A light tap on the door frame brought Jock’s head upright. “Major Rurik,” he said. “Father should be back in ten minutes. Do you have time to wait?”

“Yep.” The major surveyed his options before claiming a chair by the window, where he looked down at the traffic idly for ten minutes without speaking. The moment Father Everard walked into the office, the major stood to attention. “Sir.”

Father Everard waved him at ease. “I would ask what brings you, but I think I already know. How can I be of assistance?”

“What’s the best way to get through to this kid?”

“Given his social nature,” Father Everard said, “I would have expected solitary confinement to make a deep impression on him. Has it not?”

“I haven’t checked yet. I’ve left him alone for the duration. I’m more than tired of the Demyan family, though, and I want to be sure this kid doesn’t get too influenced by them. I want this discipline to stick with him.”

“We can try what I tried with Mica,” Father Everard offered. “Bring him face to face with those he has offended.”

“Principally you, then,” said the major.

“Not me so much as my students and staff. Jock, speculate for us: what might happen if we left Rusza in a room with Cooper, Tarbengar, Mica, and Shy?”

“That’s hard to calculate,” Jock admitted. “Calder would have something to say, no doubt, and he might or might not attempt to restrain Cooper. Tarbengar would likely ignore Tate. Mica would… to be honest, I’m unsure what Mica would do. His frame of mind, when I last saw him, was unusual, to say the least.”

“Then it’s worth trying. The rest of my staff is due back this afternoon, Julian. When you retrieve Rusza from solitary, feel free to bring him up here. It will free you up to see to your regular duties. Did you ride ahead?”

Major Rurik drew a deep breath and released it. “No. I stayed back. This has me riled. I can handle when they ignore my orders. That just means I need to work with them ’til we come to an understanding, and that just takes time. But this time, this one ignored your orders, given in front of witnesses. That makes Daystar look bad. I want him out of contact with the whole Demyan tribe for a week.”

Father Everard pondered those words. He drew toward him a pad of scratch paper and started to jot notes. “As a strategic exercise, it’s challenging. Obviously, he can’t go back out with you on patrol for that week, since you have the two youngest Demyan boys in your company. That means you must make arrangements to place him temporarily with others. I can’t take full responsibility for him without causing upheaval to my students. What do you propose to do?”

“I’m planning to go to Zenith and ask Marva if he’ll help out. I want this kid kept profitably occupied. Maybe, if he learns more skills, it’ll fill up his empty head a little.”

“In my observations of him, I haven’t found the problem to be lack of knowledge.”

Major Rurik drew another deep breath. “He’s just so easily led.”

“Precisely.”

Jock continued on his own work while the conference went on. He kept an ear open toward it, just in case Father Everard should call on him again. There was too much work to allow him the leisure to attend fully. Ietta was out, running Cooper and Tarbengar through physical training after they had spent the morning helping with paperwork. They were doing well enough at it but, being novices, needed closer supervision. That cut into Jock’s regular work considerably. 

“I want to put a few roadblocks in front of the girl too,” Rurik said suddenly. “I don’t know how, but she needs a significant check to her willfulness. You saw it coming from the start; with your sympathy, Father, you could trip her up.”

“I could,” Father Everard mused, “and would enjoy it. She already thinks of me as an enemy. I can use that.”

“What’s the time? Are you free for lunch, Father? We can discuss this more.”

“I have no appointments. Will you come too, Jock?”

Jock shook his head. “I’d like to get more work done before Ietta brings those two back.”

“I’ll have her trade off,” Father Everard said, “and send her here to help you while I take Cooper and Tarbengar.”

“Thank you, sir.”

As the two men left the office, Jock heard Major Rurik say, “I want to meet the younger Tarbengar. Is he anything like his brother?”

Then it was peaceful. Jock summoned all his concentration and sped through an entire sheaf of training requests, sorting them according to his own system for Father Everard to review later. Without distractions to slow him down, he was able to get through the last four days’ requests in short order. He only stopped when he reached the point of labeling the completed work and then realized he had mislaid his pen.

A pen appeared in front of his eyes. “Looking for this?” Ietta was behind him.

“When did you come in?”

“Oh, a good ten minutes ago, at the very least,” she said. “You were in overdrive, so I thought I shouldn’t interrupt. These are yesterday’s disciplinary reports: originals and reviews.” She handed him a small stack of papers. “Fortunately, it seems like most of the army was behaving itself yesterday.”

“Day before yesterday,” Jock corrected her.

“Whatever. What do you need next?”

“Let’s sort out the oldest disciplinary reports first. That stack,” he gestured toward a ragged, leaning pile of papers, “got knocked over yesterday when Tarbengar’s cub rammed into the desk, so it all needs to be resorted into separate dates.”

“Speaking of dates,” his wife said, “when are we going to go out together, just for a relaxing evening? You’re overworked.”

“After the rest of the staff gets back, and no earlier,” Jock replied.

“Funny how it’s actually more work, having untrained people try to help you.”

Jock grunted. “‘Funny’ wouldn’t be my choice of words.”

Ietta got up again and wrapped her arms around his neck from behind. “You need to take a few moments and breathe, Jock. It isn’t good for you, all this stress. Come on: I won’t let go and let you get back to work until you do it. That’s my boy.”

Breathing deeply and slowly did seem to help Jock’s mind clear. He patted his wife’s hand. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” 

They went back to work, sorting the messy stack of documents into three orderly stacks. By the time Father Everard returned with the two remaining students, only one of these stacks still had to be sorted out.

“Jock,” said Father Everard, “you’re a marvel.”

“Ietta helped.”

“Barely,” Ietta retorted. “You’re still a marvel.”

Tarbengar began saying, “I am very sorry, Lieutenant Jock, for making your work harder…”

But Jock said, “It wasn’t your fault, Tarbengar, so don’t let it worry you.” Jock did eye the cub as it leaned against Tarbengar’s shin, but it showed no sign of bolting toward the table again.

