Axel Taivas set his broad-brimmed canvas hat on his head and his wrap-around sunglasses on the bridge of his nose. The interior of the house was a comfortably cool temperature, but he knew he was about to walk out into something quite different. At only eight in the morning— Sanna would have said 0800— the sky in Current-town was already sunny, hot, and windy. Axel took up his new carved ebony walking stick and tightened the strap of his hat at the back of his head in preparation as he stepped out the front door.
The hot wind struck him with the scents of jasmine and freesia from a neighbor’s garden. He looked up and down the quiet lane, but none of the neighbors were out in their front gardens at the time, so he began the long walk toward the army base. Soon he began to encounter people beginning to emerge from their houses. It was a peculiar culture to him, as used to early rising and early sleeping as he was. People in Current-town were rarely out of bed before eight, largely because they were usually up at night until one or two. There was a brief window of time, from nine until ten, when neighbors could reliably be found at home, ready for receiving guests, or in their gardens for some early weeding before they went to work. Axel himself had to be at his early job at ten, so he always left early to pick up the mail and hear the news at the army base.
He passed a small white cottage with a clay tile roof. Jen Yeardley was in her garden, brandishing a pair of secateurs at a tree peony, when Axel said, “Morning, Mrs. Yeardley.”
“Good morning to you, Mr. Taivas. Off to the base? Fine morning for it.”
“A little windy,” he said, “but as long as I don’t lose my hat again, it’s all right. Is little Ellie off to school yet?”
“She overslept,” said Jen, “so no, not yet. I was talking with Mrs. Brook, and we wondered whether you plan on sending your little Soren to school soon. He’s five, is he not?”
“He is, but we were waiting until he got settled in after the move. Where is the nearest school?”
“Ellie’s school is nearest to us. It’s three blocks south and one block east of here. Ellie! You had better hurry,” she called out in the direction of the cottage.
From inside, a young girl’s voice called back, “Coming, Mama!” A slender girl with two dark braids hanging down her back came trotting out of the front door. She wore a flouncy dress that looked like buttercup-yellow froth and carried a white canvas bag tucked under one arm.
“Did you finish all of your breakfast? Here, let me look at you.” Jen bent down, wiped a few crumbs from the girl’s cheek, kissed her forehead, and said, “Off with you, and don’t forget to mind the traffic on the larger streets.” She and Axel watched the girl trot away. Then Jen said, “Have you heard anything from Corporal Taivas or Miss Tuovali-Guslin? I expect the company back any moment, but Aug never sends word ahead.”
“Nothing yet,” Axel said. “I hope to hear something at the base when I pick up our mail. If I do, I’ll stop back and let you know.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you, Mr. Taivas. Do enjoy your walk!”
Axel went onward. Before long, he caught up to Emmett Brook, the one-armed drill instructor for Company G. “Morning, Emmett.”
“Axel,” said the gruff old man.
“You’re earlier than usual,” Axel commented.
“Louisa mentioned a new research subject coming to the clinic this morning,” said Emmett, “and she said it was a young man, so she wanted me to come along for propriety’s sake.”
“Does she have a new line of research already?”
“Not new, not exactly,” Emmett said. “An offshoot of her examination of your Sanna. She nosed out a thermal energy sympathist with cold affinity in one of the outer villages, so she had him brought in to check how he compares.”
“I’m surprised she found one.”
“It was bound to happen. She’s quiet, but she’s persistent, and South Territory has the highest percentage of energy sympathists in all Haazak. Good morning, Mrs. Lacy.”
A woman walking toward them on the other side of the street bowed a little and said, “Good morning, Drill Sergeant. Good morning, Mr. Taivas.”
Axel echoed a good morning to her. Then he said, “I don’t think I know her.”
“You stand out. All you northerners do. No doubt she heard of you, and if she heard of you, she’d think it impolite not to address you by name.”
“Ah.” Axel went on without speaking for several yards before he said, “Do you think the company will be back this morning?”
“They ought to have been back last night,” said Emmett. “They must have found something on their patrol. No telling when they’ll get back, if that’s the case. It’s nothing to fret about. Happens all the time.”
Axel nodded. When their paths diverged at the street leading to the sympathy research clinic, Axel continued on alone. The sun burned down on him. The hat kept him from getting sunburn, but it didn’t do much to relieve the intense heat. He was glad to see the gate to the army base through the shimmering heat. The administration building, where the post office resided, was at least air-conditioned.
“Morning, Mr. Taivas,” said the young postal clerk as soon as Axel walked in. “Got a few letters for you here, and a box.”
The box was small enough to carry in his free hand. It was from Wray Melkor and his wife. Axel sorted through the letters. There were four: two for Fiola, from Crystallin Locke and Lily Allen; one for Sanna, from Mica Locke; and one for him, from Dr. Tate. He stepped aside and opened this last one with a twinge of anxiety.
Dear Axel, it began, I’ve held off writing to you until I had something positive to tell. It has been a hard, anxious week since Michael and Helena’s wedding. Rusza did attend, which was more than I expected, but he brought Irina Demyan and her mother with him. The visit did not go well. I’ll spare you the more sordid details, since they don’t benefit anyone by the repeating of them. It ended with Rusza practically disappearing from our midst while he was still in the city and choosing to spend all his time with her instead of us. When I finally was able to speak with him about it, he responded in anger and made it sound as if he considered Sawtooth Ridge his new home, and preferred it over being home with the rest of us. I was crushed by this. Everard noticed, as he always does, and decided to take action. With Mom and Dad’s consent, he expelled Rusza from our house and told him he was no longer part of our family. I was prepared at that point never to see Rusza again.
But I am relieved beyond words to be able to say that I was wrong. Yesterday, Dad came back from the farm unexpectedly to ask me if I would come with him. I went with him back to the farm, into the barn, and found Rusza there. He had come back on the bus the night before and was penitent, more than penitent, he was grieved over grieving me. It seems that something during the trip to escort Miss Demyan and her mother home had prompted him to make a choice in our favor instead of hers. He is sad at no longer being with her, but he is making a conscious choice to put her behind him and admits that she is not a good girl, much as he still loves her, and says that Helena and Everard were right. I have never seen him like this before. I can’t imagine what could have happened during those four days, and he refuses to speak of it. At present, I have decided not to worry about it. I’m simply relieved that my son has come home.
In a few days, we will be taking a family trip together. Lyndon has submitted his enlistment paperwork, and his first two years of training will take place at the secondary hospital in Current-town, so his brothers and I, with Helena and Linnie, will take a trip together and escort him to his assignment. He will be living with his maternal grandparents, Nigel and Penelope Yeardley. I hope I will be able to meet with you, Sanna, Fiola, and Soren when I am in Current-town. In anticipation of such a meeting, I remain your friend, Archet Tate.
Axel leaned against the wall and exhaled slowly. He folded the letter and tucked it into his hip pocket.
“Is everything all right, Mr. Taivas?” the clerk asked.
“Fine, thank you,” he replied.
A soldier hesitated in the post office doorway. “Oh, Mr. Taivas, you’re here. You have two guests looking for you. They’re in the bus terminal lounge.”
“Did you catch their names?”Axel asked with another twinge of anxiety.
“No, sir, but one is a lady.”
Axel brightened. “I wonder if it’s Sarlota Moor. The lounge, you said? I’ll head that way now.” He took a brisk but circuitous walk in the direction of the bus terminal, always choosing a path that stayed where it was air-conditioned. It took him twice as long to get there, but it was many times more comfortable.
Only two people were seated in the lounge, chatting amiably together. One was indeed Sarlota Moor, as Axel had guessed, but the other startled him. It was Daava Jainin, one of the boys from Sky-wind. Axel broke into a run. “Good morning,” he called out while he was still some distance from them. “You’ve caught up to us, Sarlota Moor! And what brings you to Current-town, Daava? Welcome, both of you!”
