On his way back to Father Locke’s office, Elfric Tarbengar was alarmed to see Lieutenant Ietta dash out into the corridor. She leaned with her back to the wall, doubled over with her arms around her midsection. She seemed even from a distance to be shaking. Elfric hurried forward, cub at his heels. “Lieutenant, are you ill?”
Lieutenant Ietta shook her head. “It’s too cute,” she gasped. She was laughing, or rather, trying to suppress her laughter. With a mighty effort, she drew herself upright in a semblance of professionalism. Then she stepped back inside the office. “Sir…” Her voice wavered for a moment. “Tarbengar is here.”
“Good.” After a pause, Father Locke said, “Maybe you should come with me, Ietta.”
“Yes, sir.” Lieutenant Ietta’s self-control wavered again. She backed out of the office and stood to attention until Father Locke appeared in the corridor. Then she fell into step with him.
On the way to the comm office, Father Locke asked, “Why do you find Mica’s research so hilarious, Ietta? He’s serious.”
“Yes, sir, very serious, but I have never, ever been asked by a man my own age to help him create an action plan for courting a girl. It’s just too cute!”
“I don’t understand your use of the adjective in this situation,” said Father Locke, “but I assume it has to do with something thought sympathy wouldn’t consider logical.”
“Right,” Lieutenant Ietta said, “let me find a Jock way to explain it.” She walked a while in contemplation before saying, “It’s cute to me because of the gap between the emotional nature of courtship and Mica’s rational approach to it. He’s the first thought sympathist I’ve ever seen fall in love.”
“Jock does love you,” was Father Locke’s first response.
“I know, I know, but it took him time. I fell for him and then persuaded him it was a good match for us both. Mica’s situation is completely different.”
“I see what you mean.”
“I know Mother Coralie’s situation was almost just like mine,” the lieutenant continued. “You never fell in love with her; you decided, after she brought it up, that she was right, or something like that. I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t have something to do with her jealousy.”
Father Locke stopped walking so suddenly that Elfric almost rammed into him. “My decision that marrying her was a good idea… makes her jealous of other women?” From his tone, he seemed to be utterly unable to make sense of the lieutenant’s words.
“Sorry to intrude on your private matters, sir,” said Lieutenant Ietta, “but it’s the fact that you didn’t have strong feelings for her from the start that makes her wonder if maybe you might someday develop them for someone else. I know, because I’ve had the same thoughts about Jock sometimes.”
Elfric tried to make himself inconspicuous, which was a challenge in the middle of a wide, unadorned corridor.
“It’s just something for you to take into consideration, sir,” the lieutenant said. “You might talk with her about it eventually, once you’ve processed it. That’s all.”
They resumed walking. When they arrived at the comm office, Lieutenant Ietta did the talking and led the way to the designated comm booth. Father Locke appeared to be lost in thought. He only snapped out of it when Mother Locke appeared on the screen. “Cora,” he said suddenly.
“Good morning, dear.” Mother Locke waited, but Father Locke said nothing more. She looked to Lieutenant Ietta. “What…?”
“Oh, well,” said the lieutenant, “on our way to talk to you, I sprang a new idea on him unawares. I didn’t know it was a new idea, but now… you see.”
“I was just thinking about you,” Father Locke said, “and about Mica… and Sanna…”
Again, Mother Locke turned to the lieutenant for an interpretation.
“When they escorted Sanna and her family to the capital,” Lieutenant Ietta said, “Mica asked Sanna to marry him.”
Lieutenant Ietta nodded confirmation. “She turned him down, but he isn’t taking that as final. He’s… making an action plan.” She wavered on the edge of laughter again. “He has been researching sympathies to find a way for him to be with Sanna safely, since that was her first objection, and I just got interrogated on the most effective methods for wooing a girl.”
“Oh, dear,” said Mother Locke. She too looked like she wanted to laugh, but she looked a little troubled as well.
“And it occurred to me that he can’t go for advice to either Father or Jock, because they have no experience in getting a girl to fall for them.”
“Oh, dear, no,” Mother Locke agreed. “I see what you mean.”
“But I wish you had been there to see Mica asking me,” said Lieutenant Ietta. “It was adorable, him sitting there with his scratch pad and pencil, taking notes like it was a lecture. So earnest! The nearest I’ve ever been to a situation like that was when Jock sat me down, when we were first engaged, and wanted to work out an agenda for what he called ‘escalating intimacies’,” she laughed. “I’ve never had to try to advise a thought sympathist on best ways to woo someone. I’m glad I haven’t, actually. It would’ve broken my heart if Jock had ever come to me for advice about some other woman. Mother? Mother Coralie?”
Mother Locke was slow to respond. “Yes, I see what you mean there, too. But…” She sighed. “Poor Sanna. I was so worried about her sympathy crisis that I just brushed past it at the time. Rusza… when he visited her that day, he asked her advice about asking that girl to be his girlfriend. Now that I think about it…”
“That hurts,” said Lieutenant Ietta gravely. “That idiot.”
The comm booth went silent for several moments. Then Mother Locke said, “What’s done is done, and this wasn’t what we set up this call to discuss, was it? I’ve been working out Elfric’s travel arrangements, and it looks like there will be a special troop carrier shuttle service offered from the twenty-ninth through the second for West Territory soldiers working elsewhere to get home for the holiday. Everard, when do you plan on leaving Sawtooth Ridge?” She waited a moment and then said, “Ietta?”
