When Wilom met Vanda to go and meet with the Heads, there was a tense silence between them. Wilom was expecting Vanda, as usual, to continue as if nothing was wrong, but instead she seemed to be still mulling over their conversation about leaving. Vanda had a bag with her, just a simple traveller’s backpack.
After a few moments, Vanda chuckled. “I really put my foot in it, didn’t I?”
Wilom shook his head, even though she couldn’t see him, being in front of him and leading him through the Pathways. “No,” he said. “I … I do understand. And you are right about me being condescending. I’m sorry.”
Vanda sighed. “I know you understand,” she said. “But you don’t have to be so calm about it. Apology accepted.”
Vanda stepped outside the warehouse. “We’re here.”
“Well. Professional faces on, then?”
“Professional faces on.”
Wilom opened the door.
Inside, the others were waiting silently for them. Vicdra kept glancing at the other two because he has things he wants to say and neither of the other two had let him start a conversation. They don’t want Wilom and Vanda to walk in on an argument, and so they have not been speaking at all.
He took a deep breath to clear his mind and nodded to them. “Morning. Shall we get straight into it?”
Manda nodded, and pointedly didn’t look at either of the others. “I think we could all do with things moving a little faster.”
Beside Wilom, Vanda tensed. Vicdra and Rytel both gave Manda horrified looks, though Vicdra’s was tinged with more than a little hope.
Wilom spoke quickly, pulling the map they had ready on the table over and pointing to a few places. “This one looks like it’s the only really viable spot. It’s going to be hard — it’s mostly bog, but it’s the most sheltered from the closest towns, and there’s fresh water.”
The three Heads leaned over the map, and there was silence for a while as they studied the location.
“It’s secluded,” Rytel said cautiously.
“It’s a fair way from these marked patrols …” Vicdra said, drawing his finger down a line drawn on the map.
“Well, they were two of our requirements,” Manda said, with a smirk directed at Wilom above the others’ heads. Wilom returned it for a second, then returned his attention to the map. Vanda put her hand on Wilom’s shoulder so she could lean over him to see, too.
“This is perfect!” Vicdra exclaimed.
“As long as the soil isn’t too late to do anything with,” Wilom corrected him. “Once we can build and farm there, then it’ll be perfect. Oh, and as long as one of you can buy the land. That comes even before worrying about farming on it.”
Rytel gave him an unreadable look – she wondered whether he was trying to insinuate that he was on her side, or whether he was technically agreeing with Vicdra.
Wilom just looked down at the map, trying to look like he might be able to say something else that would make them agree.
Unable to tell what he was thinking, Rytel looked back down at the map.
Then Vicdra looked up, and said “This is great! If we can get this underway, we might even be able to concentrate on other things!”
Suddenly, everyone froze. Vanda’s fingers were suddenly digging into Wilom’s shoulder. Vicdra hadn’t noticed the tension, though. He was still looking at the map.
“You know,” he said. “If we can get those people Vanda’s hiding out of danger, we’re free to get a little more adventurous! It’s only us on the line – we could start trying to … I don’t know, see what we can do about …”
“No,” Rytel said. “I’ll not be party to this conversation.”
“You’re acting like just talking about the idea is a crime!”
“Might as well be these days,” Manda cautioned.
“Not what I meant and you know it,” Vicdra said, waving her away. “But you’re chafing just as much as I am and you know it.”
“I do not chafe,” Rytel snapped. “You chafe. And then you do things that make me chafe.”
“Everyone chafes at this war,” Manda said. “We all chafe at not being able to do anything about it. But chafing doesn’t mean that every idea that lands on our desk and appeals to your sense of heroism is a good one.”
“I’m just saying,” Vicdra said. “There’s more than three of us now. Vanda has proven again and again how good she is at avoiding patrols! With her and Wilom helping, we could do much more! You and I were talking about this, Vanda — you were going to try and talk Wilom around.”
Wilom had thought everyone had been frozen before. Now, they might have been sculptures. Rytel’s eyes were flicking between Vanda and Vicdra with an expression of angry disbelief that Wilom didn’t need the Ferryman’s Knowledge to interpret.
“Vanda?” Manda asked, with a voice that said loudly and clearly that judgement was not yet passed, but it was only very temporarily suspended.
The conversation spooled out in front of Wilom. If she denied it, Vicdra would feel betrayed and they would lose him. If she agreed, then they would lose Rytel. Which one, was the question. Which one could they afford…?