Both of them jumped to their feet. Sarlota seemed to take a small step backwards, putting Daava first, but Axel said, “I’ll teach you both the proper etiquette for greetings here in the south. A gentleman always greets the lady first.” He tucked his stick under his arm, took the hand Sarlota extended to him, and raised it to his lips lightly. “And men and women never shake hands.” Then he turned to Daava. “For old acquaintances like us, we shake hands,” he seized Daava’s hand, “and do thus.” He pulled Daava forward until they bumped chests with their clasped hands between them. “It’s almost like being in a different country,” he laughed as he stepped back.
“It’s hot,” Daava said. “I almost couldn’t breathe when I stepped off the bus.”
“It isn’t as hot as Oasis,” Sarlota said, “but the wind! Scorching!”
“Tell me,” Axel said, “where are you staying? Do you want to settle in first, or do you want to see part of the city first? Unless you have some different business, Daava, since I haven’t given you the chance to tell me what brings you here.”
“I want to join Sky-wind school,” Daava said.
“Well! That’s great,” Axel replied. “When did you write Sanna to apply?”
Axel grinned. “So you just jumped on a bus from Leeward without any warning? I do remember you always being an impulsive boy, Daava. Sanna and the other students are out on patrol with Company G still, so you’ll have to wait and talk to her when she gets back.”
“I’d like to greet Nana Friga before I head to my hotel,” Sarlota said. “I brought souvenirs for all of you.”
“I should greet Elder Rohkin first too,” Daava agreed.
“She won’t let you call her that,” Axel warned him. “She says she stopped being an elder when she left the village with Sanna, so it’s Nana Friga for everyone.”
“Nana Friga,” Daava repeated. Then he grinned. “Makes me feel like a little kid again.”
“How do you think it made me feel?” Axel retorted. “Me, a man of fifty years, going back to what I called her when I was ten! Better drink some water before we head out. It has already got hotter out since you arrived.”
It seemed the air had grown hotter even than it had been when Axel had arrived fifteen minutes before. The three of them were crossing the parade grounds when a personnel carrier thundered past them. Axel recognized the insignia. “They’re back!” He jogged after the carrier.
“You’ve gotten more dexterous with your new leg,” Sarlota said as she followed him.
“Practice,” he laughed. “Fiola! Over here!”
Fiola came to meet them partway. “I thought that might’ve been you, Uncle Axel. Miss Moor, welcome to Current-town!” She gave Daava a quick, timid glance.
“You won’t remember this one, Fiola, but he’s Daava Jainin, one of the Sky-wind boys who survived. He came to apply to join the school.”
Fiola smiled in his general direction. She turned and called out, “Sanna! Sanna!”
Sanna was just stepping down from the carrier, propping up one of the Company G fellows. At hearing her name, she relinquished her place to another Company G soldier and started toward Axel and the visitors. She was some feet away when Axel made an alarming discovery. “Sanna, you’re all over blood! Are you all right?”
“It isn’t mine,” she answered quickly. “Private Hilston took a knife to the shoulder, and I was the nearest on hand to help.”
“What have you been doing?” Axel sighed.
But Sanna was already greeting Sarlota and Daava. Daava said, “I wasn’t sure you’d remember me, Miss Taivas.”
Maccani Moor, loping up to them at just that instant, said to Daava, “Corporal Taivas, if you please.” Then, as an aside, “Good morning, Aunt Sarlota.”
“Good morning, Maccani,” she replied.
At almost the same moment, Daava said, “Corporal. Sorry.”
“I remember you very clearly, Daava Jainin,” Sanna replied solemnly to his comment, “and your sister Halla. And your grandmother, your parents, and your brother Eam.”
Daava was silent for a few seconds, just gazing into Sanna’s face. “Thank you for remembering them too.”
“I can’t forget,” she said simply.
He took her gloved hand, although it was streaked with dried blood, and raised it briefly to his lips just like Axel had taken Sarlota’s hand in greeting. “I want to join your school.”
Sanna studied his face, and he stood quietly while she was silent. When she did speak, it was to say, “We’ll discuss it, what it entails and what it requires, and see if you still want to join after that. Let’s go to the house.”
Several of the Company G soldiers fell into step with them as they left the base. The two corporals from Aug’s squad, Fran and Herrie, flanked Sanna on the way. “Did you know, Mr. Taivas,” said Fran, “that your niece knows how to fight barehanded against a knife?”
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Axel said. “Nilma was always so emphatic about being ready for anything in a fight. Marinen was the purist, unarmed combat only. Did Nilma go against you with a knife herself, Sanna, or did she find someone else?”
“I suppose it can’t cause her any trouble if I admit to it now,” Sanna said, “but she took me to the Outsider villages for barroom fights sometimes.”
“That girl,” Axel said in surprise and exasperation. “She might have gotten you hurt.”
“I did get hurt a little once,” Sanna said. She unbuttoned her coat, slid one arm out of its sleeve, and rolled up the sleeve of her long t-shirt to show a thin scar across her forearm. “It didn’t hurt as much as I expected, but Nilma said that was probably because I was icing it naturally.”
“That girl,” Axel sighed. “It’s a good thing Erno never knew about that. So tell me, which Hilston was hurt?”
Herrie said, “Falgrim. He was so useless! You’d think he was never in a fight before in all his life!”
“Most of our squad isn’t as good at fighting,” Fran said to Axel. “We specialize in the disposal part of the job. Captain Haigh’s squad members are more your all-round utility people. Scouting, observing, incapacitating. Captain Yeardley has been telling us for donkey’s years that we should learn more from them, instead of just relying on our sympathies all the time. That’s how they keep beating us in practice.”
“What happened?” Axel asked.
“We were on the return leg of our joint patrol when we got word of a cluster of Decay addicts camping near Hacche Mead,” Sanna replied. “They were thoroughly intoxicated by the mist by the time we found the location. Private Hilston had started to incinerate their source when one of the addicts turned suddenly violent.”
“You should have heard Hilston squeal,” Herrie said in disdain.
“Well,” Sanna said, “it was sudden, and there was a lot of blood. He was struck twice. The first swing slashed across his shoulder on the outside. The second went straight to the bone, same shoulder.”
Axel winced in compassion.
“The addict lost his grip on the knife handle because of the blood spray from the first cut, so I was able to dive in and take him down. Private Murdoch Hilston fortunately stopped his cousin from pulling the knife out of the second wound, or there would have been a lot more blood,” Sanna finished.
“He ought to have been watching his surroundings,” Herrie said.
Fran said, “But he always has been cocky. I hope this reins him in for a while.” She hooked her arm through Sanna’s arm, the one she had pulled out of its coat sleeve. “Do leave your jacket off, Taivas. It’s much cooler.”
They were near the house by this point, and Axel said, “I promised to let Mrs. Yeardley know if I found anything out about the company while I was out. I don’t see her in the yard…”
Fiola strode up the walkway and tapped on the cottage door. When the door opened, Fiola said, “Good morning, Jen. Yes, the officers are taking care of the reports, but they shouldn’t be long. Oh, no, no trouble. See you tonight.” Then she came back. “All done.”
“We don’t want to start another round of rumor,” the girl said dryly.
“Rumor?” Sarlota asked.
“When we first arrived, I wasn’t aware,” Axel said, “that it was considered questionable for me to stop at the door when all the neighbors knew Aug was away from home. I only went to ask her about the trash collection schedule, because the girls were out with the company.”
Sarlota said, “What happened?”
“Within a quarter of an hour, I received five visitors, one after the other, all supposedly calling on Nana Friga but actually calling to scold me for bringing the reputation of a virtuous married woman under suspicion,” Axel replied with a flush of reminiscence. “No, that isn’t quite accurate. Four of them were there to scold. One was Edmund Haigh’s sister Maggie, who come to laugh at my mistake and commiserate with me over the response.”
“Maggie is great,” said Fran. “Nothing fazes her.”
Herrie added, “Army widow. She knows how it is.”
They came to the house, and Sanna said, “Excuse me while I clean up.” She disappeared up the stairs to the second floor.
Herrie said, “I’m ever so curious what it’s like up there. A house with two storeys! It must positively swelter up there.”
