Back Up

Wilom dropped his head back against the wall, just hard enough to sting. They’d taken the knife out of his bag, but left everything else. The doors were locked, and he couldn’t see who was in the cells opposite or beside him, though he doubted he was in anything more serious than a holding cell. Yet.

Had the lighthouse keeper not given him papers on purpose? An oversight? Or was he just not able to?

A chorus of the snores of the soundly drunk confirmed Wilom’s theory that he was in a temporary holding cell. He’d slept away most of the afternoon and night on the hard bed, and now there was faint light through the window, either of dawn or an overcast midmorning.

How thorough an inspection would they do, he wondered? Enough to be convinced Janim Tris wasn’t a real person?

Soon after that, he was fed, and then several hours after that, there was the sound of a key turning in the lock.

“Thanks again for looking after my cousin,” a familiar voice said. “I’ll make sure he gets everything sorted out.”

“Glad he’s got you to look after him,” another voice said.

“Aren’t we both!”

Vanda pushed the door the rest of the way open and threw herself at Wilom, wrapping her hands securely around his shoulders.

“You’re my cousin, travelling to find work after your boss was caught laundering money,” she whispered rapidly into his ear, “And my name is Tenni.”

“Tenni!” Wilom said, more loudly. “I didn’t know you were coming through here!”

“Idiot,” Vanda said. “I told you a month ago! I was seeing Granny this week.”

“That’s right. How could I forget?”

“The same way you keep forgetting everything else, obviously.”

Vanda pulled away, grabbed Wilom’s hand and tugged him to his feet. “Thanks, officer,” she said. “I promise we’ll get him sorted out.”

The police officer nodded, and locked the cell again.

Vanda babbled about “Granny” all the way down the hall and out the door. Wilom kept up the conversation as best he could, but she barely paused long enough for him to speak.

“Keep hold of my hand,” Vanda said suddenly.

“Wh-urk!”

Vanda made an abrupt turn down a street, pulling Wilom with her. After a moment, the side street opened into the town square, and Vanda sat down on a bench, pulling Wilom down next to her.

“Tenni …”

“We’re far enough away. You can call me Vanda.”

“Vanda, then. How did you…?”

“That? Oh, I borrowed the name of an actual relative of yours — hope you don’t mind — and found some really old photos of mine. Spun a story about you, showed photos of your “dear granddad”. They bought it easy enough.”

“Thanks. I’m impressed you managed to talk me out of that.”

“They’re small-town cops well back from the border. They don’t really expect spies here. A forgetful traveller is much more likely. Good job for not mentioning Marclorn, though. That could have made things hard.” She paused. “I suppose you want to ask me how I got away from the lighthouse keeper way back when.”

“Yes, actually,” Wilom said, though Marclorn spies definitely a topic he intended to broach very soon.

“Figures that’d be the first thing you think about. We had a talk, and then he let me go. Our little chat was a long time coming, that’s all. The only reason you didn’t see me again was that I’ve managed to stay alive until now.”

“That’s what you said then, too. Anyway, it’s good to see you again.”

“You, too.”

She looked him up and down. “I have to ask – whose bright idea was that vest?”

Wilom pulled at the front of the knitted monstrosity the lighthouse keeper had given him. “A gift from our mutual friend in the lighthouse. It’s that bad, huh?”

“Worse. I think it might actually suit you.”

“I’ll buy new clothes as soon as I can, I promise. As soon as I have my papers. Um. By the way, how do I …?”

“You don’t,” Vanda said. “In this country right now? You need papers to get your papers. Something to say where you live, who your family is, someone to sign the paper that says you’re not lying…”

“You could sign it.”

“Not till you’ve got everything else, I can’t,” Vanda said. “Besides, they’ll do just about anything to stop you nowadays. I swear, they stand by maternity beds, ready to get the baby’s signature when it pops out.”

“Charming. So, did you have any other ideas?”

Vanda reached into her bag, and pulled out a folder tied up with string. Wilom opened it. Mostly, it held pieces of typed, watermarked paper, though there were a few smaller booklets in there as well. Wilom only recognised a few of them.

“How did you…?”

“I said you can’t get papers. I, however, pulled some strings. Are you travelling to the Capital?”

Wilom shrugged. “I hadn’t planned to, but then, I hadn’t really planned anything. I can go to the Capital, no trouble.”

“Let’s meet there. I’m there pretty often these days.”

“How will I find you?”

“Probably easiest if I find you. I have to run some errands for the lighthouse keeper first, but I’ll meet you there, OK?”

Wilom nodded slowly. “Well, I owe you for saving my stupid ass, so if you ever need anything, let me know.”

Vanda ran a hand through her hair. “I wouldn’t be saying that. Besides, the lighthouse keeper made it pretty clear our business was secret. But if it makes you feel better, I suppose.”

“Still. Consider it a favour you can call in.”

“That’s not much better. But I’ll see you at the Capital.”

