When the bus finally rumbled to a halt at the Sawtooth Ridge station, Rusza stood on aching legs and shuffled down the aisle. He stepped down to the pavement and heard Irina behind him, saying, “Aren’t you going to be a gentleman and help me down, Rusza?” He turned automatically and held out his hand to receive her hand as she stepped lightly down from the bus. Because he was still there, he reached up to steady Irina’s mother as well.
“It’s so late,” Ma Demyan said, “we’ll never find a ride at this hour, and so I propose we take a room at the hostel, Irina.”
“And Rusza can come stand guard over us,” the girl laughed.
“Stand guard? I’m too tired to sit guard,” he replied.
“Then you can lie down.” Irina clung to his arm and cuddled close.
“That’s inappropriate, Irina. Besides, I still need to arrange tonight for a ride to your house tomorrow morning. I’m going to do that, and then I’m going to the barracks for some sleep.”
Irina clung to his arm and snuggled close. “Silly Rusza. You don’t have to worry about pleasing your relatives anymore with proper. You can just have fun now. And I can’t belive you’re that tired.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You slept on the bus. I was awake all the way, with your mother talking at me.”
“You’re too nice,” Irina said. “She’ll talk whether anyone listens or not. We haven’t listened to her in years, and it hasn’t stopped her one bit.”
Rusza couldn’t even summon up a fake smile for that. “Good night, Irina. I’ll see you in the morning.” He pulled free of her lingering grasp and trudged in the direction of the barracks. He knew that Daystar Company was off-duty. He counted on finding Irina’s brothers still awake, which they were.
“The boy’s back!” Anton said, delighted. “Weren’t you staying longer?”
“Plans changed,” Rusza said shortly. He explained about Irina and Ma Demyan taking rooms at the hostel for the night and needing transportation for the morning.
Rolan waved his hand. “Consider it done, brother. We’ll get a truck and drive us all up to the ranch. You look awful. What happened to your lip? Did Irina get too frisky and bite you?” He laughed. “Get some sleep.”
When Rusza reached his room, he had enough energy to pull off his boots and pull back the covers. The next he knew, it was 0600 the next morning. He went for a shower, dressed in a fresh shirt and jeans, and then headed for the mess hall for a huge breakfast. After these steps, he felt much better. The morning was crisp and bright, with the sunshine glittering off a fresh coating of snow. Rusza eagerly absorbed the light as he walked the short distance to the hostel.
Irina, the youngest two brothers, and Ma Demyan were still in the room. Rusza found out which room and climbed the stairs to the third floor to tap on the door.
“Here’s the boy!” Anton exclaimed.
“Now we’re all ready,” Rolan added. “Let’s get moving.”
Irina grabbed onto Rusza’s elbow as the party turned him back in his steps, down the stairs and out into the sunshine. Parked inconspicuously at the side of the hostel property was one of the Daystar Company trucks. Rusza was fairly shoved into the back, where he had all he could do to get Irina to sit on her own seat instead of on his lap. Ma Demyan climbed in behind Irina and shut the door as Rolan took the wheel and Anton claimed the front passenger seat.
It was a forty-five minute drive on roads skimmed over with snow before they pulled up in the yard in front of the Demyan ranch house. Pa Demyan came striding out of the barn at the rumble of the engine. “Well, I’ll be! Is that my girls, back already?” He helped Ma Demyan climb out of the back seat and then reached in to hug Irina before she could get out of the truck. “Oh, sweetie, how I missed your lively chatter and your music around the house!”
“I missed you too, Pa.” Irina wouldn’t go farther than to set her feet on the ground before she turned back to reach for Rusza, but he had already climbed out the far door.
“Good to see you, son.” Pa Demyan stuck out his hand at Rusza. “You took good care of my girls, I trust?”
“Safe and sound,” he replied vaguely.
“Let’s go inside, and you can tell me all about the capital. Rolan, park the truck in the barn, keep it warm.”
“Got to take it back yet today,” Rolan drawled, “before the captain finds out it’s gone.”
“Did you take a truck out without permission again?” Ma Demyan said fretfully.
But Pa Demyan just laughed. “I got you, boy.” He led the way to the house. Irina clung to his elbow with her one arm and Rusza’s elbow with her other. “The house is downright messy without my girls here to take good care of it,” he declared.
Ma Demyan shrugged out of her coat and grabbed her apron. Rusza hung back while Irina poured out to her father her impressions of the capital city’s size and many stores. “Can I help?” Rusza asked.
“You’re such a good young man,” Ma Demyan said. “But Irina’ll want you in the family room to help her tell all her news. Don’t fuss about me; I’ll be in soon.”