The lieutenant dug her elbow into Father Locke’s side firmly. Father Locke seemed to switch on, like a mechanical device. “We’re set to leave the morning of the thirtieth.”
“So you were listening,” said Mother Locke. “I wasn’t sure.”
“I have been listening all the while,” he said. “The forecast indicates clear skies and moderate temperatures, so I plan to set out at 0800 and set a moderate pace. That should put us at the crossroads waystation by 1900 or so, barring the unforeseen. We will then stay the night and start at 0700 the next morning, which should put us in the capital between 2100 and 2200 hours.”
“Then, when you leave on the morning of the first,” said Mother Locke, “Elfric can take one of the special shuttles to Fortress. Do you suppose he would rather take one of the early shuttles, or wait for a later one? I know it was rough, traveling with the cub…”
“He is here to ask,” said Father Locke. He gestured for Elfric to step farther into the booth.
“Oh, dear,” said Mother Locke, “have we made you listen to all our personal business all this time, Elfric? I’m sorry. If I had known, I would have gotten to your business straight away. What do you want to do about the shuttle? I can send word to your family so they’ll be ready to pick you up, if you let me know now which shuttle you’ll take.”
“What is the earliest, please?”
“The first shuttle of the day leaves the crossroads waystation at 0430.”
“I will take that one.”
“I’ll let them know. Will you… are you planning to continue with Everard’s course?”
“Good. I’ll arrange for the transportation office here to have an open reservation for you. Does the twelfth seem good to you? That gives you a full week to spend at home, plus time for traveling to and from Fortress.”
“Then we’ll call that settled. Let me know if your plans change at all. Is there anything else I can organize for you, Everard?”
“When you and I are both back at the capital, I want you to reserve a day for me.”
“Gladly,” she said, “but why?”
“Just leave a day open,” Father Locke insisted.
“I will.” Mother Locke smiled. “We haven’t had a date, just the two of us, in a long time.” She signed off, and the screen went blank.
“Tarbengar,” said Father Locke, “I’m giving you and Cooper today off to complete any business you might have here. Be back at my office tomorrow at 0600 for physical training. And keep in mind that everything you heard during this call is confidential information,” he added.
“Yes, sir.” Elfric hefted his cub’s weight into a more secure position and saluted with his free hand.
He went to the barracks to get his coat and then headed for his brother’s cottage. The door was unlocked, but Gisler was not home. Elfric entered and was careful to shut the door firmly behind himself without making much noise. He knew at once that Merle, the shepherd dog, must be wherever Gisler was, because the cottage was so hushed. Ulf raised his head from his usual place by the hearth. Elfric stirred up the fire and added a log. Then he sank to the floor and scratched the elderly wolf’s head.
The cub began to sniff along the floor. Elfric let it do as it wanted. There was nothing in Gisler’s cottage that would bring the cub to real harm, except the open fireplace that Ulf guarded.
A pair of yellow-green eyes shone from the shadows behind the armchair opposite Elfric. The cub cried in alarm and scampered back to Elfric’s lap. Elfric scratched its neck to calm it. “Come out,” he said to the shining eyes. “We won’t harm you. Come.”
Reluctantly, the animal stirred and limped out of the shadows. It revealed itself as a lynx with a missing foreleg.
“You must be Lula,” said Elfric. “I’m glad to see you before I go. Here, don’t be afraid.” He held out his hand with no abrupt or unexpected movements, and after a long hesitation, the lynx was persuaded to allow Elfric to touch it. “I know, humans have been cruel to you,” he said to the lynx, “but I won’t harm you. Don’t be afraid. We were meant to be companions from the very creation of the world. That’s what the statutes say. Are you hungry?”
The lynx, with its peculiar hop-step, climbed onto Elfric’s leg over the cub and leaned against his stomach.
“You must have caught your fill of vermin last night,” said Elfric. “That’s good.” He took the cub by the scruff of its neck and pulled it to his other side so that the lynx wasn’t standing on it. “Get along together, you two.”
Ule, the great gray owl, suddenly fluttered from the back of the chair down to land on Elfric’s shoulder.
“Are you lonely?” he asked. “You must get lonely, when Gisler is out on patrol. Too bad he doesn’t have a wife and children to keep you company. I wish he could marry,” Elfric mused, mainly to himself. “He is a grown man. He should start a family. He wants to, I’m sure of it, but…” His gaze fell on Ulf. “Do you remember our mother? She took care of you when you were young and wounded. I’m sure she remembers you. She doesn’t forget any of the animals she treats. If Gisler could have a wife like that, she could take care of you when he can’t.”
The cottage door opened and Merle burst in, barking, to leap onto Elfric’s lap. The lynx snarled, and the cub cried out, and Ule flapped back to the safety of her perch. Gisler ducked through the open doorway. “Merle, hush. Be gentle.”
The shepherd whined a little and lay flat on the floor, ears down and tail low.
But Gisler was smiling a little as he looked at the chaotic scene. “The animals love you, as they always have,” he said to Elfric. “Look, even Lula came out of hiding to meet you.”
