Feeling troubled, Von sought out the Novice Dorm where he expected a jolly reception since he was always in demand as a storyteller.
Instead, he was greeted by the sight of six-year-old Chester staring, perplexed, at a knot of girls gathered around the bunk bed of the eldest novice, Sarah, who sat — crying dramatically — on the top bunk.
“Oh, Sarah, please come down!” pleaded Pam, aged nine.
Four more girls hovered, one with a three-year-old boy in her arms.
“Girls are such bawlers,” Chester remarked. “How do you stand them, Von?”
“Wait a few years,” advised Von.
Chester, who was already good looking in a rough-hewed fashion, produced a big, tough-guy frown. “If I try to make sense of girls — real girls — I’ll mess up. I’m going to stick to the Vrellish women.”
“Uh huh.” Von had heard this boast before. He tipped his chin toward the feminine distress at the far end of the room. “What happened?” Von asked.
“I told them Reetions destroyed habitat in the Killing War because they don’t have souls to get reborn.”
“Ah,” said Von. He tapped a thumb on his chin in mock thought, then dropped his arm. “I’m afraid you’ll have to apologize.”
“But it’s true!” the boy protested.
“Then do it for the practice in managing unwelcome truths. The knack will come in handy if you do wind up with the occasional Demish Lady on your hands. And I never did say Reetions had no souls.”
“You said — ”
“Come on!” Von took Chester by the hand.
Sarah fell silent to watch Von’s approach. Pam hung on the side of the ladder against Sarah’s bunk and the rest shifted to be sure of a good view.
“The first step,” Von told his reluctant pupil, “is to figure out, exactly, what you’ve done.”
“He made Sarah cry!” accused Pam.
“I did,” Chester manfully conceded, and made to redress the wrong. “I am sorry I told you the truth, Sarah.”
Sarah threw a pillow at him.
“See!” Chester stabbed an accusatory arm at older girl, still perched defiantly on the top bunk.
“Chester,” Von sank to his haunches, put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, and pulled their heads together. “Never assume you know what a woman is crying about until you’ve made a point of finding out.”
A couple of the girls giggled.
Von climbed half-way up the bunk’s ladder and hooked his hands on the edge of Sarah’s bed, claiming all her attention. “I know what Chester said, Sarah. Help him out. Tell us why it hurt your feelings.”
“I like Reetions.” Sarah sniffed, began to wipe her nose, and was deterred by Von filling the offending hand with somebody’s volunteered handkerchief. “Reetions live on their own,” she elaborated, accepting the correction of etiquette by pausing to blow her nose with the supplied hanky. “But they’re not Sevolites. They’re commoners.”
“Chester said they blew up space stations,” said Vivian, an athletic little sword-dancer who was full of spunk.
“Von said so!” exclaimed Chester.
“Reetions did destroy space stations and fire on planets,” Von confirmed. The news was met with childish gasps.
“They’re okal’a’ni,” Chester triumphed. “They deserved what they got!”
“Why did Ameron help them?” demanded Pam, fingering the cheap Ameron pendant worn at her throat.
A little girl at Von’s side, called Lila, put out her arms. Von swung her up. He said, “Ameron saw the good in them.”
“But they can’t be good!” Sarah’s eyes filled with tears once more. “Not if they destroy places to live.”
“I haven’t had a chance to read the whole Ameron Biography,” said Von. “Maybe it’s explained later.”