Personal Questions

Almost as if she’d been summoned, Vanda found him the next afternoon on his way home from the farm. She hid and waited for him in an alley, reaching out and grabbing his arm as he walked past.

“Want to have another adventure?” she asked, without so much as a greeting first.

“You mean, like when we got chased down the beach by a monster?” Wilom stepped all the way into the alley to join her. “Hello, by the way.”

“Spoilsport. It was only the lighthouse keeper.” Vanda told him primly.

“That was the lighthouse keeper?”

Vanda raised an eyebrow. “What, didn’t you know?”

“No! I saw one of the Shades right behind us!”

“Really? I didn’t think you had such an overactive imagination.”

“I usually don’t.”

Vanda shrugged. “Either way, it turned out fine in the end. Let’s get tea.”

“Tea isn’t an adventure.”

She punched him in the shoulder. “Stop being daft, and come get some tea with me. Do you know a good place, or are you happy to go to my usual?”

“Your usual is fine.”

“Great.”

Vanda was ushered through the gates quickly. Wilom didn’t even hear the guards talking to her on the way through, and she was already waiting for him when he finished. The guards must know her well. Wilom wondered how much travelling she did.

They caught a tram into the city together, Vanda laughing as Wilom struggled to dig for the correct fare, and got off somewhere near the middle of the city.

The café was small but cosy, and not on a main street. The sort of place someone who didn’t know the city might easily miss.

Vanda sat down at a table outside, picking up two menus as she went. Wilom joined her, and took a menu from her.

There were columns and columns of tea varieties on the stiff card. The lighthouse keeper might even have been jealous.

“What will you have?” Vanda asked.

“There’s too much to choose from!”

“Just pick something. You can always try another one later.”

“That’s hardly helpful. What are you getting?”

“Something strong and black, I think.”

Wilom considered. “Well, I’m in the mood for something lighter.” He picked a green tea at random off the list.

The waitress was over shortly. They ordered their tea and gave back their menus.

“I think …” Vanda said. “I think I need to call in that favour.”

“What’s wrong?”

She looked away and mumbled something.

“Vanda,” Wilom said. “Am I really likely to call the police? Even if we weren’t friends, with fake papers…”

Vanda grinned wryly. “I know. It’s not you I’m worried about. You’ve noticed the gates around here, right?”

“They’re hard to miss,” Wilom said.

“You have no idea. And most of the people they’re keeping out don’t actually deserve to be kept out. If you’ve ever had a relative who was born in Marclorn, if you’ve ever visited, if you sell something that people from Marclorn buy, even. You can imagine how common that is when it’s just as far to travel to Marclorn as it is to travel to the next Bramary town. At best, you’ll get questioned, at worst, they’ll find some crime to pin on you.”

Wilom nodded. He’d had his suspicions about that. “Doesn’t surprise me. Go on?”

“Well, you’re good with people. Let me give you the rundown: People on the borders, even if they have papers, often aren’t let into the Capital, or are picked up by the random searches, because they lived so close to Marclorn, there was lots of travel across the border not that long ago, you know. The government needs someone to target and they’re easy. Our job – me and the people I work for – is to bring them into the Capital, find them addresses they can list on their papers that aren’t on the border, sometimes get them forged papers if they need them, and help them move away from where all the fighting is. Mostly they stay until the first time they get ID checked, and then find somewhere else.”

Wilom nodded slowly. “That doesn’t answer my question, though.”

“We’re starting to get more people coming in than we can find homes for. Don’t take that to mean there are a lot of people coming in, by the way – there are a fair number, but it’s getting hard to find houses for them all. The more people we keep at once, the more trouble we have keeping them hidden. We need help.”

Wilom nodded. “Why not try and find the houses before you bring them into the city?”

Vanda gave him a long, stony look. “Do you know what it’s like on the border right now?”

Wilom was a little taken aback. He’d gotten so used to people treating the war as if it was far away, he’d forgotten himself. “No, I don’t. But you don’t have to explain it to me. I’ll help,” Wilom said.

“You’re sure?” Vanda pressed. “Don’t say yes unless you’re sure. What about the family you’re staying with?”

Wilom chuckled. “Living with people who don’t agree with my life choices is practically nostalgia. You need help, I’m here. I owe you one, remember?”

The look of relief that crossed Vanda’s face was almost physically painful to watch.

“Thank you,” she said sincerely. “I just … I couldn’t get anyone else involved, you know? We’re both immortal. It wouldn’t be right to involve a normal human.”

“Wait,” Wilom said. “Immortal?”

Vanda gave him an odd look. “Yes, immortal. You’ve been alive for, what, over eighty years now? How old do you look, again?”

Wilom put his cup down with a loud clack. Vanda looked up at him, surprised.

“What?”

“I …” Wilom looked down at his hands. “I didn’t think … I thought it would stop once I got off the River.”

