Authors: Suzanne Francis
"We are all truly shocked and dismayed by this sudden downturn in Dr. Davis' health," Dr. Black said. "He will be sorely missed by the staff and students of the Anthropology program. It will take a highly qualified and dedicated academician to fill his shoes."
I bet you have the perfect person in mind for the job already, don't you, Ted?
She picked up her mobile phone and dialed his house, wondering why he hadn't called her with the news. Ted had been after the HOD job for years. His high aspirations had been one of the things that had once drawn Tessa to him. Now she wondered why.
She listened as the phone rang and rang. "Hi! This is Dr. Ted Black. Please leave a message after the beep and have a great day!"
Tessa almost hung up, but then decided she ought to tell him her plans. "Hi, Ted. It's me. Just thought I would let you know that I am going out to the site for the weekend. Jane's coming with me. We'll stay at the lodge there. I'll be back on Sunday night. Oh, and congratulations on the promotion, by the way." She disconnected, feeling slightly miffed that he hadn't invited her to whatever celebration he had planned.
* * * *
But Ted had not gone out to celebrate. He stared nervously at the answering machine as it produced a tinny imitation of Tessa's voice. His company, a diminutive, somewhat portly gentleman, cleared his throat.
"Well isn't that interesting?" His grey eyes glinted like stainless steel. They almost matched the gleaming brushed surfaces of Ted's trendy commercial kitchen. The high chairs drawn up to the breakfast bar had cost $1500 a piece, but weren't at all comfortable to sit in. Especially now.
Ted squirmed and drummed his fingers nervously on the Italian tile. "You assured me she wouldn't get hurt. That was part of our agreement."
"Indeed, Dr. Black. But in return for my assistance, you promised me that you could procure an item that belonged to Dr. Kivelson's grandmother, Suvi Markku. That was also part of our agreement."
"I am trying!" Ted dropped his voice to a nervous quaver when he saw his visitor's expression. "But Tessie has the thing hidden away somewhere. I have looked and looked for it."
The man smiled thinly. "You tried and you failed. My pets will not fail. You may be sure of that."
Ted frowned. "They screwed up the best chance I had of getting her keys so that I could search her storage locker. Those boys were students of mine. The police have already been around, asking questions."
"Most regrettable, I agree, but it is
difficult to keep the Polys in check sometimes. They are very determined."
Ted licked his lips, and took a sip of the '00 Margaux his visitor had insisted he open. It tasted unpleasantly acidic on his tongue. "I don't want the job, or the publishing contract. Not if it means Tessie is going to get hurt. The deal is off."
His companion ignored this protest. "You care for this woman?"
"She is my fiancee. We plan to marry in the spring."
"Oh really? What of the others with whom you have been observed -- the woman who delivers your dry cleaning, and the charming young lady who plies her wares on 3rd Avenue? Are they of no consequence?"
Ted blinked twice, very slowly. "How did you know about...?"
"I know everything about you -- your sexual affairs, your fraudulent tax returns, your schemes for cheating your way through University. So, you see, it is far too late for you to have second thoughts, Dr. Black."
Ted kept his eyes on the table, desperately trying to think of a way out. When this well-heeled stranger had unexpectedly visited his office six months ago, the talk had been of a perfectly innocent publishing contract. The man, who had introduced himself as Daniel Redden, used flattery to great effect, saying that Ted could write a million-seller about the Irrakish reliquary discovered in
during a routine excavation long ago. Tantalizing signs pointed to the natives having worshipped a winged being, whose bones they had kept within the artifact.
He had used Tessa and some other graduate assistants to do the groundwork. Now he planned to step in and unearth the bones themselves -- a discovery that would make him famous, and very, very rich. The man sitting across from him had given him their location, and in return for that knowledge he asked one very small favor.
But it had been much harder to grant than Ted thought.
His guest seemed to be losing patience. "We had a contract, and that contract must be honored, one way or the other. You insisted you needed to be in charge of your workplace, so that you could finish the excavation personally. My pets have taken care of that. I told you where the bones are, and you have seen them for yourself. It would hardly be fair for you to renege now."
The way he said
made Ted's skin crawl.
"Are you listening to me, Dr. Black?" The menace in his voice sounded absolutely clear.
"Of course. And I will get the mirror to you, as soon as I can. I promise."
"You have one week."
"But, I don't think I..."