“That is why they have it, Wake,” Fran reminded her. “And I doubt it ever gets hot up there when Taivas is there.”
“It keeps cool enough down here when she’s here,” Axel said as he leaned his walking stick in the corner of the entry and hung up his hat. “Nana Friga, Soren, look who I brought!”
Soren came running from the lounge at the end of the hall. He saw Fiola and Maccani, and his eyes went wide as he looked around in confusion.
Maccani laughed and went to lift Soren up into the air. “Sanna has gone upstairs already to get cleaned up. She’ll be back down soon. Do you remember my aunt, Sarlota Moor?” He carried Soren to Sarlota.
“Morning,” Soren said.
“It’s good to see you again, Soren,” Sarlota replied. “Have you been doing well?”
He nodded. “But it’s hot out. And itchy.”
“We’ve been dealing with a little heat rash,” Axel said. “The clothes we brought with us are not suited to this climate. Whenever Sanna is out on patrol, the house gets amazingly hot. The only one who doesn’t seem to mind is Nana Friga.” He led the group back to the lounge. There, he found Nana Friga dozing in a chair. He touched her shoulder to wake her. “We have guests, Nana Friga.”
She turned her head and looked at the people entering the lounge after Axel. “How far have you traveled since we last spoke, Sarlota Moor?”
“I’ve been to Fortress,” Sarlota said, “to one of its satellite villages, to the capital, and to Oasis briefly. Then back to the capital, where I came across this young man.” She ushered Daava forward.
The young man seemed shy of drawing Nana Friga’s attention, but when Sarlota prompted him, he came to kneel by the elderly woman’s chair. “Good morning, Nana Friga.”
“Ah, Aerika’s Daava,” she said, reaching out to touch his face.
“I wasn’t sure you would remember me,” said Daava.
“Oh, child, your grandmother was a dear friend to me. Your mother too, for the brief time she was with us. You do look like her, like Aerika. What brings you so far south?”
“I want to join the school.”
Nana Friga took another look around the lounge. “Is Sanna not here?”
“She’s upstairs, cleaning up,” Axel said. “She’ll be down soon.”
Sarlota took the chair nearest to Nana Friga’s chair and started talking to her about her travels. This freed Axel to settle the other guests and bring them iced tea and fizzy lemonade from the cooler in the corner. Fiola had disappeared quietly, and Maccani was making himself inconspicuous in the corner near the cooler. He had already helped himself to fizzy lemonade, and he handed to Axel whatever the other guests requested. He seemed to be watching Daava speculatively, his silence covered by Kass and Isaakki discussing the latest patrol with Fran and Herrie.
Soon Sanna rejoined them, wearing her training clothes. Her arrival put a halt to the conversation in the lounge. She sat down in the place Kass vacated for her. Soren climbed onto her lap. “Daava Jainin,” Sanna said, “first, what is your sympathy?”
“Water,” he replied.
“Active or passive?”
“It tips toward the passive,” he admitted, “about sixty percent.”
“If you look at it the other way, that’s almost evenly balanced,” Sarlota commented.
Sanna nodded acknowledgement of both comments. She was studying Daava’s face closely. “Second, why do you want to join Sky-wind school?”
“I always looked up to Doc,” Daava said, “even before he saved our lives that night. I figure I owe you too, for all your kindness to me and my sister. And I figured, Sky-wind ought to support Sky-wind. I’ll work hard. I don’t have a strong sympathy, but I’ve got perseverance. Working on the harbor, I’ve built up some strength.”
“What sort of role would you hope to have in the school?”
“Role?” Daava echoed the word blankly.
“We aren’t just a school,” Sanna explained. “Mother Locke has decided that we are to be a disposal company under her command, to be sent wherever the need is. That means each of us has a specific role. Maccani Moor, there,” she nodded toward Maccani, “is our medic. Doc’s daughter Fiola is our communications officer and, currently, our quartermaster too. Kass Ulim, of Cavern, is training for reconnaissance; and Isaakki Gamble, also of Cavern, is our observer. I don’t mean to say that you need to have a specific role in mind right now. I only wanted to ask what you hope to accomplish.”
“I don’t know,” Daava said. “I haven’t really considered that far ahead. I guess you don’t have a role for somebody good at tying knots.”
That made Sanna smile. “Well, keep it in mind. I don’t know exactly what the other fighting schools are like, but ours is unique. We will often be in or near dangerous situations. Are you prepared to stand the risks?”
“Yes,” he said, this time emphatically. “After what I’ve seen, I can handle risk. Working the harbor wasn’t exactly safe either. I saw a man lose a finger right next to me because he got his hand afoul of the ropes at the wrong time, and that was just hard work. This, even just what I heard of it this morning, this sounds like an adventure.”
“We also will travel often. My current schedule has me moving to another territory every three months. We’ll try to make as much opportunity for you to visit your sister as we can, but it will be a long time between visits. Will that be all right for you?”
“Halla knows. I told her your school was itinerate, and she knows what that means. She’s got her own family now, a baby on the way and everything. As long as I write often, she won’t mind my absence.”
Sanna nodded as if she had come to a decision. She held out her hand. “Then welcome to Sky-wind school, Daava Jainin. Maccani, can you help him get settled in?”
“We have room for another roommate in the house we’re renting,” Maccani told Daava. “I can introduce you to some part-time work. We all work part-time to pay tuition.”
Maccani led him from the room before he could finish his question, just as Fiola entered with a woman in tow. Maggie Aincourt, Captain Haigh’s sister, needed no introduction when she entered a room. A sturdy woman of medium height, she had the same dark hair and eyes as her brother but a completely different personality. “I saw you from up the street,” she said to the assembled group, “and I noticed that you had visitors. I’m not just being nosy, but I’ll start with the nosy bit and get that out of the way.” Maggie smiled.
Sanna stood up. She too had been learning the unique southern etiquette. She made a motion of the hand toward Sarlota. “This is Maccani Moor’s aunt and a good friend of the family, Miss Sarlota Moor, of Leeward in Northeast Territory. She has been traveling all the territories and has just arrived to tour South. Miss Moor, Dr. Maggie Aincourt, one of our neighbors.” She stepped back as Maggie moved forward to greet Sarlota.
“Have you just arrived? Having so many northerners around makes life so much more interesting, I think,” Maggie declared. She rested her hands on Sarlota’s shoulders and leaned in to touch her left cheek briefly to Sarlota’s left cheek. “You picked just the right time. Winter is easier for acclimating, Edmund says. Edmund is my brother: Captain Haigh, Sanna’s commanding officer while she’s on assignment here. Where are you staying, Miss Moor?”
Sarlota said, “I have a hotel booked. It’s called the Golden Lion.”
“Oh, my dear, that’s so far away. Quite on the other side of town. Stay with me. I have an extra room. That will reduce your travel expenses and keep you close to your friends.”
“But, at such short notice,” Sarlota objected in surprise, “won’t it inconvenience you?”
“My dear, if we of the south pride ourselves on anything, it is our readiness to show hospitality. I am always prepared for a houseguest. Having houseguests makes life much more interesting too. Won’t you stay? I myself have never traveled outside of South Territory, so I should be interested to hear what you have seen.”
“If you’re sure it isn’t a bother,” replied Sarlota, “then I’ll accept your invitation with gratitude.”
Maggie laughed. “No need to be so formal, my dear. Did you bring all your bags here from the bus terminal? My goodness, you do travel light! You won’t object if I provide some things you’ll need and won’t have yet, will you? The main reason I came to call was to let Axel know that a change in schedule has been posted for the class he has been taking at the community center. Tomorrow’s class was moved to 1300, during the midday break, because Mrs. Leighton’s daughter needs childcare in the evening.”
“Thank you for letting me know, Dr. Aincourt,” Axel said.
This made Maggie laugh again. “Oh, you mustn’t bother being formal with me, Axel. You and Grandmama Friga and the children are practically family already. I’d just as soon expect Edmund to call me ‘Dr. Aincourt.’ Speaking of Edmund… but no, I shouldn’t. I suppose he must be debriefing still. Was there anything of interest this time out?” she asked, dividing the question between Sanna and the other two corporals.
