Wilom double-checked the address in his notes before knocking on the door. Mr Treene, hm? The ledger information on him was contradictory – all underlines and warnings and scribbled notes about how rich he was, and his unfailing honesty, no two comments in the same handwriting. In the end, though, he was only one of two letters Wilom had gotten a response to. So Wilom had decided to go and see for himself.
The door opened. A man, just a little taller than Wilom, was standing behind it. His hair was greying, his square face showing wrinkles, but he was fastidiously clean-shaven, and he wore a crisp business suit. His cravat alone could probably pay several week’s rent in certain parts of the city.
“Mr Treene? My name is Wilom,” Wilom said, holding out his hand. “I’m here to talk to you about some friends of mine.”
“Come in. Would you like a cup of tea? Coffee?”
“I’d prefer coffee,” Wilom said, “if that’s alright.”
Mr Treene ushered him through the door, down a carpeted hallway, and into a sitting-room with three sofas so rounded and full of cushions they were almost spherical, gathered around an unlit fireplace. One of them had a newspaper folded on the arm, and an empty mug on a tiny table next to it. On the other side of the sofas, a bookshelf reached to the ceiling, full of hardbound books. Some were obviously academic treatises, some titles Wilom recognised from his own childhood as ‘learned men’s books’.
Mr Treene picked up the coffee mug and walked next door to the kitchen. Wilom heard the kettle being put on. He walked to the bookshelf and read through the titles while he waited.
In a moment, Mr Treene returned with a tray, the spotted coffee mugs contrasting with the polished silver service.
“Thanks,” Wilom said, taking the chair opposite the one with the newspaper.
“Not at all. Alright, tell me about your friends.”
Wilom took a moment to plan his answer. Mr Treene gave him a knowing smile, which he considered more than a little condescending.
Well, if there was one thing to be said for the ferryman’s training, it was that Wilom recognised a test when he saw it. He sipped his coffee and said, “Nothing you haven’t done before, obviously. Just finding some houses for people who need them.”
Mr Treene sipped his coffee and put the cup down before responding.
“I see. Nothing I haven’t done before, you say.”
“I do have notes. I assumed you were willing, since you responded rather quickly to my letter, which puts you on a list of precisely two people.”
“Such rarefied company!”
“Well, I do appreciate it. I’d be lying if I said two was a rather disheartening number.”
“So soon, and already in despair? We’re impatient, aren’t we?”
Wilom crossed his legs. “My apologies. As you say, it’s still new ground for me. I didn’t precisely know what to expect.”
“You hadn’t any practice? No teacher?”
“Just a few ledgers of notes.”
“Well, they’ve not gotten any more organised since they last talked to me. Do me and the rest of your contacts a favour: when the time comes for you to step down, you make sure you train someone to replace you properly, yes?”
“I will,” Wilom said. “But we should discuss what needs to be done now.”
“Why don’t you tell me what needs to be done? I’m sure you at least have some thoughts about your job, even if you’re new.”
Wilom scratched his chin.
“I need to find houses,” he said. “Which means I need someone either willing to share one, or with one to spare. I came to you, if you’ll forgive my saying, because you seem to be in a position to arrange that.”
“I don’t mind you saying it. Are you asking me to share my house?”
“Not if you’re unwilling,” Wilom said.
Mr Treene nodded, with a sort of half smile that Wilom rather resented.
“Do you know my standard deal?”
“You’ll find the house, and the family who moves in works until they buy it off you?” The question rose in Wilom’s mind again – had he read that? Was it in the ledger? It must have been. But it wasn’t with Mr Treene’s name – he’d read that section enough times to know. He’d have to try and find it, to see if it had said anything else that would have been useful.
“That’s the one. I’ll send a letter if something becomes available.”
Wilom nodded, pulling his attention back to the conversation. “Thank you. I’ll leave my address with you.” He tore a piece of paper out of his notebook, and wrote the address on it.
Mr Treene stood and walked Wilom to the door. “I’ll let you get about your day,” he said.
Out on the street, Wilom shoved his hands in his pockets and hurried away. He felt out of place in this neighbourhood. These were the kind of houses you had to be born able to afford, or else you’d be working till you died.
It was not particularly difficult to read Mr Treene – and he could see why the warnings about him in the ledgers had been so emphatic. Mr Treene hadn’t made even the barest attempt to hide that he had an ulterior motive.
He’d always thought the ferryman had prepared him for most situations. But the ferryman had always just ignored ulterior motives. They didn’t really matter on the River. The problem was, Wilom still hadn’t worked out how much they mattered here.
The walk from Mr Treene’s to the soup kitchen was casual and relaxing. Exactly what he needed to refresh his mind.