Rusza hesitated a few seconds before he accepted her reply and turned to follow the rest into the family room. Irina was in the middle of saying, “… but it turned out they didn’t even have a guest bedroom! I had to sleep on the floor, because his aunt was so stingy, she wouldn’t let me sleep in one of the empty beds.”
“And why was that? Whose beds were these, that were too special for my little girl?” asked Pa Demyan jovially.
“Mine,” said Rusza. “Or my brothers’. Those were the only empty beds in the house, because we were sitting up with Michael for the groom’s vigil.”
“Groom’s what?” asked Anton.
“Vigil. It’s when the men of the family sit up late into the night with the groom, to talk about old times and about the future,” said Rusza. “The bride and the women of the family do something similar. That’s why my aunt’s room was empty for Ma and Irina to use: she was sitting up with Helena.”
“Odd custom,” Pa Demyan asserted vaguely. “And no guest room?”
“No, sir. We have a big family. When I’m there, I share a room with two of my brothers, and my oldest brother shared a room with my dad until he married and started his own home. The other three bedrooms belong to my aunt Hapzah, who never married; my uncle Kent and his wife Feilin, and my grandparents. Five bedrooms, all full.”
Pa Demyan laughed. “Sounds cramped. I hope you all get along.”
“Usually we do.” But then Rusza thought of his last interactions with his family, and he felt a sharp pain that had nothing to do with the bruises Uncle Everard had given him.
“And how did you get along with this big family, sweetie?” he asked Irina.
She made a face. “Some of them were all right, but most of them were just horrible to me!”
Rusza froze. He suffered a moment of suspended thought as he looked into Irina’s animated face, pretty as always. Her eyes glittered with some emotion; Rusza normally would have called it enjoyment, but he couldn’t reconcile the feeling of enjoyment with the viperish words that poured out of Irina’s mouth, describing his family. “The one aunt was nice enough. She admired my needlework. But the other aunt! Such a shrew! You wouldn’t believe how mean and strict she was! Treating Rusza like a child instead of a grown man, and talking to me like I was five years old! Just horrible! The father wasn’t as bad, but what a stuffed fish, all dull and disapproving! They were all so uptight, and they put Rusza in a such a bad mood that he wasn’t any fun at all the whole time. I’m glad we’re back, so we can go back to doing what we want, just like it was before, without some disapproving old people snapping at us all the time.”
Rusza squeezed his eyes shut, but that couldn’t stop him remembering the last expression he had seen on his father’s face.
“Oh, that mean old uncle, the ugly one, he was always right there. He had the gall to claim I wasn’t pretty, or something like that. I don’t remember so clear, since I’m sure they put too much hard liquor in the wedding punch, and it made me horribly sick. It was so embarrassing! Oh, the oldest brother, Michael, he was sweet, but the bride! A bitch, a real bitch! I hope he cheats on her with somebody nicer and prettier.”
Rusza opened his mouth, but then he shut it again, shut it tightly. He was thinking of Helena, the first time she had stayed with them after the insurrection attempt, telling him how glad she was that he was so pleased to have her as a sister. Then he thought of Helena, talking to Irina, and her comment, Thank you for thinking of us, which had forced him to turn away because he knew he hadn’t been thinking of them at all, not the whole time of their wedding, and certainly not in the choosing of their gift.
When she finished, her father said, “Ah, well, you two won’t have to have much to do with them in future, so it’s no matter, sweetie. Aggie! Aggie, I’m dying of thirst out here! Haven’t we got anything in the cooler?”
Ma Demyan bustled out as if she had been released from a trap door. “This should do for now.”
“My girls,” said Pa Demyan in contentment. “It’s good to have everyone back home, as it should be. Now, Rusza, why are you still standing? Sit, sit, make yourself comfortable! You’ve had a long trip!”
“Thank you, sir, but I need to get the truck back before the captain notices,” he said, hardly aware of what he said.
This too made Pa Demyan laugh. “It wouldn’t be the first time one of these two boys of mine spent a day in solitary for a truck. They just see it as a chance to laze around for a whole day, the brutes. If you take it back, there’s a chance that captain of yours might think it was you who took it. How would you like that?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Rusza said. “I’ll… see you all soon.” He turned sharply and started back toward the kitchen door.
Ma Demyan went with him. As Rusza pulled on his jacket again, he heard the middle-aged housewife say softly, “I thought your family was nice enough.”
He gave her a weak smile. Outside, the sunshine seemed to burn away some of the shock that dulled his thoughts. He climbed behind the wheel of the truck. He had only driven twice before, but he started the engine and reversed, turned and set off down the road. It should have been a good opportunity to sort out his thoughts, but he found his mind going blank when faced with the long road.
