Wilom was a little surprised to learn, exiting the Pathways, that he hadn’t been missed at all. Colonel Torcel and the others had apparently assumed Colonel Briar would be chewing Wilom out for a while to come, and had set about creating a perimeter, demarcating a meeting area, and waiting. True to the Mayor’s word, they didn’t enter the city, though Wilom could tell that Torcel wasn’t happy about it. He joined them in placing the last few markers. He could tell that Javrinnen and Yolin, at least, were burning to ask him what had happened, but the first of the townspeople started arriving before they could draw him aside to ask.
They loaded the town onto trucks. It was remarkably like the last time, once the town had agreed to go along with them. But Wilom still tried not to look too directly at any of the people they were loading up. They’d managed to keep things from bubbling over, but that didn’t take away the resentment and anger that was still there underneath. Instead, Wilom kept a look out for Vanda over his shoulder, when he was sure it wouldn’t draw suspicion. About the third time, he saw her lean out from behind a wall and wave to him. He had to smother the smile that tried to creep onto his face before he accidentally gave her away. It felt good to have her nearby again.
The last of the trucks rumbled to life and rattled off. The squad was left alone again in the abandoned town — except for Vanda — and the atmosphere changed as the soldiers were suddenly left at a loose end.
“Corin. Thyfe,” Torcel barked. “Round the town. See if they left anyone behind after all.”
The two women saluted and moved off.
“The rest of you, set up for the night,” Torcel continued. “You know what to do.”
As they moved to follow his orders, he was interrupted by Harie clapping him on the back.
“I can guess what the Colonel said. That means ‘good job’, by the way.”
Wilom snorted. “It really didn’t. But that’s fine. I knew he wasn’t going to like it — it was borderline insubordination.”
“It was out-and-out insubordination. But effective.”
“I thought you’d be more straight-laced,” Wilom said.
“I mean, don’t do it again,” Harie said. “That’s how squads get killed. But given what might have happened if someone didn’t calm them down …” he shrugged. “You got your talking to, now you get me reminding you that it worked. Good job.”
Harie clapped him on the back again, and walked off. No sooner had he done it than Wilom found himself flanked by Javrinnen and Firin. They approached casually, like they were naturally joining him on their way to drop their things at the hotel they would be using.
“What was that about?” Javrinnen asked. She made half an effort to sound casual, but dropped it by the end of the question. She knew it wasn’t convincing.
“A pep talk … I think,” Wilom said honestly. “Don’t worry about the Colonel but don’t do it again … sort of thing.”
Javrinnen and Firin shared a glance.
“What?” Wilom asked. “I’m not lying.”
“We didn’t think you were,” Firin hurried to reassure him. “Just … why did you stand up on that fence?”
“Like I told the Colonel,” Wilom said, not having to try very hard to look uncomfortable, “I panicked. Things looked like they were going bad, and I just didn’t think. I’m only lucky it worked.”
Neither of them had accepted his lie. But they also didn’t have a good reason to contradict it, and that was all Wilom needed for now. He just needed to not do anything else blatantly ferryman-y until they’d written it off in their minds as a lucky fluke.
“You know,” Javrinnen said. “If, when you arrived at the barracks, someone had told me you’d make an impassioned speech that put a pin in a near riot, and befriended Harie? I’d have laughed in their face.”
“It wasn’t that impassioned,” Wilom protested.
“You .. You realise that makes the opposite of the point you want it to make, right?” Firin asked.
“Just … whatever shell you came out of, it must have been a damn thick one to hide that much charisma,” Javrinnen said.
“Sorry?” Wilom asked, like he was apologising but still not sure what he was apologising for. “Um. I’m not sure where this is going.”
Javrinnen sighed. “Never mind,” she said. “Just curious is all. It’s not just anyone who can pull off a speech like that on the spur of the moment, on pure reflex.”
“Good teachers,” Wilom said.
It was an obvious evasion. Javrinnen and Firin shared another look. But they didn’t have a chance to question him further. Harie found them, pushed knives into their hands and directed them to the kitchens to help cook.