In the morning, Cathlin seemed to have forgotten their awkward conversation, or at least had not held Wilom’s answers against him. Wilom decided to continue as normal until he had confirmed that something had gone wrong. He had coffee with Marc, as usual, and looked at the newspaper without having the heart to read it. At least Peggy was off the front page now.
Perhaps it was best that he go and visit the people in the storage closet. He could do it without being seen, even without Vanda, he was confident of that.
He brought his bag with him as usual, walking along the street just like an ordinary day at the office.
It had taken him a long time to get used to the idea that people wouldn’t always be watching in the city, just like it had taken him a long time to get used to walking past people he didn’t recognise every day. The last time he’d seen someone on the street spare him so much as a second glance was when he’d been walking to the tram from Mr Treene’s house, a little the worse for wine, and a young couple had watched him stagger against a wall. They’d lost interest as soon as he’d walked away.
He turned down an alleyway like a man taking a shortcut, listening and looking around without moving his head too much.
Nobody was watching, so he slipped down the grate and into the tunnels.
When he reached the door, he stopped. The door had been left wide open. The room was empty.
He felt too cold to panic at first. For a moment, he looked around the room, like they might have been hiding in the shadows for some prank. Perhaps he had the wrong room?
But no – he knew this tunnel. He knew the intersections of the pipes and the wiring in the roof. This was the correct place, and the correct door.
Panic wasn’t helpful, he told himself. Panic would get him nowhere. At the very least, he still had to get out of the tunnels unnoticed.
He walked in mostly-random directions until he found another grate, checked that he was in an alleyway, and climbed out.
Halfway out of the grate, he realised that he hadn’t actually checked for people, but the street was deserted anyway. He cursed himself for the oversight, but not for long. There were other things to think about, and more than enough of them.
Coffee shop, he decided. Coffee shop and notebook, and then he would let himself think about what had just happened.
Before he got more than a street away, though, he ran into Vanda. He didn’t know whether she’d arrived in the street before him and was waiting, or whether she had happened to spot him from the Pathways. Either way, she was red in the face, and obviously just catching her breath.
“I hoped I’d catch you here,” she said. “You leave Cathlin’s house at an inconveniently early time, you know that?”
“There’s nobody in the room,” Wilom said.
“See also: Inconveniently early,” Vanda said, pushing her hair back from her face. “Let me buy you tea to make up for the scare, and I’ll explain everything.”
“You took them,” Wilom said, taking her hand and stepping into the Pathways with her.
“I did,” Vanda said. “It was getting too dangerous.”
“Well, I’m glad they’re alright, at least. You might have told me before, though.”
“I would have, if you weren’t an early riser!”
Wilom paused. “You decided to do it this morning, didn’t you?”
Vanda hesitated, then nodded. “Yes. Yes, it was a bit sudden.”
Wilom chuckled. He was starting to feel the relief spreading through his chest, making him feel lighter, almost jovial. “Just like you,” he said.
“I was on my way to find you and let you know,” Vanda said, a little grumpily. “Don’t blame me because you got ahead of yourself.”
“I get ahead of myself all the time,” Wilom said. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever been ahead of you.”
“Don’t keep count,” Vanda said. “I don’t want to know how high that number gets.”
“Not high, I’m guessing,” Wilom said.
“We’re probably immortal,” Vanda reminded him. “You’ll have an awfully long time to rack up points.”
“Like a bird sharpening his beak on the mountain,” Wilom said.
They arrived at the tea shop, and Wilom smiled and remembered the waitress by name, which shocked her rather more than he thought was warranted when she brought the menus.
Vanda gave him an odd look. “You’ve met her before?”
“We come here a lot,” Wilom said.
“She’s new,” Vanda pointed out.
“No, she’s not.”
“She had a ‘Trainee’ badge.”
“Oh,” Wilom said. “She did, didn’t she. Sorry.”
He heard Vanda take a breath like she was about to speak, but then she let it out again, and said, “Not a green tea today.”
“No,” Wilom agreed. “I might have a smoked tea.”
They studied the menus in silence for a moment, and placed their orders when the waitress came back. Wilom chose a smoked black tea for no particular reason other than the name sounded good. Vanda chose an afternoon blend that she’d had a couple of times before, after an extra minute of deliberation. Wilom noticed that the waitress gave him an odd look as she left. She was trying to place where she might have seen him before.
He nearly made a comparison to how Peggy had reacted, but quickly banished the thought from his mind. It seemed dangerous even to think about Peggy at the moment, as if just by thinking her name, he could call the authorities down on her.
“There’s something going on, isn’t there?” Vanda said quietly after a moment.
“Probably,” he said. “I mean, there had to be something, right?”
“Not so long ago, you were real excited about the Ferryman’s Knowledge.”
“I suppose,” Wilom said.
“I don’t know. It just doesn’t … seem right.”
“Please. Someone’s name? That’s hardly -”
Wilom shook his head. “That’s not what I mean. I mean, yes, it feels a little voyeuristic sometimes, but that’s not the problem. Not the main one.”
“What is it, then?”
Their tea was brought then, and the pause was nearly enough for Wilom to decide not to answer the question after all, but before he could come up with a deflection, he found himself saying, “I just don’t feel like the ferryman. You know?”
Vanda finished pouring her tea, and gave him a very long look. “You aren’t the ferryman,” she said. “I mean, not all the ferrymen are the same. I’m nothing like the lighthouse keeper, and I still use the Pathways.”
“Hm. I did ask the ferryman once whether all the ferrymen were like him.”
“What did he say?”
“He asked me what I meant by that.”
Vanda snorted. “Of course he did.”
“I suppose all he really told me about it was that they’re all the sort of people who like to help people without wanting a reward for it.”
“Is that what’s bothering you?” Vanda said. “Wilom, if that’s the only requirement, then you’re there already.”
“Not really,” Wilom said. “But I’ll concede the point. I just … I still feel like there’s something missing, you know?” Some sort of catch, Wilom thought. He was getting used to the ferryman’s straightforward things having catches in them.
“More like there’s something there that shouldn’t be,” Vanda said. “You’ve still got a sense of humour.”
“Oh, the ferryman has one of those,” Wilom said.
“Really? I’ve never heard him make a joke ever.”
“The longer I think about it, the more jokes I realise he made.”
They drank their tea for a moment. Wilom put his tea back down on the saucer, and said, “So, where are they now?”
Vanda scratched the back of her neck. “I found an old abandoned farm out of town. It’s not good for a long time, but they’ll be alright there for a few days until we find somewhere better.”
“They need somewhere better than the tunnels, anyway Too many people come through.”
Vanda nodded. “Agreed.”
Wilom sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “Alright, I’ll try and think of something,” he said.
“We both will,” Vanda said.
There was a long silence while they sipped their tea.
“Don’t worry,” Wilom said. “We’ll figure it out. They’ll be alright.”
“You know me, I don’t do stress,” Vanda said, looking up with a forced grin. “I just take it one day at a time, as always.”
“Good idea,” Wilom said. “I think I need to try that. Any tips?”
“Lots of tea,” Vanda said. “Lots and lots of tea.”