The morning passed quietly. Wilom once again had the house to himself, and he put off leaving the kitchen bench and the cup of coffee Marc made for him for as long as possible. When he finally worked up the energy to leave the house, he found that Vanda was waiting for him.
“Oh, Vanda,” Wilom said. “Tea?”
“Not right now,” Vanda said. “We need to talk.”
“Without tea? Must be serious,” Wilom said, with a slight grin.
Vanda managed a half a grin back at him, but didn’t rise to his banter. “Come into the Pathways; we need to keep this quiet.”
Wilom took her hand and let her draw him forward a few steps, until his eyes started to itch and the street became somehow sharper and more indistinct at the same time.
Wilom found that he had a sudden, strange feeling that there was nobody on the street with them. He glanced around. No, he could see them, the figures walking past, if he really concentrated. But they seemed to have no presence.
He realised it after a moment. He couldn’t use the Ferryman’s Knowledge in the Pathways. He couldn’t feel any of the people walking past. He wondered if this was what it had felt like before he took on his apprenticeship, and how he’d ever stood to live like that.
Vanda was grinning at him, with about half her usual enthusiasm. “It looks pretty cool, doesn’t it?”
“It’s strange,” Wilom admitted.
“You’ve been in the Pathways before,” Vanda said.
“Only ever travelling,” Wilom said. “They look different when you stand still.”
“I suppose. Listen – we have to do something about Peggy.”
Wilom looked up. “What? I thought you’d gotten her away?”
“I did. I got her safely to the coast, where she’d be away from the police. But she’s attracting attention again.”
“Attracting attention?” Wilom asked. “What do you mean?”
“It’s Peggy. What do you think it means?”
“Sorry,” Wilom said again. He’d known that, on reflection. “It’s hard to concentrate in here.”
“Come on, then,” Vanda said, grabbing his wrist. “I need you thinking straight.”
They came out of the pathways in a little shack a few seconds later, so far out of town that Wilom could only see the smoke on the horizon. Vanda sat on a table and crossed her legs over each other.
“Better?” she asked.
Wilom nodded. “Better.” Funny how distracting the lack of something could be.
“Right. Well, I went there. I heard people talking about her. I went to one of her speeches.”
“The police are listening, then,” Wilom guessed.
“Not just the police,” Vanda said. “Everyone is listening. She’s like the family day out down there, except that people don’t tend to let their kids listen in.”
“Yeah,” Wilom said. “But are they listening to her, or are they listening to her?”
“I don’t know,” Vanda said. “They turn up, they listen, how am I supposed to know whether they agree or not?”
Wilom opened his mouth to pose a question about the atmosphere of the crowd, but … was that just something he could do? Before his apprenticeship, he’d thought he could read a crowd fairly well. But now … the Ferryman’s Knowledge called everything he’d ever thought was normal into question.
Instead, he said, “Well, even if none of them are actually listening, the Government still won’t like it.”
“Exactly. I need you to come down with me.”
Wilom nodded. “When?”
“Alright. Can we get back before about 5, or do I need to make up an excuse for Marc and Cathlin?”
“We’ll be back in time,” Vanda said. “This shouldn’t take more than an hour or two.”
“Let’s go, then,” Wilom said.
Vanda took his hand and they started walking.
“Thanks,” Vanda said.
“No problem,” Wilom said.
“No, really – thank you. I’m always a bit surprised when you just agree to skip town with me.”
“We’re hardly skipping town. It’s only for the afternoon.”
“Still. Not many people would just … decide to leave like this.”
“What else is there to do this afternoon?”
Vanda shrugged. “Guess there’s not been much for you to do since this whole … thing.”
Wilom shook his head. “Not much, no.”
There was silence for a moment, then Vanda said, “So … how long until it counts as ‘skipping town’?”
“Last time I checked, overnight.”
“What do you mean, checked?”
“Uh, trial and error. With experimental feedback from my aunt and uncle. And most of the rest of the town.”
Vanda was silent for a moment, then she said, “Well, at least you got a good sample size.”
Wilom opened his mouth to say something, to apologise for making it awkward, but Vanda announced that they had arrived, and Wilom realised that they had stepped out of the Pathways and into a town square.
In the centre of the Town Square, Peggy was standing on a crate obviously either donated or lifted from a general store, and shouting to the crowd.
Vanda was right – Peggy had managed to gather most of the town. Wilom took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and waited for the Ferryman’s Knowledge to supply more information.
“They say there was an execution in the Capital,” Peggy was saying, hitting one fist in her other hand to emphasise her words. “And when did we see a single photograph in the newspapers? When they executed the General and her troop, the photograph of Death Row was a double-page spread! And yet, for a confirmed traitor, an execution report and nothing else?”