“In order not to get in Jock’s way,” Father Everard said, “I want to talk with you two boys about your thoughts for the future. Since you two are the last ones left of this student group, I intend to put together another group after New Year’s. Do you want to be part of that group, or do you have something else in mind?”

“New group,” said Cooper immediately. “I’m learning more with you than I could anywhere else, sir.”

Tarbengar was slower to voice his thoughts, but he too said, “I would like to continue with you, Father Locke, if that is all right. But… will I be able to visit my family over New Year’s?”

“Yes, certainly. I always take three weeks to spend with my family at the beginning of the year, barring emergencies. You can have those three weeks to return to West Territory. My next student group will have as its focus an area of specialization known as disposal intelligence. It’s an undervalued area of expertise that does exactly what it says: it provides disposal companies with information about known Decay manifestations and trafficking. You sounded as though you might be interested in the investigation side of disposal work, Cooper,” Father Everard said.

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ll get the chance to know as much about it as you want, possibly more than you want.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“And Tarbengar, since you seem to be struggling to find your direction, I want you to see more possibilities for someone with your sympathy and temperament. Eventually, something will resonate with you.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Father Everard set the two students reading, Cooper a report on known Decay merchants and Tarbengar a biography. This had the dual benefit of keeping them both quiet for a time and keeping them out from under Jock’s feet while he finished clearing up the late paperwork.

It was, in fact, so quiet in the office that the two sets of approaching footsteps were unmistakable. Jock checked the time: 1410. He glanced at Father Everard, who silently indicated for him to keep working and say nothing.

Major Rurik’s voice first broke through the quiet. “Father Locke, here he is. Thanks for helping me out with this.”

“You’re welcome, Julian. When will you be back to collect him?”

“At 1600 hours, sir.”

Jock did not look up from his work, but he could sense a sudden tumult of thoughts from the direction of the two students. No one spoke, as if they had a prearranged agreement not to acknowledge Rusza Tate.

“Sit down, Tate,” said Father Everard. His tone was level, as if he spoke to comparative stranger instead of his own best friend’s son.

“Yes, sir.” Tate’s tone was subdued. He obeyed, and after several minutes of continued silence, he asked, “Is there anything I can help with?”

“I have a policy of not allowing recent disciplinary cases to handle confidential information,” said Father Everard, “but I do have some work for you, if you feel the need to occupy yourself with something. Jock, do you still have that pile of correspondence?”

Jock understood immediately. “Yes, sir.” He reached across his current work to retrieve an inch-thick stack of papers. He brought them to where Tate sat at the student table.

Tate took them gratefully, but his expression changed to perplexity when he looked at the papers.

“That,” said Father Everard with slight emphasis, “is your own unanswered mail. I want you to read and answer each one in order, even where there is more than one letter from the same person. Answer each one as if you had answered it when it first arrived.”

After a long hesitation, Tate replied, “Yes, sir.” He started to read the first letter.

For a time again, it was quiet. The turmoil of thoughts subsided as Cooper and Tarbengar went back to their reading. Jock focused on his own work and was able to block out what remained of the turmoil.

It seemed that, once begun, Tate made quick work of processing his correspondence. He produced a stack of letters almost the size of the one he had been handed. “What do I do next… Father Locke?”

“Post them,” said Father Everard with mild sarcasm. “Cooper, you remember where the outgoing mail packets are kept? Would you bring one here?”

“As long as you’re the one asking, sir,” said Cooper. He laid aside his report and left the room for several seconds. He came back and dropped a zippered canvas envelope on the table where Jock was working, then crossed the office to sit at the same table as Tate.

Jock watched as Tate looked from Cooper to the packet. Tate stood slowly and crossed to take the packet back to the student table. He put all his responses in the packet, zipped it, and wrote carefully on the destination label. He then rose again and set the outgoing packet in the box with Father Everard’s outgoing mail packet. He seemed to be summoning thoughts as he did so, and when he returned to the student table, he spoke in a hushed voice that was probably meant to be private. “Look, I’m sorry about that time, Kumquat—”

“Hey,” Cooper said sharply, “the guy that used to be able to call me that isn’t here anymore. My name is Anion Cooper, Trainee Tate, in case you forgot. You don’t have the right to call me anything but that.”

Tate was sufficiently taken aback that he abandoned his attempt to speak. He simply sat down and stared toward the window.

Cooper went back to his assigned reading. Soon afterwards, he finished it and brought it back to Father Everard. “That’s… amazing,” he said, “in a scary way. Can’t anyone predict the manifestations more accurately?”

“That is one of the chief difficulties,” Father Everard replied. “You’ll need to wait until we meet with South Territory’s Department of Intelligence to gain a fuller grasp of the difficulties, but this gives you an initial idea. Tracking the movements of known merchants can only do so much, because… why do you suppose that is, Cooper? Speculate.”

“Natural seedings?”

“There is that, but there’s another factor: unknown merchants. We have no way to identify a merchant until he or she is caught in the act. I’ve heard hypotheses from some of our best intelligence officers, saying that we’re able to identify less than ten percent of active Decay traffickers at any given moment. There are suppliers working in our territories that we still don’t suspect. It’s entirely possible that the manifestation responsible for the landslide here was seeded by an independent trafficker who got infected by his own wares. It’s also possible that the seedbed was a traveler who bought a supply of the Decay from a merchant who is still at large in the area, free to continue trafficking. We simply have no way to know.”

“Out here?” Cooper said in a shocked voice.

“It doesn’t seem to you a likely place?” Father Everard shot back. “But that is the issue here: it can happen anywhere. It does happen anywhere. Some regions are statistically less significant, but every incident is deadly. Statistical insignificance is not the same as intrinsic insignificance. I would have expected Sky-wind to have taught you that.”

“Yes, sir,” Cooper said firmly.

