I’m sitting at a picnic bench under a willow tree by the side of a river. Sundance crosses the lawn from the inn carrying a tray with two drinks on it, a Vex for him and a Kira Cooler for me.
“The meals will be right along, they said,” he says.
“They” are the bar staff at the Bridge Inn, the meals are a Melange du Jour for him and a stuffed artichoke with a side salad for me. The food here was recommended, and the menu lived up to this reputation. The food, as it turned out, exceeded it. Sundance suggested we meet here since it was out of the way, yet on the main routes, and we were unlikely to be disturbed. It was also an extremely attractive setting. He’d not given me much notice, but such is the way when you are dealing with someone whose job title is as vague as his. “In Intelligence” or “Secret Agent” or “In the secret service” were generally the terms used when people referred to him.
“How should I describe you to our readers?” I ask him.
“Oh, civil servant is accurate, I think,” he says, looking around him with a vague expression, admiring the view but avoiding my gaze. I ask him how he came to have this job, what his training was and what exactly it entails. He works backwards through the questions.
“It really involves tidying up after people. Sometimes it involves preventing untidiness before it happens. Mostly it involves knowing what goes on and who is doing it, just in case you want to know more, or need to take action. I learned from someone else that I worked with before I was let loose on my own. Unusually, that person also recruited me, since he met me somewhere, thought I had the right qualities for the job, and suggested I come to meet someone. That someone gave me the job.”
I try to get him to name names, and gather the person that gave him the job was well placed in a castle that was well placed in the hierarchy of castles, and the person that ‘recruited him’ was dead now, so it didn’t really matter. I press for more information but still don’t get any names. Just a hint.
A case of melodrama
“He thought about recruiting Hugo at one time. That might give you a clue.” He grins, pleased that he’s given me some information but without actually revealing anything. I grin because I know who he means.
“Is he really dead?” I ask, since I’ve heard of someone with the same name at Castle Wash.
“Yes,” he says. “Thoroughly dead.” He looks off into the distance again with an expression of regret and remembrance of someone he liked. “He was trapped by someone who should have known better, on the night of a full moon. I sometimes wonder whether that person did it deliberately. Since I have to do work for that person on a regular basis, I am always very careful of my dealings with him. You should be too,” he warns me.
This surprises me. Unless I am mistaken, the person Sundance is talking about will be reading these interviews. I think for a moment and decide that as I am always careful in my dealings with all these characters, it is a case of melodrama on Sundance’s part. He is probably just living up to his reputation as a person of mystery.
Just to help our readers, I say, can you tell me more about the skills you need for your job, and how you got them? I add that most of my interviewees said they’d like to be with him in a life or death situation. He laughs.
“You have to want to succeed the whole time, whatever the cost”
“Well, I do have some handy skills, it’s true. It’s my business to get out of life or death situations. Well, number one is you need a cool head and the ability to think and plan in situations where you need to think fast. Your snap decisions have to be right. I think my reactions were always good, but I had extra training when I started, mainly to improve that. Simulations, that sort of thing.
“Secondly you need to be able to present yourself well in any situation. I mean you have to fit the situation, fit in with the people around you, and look after yourself if things get rough. So you need social skills and what you might call anti-social skills too” he chuckles. “I was always good at socialising, but actually prefer to be on my own, and I learnt both hand-to-hand and armed combat in the streets as a kid. Working with Monty improved all of that when I started.
“Then you need to be resourceful. Make things out of two sticks and a piece of rope, that sort of thing. There’s an art to that, but first of all you have to realise it’s possible, and that there are a number of basic structures from which everything else can be formed. I was quite handy with stuff as a kid, but the training when I got the job improved that no end.
“That just about covers everything, I think.”
I think it does and notice he let something slip. I doubt he let it slip, on second thoughts, I think he did it deliberately to make me feel pleased with myself for noticing. I ask him if he’s recruited anyone, since he must come across people with those skills occasionally.
