The first sign they saw of the Capital was literally a sign. It read “Welcome to Rechford, Bright Capital of Bramary!”
Wilom looked up. Oh, there. Behind the farms and farm houses – he could see the tall buildings. He hadn’t even noticed they were there.
Jilli stopped, feet apart, head back, one hand pointing upwards and forwards, and cried, “Onwards to the Capital!” Then she shouted and ran off down the road.
Wilom had to laugh as he and Cathlin started to jog to catch up with her.
“Jilli, not too fast,” Cathlin called.
Jilli stopped and turned, holding her arms out to reason with her mother. “But we have to charge on the Capital!”
“We’re not that close to the city,” Wilom said. “Look, you can’t even see it on the edge of the road yet. You’ll tire out your army if you charge from here.”
Jilli’s shoulders slumped. “But …”
“We’ve got to get past the gates still,” Cathlin said. “You can charge when we get a little closer.”
Jilli sighed, turned around and clenched her fist. “We march to save our strength!” she shouted, and started forward again, knees lifting so high they nearly hit her chest as she went.
Wilom enjoyed the change in scenery, from grass and small hills to fences and farmhouses, hay for livestock, and occasionally, orchards.
Then he realised he was falling behind – Cathlin had picked up her pace since seeing the sign for the Capital, and he’d been dawdling to look at the farms.
Wilom found himself a little jealous of Cathlin. She actually had a plan for when she got to the Capital; Wilom still had no idea what he was going to do. Maybe he should just go back to the River after all.
He dismissed the thought almost as soon as it had occurred to him. He’d truly enjoyed travelling and meeting people. He still wanted, eventually, a house with a kitchen and a proper bed.
The orchard branches were heavy with fruit. Wilom would have taken some, but he couldn’t risk Cathlin having a darker opinion of petty theft than him. It was a pity — he would have enjoyed a nice, crisp apple or pear while he was walking. The memory of stealing apples, Alph’s giggling as one of them threw a half-eaten fruit at him for some comment or other, floated through his mind.
From over one of the fences he heard giggling, and footsteps through grass and leaves. He peered over the fence until he saw the two boys running around under the trees, collecting the apples on the ground and putting them in sacks – except for the ones they deemed better for throwing at each other. On a ladder underneath one of the trees, a middle-aged man was picking apples and putting them into a crate. As he heard the three of them pass by, the man looked up, wiped his forehead, and waved. Wilom waved back.
“Afternoon,” Wilom called, not knowing quite what else to do. The man on the ladder was looking at him like he expected some further interaction
“Afternoon,” the man responded, climbing down the ladder. “Heading for the Capital?”
Wilom nodded. Cathlin called for Jilli to stop and come back. She didn’t seem particularly happy to be stopping, so Wilom resolved to keep the conversation short.
The man reached through the wire fence to shake hands with Wilom. “Artom,” he said.
“Wilom,” Wilom replied. “This is Cathlin and Jilli.”
“Pleasure,” Artom said, shaking Cathlin’s hand as well. He smiled at Jilli, reached into the crate he still carried on his hip and passed her an apple fresh off the tree.
“Thank you,” Jilli said solemnly, taking the apple.
“Good girl,” Cathlin said.
“You adults want one, too?” Artom asked.
“Thanks,” Wilom said, taking the offered apple.
Cathlin shook her head. “No, I’m fine.”
“Alright. Nice day for travelling,” Artom said, with a laugh.
“It’s not too warm,” Wilom agreed.
“No, you’re right there. Better prepare everything for the gates, you’ll be in the Capital soon.”
Wilom nodded. Prepare? What did that mean?
“Travelling for any reason?” Artom asked, apparently not in any hurry to finish talking.
“To see my brother,” Cathlin said shortly. “And …”
“To see a friend,” Wilom said. “And maybe find some work.”
Artom shook his head. “Good luck,” he said, a little sarcastically. “Don’t suppose you’ve got any farm experience?”
“Lived on farms until I got my apprenticeship,” Wilom said. “Fed a lot of chickens.”
Artom chuckled. “Well, I’ve got no chickens. But if you can pick apples, we could use a hand getting all these in before they rot on the trees.”
“I could do that,” Wilom said.
“Hm. Well, I’ll tell you what. If you haven’t found anything by Monday, come by and we’ll see how you go. Sound good?”