Instead, it was the sight of a uniformed figure strolling up the row of company vehicles that jolted Rusza into active thought. He parked the truck in its spot, got out, and said, “Sorry about this, Major Rurik.”
“Tate? That’s a surprise. I was sure it was one of the… I see.” Major Julian Rurik shook his head. “Keys, Tate.” He took the keys from Rusza. “Now, as I recall, you have almost two weeks of leave left. Why are you here?”
The words made Rusza flinch suddenly, remembering again. “Just… seeing Mrs. Demyan and Irina home,” he said.
“The visit didn’t go well,” said Major Rurik. “That’s sad, but not surprising. What do you plan to do with the rest of your leave? Forfeit?”
“I don’t know,” Rusza said. “I haven’t thought…”
“That’s your motto, isn’t it, Tate? ‘I haven’t thought.’ Well, do some thinking. I want to know by tomorrow morning whether you’re going back on duty or taking the rest of your leave.” The major walked through the parking garage toward the offices.
Rusza wandered back into the sunshine. He turned his face to the sky. It was only 1030 hours, but it felt like the day had dragged on for much longer. Having nothing particular to do, Rusza wandered up the street toward the depot building. People passed him, taking advantage of the sunny morning to do their business in the comparative warmth, but Rusza didn’t see any of their faces. He walked past the guards on duty at the entrance, nodding at their greetings and continuing on his way. His feet brought him through the hallways he vaguely remembered, until they brought him outside the open door of the empty office that Uncle Everard had used. Only one desk sat in front of the windows with its swivel chair; all the other furniture had been removed. The room had been cleaned as if no one had ever used it. Rusza turned away.
Eventually he wandered down to the Army Stores. He had no reason to buy anything and no money saved up to spend, not until his allowance went through at the end of the month. He had spent it all on bus fare and that present for Michael and Helena’s wedding. Still he wandered the aisles, looking at the goods without much interest.
“Is that Rusza Tate I see?”
Rusza glanced sharply upward to see Timothy Demyan gazing down at him from a steel stock ladder. “Tim?”
“That’s me,” said the young man as he lightly descended.
“What are you doing here?”
“Didn’t they tell you? I left home, moved to town, got a job. It’s still wrangling stock, but it’s sure a different kind of stock. I’m saving money for my own ranch. It isn’t much, working here, but I get paid and I get every third and seventh day off, which is more than I could ever say about ranching, much as I love it. The real question is, what are you doing here? I thought you were at the capital for your brother’s wedding?”
“I was. I came back.”
Timothy Demyan studied him for a short while. “My lunch break is coming up. It’s a little early, but you never have trouble doing justice to a plate full of food. The cafeteria here, twenty minutes from now. My treat. Sound good to you?”
Rusza, for once, didn’t feel hungry at all, but he smiled and said, “Sure. See you then.” He wandered the aisles again, passing things he had already looked through and seeing even less than the first time. He only knew that twenty minutes had passed when Timothy showed up at his side. “Let’s eat.”
After they had gone through the cafeteria line and Timothy had paid for both meals, they sat down at a corner table. “Now, don’t tell me,” Timothy said, “let me guess: you took Irina to meet your family, and she didn’t get along with them.”
“And she demanded to go home. And she demanded you go with her.”
Rusza kept nodding.
“And so now you’re of two minds, and you don’t like choosing?”
“Not exactly…” Rusza explained what had happened at the Demyan home.
Timothy shook his head repeatedly. “I won’t apologize for her anymore, I decided that when I left home, but that was wrong of her, just wrong. She said it in front of you, and that was twice as wrong. Tell me, then, what’s going through your head right now? You aren’t exactly of two minds, so what are you?”
“She’s your sister,” Rusza protested.
“Don’t care. Tell me.”
“I… I think I need to get away from her.”
“I could have told you that long ago. What’s your plan?” Timothy dug into his food. He looked up when Rusza didn’t say anything. “What? Surprised? I told you when you stayed at the house, I couldn’t see you giving up the traveling and the excitement for ranching. Now, take me: I love the big spaces, the sky, the peaks, the loneliness. I’m looking forward to my own place, farther out toward the border, just me and a wife, some stock, some kids. Give hospitality to the occasional traveler, come down to town for readings and socials. But you? How did you like your time in solitary? For you, ranching would drive you crazy. I like you, Tate. Irina has bad judgment when it comes to men, so I was happy when she settled on you, but I’m starting to believe you’ve got bad judgment when it comes to women. How much has she cost you?”
“How many friends has she cost you? How much trust from your family? How much has she cost you?” Timothy emphasized each word with a jab of his fork into his stew. “I don’t even think you ever asked yourself if she really loves you, if she cares what’s important to you. But you keep going back because she’s pretty and lively and cuddles up to you whenever she’s afraid you’re trying to think for yourself. Of course you need to get away from her. So what’s your plan?”