Herrie and Fran launched into a lively description of the saving of Private Falgrim Hilston, even including Herrie’s impersonation of Hilston’s scream when he was stabbed. This made Maggie laugh, although she turned in the next moment to tell Sanna, “He was blessed to have you nearby, Sanna. It’s a dangerous thing, dealing with Decay addicts, and he might have died if not for you. I hope he takes this to heart. I myself have never met the young man in person, but from Edmund and Aug’s accounts of him, it sounds to me as if he’s a young man who genuinely believes that women want to be ornamental, that they only work if they have no other choice. Keep providing him with an example to the contrary, my dear.” She checked the clock on the side table. “I really must dash. I’m due at the health center for a round of appointments. Before I go, I must insist that you attend the ball tonight, Sanna.”
“I had planned on making an appearance,” Sanna replied doubtfully.
“No, you must attend. Girls, don’t let her get away with an appearance. She must attend, and she must wear that gown you found for her. It would be a waste not to wear it, my dear, after these two went to such pains to find a suitable gown and arrange for alterations. You must attend.” Her dark eyes danced. “Promise you will.”
Sanna was hesitant, but she made the promise.
“Splendid. I’ll see you this evening.” With that, Maggie Aincourt swept from the room.
Axel stood also. “I should get ready for work too. Say, I wonder…” He stepped out into the corridor to find Daava and Maccani in quiet conversation. “Daava,” Axel said, “I’m off to my morning job. Do you want to come with me? I work at a neighborhood pool as a lifeguard. It’s a perfect job for water sympathists. You can check in with the manager to see if she has any shifts open.”
Daava brightened. “I’d like that.”
So they went together, after Maccani promised to take Daava’s bag to the house he and Isaakki were renting. The pool was a sweltering four-block walk away, but the comparative cool of the wind blowing across the water met them as soon as they walked into the shade of the manager’s office. “Good morning,” Axel said.
“Morning, Mr. Taivas.” The manager, a Mrs. Corbet, smiled vaguely without turning her gaze from the window overlooking the pool.
“I have a new student of my niece’s,” Axel said, “who has water sympathy like I do, and we were wondering if there might be a shift open for him.”
This brought Mrs. Corbet’s head around alertly. “Good morning, young man. Your name?”
“Daava Jainin, ma’am,” he replied.
“You look much younger,” Mrs. Corbet marveled. “But then, you northerners have such lovely pale complexions, it’s hard for me to tell your ages. I was shocked, absolutely shocked, when Mr. Taivas told me he was fifty. Fifty! I would have guessed nearer to thirty-five, and certainly not above forty. I have two shifts open, three hours apiece, one at this pool, one at the Fifth Street pool. Morning, like Mr. Taivas works, from half past nine until half past twelve at Fifth Street; afternoons from three until six at this pool.”
Axel saw Daava glance at him, so he said, “The students usually train early in the morning, from seven until eight-thirty, and in the evening from six until seven. If you work until six, you’ll be late for the evening training.”
Before Daava could speak, Mrs. Corbet said, “I can make it half past two until half past five, but no earlier. The evening manager comes in to take over for me at half past five, so he can watch the pool for the last half-hour until closing. Business is slow at that hour, with most of the children going home for tea before their parents leave for balls and such.”
“Then, ma’am, I’d like to take both shifts,” Daava said.
“That’s splendid,” she said. “Mr. Taivas, you may leave him in my care. I’ll see that he gets his arrangements settled.”
Axel took this as the indirect southern way of telling him he should get to work, so he did. Most of his job consisted of walking laps around the pool, watching the children as they played. For the most part, they were all of an age where they had learned to swim fairly well, but sometimes a younger child would arrive, brought by a distracted young mother, and Axel kept a particular watch over these. Twice already since taking the job, he had had to persuade the water to sweep a floundering toddler back into the shallows, where he could wade in and return the terrified child to an equally alarmed mother.
The air around the pool was pleasantly cool. The ownership, very sensibly, had constructed a large pergola over the pool to filter the ruthless southern sunshine. The shade and the breeze made the pool a popular place for young housewives and retired couples. Axel greeted as many patrons by name as he knew and introduced himself to others whom he had never seen there before. Mrs. Corbet had told him at the start that it was good for the patrons to know who to turn to for help. His prosthetic leg was always a good conversation starter, especially among the older men. Usually, it was enough to say he had been attacked by the Decay and had escaped with his life at the cost of his leg. Some wanted more details, so Axel focused on Sanna’s role in saving him, since he knew she was establishing herself in the area. Most of the southerners outside of Company G had no idea what to make of her, a young woman not only in active service as an officer, but also as the master of a fighting school. There had been some talk of impropriety, with some saying it wasn’t modest for a woman to grapple with men as Sanna did, but for the most part Axel had found a mild perplexity reigning, as people puzzled over why a young woman would want to do all that instead of marrying and establishing a family for herself.
He greeted a few new arrivals and continued his patrol around the edge of the pool. As his shift progressed, he learned new names and started to connect people with each other, and even to get an idea of where some of the patrons lived relative to his own residence. Everyone seemed aware of the house full of northerners, and everyone was curious to meet one. Axel began to get the idea that some of the patrons came to the pool just to get a closer look at him. Every now and then, some of the children would mob him and ask him to bend down so they could touch his fair hair. He didn’t mind this, as it sometimes led to conversations about where he had come from and gave him the opportunity to tell them things about places they had only ever read about in school.
Toward the end of the shift, Axel gave the quarter-hour and the ten-minute warnings. He was as tactful as possible, making it a matter of getting home for the midday rest, or getting out of the heat of the day—which was no small consideration and the reason why most businesses closed for three hours during the middle of the day. When the older children complained, Axel persuaded the water to wash them into the shallows. They loved that. Water sympathy was surprisingly rare for a place with only two seasons: rainy and windy. Mrs. Corbet had hired Axel after seeing his demonstration, in which he had persuaded the pool to circulate in a whirlpool. She had declared the demonstration “exceedingly amazing.” Sweeping the children from one end of the pool to the other amused them and made their departure more cheerful.
He helped clean after all the patrons were out, and then he changed into his street clothes and headed back to the house. He found Fiola sitting with Soren in the lounge, going over his daily reading lesson. They paused to welcome him back, and he asked, “Where is everyone?”
“Miss Moor is sitting with Nana Friga in the atrium,” Fiola said, “and Sanna is upstairs taking a nap.”
Fiola sighed. “She works hard on patrol, and sometimes she almost seems like her old self when she’s out there… but she isn’t, not really. She’s forcing herself forward.”
Axel sank down in a vacant chair. Fiola’s words reminded him of the letter from Dr. Tate. But this reminded him of the other letters and the parcel. “I forgot, in the excitement of seeing Daava and Miss Sarlota, but you have letters.” He took out the three envelopes from his pocket. “I’m afraid they’re a little crumpled. Two are for you. Crystallin Locke and Lily Allen.”
Fiola accepted them and tore open the envelopes with eager interest. She started reading, so Axel got up and went to the stairs. He didn’t like to disturb Sanna’s rest, but he was interested to see her reaction to receiving a letter from Mica Locke. Axel tapped at the door. He felt cold air flowing over his toes through his sandals from the gap beneath the door.
After a few moments, Sanna opened the door, still pulling on her house jacket. “Uncle Axel? Is something wrong?”
“Not at all,” he assured her. “I just wanted to see you, since we didn’t get any chance to talk earlier. You have a letter from Mica Locke.”
Sanna took the letter in some confusion. “I wonder what he has to say.” She opened the envelope carefully and drew out what looked to Axel like a cover letter and a two-page form. She started to read the top sheet, paused to glance through the other two sheets, and then laughed softly to herself.
“What is it?” Axel asked.
“It’s a questionnaire,” she said. “He… he wants to get better acquainted with me, and this is the most efficient way to begin, he says, since we’re so far apart.”
“Better acquainted?” Axel repeated.