“Sure,” Wilom said. “I’ll, uh, see you then. But we’d better be on our way now. Thanks for the apples.”
“No problem. Have a safe walk!”
Cathlin elbowed Wilom as they walked off down the road. “Has anyone ever told you how insufferably lucky you are?”
Wilom chuckled. “No, I can honestly say they haven’t.”
“Maybe it’s about time someone did.”
The Capital’s buildings towered even higher than Wilom had expected. Some of them were four storeys tall! He tried not to gape at the sheer height of the city, since both Cathlin and Jilli seemed unfazed.
The gates, on the other hand, were small, and looked almost haphazard. They were metal things, just too tall for Wilom to have reached the top, even if he jumped, and were only chicken wire between poles.
Still, there were uniformed officers by the gates and at places along the wall, and particularly uninviting barbed wire along the top of the fence. Wilom doubted even he and his friends would have tried climbing that more than once.
There was a short line of people waiting to be seen by the officers at the gates, to get their documents checked and their booklets (passports, Wilom reminded himself) stamped. After each inspection, the officers asked a few questions, then waved people into the city. Wilom rested his hand on his pocket, feeling the papers Vanda had given him, then took them out and began to straighten the pages where they’d become creased by travel.
Jilli chattered as Cathlin ordered both of their documents, passport on top. Wilom hurriedly swapped his passport to the top of the pile, but Cathlin was moving the pages too much for him to discreetly read the titles on the rest of the papers. Besides, he couldn’t concentrate on those too much. He was trying to listen in on the questions the officers were asking the others in the line.
“Do you expect to stay long in the Capital?”
“What address are you staying at?”
“How do you expect to earn money?”
“Any other travel in the last three years? How about outside the country?”
“Alright, enjoy your stay. Have a nice day.”
Wilom suddenly went cold. He quickly flipped through his documents, to see if Vanda had written a fake address for him, but there was nothing. A previous address in his home town. He wished he knew the name of a hotel. He turned to Cathlin for help, but it was too late — she was already talking to one of the officers.
“OK, next,” the other officer said to him. “Hand over your papers.”
Wilom did so, desperately trying to listen to Cathlin’s conversation and answer questions at the same time.
“What brings you to the Capital?”
“I’m visiting a friend.” Well, that was true enough.
“You’ve been travelling a while?”
“Yes, a little while. All around the coast.”
“Nothing outside the country? How about cities to the East?”
“No, nothing there. Just the Western coast.”
“Do you expect to stay long?”
Was there a ‘right’ answer to that question? “I’m not sure yet. Probably … probably a while, though.”
“Uh-huh.” It could have been scepticism, or it could have been the officer just not paying attention as he flipped a page over, and scanned the next document.
Wilom realised, feeling slightly light-headed, that the man shuffling through his papers was in fact younger than he’d first thought. He looked … well, he looked not much older than Gloves had been.
Wilom shook his head. It didn’t matter.
Cathlin and Jilli had finished, and were waiting for him.
“How do you expect to earn money while here?” the guard asked.
“I have farming experience and some … experience working with people. I intend to start looking for a job today.”
“Oh, I see. All seems to be in order. Just one more question: what’s your address while here?”
Cathlin cut in quickly. “He’ll be staying with us. 23 Whyte Street.”
The officer looked between them, a little suspiciously. But he wrote it down on Wilom’s papers, stamped the passport and gave the whole pile back.
“Well, then, Mr Tris, have a nice day.”
There was no-one behind them, so the guard moved over to his friend on the other side of the road, and the two of them began chatting and laughing.
Wilom tucked the papers away and grinned at Cathlin. “Thank you,” he said.
“Don’t mention it.”
“You didn’t have to do that. Do you know why they’re asking all those questions?”
Cathlin waved a hand. “It’s just in case. They’ve found Marclorn spies, I hear. I don’t blame them for being careful. And I did have to – they wouldn’t have let you in if I hadn’t.”
Wilom changed the subject quickly. “Well, thank you. I’d just planned to find a hotel.”
“I’ve already told them you’re staying with us,” Cathlin said. “Marc says they check in on travellers sometimes. So you’d better stay with us now.”
Might they? That was a discomforting thought. “Well … thank you. Are you sure?”
