Wilom looked blearily at his letter-paper, tapping the base of his pen on the table next to him.
So many letters. Wilom silently thanked his sister for making him write her letters of credit and introduction to practice his handwriting. He might not have a businesslike bone in his body, but he could fake it enough for a formal letter when he needed to.
Not that anyone had been answering his letters. Despite what the ledger said, the Heads obviously weren’t owed many favours. Wilom put his pen down and scratched his forehead. At the moment, all he had was Mr Treene, and he wasn’t sure that was a good thing. At this rate, he’d have to just start knocking on doors and hoping for abandoned houses.
“Coffee? Never figured you for a coffee drinker.”
“Hey, Vanda,” Wilom said, without looking up.
“What? I thought you were concentrating!”
“Concentrating on how much I don’t want to do this, maybe. And I’ll have you know I’m rather fond of my morning coffee.”
“Huh. Well, colour me surprised. Well, come to think of it, I shouldn’t really be surprised. What’s going on in the world of Wilom today?”
“Nothing much. Letters.”
“Perfect. You’ve got time for a walk, then.”
“I see.” Wilom downed the rest of his coffee, tucked the letter paper inside his folder, and picked up his bag. “Alright,” he said. “Where are we going?”
Vanda frowned at him. “Are you alright?”
“Sure. Peachy. Why?”
“Well, put up a fight, why don’t you?”
Wilom tried to grin roguishly. “Maybe I’m in the mood for adventure.”
Vanda chuckled. “Afraid we’re fresh out of that. I used up all the adventure when we decided to join a people smuggling ring.”
“I’m sure you didn’t,” Wilom said. “The world hasn’t run out of wild animals to poke yet, surely.”
“Well, if we find one, I’ll let you know so you can get a stick.”
Wilom closed the door to the coffee shop behind them gently and stretched in the cool afternoon air.
“Nice day for it,” he said.
“Exactly. Come on.”
“Just to the checkpoint, though,” Wilom said, taking her offered hand.
“I like keeping up with the checkpoint guards.”
“Oh. Alright, then.”
Vanda led Wilom to the checkpoint, where he got his papers stamped by Ed, citing an ‘afternoon jaunt’. Ed wished him a good afternoon and let him go.
Vanda joined him again on the other side of the gate. The guards didn’t pay her a jot of attention.
“They trust you,” she said. Wilom couldn’t tell whether that sounded like an accusation or not.
“I came past a lot when I worked on the farm,” Wilom said. “They’re just people. I’m familiar, and they don’t seem to have much of a problem if you answer their questions, unless you mention Marclorn.”
“I suppose,” Vanda said.
“Not really. Just … it might be nice.”
“If you went through as often as me, you’d be …”
“Recognised,” Vanda interrupted. “I’d be recognised.”
Wilom shrugged. “I guess that’s true. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”
“Maybe. If I were you.”
“Har har, so funny.” Wilom hesitated. “Not a lot of people to spend time with?” he guessed.
“What, you don’t think your illustrious presence is enough?”
“Don’t feel bad. I always remind myself I could be talking to the lighthouse keeper and suddenly you seem like a great option.”
Wilom gave her a shove. “Every time I think you might actually like me …”
Vanda chuckled. “Why wouldn’t I? Everyone else seems to.”
“I practiced being agreeable for eighty years,” Wilom pointed out. “Knowing the lighthouse keeper, the only training you got was in being contrary.”
“Oh, hush. Besides, from the sounds of what you’ve told me, the ferryman didn’t exactly teach you a lot, either.”
Wilom was about to protest – after all, he could see how far he’d come in the ferryman’s care, but Vanda was sort of right. He knew … how not to be a disagreeable child. But there really hadn’t been anything else.
But then … Peggy. The image of the bakery from the day before.
“Actually,” Wilom said. “You know how the lighthouse keeper taught you to do that thing, where you travel quickly and without being seen?”
“The Pathways, yeah? Have you finally gotten the ferryman to open up about something to do with his job?”
“Not as such. It’ll take a better person than me to figure out the right person that quickly. No, I’ve just been … noticing. You know Margaret? You brought her in last time?”
“I know her,” Vanda said, slightly shortly.
Wilom decided he’d ask about that later. Vanda would tell him if she wanted to talk about it. “I called her Peggy.”