“One of our major handicaps is the pervasive unwillingness among our own population to take the threat seriously enough to take action. Too many people choose the easiest option for their four years’ service and then return to their private lives, refusing to fight. Others say that it doesn’t affect them, that only a few of the victims are our own citizens, so it shouldn’t be our responsibility to fight. Some even say the obligatory service tradition is unjust and should be abolished, so that no one has to serve unless he or she truly wants to serve. A few even seek to evade service altogether because they don’t believe that the army does anything but interfere in people’s private lives.”

“There are people like that?” Cooper exclaimed. 

“Several,” said Father Everard. “Ask Tarbengar.”

The other student, who had set aside his reading when Father Everard had started to speak, responded, “Yes, I have heard some argument even in my own village. Some do say that it is enough for us to defend our own village in our daily lives, so why should we send our young people to Fortress for four years? They call them wasted years, seeing no value in contributing to the safety of the territorial center. When I accepted Father Locke’s invitation to study with this group, I was told by one man that nothing I learned outside the village would ever be of use to me.”

“Whoa,” said Cooper, “what did you say to him?”

“Nothing. At the time, I myself could not see what use it would be to me, but I didn’t want to offend Father Locke by refusing. Since then…” Tarbengar showed every sign of troubled thoughts. “Since then,” he resumed, “through some of those I have met, I have seen differently. Corporal Tezelin was right to warn me. I might not be able to go back home.”

Father Everard said, “New Year’s will give you the chance to put that to the test.”

“New Year’s?” Tate spoke suddenly.

“Yes,” said Father Everard. “My staff and my students and I will be departing Northwest Territory in order to spend New Year’s with our families. But that need not concern you, Tate, since you’ve no longer one of my students.”

“Since when?” Tate was clearly shocked.

“Since you agreed to transfer to Daystar Company. I clearly recall that you were eager to make the transfer, on account of the two brothers of Miss Demyan, whom you hadn’t yet met.”

“But I didn’t think—”

“No, I suppose you didn’t think, but that is Major Rurik’s problem to deal with for the next three and a half years… not mine.” Father Everard turned to ask Tarbengar a few comprehension questions about the biography he was reading, and Jock watched as  Tate lapsed into confused thought. Without hearing the boy speak, Jock could not discern the exact nature of those thoughts, but they were certainly conflicted thoughts.

At 1500, Everard sent Jock out for a break. Ietta accompanied him to the mess hall for an early supper. They had not been able to sit quietly together for a meal since the visit to Cavern. It was a pleasant interlude, although Ietta’s lackluster appetite worried Jock. She tried to brush his concerns off, but he kept on until she admitted to being slightly nauseated.

“It’s the pregnancy hormones, isn’t it,” Jock said. “You should rest.”

“I don’t need rest,” she snapped. Then she pulled herself up straight. “Sorry. The tension in the office puts me in a bad mood.”

Jock refrained from attributing her mood to the pregnancy hormones also— at least, he refrained from voicing the thought. He ate his own food quickly and suggested a short stroll around the depot. Ietta took his hand, and they strolled like they were newlyweds again.

As they turned their steps back toward the office, Ietta said, “They’re back!” She pulled Jock by the hand in pursuit of three people walking ahead of them. “Wyeth!”

One of the three stopped and turned. Dr. Rao looked weary but cheerful. “The Lieutenants Knox! How have things gone for you?”

“We’re fine,” Ietta declared. “Welcome back. How was she?”

“Stable,” Dr. Rao said. “We put them on the supply convoy headed to Current-town yesterday morning, and one of the capital adjusters volunteered to take vacation time to escort her, just in case.”

“What a relief,” said Ietta. “We’re just on our way back to the office from an early supper.”

When they arrived at the office, Mica said, “What is he doing here?”

“Trainee Tate of Daystar Company is still under restrictions for violating the terms of his leave,” said Father Everard mildly. “His commanding officer had business to attend to and asked if I would supervise Tate until that business was resolved. Now, Wyeth, I want to hear your full report, starting from the diagnosis given at the hospital.”

Jock saw Rusza Tate’s head jerk upwards at these words. The boy was focused now, his thoughts full of misgivings.

“They basically confirmed what I guessed,” Dr. Rao began. “A secondary phase of development. For the near future, Sanna must receive a daily adjustment regardless of her perceived condition. It probably will settle down within a few months, provided she can maintain her emotional stability. Most times, a secondary phase is short-lived. Once we heard that, we made arrangements for their transportation. The weekly supply convoy happened to have enough spaces open for her whole group, plus the adjuster who volunteered to accompany her to Current-town. They aren’t going to rush, so they ought to reach Current-town by mid-afternoon tomorrow. I gave Moor instructions to put a call through to you here after they’ve settled in.”

“Good. That’s better news than I hoped,” said Father Everard. “Especially an adjuster escort.”

“It was Edie, Dr. Edie Grey. She said she had vacation time due her, and she wanted a little southern heat to enjoy before the winter weather got any worse.”

Suddenly, Father Everard turned his gaze upon Tate. “Do you have something you wish to say, Tate?”

Startled, Tate said, “…So Sanna left already? And Moor?”

“Yes. Corporal Taivas suffered a sympathy crisis four days ago, almost five, and came dangerously close to going into cycle. Dr. Rao, Sergeant Major Calder, and Mica are just returned from escorting her and her group to the capital’s main hospital for treatment and transfer to South Territory.”

“Crisis,” Tate repeated numbly.

“Yes, crisis,” said Father Everard. “It had already begun when, as I understand, you visited Corporal Taivas last. I find it curious that you didn’t notice, given that you have the same sympathy.”

Dr. Rao stepped toward Father Everard. “Do you need me?”

“No, I am under control.”

Tate looked around the room. He must have noticed that there were no friendly eyes among the whole group, because he grew instantly defensive. “I’ve been… distracted lately,” he protested. “I admit that. I should have noticed, but… she never said anything!”