"One week." Redden stood and thrust a stubby finger towards Ted. "I am a busy man, Dr. Black. My time is valuable, and I have spent far too much of it on you already. If I do not have the mirror soon, then my pets will pay your lovely friend Tessa another visit. And when they have finished with her, they will be coming for you. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
Ted nodded, unable to argue further. Fear, stark and staring, had left him speechless for the first time in his adult life.
* * * *
Five o'clock arrived, and then six. Jane did not. Tessa paced the apartment trying to resist the temptation to go back to Little Sardinia. She stared at the white gold and diamond ring on the third finger of her right hand. Ted wouldn't let her wear it in the proper place on her left hand, saying it would cause too much gossip.
This isn't the time to be making decisions about your future...
But to Tessa, it felt like the perfect time.
The phone rang. "Tessa? Hi. Listen, I'm sorry, but it looks like I'm not going to be able to get away from here until late tonight. And I will have to come back in tomorrow morning, at least for a little while. So just grab a DVD and a pizza, then chill for the evening, OK? We'll get going by lunchtime, I promise."
Tessa agreed, and said good bye, still thinking about Jakob. Surely it couldn't hurt just to see him for a few moments? And she could run by her house and get the steel-toed work boots that safety regs required she wear onsite. She left Jane a note and put the key under the mat.
"I probably won't be back late..." she said out loud, but part of her hoped that she would. After one more look at the ring, she slipped it off her finger and shoved it into the bottom of her purse.
After parking in her driveway, she unlocked the shed. Her boots and hard hat were there, lying in an untidy pile. She scooped them up and tossed them into the back of the Volvo, where they joined the collection of dusty shovels, picks, brushes and other sundry tools of her trade. The house was locked, and she couldn't enter because Jakob had her key. He had repaired the broken window, leaving the place looking reassuringly solid.
Tessa decided to drive along the narrow dirt road that linked the collection of shacks. She parked as close as she could to the boathouse, and noted with satisfaction that light blazed brightly from the window in the shed dormer. As she shut off the engine Jakob walked into her view, carrying a glass of something in his hand. He looked relaxed and cheerful in a crisply-creased red and blue checked flannel shirt.
"Oh Jakob," she said to herself, with a snort of laughter. "You really should have let me take you shopping."
Tessa sat still for a moment, waiting for her heart to stop racing. She didn't want to appear at his door, flushed and giggling like a school girl. As she watched, he appeared at the window again, his wide shoulders almost blocking the light. His lips moved silently, and then he turned back to some unseen companion, laughing.
A second later, a very attractive woman joined him. Jakob put his arm about her and pointed to something in the sky. Tessa did not wait to see anything else. She threw the Volvo into reverse with a slithering spin, and tore out of Little Sardinia.
The tears in her eyes wouldn't let her get far. A few moments later she used her phone to call Jane.
"Dr. Piper here."
Her words came in a rush, as though she was leaving a message. "I am going to Anenoa tonight. I just can't stand being in
"Tessa, are you sure that is a..."
"Don't worry about me. There will be lots of people at the lodge so I'll be safe as houses."
Tessa ended the call before Jane could think of another argument. "See you tomorrow. Bye."
She took the interstate out of town, driving fast, combating her grief with recklessness. The exits flew by, bright islands of light in the streaming darkness. She stopped for gas in
, and bought a burger and diet soda in Mercuryville, needing the caffeine to keep going. The drive to Anenoa would take two hours. She spent most of the time replaying the scene in her head, berating herself for caring.
It's just that I haven't been with a woman for a long while, not since Maia...
Well that had been a lie, hadn't it? He must have been laughing at her the whole time. How could she have fallen for such cliched rubbish?
Being with me is the last thing you need right now.
Oh yes, how noble that had sounded. The last thing
need. She pounded on the steering wheel in frustration.
To be fair, he hadn't promised her anything -- other than to keep her safe.
Tessa had to swerve hard to the right, as she almost missed her exit. An eighteen wheeler blew his horn, and the sound followed her up the ramp, gradually losing pitch as the truck continued down the highway. Her route wound off into back country darkness, but Tessa did not lessen her speed -- much.
The roads narrowed as she wormed her way into the highlands. Switchback turns took her to the feet of the
, and she negotiated them on two wheels, using the gears on the Volvo to slam the speed down.
The Lodge loomed in the darkness, an ancient structure of logs and glass leftover from some Depression-era WPA initiative. After thinking it looked deserted, it occurred to Tessa that she had not thought to make a reservation as Jane suggested.
She checked the front door and saw a small sign stuck in the window.
Closed for the off-season.
