouble.”
“Thanks,” Rusza said as she slid a plate of eggs and buttered toast in front of him.
Ma Demyan had sausages in the skillet now. The enticing aroma appeared to conjure Tim from the bedroom hallway. “Morning, Ma.” He dropped into the chair next to Rusza.
“I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“Not really, but the room got cold after you left. You’re like a giant space heater.” Tim accepted a cup of tea from his mother and started sipping it straight. “Help me fix one of the trucks, and I’ll drive you back to town.”
“Oh, thanks,” Rusza said. “Are all of them broken down?”
“Pa said he tried all of them after the cold snap hit,” said Tim, “so it’s a surety that at least two of the three are flooded. Pa’s got animal sympathy. Mechanical things are a total mystery to him.”
“Don’t you have animal sympathy too?”
“Sure, but I did my four years. Zenith Company taught me how to maintain vehicles.” Then the first plate full of food landed on the table in front of Tim, and he said nothing more until he had eaten his fill.
Tim led the way to the barn he called the machine shed. There they found Gavin trying to mend part of the milking machine. “What broke?” Tim asked, taking the part from his elder brother. “I’ll have a look at it. You keep on by hand until it’s fixed. Shouldn’t take long.”
“Zenith Company never taught you to fix milking equipment,” Rusza said.
“No, that’s just self-study and lots of practice. Gavin’s worse with machines than Pa. Why don’t you pick a truck and warm it up?”
Rusza went to the three farm trucks parked at the back of the barn. He chose the smallest one, got in, and tried to start it.
“No,” Tim called out without looking, “I mean, warm it up. Raise its temperature.”
So Rusza focused on radiating heat while he sat in the driver’s seat. When the interior was so warm that Rusza dripped sweat, he got out and raised the hood to focus heat around the engine.
A side door slammed. Tim was returning without the broken part. “That takes care of Gavin.” He paused, shrugged out of his heavy coat, and laughed. “It’s nearly hot in here. You’re amazing, brother. Let me take a look now.” He leaned over the exposed engine.
Rusza, knowing he would be of little use, backed away to watch.
“You want to know what’s sad?” Tim remarked. “I don’t need to check. I already know. I tell Pa not to pump the fuel pedal, but he never listens.” He started pulling spark plugs, checking each one carefully and cleaning them before replacing them. One he had to replace altogether. Then he got into the driver’s seat, leaving the door open. “You know how to clear a flooded engine?”
“Grandpa usually takes care of the truck himself,” Rusza said.
“Open the throttle,” Tim said. “It just needs aired out.” He cranked the engine, which complained for a while before it turned over and roared to life. “That went faster than usual,” Tim said, “thanks to your heat. Can you help me with the others, while we’re at it?”
As it turned out, all three trucks were flooded. Tim had Rusza do the third one, spark plugs and all, “for the experience.”
Pa Demyan leaned inside the side door of the barn. “There you two are,” he said. “Got them fixed, Tim? Good. Let’s get the stock fed. This drain on our hay supplies is going to be expensive…”
Because his hands were already dirty, Rusza joined the men of the house in the morning chores. He forked hay, shoveled manure, and helped exercise the horses. This meant grooming the horses, a task he had only just begun to learn. Gavin came alongside him, more from anxiety for the animals than helpfulness, to guide Rusza through this work.
It was toward the end of the grooming that disaster struck. Rusza walked too close around one of the horses just as it lifted its tail to urinate. He exclaimed in alarm but was too slow to get out of the way unscathed. Not only did he get urine spattered all the way down his sleeve from the elbow to the wrist, but in the attempt to evade, he trod in a pile of fresh manure and slipped.
Tim burst out laughing. “You’re a mess,” he said, hauling Rusza back to his feet. “You better go up and let Ma clean you off.”
So Rusza made the shame-faced walk back to the ranch house, to the back door instead of the kitchen door. He looked down at himself in disgust. His coat he peeled off and dropped in the utility sink.
From behind, a pair of slender arms slipped around his chest. “Guess who!” Irina said.
“Somebody brave,” Rusza said, “to be hugging a man who just got peed on by a horse and then fell on his backside in a pile of manure.”
Irina squealed and ran away, complaining about having to wash up and change clothes so early in the morning.
Rusza just grinned. He decided, since the cuff of his shirt was also soiled, he would put all his outer clothes in the washing machine and take a full shower. He sneaked down the hall in his underwear, avoiding contact with either of the two ladies of the house, and gathered up a spare pair of pants, a shirt, and a belt from Tim’s wardrobe on the way to the second bathroom.
Washed and dressed in borrowed clothes, Rusza hurried back to the laundry room, only to find his clothes already in the wash. When he went to the kitchen, he found Ma Demyan putting out cake and tea. “Did you start my clothes washing, Ma?” Rusza asked.
“I heard Irina,” she said. “Sounds like you met with an accident. You aren’t hurt, are you?”
“Just my dignity,” Rusza assured her.
It was more than an hour until his clothes were clean and dry again. By then, Irina had latched onto Rusza’s arm, and it took Tim’s direct physical intervention to pry her off so that Rusza could change in modesty. Then Ma said, “You’ll stay to lunch, won’t you? I’d greatly admire hearing a few more of your stories.” To this, Irina said, “He certainly will stay to lunch, but no more stories about that Taivas granny, all right, Rusza?” and cuddled against his side under his right arm.
