Wilom might have ignored the sun completely and slept away the morning if not for Vanda tapping on his window.
She waited patiently for him to groan, roll over, and come to terms with being awake before he got out of bed. She gestured to the front of the house, and he changed and met her there.
“Good morning, sunshine.”
Vanda gave him a critical look. “Did you sleep OK?”
“No. Those ledgers take a lot of reading, you know.”
“When I said to memorise them, I didn’t mean in one night.”
“I’m nothing if not dedicated.”
“I was going to take you to see the people you need to find places for. You up for it?”
“Oh, good. Yeah, just let me clear my head.”
“I’ll take you the long way. I won’t be able to stay – I have some errands to run. Lighthouse keeper business. But I’ll introduce you at least, and give you directions on how to get back.”
In Wilom’s sleepy haze, he barely noticed the streets passing. In what seemed like only an instant, they were underground, in some form of tunnel with stone – sorry, concrete, Wilom reminded himself – walls. Along the walls, great pipes were bolted to the wall. One or two of them were nearly half as tall as Wilom, but most of them were anywhere between a handspan and a forearm in diameter. As they walked, Wilom absently ran his hand down one of the largest tubes – the one marked ‘Sewage’. It was a little cooler then the air in the tunnel. Finally, he was starting to feel awake.
“Here,” Vanda said, and knocked on a door with a plaque that read ‘Electrical Storage and Amenities’.
“It’s Vanda,” she said, and the door opened for her.
“Thanks. This is Wilom. He’s a very old friend of mine.”
The middle-aged man greeting her chuckled. “My dear, you are too young yet for ‘very old friends’. But if you say he’s a friend, then he’s a friend.” He turned to Wilom. “Hello.”
“Why don’t you two come in and sit down?”
“I have to go. I just brought Wilom to meet everyone,” Vanda said. “Have fun!”
Vanda left, and Wilom entered the tiny room.
The room was larger than he’d expected, but still not particularly big. A few shelves had been pulled to the sides of the room, providing a little privacy. From behind the shelves, the edges of blankets poked out – showing where the occupants must sleep. A door on the other side of the room was a little ajar, and inside was what looked like a bench and sink – a rudimentary kitchen. The door next to it was closed, but the plaque read ‘WC – Employees Only’.
There were nine people inside. An unmarried couple, a lone traveller, a grandmother with her granddaughter and daughter, though the daughter was the child’s aunt, not her mother. A father and his son. And a young woman separated from her father…
Good. At least he was awake enough to recall that much from the ledger.
“Hello, Wilom, was it?” the man from the unmarried couple (J … Jar … something?) asked. “Vanda told us everything yesterday. You’re now?”
“Yes, very new. I haven’t even got beyond reading my position description yet. I thought I could do a better job of finding places if I knew you a little better. What sort of thing you’re looking for. What you couldn’t live without, and what you couldn’t live with.” It seemed the right thing to say. He pulled out the diary Vanda had bought him – wait, when had he picked that up? Never mind. The point was, he did have it with him.
“You’re optimistic,” the lone traveller said with a chuckle. “We’re only looking for a place to go without getting the guards called, not our dream homes.”
“Well, I won’t promise dream homes,” Wilom said. “But I’ll do my best for ‘pleasant’, how does that sound?”
The lone traveller (Rickart Lacey! That was it!) shrugged. “I’ll take a roof.”
“You can split us up,” the aunt (She was Marshie Grent, for certain), “But at least leave Malley with one of us.” She squeezed her niece’s shoulder.
“I’ll try and keep all of you together, if I can,” Wilom said. “But understood.”
“I’m with Rickart,” the woman separated from her father said. “I’d like somewhere that won’t kick me out until I can get my own spot. I guess I need to be able to get a job, too.”
The young granddaughter looked at her aunt and grandmother (Aime), then to Wilom. “Can we go somewhere where we can have a dog?”
“I’ll do my best.”
The requests came thick and fast after that, and then the anecdotes. Stories from home, the things they missed, the people that came here before them. By the time he left, Wilom had promised to look out for or send letters to at least ten people. He said he wasn’t sure if he was allowed, but they’d assured him it was alright as long as he tried. As long as he gave some response, they didn’t seem to mind about the actual questions. Even Rickart started to share anecdotes, though he never did make a request for a house. Wilom was sure that Marshie (and likely her mother) wouldn’t have wanted Malley hearing some of those stories, but Malley herself was rapt.