"Shit!" Tessa felt thoroughly annoyed. The last motel was at least fifty miles back, in Mercuryville. She would have to continue to the site, and hope she could bunk in the hut there, or beg a space in one of the grad student's tents. If it came to it, she supposed she could sleep in the car, but it would be miserably cold, even with the goose down sleeping bag she had in the trunk.
The road tapered further and turned to gravel, before becoming only a winding mud track that followed a narrow shelf between a high bluff and a sheer drop. Tessa had driven it more times than she cared to count, but she was dead tired. Once or twice the tires slipped close to the edge as her eyes closed, and she had to jerk the wheel to bring the Volvo back to the center of the track. Only the thought of fresh coffee in the hut kitchen, and the company of her students and workmates kept her going for the last fifteen minutes.
She pulled into the graveled parking area at last. It was wholly and unmistakably bare. Tessa sat in the Volvo, fighting back exhausted tears. Where had everyone gone?
The temporary work hut stood on its concrete block foundation, out of place amongst the deep shadow of the trees. She walked over and tried the door. Locked, but at least she had a key. Once inside, she flipped on the light. The single room looked tidy, as though the students meant to be away for several days.
She remembered then, about the end of term, and exams. Everyone would be back in
studying or drinking with their friends.
The silence roared in her ears. No mobile phone service here -- not this far into the mountains. She felt almost too tired to care. Tessa locked the door, threw herself into one of the bunks and cried herself to sleep.
Ship children tend to be very mobile, moving from place to place with their families. Some may only attend school for a few days each year. Math, geography, and physical education are the most useful subjects to teach Ships.
Know Your Students -- a Junior Educator's Handbook to the Soli
, Severnessan Ministry of Stations
* * * *
Suvi found she could get around with a cane, though her calf felt miserably sore. She limped into the dining room at breakfast. A cloud of residents immediately surrounded her, inquiring solicitously about her injury. Calaan hurried to her side, and pulled out her chair. Someone else brought her food on a tray.
She felt embarrassed by all this unwanted assistance. "Please go back to your meals, my friends." Most drifted away but Calaan continued to hover, clearing his throat uncomfortably.
"Um... Miss, may I speak with you?"
Suvi patted the chair next to her. "Of course, Calaan. I wanted to talk to you as well -- to find out how the salt expedition went."
He smiled proudly. "We brought back two hundredweight sacks, and there is more to be had." When Suvi gave him a pleased pat on the arm, his face colored a brilliant red, right to the roots of his hair.
She sighed, wondering what she would do about this childish worship. "And what did you want to ask me about?"
Calaan stared at his boot-tops. "I was wondering... Well, the thing is... I seen some of the lads in Jaarvik. Quite a few are hanging about on the streets, because the Grond blew up their houses. They need a place to live, and since you been so good to me I thought..."
"How many of your friends need shelter, Calaan? We have not much room here, at least until the south wing is made livable. I think we could not hold more than five more at the moment."
"What do you know? Five's exactly how many I seen, Miss." He ticked a series of names on his fingers. "There's Wix, Trap, Ringgu, Das, and Timmie. Would it be all right if they moved in here? Wouldn't be for long, 'cause pretty soon all of us will get called to the front."
Suvi looked at him in surprise. "But I thought you and your friends were Snakes?"
"Oh, we are, Miss. But so many Spears been killed it won't be long before they take whoever they can get. You mark my words."
"Did any of these boys work in the salt mines with you?"
"Yes, Ma'am, all of them. And I will get them working again. We can take the truck and bring back lots and lots of salt for you."
Suvi smiled, pleased by his enthusiasm. "Very well, Calaan. Can you ride a motapede?"
"Then you may take my pede to Jaarvik and tell your friends they are welcome. But please remember, no more than five, all right?"
Calaan jumped up and hurried away, grinning broadly. "Thank you,
Thank you so much."
Marja, carrying a bowl of thin oatmeal, sat opposite Suvi. She looked almost as cheerful as Calaan. "Riku is feeling so much better this morning. It is difficult to keep him in bed, but Dr. Bennett says he mustn't rise until tomorrow. I am so happy, Suvi."
"I am happy too. How very lucky for us that Tom's friend turned out to be a doctor." Suvi stared into her own bowl of porridge, feeling a bit shy. "Do you know where he went, Marja? He told me he would be here when I got up."
Marja nodded, her mouth full of porridge. "A message came for him early this morning, and he had to leave. But he told me to tell you that he would be back this afternoon to fix the windows." She gave Suvi a measured look. "He seems very interested in you. But isn't he wasting his time? A Rose wouldn't stand a chance with a Harp."