“I don’t know,” Rusza admitted. “I’ve never had to come up with a plan for… this.”
“So talk to your commanding officer, that Rurik. He’s been around. He’ll have lots of ideas for you. What? What did I say?”
Rusza squeezed the bridge of his nose to stop the stinging tears he felt rising. “Nothing, just… that’s what I always relied on Uncle Everard for. He always had ideas about my future, and now… now…” He exhaled and inhaled slowly a few times to steady himself.
“He isn’t dead. You talk like you won’t ever see him or talk to him again.”
“You weren’t there. You didn’t see his face…”
“So you made him angry,” said Timothy between bites of food. “Make it up with him. He’s a good man, an elder. He’ll forgive you. Don’t be weak.” He scraped his spoon around the plate to get the last few fragments. “Do you have a plan now?”
“Talk to Major Rurik. See what he says.”
“Make sure whatever it is, it involves you going back home. You need to go home.” He nodded at the untouched plate in front of Rusza. “Don’t waste it. I paid for it with my hard-earned wages. Eat up.”
Rusza nodded. “Smells good.” He started in on the meal.
“You, Tate, you’re a funny guy. You come in here, all mopey and down, no appetite, and all it takes is one person to tell you what you need to do, and now you’re hungry. All that impressive outside, and you’re still just a kid inside, aren’t you?”
Rusza felt his face heating. “Feels like it.” He ate so quickly that he was finished before Timothy needed to get back on his shift. He himself headed back toward the Daystar Company headquarters. At the front desk, he said, “Can I see Major Rurik?”
The clerk checked his agenda book and said, “He’s free now. Go ahead.”
At the major’s office door, Rusza said, “Can I have a talk with you, Major?”
“Made up your mind already?” Major Julian Rurik leaned back in his swivel chair. “Have a seat, Tate, unless it’s something so short that it takes you longer to sit down than to say it.”
Rusza sat down in the chair in front of the desk. “Sir, I need to ask for your advice.” He took his time, explaining his situation and ending on Timothy’s advice. “I was hoping,” he said meekly, “you might be able to recommend a… a course of action. I know I’m assigned here for the rest of my four years, but I can’t… I don’t think it’d be good if I… you know.”
“If I do know,” said the major with a wry smile, “it isn’t because of your fine oratory. You don’t want to say it, so I will: if you stay with Daystar Company, you’ll keep running across the Demyan girl, and if you keep running across her, you’ll lose your resolve. Maybe you’ll lose yourself, if you haven’t already. So you want to transfer. Is that it?”
“Have you told her?”
“Not yet, sir.”
“If you’ll take my advice, you won’t. You’ll just go.”
“Sir… that sounds cowardly. I made a commitment; I can’t just… break it without saying a word.”
“You say cowardly, I say sensible. Sometimes you just need to cut your ties and go. So you think you’re going to tell her. Write her a letter?” Whatever Major Rurik saw in Rusza’s face told him what Rusza couldn’t say aloud. “You honestly want to tell her in person? Are you out of your mind? First, when? Are you going to wait here until she comes to you? That’ll be days. What happens to your resolve then? Are you going to go back to the Demyan ranch? First, you aren’t allowed to drive, so how are you getting there?”
“I drove,” Rusza began.
“Ranch kids drive me around the bend,” the major complained. “Just because your dad or your granddad let you drive in the pastures doesn’t mean you’re allowed to drive on roads, you know. Yes, I know you’re a farm kid, not a ranch kid, but the one’s the same as the other. If you get one of Demyans to drive you, then they’re in control. Strategically speaking, what does that suggest to you?”
“I’d be at a disadvantage, sir.”
“You better believe you would be.”
Rusza contemplated this for a while. Reducing the situation to a strategic problem made it easier to work through. “If I did go out there, then I’d need a driver.”
“And if you did go out there,” Major Rurik said, “you’d better go with your luggage in the back of the truck and leave only enough time to get there, tell them, and turn around so you can get straight on the bus. With resolve as shaky as yours, you need all the reinforcements you can set up in advance: a driver to get you out of the situation, a bus to get you out of range. Establish your exit in advance. It’s the basics of basic strategy for tricky situations. Don’t answer any letters, either, not for the first six months at least. That’s my advice to you.”
“Thank you, sir.” Rusza exhaled. “I’ve never been in a situation like this before, so I didn’t have any idea what to do.”
“I can tell. When does the operation commence?”
Major Rurik closed his eyes tightly for a moment. “Tate, this hasn’t been theory we’ve been discussing. Set a day, set a time. Be specific. Commit yourself. When do you want to leave?”