“Anybody with eyes could see she wasn’t all right,” Mica said in a tightly-controlled voice.

Tate replied, “I’m sorry! But it’s all right now. She’s all right now, isn’t she? She didn’t need my help.”

“Sure,” said Cooper, “why should the great Rusza Tate take time out of his social schedule to help anyone.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Tate snapped back, “and I already told you I was sorry!”

“Oh, that was supposed to be an apology? I only heard an excuse coming, like, Sorry, I couldn’t help it. You aren’t sorry about anything you’ve done. You just want everybody to say, Oh, that’s all right. Well, it isn’t all right. You’ve been nothing but a jerk since you met her.”

“Listen, Cooper,” said Tate in an obvious attempt at self-control, “haven’t you ever been in love?”

“Not with a slut,” Cooper fired back.

Tate lunged at the smaller trainee, who ducked under his punch and headbutted Tate in the stomach. The table went over sideways with a crash as Tarbengar and Mica leaped into the fray. Jock hustled Ietta out into the corridor for safety. When he turned back, he saw the fight over already and Father Everard standing in the midst of the brawlers. Tate sat half-sprawled on the floor, covering his face with both hands as blood ran between his fingers. Tarbengar was restraining Cooper, and Mica leaned heavily against Father Everard’s desk.

“Mica,” said Father Everard, “I expect better of you. You can’t afford another mark on your record, so restrain yourself. Cooper, choose your words more judiciously, unless you have incontrovertible evidence that the young woman in question is as sexually promiscuous as the term ‘slut’ implies. Tarbengar, would you set the table to rights? And Tate, consider yourself as having had a lucky escape.”

Tate groaned. “How is this lucky?” he complained.

“Because Sanna Taivas isn’t my daughter, you’ve had your lucky escape. If she were my daughter, I would have dragged you out back, in the southern Outsider tradition of my youth, and beaten you bloody until you couldn’t move. Then I would have dragged your carcass in front of her and dropped you at her feet so that you could apologize for your poor treatment of her, and then I would have dragged you back outside, at which point you would never be allowed to go near her ever again. Instead, you escape with a bloody nose and a few minor bruises. Consider yourself blessed.”

As Tarbengar put the table back on its four legs, Tate got up from the floor. He righted his own chair, grabbed the trash can, and sat down, bending over the can as the blood flowed. He muttered, “Cooper I get, but why did you hit me? Right in the face!” He cocked a bloodshot eye towards Mica.

“I couldn’t help it,” Mica said bitterly, “haven’t you ever been in love?”

Jock shot a quick look at Father Everard, who had frozen in the act of seating himself. “Mica?” he said softly. “Maybe you should report too.”

“Yes, sir. I asked Sanna to marry me.”

Everyone but Dr. Rao and Calder stopped and stared. Ietta said, “Then, congratulations…”

But Mica said, “No. She refused me. She said her sympathy was too dangerous to me. She said she decided never to marry, but to focus on her school.”

“‘She said,'” Father Everard repeated. “Then her thoughts didn’t match?”

“She thought I asked her out of pity,” said Mica in anger. “She’s convinced no man could ever love her, because she isn’t pretty and delicate and feminine.” He glared toward Tate.

“What makes her think that?” Tate said in genuine incomprehension. 

“Why don’t you think about that for a while,” Mica snapped. “In fact, why don’t you just try thinking at all for a change, you ass, instead of chasing after your lusts. I swear by the Only One, I want to punch you again, but Dad is right. I can’t afford to risk what reputation I still have. I promised her that I would make it so she wouldn’t be ashamed of me because of what I did in the past. I haven’t given up. I’ll find a way.”

“Good luck,” said Cooper. “That Taivas, she deserves a good guy.”

In the silence that followed, Father Everard just studied his son with thoughtful eyes. Then he said, “You three need rest. Take the rest of the day to restore yourselves as you see fit.” With that, he sent the travelers away. “Cooper, I have two more related documents, if you want more information on the trafficking problem.”

“Yes, sir, thank you.” Cooper already had a swelling welt above his left eye. He took the two white papers and settled in to read, as if he hadn’t just been in a brawl.

Tarbengar opened his assigned book again, but his thoughts were elsewhere. He often glanced toward Tate, opened his mouth as if to speak, and abandoned the attempt in the next instant.

At 1600, Major Rurik appeared in the doorway. He gazed in a momentary reverie at Tate and Cooper. “Did I miss the excitement, sir?”

“Nothing worth bothering to document,” said Father Everard. “He’s all yours.”

Right. Let’s go, Tate. You need to wash your face. People will think I’ve taken to beating my AWOL men. Let’s go, Tate. Tate!”

Tate started from his own reverie. “Sir.” He got up and followed the major out.

What remained of the day passed uneventfully, except that Ietta was sick before bedtime. Jock ministered to her as best he could, which mainly consisted of holding her hair back whenever she vomited and holding her hand the rest of the time. She finally was able to sleep by 2300 hours, so Jock slept too.

The next morning, he examined her eyes carefully as he asked her how she felt, but he detected no false layer of thought beneath her sassy assurance that she felt much better for a night in bed with him.

At the office, they found only Sergeant Major Calder at his meditations. “Father Everard said he would take Cooper and Tarbengar for the morning training today,” he said to Ietta, “to give you a rest.”

“That’s good of him,” Ietta said. “That frees me up to help here. What do you need me to do, Jock?”

Jock divided the morning mail and gave her the training requests to sort while he took the disciplinary reports and miscellaneous correspondence. This kept both of them occupied for the better part of forty-five minutes. 

Dr. Rao joined them just after the top of the hour. She brought with her a boxed breakfast for Calder, who chose never to eat in crowded eateries if he could help it. Ietta showed interest in the breakfast, especially in the egg sandwich it contained, so Jock took a break from his work to run down to the mess hall for another such sandwich. By the time he returned, he found Ietta listening raptly to Dr. Rao’s account of Mica’s proposal. “Shy was so shocked,” the doctor said, “that he walked straight into a chair and bruised his shin, but Mica was so focused, I don’t think he even noticed us there.”