Sanna nodded, her thoughts still occupied with the contents of the questionnaire. She said in her distraction, “When we were at the hospital in the capital, Mica Locke asked me to marry him.”
Axel blurted out, “Marry!”
This brought Sanna completely out of her thoughts to the present with a slight blush. “He didn’t really mean it. It was mostly pity, I think. Of course, I told him no. I… I can’t marry. But it is kind of him to want to build a friendship with me anyway.”
Axel realized he was shaking his head and forced himself to adopt a nonchalant attitude. “Well, then, better get started on that questionnaire,” he said. “It looks like it might take some time to complete.”
“I’ve never had my own pen friend,” Sanna said. She accompanied Axel back downstairs. “Fiola,” she said when they entered the lounge, “may I use some of your stationery to write a letter?”
“You never need to ask,” Fiola said. “Take whatever you need.” She was still reading her letters.
Axel was still marveling over the revelation Sanna had just sprung on him. He wasn’t on guard at all when Soren said, “I want a letter too. Can I write a letter, Sanna?”
“If you want to try writing a letter,” Sanna said, “I think that would be good practice. For now, my joy, use one of the pages out of your writing notebook.”
Soren ran to fetch his notebook from the side table and bring it back to the desk in the corner where Sanna sat. “What do I write?”
“That depends on who you’re writing to. That is what you should decide first. Who is the letter going to?”
“Can I write it to you?”
Sanna smiled. “If you want. Usually you write a letter to someone you can’t talk to at the moment, a friend who is far away.”
Soren took a little time to consider this. Then he said, “I’m gonna write to Rusza Tate.”
Sanna’s pen stilled on the page. For just a second, she was perfectly still. Then, in a careful voice, she said, “If that’s what you want. Maybe Uncle Axel can help you with that.”
Axel broke free of his shock. He scooped Soren up under his arm and said, “You need your own writing desk, if you’re planning to start writing letters. Let’s see what fits you.” He exchanged an apologetic glance with Fiola in passing. “This is a good spot.” He planted Soren next to what he would have called a footrest but the southerners called an ottoman. He took the matching chair and leaned forward to look over Soren’s head. “First, you write the recipient’s name,” he said. At once, he saw the next problem. He couldn’t keep repeating that name with Sanna in the room. He took his letter from Dr. Tate out of his pocket and smoothed it out on the footrest next to Soren’s notebook. “This is how it’s spelled.” He pointed to Rusza’s name on the page.
Soren pursed his mouth in concentration as he copied one letter at a time. When he had written Rusza Tate, with the E backwards, he looked up at Axel again. “Now what?”
“You need to think first what you want to tell the recipient,” Axel replied.
And slowly, painstakingly, Soren wrote the following: Its hot out. I was ichee but its beter now. I wanna pla with you but plese not dat gerl. Hop yor wel. Yor frind Soren T.G.
Axel praised him for a good first try and helped him tear the sheet out of the notebook and fold it to fit in an envelope. Privately, Axel wondered if Rusza would be able to understand most of it. He decided it was best if he wrote the address on the envelope, instead of leaving it to Soren. “I’ll put it in the mail in the morning with the rest of the mail,” he promised. “Now it’s time we took our nap, right?”
Soren ran to Sanna for a kiss on the forehead, then to Fiola for the same. Then he came back to Axel, who accompanied him to the small bedroom they shared as the men of the family. It was warm and stuffy, but Axel had learned better than to try opening a window. He turned on the small fan and left the door slightly open. This created a small draft that crossed both Axel’s bed and the smaller cot for Soren.
In the shaded quiet, Axel thought about Rusza and Sanna. He had thought them a good pair, if unusual, and he still struggled to reorient himself to the new reality. Mica Locke wanted to marry Sanna. She may have dismissed the offer as pity, but that questionnaire suggested that he genuinely wanted to get closer to her. Axel had never paid much attention to Mica Locke. He had accepted him as part of the Locke family, as background to Father Locke and Crystallin. He knew of the young man’s involvement in the insurrection attempt, but that hadn’t crossed his mind in months. His own experience with Mica, limited though it was, showed him to be a serious, diligent, quiet person. He had been attentive to to Axel’s family in Sawtooth Ridge. That may have come from his increasing interest in Sanna, Axel now realized.
And now, Rusza Tate was coming to Current-town, according to Dr. Tate’s letter. With Sanna still fighting to regain her emotional stability, Axel couldn’t consider this anything but trouble for her. He started considering what he might be able to do ahead of time, if only to reduce the pain Sanna had to suffer.
At some point during his musings, Axel fell asleep. He woke to Soren patting him on the chest and asking permission to end his nap. Axel gave permission and swung his leg over the side of the bed while Soren ran out of the room. While he strapped on his prosthesis, Axel resumed his search for a solution. He went out into the house and found the students gathered in the lounge, taking full advantage of the natural air conditioning supplied by Sanna. The newest three were dozing on the floor, and Maccani Moor was speaking quietly with Fiola while Sanna tapped the end of her pen against her chin and studied Mica Locke’s questionnaire.
Even as Axel stood looking into the lounge, Soren came from the direction of the toilet. He ran past Axel, into the lounge, and stopped still for a moment. Then, with the air of one tiptoeing through a den of sleeping lions, he crept around the prone students until he stood at Sanna’s side. He said nothing. He simply leaned against her side and watched her write.
Axel stopped in the atrium next. All southern houses appeared to be based on the same pattern, and that pattern included an inner courtyard of some type, planted with at least one tree for shade. The one in this house was tiny, barely eight feet by six, and it had one young palm tree centered at the north side. Nana Friga and Sarlota Moor were seated on the bench beneath the palm’s shade. “Is the journey catching up with you?” Axel asked Sarlota.
“This is a very restful spot,” she said. “The heat is much more moderate, and the wind can’t pull at a person so roughly.”
“This is Nana Friga’s favorite place in the whole house,” Axel said.
“What do you have weighing on your mind, Axel?” Nana Friga asked.
“How could you tell?”
“You hide your worries poorly,” she said, “and always have.”
Axel took a seat next to the elderly woman and poured out the entire conundrum. “I don’t know what to think,” he finished. “It isn’t that I have anything against Mica Locke, but I don’t think it’s a good match, personality-wise. But I was wrong about that once before, so I don’t dare make any comment, one way or the other. Above all, I don’t want to see Sanna hurting anymore. What’s done can’t be undone, but…”
“It wouldn’t be sensible or kind to let anyone scratch open the scabs before the wound is healed,” Nana Friga finished for him, “however pure their intentions. This applies equally to any new suitor and to the Tate family’s visit. What I say is, make no suggestion to correct Sanna’s misapprehension that the Locke boy is just befriending her. Let that situation develop without commentary. As for the other… I will speak with the Tate boy and his father. I may no longer be a village elder, but there are some things right now that only I can do as a family elder. You might go to Captain Yeardley and find out when the Tates are expected to arrive.”
Axel nodded his agreement with this plan. “I’ll leave for work early and see if he’s at home.” He excused himself and went toward the kitchen, the only part of the house still unfinished. Construction debris and open walls made it a crowded and messy place. It was, however, connected up with plumbing and electricity, so Axel could get a drink of tap water from the sink. He glimpsed the clock on the stove and realized, if he meant to leave early, he had to leave now. He had napped longer than usual.
He grabbed his hat and stick at the front door. To his relief, Aug Yeardley was clearly visible in the shade of the white cottage’s tiny front porch. He occupied an old rocking chair and was rocking his younger daughter, Janie, who slept on his lap. He instinctively raised a finger to his lips at Axel’s approach, but he smiled and whispered, “Off to the store? You’re rather early today.”
“I wanted to catch you before I left,” Axel whispered back. “I had a letter today from Dr. Tate. He says he and his sons, his daughter-in-law, and Crystallin Locke are coming here soon.”
“Getting little Lyndon settled in for his first assignment,” Aug replied. “I did hear about that. It seems hardly possible that Lyndon is old enough. He enlisted, you know. Not just the obligatory four years.”
