I reread the page many times, until I was sure that I could memorize it and repeat it if I needed to. Rising to stiff legs, I squinted against the sun, now hovering just above the distant hill and sighed. After I had recollected myself, I opened the door and let myself out, expecting to find Mr. Hillington sitting at his desk.
Much to my astonishment, he wasn’t where he had been the other two times. I panicked for a moment, worried that he might have forgotten about me and left for the day, or worse, decided I wasn’t worth the trouble of training and fired me before I’d even started working. Taking a deep breath, I reassured myself that my worries were futile, and I began to think reasonably.
I didn’t know where he was, but the receptionist might. I left the training room and headed back to the large desk in the waiting room.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted “Have you seen Mr. Hillington?”
“You can’t find Fredrick eh?” She asked. “Well, my guess is that he’s in the lounge. You can get in easily enough if you make it known that you’re a Cutter trainee, and you can get yourself something to eat while you’re there, I doubt you’ve eaten all day!”
My stomach rumbled at the thought of food. While working at the river I didn’t often take my lunch break, and when I did I rarely ate anything, so I didn’t notice my hunger until she mentioned it. I opened my mouth to speak but she answered my question before I could make a sound.
“It’s upstairs. You’ll know which room it is because it’s the only one without a slot in the door. All the rest are offices.”
I thanked her quickly and ran up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time. They opened up into a long, wide corridor, with rooms on either side. At the end of the hall it split to the left and right, making a “T” shape.
I took the left path first, and one of the first doors had no slot, but there was a plaque on the door with the word lavatory inscribed. I walked to the far wall and back, to no avail. In the right-side passageway I had more luck, after the initial lavatory, there was a door with no door slot or plaque on it.
Despite what the receptionist said, I knocked on the door before entering, if for nothing but politeness’ sake. An elderly man with long white hair opened it and an equally long white beard tied in a ponytail.
“You a Cutter?” He asked dubiously.
“I’m a trainee.” I replied. “My training just started today.
He nodded with comprehension. “Ah, you’ll be looking for Fredrick than.”
“In the kitchen.”
The lounge was split into two parts. The area that I had walked into was a living room type place, with couches and chairs. There were only a few people milling about, most with plates of food balanced on the hands or laps. The second part was obviously a kitchen, and judging by the clamor of voices coming from it, it was slightly more crowded. I made my way to the doorway, and searched out Mr. Hillington.
He was easy to find, and seemed to be in a heated debate with another Cutter. A slice of half buttered toast was in one hand, and a steaming mug of coffee in the other. The argument seemed to have reached a conclusion, and he threw up his hands and took a dramatic bite of toast, promptly choking on it and almost spitting it back up.
The fellow Cutter chuckled good-naturedly and backed away, allowing Mr. Hillington to notice me.
“Miss Alander!” He greeted me cheerfully. “You finished quicker than I thought you would. Help yourself to some food!”
Grateful, I grabbed a small plate and began piling food onto it from large bowls on the counter, with a variety ranging from meat, to cheese, to fruits, and even some sweets and chocolates.
“So this is the new Cutter then?” A short youngish woman asked Mr. Hillington.
“Yes, she is Mildred. And going to be quite a fine one too.”
“Indeed. Well, I’ll meet the Council before we don’t need more fresh blood in this Center. We’re all much to old for this.” The man who had spoken was the same who had been in conversation with Mr. Hillington earlier.
“Hey! We’re not all old geezers!” Mildred elbowed him playfully.
“Well, well. What have we here!” A man of about forty or so with almost shoulder length straight black hair and a long face had entered the room, and despite his stern tone of voice, a smile quirked at his lips. “Mildred, what is this nonsense?”
“Oh dear husband of mine!” She exclaimed. “Harold is accusing me of being old!”
The man shook his head and pointed an accusing finger at Harold.
Mr. Hillington laughed at the little skit that had played out in front of him. “Miss Alander, meet Mr. Salon, the head of the Cutting Center.”
I had finished stacking my plate and was watching the scene with as much interest as Mr. Hillington, but when he pointed out the head of the Cutting Center I nearly dropped it in shock.
I quickly placed the plate on the counter and dipped into a shallow curtsy. “Pleased to meet you, sir!” I stammered.
He chuckled. “You don’t need to bow to me, I’m only a bit above you, we’re both Cutters, and I’m certainly not royalty!”
“Isn’t that right!” Mildred retorted.