~

In the next town, after booking a hotel room with not so much as a second glance from the concierge, Wilom went out to wander the town for a while. Vanda hadn’t told him how long her errands would take, but he guessed that a few days’ delay shouldn’t be a problem. In the meantime, his experience at the last hotel had taught him a valuable lesson about not assuming anything. He’d take things a little slower from here on, and a lot more cautiously.

He had, in fact, been to this town before – on the only market trip he’d gone on with his father – but it took him a while to recognise any streets or buildings.

The smell of food and something else, a strong scent Wilom was entirely unfamiliar with, wafted from a nearby building. Once it had been a pub, Wilom recalled. Outside it, people were sitting around, sipping from mugs and eating eggs or toast.

A woman in a black-and-white outfit saw him standing near the chairs and offered him a large sheet of heavy paper. It was just a list of food and prices.

“Good afternoon. Would you like a menu?”

“Uh, thanks,” Wilom said. He looked quickly down the list. “Coffee?” Only seven cents. Interesting.

“Sorry,” he said, to cover his confusion. “Last time I was here, this was just a pub.”

The look of puzzlement deepened. Whoops. He mustn’t look old enough to get away with that one.

“You know what? I’m new in town, and it’s been a long journey. I’m probably mistaken,” Wilom said quickly. “How about I just sit down and buy a coffee?”

She gave him a sympathetic smile. “Milk? Sugar?”

“I, uh, don’t usually drink coffee. I’ll take whatever you recommend.”

She gestured to a table and left. He sat down, running his hands over his face. Thank goodness the dark circles still under his eyes, so his story about a long trip was plausible.

“One coffee, extra milk” the waitress said, putting it down in front of him. “Any food to go with it?”

“No, thanks.”

He waited until she was gone before picking up the mug. It was hot, and smelled … bitter? Earthy? Something. Whatever it was, it was strong. His first mouthful was mostly milky foam. That wasn’t too bad.

His second mouthful contained some of the actual coffee. He felt his throat convulse, and he almost spat it out. He put the mug down and swallowed slowly.

It could, he reflected, have been a lot worse. So long as none of the other customers heard the noise he’d made. Now he was expecting the strong flavour, though, the next mouthful was downright palatable.

He turned to a couple sitting two tables away from him, reading half a morning newspaper each.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Morning,” the man said.

“Sorry, I’ve just arrived in town. There wouldn’t happen to be anything interesting in the paper, would there? I haven’t had a chance to read one recently.”

“You interested in the war?” The man snorted and raised an eyebrow, as if the question had been meant in jest.

“Who isn’t these days?” Wilom took a stab in the dark.

Thankfully, that response seemed to be satisfactory. “Yeah, ain’t that the truth?”

“I’m just feeling out of touch. I’ve been on the road a while.”

“Oh, well.” The man put his paper down. “You haven’t missed anything. They’re just about recycling articles, they’re so desperate for news.”

“Any conscriptions?”

“Hah! Not this far back. No, for the moment it’s just volunteers. Have to pay our own way to the Capital, and then the military takes over from there. They say there’s a fairly steady stream from the Northern towns, just begging to sign up.”

“You’re thinking of going, then?” Wilom wasn’t entirely sure what made him think that. But somehow it seemed right.

“Me? Well, maybe. I’ll stick it out a while here and see how things are going. I’m not young enough to jump at the chance for honour and glory, you know? But my nephew’s gone. Might do him good to see his uncle there fighting alongside him.”

“You might be right.” Wilom stole a glance at the woman with the other half of the newspaper. She was still reading. Either she wasn’t paying attention, or she didn’t think much would come of his talk about going to war.

The man folded the paper up absently.

“Sounds like everything’s keeping to the borders, then,” Wilom said.

“Hopefully. Marclorn’s about the same size as us; only way they’ll get past the borders is with spies. That’s part of why we don’t get much information back here. Can’t let too many people know what’s going on.” He tapped his nose. The woman remained unimpressed.

Wilom nodded in what he hoped was a noncommittal fashion, and took another mouthful of coffee. He didn’t mention to the man that it wasn’t how far back the war came that worried him.

“Thanks for the chat,” he said. Half the coffee, he decided, was enough. He was horrifically awake now. “Oh, is the grocery store around the corner the best place to get food?”

“That’s where I go.”

“Thank you.” Wilom put the coffee down and turned around to see where the waitress was.

She hurried back out. “Seven cents,” she said. He handed the coins over.

“Thank you, sir.”

“No, thank you for the coffee. It was exactly what I needed.”

The smile didn’t get wider, but seemed bigger. “You’re quite welcome. Please come again.”

“I will,” Wilom said. Then he turned to the man with the newspaper. “Nice to meet you. Thanks for the chat.”

“Not a problem. Safe travels!”

“Thank you,” Wilom said, and meant it sincerely.

~

After leaving the café, he used the rest of the lighthouse keeper’s money to buy a few new outfits. He packed them carefully in the backpack, neatly folded. For a moment, he considered leaving the vest behind when he left, but he found himself putting it in the backpack instead. It was comfortable, and Vanda’s joke about it had made him smile. Maybe it was a little old-fashioned, but Vanda was right. Maybe that did suit him just fine.

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