“Oh.” Rusza frowned. “Well, that depends on when I can catch the bus. I don’t… I don’t have the money for bus fare, not until the end of the month…”
“Not a problem. When Father Locke assigned you to me, he did so conditionally. He said, if you decided to leave, then you were to be allowed to leave. He even left a travel fund. He knows you and your lack of foresight too well, I’d say. You can take the regular bus, which leaves tomorrow at 0600, or you can take the next express, which leaves today at 1500.”
“What’s the difference?” Rusza asked out of curiosity.
“The express leaves twice daily, costs little, boards with three drivers so it doesn’t have to stop until it reaches the crossroads. The seats are hard benches, because it’s just a decommissioned troop bus. It’s a rough ride. Most choose it only if they’re low on cash or they have an emergency. You’ve taken the regular bus already; you came into town on it last night. What’s your choice?”
Rusza swallowed hard and then clenched his jaw. “Everything I brought with me to Sawtooth Ridge is still packed from my last trip. It’s only coming up to 1200 hours now. If I can find a driver in the next half an hour, then I have forty-five minutes to get up there, a few minutes to do my talking, and forty-five minutes back. I’ll be in time to take today’s express, won’t I?”
“If you don’t dawdle in your talking,” Major Rurik said dryly.
“I won’t.” Rusza said those two words with a heavy knot forming in his stomach. It was happening, happening fast, and he still wasn’t sure he wanted it to happen. The only thing he knew was that he couldn’t give up his family, not even for the girl he loved.
“Good plan. I’ll drive.”
“I’m serious, Tate. I don’t trust you to hold to your resolve. I don’t want to lose my bet.” Major Rurik grinned suddenly. “Father Locke thought it would take you six weeks to two months to pull out, but I said less than six weeks, closer to a month. If you leave today, I win the bet hands down, and Father Locke owes me a bottle of fizzy lemonade from South Territory. Of course, I had the advantage in the bet. I’ve had those two brothers of hers under my eye for two and three years now, so I’ve had a front-row seat to the Demyan girl’s flings. None of them lasted more than a few days beyond a month, most of them considerably less than a month.”
“Them?” Rusza asked.
“Oh, you are by no means the first. I’d say you’re more like the fourth or fifth. Maybe the sixth; I haven’t been keeping that close an eye on that family’s doings. Get your bag. You said half an hour. I’ll rustle up a little lunch, since it sounds like I’m going to be busy for the next few hours. Meet me here at 1230.”
This sent Rusza striding back to the barracks to grab his bag and check that he hadn’t left anything out of it. He had a little time, so he returned to the depot and looked up Timothy. Explaining to him the plan, he said, “I owe you, Tim. Really. Take care. Write me… I don’t know where yet, but send it care of Mother Locke’s staff, and it’ll find me.”
“Yes, you do owe me,” Timothy laughed, gripping his hand, “and yes, I will write. When I get my place, don’t forget to ride up and see me someday.”
“That’s a promise,” said Rusza. He hurried back to the Daystar Company headquarters’ parking garage just as 1230 came. He met Major Rurik coming from the other end of the garage. “Sir, I’m ready.”
“We’ll take the same truck,” he said with a twist to the corner of his mouth. “I have something I want to do while you’re making your break-up speech. That said, have you considered what you need to say yet? I won’t help you with that.”
As they climbed into the truck, Rusza said, “I’ll think about it on the way.” To his surprise, the major turned on the truck radio to the orchestral music station as he backed out of the parking stall and sped out of the garage, scattering members of the company as he went. It was not, all in all, an easy ride, between the major’s abrupt driving, the thunderous music, and Rusza’s own thoughts, but he knew when the truck crunched to a halt in front of the ranch house three-quarters of an hour later that there was one thing he must say.
“I’m not shutting off the engine,” Major Rurik warned him. “Get out, go in, have your say, and get back out here so I don’t waste fuel.”
Rusza met the man’s droll gaze and knew what he meant. “Yes, sir.” He climbed out of the passenger side door and loped up to the kitchen door, which was always open. “Hello!” he called out.
Ma Demyan came, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “Rusza, you’re back! How nice. Irina, Rusza’s back!”
“Of course he is,” said the girl as she ran to throw her arms around Rusza’s chest. “It was just returning a truck.”
“But if he returned it,” Ma said slowly, “how did he get back?”
“Who cares?” Irina began.
Rusza grasped her by the shoulders and held her away from him. “I have to say something to you, Irina.”
Her eyes brightened with excitement. “You want to say something to me? Something important, maybe?” She shot a glance at her mother and giggled in knowing anticipation.