“What about me, then?” Vanda asked. “I’m over … well, I stopped counting a while back. Point is, I’m old. And I never stayed on the River longer than I had to.”

Immortal. It wasn’t just that he hadn’t aged – it was that he never would age.

“I never thought about it,” he said. He tried to pick up the teacup, but it clattered against the saucer, and he put it down again.

Vanda rubbed the back of her neck. “Sorry,” she said.

“No,” Wilom said, taking a deep breath. “You’re right. I should have guessed. It was …  it should have been obvious.”

Vanda put her teacup down. “That doesn’t seem right,” she said.

“What?”

“The ferryman didn’t tell you? Didn’t even hint?”

Wilom bristled. “He told me plenty of things. I …” he hesitated. “Well, he didn’t tell me much about coming back. I still think he was trying to convince me not to. Even if he did always say it was my choice.”

Vanda snorted. “From what the lighthouse keeper told me, that wouldn’t be surprising. You should go talk to him. He’d tell you everything.”

“Maybe. Back to your problem, though – what does this have to do with not getting other people involved?”

Vanda shrugged. “It just feels wrong. You and I know a lot more about dying than other people. And how to get out of it. I just … I couldn’t involve someone who didn’t have a way out.”

Wilom nodded. “Oh. I guess that makes sense.” He didn’t mention that he definitely couldn’t find a way out without her, or that the ferryman was much more concerned with the rules of the River, and probably wouldn’t let him come back anyway.

Vanda put her teacup down. “Let’s catch up for a while, then. You know, I just realised I actually don’t know that much about you.”

“Likewise. So, have you been back here long?”

Vanda poured herself another cup of tea, and held it for a while, apparently in no hurry to drink it. “If by ‘here’, you mean back in the living world, then yes. But not always in the Capital.”

“I figured that much out.”

She gave him a lopsided grin. “You know me that well, at least. I could never stay in one spot all the time.”

“I tried to do a bit of travelling,” Wilom said. He took a sip of tea. It had a surprising depth of flavour for something that smelled so overpowering. “But I had to do something for money.”

“Would you travel again if you didn’t need the money?”

“Absolutely.” Wilom took another sip of his tea. It was very refreshing. “If it’s not too close to an awkward topic, I’ve been meaning to ask … what tea did you choose when the lighthouse keeper talked to you? Was it difficult for you to choose, too?”

“Yeah. I picked one of the smoky ones. Can’t remember the name. It was a good one, though. Then he chose a fruit one. I think it might have had blackberry in it.”

“He chose that one for me, too. Must be a favourite of his. I picked the tea with bergamot in it. My sister used to like bergamot. She had a little bottle of bergamot perfume, but she’d only use it on special occasions.”

“That’s kind of sweet.”

Wilom didn’t quite know how to respond, so he said, “Actually, it’s citrusy.”

“Har har, very funny. You don’t have to talk about her if you don’t want to.”

Had he been that obvious? Vanda put a finger on the lid of the pot and swirled it again.

“You look like you know what you’re doing.”

“Hm? Oh, maybe. I just watched the lighthouse keeper do this.”

“Guess I wasn’t really watching what he was doing with the tea when I was there.”

“Yeah. Mind if I ask you a personal question?”

“No, go ahead.”

“I won’t get offended if you don’t answer. Why did you sign up with the ferryman? I got the impression that you were an orphan or something, but …”

“What? Seriously?” Wilom was glad he hadn’t had any tea in his mouth.

“Was I that far off?”

“Both my parents were alive and well when I signed up, but they’d sent me to live with my aunt and uncle because my friends were … a “bad influence”.”

“Were they?”

“No. They didn’t help, I mean. But they certainly weren’t to blame for my choices.”

“So, a compounding influence?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s precisely it. I was a little idiot. But my sister … she was, what, two years younger than me? And she had her whole career path plotted out. There was a lot of pressure for her older brother to do the same.”

“I understand that.”

“Now, can I ask you a personal question?”

“I won’t make you answer if you don’t want to. Why did you always come back? What made you run away the first time?”

Vanda picked up her teacup and held it in front of her mouth, but didn’t drink.

“I think …” she said. “The first time, dying was a complete accident. I was climbing a tree with my younger sister. I would have been … oh, fourteen, perhaps? But the branch broke under me and I fell down. It should have been a sprained wrist, a broken leg at worst. But I got tangled up in the tree, and I broke my neck. I think I was still in shock when I got to the ferryman. Back then, the ferryman had another apprentice, near the end of her apprenticeship. She was really nice; we became friends on the trip over. She said, since I was scared, she’d take me over to the gates.”

“Huh. I never got to do that,” Wilom said.