“Brother,” Elfric said, “Father Locke says we must leave here on the day after tomorrow.”
“It doesn’t surprise me. Have you enjoyed studying with him so far?”
Elfric nodded. “I did not expect to learn anything; instead, I have learned much. I begin to see the statutes and the teachings in a different light. I’ve met so many who began in West Territory and left it… I see, that is, I begin to see why they left, but… I still don’t know what path I myself should take. So I will continue with Father Locke and look for my path.”
“As it should be,” said his brother. “Some of us have our paths laid out for us, be it by circumstance or by our parents, but you always seemed to me as one who should follow a different path. You were always different. Someday, people will come to this place, talking of you and all that you’ve done, and I’ll tell them with pride, That man is my younger brother.” He grinned at Elfric’s embarrassment. “You wait and see if I’m not right. Even when you were small, I knew. The animals love you so. Lula won’t show herself to anyone but me. Not even to Vera, who found her and rescued her.”
Elfric’s curiosity asserted itself. “Vera?”
“A town girl,” said Gisler, “who has animal sympathy. She’s the one who named Lula, after coming upon her in a trap and scolding the ranch boys who were beating Lula with sticks while she was helpless. She did what she could, but her sympathy wasn’t strong enough to persuade Lula to trust her, so she brought Lula to me. Ah, and she has one of Merle’s sisters with her, and it’s on account of her too that Merle came to me. Miss Vera’s a good girl, hardworking and devout. She works at the Stores to help pay for her training as a vet, and she still makes time to help her mother with the housework.”
Elfric kept his thoughts to himself, even later when he said, “You aren’t going to the social tomorrow night, are you?”
“I can see why you wouldn’t go,” Gisler said, “you have an early morning following it; but I have already promised to attend the next social, because I owe Miss Vera a dance. She was ill from overwork two weeks ago and so missed the past few socials, and before that, I was on patrol. My promise is overdue.”
Later, however, when they went to eat supper at Sergeant Leonti’s little house with several from Zenith Company, Elfric found himself in the kitchen with the sergeant while Gisler was talking with his comrades in the sitting room. “Sergeant,” he ventured.
“What is it, little brother? Need a refresher on your cider?”
“No, thank you, I wanted to ask if you know of a girl named Vera.”
“Oh, Miss Vera.” Sergeant Leonti gave Elfric an understanding look. “So you’ve noticed about her, have you? He ought to marry her. There’s no hindrance to it, except his own decision not to marry unless he can get his parents’ blessing for it. He’s nearly thirty, and Miss Vera’s no child. They ought to marry. You don’t suppose, little brother, that you could talk your ma and pa into taking a trip out here, just for a change of scenery?”
Elfric considered the question seriously. “I can try.”
“You asked,” said Elfric.
“I didn’t know if you’d go for the idea. Westerners can be sticky about things, and I know Grizz left home under a cloud.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” Elfric said. “Our parents have to see it that way. I’ll talk to them.”
“Good boy.” The sergeant lingered a few seconds in obvious indecision. Then he said, “If you manage it, would you ask if your sister Berga could come too?”
“Berga?” Elfric echoed the name blankly. “Why?”
The sergeant fidgeted and blushed. “I’d admire to meet her, that’s why. There aren’t many eligible girls in this area, and none of them the kind that I’m looking for, but from all you’ve said, you and Grizz, it sounds like Berga is. See here,” he said, fastening an intent gaze on Elfric’s face, “You say she has plant sympathy; so have I. I’ve got this place and a garden, with an eye toward a little more land where I can expand the garden. I’m not making piles of money but I have my salary, and I’m an officer. Not a high-ranking one, but I work hard, and Marva thinks I’m valuable. I’m in good health, I don’t take alcohol, I do my best to honor the Only One, and I come of a respectable, long-lived family, so I think I can say I’m a good prospect. I’m looking for a strong, sturdy girl who knows how to make a home, someone helpful in the garden and healthy, because I want a big family. I’m just past thirty, so I reckon it’s time I got down to starting, and you and Grizz are the kind of boys I’d admire to have for my brothers-in-law.”
Elfric blinked at the rush of words, but he couldn’t doubt the man’s earnestness. “I’ll ask,” he said. “If our parents are going, she’d probably want to go too. She was always fond of Gisler. There aren’t that many young men in our village anyway, or in the nearby villages.”
“That’s a bonus for my case,” said Sergeant Leonti, “but why is it that way?”
“I think… it might be because they go to Fortress for their obligatory service, and a lot of them don’t come back. They go other places, or they stay in Fortress. But I’ve heard my sisters say there aren’t many choices, so I don’t see why Berga wouldn’t want to meet you, if our parents agree to make the trip.”
“Here’s hoping,” the man said with a grin.
Elfric considered this later that night, when he was in his bed in the barracks. Various thoughts circled through his mind, keeping him awake rather later than he wanted. He did sleep eventually. Cooper had to shake him awake in order to get to morning physical training on time. They met Father Locke himself at the training center because, as he told them, Lieutenant Ietta wasn’t feeling well that morning. By this time, Elfric could go through the entire training routine with only a minimum percentage of his attention, and on this morning he did so. His other considerations occupied the rest of his attention.