Rusza drew a deep breath and released it, trying to steady himself. “You… Irina, you’re the prettiest girl I ever met. I really like how high-spirited and confident you are. And I do love you.”
The door opened and closed behind him. Pa Demyan was coming in from the yard. “What’s that Major Rurik doing, sitting in an idling truck out in the yard? Is he here for the boys, because of borrowing the truck without consent, you think?”
“No, he drove me back here,” Rusza said. “I need to say something important to Irina, but I want both of you to hear it too. Like I said, Irina, I’ve never found anybody as pretty as you. You’ve been talking marriage… but I can never marry anybody who hates my family.” The way all three Demyans froze in astonishment earned Rusza a few seconds of silence in which to persevere. “I know you think they’re horrible people, but they aren’t, they’re my people, and I can’t bear the thought of giving them up. And that’s what you’d want, isn’t it? For me to stay here and never go back, not even to visit. I can’t. I just can’t. My dad, he’s so sensitive, I thought he was going to cry, last time I saw him. And my Grandpa Gar and Grandma Apple, they were so disappointed in me… I thought I was going to cry,” he admitted. A thought dawned on him. “You were never planning on getting along with them, were you?”
“Hate?” said Pa Demyan sharply. “My little girl doesn’t hate anybody. How could such a loving little girl hate anybody? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about how she thinks they’re horrible, sir, like she told you just this morning,” Rusza said patiently.
“You’re just saying this,” said Irina, grabbing him by the arm, “so I’ll agree to go back and visit them after we’re married, aren’t you, Rusza? You don’t really mean it.” She pressed herself against his arm and lifted a pouting mouth upward toward him.
Rusza shuddered with the effort it cost him to peel her grip carefully off his arm. “No. I mean it. I’m going back to the capital. My bus leaves in a couple hours. Major Rurik is here to drive me back. I have to go.”
“No,” Irina said. “No, you don’t have to go. Why do you have to go? You can’t go!” Her voice rose with each sentence.
Part of Rusza wanted to explain to her, to calm her and try to persuade her, but another part of him said, Exit. Exit now. Pull out. So, rather than speak, he turned, brushed past Pa Demyan, and left through the kitchen door. His long legs made short work of the yard. Ahead of him, Irina’s two brothers were standing by the driver’s door, talking to the major. In a few moments, Rusza was fairly throwing himself into the passenger seat. “I’m through.”
Major Rurik released the brake. “Good man. Anton Demyan, Rolan Demyan, I want you back in town tomorrow morning. Report to the depot for a day’s solitary confinement.”
“We can come with you now,” said Anton.
“No, you can’t. I don’t want you.” Rurik hit the accelerator so that the boys sprang back from the truck. To Rusza, he said, “That took guts, Tate. Good job.” He turned up the radio and sped back down the road toward Sawtooth Ridge.
They fairly screeched to a halt in front of the bus terminal at 144o. The terminal was empty. Three men sat in the express, a battered former personnel carrier. They looked up with interest when Major Rurik brought Rusza to them. “Not much business today,” Rurik noted.
“Nobody,” agreed one of them. “Might have to forfeit the day’s wages, if we can’t get any passengers.”
“I’ve got one for you,” said Rurik. “He has an emergency. I’ll add on double if you leave now instead of waiting until 1500.”
The three men conferred with a glance. “Sounds fine to me,” said their spokesman. “Get the young man on board. That’s all your baggage? Good.”
Rurik grabbed hold of Rusza’s shoulder. “Don’t relax your resolve. Not in this. And maybe you ought to let your family pick your girlfriends from now on. Safer for you.” He gave Rusza a shove forward onto the bus. “Remind Father Locke about the fizzy lemonade!” he called after Rusza.
The bus rattled as it started forward. Rusza stumbled to a bench seat and dropped his bag next to the window before he sat down. He watched Sawtooth Ridge passing by the windows. His head felt a little hollow. He leaned back, tipped his head back, and closed his eyes.
Someone was shaking him by the shoulder. His neck ached right along with his bruises and his split lip. When he opened his eyes, he discovered that it was night, late in the night, and they were already at the crossroads waystation. One of the drivers was standing over him, saying, “I never thought anybody could sleep in that position as long as you did. We were starting to worry you might be dead. Grab your bag. This is your stop. There’s another express route running in the morning, 0430, to Fortress or to the capital, take your pick. The barracks are yonder.” He pointed across a broad stretch of pavement to a long, dark shadow with a few lighted windows.
Rusza got up stiffly and shuffled off the bus. He fixed his eyes on the light over the barracks office door and started in that direction, refusing to let himself stop until he stood in front of the desk where a night clerk looked up at him in expectation. “I’m on my way to the capital,” he said, “express. Where can I sleep?”