“I owe you. But for you, we’d have been robbed. Or shot,” Cathlin said bluntly.
Wilom wasn’t quite sure what to say to that.
Jilli tugged on her mother’s sleeve.
“Oh, alright. Go on.” Cathlin turned away from Wilom to address her daughter, and Wilom understood that she meant she didn’t want to talk to him about the topic anymore.
Jilli stuck a fist in the air and ran towards the city, stopping a few steps past the wall of the first house and turning to shout back: “We’ve taken the Capital!”
One of the officers looked up. Cathlin rushed over, taking Jilli by the hand and putting a finger to her lips, “Not so loud, honey!”
But the officer just chuckled and went back to his conversation.
Jilli waited for Wilom to catch up to them, looking very satisfied with herself.
“Mama, where are we going first?”
“We’re going to your uncle’s.”
“OK. Will we get to eat dinner there?”
“I expect so.”
“What are we having?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Uncle Marc.” Cathlin stopped at one of the roads. “We need to turn here to my brother’s,” she said. “Will you continue into town? To meet your friend?”
“I will. I should at least let her know I’m here. I won’t be long, though. I might see what sort of jobs I could get, as well.” Actually, he wanted to have a good look around the city and start to see exactly where he was, so that he didn’t seem too inexperienced later.
“Well, plenty of time. Here,” she pulled paper and pen from her bag, and scribbled on it. “This is the address, just in case you forget. Somewhere in the city, there should be an employment office. You’ll probably want to stop by there. But there are always signs up in shops asking for help. A afternoon wandering around will turn up a lot.”
“Thanks,” Wilom said, and took the piece of paper. “I’ll be around later this evening.”
“Good luck. And thanks for the company on the road.”
“Same to you.”
Wilom bent down to shake Jilli’s hand and promise that he’d stay out of trouble. And then they parted ways.
Near the end of the day, Wilom finally followed the tram lines back out of town, to Cathlin’s brother’s house. He watched people getting on and off the tram as it came past, until he was reasonably confident he knew the process. The city itself had passed in somewhat of a blur – there were a thousand and one things he hadn’t understood, and another thousand and one things that he thought he grasped but couldn’t quite be sure. He’d never been in a big city before. Now that the small towns were far more than he remembered, big cities were close to overwhelming.
He checked and double-checked the address on the card before knocking on the door.
It was opened by a man nearly half a foot taller than Wilom, at a conservative estimate. Wilom instinctively took a step back.
“Can I help you?”
“Are you … are you Cathlin’s brother?”
“I’m Wilom. Cathlin might have mentioned me. She offered me a place to stay.”
The man folded his arms and turned back into the house. “Cathlin! Someone at the door, says his name’s Wilom?”
“Yep, that’s him!” Cathlin called from somewhere inside the house.
A minute later, Jilli came running through the door, past her uncle’s legs, stopped short, and held out her hand to Wilom.
He crouched down and shook it.
“Hello again,” he said.
“Hello. Did they give you a job?”
“I think I’m going to work on that farm.” He looked up at Cathlin’s brother. “I have a little I can pay you with, and I’ve got food with me that you’re welcome to …”
Marc’s face turned severe. He lowered his eyes and looked through his brows at Wilom. “How long will you stay?”
“Actually, I have no idea. As long as I’m welcome, I suppose.”
Cathlin appeared at the door. “Are you done making him squirm, Marc, or are you going to let him in now?”
Marc spread his hands wide in protest, all the severity gone from his face. “I wasn’t making him squirm.”
Cathlin manoeuvred herself around Marc. “Come on in, Wilom.”
“I’ll still pay you,” Wilom said.
“Since Cathlin’s here, we’re all chipping in for grocery money,” Marc said. “Put your bit in for that, help out around the place, and we’ll call it even.”
Jilli tugged on Marc’s sleeve. He looked down at her.
“Uncle, I think everyone new needs to do their job defending the barracks,” she said.
Marc chuckled and ruffled Jilli’s hair. “I think that’s true. So, Wilom, are you willing to do your part and defend her people?”
“I’ll defend anything, if it means a meal and a bed tonight.”
“Perfect!” Jilli said, grabbed his hand and led him in. “You must fight valiantly.”
“I shall fight to the death.”
Or until dinner. Until dinner worked, too.