He’d timed it perfectly; it was just after lunch, when the pots were near empty, and the last people were trailing out of the room. He took a moment to think through his lines before he entered. The last person placed with them had recently moved away, and they’d seemed keen to help out again.
“Good afternoon, sir, and please come in. We’re out of —”
“I’m Wilom Tris, actually,” Wilom interrupted the old lady behind the counter. “I sent a letter asking for a chat today?”
“Oh, Wilom! Thanks for avoiding the rush. Would you mind giving us just a mo to pack up? We’ll be with you as soon as we’ve cleaned these pots.”
It was a little longer than just a “mo”, as the pots needed to be thoroughly scrubbed, and then of course everyone agreed that the discussion would take a while, so pastries had to be fetched from the nearby baker’s, and coffee had to be made for everyone (Wilom was still feeling a little twitchy from the coffee at Mr Treene’s, so he politely refused and had a glass of lemonade pressed on him instead). To pass the time while the women bustled and prepared and wouldn’t let him so much as wipe a dish, Wilom went over ledgers in his mind.
Once they’d sat down, of course, there was the obligatory small talk and gossip that went around the tables. Wilom hadn’t realised he could be more at a loss than when listening to Aunt J and her friends talking, but not knowing any of the people being discussed made the conversation almost incomprehensible. Somehow, he managed to muddle through with some well-placed noises and judicious application of general opinions to specific circumstances until they finally turned to the topic of his visit.
“But we’re keeping you here with our chatter,” one of them, a younger one, said after the pastries were gone. “You needed our help with something, Wilom?”
Wilom nodded. “I was wondering if I could ask a favour of you,” he said. “You see, there’s … a friend or two of mine, in need of a place to stay …”
“Say no more,” the oldest said, with a chuckle. “We’ve played this game a few times before. What do you say, ladies?”
“Of course we’ll help out,” the lady in the blue cardigan next to her said. “Provided this person will help out with the kitchen, of course.”
The lady in the red skirt nodded. “It looks a little better to customers if we’re all women, too. We are the Fortunate Ladies’ Soup Kitchen, after all.”
Wilom nodded. “My friend is a young lady named Margaret. She’s looking for somewhere she can find some work, and a place to stay.”
“She sounds fine so far,” the oldest said, with a final sort of tone. “You tell her she can help us out here. We’ll make sure she’s looked after.”
There was a round of nods.
Wilom smiled and stood up. “Thank you very much for your help.”
“No trouble at all, young man. It’s a pleasure.”
Wilom finished his lemonade and left. He had no idea how he’d managed to get through the whole conversation without saying anything stupid – he’d never managed it with Jali’s friends, after all, and this was hardly the sort of thing the River had prepared him for – but he was glad he had. They hadn’t seemed to notice how lost he’d felt, either. Well, people expected adults to know what they were doing, and he mustn’t have done anything to severely upset that. Thanks for the good example, Aunt J, he supposed.
Over dinner at Marc’s house, Wilom finally told Cathlin and Marc that he wasn’t working on the farm.
“So, looks like I won’t be working at the farm anymore,” he said.
“Oh?” Cathlin looked up momentarily from her plate.
“I’ve been looking for something else, and I finally found something. It’s been good, but I think the farming life isn’t quite as … for me as I thought it would be.”
Cathlin kept her eyes fixed on her plate. “Well, glad you found something else, then. Where are you working?”
“It’s just an office job. Green Hill Accounting – mostly keeping diaries organised and files in the right spots. But we’ll see how it goes.”
“Planning on switching jobs again?” Cathlin asked, and Wilom thought he heard a hint of sharp humour in her voice.
He shook his head, pretending not to have noticed. “Hopefully not, though perhaps I’ll get a little further in this job than just working on the filing. I’ve always had a fairly decent head for maths; maybe they’ll get me doing the actual accounting after a while.”
Cathlin nodded, and Wilom thought he saw some of the tension leave her face. That must have been an acceptable answer. “Well, best of luck to you, then.”
“You sound like you don’t approve,” Wilom said.
Cathlin smiled sheepishly. “Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“You weren’t rude,” Wilom hastened to clarify. “Just asking.”
“Well,” Cathlin said. “You just seem so restless, is all. You’ll never get anywhere if you keep jumping between things. Eventually, you have to pick one thing and stick to it.”
Wilom nodded. “I can see the logic in that,” he said, fully aware that that was not really what she’d wanted to say.
Cathlin went back to her plate. “If you’ve found something that suits you, may this be the thing that settles you down.”
“May it be indeed!” Wilom said, trying not to think too hard about Vanda and the actual job he was dong, lest he start laughing. “What did you do today, Jilli?” he said, and Marc and Cathlin took this to mean the topic was dropped.