“I can believe you were shocked,” Ietta said to Calder. “I definitely was. Somehow, I never thought of Mica Locke as someone to fall in love. It took me months to get Jock’s attention, trying my hardest, and I hear from Mother Coralie that it was the same for her and Father.”

“Ah, but Mica has his mother’s sensitive nature,” Dr. Rao said. “That makes him hard to predict sometimes.”

“I take that to mean I’m not sensitive,” Jock said as he set out Ietta’s sandwich.

“Not remotely,” Ietta said, “but you’re very considerate. That’s good enough for me.” She kissed him in place of thanks and then started to devour the sandwich with her usual hearty appetite. 

Father Everard brought the two students up after their breakfast. He had a list of tasks for them, mainly involving running messages to other areas of the depot building. Cooper got sent to the records department to retrieve copies of certain soldiers’ files. Tarbengar was assigned a trip to the comm office, to put through a call to the capital’s Government Center for Elder Varmi. Before Tarbengar departed, he hesitated beside Father Everard’s desk. “Sir,” he said, “about yesterday… the word Cooper used… and you said, unless he had evidence…” He was patently uncomfortable.

“Yes,” said Father Everard. “What are your thoughts about it?”

“When I was with Zenith Company… I heard… Sergeant Leonti can provide evidence.”

Father Everard nodded and said, “I see. But it’s Tate’s matter. If he chooses not to pursue the investigation, then we have no reason to do so ourselves. It’s his responsibility, his consequence to bear. Whatever you’ve heard, unless you want to take it up with Tate himself, you must keep to yourself.”

“Yes, sir.” Tarbengar left.

“Not that Tate would listen,” Jock said, “even if he were told.”

“Ah, speaking of not listening, you remind me…” Father Everard went from his desk to a closed door behind Jock’s work table. He tried the knob. It turned without a sound. “Good,” he said, “disused, one desk and chair. Julian thought as much. Jock, would you set this up with the essentials: stationery, pens, envelopes, the usual? I want to use this as an additional workstation for this afternoon.”

“Yes, sir.”

“See if we can get a movable screen to put in front of the door, too.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mica arrived soon after this. He brought four hardcover books, which he set in an out-of-the-way spot on the worktable. “I cannot believe they don’t have a separate medical library at the hospital,” he grumbled, “nor that in the whole army library here, they only have four books on the sympathies— two of them totally outdated.”

“Poor Sanna,” Ietta sighed.

“What do you mean?” Father Everard asked.

“I recognize these signs. Her main objection was the danger her sympathy poses to Mica. Now Mica is studying up on sympathies. That’s a sure sign that he’s going to make a pest of himself. All of you do it, you thought sympathists.”

“Are we that bad?” Father Everard said curiously.

“Oh, yes. You all seem to be convinced that by knowing all about something, you can control it.” Ietta picked up her pregnancy book and waggled it in the air as evidence supporting her argument.

“I won’t be a pest,” Mica said. “I just want to find a way for us to be together safely.”

“Fair enough,” Ietta replied, “as long as you don’t make a pest of yourself to do it.”

The morning passed fairly quickly, with Father Everard determined to compile his next roster of students and have the summonses sent out before the end of the year. Even Dr. Rao got into the spirit, sending Cooper all the way back to the records department for another batch of file copies for her to review. The day outside was overcast with occasional flurries, but the atmosphere in the office had become one of pleasant anticipation. 

Just before lunch, Father Everard announced, “To anyone who would like to accompany me, I will be attending the afternoon reading as well as the evening reading today.” He showed just a hint of mischief beneath this bland announcement, so that Jock had to say, “I’ll go with you.”

“Me too,” said Tarbengar.

“I would,” said Dr. Rao, “but I might fall asleep. I’m still a little off-kilter.”

“I might need a nap too,” Ietta said.

Events so arranged themselves that Father Everard ended up with Jock, Tarbengar, and Calder, who normally attended the earlier reading in order to avoid crowds. Mica and Cooper were still absorbed in their separate researches and seemed unaware of being left behind.

This was probably for the best, because those who did attend found themselves in company with Rusza Tate and Major Rurik. “My company should be riding into town in about an hour,” Rurik said. “Just enough time, I think.” He steered all of them to the front row and placed Tate between him and Father Everard. While Jock and his companions settled themselves in the seats to Father Everard’s left, a clatter of boots startled Jock into looking behind himself.

Several members of Zenith Company were filing into the next row back. Tarbengar’s elder brother was among them. He reached forward to grip Tarbengar by the shoulder briefly as he sat down.

The afternoon reading was attended mainly by the elderly, apart from the two rows of soldiers in the front. It was also somewhat abbreviated, with less standing, to accommodate the infirmities of the elderly. At the end, Major Rurik walked up to the reader. “Pardon us, Chaplain. We’d like to use your back door. It’s closer to where we need to go. You mind?”

“Go ahead.” Chaplain Whitacre smiled as if to acknowledge that, although aware that the major must be up to something, he himself didn’t object to being an accessory to it.

But Father Everard also followed Major Rurik and the Zenith men, and he indicated that his staff should do the same. He followed until the end of the next street, at which point he said, “Until later, Julian,” and led his men back toward the depot building at a jog.

They returned to find Mica and Cooper still reading in the office. “You two need fresh air and activity,” Father Everard told them. “Mica, do you remember the way to David Anzor’s house?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Head down there and ask him if he would start on that project I spoke with him about this morning. That’s all you need to say. He’ll know what you mean. Once you have done that, go to the training facilities and work off some of your stress. I don’t want to see you back here today; meet us at the public meeting hall for the evening readings.” After Mica left, Father Everard said, “Tarbengar, take Cooper down to the Zenith stables and help him practice his riding. Be back in time to clean up for the evening reading.”

