Wilom adjusted his sleeves. The shirt was new and stiff, and he regretted that his others were all in the wash.
“Ah,” Mr Treene said. “Early as usual. Come in.”
“What do you mean, as usual?” Wilom asked. “I wouldn’t have said I’d been here often enough for there to be an ‘as usual’.”
“Am I wrong?”
“I’m told I’m perpetually late, actually,” Wilom said, thinking of Vanda.
“And yet for me, you are early. Twice now! And wearing a new shirt, too. You needn’t have made such an effort. Come in, though. It’s nearly dinner time.”
Wilom nodded, finally deciding to bite the bullet and undo the cufflinks. He rolled up the sleeves.
“Ah, now the door is closed, the formality comes off!” Mr Treene exclaimed. “Here, to make you feel more at ease.” He undid the top button of his waistcoat and rolled up his own sleeves. He clapped Wilom on the back. “Much better after a long day of working, anyway.”
Wilom gave him an innocent smile. “Formality has come off,” he said. “I see.”
“Yes, of course!” Mr Treene gestured wide. “Or do I need to bring out some wine for that?”
“Of course, if I say yes, that would be far too forward.”
“Formality is off, we said. Forward doesn’t come into it.”
“Yes, but if I just asked for the wine, I would have proved the formality was gone and I didn’t need it.”
“So by not being forward, you prove both that you want the wine and that you need it, thus forcing me to give it to you. What a clever trap! A lesser man might accuse you of being rude.”
“But we agreed no formality.”
“I’m trapped both ways! Well, I certainly need some wine in me to deal with that sort of thing. Red or white?”
“White, I suppose,” Wilom said.
“You don’t sound very sure about that.”
“I’ve never known much about wine. Except that, apparently, white wine comes before dinner and with fish or chicken. Unless you’re going to pull that rug out from under me?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Mr Treene said from the next room, above the sound of wine pouring. “In the circles I move in, that is as good as heresy. I’ll admit I am not above getting creative with those rules, though you’ll have to keep that between us I am afraid.”
Mr Treene re-entered the room and passed Wilom a rather full glass of wine. Wilom accepted it, and smelled it, standing just a little on ceremony before he took a sip.
Mr Treene waited politely for his response.
“It’s good wine,” Wilom said.
“Of course it is. That is immaterial. The question is whether you like it.”
Wilom couldn’t answer immediately. The ferryman’s words sounded so odd coming from Mr Treene’s mouth.
“Have I made you uncomfortable?” Mr Treene asked.
“Actually, you remind me of my teacher.”
“Sounds like a fascinating person. May I enquire?”
“Certainly,” Wilom said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think I can answer.”
“Now that’s intriguing. I’m thinking weary old traveller passing through town, you paid him in eggs for everything he knew? Tell me, was it philosophy or the magic of letters he taught you?”
“Philosophy, mainly. But I didn’t pay him in eggs. Actually, I still owe the teaching debt, so if one day you happen to meet a magic swine I’m going to have to ask you to let me know immediately.”
“I will be sure to. A magic swine sounds a most inconvenient thing to have, so you’re welcome to it.”
Wilom sipped his wine. “I suppose,” he said, “you invited me for a reason?”
“Always. But I am incapable of reason before dinner, so you’ll have to indulge me by enjoying my chef’s fine roast chicken first.”
The roast chicken was indeed very fine, trussed up with rosemary sticks and filled with a herb breadcrumb mix made tender and bread-like in the chicken’s juices. The peas were minted, the potato mashed and creamy, and seasoned with something quite similar to the herbs in the chicken. Dessert was ice cream – served fresh from a chilled tureen.
“No expense spared,” Wilom commented.
“No expense wasted either, I hope.”
“I’m certainly enjoying it. But let’s talk business before you ply me with any more of your wonderful wine.”
“I thought I had to ply you with wine to get rid of the formalities.”
“Best to leave some formalities in business, I find.”
“Really? I find the opposite.”
“You’re usually on the other side of business to me,” Wilom pointed out. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Alright, alright,” Mr Treene said. “Since you’re so insistent, we can do the business now.”
Wilom was gladder of the Ferryman’s Knowledge than usual. The ability to determine, based on just a tone of voice, the choice of language, some cue in the way he put another spoon of ice cream in his mouth before talking, made Wilom certain he was not offending Mr Treene. He got the feeling it would have been mightily difficult to tell, without the extra help of the Knowledge.
“Well,” Mr Treene said. “I received your letter of thanks after finding your friends their house. I wanted to invite you to give you these.” He passed a bundle of letters to Wilom.
