Mr Treene’s next invitation came somewhat unexpectedly. Ever since he had given Mr Treene that gift – and especially since his visit to the ferryman – he had been rethinking that choice. At the time, it seemed clever. Now he was certain it was petty, and not at all sure it hadn’t been arrogant, too.
He read the letter over several times. Was it more brusque than usual?
I would like to request your company for dinner at my house. Thursday night. Six pm sharp. It would be a great kindness if you were to be punctual, as my chef has an alternate engagement in the late evening that I should not keep him from.
And so, after sending back a quickly-worded letter of thanks and acceptance, Wilom found himself on Thursday night standing in front of Mr Treene’s door.
Mr Treene opened the door with a flourish. “Mr Tris. I am glad to see you on time.”
“You asked,” Wilom said, spreading his hands. “You said your chef had somewhere else to be.”
Mr Treene stepped aside and gestured for Wilom to enter the house. Before he could respond, Wilom said, “I would have come on time, even if you hadn’t said that.”
“I know,” Mr Treene said. “You have – at least since I’ve known you – always been a punctual man.”
Wilom didn’t expand on Mr Treene’s assumption. “I do try to be,” he said.
They sat at the couches. Mr Treene poured them a drink without a word and sat down in the chair.
“They’ll call in a minute,” Mr Treene told Wilom.
Wilom just nodded. The silence between them stretched deep and wide.
Mr Treene let it stretch until his boy called them for dinner. Either he didn’t pick up on the mood, or he was more than used to doing his duty in the face of thick silences.
When they sat down at the table, the chef brought the meal out himself. He served them plates full of peppers, roasted to a turn, filled with heavily seasoned mincemeat.
“Thank you,” Wilom said. “This looks delicious. And, if I might be so bold, familiar.”
Mr Treene inclined his head, with a slight smile – the smile of a man with a secret. “Well, I could hardly let you go to all that trouble without knowing what you worked for.”
Mr Treene was watching him, waiting for him to take the first bite. So Wilom did, cutting a slice off the end.
The pepper was so soft the skin barely held it together. The mince was some light flavour, more delicate than beef or even lamb. But it was hard to tell what exactly it was over the bold, tangy spices. All together, it made a remarkably balanced combination – tangy spices, rich meat, and sweet, spicy, roasted peppers.
“I don’t know what it would have tasted like in that café,” Wilom said, “But I can’t imagine it could possibly have tasted any better than this. Your chef, as usual, is exemplary.”
“Exemplary,” Mr Treene said, with pursed lips and a nod. He looked Wilom up and down. “Is it just me, or is that a new one for you?”
“I like learning new things,” Wilom said.
“Hm.” The noise was noncommittal, neither agreement, nor dismissal, nor condemnation.
Wilom and Mr Treene ate in silence.
There was something Mr Treene was looking for. A change in Wilom. He wasn’t sure whether he saw it or not. There was also something he had wanted to say when he had invited Wilom, but after Wilom arrived, he had decided against it.
Wilom didn’t stay after dinner, and Mr Treene didn’t offer him a nightcap when he said he should be leaving.
At the door, Wilom thanked Mr Treene for the meal. He paused, just for a moment, for Mr Treene to say something, one last parting shot.
Mr Treene sighed. “Good night, Wilom,” he said. “I won’t help with what you’re doing. You know that. But I hope you don’t take it amiss if I wish you good luck.”
Wilom nodded. “No. In fact, thank you.”
Mr Treene nodded slowly and shut the door, leaving Wilom alone on the darkened street.
The next morning, Wilom bought a newspaper. The headline took up a good half of the front cover: “RENSHIRE BURNED: CAPITAL NEXT?
It was a sensationalist title. There were plenty of towns between Renshire and the Capital. Even if the front advanced faster than it had for the entire rest of the war, the Capital wouldn’t even be in the next ten places that got hit.
It was the smaller headline that caught his eye. “GOVERNMENT PROMISES WARFRONT MEN AND WOMEN”.
He read that part of the article two or three times.
As volunteers become scarce, the Government has promised to fill the gaps in the war front with enlisted soldiers. A group of Generals have made their disagreement publicly known, saying that bolstering the warfront will cost smaller towns. Government officials have not yet released a formal response to this statement, although one Minister has stated on the record that they will not be taking valuable members of the workforce from their places of employment.
Wilom threw it in a bin as he passed on the street. The ferryman would be busy, it seemed.