When the only ones left in the room were Father Everard, Calder, and himself, Jock asked, “Now why did you need to get them out of the way, sir?”

“You may have your choice of several reasons, Jock. They have been running hot, emotionally speaking, and what I have planned for later won’t help their self-control. It also is not something they are mature enough to witness without taking from it wrong ideas. At the same time, I’m reluctant to expose a person’s faults in front of others who are already critical of that person. Need I go on?”

Jock declined the offer, but he was more perplexed when Elder David Anzor appeared in the office doorway. “May we come in?” Receiving an affirmative response, he entered with a young man who glanced around in some unease. “Father Everard Locke, you’ve met Tim Demyan before, at the last social.”

Father Everard extended a hand. “Yes, but without the benefit of an introduction. Thank you for coming, Tim. I’d like to have a brief chat with you. Come in, Julian.”

Major Rurik was just in the doorway. He entered as bidden, but he said, “I reckon you have maybe five minutes, Father.”

“Thank you. Tim, I have heard that you are the only one in your family who even bothers to attempt to restrain your sister’s behavior.”

The young man’s head drooped forward. “For what good it does, sir.”

“I’ve asked for you to be brought here as a witness.”

“Sir?”

“A witness to the conversation I’m about to have with your sister. I would like you to jot down your thoughts regarding this conversation. Will you? Thank you. Jock, if you’ll settle Tim in the adjoining room…” 

When Jock returned from the next room, Father Everard said, “Just push that screen over so that it mostly covers the door. Just like that, yes. Julian, David, you’re welcome to participate in this conversation as you see fit, as long as you do not mention Rusza Tate’s whereabouts.”

“That’s easy for me,” said Elder Anzor, “since I don’t know.”

“Just make no mention of that either. For all you know, he could be in the next room.”

“Ah.”

They chatted on other topics for a few minutes until Ietta’s voice sounded in the corridor. “And here we are: Father Locke’s office.”

The Demyan girl appeared in the open doorway. Her eyes swept the office. Not seeing what she wanted to see, she demanded, “Where is Rusza?”

Major Rurik replied, “Trainee Tate is on restrictions. He is not allowed any social contact for the next six days. I believe you were informed of that at my office, Miss Demyan.”

“But it’s stupid,” the girl exclaimed. “I want to see him.”

“You will need to wait until next week for that.”

“I don’t want to wait. This is your fault, isn’t it? I know it is.” She turned on Father Everard. “Just because you can’t control him anymore, you’re trying to keep us apart!”

“I have never known anyone able to control Rusza Tate, except for one,” said Father Everard, “and that one certainly was not me.”

“Where is he?” The girl stamped her foot four times rapidly. “Tell me. Tell me this instant!”

Elder Anzor said, “Irina! That’s disrespectful to an elder and a guest in our territory.”

“I don’t care,” she fired back, “he’s just a mean, spiteful old man. But you can never come between me and Rusza. We love each other. Nothing can ever separate us! I’ll have him quit the army. He can work on the ranch with us, and then you won’t be able to order him around anymore.”

“One doesn’t just quit obligatory service, Irina,” said Elder Anzor. 

“He will if I ask him. I can get him to do anything I want. That’s how much he loves me.”

“You tell him to quit his four years,” said Major Rurik, “and that’ll only land him in prison for desertion. Obligatory is obligatory. Everyone has to go through it.”

“Not everyone,” the girl said. “Pa didn’t have to, so Rusza shouldn’t have to either. And he won’t. You just watch. He’ll do anything for me, to make me happy, and if you cared at all, you wouldn’t try to get between us! Horrible, mean old men!”

“How very theatrical. May I ask, for whose benefit are you staging these histrionics? It can’t be for our benefit. Apart from Ietta, we’re all far too old to appreciate them, and as you can see, Rusza Tate is not here.” Father Everard leaned back in his chair, studying the girl as if he had found a unique specimen.

The girl looked to Major Rurik, who lifted a hand and shook his head in denial. “I didn’t bring your boyfriend with me.”

“They said at your office he left with you, and you were headed here.”

“Both are true, but he still isn’t here.” 

But the girl wasn’t listening. She had spotted the screen with the door ajar behind it. Jock looked to Father Everard, who shook his head slightly, so Jock did not get in the way when the girl shoved the screen aside and threw open the door. The girl’s sudden halt at the sight of her brother was almost comical. “Tim? What are you doing here?”

Her brother got up from his chair with a manner that suggested he was deeply weary. “I’m listening to you shame yourself in front of two elders and a company commander.” He took her by the arm and steered her back into the office. “Father Locke, Elder Anzor, Major Rurik… everyone,” he faltered, including the three staff members with his gaze, “I’m sorry for this. May I be excused to take her back to Ma?”

“If that’s what you want,” Father Everard replied.

When the siblings had gone, Major Rurik said, “What will that accomplish?”

“Time will tell,” said Father Everard. 

“Tim is the one with the brains in that family,” said Elder Anzor. “Gavin, the eldest, he only talks to cattle. Mendeley, he’s a hard worker, but he has no decision-making skills. The youngest two…” He sighed.

So did Major Rurik. “So you’re counting on Tim as the sensible one to pull back on the reins?”

“Time will tell,” Father Everard repeated. “Aside from that, David, did you hear something interesting in that melodrama? ‘Pa didn’t have to’ go through obligatory service. Is it true?”

“I don’t know,” Elder Anzor said thoughtfully. “Naturally, I was still just a shopkeeper back then. I can look through the files and check. I do remember something about a deferral. His father wasn’t well, or something like that, and he had to take care of the ranch and his mother.”

“Do you think it possible that he deliberately cheated the obligatory service system?”

Elder Anzor grimaced. “Knowing Laurent Demyan, I can’t say it would surprise me if he did.”