Axel nodded. He felt awkward, bringing up a sensitive topic to a man who was clearly proud of his cousins, but he forced himself to say, “I wanted to ask if you would find out for me exactly when they’re expected, without mentioning it in front of Sanna or the students.”
The gleaming white smile disappeared from Aug’s tanned face. “I can. You still can’t see your way to telling me how he offended all of you, I suppose?”
“I can’t. I’m sorry. I wasn’t the one offended, and we have a saying that offenses should stay between those involved.”
“I brought it up once to Mrs. Rohkin,” Aug said softly, “and before I said five words, she gave me a look that killed the words dead on my tongue. She warned me never to speak ‘that name’ in front of Taivas. That’s all she would say. I wish I understood. When I saw you all together in Leeward, you were like family.”
“Yes,” Axel said, nodding sadly, “I miss those days.” With a deep breath, he drew himself up and said, “I ought to get to work. See you tonight?”
“Of course,” Aug replied.
Axel’s second job was at a small grocery store a few blocks south of the house. He spent most of his time assisting customers and restocking produce. There was no centralized shopping area in Current-town, nothing to compare with the Co-op in Cavern, but each neighborhood was virtually self-sufficient in terms of its shops and services. For Axel, this grocer’s shop was a pleasant way to pass the afternoon. He got to chat with customers often and long, because the atmosphere of the afternoon shift was almost indolent. People returned to work after three, mostly, and most did their shopping after six. The three to six shift was a filler position, keeping things running while the proprietor and his family took care of other matters. Here too, a northerner was a natural draw for inquisitive customers. Axel had one coworker, a Mr. Frederick Bennett, an elderly man who had worked part-time there for twenty years and knew all the business, but was less and less able to handle the physical labor involved. He took a sort of pride in showing Axel off to the customers. He liked to have Axel tell them stories about the weather in North Territory.
At six, Axel took his leave from Mr. Bennett and returned to the new house. He heard scuffling from a distance, but that was not unusual for the evening training session. It was only when he realized that the noise was centered around a side alley more than a block away from the house that he decided to investigate. He found a brawl well begun. Daava and Isaakki were outnumbered, so Axel waded in, using his walking stick to dissuade the other side with a few carefully-chosen blows. “What,” he shouted, “are you boys doing?”
The apparent leader backed off and looked Axel up and down. His gaze lingered on the prosthetic leg. “Where’d you get that, old man?”
“You answer my question, I’ll answer yours,” Axel retorted, “little boy.”
The leader, a young man in his early twenties, recoiled at being called ‘little boy’. “I’m a grown man, not a boy,” he declared.
“And I’m a middle-aged man,” Axel said, “not an old man. What about it? You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Them.” The aggressor pointed at Isaakki. “Them and their female boss. They aren’t so tough. My lads and me were proving it to them.”
“Were you? For your question: I was attacked by the Decay three years ago. Almost died. That ‘female boss,’ as you call her, saved my life by amputating my leg on the spot, with just a camping axe. Could you have done that? She’s tougher than you think. That’s why Company G invited her down here to work with them.”
“She your wife?” one of the other aggressors asked.
“No. My niece, my brother’s daughter. If you try any of this on her, she’ll put you in the hospital. Just a friendly warning,” Axel added. “These two only just recently started learning from her how to fight. That one,” he nodded toward Daava, “hasn’t even started, technically. He just got here this morning. How tough does that make you for beating up on him?” He stared hard at each young man in the group. “Isaakki, Daava, let’s go.”
When they came to the house, they found Sanna at the curb, looking toward them. She gave the two students a quick study. “Are you all right to start?” she asked.
They both answered in the affirmative.
“Go warm up.” She turned to Axel. “Thanks, Uncle Axel. I was just starting that direction, but then I heard you raise your voice. How many were there?”
“Eight,” he replied. He tapped his walking stick against the ground. “This does wonders for negotiating a truce.”
That brought a little smile to Sanna’s lips. “So it seems.” She turned back to the assembled students in the front garden. “Around this block, five laps,” she called out. She had Maccani lead off and set the pace while she brought up the end of the line.
Axel went indoors. He found Sarlota in company with Maggie and Jen, setting up two card tables. A trio of picnic baskets sat on the floor nearby. “We’re putting together a nourishing tea for everyone before the ball. Tilde and the girls will stay here with Mrs. Rohkin,” said Jen, “and help her mind Soren.”
“Thank you,” he said. “That sounds like a good plan.” He lingered nearby until Maggie opened one of the picnic baskets and removed a couple of sandwiches.
“You must be hungry,” she said. “You are hovering.”
Axel admitted as much with a rueful smile. He took the sandwiches to the lounge, where the two Yeardley girls were teaching Soren a game. Tilde Aincourt sat apart from everyone, reading a novel. She looked up at Axel’s entrance, smiled a silent greeting, and went back to the novel.
Nana Friga was dozing again. Axel touched her shoulder to wake her. He spoke close to her ear to keep his words between the two of them. “I asked. Aug said he’ll find out discreetly.”
“Good.” She said nothing more.
Louder, he said, “It turns out that tea, down here, isn’t just tea. Mrs. Yeardley just told me we’re having tea before the ball, but there are three baskets full of food involved.”
“The tea is different,” Nana Friga said, “so why shouldn’t the experience be different? I think I’ll abstain, though. The last time I drank southern tea, it didn’t agree with me at all. I was awake all night. Would you bring me a glass of water, please, Axel? That will be enough for me.” She smiled a little.
He got up to fulfill her request and found Sarlota Moor just coming in with a cup of hot tea that smelled very familiar. “This is one of the souvenirs I brought you,” she said to Nana Friga. “I picked it up from Mother Locke when I stopped in the capital.” She set the cup on the table next to Nana Friga.
“Ah,” said the elderly woman with real enjoyment, “it smells like rosehip and lemon.” She took a sip and exhaled. “How nice.”
“I thought you might miss it,” said Sarlota Moor. “I’ve noticed that I’ve gotten terribly homesick for foods I know and love while I’m traveling, so I thought your family might like something familiar to turn to once in a while.”
“Thank you,” said Nana Friga. “That was very thoughtful.”
Sarlota gestured for Axel to follow her out of the lounge. She led him to the atrium, where she closed the sliding glass doors. “I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds, Axel, but haven’t you noticed that Nana Friga isn’t doing very well? She sleeps almost all the time. I’m sure she has lost weight since I saw her last, and she’s very sluggish. She was much livelier in the autumn.”
“It’s just the heat, isn’t it? I’m more tired than usual myself,” Axel said.
“I think it’s more than that. When I was sitting with her earlier, I noticed that she struggles to stay awake. At lunch, she ate practically nothing, and she only asked for water to drink. She won’t complain, I’m sure, but I think she isn’t taking to the local food very well. Fiola thinks the same. She wrote to Crystallin Locke, who told her mother, who sent a few things with me for you, but we need to come up with a long-term solution.”
Axel sat on the bench beneath the palm tree. “If the kitchen was ready, this would be easier. Since we arrived, we’ve been eating supper at the Yeardleys’ house or Maggie Aincourt’s house.”
“And she would never complain about food provided by friends,” Sarlota finished for him. “Do you know how long it will be until the kitchen is ready?”
“Not really. Work schedules down here are much more laid back than I’m used to dealing with. We just got the stove installed yesterday, but the rest of the appliances won’t come for another few days, from what I’m told. The floor just got laid the day before that. It’s one thing after another.”
Sarlota sat beside him, considering matters. “Would you mind if I took matters into my own hands for a few days?”
“Feel free,” Axel replied, “if that’s what you want, but I thought you were supposed to be on vacation.”
She offered him a sheepish smile. “I don’t do well when I see things that could be done but aren’t. I just can’t relax. I’ll ask around and see what I can find out. Dad always taught us not to wait on tradesmen and craftsmen, but to hang on them if need be.”
“I can imagine him doing that,” Axel laughed. “I bet he can make a nuisance of himself when he really wants.”
