When Wilom eventually got back to Marc’s house, Cathlin was already there, but Jilli was not. Wilom had been far too preoccupied that morning to remember whether Marc had had anything planned with her, or whether she was at Sarit’s that afternoon, but he put it out of his mind.
He opened the door and nodded to Cathlin, who was sitting at the table with a glass of water and a ledger, doing sums in labeled columns. He got a glass of water and sat down opposite her.
“Is Jilli with Sarit?” Wilom asked.
Cathlin shook her head. “Marc has her. He said something about doing something special for dinner, and Jilli went with him to the store.”
Cathlin was grateful – Marc had gone with Jilli to give her some time alone. She did not want to be quizzed about her day.
Wilom swept and mopped the floors, since they needed doing. When he had finished, he brought a book to the table with him, so he had a distraction.
She would like you –
Cathlin sighed. “Same as always, really. How about yours?”
Wilom closed his book with a sharp thump that made Cathlin jump.
“Sorry,” he said, pushing the book away. “Slipped. Not bad. I’m waiting on word from work about a new project. If I get it, I’ll be a lot busier, but if I don’t get it, there won’t be much to do.”
Cathlin nodded sympathetically she had taken it to mean that he was afraid he’d be fired if the project didn’t go through, but thought he didn’t want to admit it.
He didn’t correct her assumption. He’d had quite enough for one day.
Cathlin studied his face. “You don’t think it will go through, then?”
“I think it will,” Wilom said. “At least, I’m hopeful.”
She was wondering why his face looked so sour. She was running through possibilities in her mind …
“But it will take a lot of convincing,” he said, as if he had meant to pause. “My boss … is quite resistant to the idea.”
“Ah,” Cathlin said. “An argument?”
“You could say that.”
Cathlin put aside the notebook and the sums. “Well, I don’t envy you that. How about we swap tomorrow? I’ll go negotiate for your project and you can stay here and redo sums over and over just in case you can find a magic missing number somewhere.”
“Sounds a lot like my job every other day,” Wilom said, with a quiet chuckle.
Cathlin managed a weak smile but she didn’t think he was mocking her, she found it funny but she did not quite have the energy to express it.
“Be back in a moment,” Wilom said. He stood for a moment at the bathroom sink, in front of the mirror, and took a few deep breaths. Was it a long day? Was he actively getting worse at pressing down the Ferryman’s Knowledge? He could even feel Cathlin’s mood on the edge of his thoughts here. Oh for the days when he could spend a day on the other side of the grassy hill near his home town if he needed to get away from people.
He should return. Marc and Jilli would be home soon.
He was sitting back down at the table when Marc and Jilli arrived, with Marc hushing Jilli, and Jilli covering her mouth as she ran to her room.
“What are you two planning?” Cathlin asked Marc as he put the grocery bags in the kitchen.
“Nothing,” Marc said. “Wilom, don’t you say a word!”
“Wasn’t going to.”
“So I’m being conspired against.” Cathlin sighed dramatically. “Will I at least enjoy the consequences?”
“I certainly hope so! I’d hate to go to all this effort for nothing.”
“I know I’m excited,” Wilom said.
Jilli brought out her box of toys, set them on the floor and started to search through it for the ones she wanted. Wilom considered playing with her for a while, but he wasn’t sure he could manage it after such a long day. Jilli seemed content enough to play on her own, thankfully.
Marc refused any offers to help him with dinner. Cathlin eventually put her notebook aside. There wasn’t much conversation — Marc offered a few topics, but soon he lapsed into the same companionable, if a little weary, silence as the rest of them. Jilli babbled to her toys, the pot bubbled on the stove.
Wilom pretended he was reading his book, but really he was watching Marc with some fascination as he whisked eggs and sugar and tore bread into a baking dish. At least the ingredients didn’t seem too objectionable…
Partway through cooking, Cathlin looked up at Marc.
“Got it in one.”
Cathlin breathed a nostalgic chuckle. “You’re just like Dad. Always trying to cheer me up with food and treats.”
“Well, if it worked for him…”
Wilom smiled into his glass of water, thinking of Gloves and Tags.
Marc served up dinner, and Jilli was persuaded to curtail her game of “knights in deathtrap castle” before it was revealed that the beautiful princess was really a hungry bear. The toys were left precisely where they were, so that after dinner, the knights could resume their perilous journey, and meet their surprising and ignominious fate at the claws of their furry monarch.
After dinner, Marc, grinning, served up bowls of wobbly yellow goo piled on top of mushy bread. Wilom could see dried fruit scattered through it. Marc watched him with a wide grin.
Cathlin looked between them curiously. “Marc?”
“Wilom’s never had bread pudding before,” Marc said. “Or custard.”
“Pudding’s supposed to be boiled,” Wilom muttered, poking at the mushy bread. “Not baked.”
Jilli frowned. “How come you’ve never had pudding?”
Wilom shook his head. “I said I’ve never had pudding like this.”
“Another of your grandfather’s insistences?” Cathlin asked, fork of pudding held ready near her mouth.
In a way, Wilom supposed. “That, and it was a favourite of my aunt’s.”
Wilom tried the dessert. It was sweet – nearly unbearably so. The custard tasted like eggs and sugar, and the bread was nearly as gooey, except for a sugary crust on top.
Marc, Cathlin and Jilli all started laughing at him. Raucous, helpless laughter that relieved a little of the tension that had been hanging around for weeks.
Wilom waited patiently for them to finish.
“Oh my,” Cathlin said, wiping her eyes. “Marc, you don’t have to give me a birthday present this year. That brought me all the joy I ever needed.”
“I have never seen anybody look so surprised at bread before,” Marc said, before devolving into giggles again.
“Har, har,” Wilom said. “You’d be surprised by bread, too, if you were used to toast and suddenly it did this to you.”
“Like a princess that’s suddenly a bear!” Jilli said.
“Excuse you,” Marc said. “What are you saying about my cooking?”
“Well, despite my surprise, I have to say this pudding is definitely preferable to a bear attack.”
Marc nodded. “Thank you! Someone appreciates it.”
Wilom smiled. Well, if his dignity was the price for relieving some of Cathlin’s stress, it was more than a fair trade.
As much as the pudding incident had relieved a lot of tension for all of them, the following newsless days started to grate on Wilom’s nerves.
It was four days later that word finally did come. Cathlin pushed it across to him over the breakfast table.
“Your turn,” she said, with a tired chuckle.
Thank you for your efforts on this project. We have decided that, provided you and Vanda can find a suitable location, we will begin planning. We will make a final decision then. Vicdra assures us that Vanda is very knowledgeable about many of the suggested areas, and I hope that will help you find a way to make this work.
From me, personally, best of luck to you both.
Wilom breathed a long sigh of relief. Cathlin looked up at him.
“We got the project,” he said.
She gave him a sad smile. “Good for you,” she said.