The Heads’ meeting was held in a moderately well-kept warehouse on the other side of the city. Wilom was starting to suspect that nobody he knew actually did business in sensible places, like offices, and realised just how much that said about his life choices. Vanda left him outside the door, and went in to make her case to them.
Wilom tried not to listen in, really he did. So instead of hearing the entire conversation, he felt the tension, the guarded optimism. The voices never raised loud enough for him to hear him despite his distance, so it couldn’t have been going too badly.
Then Vanda arrived, and beckoned him. “Come in,” she said. “They’d like to meet you.”
“What? This wasn’t part of the plan!”
“I told them about you, and they want you to help them out more directly. Come on, you’re good at this. You’ll be fine. I’ll swear on whichever of my graves you want.”
Wilom hesitated, then sidled past Vanda to get into the door, whispering “You’re damned lucky I trust you.”
The room had a single round table in it, just large enough for the five seats around it. Wilom recognised Vicdra and Rytel immediately, as the Ferryman’s Knowledge supplied the information Vanda hadn’t already given him. Vicdra was young and could barely keep still on his chair. He was that odd crossroads often found in men only just leaving youth, body still mostly thin, but soft, the bulk in his arms not coming from muscle, but not quite purely fat.
Rytel was much older, middle-aged. She had her arms folded on the table as she watched Wilom. The look in her eyes was mild suspicion, but Wilom suspected that as long as he was courteous and didn’t immediately back Vicdra, it would disappear quickly. She distrusted him the same way that she distrusted Vanda – mostly from principle and in the same general way as Mr Treene assumed any gift wanted a favour in return.
And then there was Manda. She was older than Rytel by a large margin, a proper matriarch with the floral print dress to match. She watched Wilom, with more interest than suspicion.
“Good evening,” Wilom said. “Nice to finally meet you all.”
They nodded. Vicdra grinned, and glanced at Vanda. Wilom made sure that Rytel didn’t notice him noticing.
“Wilom — Rytel, Vicdra, Manda,” Vanda said, pointing them out to him.
Wilom took the seat next to Vanda, both of them between Rytel and Dyvan.
“Vanda says you have some talent,” Rytel began.
Wilom grinned. “I suppose that depends on what she’s told you I have talent in.”
That got a chuckle from Manda. Vicdra and Rytel stayed silent.
“I’ve told them you’re an organiser,” Vanda said. “And that you’re good with people.”
Wilom took a minute to calculate, then said, “I don’t think I can deny that.”
“Pfa!” Manda said. “If you have skill, then own to it. We’re interviewing you for a job, not having a dinner party.”
“Note the distinct lack of teacups,” Rytel said, in a tone that might have been mistaken for a joke.
“Sorry,” he said. “Yes, I am good at plans and organising, and I have extensive experience with people.”
“Extensive experience where?”
Of all the questions, why did people always ask the difficult ones? “I was apprenticed to a ferryman for most of my working life, until I moved to the Capital.”
“And that was how long, exactly?”
Good thing Wilom had revised the answers to these questions just in case. “Nine years.”
Manda nodded. “That’s a good, long apprenticeship.”
“And I’m good at learning,” Wilom said. “I learned to learn.”
“Good,” Vicdra said, and pushed a huge folder across the table to Wilom. “We’ve been working our way through this. It’s all the laws and policies relating to our enterprise.”
“There’s more than just ‘don’t’?” Wilom joked, but picked up the folder and looked at it seriously. “What, exactly, do you need me to do?”
“See if there’s anything you can find that’s useful,” Vicdra said almost immediately.
Wilom hesitated. “If I may ask a question?”
“What’s that?” It was Rytel who asked, while the others were giving each other significant looks.
“If I understand correctly, you’ve been very close to the chest thus far. But you’ll take me on a recommendation?”
“A recommendation, and some quite good work,” Rytel said, a little too smoothly. “Besides, part of Vanda’s little … critique of us was related to that business with Peggy. You handled that startlingly well. You may have noticed that things are a little tense nowadays, and someone who can make quick decisions in a crisis is someone we need.”
The rest of the table nodded along to this, even Vicdra.
“One more question,” Wilom said. “What, exactly, constitutes useful? What am I looking for in this?” He tapped the folder.
Vicdra shrugged and opened his mouth, but Rytel cut him off. “Vanda leads us to understand that you still have three people to re-home, and times are tougher than ever for that. We need other options and we need them fast.”