In the crowd, Wilom sensed fear. Trepidation. A little awe from some. Some were there just for the spectacle, certainly. But some – more than a few, though it was impossible to tell exactly how many – agreed. They were listening because they wanted her to help them do something about it. Not just stand and talk to them, take the next step.
“And besides that – the Hangman’s Tales and tabloids haven’t given a single verifiable account of the hanging – except for this!” Peggy knelt and picked up a newspaper, slightly crumpled and distorted from where it had obviously sat on a dewy lawn that morning. She slapped the paper with the back of her hand. “And it mentions no names! They execute a traitor and never listed her name? I don’t think so.”
Vanda nudged Wilom.
“What is it? What can you tell?”
“They’re listening-listening. At least some of them are.”
“Can you tell how many?”
“No. But enough, I think. A lot.”
“Shit. You have to help me convince her to stop.”
Wilom nodded. “Alright,” he said. He didn’t know how, but Vanda was right – they had to.
As if on cue, a pair of uniformed officers came pressing their way through the crowd, toward Peggy.
“Alright,” one of them said, holding a hand up. “That’s about enough for the day.”
Peggy gave an aggrieved sigh, and allowed herself to be pulled off the box. As soon as she was on the ground, she shook off the police officer, saying something indignant. She called louder, “You heard them! Go on home! Wouldn’t want to disturb the peace.”
The police officers hung around until the crowd was mostly cleared, then with a parting shove to the shoulder, they indicated that Peggy should go on home herself.
After the crowd was cleared and the officers had headed off, Peggy ran up to Vanda and Wilom.
“I saw you watching!” she said. “Vanda, do you believe me now? They’re really listening to me, aren’t they?”
Vanda glanced at Wilom. “Yeah,” Wilom said. “Yeah, they are.”
Peggy frowned, then laughed nervously. “What’s with that face?”
“Those officers don’t seem happy,” Wilom said.
“You’re one to talk. You’d get much worse if you were caught. Besides, I think they agree. They never do more than see me off.”
“For now,” Vanda said. “You’ve started to cause a stir in the Capital, you know.”
“Good!” Peggy said. “As well we ought!”
Wilom’s unease turned to dread. “We?”
“We,” Peggy said. “Yes, we. Remember, back when we first met, and I asked you if there was anything I could do to help? Well, I found something I can do! You two keep working in the Capital, and I’ll work out here. We might be able to make them spread their police force too thin. Vanda can travel when we need to get messages – she’s good at getting through checkpoints without being noticed.”
“They set those checkpoints up because of you!” Vanda said. “Because they were looking for you!”
Peggy shrugged. “Well, you got me to the Coast past them, that’s what matters. And while they’re paying attention to me, they can’t be paying attention to you and your movements in the Capital.”
“They are,” Wilom said. “We had to move everyone.”
“Oh, you should have told me,” Peggy said. “Let me distract them. I think I know who to talk to around here, and we can work out something together, right? Where do we need to move them to?”
Vanda shook her head.
Wilom sensed that he ought to say something here, but he didn’t have any idea what it was. He relaxed and let the Ferryman’s Knowledge do his talking for him.
“There aren’t enough of us, Peggy. Three people in two cities can’t spread thin an entire country’s police force. Much more of this and they’ll be on high alert, too. You won’t survive that plan.”
Peggy frowned. “I won’t survive it? Do you think I would have offered to help you if I didn’t understand that already?”
Wilom shook his head. “That isn’t the point. This isn’t just about saving you, it’ll only be harder for the rest of us to –”
“Margaret Stern?” a voice asked from beside them.
Vanda and Wilom whirled around to see another pair of uniformed police officers, these ones with the lapel badges and bright red epaulettes of the Capital police force.
“Margaret Stern, am I correct?” the officer repeated.
“Yes? What?” Peggy asked.
“We are here to arrest you. Your charges are treason, conspiracy to treason, public incitement, and resisting arrest. We are taking you to the Capital.”
Peggy looked back at Wilom and Vanda. “Please,” she said, shaking her head slightly. “Please tell me you didn’t bring them here.”
Vanda could only cough out a stunned “We … no!”
One of the officers cuffed Peggy and started drawing her away.
“Brought us here?” the other one asked, tone civil but eyes sharp. “Can you please explain your relationship to Ms Stern?”
Vanda opened her mouth. Peggy shouted, “Vanda! Wilom!”
Before he could think it through, Wilom cut across both of them, meeting the officer’s eyes calmly. “We came here to try and persuade her to stop,” he said. “We don’t think her speeches will do any good for the country.”
The officer studied his face briefly, then nodded. “Well, you needn’t worry about that anymore,” she said, tucking her pen and notebook back into her pocked. “We’re sorry to have alarmed you.”
“Wilom!” Peggy shrieked, and the police drew her away.
Vanda grabbed Wilom’s hand and drew him into the Pathways.
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