Naturally, this did not escape Father Locke’s notice. “What do you have in your thoughts this morning, Tarbengar?”
“Sir,” said Elfric, “I’ve been wondering… if a person is in a bad place, is it better to stay and work to make it better or to leave for his own good?”
“That is a difficult question. The specific circumstances would dictate the answer. This bad place: how long has he been there? What exactly is bad about it, and is that something he can change? Is there actual danger to him in staying there, and is he willing to take the risk, or is something holding him there against his will? Just from the one question, a multitude of ancillary questions arise. Are you thinking of someone specific, or is this rhetorical?”
“Specific,” Elfric answered. “I’m thinking of my father.”
“Your father,” Father Locke replied in some surprise. “Explain.”
So Elfric did. “You know about Gisler’s past, how he had to leave our village, sir. He tells me it was one of our village elders who accused him falsely, though he won’t tell me who on account of not wanting to stir up more ill will. But he says too that my father stayed quiet and let all this happen. We don’t know why. I’ve been thinking, should I try to get my family to leave Little Barburg and move here to be with Gisler? Would it be better for them, or should they stay and try to make the village better?”
This gave Father Locke several moment’s pause. He said, “Your brother was cast out ten years ago, is that not right? In those ten years, has your father acted to change the situation in your village?”
“I don’t know,” said Elfric. But he frowned a little at the thought. “I think the same elders are in place now as when Gisler was accused. I’m not sure, because I was so young then, but I think so. And before I left, as I told you, I was approached by one of them and told I would never learn anything of use outside the village.”
“That suggests to me that, whatever your father’s choices in these ten years, he has not effected any positive change in the outward circumstances that are worrying you. Has he changed? We can take Rusza Tate as an example: I’ve been told by Major Rurik that Rusza is a good influence on the two youngest Demyan sons, when he isn’t in contact with their sister, but what happens when he is? She has the stronger influence, and Rusza is changed for the worse. It is entirely possible for that to happen in the case of your family. In circumstances like those, it is either change or be changed.”
This deepened Elfric’s frown. “I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I was afraid…”
“I see. You sensed it, even if you couldn’t articulate it. I would say that your visit during the New Year’s celebrations will affect more than just your future path. You’re in a difficult position, though. As their youngest child, you are in the position of least leverage in terms of authority. You cannot tell them, You must or You ought.”
“Then what can I do? How can I speak so that they’ll give me a hearing?”
“You can only do what is within your reach, and trust to the Only One to open their hearts.”
Elfric pondered that throughout the morning. He asked, when the time came for lunch, for permission to go instead to the public meeting house to use the prayer rooms. For the better part of the hour, he spent praying and considering what he knew of the statutes and teachings, searching for wisdom beyond his own.
On his way back, he was overtaken by Gisler and Sergeant Leonti. “There you are! I was just on my way to see you,” said Gisler. He had a crate under his arm. “Presents! You can take them home with you, can’t you?”
“Yes,” said Elfric.
“Let them be from you,” said Gisler, “and everyone will be happy.”
“Brother, I won’t lie and say they’re from me.”
“No, I wouldn’t ask you to lie. If anyone asks, then you can tell them who sent them. They might not want them after that,” he said, “which is why I said to let them be from you. But you must do as you deem right. I’ll carry them to the barracks for you. Which floor is your room on?”
Elfric led them to his room. He watched his brother set the crate next to Elfric’s packed duffle bag. Then Elfric picked up the cub. “Brother, would you keep this cub for me? The traveling is too hard on him, as young as he is, and… I don’t want him to go back to the village.”
Gisler did not reach out to accept the cub immediately. “Under one condition,” he said at last. “You must name him first, before you go.”
“Name him…” Elfric turned the cub and studied it. “You… you are Kleiner,” he said.
“Good!” Gisler laughed. “Kleiner the black bear cub. I will take care of him for you. He will be a reminder of these wonderful days.” He took the cub and slung it over his shoulder. “Kleiner, let us be friends. Elfric, you know, this means you must come back to visit when you can.”
“I will.” Elfric rejoined Father Locke and his staff with a heart oddly lightened. He helped clean the borrowed office and was the last one out when they left it late in the afternoon. After another round of physical training, he returned to the barracks with Cooper to clean up for the farewell dinner and concert that Sawtooth Ridge wanted to hold in honor of Father Locke.
“Are you going to the social afterward?” Cooper asked.
“I would like to. There is a girl that my brother likes,” Elfric said, “and I would like to at least see her face before I go.”
“That’s a good enough reason for you to go. I’m staying away. Who knows what those Demyans will try to do, after what I said last time.”
“That,” said Elfric, “is a good enough reason for you to not go. Will Tate be allowed to go?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Cooper replied.
Elfric was able to answer his own question when he entered the mess hall after the Lieutenants Knox. The hall had been set up for a banquet, and at one of the outer tables sat Major Rurik and Rusza Tate beside him. Elfric only caught a glimpse, but that glimpse showed him Tate staring at the table before him, oblivious to all that passed around him.
It was a fine banquet. Elfric sat between Lieutenant Ietta and Captain Rina Anzor at the head table, with Cooper at Captain Anzor’s other side. They were served a starter course of clear vegetable soup with herbed dumplings, followed by whole trout from one of the larger mountain lakes, roasted potatoes with butter, and fire-grilled carrots. After this, the servers brought out thick venison steaks, one per person. Captain Anzor said, “I don’t know that I can finish this.”