“Vicdra, you said you wouldn’t mention that conversation,” Vanda said. Her voice was exasperated, and if Wilom didn’t know her so well, he might not have caught her slight overacting and realised that she was putting this on. “All I said was that if you got the others to agree, I’d find you the travelling routes.”
“You said much more than that,” Vicdra said.
Vanda sighed. “Yes, alright. You’re right. I agree with you, you know that. I’d be happy to do a little more with the group if it meant potentially making a difference.”
There was silence in the room.
“What?” Vanda asked. “You all know I would — I haven’t exactly been quiet about that. You know I won’t let it get in the way of my work here.”
“And has she been convincing you, Wilom?” Manda asked.
“Haven’t even started,” Vanda said. “He’s been too busy working on these maps. What do you say, Wilom? How convinced are you?”
Wilom saw Vanda’s eyes tighten, begging him to give a good answer. Wilom shook his head.
“Not too convinced, I’m sorry. It’d be great to think we could really make a difference, but …” he scrunched up his face and shrugged. “You need contacts. Am I right to say that you’re running short of those? Especially since the last leaders were hanged?” He paused, just for effect, and started again before anyone could interrupt. “Maybe at the start f the war. But now? Things are just too tense.”
Wilom was half expecting this to be greeted with awkward silence, but Rytel spoke up immediately. “Yes,” she said. “They didn’t leave their notes behind, unfortunately. We’d be starting from scratch, and we don’t have anything to start with.”
Interesting. Wilom distinctly remembered that they had left their notes for Rytel. Come to think of it, there hadn’t been any of their notes in the ledgers, either.
Vanda looked back down at the table. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “It just feels like there could be a way to do it, you know?”
“Could be,” Wilom agreed. “But let’s figure this out first. We’ll start with the town, and have this argument later.”
“Good idea,” Manda said.
Vicdra looked like he might interrupt, but Wilom quickly turned the conversation to the things they’d need to start setting up the town. The argument didn’t crop up again.
“Hey,” Vanda said, as they rounded the corner away from the warehouse, and dug into the pockets in her bag. “I got the stuff you wanted. Is this …?”
Wilom looked into the bag, with a little bottle of spice and a large paper bag full of bright red peppers. “Perfect,” he said. “Thank you.”
“You have to tell me how it goes. You know that, right?”
“I could take you with me.”
“You’ve met him alone till now. I’d just make him suspicious. Unfortunately.”
“Alright. I promise to tell you everything, then.”
There was a pause, and then, Vanda said, “Sorry.”
“What do you mean? That was perfect. Thank you.”
“I thought … well, you’re the one that needs to suggest the most ideas, after all.” Vanda stopped walking and sat down. “I’ve said too much already, but only one of us has to be ‘the reasonable one’. You shouldn’t take sides, but I can still be vocal.”
“Don’t worry. I don’t mind if you have to pretend you’re angry with me or whatever.” She leaned back against the invisible wall and chuckled. “You’re really angry at Vicdra, aren’t you?”
“I think he’s senseless. Is that close enough?”
“For you? Probably.”
“I was hoping to have at least a little longer before he started that argument.”
“What do you mean started? They’ve been arguing about that since long before you and I joined. It might make things awkward, but it won’t change anything in the long run.”
“But what about you …”
Vanda waved her hand. “I won’t matter too much.”
“No,” Wilom said. “No, you’re right. But … can I ask a question?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Do you really still want to take over the whole thing?”
“Is this about that leaving thing? I told you …”
“No, no! I mean, you were always talking about taking over the entire operation. But … they don’t really have much to take. What’s the use of taking them over and making them angry with us? I just don’t see what it gains us.”
Vanda rested her chin on her knees. “I …” she said.
Wilom waited for to gather her thoughts.
“I did want it,” she said. “They do have a name for themselves, and they were already helping people … I thought it’d be a boost. And I guess I kind of left figuring out how to do it without making them too angry up to you …”
“Do you still want to?”
She screwed up her face. “Don’t ask hard questions like that.”
Vanda sighed. “It’s not going to happen, is it? It’s just too selfish. It’s not even the best way to get what we want.”
“We can start our own group next war,” Wilom said, without quite enough life to pull off the joke.
Vanda screwed up her face. “I’m not sure I want to spend my whole life waiting around for wars.”
“I’m not even sure we’d need to wait.”