During lunch, he told them about the sights of Cavern, the climatology school on a cliff, the grand public meeting house and the tiny wooden one, and the massive Co-op. This last made him falter in his speech, reminding him as it did of something he would have rather forgotten. In the pause, Pa started talking of his one visit to Fortress in West Territory, the only time he had ever had reason to leave Northwest Territory. This gave Rusza a chance to catch up on his eating, but it also reminded him that Uncle Everard’s students, including him, were likely due to leave Sawtooth Ridge soon. That in turn reminded him of his expired leave. He ate faster.
After the table was cleared, Rusza stood up. “I’ve really enjoyed your hospitality,” he said to Pa and Ma Demyan equally, “but it’s past time I should get back to my duties.”
“No!” Irina wrapped her arms around his chest again. “Don’t go!”
“I have to,” Rusza said.
“Major Rurik won’t care,” she continued.
“He might not,” Rusza replied dubiously, “but Un— Father Locke is strict. He’s already upset with me.”
“It’s none of his business what you do,” Irina protested.
“None of his— he’s in charge of the whole army,” Rusza laughed. “It’s totally his business when a trainee goes out on leave and doesn’t come back. It’s called desertion. People get tossed into prison for it.”
“Then quit the army,” Irina said.
“Quit? I can’t quit. I’m in my four obligatory years of service. Don’t you know what obligatory means? I have to see it through. Everybody has to.”
“No, they don’t. Pa never had to, so why should you? You just don’t love me enough—”
Before Rusza could summon the words to reassure her, Tim said, “Now you’re just having a tantrum, Irina. Quit it. It’s embarrassing. I’m driving him back, Ma, so tell me if you want anything from the stores. I’ll pick it up for you.”
“Oh, thank you, Tim, that’s good of you to offer. Give me a moment. I’ll get my list and some cake for you two to take with you.” Ma’s haste was genuine. She thrust into Tim’s hands a slip of paper and two paper-wrapped cubes in less than a minute. She turned to Irina, who was crying, and said, “We’ll be in town three days from now, my sweet, and you’ll be together then. No need for tears, now.” And with this, she pulled Irina off Rusza and led her away into the sitting room.
Dazed, Rusza found himself in the passenger seat of the smallest farm truck. Tim was saying, “Good old Ma. I hoped she’d help us with Irina. It was cute when she was little, but I’m not finding it so cute now that she’s grown. Maybe we’ve spoiled her too much,” he allowed. “But it’s hard to say no to your only baby sister.”
Something was nagging at Rusza. “What did she mean about Pa never having to do obligatory service? That is what she said, wasn’t it?”
“Yep,” Tim said.
“But… it’s obligatory. Everybody has to do it.”
“That’s how it’s supposed to happen, but they let you file a waiver or a delay or something of the sort,” Tim said, “in case of special circumstances. In Pa’s case, it was on account of Grandpa Boris being handicapped and Pa being the only child.”
“Handicapped? What was the matter with him?”
“Well, with Grandpa Boris it was mainly laziness and drink, if we’re honest, but it was the truth that he wasn’t able to run the ranch. Everything you see there today, Pa built up from a one-room hut and four head of cattle.”
“That’s impressive.” Rusza took a large bite of his cake.
“It just so happened that nobody ever followed up on the waiver, and Pa sure wasn’t about to remind them, so he never did any obligatory four years.”
They drove in silence for a while, each engaged in his own private thoughts, until smoke from the chimneys of Sawtooth Ridge showed on the horizon ahead. “Well,” Tim said, “I’ll drop you off in back of the depot. That’s where the disciplinary cells are. I’ve got on a first-name basis with the MP fellows there, with all the times I’ve had to bring Anton and Rolan to do their stints in solitary. You heard Pa’s philosophy of making the women happy and taking the consequences like a man; the boys take it farther and do whatever they please and take the consequences for it after. Rurik mostly has given up trying to discipline them, but I hear you’re able to tame them down a bit. I appreciate that, brother.”
Rusza had heard so many different alarming things in that one speech that he didn’t know where to begin. He found himself deposited outside a set of heavy steel doors, where a white-haired sentry was saying, “You aren’t one of the Demyan boys. I thought for sure, when I saw Tim pull up, we’d got one of them back.” He checked his clipboard. “You wouldn’t happen to be Rusza Tate, now, would you?”
“This way, son.” The sentry led him indoors to a bare room with a window in one wall and another heavy steel door in the perpendicular wall. “You just empty your pockets into this box and hand your coat on through.” The sentry then passed Rusza through the next security door to a waiting room with three resin chairs bolted to the floor. He left Rusza there alone and went back the way he had come.
An officer entered several minutes later. “This way, Tate.” He escorted Rusza to an office, where he began filling out paperwork that Rusza recognized from processing Uncle Everard’s disciplinary files. “Time of return: 1352,” the officer noted. “That rounds up to fifty hours overdue from leave. Are you familiar with the consequences, Tate?”
“One hour of solitary confinement for every hour AWOL. That’s fifty hours, beginning from the second the cell door closes behind you. You will be provided meals and reading material of your commanding officer’s choice. Any questions?”
“No, sir.” Rusza stood when bidden and followed the military police officer to yet another secure door. This one had a slot in it, covered by a sliding panel. When the officer opened this door and ordered Rusza inside, Rusza found himself standing in an eight foot by six foot room, furnished simply with a bolted-down cot, a toilet, and a sink. The door slammed behind him.