The clerk made him sign in on the register and gave him a key attached to a rectangular wooden fob. “One-oh-five is the nearest available room. Need a wakeup to make the morning express?”
Rusza shook his head. “I’ll just know.” He shuffled to the door marked 105, let himself in, and locked the door behind him. There was a small table and an army cot in the room, nothing else. Rusza dropped his bag on the floor and lowered himself down onto the cot.
It seemed he had only just shut his eyes when that peculiar instinct inside him told him that the time was 0415. He sat upright. The stiffness was gone, his head was clear, and his bruises hurt worse than ever. He thought of trying to find something to eat, but he remembered he didn’t have more than a little loose change to his name, so he decided to skip it and run for the express. He dropped the key at the attendant’s desk, signed out on the register, and strode out into the dark early morning. This time, he got a better sense of where he was. He remembered, from his previous trip through the waystation, that the bus terminal sat in the middle, with all the necessary buildings surrounding it in a square. He saw two express buses already idling, ready to go. He went to one. “Is this for the capital?”
“Right on the first guess,” said the driver.
“Do I have time for the bathroom?”
“As long as you aren’t constipated, sure,” the driver replied.
Rusza ran to the terminal building, where he remembered there being restrooms just off the lobby. When he had finished there, he ran back out and onto the bus. The time was 0430 exactly, and the bus started rolling before the door shut behind him.
This bus had four other passengers on it. Three looked like family members, a married couple and their young son. The other was a soldier, older, craggy. He leaned his head against the window and shut his eyes as soon as the bus pulled out onto the highway.
Rusza found a seat not far behind the driver. There was only one driver this time, so Rusza assumed they wouldn’t be making the long drive to the capital all in one go. He wasn’t sleepy anymore, although it was still dark out, so he started to consider his plan. Thus far, with the assistance of Tim and Major Rurik, the plan was working. Rusza deliberately kept his thoughts from Irina. He knew that missing her was pointless, that he couldn’t afford to look backward or he would weaken. He had made his choice: a precious family instead of a lovely girlfriend. The only thought he did spare for that aspect of his situation was the resignation that he would never marry, never fall in love again. He would be to his family as Aunt Hapzah had always been, and he would find his happiness some other way than through love. That was all.
Assuming, he realized, that his family would welcome him back. His guts knotted at the thought of facing Uncle Everard or his own father again. Rusza pushed that thought away. He was on his way back to the capital. That was the first step.
The first step… where had he heard those words just recently? Right, it was from Slate, who had a new girlfriend. Asking a girl to be your girlfriend was just a first step, he had said, not a free pass to touch or kiss or do all the intimate things that Irina wanted to do. Rusza felt a hot blush sweep over him at the thought of the intimate things Irina had wanted to do with him. What was it Tim had said? You don’t even know if she really loves you or cares what’s important to you. She must love him. Girls don’t want to do those sorts of things if they don’t love a man. But Rusza had to admit that she had never asked him about what was important to him. She had taken it for granted, for example, that he felt oppressed by his family’s strict standards, that he didn’t share the same standards. And again he blushed, remembering that he had never exactly acted around Irina as if he shared those standards. There had been the incident with Cooper at the beginning, and the fiasco at the Taivas suite. Rusza felt even more ill, thinking about that. The way he had acted in front of the Taivas family, in front of Sanna, had been completely shameless, as if he and Irina had been alone rather than guests in someone’s home. He pushed away that line of thought.
He was on his way to the capital. In less than a day, he would be back where he had grown up, a different person than he had been. Where would he stay? He had no money, and he wasn’t assigned to anywhere in particular yet. In fact, he was still on leave, as far as he knew. Two weeks, no, ten days of leave remaining.
He had a long bus ride to consider his limited options. They stopped after four hours, refueling the bus at another waystation. There was a vending machine there that had packets of nuts for cheap, and Rusza had enough loose change to purchase two of them to settle his stomach. Then they drove on for another three hours, stopping at the bus terminal in a small town whose name Rusza didn’t pay attention to. More passengers got on, so the bus was noisier than it had been during the morning. He watched a set of five young men as they played cards across the aisle in the row ahead of him, and that reminded him of his own brothers. He marveled at the thought that the Demyan boys had ever seemed to him to resemble his brothers. They were nothing alike, except in that there were many of them. He wondered if Michael and Helena were having more guests to their house. He wondered if Michael was able to go into the back garden yet without thinking of their mother’s death. Michael had been older. He remembered more of the grief of it. Rusza only remembered the confusion and sickly fear, and the feel of his mother’s cold hand under the warm sun. He shuddered.