“If you can’t,” Lieutenant Ietta said, “I’ll take what you leave. It’ll save Jock from having to give up any of his food.”
At her other side, Lieutenant Jock glanced down the table. “I assure you, Captain Anzor, this is how she usually is. It has nothing at all to do with the baby.”
“I don’t deny that I’m a good eater,” Lieutenant Ietta declared. “I didn’t get to keep my breakfast this morning, so I have to make up for lost time.”
Elfric smiled as he cut a bite out of his steak.
The venison steaks were followed by individual mixed-berry tarts. By that point, nearly everyone was too full to do justice to the tarts, but Elfric enjoyed his. He heard Cooper groan. “I can’t eat it,” the young man said, “but I can’t bear to leave it. It’s so good…”
Major Rurik approached from the side of the mess hall to pause next to Father Locke. Elfric was just far enough away that he could only hear the words, “…still being weird…. know why?”
Father Locke was easier to hear, although he only raised his voice enough to speak across Dr. Rao to Mica: “When you rebuked Rusza Tate the other day, were you exerting your sympathy, Mica?”
Mica looked back toward his father in mild surprise. “I didn’t think I was.” He stood to look across the mess hall. “Maybe I did. I was thoroughly angry. Sympathy control was the last thing on my mind.”
“And Tate has proven himself extremely susceptible to soul sympathy already,” said Father Locke. “It appears he is equally susceptible to thought sympathy. If I remember, you told him to try thinking at all for a change. It’s very likely, then, that he’s just thinking. It should wear off eventually.”
“How long is eventually?” asked Major Rurik. “He’s been imitating something bovine for three days. I can’t get any useful work out of him unless I’m standing over him, prodding him.”
“Wyeth,” said Father Locke, “what’s your estimate?”
“Last time, with a gentle influence like Waeber’s,” the doctor mused, “he came out of it in about fifteen hours. With a nature like his, getting slammed full-force with it, it’s hard to say. I wish I had been paying more attention at the time, but I was lagging badly after the run to the capital. Three days now, you said, Major? Last time, I think it might have helped that he had the opportunity to voice his thoughts to others. If you want to speed up the process, try to get him to tell you what’s preoccupying his mind.”
Major Rurik made a slight grimace. “I’m almost afraid to ask. I don’t relish the prospect of hearing him woolgather about his girlfriend, if that’s what’s preoccupying his mind, and it does seem the most likely possibility. I might just leave him as he is and wait it out.”
“That is also a valid option,” Father Locke noted. “I would be interested to know how long it takes, in order to continue to assess Mica’s sympathy. Would you document it for me?”
“Yep. Will do.” Major Rurik returned to his seat.
The banquet guests formed almost a parade along the six blocks to the public meeting house, where the concert was to be held. The air was briskly cold, but not too uncomfortable, and it felt good to walk off some of the rich supper. Elfric tilted his head back to gaze at the star-strewn night sky as he walked. It was a mere month since he had arrived in Sawtooth Ridge, but it felt as if, during that month, he had turned a corner into a different life somehow. Everything seemed altered.
This concert featured the Sawtooth Ridge town men’s chorus, one hundred and twenty-five voices strong. Elfric was tall enough to note the back of Rusza Tate’s head at the front of the seating. Major Rurik, being a few inches shorter, was harder to spot beside him. Father Locke had chosen, as appeared to be his habit, seats in the middle of the hall, toward the aisle. As the vaulted ceiling rang with the powerful voices of the chorus, Elfric closed his eyes to impress the sounds more firmly in his memory. It would be quite some time, he supposed, before he was able to sit in that public meeting hall and listen to such a concert again.
The following social was held next door, as it had been at the first concert. Major Rurik appeared near them on the way. He towed Rusza by the elbow. “So far, my luck is holding,” he said to Father Locke. “None of them showed up yet.”
Dr. Rao took Rusza by the other elbow. She snapped her fingers in front of his eyes.
Tate blinked as if noticing for the first time that he wasn’t alone. “Dr. Rao,” he said in surprise. “When did you get here?”
“Have you even noticed where here is?” she asked him. “Sit down over by the wall here for a few minutes. I want to have a look at you.”
“Doctor,” said Major Rurik, “can I leave him with you for a few minutes?”
Elfric found Gisler at his right, with Sergeant Leonti at his right. “Is your friend all right?” asked Gisler.
“I wouldn’t call him my friend,” Elfric said. “Dr. Rao is checking him.”
“Ah, the sympathy specialist,” said Leonti. “I’ve heard about her. She’s good, isn’t she?”
“She is said to be one of the best, yes.” Elfric looked around him at the crowded ballroom. “Have you seen the girl you promised to dance with, brother? I’d like to meet a Northwestern Territory animal sympathist.”
“If we stand here for long, we’re sure to find her. Everybody has to pass us to get in.” Gisler seemed placid, unexcited.