Suvi frowned, not really liking Marja's inquisitiveness. "We are friends. And at Carina, as you know very well, anyone may be friends with anyone else." She stood, as briskly as she could, and excused herself, heading for the schoolroom.
Teggr, the senior teacher, met her at the door. "Morning, Miss Suvi. Are you feeling better?"
"Just a little sore, Goodwife." Suvi peered over Teggr's shoulder. Twenty children sat quietly, writing on slates, supervised by some of the older girls and boys. The heavy curtains were open, letting in the brilliant sun. The back door to the schoolroom opened onto an enclosed yard. A few rubber balls and homemade wooden bats stood forlornly in the corner.
"Why not let them go outside for awhile? Too much sitting still will only make the children restless."
"I'd like to, Suvi, but only one out of every five has a decent coat to wear. It wouldn't be fair on the others, and with the wind whipping around it is too cold to let them go uncovered. They would all be down with the grippe. It's a shame, but there you are. At least they have their lessons, and plenty to eat."
Suvi nodded distractedly, already going over the columns of figures in her head to see if she could find the money for some coats. "Are there any seamstresses among us?"
The old woman squinted, deep in thought, and then began to count names off on her fingers. "Well, there is Goodwife Braad. She used to have a tailor shop on Veleem Svaate. And Goodwife Jiin, she worked at the milliner's on Rikard Svaate. They each have a couple of girls who know their way with a needle."
"So if I found us some woolen stuff, do you think they could sew some simple cloaks? We could keep them here in the schoolroom and the children could take turns using them."
"That is a wonderful idea! I will ask them right away."
"Let me see about the fabric first. It may be difficult to come by."
"You will find it. If anyone can."
Suvi limped back to the office, and unlocked her desk. Inside an old tin, shoved in the back of a drawer, she kept the operating capital for Carina. She shook it out on the desk top and counted the meager pile of coins and low denomination notes. Twenty-one pelaaks and a few centos. And that had to pay the rent on the building, the electricity bill and food staples they couldn't scrounge.
No money remained for cloaks -- or anything else.
Chelah sat on the desk, right in the middle of the pile of pelaaks.
Suvi scratched her ears. "How can I get some money, girl? The children need coats so that they can go outside." Chelah hopped lightly from the desk and headed for the bed. She brushed against the yitar as she passed, sending it discordantly to the floor.
The instrument lay on its back, still humming slightly. Suvi crossed the room and picked it up. She stroked the mermaid lightly with her fingers, lost in the remembrance of her home on
-- of her mother at the spinet, of her father's booming baritone. The song that Tom Finn had played for her returned, too, and its melody seemed to fill the room with sweetness.
Sighing, she replaced the money in the tin, and sat at the desk for a long time with her head in her hands. A need began to manifest itself, a need for solitude, for forgetfulness. She fought it, knowing many tasks needed her attention, until the pain in her calf destroyed what little resistance she had.
She got up and headed for the south wing. Calaan passed her, leading a group of five people. She studied them, somewhat surprised by their rough clothing. When he asked Suvi for shelter for his friends, she had naturally assumed they would be about his age, but most of these men looked to be in their twenties and thirties. One gave her an ill-disguised leer.
Suvi stopped them. "Get Goodman Bergr to help you raise a couple of the new parachutes that were delivered the other day. Your friends will have to share with you, three in each. Will that be all right?"
Calaan gave her an enthusiastic salute. "Yes ma'am. That will be just fine. As soon as they have moved in, me and the lads will head to the mines and get you some more salt."
Suvi frowned at her earlier suspicions. Why shouldn't Calaan have older friends? As long as they were willing to work, she would be happy to give them a home.
She let herself into the south wing, using the other key she kept on a chain around her neck. Someday soon they would have to clean this space, and add it to the shelter, but Suvi had been reluctant to do so. Rusty and cobwebbed machinery filled the floor from wall to wall. It must have been mothballed long before the war closed this plant. But it presented no obstacle that a hundred willing hands could not deal with.
The real reason lay at the end of the room, through another locked door, and down a flight of stone steps. Suvi had stumbled upon it when she first took over the abandoned factory. A place of darkness, and sudden magical light.
She unlocked the last door, and felt her way along the steps. At the bottom lay a trap door, and she had to cast around in the darkness for the metal handle. She raised it, and the plangent sound of running water filtered through the hole.
The sewers of Severnessa.