Finn was still working at the farm. It was Gavin Demyan who had put Rusza in mind of Finn, although they had nothing in common but the responsibility they carried for the family business. Finn was a good all-rounder, good with the soil and the plants, good with the machinery like Tim, shrewd about business. He would take over the farm when Uncle Kent retired, after Uncle Kent took over from Grandpa Gar. Rusza thought about Michael’s comment, about giving the house they grew up in to Finn because it was closer to the fields. Michael was always thoughtful that way. So was Helena. She wasn’t at all like Irina had described her to her family, but even so, she had been angry, really angry with Irina. She had human soul sympathy and could see inside a person better than most. The same with Uncle Everard and his human thought sympathy, and both of them had been really angry with Irina for no reason Rusza had been able to see. Rusza knew what that meant, as much as he hated to admit it. Maybe he couldn’t help how he felt, but he could act according to what he knew and not what he felt, like Uncle Everard had often told him and his brothers when they were still growing up.
The bus pulled into the capital terminal near the Government Center at midnight. Rusza was glad to stretch his legs. On the last stretch of the trip, he had thought of a temporary solution to his lodgings problem, and he was eager to put it into practice. He felt a flash of gratitude that he could swipe his army trainee ID in order to ride the trolley out to Garden District instead of having to come up with enough money for fare.
His destination was fairly far from the trolley line. Even in the dark, Rusza knew his way to the farm. He let himself inside the barn with the spare key. Letting a glow of stored sunlight rise to his fingertips for illumination, Rusza made his way past all the obstacles to the office in the back, but it wasn’t the office he wanted. There was another door just past the office, a place they sometimes had used as a breakroom, where there was a couch that was big enough to sleep on. Rusza stretched himself out on this couch, thinking sleepily of all the times he and his brothers had played in this room.
He awoke to faint sunshine. His grandfather was sitting on the edge of the couch, watching him. “Good morning,” Grandpa Gar said.
“Grandpa!” Rusza sat upright.
“I didn’t expect to find you here. When did you get back into town?”
“Last night. Is it okay that I’m…? I won’t stay long. I just… didn’t have anywhere to go.”
“Do you have anywhere to go now?”
Rusza took a deep breath and exhaled. “No. I can go to the trainee office, though, and tell them I’m forfeiting the rest of my leave, and ask for an assignment where they provide—”
“Stop. Listen. Your ban from the house was conditional, remember?”
“Until I come as a member of the family,” Rusza said, “but I don’t know what that means. I came back to the capital because… because I couldn’t give you all up, and that’s what it would have meant if I stayed with Irina. I know, I know she’s what everybody was saying she was. I know. But I still can’t help loving her, even so. I had to give her up, but… I love her. And I can’t face Dad or Uncle Everard with that still on me, because I don’t want to disappoint them again. I never thought Uncle Everard really felt things strongly, but that look… I was scared. I always looked up to him, even when I was a kid. I thought he was the strongest and smartest man alive… and I made him look like he was really suffering. Does this make sense, Grandpa?”
Grandpa Gar nodded slowly. “You know, this was where Everard stayed when he first came to work for me, when he was a boy. I took him on, thinking he was much older than he was. He was recommended by a couple of the farmers in the outer ring. He helped them through the summer, and they ran out of work for him to do. They said he was a hard worker, learned new tasks quickly, and wasn’t afraid to get dirty. So I took him on, and since he didn’t have a place to stay, being basically a migrant worker, I made this up for him. This is where I taught him how to pray,” he said wistfully. “When we found out he was only fifteen, Apple and I told him he had to stay with us. Our neighbors then, Philip and Goda Klee— you’re too young to remember them— they formally adopted him for his financial support and citizenship, but he basically lived with us. I never knew what he was thinking, but he always came out with something that took me by surprise. Like when I talked with him about obligatory service. He was old enough, and he was interested, but he asked if he had to start right away after he took his citizenship exam. I told him there was a waiver for new citizens, for as long as ten years, so that they could get their feet under them first. He asked to apply for the waiver. He said he wanted to go into service with Archet, because Archet worried him. Now, your dad is almost ten years younger than Everard, so his waiver went for nine years, but he did what he promised. He watched out for Archet during the four years, and then they both enlisted for their separate reasons. I never really understand why, but Everard took to Archet like to a real brother and always protected him. He still does. If he turned against you, it was because he couldn’t stand to see Archet grieved by what you were doing. If Archet is no longer grieved by what you’re doing, then Everard will relent. I don’t think it has anything to do with your feelings for Irina Demyan. It has everything to do with your choice of actions, and the effect that choice has on your family.”
Rusza swallowed hard and cleared his throat. “The story he told about Lyndon.”
“Is… is Dad back at work yet?”
“He starts back tomorrow. Would you like to talk with him?”
Rusza nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak.