In the morning, Wilom tried to find a moment to talk to Colonel Briar privately, but it was no use. The Colonel brushed him off as they got ready in the morning, ordering him to ‘get that tent down before we leave you behind’. As they walked, Wilom made a half-hearted attempt to break formation and speak with him, but that was quickly shut down, too. So it wasn’t until the evening, when they had set up their camp and the two Colonels had left the squads to their own devices around the little fire that Wilom finally found a moment to slip away.
“Come in,” Colonel Briar said gruffly as Wilom fidgeted outside, wondering how exactly one knocked on a tent. Briar must have noticed his shadow on the canvas.
Wilom unlatched the tent flap just enough to be able to slip inside and snapped a salute as best he could half-hunched-over. “Sir,” he said. “Sorry, Colonel. I know it’s late. I was hoping to talk to you about something.”
“If it’s about yesterday,” Colonel Briar grumbled. He had, it seemed, been getting ready for bed but had only had time to doff his jacket. He undid the top button on his collar and stretched out his neck. “Well?”
“No, sir,” Wilom said. His mind wanted to add “not exactly”, but the Ferryman’s Knowledge told him Colonel Briar was not in the mood for anything but getting directly to the point. “I have some concerns about the next town.”
Colonel Briar grunted. “I’m listening,” he said.
So far so good, Wilom supposed. “Sir, do you think we will meet with more resistance as we get closer to the Marclorn border? Those people are the ones who have had a harder time of things, after all. Should we be prepared for another … problem like the last town?”
Colonel Briar sighed. “Tris, we should be worried about that from every town, not just the ones closer to the Border. Nobody likes being turfed out of their homes.” He started to undo his cuffs.
“What if things get worse, sir?” Wilom pressed.
“Then this time, you follow orders,” Briar said sharply. He sighed through his nose as he struggled with the button in his off hand. “The runners will be far ahead of us. People will be more prepared.”
“Prepared to follow us?” Wilom asked. “Or prepared to riot again?”
Briar gave him a stern look. He put a hand on Wilom’s shoulder. “Listen. You’re not soldiers so I don’t expect you to understand this. But even if it’s not the best idea, you always follow your CO, because even a bad plan is better than chaos.”
“I do understand,” Wilom said. “What happened yesterday won’t happen again. I just wanted to know —”
“That there is a plan at all,” Briar finished for him. “Don’t worry about it. We have planned contingencies for all likely scenarios. We drilled them before we came. All you need to do is trust that we can deal with the problems.”
Wilom probably wouldn’t have found that particularly reassuring, but it was even less so with the Ferryman’s Knowledge informing him that Colonel Briar agreed with Wilom, that the outer towns would be more difficult, but didn’t want to agree with Wilom because it may mean him spreading panic among the rest of the squad — something a green squad couldn’t afford even at the best of times — and that Wilom might decide to take things into his own hands again if he was allowed to believe that there might be problems.
Wilom nodded. “Thank you, sir,” he said, and walked out of the tent. He slipped back to his own tent, rather than back to the fire.
Or, at least, tried to.
Harie caught up with him on the way, putting a hand on his shoulder and beckoning him back to the fire without a word.
They were the only two still up, though the Ferryman’s Knowledge was telling Wilom that only Javrinnen was actually asleep yet. Harie indicated that Wilom should sit next to him. Wilom sat down, and waited for Harie to start.
“I heard you talking to Colonel Briar,” Harie said.
“Sorry,” Wilom said. “I didn’t realise we were so loud.”
Harie shook his head. “My tent is nearby.” He was talking quietly, so they couldn’t be heard. Wilom just nodded, and leaned a little closer, to show his willingness to be quiet.
Harie’s leg and arm were tapping, apparently without his being fully conscious of it. “What do you know?” he asked quietly.
“Know?” Wilom asked. “What do you mean?”
Harie gave him an exasperated look. “You know something about what’s ahead. Briar didn’t believe you about it.”
“I’m just guessing,” Wilom said. “I’ve been stuck at the barracks just like everyone else.”
Harie gave him a hard look. “I can’t tell whether you’re a very good liar or a very poor one.”
Wilom supposed that was a fair assessment. “Alright,” he said. “I had a friend in that town and there were a few minutes when I was alone after Briar finished with me. She caught up and warned me about the towns closer to the Marclorn border.” He was already speaking softly, but he checked around anyway, just to see if anyone could hear him. “She thinks that closer to the border, people will trust the soldiers less, and the riots will get worse.”
Harie nodded. “She’s right. Colonel Briar…?”
“Knows,” Wilom said. “But doesn’t want us to panic.” He hurriedly added, “I think.”
Harie gave him another hard look. “You don’t think. You know.”
“At least, that’s how I interpreted it,” Wilom said.
“Why are you always trying to hide something?” Harie asked suddenly. “It’s not illegal to be a good read of people. But you treat it like it’s some terrible secret. Don’t try to argue – you’re better at reading folk than most, but so am I.”
“It’s gotten me into trouble before,” Wilom said, and was surprised to find that the edge in his tone didn’t entirely come from the Ferryman’s Knowledge.
Harie backed down at his tone. “Sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have pried.”
“No,” Wilom said. “It’s fine. I just don’t want to talk about it.”
There was silence for a moment, then Harie said, “But can you tell me this? Your friend — you believe her that things will get worse?”
Wilom nodded. “I trust her. And it makes sense. They might actually know what Marclorn is doing, living so close. Much easier to pick apart what they get told by the Capital.”
Harie nodded. “Yeah,” he said, in a voice equal parts resignation and bitterness.
Wilom waited for a while for Harie to continue, but he seemed to be completely lost in thought. Wilom was just getting up to leave when he saw Harie’s hand form into a fist. He nearly continued to his tent, but he had a creeping feeling. He decided to probe, and the Ferryman’s Knowledge supplied the words.
“We’re just going to have to do our best until this is all over, aren’t we?”
Harie didn’t answer for a moment, then he said, “Sure.” Another moment passed. “Do you think the Colonel is right? Is it better that the squad doesn’t know?”
Wilom bit his lip. “Maybe.” Yolin, he thought, would probably be fine. He seemed to trust to Colonel Briar’s experience. Firin and Javrinnen … well, they had trouble trusting the army. But whether that would cause problems …
The Ferryman’s Knowledge supplied nothing. Wilom wasn’t surprised, really. After all, the Ferryman’s Knowledge wasn’t really interested in telling people the truth.
“I really don’t know,” Wilom said.
Harie sighed and shook his head. “I was never cut out for command anyway,” he said. “I’m just not built to keep track of all the lying they have to do.”
“You tried to get out of the army,” Wilom said. “Didn’t you?”
Harie looked stunned for a moment, then laughed. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you figured that out.”
Wilom sat back down. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” Harie said, but he immediately continued with “Marclorn was just better than us. We should have known this territory better than them, but they just kept beating us. And the more they did, the more the soldiers stopped being told things. You’ve seen the newspapers in the Capital, right? I heard all about those. I hate it. But honestly? That’s nothing compared to knowing that nobody in charge even has the decent humanity to tell the soldiers the truth about what they’ll be getting themselves into. I could understand if the COs were keeping it from the foot soldiers. But not even them. You know what it does to a person when they have to start questioning the only people that can keep them alive?”
Wilom nodded. He didn’t, really — sure, he questioned the ferryman, but he’d never relied on the ferryman for orders and tactics the same way a soldier relied on the chain of command. But the gesture was meant as one of acknowledgement and encouragement, and that seemed to be how Harie understood it.
“I’ll get the fire,” Harie said. “You should sleep.”
Wilom nodded. “Thanks,” he said, and went to his tent.