“We’ll give you a few weeks,” Vicdra began.
“One week,” Lavie said sharply. “To come up with the groundwork for something, at least. Will that be enough time?”
Wilom flicked through the binder, and nodded. “More than enough, I think. You’re right – there’s little hope of placing them now, so my time is open to you.”
Rytel and Vicdra nodded. Wilom wondered why Rytel hadn’t been the one to push for time, given what Vanda had said about her.
“Vanda …” Manda began, then collected herself and continued. “We understand.”
Vanda nodded. “I understand, too,” she said. “I shouldn’t have —”
“You said some things that needed saying,” Vicdra said, with a sage nod that didn’t suit him at all, then hastily added “But perhaps not exactly in the way they needed saying.”
“I’m glad I haven’t caused too much offense.”
“None,” Manda said. “I think we can all understand the pressures of this job.”
Wilom very nearly heard Vanda’s clothing move as she tensed, but she did an excellent job of not showing it.
“A week, then,” Wilom cut in. “Please excuse me, I had best get reading.”
“I’ll go also,” Vanda said. “I just came back to apologise, and see if I could set things straight.”
“Consider them straight,” Rytel said.
Vanda and Wilom left together. They got all the way down the street and around the corner before she said “All understand the pressures of this job? Let me get my hands on her throat — I’ll make her understand the pressures of this job!”
Wilom patted her on the shoulder. “Shall I get the garrotte wire out, or are you fine as you are?”
“Please. You know I prefer the hands-on approach.”
Wilom hefted the folder. “I don’t know, this could be a very good murder weapon.”
“Could be? I’m getting nervous just watching you carry that thing around. A week, you said you’d read it in?”
“I can do that,” Wilom said.
“If you can,” Vanda said, “You know we’ll have them eating out of our hands.”
“I’ll need to make up a proposal, too,” Wilom said. “Is there some time we can talk?”
Vanda bit her lip. “I think … well, we’ll see. I need to head out … to work … tonight, and I don’t know how long it will take me to get back. I’ll be back for the meeting, but …”
“That’s fine. If I see you before then, I’ll see you before then,” Wilom said. “If not, well, we can meet for tea before the meeting.”
“That sounds good.” Vanda paused, and stopped walking for a moment.
“What is it?”
They were walking past the unemployment office.
Where the familiar poster had been, there was one instead showing men and women in uniform, perfectly in line. The heading read, “WE SALUTE YOU”. Underneath the picture was a checklist: “Want to earn steady money? Want to do your duty? Want to protect your family? Enlist for the army! We take people of all skills and ages. Jobs guaranteed!”
Wilom gripped the binder a little tighter and kept on walking. Vanda hurried after him.
When Wilom got back, Marc was playing with Jilli, while Cathlin sat poring over papers at the dining table.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
Cathlin looked up and grinned. “Nothing really,” she said. “How was work?”
“People, as usual,” Wilom said. “Your day? Marc? Jilli?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Marc said. “Just people, like you say. Although one of the managers is moving to another company, so perhaps there’ll be a bit of excitement there.”
“Today, the bears won,” Jilli said. “But it’s OK. The soldiers might win next time.”
Wilom nodded. “Sounds interesting.” He sat down at the table. “Can I look?” he asked Cathlin.
“Sure, if you like. They’re all roughly the same, though.”
Wilom scanned a few pages.
We regret to inform you that our stock has already been promised …
Thank you for your early reply. Unfortunately …
Thank you for your interest. However, due to issues with transporting and low cotton harvest …
We are sorry, but …
“Ah,” he said.
Cathlin glanced over at Jilli. Wilom waited until she turned away to pull some more soldiers out of a box, then patted Cathlin on the shoulder.
“I’ll start dinner,” he said. “Tonight was pasta bake, wasn’t it?”
“Sure, if you like,” Marc said. “Need any help?”
“No, I’ll be fine. It sounds like you and Jilli have some important things going on down there.”
Wilom pulled out the remains of a roast chicken and began to shred the flesh off the bones.
“Have you seen the new posters up everywhere?” Wilom asked.
“They want everyone to join the army!” Jilli said. “Because there aren’t enough people already fighting so that we win.”
Wilom began to peel an onion. “I wonder how many more people will go,” he said.