As the three of them stood there, watching the people enter, Elfric was rather dismayed to see the Demyan family arrive. The girl clung to her father’s arm and was saying something to him in agitated tones. The father’s voice was clearly audible as they passed: “Nonsense, all nonsense, I’m sure! You’re the prettiest, the most delicate, the most feminine girl in this whole territory! All the young men must be in love with you! They can’t help themselves. This is nonsense about any of them snubbing you. You’re imagining it.”
Elfric heard a sharp intake of breath behind him that made him look back over his shoulder. Shielded by the three men standing in front of the bench by the wall, Rusza Tate was staring blindly through them with a look of troubled epiphany in his face. Dr. Rao had to snap her fingers in front of his eyes again to recall his attention.
Father Locke came to stand at Elfric’s left, completing the barrier that protected Tate from notice. “That was quite the providential choice of words on Laurent Demyan’s part,” he said. “I’m very curious now. What will happen? Which will prove stronger: Mica’s thought influence, or the girl’s seductions? I am tempted to put it to the test, but that’s Julian’s decision to make.”
At Elfric’s right, Gisler suddenly lunged forward into the crowd. He returned in company with a young woman who appeared to be in her mid-twenties with brown hair and brown eyes and a lovely smile. “Elfric, this is Miss Vera Shastia. Miss Vera, this is my youngest brother Elfric.”
The girl held out her hand to Elfric. “I’m so pleased to meet you. I know your being here has been a real joy for Gisler.” Her handshake was firm.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Vera.”
“Lula came out to introduce herself to Elfric today,” Gisler said. “I told you: animals love him.”
“Oh, what a gift,” the girl replied. “You’re so blessed, Elfric!” The musicians began to play for the first dance. “Now, Corporal Tarbengar, I believe you owe me a dance.” She let him take her hand and lead her through the crowd toward the space opening up in the middle of the ballroom.
Sergeant Leonti grinned at the pair. “Honestly, they ought to marry. Since you and me have nobody to dance with, little brother, why don’t we investigate the drinks table? After a heavy supper like that and a long concert, I have a raging thirst.” He started through the flow of guests toward the adjoining room.
A shrill, “Rusza!” rang out over the music. Irina Demyan pushed past Leonti and Elfric as she cast herself onto Rusza Tate’s lap.
Elfric paused and turned to see what would happen. The Demyan girl’s precipitate landing had pushed Dr. Rao to one side, but Tate reached out to steady the older woman. “Sorry,” he could be heard to say above the crowd. “Irina, it’s crowded here. You should be more careful about throwing yourself around. Yes, of course I’m pleased to see you again.” He took the girl by the shoulders and gently raised her to her feet, off his lap. “Let me look at you! You look as pretty as always! It feels like a month since I was at your house.” He stood up when she moved as though she meant to drop onto his lap again. He was studying her intently, with a searching gaze that was unlike him. “Are your parents here? I should greet them.” He turned to look beside him. “Do you mind, Maj— where is Major Rurik? He was just here. It’s the weirdest thing,” he said to the girl as they crossed the crowded ballroom. “Lately, people keep appearing and disappearing right next to me…”
Elfric found Sergeant Leonti still beside him. The man said, “Well? Aren’t you thirsty?”
The area around the beverage table was as yet still fairly empty. Elfric asked the sergeant, “May I ask you a personal question, Sarge?”
“Be my guest.”
“Are you… still bitter? About that girl?”
To his surprise, Sergeant Leonti broke into a laugh. “Thankfully, no. I’m relieved, mostly, and grateful to the Only One for having better sense than I had. That speech your friend Cooper gave, it made me stop and consider myself. I had no more intention of punishing him for what he did to her than you might have had, but when I looked at myself, I knew I’d only been infatuated by her looks and manner, and what are those worth over the course of a life? Her personality, I’m coming to realize, is just what Cooper said it was: rotten. Imagine living with that your whole married life? Even if I could stomach it, I can’t see her getting her hands dirty in the garden, moving compost or dividing bulbs, even if she does have plant sympathy. She’s all flower arranging, nothing practical. And what’s more, there were a couple boys in Zenith, they hadn’t spoken to each other in more than two months because of her, and once like to beat each other’s faces in, if the rest of us hadn’t stepped in to pull them away from each other, all on account of her. That night, after Cooper’s speech, they made peace and agreed it was all just stupidity. Zenith is more peaceful now than it has been since that girl came eligible for courting. That Cooper, he’s quite the kid.”
“He’s a good friend,” Elfric said, only realizing that he meant it as the words came out of his mouth.
“That other one, the one that isn’t exactly your friend,” added Leonti, “I’m more than a little worried about him. Is he stupid?”
“In most ways, no,” Elfric admitted. “He has a head for tactics and logistics, and he has a very powerful broad-spectrum sympathy that seems made for combat.”
“What a waste,” said Leonti in disgust.
They returned to the ballroom just as the first dance ended. Elfric picked out Gisler easily, since Gisler was head and shoulders taller than everyone else. Tate he did not see, despite his height and red hair, until Leonti led him around the far side of the dance floor. There Tate sat between the Demyan girl and her mother. Both of them appeared to be talking at him at the same time, yet Tate seemed so abstracted that he couldn’t be listening to either. The girl tugged at his sleeve. Tate spoke to her, and she responded with an expression of mild annoyance, but Tate spoke again and smiled at her, tugging at the lock of hair that curled against her cheek. This appeared to soothe her enough that she leaned against his arm and laid her head on his shoulder. But Tate refused this, gently setting her upright and saying something with a light shake of his head. His eyes when he spoke to her were the eyes of a man who saw nothing but beauty, but there still was something searching about that gaze.