The easy, playful way all the Cutters acted around each other was so alien. I couldn’t imagine even pretending to insult the head of the Cutting Center.
As if he had read my mind, Mr. Salon smiled. “You’ll get used to all of us. We’re so tightly bonded we’re like a big family.”
“Except Jonathon.” Harold said grimly.
“Yes, except Jonathon.”
“Who’s Jonathon?” I asked curiously.
It was Mr. Hillington who answered. “A Cutter. A damned good one too. Problem is, he’s a complete bastard.”
“How so?” My voice was all innocence, but my curiosity was killing me inside.
“All he cares about is power. Well, power and money. The only reason he decided to join the Cutters is because he thinks it’ll get him into the Orderers’ houses sooner.”
“Why don’t you just fire him than?”
“Like I said, he’s an amazing Cutter. The most efficient one we’ve got. We’re so short on people that anyone with even a glimpse of Cutting talent is snatched up and trained as fast as possible.” Mr. Salon’s mouth was just a thin line.
“Like me…” I dared.
He nodded, “Like you.
“Anyways,” Mr. Hillington said pointedly. “To move onto a more cheerful subject, Miss Alander here has to go practice if we’re ever to make a Cutter out of her.”
Mildred nodded. “You’d better get going then, the day’s almost done!”
“If you’ll excuse us!” He grabbed my arm in one hand and my plate in the other. “You can eat that while you’re practicing, there’s no rules against food in the training hall, and it wouldn’t much do to have us both standing here like idiots while I wait for you to finish your food. “
“Mildred mentioned something about the day being almost over,” I said as I struggled to keep up with his long strides. “When do the days here end?”
He bounded the stairs and nodded graciously to the receptionist before responding. “As you know, they start at around 7:30, or whenever you’re ready to come, and like I said, they’re four hour days, so they would technically have ended at around 11:30, which would be about four hours ago. The reason we’re still here is because of the double shift phenomenon. So that we can have people working here all day, and not having to exhaust the Cutters, a second shift begins at around 12:00 and goes to around 4:00. Cutting trainees just stay here all day, as well as receptionists and other non-Cutter employees. The lot that was upstairs in the lounge was a little less than half of the employees on the afternoon shift, and were all having a snack at what passes for suppertime. The rest would have already been there, or are heading there as we speak.”
I did the math in my head. There were about ten in the lounge, which means there’s about a dozen others still working. That’s thirty-two in all during the second shift, and I’d think it would be the same for the morning shift. Thirty-two plus thirty-two is sixty-four. Plus him is… “Sixty-five Cutters!” I exclaimed out loud. “And that’s short on staff?”
Mr. Hillington chuckled. “Well, we’re in charge of everyone who dies, and that adds up. The average Cutter completes a total of two processes each hour, which is only eight per Cutter. Eight multiplied by sixty-five is five hundred and twenty.”
“So you cut five hundred and twenty soul-strings everyday here?”
He shrugged. “Give or take.”
My mouth dropped open in surprise. “That’s short on hands?” I practically yelled. “If that’s short on hands, how many can you cut when you have enough people?”
He chuckled again. “Remember, we have to cut everyone in both the city and the towns. That adds up to a lot of deaths. There’s about two thousand in each town, five towns equals around ten thousand people. Plus the manors and mansions of the countryside, that’s another hundred, and in the city there’s twenty thousand. So, thirty thousand, one hundred people. A considerable amount of those die, just as more are born. Because of this we have all weekend off, as well as a break for City-days.”
I knew what City-days were. They were held on the day that the city was founded, but had very little to do with that. During the night before Breadday, everyone received a loaf of sweet bread and a cup of wine. Little kids were told that it was the ghosts of the original founders who handed the food out, but that used to scare me, so mother told me the truth.
The Orderers sent out packages of one loaf of bread and one tiny bottle of wine to all houses via mail, both city and town. Every year, a few streets in the city receive one fresh loaf of a cup’s worth of wine per house, provided that they supply a plate and cup. Even in the towns they did that, and we had always left a plate and cup next to the nearest real house, but we always just received the gifts from the mail.
Breadday itself was a time for sharing and exchanging both food and gifts. The day after Breadday was the beginnings of Gamefeasts. Contrary to what I once thought, the Gamefeasts were not feasts of wild game, rather they were a series of days were the streets were full of activities and games, each more fun than the last.
City-days were a big deal, school, and a lot of workplaces had a few days before and after it off, as well as preparations being planned for parties, gifts, and activities all year.