Toliver knew he must have had two-week periods that he liked less than the one he was facing, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t recall anything before waking up in Mudfog. Maddening. The only saving grace in the current situation was that he had more time to practice carving, to create detailed miniatures. This didn’t prove enough to completely distract him from his hunger, but it helped. That, combined with the extra piece of fruit or cheese he found in his lunch most days. He didn’t see Janeannie during his exile, but he suspected she had a hand in this largesse. He’d eat whatever came if Joad paid strict attention to him. Usually though, he managed to tuck it away for later. It didn’t replace the meal Sawyer provided, but if he took small bites and chewed slowly, he could pretend it was sufficient fare.
Sunday brought a welcome change of pace. First, the Sunday service and then Wurst’s truck in the afternoon. Wurst had come this time, as well as Axl. He said a quick hello to Toliver, looking distracted, before he started toward the house at a brisk pace. Toliver and Axl were again left with the task of loading the truck. Axl didn’t appear clumsy and dim-witted this time. He seemed angry and determined, positively aggressive. He would pick up his end of the load before Toliver acknowledged he was ready and then blame Toliver when it overbalanced and crashed in a pile to the ground. They ended up restacking more than one pile before they could load it. Axl pushed dangerously close to Toliver and several times nearly clipped Toliver in the head with a board or beam. Toliver glared at Axl and told him, in a fierce whisper, to be more careful. It was lucky, he thought, that Joad had been called to the house shortly after Wurst arrived. Otherwise he might never have had the chance to start his second week on short rations. Axl laughed out loud.
“I think it’s you who should be careful,” Axl said.
Toliver growled to himself and picked up another plank. Still, they managed to load the truck without further incident. They were just closing it up when Wurst returned. Toliver could see Joad in the distance, also heading their way.
“Everything all right?” Wurst asked.
“No thanks to this clumsy fool,” Axl said before Toliver had the chance to say anything. “I don’t know what you see in him.”
Wurst looked at Toliver, but didn’t speak. Toliver wanted to challenge, to clarify what had been said, but Joad had reached them.
By the middle of the second week, Toliver no longer wanted to pretend there was anything right about his situation. This enforced time of short rations proved just the latest problem. No one should have to live this way. He shouldn’t have to live this way. He wondered how he continued this surreal charade as if it were normal. Maybe he should just sit down, ignore the threat of the vats, and simply refuse to play their game. Such were his thoughts as restacked board and beam, as he waited through another missed meal. They circled and twisted through his muddled brain, the lack of nourishment taking its toll.
He managed to last till the end of the second week by staying focused within himself. Slower and less coordinated, Toliver knew Joad was piling on extra work, making him restack wood which he had already moved. He knew he simply couldn’t care. It didn’t mean he wouldn’t remember. At the tail end of the week, Toliver brought an image of his hat to mind. His hat, but more than his hat. It glowed in a beam of golden light, a talisman, a grail. Sunday morning, he barely heard the wakeup call, but he managed to make it to the service just in time. After the service, and waiting for the others to leave front to back, Toliver saw Sawyer waiting near the doors. Sawyer turned to someone behind him that Toliver could not see.
“Ser Toliver, I believe this belongs to you,” Sawyer said, turning to face his minion. He held out the hat, Toliver’s hat. Toliver stared at it for several moments, as if he couldn’t believe it was real. He reached out reverently and took it from Sawyer’s hands.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Not necessary,” Sawyer replied. “You earned it. Though that was still in question until you slipped through the doors this morning. I’m pleased I didn’t have to send such a worker as yourself to the vats. Report to the hall first thing tomorrow.”
With that, Sawyer strode away. Toliver realized it was Janeannie who had been hidden behind Sawyer’s bulk. She smiled as if her face might crack, which, despite his fatigue, Toliver mirrored, as he put on his hat. It fit perfectly, as he knew it would. He gently shaped the brim with his hands, unable to stop smiling.
Toliver didn’t really remember the rest of that day. He knew he had gone to bed full to bursting, after entering the hall at dinner to smiles and quiet approbation. Awake before the morning call, he dressed and put on his hat. He stepped out as soon as the door unlocked. Toliver stood quietly, watching Joad come down the line of domiciles, pounding on doors. When Joad looked up and saw Toliver, he frowned.
“What are you waiting for?” Joad snarled. “Get moving.”
“Wait,” Toliver said, “it wasn’t personal. No hard feelings?”
Joad ignored him as if he didn’t exist, so Toliver walked away, heading to the hall.