“I think it’s time for a system audit,” Father Everard said. “Jock, get in touch with Sam Terenti’s secretary. Before I leave, I want to set this into motion. From my point of view, this is a serious matter. At best, someone in the trainee management office has been neglectful; at worst, there must be some corruption present, to let something like that slip. I only hope it was just the one case, some twenty years ago. An audit will tell us.”

Jock went down the hall to the in-house call station and checked the directory for the general’s office. He entered the extension number, waited for the duration of one tone, and then heard the secretary speak. “This is Lieutenant Jokulle Knox, calling on behalf of Father Everard Locke. He wishes to meet with General Terenti sometime in the next day or two. Yes… that’s fine. Tomorrow, 0900. Thank you.” He returned to the office to report the appointment.

“Everard, if you don’t mind,” said Elder Anzor, “I’d like to be at that meeting. I know army business isn’t my business, but as an elder, I’d like to keep abreast of this.”

“Sam won’t mind. I don’t mind. Feel free to come.” Father Everard turned his gaze to Major Rurik. “Will you be at the social this evening?”

Rurik shook his head. “I should rescue Gisler Tarbengar. He’s babysitting Tate as we speak. I’ll have a quiet night in, make the boy listen to some orchestral music, maybe teach him a little backgammon. Can’t put him in the barracks, not with the Demyan boys there too, so I’m putting him up in my spare room.” He stood up and stretched his shoulders restlessly. “I’m not used to being idle like this. Maybe, before the radio concert starts tonight, I’ll put Tate through some exercises.”

“Be sure to mind his sympathy,” Father Everard said. “Too much movement, and his mechanical energy will slip.”

“Mechanical energy, eh? I’m not familiar with that one.”

“You can ask him about it. He needs to be reminded from time to time.”

“Are you going to the social?” asked Major Rurik.

Father Everard tipped his head slightly to one side. “I think it might prove interesting this time. At any rate, I have finally, officially entered the ranks of the mean old men, so I think I should enjoy myself.”

“Really, Everard, I’m very sorry that—”

“David,” said Father Everard, “you have no reason to apologize. I set up the situation, and in all honesty, I enjoyed provoking her. I probably shouldn’t have, but there you have it. Will you be there?”

“I feel I ought,” said the elder reluctantly. “See you at the evening reading?”

“Yes, of course.”

After the elder left, Major Rurik said, “You’re going to the evening reading too?”

“I wouldn’t think of missing it,” Father Everard said. “The girl will be there, and naturally she will expect Tate to be there too. I want to see what she does when she’s disappointed in that expectation.”

“You have peculiar ways of entertaining yourself, Father Locke,” said the major, “but have a good time.” He went his way, quietly whistling some complicated strain of music to himself.

After they had finished processing the day’s paperwork, Father Everard said, “Let’s collect everyone and head to the evening reading. You’re feeling well enough, Ietta?”

“Yes, sir. I’m feeling perfectly myself this evening.”

Jock let the two carry the conversation on their own as he walked behind them with Sergeant Major Calder. He listened as Father Everard talked about Mother Coralie’s varying experiences with nausea and cravings from one pregnancy to the next. Next they collected Dr. Rao, looking refreshed after her nap. Mica met them at the exit. He too seemed calmer and more self-controlled than earlier in the day. He said, “I’ve been up in the comm office. The call from Moor came in about half an hour ago. He reports that Sanna weathered the trip well and is resting in the new house. The entirety of Company G showed up to greet her. Moor said she was embarrassed and almost cried, but those two who befriended her before, Wake and Lydbury, practically commandeered her and had her smiling before long.”

“I wondered why I didn’t get any notice of a call,” said Father Everard. “Did Moor say anything about the rest of the Sky-wind group?”

“Only that they were tired of traveling and that they looked forward to staying in one place for the next three months. Nana Friga didn’t handle the traveling very well, he said, but Yeardley already found her a qualified masseuse to help her with her arthritis.”

“He’s resourceful,” Father Everard said. “Good, a good report.” He led the way out to the sidewalk. “Would we rather walk or drive?”

“It’s cold out, but after all the driving I’ve endured these past few days,” said Wyeth, “I’d rather walk and endure the cold.”

“I agree,” said Mica.

Calder said, “Me too.”

“It isn’t that cold,” Ietta said. “We would rather walk.”

The public meeting house was already busy when they arrived. Calder veered off to find some corner where he wouldn’t risk accidentally touching anyone. The rest of their group was completed when they saw Tarbengar towering above the crowd. He saluted them, and Cooper popped up beside him to wave to them. 

“We came early to save seats,” said Cooper, “and good thing. Must be because New Year’s is near.” 

They filed into the row, with Tarbengar and Cooper in the middle of the row and Ietta on the aisle, just in case. Jock, next to Ietta, had only just settled himself into his seat when he heard a familiar, irritating giggle. He twisted around to find the Demyan family walking up the center aisle. The girl was tripping along in high spirits, searching the crowds, giggling at an unnatural volume to draw attention to herself. She waved at this one, called out to that one, but her gaze kept searching and not finding. Then she came abreast of the aisle where Father Everard sat. She made a deliberate sniff of disdain, jerked her head away from them, and flounced away with her family.

Father Everard coughed. Jock saw Ietta bite her upper lip to restrain her own grin.

After her, the brother named Tim paused by Ietta. He bowed his head slightly in Father Everard’s direction. “Evening, sir.” Then he too followed after his family.

Throughout the reading, the Demyan girl kept turning around in her second-row seat to look back over the rest of the crowd. It was probable that no one else in the public meeting house would have noticed Tate’s absence, if it hadn’t been for the girl making her search for him so obvious. As soon as Chaplain Whitacre finished the reading of the day and dismissed the crowd, Irina Demyan was on her feet, taking advantage of the momentary delay to search the congregated faces again. She appeared irritated, but when her father led her out into the main aisle, she emitted that false giggle again and departed with him.

“Are you really going to the social tonight?” said Cooper to Father Everard.

