As Colonel Briar raised the megaphone again to repeat the message, the doors to the offices opened up and the mayor exited with his arms held wide.
“I am unarmed!” he shouted.
Colonel Briar lowered the microphone again, signalled the squads to stay where they were, and moved over to the Mayor.
Colonel Torcel took place in the centre at the front of the squad, placing his feet wide and keeping his arms relaxed in front of his body, hands clasped casually, but only a few inches from his handgun. Just in case.
Colonel Briar and the Mayor met in the centre of town.
“Sir,” Briar said. “We are the evacuation team, and —”
“We are aware,” the Mayor said. He sounded snippish, but Wilom heard the nerves — perhaps even fear — underneath it. He hoped Briar had, too.
“The trucks will be arriving at sunset, and we cannot guarantee that your people will be safe if we leave you here.”
“Can you guarantee we will be safe if we come with you?” the Mayor countered.
“The trucks will drop you at a processing station, where you will be kept hopefully only a few days before you can make your own way to whatever place you wish to go that isn’t in Marclorn territory,” Colonel Briar said.
“But will we be safe?” the Mayor pressed. “You’ll forgive our being skeptical — the Capital’s processing stations have had somewhat of a bad reputation of late.”
“Unless you have connections and affiliations with Marclorn —”
“We live nearly on the border. That’s been enough connection and affiliation in the past,” the Mayor interrupted him.
“I can assure you —”
Wilom switched his attention to the Ferryman’s Knowledge. He could tell that the conversation wasn’t going well, and he didn’t need to listen in any longer to figure out where it was going. Instead, he focused on the people who were still inside.
Fear. Anger. Resentment. Festering uncertainty.
Wilom looked around the squads around him. He didn’t think they were going to move, or disobey orders. Not with his little speech last night, and Colonel Briar’s admonishment outside the town. But there was still panic, and Wilom had seen before what panic could do.
Torcel glanced over his shoulder and Wilom was shocked back into reality when he hissed, “Tris, you will stay put.”
Harie glanced over his shoulder at Wilom, but Wilom was turning his eyes back to the front too fast for him to return it.
So this was his choice. He could probably smooth this over. It wouldn’t matter that it would mean he wouldn’t make it to the next town with the squad — Vanda could take him away, and that would solve that problem. He’d just be a deserter. The only problem would be if he were stopped first, by either Torcel or Briar.
Or he could stay here and do nothing. He’d have followed the rules, he’d still have the trust of the Colonels and he might be able to affect how they approached the next towns before he went with Vanda.
It really wasn’t a question.
He took a breath and straightened his shoulders. He just had to trust that Vanda was nearby, just in case something went wrong.
In the square, the conversation was heating up. Briar wasn’t backing down, and neither was the Mayor. Inside the buildings, Wilom could feel the people listening in to the conversation. That cocktail of emotions were stirring up more and more as Briar talked. Briar had still not lost his temper, and the Mayor was certainly displaying much more restraint than she would have liked to be.
But Wilom could no longer sense the mood of the crowd accurately. It was a cacophony, a thousand feelings and emotions and beliefs and plans all feeding off one another. It was putting his teeth on edge, sending little electric shivers up the base of his skull.
He had to do something.
Wilom ducked behind Firin, who was standing next to him, and around to Torcel.
“Listen-” he started.
“Back in formation,” Torcel snapped, without taking his eyes off the conversation going on outside the office.
“I want your permission to go and help,” Wilom insisted. “You saw what happened in the last town, you know I can get us all out of here without a fight.”
“I don’t care if you can make that Mayor skip through the town spreading flowers and singing our praises,” Torcel growled. “You disobey orders again or in any way make me think that you’re likely to get insubordinate, and I will assume you are attempting to sabotage our mission and I will react accordingly.”
“That is why I’m asking permission,” Wilom said. “I am not trying to sabotage anything — I just don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“Conscript, changing the rules for you is exactly the thing that gets people hurt,” Torcel told him. His eyes narrowed. “Briar says you panicked last time. But this isn’t panic, is it?”
The implication was clear. If he disobeyed, he wasn’t a new recruit making bad decisions. He was a deliberate saboteur.
“Sir, I …”
Colonel Torcel folded his arms. “Tris, I heard you talking to the others. I don’t know what you’re planning, but you will get back in line.”
He thinks there is an ulterior goal in undermining Colonel Briar. He is too fed up with this war, and the lies, to believe you innocent.
Wilom paused. Ideally, he’d have been starting to lay the groundwork for this days ago. But that was too late now. The Ferryman’s Knowledge was screaming at him. This was about to go wrong.
Well, he’d decided not to sit by. Too late to go back on that now, he supposed.
So he stepped forward, slowly so that he didn’t startle anyone, and before the squad or Torcel could react, he called out to Briar and the Mayor.
“Please — sorry to interrupt. Just let me talk for a moment. I think we can —”
He felt Torcel move behind him and turned. Beside him, the world opened and Vanda’s arm reached out. He felt her grab his arm, and then he felt a bright, burning sensation. He couldn’t feel her hand anymore.
And then, instead of going to faded grey, the world went black.