When Wilom woke up the next morning, Jilli and Marc were playing with toys in the living room. He poured coffee from the pot Marc had left out and watched them for a moment, until Marc looked up.
“Morning,” he said. “Sleep well?”
“Yeah,” Wilom said. “How come you’re home today, Jilli?”
Jilli shrugged. “Mama said I had to stay home.”
“Remember, we organised for Sarit to come over, and if you went with Mum, you wouldn’t be home in time to see her,” Marc told her. He looked up at Wilom and nodded at the newspaper on the table.
Wilom walked over and picked it up.
MARCLORN SPY MASTERMIND UNCOVERED
The search for wanted fugitive Margaret Stern ended last night with the discovery of the missing link to Marclorn intelligence brokering. While Ms Stern herself has not been captured, her link to the Marclorn leaders was apprehended with a letter bearing news of a sensitive nature, which thankfully did not end up in the hands of its intended recipients.
Wilom skimmed the next few lines. Vague reference to persons unidentified, contents might pose unspecified danger if released, police requested no details be released to the paper as a precautionary measure …
The execution has been scheduled for this afternoon. Citizens are reminded that there is no reason to panic, as all evidence at this time points to a small and isolated incident, though of course the police are still vigilant …
Wilom put the newspaper down, certain that there were, in fact, several reasons to panic, and gave Marc a quick nod.
Likely nothing would happen should Cathlin take Jilli out with her today. But he understood entirely why she wasn’t willing to.
Wilom finished his coffee in a few scalding gulps. “I have to get to work,” he said, and walked out the door.
Vanda was already waiting outside the door. Her face was dark.
Wilom did not suggest that they go and get tea. Instead, he asked, “Who is she?”
“Not who they say she is,” Vanda said. “Other than that, I don’t know.”
“How do you know?”
Vanda stopped walking and stepped away from Wilom, eyes hardening. Wilom held up his hands. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. “I don’t doubt you, I only wanted to know how.”
Vanda looked away, nodded and caught up with Wilom. “Sorry,” she said. “I know because I went to talk to her, last night after the trial. She can’t read or write. So they asked her who gave her the letter, but she didn’t know. Now they’re executing her.”
Wilom put his hand around Vanda’s shoulders. She headbutted his shoulder, and then reached her hand around behind his back, resting it on his arm.
“Where are we going?” Wilom asked.
“We’re going to the execution,” Vanda said. “Where else?”
It was not what Wilom had imagined at all. On the River, he’d heard a few of these public executions described by people as they came through. They had always talked about the people, the eyes on them, and the awful noise of the hangman behind them, checking all the mechanisms to ensure their clean death.
Somehow, those descriptions had gotten tangled up in Wilom’s brain with the stories from the protestors, and he’d ended up imagining something raucous, with people shouting at the stand and a clanking mechanism buried somewhere under the platform. He didn’t even know what the mechanism was for, just that people tended to comment on how loud it was.
But the crowd was quiet, except for a few whispered conversations. Vanda wove her way through the gathered people until they were near the front. From here, Wilom could see clear underneath the stand, where the only mechanism was some sort of hinge and a lever on top of the platform. The woman to be executed was walked through the crowd, hands tied. Her head was down, and it was obvious that she was crying.
Vanda gripped Wilom’s hand tight, and he returned the squeeze.
The hangman stood her up on the platform and checked the mechanism behind her. From where Wilom and Vanda were standing, it might as well have been silent.
It was like a ritual from one of Wilom’s old serials. The woman stood shaking as the noose was lowered around her neck, the knot positioned. The hangman moved her to the right place, checked the lever, and asked her if she had any last words.
Wilom could feel the strain in the air as the silence stretched out, the hangman waiting for her to speak.
It isn’t fair.
It was as good as a real voice to Wilom, clear as if it was shouted. He expected her to say it at any moment, but she didn’t move.
The hangman stopped waiting for her. “For the crimes of treason, intent to sedition, and theft of classified documents, you are sentenced to be hanged, your body to be buried in public ground, your remains to be marked with only your name and this date.”