“Really? That’s odd. Well, when we were out of the ferryman’s sight, I freaked out. If she hadn’t been holding onto my wrist, I would have run away and been lost forever, but I couldn’t get away from her. She hugged me, and said it was alright to be scared, and everything would be better once I was through the gate. When I finally calmed down, she asked if I was ready to go, and I told her I wasn’t. We very nearly argued, but she was better trained than that. And then she stopped, and really looked at me. At the time, I thought I’d just frustrated her, but now I’m not sure. She said she’d take me the back way around to the lighthouse keeper, and he’d put me on the right path.”

She stopped for a mouthful of tea.

“That’s what she said?” Wilom prompted.

“Exact words. So, she took me around the back. She taught me how to get through the caves, and that the monsters wouldn’t follow us over the River. We came out really close to the lighthouse, not like when you and I went over. But we never got to the lighthouse keeper. I just wanted to go back to my own life. So, when we got to the other side and I saw the door in the cliff face, I made a break for it. I mean, the worst that would happen was she’d catch me and bring me back, right? But no, it led back to the surface.”

“Huh. I didn’t see the door when we were there.”

“Really? We were standing right near it when the lighthouse keeper caught us.”

“Must have been too distracted.”

“Must have been. But that’s the story. Next time I came back, she wasn’t an apprentice anymore. Finished with your tea?”

“Not yet.” He poured the last of the tea into the pot and drained it. Vanda stood up as soon as he’d put his empty cup down.

“Oh, and take me to the farm first. I need to tell Artom I won’t be going back.”

~

After the farm, Vanda took him into the city and told him to wait in another alley. She came back, barely seconds later, with a huge box of ledgers. Wilom wondered exactly where she’d gone, and how she’d gotten there and back so quickly. She handed him the ledgers without any  further explanation, and then led him back to Marc’s house.

“I need to get back,” she said. “I’ll see you here again tomorrow? So you can tell me if you have any questions.”

“Sure,” Wilom said. “When do you leave?”

“When you’ve got no more questions.”

“Oh. Thanks, but you’ll be here for a long time.”

“Wouldn’t want you screwing everything up too soon.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“Well, see you tomorrow, then.”

Suddenly, she was gone, but for the life of him, he couldn’t have said which corner she turned, or which direction she’d walked in. She must have walked off while he was trying to count the ledgers and find out exactly how much trouble he was about to be in.

Nobody else was back yet, which Wilom guessed was a good thing. He didn’t want to have to explain the ledgers.

He opened the box. The top folder was labelled “READ FIRST – FROM VANDA”.

Well, if she insisted…

Wilom,

Thanks for taking the job, first up. I really appreciate it.

In here, you’ll find a book of contacts. Some of them are people who will give you information, some of them might be willing to relocate people (though most of them have taken people already (marked with red). The safehouses or soup kitchens, in particular, will help you out if they can and have the room.

In the folder marked ‘law enforcement’, there’s information about the Capital police, plus anyone else we might run into. And some political stuff. All the background. It’ll tell you who can be bribed and who can’t.

MEMORISE THAT. IT WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE.

It’s all from the guy who came before me. There’s also his diaries. I never kept up that tradition, but there’s a blank one for you if you want it.

My contribution is a list of all the folders, to make it a little easier to reference. In the bottom of the box, there’s some emergency money and a map. Finally, you’ve got a list of the people who still need to be relocated, and some personal information about them, in case it gives you any ideas.

I think that’s all. Good luck, and thank you again. I owe you one now.

And yes, you do have that in writing.

Vanda.

Wilom lifted the ledgers and confirmed that, yes, there was a list of folders and their contents. Behind that, there was a paper bag. He lifted it out and opened it.

He closed it again almost immediately. How much money was ‘emergency money’?

Alright, then. He tucked the paper bag into the bottom of the box. He’d think up a better spot for it later.

He leafed through the ledgers, then started on the list of law enforcement.

~

He could barely concentrate on dinner, with all the names and numbers whirling around his head. At first he’d tried to memorise it line by line, then just to read it. The first option had felt like trying to shove cheese through a sieve, and the second like being slapped in the face with the tail end of a dust storm. He made minimal conversation over dinner, but that was alright, because Cathlin had had a frustrating day trying to find somewhere to rent for her new shop, and she did most of the talking. He cleared the table and washed the dishes, then set about tidying up his room and finding an appropriate hiding spot for the cash.

It was about when he was helping Cathlin to pick up the toys strewn around Jilli’s room (“It’s clean, honest, Mum! Besides, it’s only in my room, you can just close the door and nobody else has to worry about it!”) that he realised he was desperately avoiding the ledgers, and forced himself to go back and pick them up again.

He was still reading, trying to fit it all into his mind when he heard Cathlin arguing with Jilli about bedtime. He paused briefly when Jilli insisted on coming in and getting a hug and a kiss goodnight, and then read through her getting up for “a glass of water” and then “the toilet” three or four times.

He only stopped reading again when his candle suddenly went out. He nearly dropped the ledger.

Oh. It had burned to the base.

At least he couldn’t see dawn outside the window.

He pulled the covers aside and crawled into the bed, dreading the morning.

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