“Without even trying,” she agreed. “But it gets people moving, and as long as you reward them accordingly, things always work out. We’ll come up with a plan to get the kitchen fully functional, and I’ll see what I can do about the grocery situation. It might be that I can persuade someone to find me ingredients more like what Nana Friga is used to eating. For now, let’s see about that tea the ladies were talking about, before Sanna and her students come in to devour everything.”
They found, when they rejoined the neighbors, that Aug Yeardley had arrived. He was in his black tailcoat and tie, with his pristine white starched shirt gleaming. As soon as he saw Axel, he drew him aside and said, “Uncle Nigel says they’re due to arrive three days from now. He also informed me of some of the things Rusza has been up to during the past month.” Aug bent sharply at the waist. “On behalf of my family, I’m deeply sorry for his foolishness.”
Axel gripped the younger man’s shoulder. “I appreciate the gesture, but his choices are his choices, not yours.”
When Aug straightened, he gave Axel a grave look. “I stand with my family. If my family is honored, I’m honored. If my family is shamed, I’m shamed. I plan on having a serious face-to-face discussion with Rusza when he gets here. A gentleman doesn’t behave so disgracefully.”
Sanna brought her students in, sweating and groaning from their training. She ordered them to wash up before they ate, so the group split up. The girls headed for the bathroom, while the boys headed for the kitchen sink. Maccani wasn’t with them. Axel was about to ask where he had gone when the young man entered, head dripping and shirt splattered with water. “I washed under the spigot,” he said with a laugh. “I knew there would be a line.”
“Maccani,” Sarlota exclaimed, “you’re dripping all over the floor!” She whipped a large handkerchief from her handbag and gave it to him. “Mop yourself up a little, or no food.”
“Yes, Aunt,” he said, still grinning.
The tea, as Jen and Maggie called it, was a full meal, with three different kinds of salads, four different types of sandwiches, dainty little frosted cakes, and fruit-garnished sugar cookies. Axel ate until he was satisfied and then retreated to the bedroom to change into his suit for the ball. He returned to the lounge.
At his entrance, Sarlota Moor’s eyes widened. “You look so elegant, Axel Taivas! That type of suit fits you very well.”
“Not bad for a second-hand suit, altered to fit,” he said with a grin.
“It makes me glad I went with the black finish,” Sarlota said as she got up. “The trunk I brought with me was delivered while you were at work. Here, a souvenir from Fortress. You remember how we talked about where to get the best walking sticks?” She handed him a long, narrow, paper-wrapped object.
Axel unwrapped the paper. He whistled softly. “This is… it’s magnificent. It’s too much,” he said with a wide-eyed glance at Sarlota. He hefted a shiny black cane with an engraved silver handle.
“Not at all. It looks more expensive than it was. Dad taught us how to bargain as soon as we learned to talk. The black finish was less popular in Fortress; trends there tend to favor a natural finish, so this one was left in the shop window, and as soon as I saw it, I thought of our conversation immediately. It’s seasoned maple, so it should be sturdy enough.”
“It feels sturdy,” Axel murmured as he tested the height. “And a good height. If Tarbengar and his brother were any indicator, men must grow tall on average there.”
“Everyone was tall,” said Sarlota. “I was almost the size of a child by comparison.”
Maggie Aincourt approached to get a better look at the cane. “Very fine, and an excellent match for your clothes. Black for the suit, silver for the shirt. You’ll be the height of fashion. You wait and see. Soon, all the men will be carrying silver-topped canes to every ball. Sanna, you should wash up and change soon. I have a car coming to pick us up. Edmund tells me he means to meet us at the ball. Miss Moor, you are coming to the ball with us? Do come.”
“I don’t have the proper clothes,” Sarlota demurred.
“I saw a dress amongst your luggage that would suit the purpose admirably, and I have a shawl that should match. A few pieces of jewelry, and you shall be transformed into a southern lady. You must witness the debut of Axel’s cane in society.” Maggie smiled and linked arms with Sarlota. “It’s your duty as the giver of the gift to see it enjoyed.” She swept Sarlota away.
“One does not refuse Maggie Aincourt,” said Aug gravely.
Sanna laughed softly and excused herself to go upstairs. She had her own special bath up there, so she was away for quite some time. In the meanwhile, her students scattered to prepare themselves for the evening, and Fiola disappeared into the downstairs bathroom. Axel watched all this bustle with enjoyment. “I love the atmosphere just before a special occasion,” he admitted. “All the excitement and hurry. It’s a good thing I do have this cane, because I don’t dare sit down. I’ll wrinkle this suit.”
Aug looked up, met his wife’s pointed gaze, looked down at himself, and reluctantly stood up. “Yes, dearest.”
“I’ll wrap up the perishables,” she said, “and put them in the cooler here, Tilde, in case you and the children want anything more later. Then I’ll see to my own preparations. Do try to keep yourself looking respectable until I finish, August.”
“Oh, she called me August,” the man sighed. “Never a good sign.”
But all things worked to a favorable ending, with their group assembled on the front walk in full splendor. Sanna looked especially striking, Axel thought, in her close-fitted gown of deep purple-blue, frosted over with white lace. Her velvet shawl was almost the shade of black plums, and she wore a choker of small pearls. Jen had taken charge of her hairstyle, sweeping her fair hair up into an elegant twist at the back of her head. Her shoes were invisible beneath the sweeping hem of her gown, but she walked with a touch of unwonted awkwardness. “I might need the loan of your cane, Uncle Axel,” Sanna said in uneasy humor.
A long car pulled up in front of them. Axel helped Sanna into the farthest back seat and then climbed in beside her. Fiola and Sarlota were just ahead of them. Sarlota wore a simple black gown with a black velvet shawl fastened at her bosom with a large garnet brooch. A set of garnet bracelets on her wrists and a garnet pendant at her throat completed the set. She saw Axel studying her and she turned a becoming shade of pink. “It’s all very fancy for someone like me,” she said in embarrassment.
“It looks well on you,” he assured her. “You look every inch the role of a southern lady. And Fiola, was that the dress you wore last time? I don’t remember it.”
“I got this from Fran Lydbury,” Fiola explained. “She said she had a younger sister about my size, so I asked if her sister had any old dresses she didn’t wear anymore. It needed a little help, but Nana Friga and I worked to freshen it up and make it a little more fashionable.” She wore a frothy green gown in the style of young southern girls who had not yet come of age. Instead of a shawl, she wore a short velvet jacket in the same color green as the gown. She wore no jewelry.
When Axel pointed out the omission, Jen explained over her shoulder from the seat ahead of Fiola, “A young woman is only permitted to wear jewelry to these parties when she comes of age. After that, she wears one piece of jewelry when she is new to society, just as Sanna does now, and may add jewelry as she gets older and more established in society.”
“Wait until you see some of the elderly ladies,” Aug added, “all covered in sparkle from head to waist. Some of them are positively blinding in full sunlight.”
They arrived at the neighborhood ballroom. The sun had already set, and strings of tiny lights lined the path to the ballroom entrance. The front doors were wide open, showing a flurry of activity inside. Fran Lydbury and Herrie Wake stood just on the other side of the threshold, and with them Falgrim Hilston, one arm inside its sleeve as it should be and the other distending the sleek line of his tailcoat in a sling. All three said, “Good evening, Captain,” as Aug escorted Jen indoors. Then Fran and Herrie snatched Sanna away from Axel and made her stand off to one side of the stream of traffic. “Oh,” said Fran, “that does suit you, Taivas, very much indeed. Whose pearls are those? Maggie’s? What a charming touch.”
“Turn for us,” Herrie insisted. “Let us see the full effect.”
Sanna reluctantly complied with their request and made one full revolution in place.
“I shouldn’t say this, since you so clearly have a gift for combat,” Fran said, “but it is such a waste to hide that figure under an ugly uniform all the time. You could be a dressmaker’s mannequin for a living,” she added. “I’m jealous, thoroughly jealous.” Then she laughed and took Sanna’s right arm.
Herrie latched onto Sanna’s left arm, and the trio plunged into the ballroom crowd. Falgrim Hilston drifted after them in an aimless way.