Wilom took them. They were all in different handwriting – he imagined he could put names to all of the hands on the letters, but perhaps that was just him being sentimental. But all of them had his name on them.
“Huh,” he said. “You went to visit then.”
Mr Treene gave him a calculating look. “Yes, I did. I do like to check, you know.”
“Sorry,” Wilom said. “I didn’t mean to imply that you wouldn’t care about them.”
“I didn’t take it that way.”
Wilom pocketed the letters. “Thank you,” he said.
Mr Treene chuckled. “You sound like I just delivered a letter from a long-lost relative. I didn’t peg you for the sentimental type.”
Wilom shrugged. “Sorry. I was just a little surprised, is all.”
“They really like you,” Mr Treene said.
“You sound sentimental now,” Wilom said, and instantly realised that was the wrong thing to say. It was awkward. Too flippant.
Mr Treene’s mouth twisted a little. Wilom could feel him trying to calculate Wilom’s mood from that response.
“How were they when you went?” Wilom asked, to change the topic.
“I expect you’ll find out when you read those,” Mr Treene said. “May I be blunt for a moment, Mr Tris?”
Wilom nodded. “Of course.”
“I do find real estate so much easier to deal with than all of these … organisations with their pseudonyms and acronyms. Barely a nym but it has a prefix to it.”
“I don’t doubt,” Wilom said.
“Don’t be sycophantic. I’d prefer you say nothing at all than hedge at me while I’m speaking. Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point.”
“Hah. Don’t think I didn’t notice that. Once upon a time, I was a young man, with a father in business. Before he signed over the family business to me, he wanted to make sure I could run it well. He always said I ought to make my mistakes while he was around to fix them. So he gave me a small side business, nothing he couldn’t cut his losses on, and told me to do my best. I had to hire a contractor for some warehouse repairs. We signed a contract. I said I would pay him a certain amount of money, and he would do a certain amount of work, and when it was done, I would pay him the rest. We agreed on the price, and I paid my advance. The work was to standard and when it was done, I paid him the remainder.”
“Sounds like a happy ending,” Wilom said.
“It was,” Mr Treene said. “But not just yet. After that, he claimed a bad cheque. I confirmed with the bank and they said the money had transferred just fine. I told him so, and then he claimed I must have paid him less than agreed. In the end, he took me to court. I produced contract and the carbon copy of the cheque I had written. The bank confirmed that the money had come out of my account on the date I had said. He paid my court fees by order of the judge. I never used his services again. He never contacted me again.”
“Now, suppose that I decide to double-cross you.”
“I get arrested,” Wilom said. He knew this answer by heart. “Probably executed. Same with the people in the house you have there, if they don’t get away in time. I can’t give you anyone but us, though.”
Mr Treene snorted. “See? No contract, no assurance. No court of law to give us the civilised option. Tell me, why did you join their little club?”
Wilom shrugged. “Favour for a friend, mostly. And it was the right thing to do.”
“Would you say everyone in your group also thinks that it’s the right thing to do?”
“Can we get to the part where I’ve already agreed that people disagree with the details, even if they agree on the overall goal?”
“You know where this is going, I see.”
“There’s no checks and balances,” Wilom guessed. “If something goes wrong, it goes wrong disastrously. Am I right?”
“That’s about the skin of it,” Mr Treene said. “Besides, that contractor only wanted money. Can you imagine what might have happened if his ideals had been on the line? Or my friends?”
Wilom nodded. “Much worse things.”
“Much worse things,” Mr Treene agreed. “You can’t trust people to be rational once you get politics involved, not with all the ideals flying around.”
“If I didn’t know better,” Wilom said, “I might say you cared about me.”
“Don’t be sarcastic.”
“Sorry. I understand what you’re saying. I will both be careful and also try not to get anyone killed because of my idealism.”
Mr Treene held the remainder of his wine up in a toast. “Well, here’s to that, then.”
Wilom touched his glass to Mr Treene’s.
“Now,” Mr Treene said, after draining his glass. “That was all the business I had, unless you had any more?”
“No, no business left for today.”
“Excellent. Let’s have another wine, then.”
Wilom drained his glass and put it on the table for Mr Treene’s serving-man to refill.
“You’re a puzzling man, Wilom,” Mr Treene said.
“I’m somewhat glad about that, if I’m perfectly honest.”
Mr Treene continued as though he hadn’t heard. “Every time I think I have you pegged as a businessman, you come out with something that makes me realise you’re an idealist. I’ve never met a person quite so two-minded as you.”
“Trained well, I suppose,” Wilom said.”
“It will be well worth the magic swine,” Mr Treene said.
Wilom nodded. “I do hope so.”