“I am. You need not go, if you don’t feel like it.”

“No, sir, I told some of the Zenith guys I’d be there. They were asking what it’s like in the capital, and I was telling them what Lightning District’s like, but we had to stop to get cleaned up for evening reading. If I stick with them, it won’t be half bad. They’re good guys.”

As soon as they arrived at the venue, three young soldiers came to haul Cooper away, leading him to the rest of their comrades not far from the refreshment tables. Tarbengar picked up his cub to keep it from getting trodden on and followed sedately after his friend. Father Everard said to Jock and Ietta, “You can do as you like, you two. I know you haven’t had much time to be together as simply a married couple lately.”

“Let’s dance,” Ietta said, pulling Jock by the hand.

He was tolerably familiar with the social dance that had just started up. He had seen variations of it in other territories, and Ietta had always been one to throw herself into all kinds of dances and games with glee, whether or not she knew the rules beforehand. Seeing her enjoying herself like this somehow lightened Jock inwardly, so much so that he took her hand for the second dance as well without hesitating.

The musicians rested after the second dance, about half an hour into the social. Ietta said, “Oh, I’m so thirsty! Let’s see what they have to drink! Yes, yes, yes, I know: nothing with alcohol, because of the baby. This is Northwest Territory, dear. They won’t have much that has alcohol in it.” At the beverage table, Ietta deliberated over a non-alcoholic hot apple cider or a chilled raspberry punch, opting for the chilled punch because the ballroom had already become hot.

Again, above the crowd, Jock heard that giggle again. The Demyan girl brushed past them and grabbed hold of Cooper, of all people, saying, “Well, if my Rusza really isn’t here, then you’ll just have to do instead, little Cooper!”

Cooper shook her off. “Don’t call me that. If your boyfriend isn’t here, you shouldn’t be clinging to anyone.”

“Oh, but if it’s you, then Rusza will know it doesn’t mean anything,” said the girl, aiming for his arm again.

“Don’t touch me.” Cooper’s voice was staccato. “Can’t you go for one evening without seeking out male attentions? Your boyfriend isn’t here; go sit with your mother and brothers instead of throwing yourself at anything and everything that wears a suit.”

The girl shrilled, “How rude! I offer to dance with you, when I’m sure nobody else has any interest in asking a shrimp like you, and that’s how you treat me?”

“Keep it up, and you’ll get worse,” Cooper warned. He turned his back on her deliberately as if to continue talking with the young men of Zenith Company.

“How dare you turn your back on me, you runt,” she said, circling around to force herself into his line of vision. “I’ll tell Rusza, and he’ll beat you.”

“Really? Beat me for saying that his girlfriend should show him some loyalty? That’s funny. But now I think about it, it’s probably pointless to try. I doubt you could be true to one man.”

The girl slapped his face.

Cooper’s head swung away and stayed turned from her for a moment. Then, with slow purpose, he turned toward her. “I won’t hit someone weaker than me,” he said in a tight, low voice. “You aren’t worth hitting, anyway.” Then he spat in her face. 

Several young men from the town stepped closer in indignation. Jock left Ietta’s side and went to stand close by Cooper, who didn’t seem at all intimidated. “Now that I have all of your attention,” the young man said to them, “let me tell you something. This girl.” He pointed at Irina Demyan, who was scrubbing at her face with a lace-and-embroidery handkerchief. “She’s like the human version of the Decay, and you’ve all stepped into her radius of influence. She’s rotten all through, and she’s rotting all of you too. Look at yourselves!”

By this point, that area of the ballroom had fallen deathly silent. Even those not involved in the scene were taking notice of Cooper’s speech.

“Just look at what she does to you,” he continued. “She took a guy I know, a good guy, and she corrupted him into somebody who doesn’t care about his friends or his family, even when they’re in trouble, and she’s proud of making him into an ass! If you have any sense, you’ll break loose from her infection before it’s too late, before what happened to him happens to you too.” He stopped to collect himself and noticed how many people were listening. His face reddened, and he turned once again toward the Zenith group in the corner.

“Isn’t anybody going to teach this shrimp a lesson?” the girl demanded. “He insulted me, and you all just stand there!”

Her brother Tim pushed through the crowd.

“Tim! Tim, he spat on me!”

“I saw,” said Tim. “And I heard what he said. He said he wouldn’t strike somebody weaker than himself. He was right to say that. It isn’t his place.” His face was tight, and his pupils were dilated. Then he raised his hand and slapped his sister’s face. “I am ashamed of you, Irina Nadine Demyan. I am ashamed to be known as your brother. Today, I’ve seen you dishonor men I respect, good men, men we owe as a people. I’ve seen you flirt shamelessly with boys who aren’t your boyfriend, when he isn’t around to maintain his claim on you. Now, you treat a decent young man like he’s some kind of slave for you to order around, you shame him and slap him, and you try to incite these boys to gang up on him. I’m too ashamed to face everybody. No more.” He turned his head. “Any of you Zenith boys got a spare room I can borrow?”

“You can come with us,” said one of them.

“Thanks.” He turned to his sister again. “I’m done. I’m moving to town. I’ll get a job and earn up enough money to buy my own place. I’m sick of apologizing for you and Anton and Rolan. You heard me, Pa? I’m sick of it. I’m done.”

Laurent Demyan stood nearby, red-faced and too full of conflicting thoughts for words. His fists were clenched at his sides, as if he had come forward with thoughts of violence, but his son’s announcement had jarred him into immobility.

“Don’t bother with my things. I can borrow what I need until I earn the money to buy what I need.” He withdrew into the Zenith crowd. “I’ve had enough of this party. Anybody else want to get out of here?” He received considerable agreement, but before he went out, he turned to Cooper. “This is the last time I apologize for her, but I’m sorry, young man. I truly am.”

Cooper studied him for a few seconds. Then he nodded. “I appreciate that.” He too followed the Zenith crowd out with Tim Demyan.

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