“Sanna seems to have made some good friends here.” Sarlota Moor took Axel’s arm, and they followed the young soldiers.
The ballroom was rapidly filling up, but the orchestra had not even appeared in their pit beyond the railing, so Axel knew they weren’t late. He recognized a number of neighbors and began to go the rounds, introducing Sarlota to them. When he heard the orchestra tuning, he led Sarlota to the edge of the wide chamber. “Please excuse me,” he said, “but I have to try to get Sanna to dance this time.”
“Good luck,” Sarlota replied with a mixture of humor and earnestness.
Axel found Sanna in the midst of Company G. Handing his new cane to the injured Hilston, Axel said, “I believe, Corporal Taivas, that your first dance this evening belongs to me.” He made a small production of taking his new gloves from his inner breast pocket, pulling them on one at a time, and holding out a gloved hand to his niece. “I’ve been taking lessons and everything, you know. I’m prepared.”
She gazed at him with surprise overtaking her initial refusal. Then she accepted his hand and walked onto the floor with him as the crowd began to vacate to the edges of the ballroom. “I don’t know how,” she admitted to him when they were far enough away from her Company G friends.
“I refuse to believe that anyone as athletic as you,” Axel emphasized, “wouldn’t be able to dance. I’ll lead. You just do as I do, only backwards for the most part.” He recognized the first tune as a slow foxtrot, and he led off accordingly. “Dancing is good exercise. It should help you keep warm, more so than just standing in the crowd. And turn here… Pause, tilt your head back, and spin. That’s good. I knew you could.”
“It’s a little embarrassing,” she admitted. “I couldn’t be this close…”
“You’re closer than this when you put one of the students in a choke hold,” Axel pointed out.
“Not face to face,” was her retort.
“Ah, but it’s easier to converse like this in such a huge crowd, isn’t it?”
By the end of the dance, Axel had coaxed a smile from his niece. She had relaxed considerably, so when they returned to the Company G group and Aug Yeardley stepped forward wearing a pair of gloves just like Axel’s, Sanna didn’t refuse the offer. She let him lead her back out for the next dance, a quickstep. Axel watched her face as she learned almost literally on the fly, with Aug talking her through it and almost carrying her through it at the beginning. She appeared to be taking it as a challenge, however, and was learning quickly.
“Hasn’t she ever danced before?” Falgrim Hilston handed Axel his cane.
“Not these dances. Dancing is completely different here from what we learned.”
“You mean…” Hilston stopped. “She’s picking up the steps for the first time every time she agrees to dance with someone? That is an insane level of nerve.”
“Sanna is very athletic,” Axel said. “But yes, it takes nerve on her part.”
They watched Aug and Sanna go flying around the floor. Toward the end of the dance, Hilston said, “Mr. Taivas, would you lend me one of those gloves you’re wearing?” He needed help pulling the glove on, with only one hand available. When Aug brought Sanna back to them, Hilston said, “May I have the next dance, Miss Taivas?”
From behind them in the crowd, Maccani’s voice called out, “That’s Corporal Taivas, if you please.”
“Corporal,” Hilston corrected himself.
Sanna gazed at him coolly. “It may be the only time it’s safe to dance with you, Private Hilston: when you have one arm strapped down.”
A laugh went up from Company G and from others familiar with the two. Sanna still didn’t make her decision until she heard the opening strains of music and turned to survey the first dancers. Then she said, “Very well,” and accepted his hand.
“Isn’t it lucky for me that I’m left-handed?” Hilston said. “I never thought it was before, but I do now.”
“What am I doing out here, Private Hilston?” Sanna asked mildly. “If you intend to stand here, just holding hands like this, I must beg to return to my friends.”
“Well, aren’t you picking up the lingo fast?” Hilston could be heard to retort. “Put your other hand on my shoulder, then, so we can begin. I can’t do all the steering with just one hand. Do what everyone else is doing. Waltzes are easy. One, two, three, one, two…” They moved out of Axel’s range of hearing, but he could see that they were still talking as they danced. On their next pass-by, Axel heard Hilston say, “You are good, aren’t you? You should go out with me. I could teach you how to enjoy yourself.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Sanna said immediately. “You would never want a girlfriend who thinks.”
“You wound me, Corporal Taivas,” said Hilston.
“I will, if you keep trying to get closer to me than necessary.”
Hilston’s laugh rang out over the music. The pair twirled amongst the other dancing pairs, again beyond Axel’s hearing.
“It looks to me,” said Sarlota Moor, “that Sanna is gaining confidence.”
Axel looked to her, wondering in passing how long she had been standing beside him without his notice. “Do you think so? I hope she is.” He sighed. Then he asked, “Miss Moor, would you care to dance with me?”
“I would like that very much.”
Maccani was suddenly at Axel’s other side, taking the new cane from him without being asked, so that Axel could lead Sarlota onto the floor. “Tell me,” Axel said, “what is Oasis like? I’ve heard so little about it that I can’t begin to imagine.”
She spoke haltingly, with much-divided attention at first, about Southwest Territory and its lone city in the desert, about what a shock it had been after the thick forests of West Territory, about its strict regulations on the usage of resources. As she grew accustomed to the waltz, she also relaxed in her narrative. “I was glad to have gotten the warning from Mother Locke,” she said, “about bringing my own provisions, especially extra water. It has to be metered in Oasis, according to a daily allowance: so much for drinking, so much for cooking, so much for washing and for… well, for toileting,” she said with an embarrassed smile. “There’s nothing extra to go around.”
“Sounds harsh,” Axel noted.
“The weather is even hotter than here, and terribly dry, so you don’t always feel the heat until you’re in the first stages of heat exhaustion. But I found it much more straightforward a place than anywhere else I’ve been. There is no question of what to eat or drink, or even what to wear. People own only what they need to survive and do their jobs, and everybody has a job. No one can just sit around, not even guests.”
“What did they have you do?”
“They asked what I normally do, and when I told them I did therapeutic massage, they asked me to do that. I think they really took a liking to it,” she said with a laugh, “because some asked if I planned to make regular visits—”
“Excuse me,” Axel murmured automatically as he steered his partner away from the couple they had bumped. Then he noticed that several couples had halted in the midst of the dance and were looking in the same direction.
The focus of their distraction was Sanna, her partner Hilston, and a third, Edmund Haigh. Haigh was impeccably dressed in the traditional tailcoat and white waistcoat. He also wore a pair of the same insulated black gloves that Axel and Aug had invested in. He sent Hilston off the floor and took Sanna in his arms to finish the waltz. “Well,” Axel said in surprise.
“What was that about?” Sarlota asked.
“According to Maggie Aincourt, Edmund never dances. He has always been too concerned about the risks to his partner, because of his sympathy. He has a powerful electromagnetic energy sympathy,” Axel explained. “You can see the reactions.” Axel himself could see very well the reactions among the other guests. Maggie was smiling over her brother’s progress like a proud parent. Aug Yeardley was gaping like a fish, while Jen listened to the whispers from the ladies next to her. When the next dance began, several couples left the floor and withdrew to watch. Axel led Sarlota over to Maggie. “Is this what you were hinting earlier?” he asked her.
“He told me,” Maggie said, “that watching Sanna fighting not to withdraw from human contact just on account of her sympathy caused him to rethink his own tendencies. Since he was a child, Edmund always was serious and diligent about protecting us from his sympathy. I often thought it was a blessing that I manifested human sympathy sympathy, because I was the only one he was not afraid to let touch him. I believe he has seen Sanna like a mirror, reflecting his own fears back to him. The result, as you see before us, is a decision to enter society however he can. I owe Sanna thanks for that. Edmund is terribly stubborn about some things. I don’t know if anyone else could have made him face himself like this, but she is so like him…”
Axel watched the couple turning and gliding together through a fast waltz. They were probably the two most dangerous people in the ballroom, and likely the two most isolated. They talked while they danced. Axel thought Sanna looked more animated than he had seen her in weeks, and Haigh was even smiling.
“They do get along fine, don’t they,” Sarlota remarked.