The hangman walked to the lever, and grabbed the handle.
The woman turned, eyes wide. “Wait!”
And then she dropped.
Wilom and Vanda stayed long enough to watch them take the body down and away, but no longer. As they walked into the Pathways, Wilom said, “Her last words were ‘it wasn’t fair’.”
Vanda looked over her shoulder at him. “She’s right. It wasn’t. How do you know? In the same sense as you asked me before.”
“She wanted to say it, very much.”
“But she didn’t get to,” Vanda said. She turned back, looking the way they were headed.
“She will,” Wilom said.
“Not to the people who need to hear it.”
“Maybe right now, it matters more that she gets to say it,” Wilom suggested. “There are plenty of people who are willing to say it wasn’t fair.”
Vanda stepped out of the Pathways and dropped Wilom’s hand. “You sound like the ferryman,” she said.
Wilom hesitated. “That sounded like an accusation.”
“Maybe it was. I don’t know. I just don’t see the point of taking the long view on this one. She was innocent, and now she’s dead.”
Vanda still wasn’t facing Wilom. Her hands were clenched at her sides.
Wilom put his hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it away. “We’re at Marc’s,” Vanda said. “I’ll see you later.”
Wilom nodded. “Tea is my shout next time,” he said.
Wilom got back before Marc, but after Cathlin. Jilli wasn’t home, as far as he could tell.
Cathlin sat at the table with a cup of coffee, from a pot that still steamed. A newspaper lay, front page down, on the opposite end of the table.
“Afternoon,” she said, as Wilom entered.
“Afternoon. Is there still coffee?”
“Been that sort of day, has it?”
“Well, a little. For you?”
Cathlin sighed. “Yes. I left Jilli at a friend’s house.”
“She must be fairly thrilled about that.”
“Are you kidding? It was like her birthday had come early.”
Wilom chuckled and sat down opposite Cathlin. “To be fair, I saw her react that way the other day when she found a cricket shell in the back yard.”
“I know — at least she’ll never lack for entertainment.”
“That’s the truth.” Wilom paused to drink some coffee. “Got turned down again?” he asked.
Cathlin’s hands tensed, and she started playing with her coffee mug – Wilom assumed to stop herself clenching her fists. “Not just turned down. Turned down would imply I could even find a place to make an offer on.”
Wilom nodded. “It’s tough right now.”
“I’ll say. I don’t know how you did it – you just walk into the Capital and get not one job, but two?”
Oh. Wilom inspected his coffee mug while he thought of a reply. “You’ll find one, too. Starting a business is harder than just finding a job.”
“What, and you don’t think I’ve been trying to get a job working for someone else, too? I’m not an idiot, I know I might not get this business working. There’s just too much competition for jobs. I can’t decide whether you were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, or…”
“It’s definitely that,” Wilom said. “I’ve been a ferryman’s apprentice since I was seventeen. In the city, that’s not a qualification, that’s an elaborate waste of time.”
Cathlin chuckled, but Wilom got the feeling that everything he said was just making her feel worse. Even if his work had been legitimate, he only had it because of Vanda. He wished he could have offered Cathlin a job as well.
“But we all knew I would have some hard days before I had any easier ones,” Cathlin said abruptly. “What about you?”
“Not really hard,” Wilom said. “Just long. I’m still having trouble learning this job.”
Cathlin made a small noise into her cup of coffee. “Really?”
“Well, I’ve never done anything even remotely similar.”
“You strike me as a quick learner.”
I know a couple of lessons that took me decades, Wilom thought, and tried to keep the smile off his face. “Not always. I’m thicker than people give me credit for.”
Cathlin put her coffee down forcefully. She immediately turned a shade of pink, but Wilom pretended he hadn’t noticed and didn’t say anything.
“Well, I suppose it’s my turn to make dinner,” Cathlin said shortly.
“And mine to clean the bathroom and laundry. I’ll start work on that, or I’ll have to do it after dinner, and then I’ll just complain all evening.”
“Alright. Pasta OK?”
“Sounds great.” Wilom took that as his cue to depart the room, and stop digging this hole any deeper.