A very rusty and slick metal ladder led into darkness. It had taken all of Suvi's courage, that first time, what with the skittering of the rats, and the splash of water, who knew how deep? It had been the other sounds that drove her onwards -- snatches of conversation and music.
And the many-hued light that flickered and died and flickered again.
When Suvi reached the bottom of the ladder and stepped on to the slimy paving stones, she saw the source of that light. A glittering spray leaked from the corner, like shreds of a shattered rainbow locked deep underground. It was a gateway, and through that gateway she could see...
. Strange mountains and high trees, silent stars and an endless expanse of windswept water. The scene changed, sometimes two or three pictures in a minute. Other times it would remain in one place for days and days. Sometimes she could see people, hear their talk and music. Suvi often felt drawn to these scenes, and longed to step through the window, away from the hellish winter war, and her responsibilities at Carina.
That she could do this she had no doubt. After she had been sitting quietly for a time, and the rats came out, she often saw an unwary one cross the threshold and disappear with a panicked squeak. Sometimes she would even see it on the other side.
Suvi felt the pull of this aperture even when she was not near -- to the point that she had forbidden herself to visit more than once a week, lest she succumb to temptation.
Today she saw a wooded mountain in the distance, and a cloudless summer sky. She could almost feel the balminess of the breeze as it stirred a clump of yellow flowers. Bird calls rippled through the air, followed by a flash of tropical-hued wings. Suvi raised her hand, longing to plunge it through the window, to gather this beckoning warmth to her heart.
Then she saw something even more tempting. A prism of crystal, locked within a flimsy tracery of copper-colored metal. It sparkled in the sunlight, just beyond the window.
Suvi stretched out her hand, and then dropped it down again. "I shouldn't. Probably dangerous, that thing, whatever it is." But her arm rose again, seemingly of its own volition. The prism twinkled invitingly, drawing her trembling hand onwards...
From above, muffled thumps and shouts meant another dispute had broken out.
Suvi sighed, reluctantly withdrew her hand, and went back upstairs. After she had organized the location of the newest parachute tents, she sought out the kitchen to see what was left from lunch.
Brini pointed to a dented saucepan. "Just a little broth. But you are welcome to it."
The thin soup tasted like dishwater flavored with cabbage. Suvi could not help wishing she could have something more substantial. She thought of Sunday roasts at her parent's house, soup thick with dumplings and chunks of sausage, hearty stews with fish caught fresh from the lake.
With a sigh of frustration she threw down her spoon, just as Tom entered the kitchen. "What's wrong? Not hungry?"
"Not for this. I wouldn't care if I never saw another cabbage leaf as long as I live." But she picked up her spoon and began to eat nonetheless. "I shouldn't complain. Plenty of folk have less."
Tom sat across from her at the table. "Let me take you out to dinner tonight. Somewhere nice. You deserve a treat for all your hard work."
Suvi toyed with her soup, sorely tempted. "But it wouldn't be fair to the others."
"I can't believe they would begrudge you one decent meal. Come on, what do you say?" Tom reached over, meaning to pat her hand, but his fingers somehow entangled with hers. Suvi raised her eyes to meet his, and two spots of color appeared on her cheeks, but she left her hand in his.
She gave him a shy smile. "Are you sure we can find a place to take a meal together? I thought the restaurants were all closed."
"Leave that to me. And in the meantime, shouldn't you be resting?"
* * * *
But Suvi had neither the time nor inclination to lie down. As soon as Tom left to get glass, boards and tools to repair the broken windows, she stuffed her yitar into a messenger bag and limped to her pede. She checked the gas gauge and found to her surprise that it stood almost on empty. It wasn't that far to Jaarvik and back, but perhaps Calaan had gone somewhere else as well? She decided she could question him later.
Right now, she had a yitar to sell.
The Hockit occupied a crumbling building on the edge of town, close to Jaarvik. Suvi greeted the proprietor, Goodman Scaaf, cheerfully. He smiled in return. She was a familiar face in his shop, and a good customer. "Well, Miss Markku, have you come to buy or sell today?"
"Both, I hope. I need a bolt of woolen stuff, doesn't matter what color. Do you have anything?"
He dug behind the long counter and produced a roll of loden cloth. "I have just the thing. Came in yesterday." Suvi recognized it as the same material used to make the Harrier uniforms and wondered if Max Jalo had been engaging in a little extra commerce.
Such high-quality cloth would make excellent cloaks, but Suvi did not exhibit any enthusiasm. "Hmmm... It isn't exactly what I am looking for, but it might do. How much?"
Scaaf did not hesitate. "Twenty pelaaks and not a cento less."