Vanda nodded. “And … that was a good thing, apparently?”
“She never told me her nickname was Peggy. But apparently it is. And I called her that on reflex.”
“Oh,” Vanda said. “I guess that makes sense. Figures that’d be the ferryman’s power.”
“I call it the Ferryman’s Knowledge. To myself, at least,” Wilom said. “Names aren’t the only thing I just know about, either. But I’m still working on controlling it.”
“Me, too, don’t worry. That’s good, though!”
“I think it’ll really come in useful,” Wilom said. “You know, given what we’re trying to do.”
Vanda smiled, and looked at him sideways. “You’re really happy about this, aren’t you? You look so relieved.”
“Yes, I rather think I am. So, what exactly are we on this walk for, anyway?”
Vanda shrugged. “Smelling the roses, figuratively. Work has me walking through the countryside all the time, but I’m never allowed to just stop and enjoy any of it,” Vanda said. “I thought it’d be nice to take the time and just enjoy it.”
“And you invited me because …?”
“What, did you really think I’d go alone and just look at the scenery? I’d be bored stiff. Bored worse than stiff – bored solid!”
Wilom laughed. “Good to see you’re self-aware at least. Anything you want to talk about?”
“Anything but work. As long as the conversation takes more than three hours. I’m not going back into the city before three hours are up.”
Wilom hesitated. “One question about work?”
“No. I appreciate it, but no.”
“Alright, then.” Wilom hesitated. “Lighthouse keeper, or the Heads?”
“That’s a question, Wilom.”
Wilom sighed. “Sorry. Just trying to calibrate my companionable silences.”
Vanda wrinkled her nose. “Both. Everything.”
“Gotcha. Companionable silence numbers three through five it is.”
“Can I opt for distracting jokes number six through eight instead?”
“Sure. Coming right up.”
On the way back into town, Wilom was stopped as he entered the Capital, as usual.
“Evening, Vi,” Wilom said as he handed his papers over.
She squinted at him, then recognition dawned. “Oh! Sorry, Wilom. Gosh, it’s been a while!”
“It has,” Wilom agreed. “I’m not working on that farm anymore.”
“Shame. Seemed like a good place to be.”
“Yeah,” Wilom said.
Behind him, someone approached the gate on the other side.
Vi glanced over Wilom’s papers. “Well, nothing’s changed much. Where have you been?”
“Just went on a walk to see a friend outside town.”
“Oh, lovely. How were they?”
“It was good to catch up.”
Behind him, papers rustled.
Vi stamped Wilom’s papers. “That’s fine. Have a good evening.”
“You, too,” Wilom said, but loitered just past the gate to listen to the other conversation.
“Just to get here.”
“Nothing outside the country?”
“Sir, would you mind coming this way for a moment?”
The man waiting to get into the gate wrapped his hands around his elbows. “What’s wrong?”
“Just a few routine questions, sir, nothing to worry about.”
“Why? What have I done?”
“Nothing, sir, as far as I know. It just says you have family from Marclorn.”
“My grandmother? She hasn’t been to Marclorn in decades!”
“Then there’s nothing to worry about. Please come with me. It’s only a few questions.”
The guard led the man away.
Wilom shuddered, and turned to Vanda. “Can you…?” he started.
Vanda, looking resolutely at the ground beyond the booth, shook her head. “Even if the guard stopped watching him long enough, he’d still have just disappeared. Do you know how much they’d increase the guards around the area? Can you imagine the patrols? Our work would be impossible.”
Wilom nodded. “Must be serious, if it’s got even you taking the sensible path.”
“Yeah. Besides, word would get out that political prisoners can just disappear. That wouldn’t end well.”
“I guess not.”
“I’ll keep an eye,” Vanda said. “Maybe if I can wrangle it, we’ll see him in the tunnels soon.”
“I hope so,” Wilom said.
“Alright. Time for you to get home, I think,” Vanda said. “Or at least back to your letters.”
“It is,” Wilom said. “You?”
“Heading off,” Vanda said. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Got some people new for you. Hope you like a challenge.”
“Alright. Sounds like fun.”
Vanda melted away into thin air. Wilom didn’t think he’d ever get used to her just disappearing like that.
Inside the guard’s booth, a heated argument started. Wilom shoved his hands in his pockets and walked away before he started to look too suspicious.