“You don’t often find people with all of them. If you combined Fred and George into one person they’d be trainable for the job, but they both lack the winning instinct, I’ll call it, since it doesn’t have to be a killer instinct. You have to want to succeed the whole time, whatever the cost. I’ve recruited someone, yes, and I’ve also followed people for a few years and decided not to recruit them.”
“Too unstable, in one case. Lots of talent, too much anger. The others… just not suitable.”
“To me it’s just work”
I ask how many people in his line of work there are in the realms, and he answers “not many” which doesn’t surprise me. He adds that he has his eye on two young people at present, one of whom seems to have acquired knowledge of techniques of the Eastern worlds, from some source Sundance hasn’t yet discovered. “It’s strange to find someone with some very interesting talents, in techniques alien to the realms, and not know how he came by them.” It sounds intriguing.
I ask him who his most important contacts are in the realms and he fixes his eyes on me and smiles.
“Everyone,” he says as the pause lengthens. I should have known!
It seems like a redundant question to someone who lives an exciting life but I ask him about the most exciting thing he’s done all the same. “What seems exciting to one person may not be to another. A lot of people think my life is exciting. To me it’s just work, the way I make a living. So it’s very exciting to me to go up in one of George’s flying machines. I’m looking forward to trying his next one out since he showed me how to pilot one, and he says the next model will suit me better.”
It appears George is developing a number of types of flying machine to suit different purposes. The one for Sundance will be lighter, easily managed by a single person, and even quieter than the current version. A stealth flying machine, perhaps?
“I could cope with a life of luxury”
His most embarrassing moment, he says, was when he was locked in the dungeon at Castle Fortune by what they thought was a ghost. “That was so embarrassing, to be locked in at all, and then to find out that it was an old and infirm family retainer…” the pain of this memory shows on his face. I wondered whether he was also embarrassed by the incident that left him his scar. “No, that was a fair fight and a mistake on my part to trust the person concerned. I’ve never had any problem with the scar itself.”
What is the thing he’d most like to change? He thinks long over this one, and asks for another round of drinks from the waiter who comes to clear our plates. Apart from an easier way to get between certain parts of the realm, there is nothing. I suspect George’s stealth machine will solve that for him. He has no-one he would like to say sorry to either. “Really?” I ask, and he thinks again, seemingly carefully. “No,” he says, “not even my mum for leaving her all alone to take up this job. She’s got good friends and it stopped her worrying what was to become of me,” he grins.
I look at my list of questions and laugh. “The next one is ‘who would you most like to be with in a life or death situation’,” I say, “and I have to tell you that most people I’ve interviewed say you!”
He laughs, “well, I’d like to be with me too. I’ve been with myself in life and death situations and I’m quite happy with that. There are some people I’d rather not be with in life or death situations.” He checks with me which of my interviewees have asked for him. He’s happy to be with all of those. “Useful chaps in the main,” he comments. And there are those who consider it his job to be with them in that situation. “Good to have the vote of confidence. Yes, that’s what we’re there for.”
Sundance comes across as a professional, just as one expects. I wonder whether the last question will allow him to shed a little insight into what he’s really like. If he wasn’t himself, who would he like to be? “There are a couple of uncles of kings that have really cushy lives. They have a role in the hierarchy of their castles, but really their main task in life is to do whatever they like and give opinions on what the king is doing. It seems to me like that is the ideal life, although you do of course have to be out of the line of succession so that you don’t get bumped off by ambitious descendents. I think I could cope with a life of luxury and plenty of time off to do what I fancy.”
Wouldn’t he find it a little boring? He shakes his head. “There are always other interests to pursue.” Then he laughs. “I could even live a double life like some other people I know!” As a really secret agent, I suggest. Yes, it seems so!
Not so much a job then, more a way of life. Not bad when you can spend the odd day in the shade of a willow tree drinking ale. And as I take my leave he tells me he’s going to spend another day here and do some fishing. For fish, I think.