When Wilom finally had to leave, Rickart put his hand on his shoulder.
“Yes?” Wilom asked.
“If it’s possible,” Rickart said, “Could you let me know if my brother comes to his senses?”
Wilom nodded. “If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”
Rickart nodded. Then, he opened his mouth, and hesitated before muttering, “Somewhere with a yard would be nice.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Vanda met Wilom outside the door.
Wilom frowned. “I thought you said you had lighthouse keeper errands?”
“I did. It … didn’t go quite as planned. It’s alright, though. The lighthouse keeper stepped in.”
Wilom nodded. “I suppose you can’t tell me any more than that.”
“Nope. So how did it go for you?”
“Well. I’m not sure how I’m going to make this work, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something.”
Vanda nodded. “I really appreciate this, by the way. This is going to be … a real weight off my shoulders.”
Wilom looked at her and smiled. “Happy to help,” he said. “Besides, I do owe you one, remember?”
Vanda looked over at him. “I told you that you shouldn’t tell me to call in a favour. I feel bad for asking you.”
“You don’t have to feel bad. I don’t mind – I promise.”
“Yes … but I didn’t tell you everything.”
“Guess I’m used to that by now,” Wilom said. “So, mind telling me what you didn’t tell me before?”
“Yeah.” Vanda gave him a quick grin. “Couldn’t exactly tell you I’d left something out and then not come out with it, right? So. The people who employ me. There are five of them. There used to be only four of them, but there was an incident where two of them were caught …”
“And hung,” Wilom finished for her. “I know. I met them on the river. The two left behind – Rytel and Vicdra, right?”
Vanda nodded. “Your memory still gives me the creeps sometimes. Yes, that’s right. Rytel brought in Manda, who used to be part of the group, but had quit. Before the execution, she promised to come back if Rytel and Vicdra needed help. Rytel runs a big company – Green Hill Accounting, the place where we’re pretending you work – so she handles all the accounts and everything.”
“Rytel and Vicdra,” Wilom said, sifting through his memory for the conversation about them. “They don’t get along, do they?”
Vanda snorted. “Like a feral cat gets along with a farm hound. Vicdra … well, he really took after the others. Rytel was good for the old group – she was the cautious one, but now … Manda won’t take sides – I think she likes Vicdra’s ideas but thinks Vicdra himself is too rash, so she doesn’t really want him getting his way. And Vicdra and Rytel are at the point where I think they’d disagree with anything the other said, just out of principle.”
“Ah,” Wilom said. “So, the three of them, the …”
Vanda grinned. “I call them the ‘Heads’.”
Wilom raised an eyebrow. “And of course, nobody could ever call you petty.”
“Of course not! They are the Heads of the organisation, after all.”
“Can’t fault you for being technically accurate. So, they argue.”
“That’s right. That’s about all there is to it, really. Vicdra is supposed to be in charge of finding homes, but he wanted to concentrate on coming up with plans that the others would accept. Get them to be a bit more adventurous. That’s when he asked me to come in.”
“What kind of adventurous?”
“Like … information smuggling adventurous. As in, the thing that Rytel’s best friends got executed for kind of adventurous.”
“That … can’t be going over well.”
“It really isn’t. He keeps talking about recruitment – they agree they should, but they can’t agree how …” Vanda ran a hand through her hair and blew out her cheeks. “Eventually, it got to the point where I was unsupervised most of the time. They left me to do everything, while they argue. So that’s why I had to ask you for that favour. I just … I can’t do everything on my own.”
Wilom nodded. “I see. Well, if you ever need me, even just to complain, I’m happy to listen.”
“Thanks. I hope you don’t get offended if I say that I really hope I never need to take you up on that.”
“No offense taken at all. I wish you the best of luck with it.”
Vanda looked around. “Well, this is your stop,” she said.
“Thanks. I’ll see you soon.” Wilom rubbed his eyes. “Looks like I should send a few letters. I’ve got some appointments to make.