“Seems like Rurik’s restrictions had some effect,” said Leonti with satisfaction. “He isn’t playing the fool totally anymore. Want to go eavesdrop?”
Normally, Elfric would have recoiled from the suggestion, but he too was curious, so he followed along. They found chairs in the row behind the trio, which became a quartet when Mr. Demyan returned with a plate in each hand. “Light spread tonight,” he said. “Somebody’s slacking. Here, sweetheart, you take your pick first.” He held out both plates in front of Irina.
“Of course it’s a light buffet, I told you,” said Mrs. Demyan, “it’s part of the send-off for Father Locke. Most everybody went to the supper first.”
“So he’s going away?” said Irina. “Good. Good riddance, I say.”
“Irina, don’t say that,” Tate pleaded.
“Why shouldn’t I say it? He’s a mean old man and he just wants to keep us apart. Good riddance!” Irina spoke in a clear, perfectly audible voice.
“He isn’t a mean old man,” Tate said. “He’s actually a really good man, just sometimes hard to understand. And he’s my uncle, so don’t say that about him, please?”
“Is he really your uncle?” asked Mrs. Demyan. “I didn’t realize. We should have invited him to tea, Irina, and been hospitable to him. He probably thinks we have no manners.”
Elfric felt Sergeant Leonti’s elbow jerk slightly. The man was biting both lips, fighting laughter.
Mr. Demyan said, “Why are you two children sitting here with us old folks? You should be out there, dancing and enjoying yourselves. Tate, son, you should be out there, showing Irina off in front of everyone!”
“Rusza is all absentminded tonight, Pa. I can’t take him dancing. He might step on my foot, or crash us into the next couple.” She stood up. “I’m going to take him for a walk. Maybe that can clear his head.” The girl started toward the ballroom door, still holding hands with Tate, so that Tate had to get up from his chair and follow her.
“Pity,” said Mr. Demyan, “I do so like to see Irina dancing. She’s the best dancer in the territory.”
The second dance ended and the musicians got up to take a short break. Elfric saw Gisler surveying the ballroom, so he stood up and was rewarded with a smile of discovery. He made his way through the crowd to a point that Gisler was sure to converge on. It did not surprise him that Miss Vera was holding Gisler’s hand until they reached Elfric. Both were flushed and a little sweaty from the vigor of the dance and the heat of the room. “Are you not going to dance?” Miss Vera asked Elfric.
“I don’t know how,” he said.
“If you’re likely to keep visiting, then you should learn,” the young woman said. “Isn’t that right, Gisler?”
“It’s good fun,” Gisler agreed. “I only take on the social dances, mind you; wouldn’t be proper to dance couples, not unless…” He changed subjects suddenly. “There’s no one better to teach you than Miss Vera, if you want to give it a try, Elfric.”
Elfric looked from Gisler to the young woman for only a moment. “If you don’t mind, then, Miss Vera, would you teach me one of these social dances?”
“I’d be glad to,” she said. “But before the musicians come back, I do need something to drink!”
Yet again, Elfric found himself being led to the beverages table, where Gisler and Miss Vera talked over the different choices and their varied experiences with each. Elfric knew his brother was a good-natured, sociable sort of man, but from his observations during the last month, he saw that Gisler talked more, and talked livelier, in this young woman’s presence than anyone else’s. He had to conclude that Sergeant Leonti was right to say that these two ought to marry.
The break ended, and Miss Vera took Elfric by the hand. They started at the edge of the dance floor, at the end of a double line of dancers. Miss Vera spoke with a clarity of diction that eliminated the need to raise her voice as she instructed Elfric in the steps of the dance. When he made a mistake, she corrected him and gave him encouragement; when he did well, she praised him with a smile. The dance itself reminded Elfric of Captain Venn’s individualized training in flexibility and dexterity. By the time it ended, some fifteen minutes later, Miss Vera brought Elfric over to Gisler. “That was excellent; you’ll be a fine dancer, with a little more practice.”
“You were doing excellently well, for a beginner,” Gisler agreed. “But you had a fine teacher, don’t you agree?”
“Yes, brother. Your instruction was very clear and easy to follow, Miss Vera. Thank you.”
“Oh, Gisler, your brother is so courteous,” she said with a laugh. “Elfric, you’re welcome. I hope you come back to visit again and again. Ah, I see my mother. She wants me to come. It was a very great pleasure to meet you, Elfric Tarbengar.”
“And I, you.” He bent at the waist.
Gisler, looking after her as she went, said in a wistful tone, “She’s a good girl.”
Elfric did not respond, although he was inclined to agree, because he was unsure whether his brother was speaking to him or to himself. After a few seconds, he and his brother began to work their way away from the dance floor, only to collide with Mr. Demyan. The older man mumbled something that might have been an apology, but he hardly paid them any attention as he surveyed the crowd. “Where have they gone?” he complained, moving away.
