For the first time since he’d left the River, Wilom found himself wishing that Vanda had given him some way to contact her.
There was only one person who would still offer him a place to sleep.
Wilom knocked on the door. It was starting to drizzle now, his hair dripping water down his face. He noted, not without some amusement, that the bedraggled look seemed appropriate.
The door opened and Mr Treene’s eyes widened. He was in a smoking jacket over a singlet and in his socks, glass of wine in hand.
Wilom pushed his fringe away from his face.
“Wilom,” Mr Treene greeted him, a little guardedly.
“I was wondering,” Wilom said, “If I could impose upon your hospitality one last time. I am sorry to do this at such short notice.”
Mr Treene raised an eyebrow. “Well. This is certainly an unexpected turn of events.”
“Not particularly,” Wilom said. “At least, not from a certain point of view.”
Mr Treene didn’t respond. Wilom had meant the words more as a jab at himself, but it seemed Mr Treene had taken them as a jab at him. Wilom didn’t mind. Mr Treene deserved a jab.
Mr Treene led him into a room and indicated where he could find towels and a bathroom. On the way down the hall, he clapped one of his house staff on the shoulder and instructed him to bring something appropriate for Wilom to sleep in.
Wilom was subjected to a measuring gaze from the house staff. For a moment it put him on the back foot, before he realised that he was being measured more literally – for clothes of the appropriate size to sleep in.
“Come into the parlour,” Mr Treene said, placing a hand on Wilom’s shoulder and steering him down the hall. “I’ll get you a drink.”
“Thank you,” Wilom said. He wasn’t particularly in the mood for it, but he had a feeling Mr Treene would insist.
Mr Treene busied himself with the sideboard for a moment, then presented Wilom with a glass of whiskey.
Wilom considered asking for something else, but he didn’t have the energy to argue with Mr Treene. He took a sip.
He swirled it around in the bottom of the glass, unable to chase away the realisation of how much better Mr Treene’s whiskey was than the borderline-bathtub-liquor he and his friends had drunk. That was the thought that very near undid him. It seemed so very wrong that he should be drinking such good whiskey, and somehow right in all the ways that were wrong that Mr Treene should own whiskey like that. He put it aside.
“Whiskey’s not my drink,” he said, his voice hoarser, more husky, than he had expected. “Just wine, please.”
Mr Treene nodded, without any joke about wasting his good whiskey. He just put the glass back on the sideboard and poured Wilom a glass of wine.
“So,” Mr Treene said. “I can’t help but think that you’ve already realised what part I played in this.”
“I did,” he said. “You tried very hard to warn me about it beforehand, after all.”
Mr Treene let that slide without rejoinder, too. “Well. I must say, you’re taking this much better than any of the others whose lives I’ve uprooted over the years.”
Wilom knew how to use baldfaced admissions of his shortcomings as a shield, but Mr Treene used his like a spiked buckler. But then, Wilom had known that, too, right from the start. “Perhaps,” he said. “You always said I was a remarkably two-minded person.”
“That you are,” Mr Treene said amicably.
“And odd, I recall you saying. I suppose you can take my lack of animosity as one last surprise, for old time’s sake.”
“Whatever you say, I can’t believe you don’t bear me any ill will at all. Even if it is you. You worked … very hard, after all.” The hesitation was not Mr Treene trying to find the words not to offend Wilom. Rather, he was trying to find a word to encapsulate all the things he believed about Wilom’s work. A few floated close enough to Mr Treene’s tongue for the Ferryman’s Knowledge to pick them up. Diligent. Earnest. Admirable. Futile. Ill-advised.
Wilom shrugged. “I’ve worked hard for a lot of things in my time. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan.” It wasn’t even close to the truth, but it was good to be able to match words with Mr Treene and win, finally.
Mr Treene put his wine down. “I think you and I can stop the verbal staring contest now,” he said. “If you’re looking for an apology, you won’t get one.”
“Wasn’t expecting one,” Wilom said. “And I don’t really need one, to be honest. You did what you needed to do, or what was best for you, correct?”
“I did what would protect my investment from the implication of treason, yes,” Mr Treene said. “Your plan with the town was …”
“Yes,” Wilom said. “We were … running out of options.” Was that true, though? Had they been running out of options, or had he just been desperate to find something that would repair Vanda’s relationship with the Heads?
“No doubt,” Mr Treene said.
Wilom took a rather larger gulp of his wine than was wise. “It doesn’t matter now,” he said. “I did what I did, you did what you did.” And that was true, Wilom realised. He had had his petty revenge on Mr Treene with his refusal to be affected, and now he truly didn’t care anymore. Knowing there was nothing left to be done was almost refreshing, in its own way. “And now you’re letting me drink your good wine, because, if my suspicions are correct, you were – and are – quite fond of me and while you don’t regret your choice, you wouldn’t want to leave me out in the rain. Am I correct?”
Mr Treene shook his head sadly. “You’re a perceptive man, Wilom. You know, you’re so perceptive that it sometimes stuns me the choices you make.”
Wilom shrugged. “Some habits are hard to break, I suppose. Still, you did get me kicked out of the house I was staying in – and all those nice shirts you used to admire will be sold or burned by the way – so I suppose a bed for the night before I go and enlist for the good of the country is only fair.”
Mr Treene gave a haughty sniff. “I should hope they’re sold rather than burned. No matter – nothing to be done about it now.” He swirled the wine in his glass. Then he sighed.
Wilom looked up.
“You might be corrected on one point,” Mr Treene said. “I don’t regret what I did. But I do regret that it was you I happened to. In another situation, you and I might have been very good friends, Wilom Tris.”
“Yes,” Wilom said. “I suspect we might have been.”
There was silence for a moment, and then Mr Treene said, “More wine?”
Wilom nodded, and passed over his empty glass.