“There goes a man with something on his mind,” said Gisler. “I suppose it must be that daughter of his. If one of our sisters behaved like that girl does, Elfric, I would see to it she never left the company of one of us, but he lets her roam as she wills. She’ll come to some trouble because of it. You wait and see if I’m not right.”
Elfric excused himself and followed. He had a sudden sense that the trouble Gisler spoke of was near at hand, and although he had no fondness for Rusza Tate, he felt it only right to do what he could for the fool. He was much taller than Mr. Demyan and could tell at a glance that Tate was not in the immediate area. The conspicuous red hair was nowhere in evidence in the adjoining buffet room either. Elfric began to work his way toward the entrance of the ballroom to check the corridor that ran the perimeter of the training facility. On his way, he met Major Rurik. “You’re the younger Tarbengar,” he said with recognition. “Have you seen Tate recently?”
“I’m looking for him now,” said Elfric, “because I believe Mr. Demyan is looking for them both.”
Major Rurik’s expression turned to longsuffering. “Just dandy. You go left, I’ll go right.” They emerged into the cool corridor and parted ways.
As he strode from the lighted front corridor to the half-lighted side corridor, Elfric heard other footsteps behind him, heavy and slower than he. He had no time to wonder who might be following him, because he glimpsed movement through an open doorway. He felt just inside the doorway for the switch and turned on the lights.
The glare of artificial light revealed a small breakroom, furnished with a few battered armchairs and an old sofa. The sofa was adorned by Tate and the Demyan girl, kissing. For an instant, Elfric glimpsed the girl’s hands clasped behind Tate’s head, clinging, but then the light startled her into drawing back.
“You!” Mr. Demyan pushed past Elfric. “Get your hands off my little girl. I trusted you, Tate.”
But Rusza Tate was frozen in shock. He had not moved even when the lights came on. It was the girl who sprang to her feet and declared, “Pa! Why are you interrupting us?”
“Why? Why? That young… that young…” Mr. Demyan seemed beyond speech. His face had gone a dark red.
“What’s wrong with you, Pa? We love each other. We’re going to be married, so there!”
“Married!” This staggered Mr. Demyan physically. He took a step backward and shook his head like a bear annoyed by bees. “Married! You can’t be married yet, Irina, you’re too young!”
“Ma was my age when you married her,” Irina shot back.
“Well, ah, that was…” Mr. Demyan couldn’t quite gather himself.
“It’s no different for us. We’re going to be married.”
“For the love of—” Major Rurik brushed past Elfric. “I let you out of my sight for fifteen minutes, and this is what you get up to, Tate?”
“We’re going to be married,” Irina repeated in triumph.
Tate was slowly emerging from his daze. He put his hands to his head as if it hurt him. “Look,” he said to no one in particular, “I need a few minutes. There’s too much going on inside my head.”
“Shall I treat you to a drink,” said Major Rurik dryly, “in celebration of your engagement?”
Tate just made a noise like a man with a bad headache. He stood up, walked past all of them without seeing anyone, and headed down the corridor toward where it was even darker.
“Other way, Tate,” Major Rurik called out.
Tate appeared, heading the other way with the same dragging steps and half-shut eyes. Elfric followed. When Tate came to the front corridor, he headed for the door leading outside. He stood in the cold, steam radiating off him, and breathed long and slow breaths for some minutes. Elfric heard him mutter, “I don’t know, I don’t know…” before he turned around to return indoors.
Irina ran and threw her arms around Tate’s chest. He put her away from him. “Why are you rushing everything like this, Irina? I want to enjoy my time with you, not race through it. I want to… to walk with you, talking about what’s important to us both, and visit your family for tea, getting to know them better. I want to meet you at socials and dance with you. We’re both so young and so… so immature,” he said heavily. “I don’t think we’re prepared to marry yet.”
She gazed at him wide-eyed. “You don’t love me. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“I do love you. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, and we match each other so well that I want to do this right. I want to make what’s between us something that will be forever. Do you understand that?”
“Did you just call me immature?” she said.
Tate laughed. “Yes, and do you know how I know you are? Because I am too. We’re still growing, Irina. Growing is a good thing, but it takes time. Everything worthwhile takes time.” His expression changed for an instant, so briefly that Elfric almost doubted seeing it. He looked haunted. Then the expression was gone. He was gazing down at Irina Demyan with tenderness and admiration. “Let’s go back and dance for a while.”
Elfric trailed behind them. He found Major Rurik at his elbow. The older man said, “Is he a fool, or is he a saint? Any ideas, Tarbengar?”
“None, sir.” Upon returning to the ballroom, Elfric learned from Sergeant Leonti that Father Locke had excused himself and gone back to his quarters. It was already 2045, so Elfric decided to do the same. Gisler walked him back to the depot barracks and left him at the night entrance. Elfric made his way to his room, only to find Cooper still awake, reading.
“Interesting time?” the smaller student said.
“You could say that,” Elfric replied.
“How did you like the girl your brother is seeing?”
“I approve. She is a good woman, a kind woman. They are a good match.”
“That’s good to hear. I left your bags out.” Then Cooper looked up, looked down, looked around. “Where’s the cub?”
“I’m leaving him with Gisler. It’s better for him.” Elfric began to pack his duffle bag, in preparation for their morning departure.