Vanda didn’t appear the next day, but the day after. She found Wilom in their usual tea shop. In a moment, they were above ground, then there was a brief impression of the city, and then the countryside. They weren’t walking for very long before they arrived at the lighthouse. Vanda pulled Wilom around the side of the tower, and suddenly they were standing in the lighthouse keeper’s living room, where he was just putting on the kettle.
“You really need to teach me that one,” Wilom said. “So much better than the stairs.”
“Hello, Vanda. Wilom. What kind of tea?”
“Jasmine,” Vanda said, with a glance at Wilom. “Please.”
The lighthouse keeper nodded and began to brew the tea as Vanda and Wilom took their seats, one on either arm of the lighthouse keeper’s second armchair.
Nobody said anything until the lighthouse keeper put the cups in their hands.
“So, have you both been well?” he asked.
“Well enough,” Wilom said. “You?”
“It has been busy. War seems designed to get people lost.”
“We’re here because we need to ask you something,” Vanda said.
The lighthouse keeper chuckled. “And straight to business. What do you need?”
Wilom sighed. His turn, he supposed. “It’s about the Ferryman’s Knowledge,” he said.
“Ah. I seem to recall you coming by with a question about that before.”
“Yes. Well, I think I have a better idea of the question this time.”
The lighthouse keeper nodded slowly. Vanda sipped her tea. Wilom fiddled with the handle of his mug.
“Well, the ferryman has never been known for his flexibility,” the lighthouse keeper said. “Nor for explaining things particularly well.”
Vanda made a small noise into her teacup. The lighthouse keeper carried on as if he hadn’t heard.
“But there is always a way. When we’ve finished our tea, I will come down with you.”
“Thanks,” Wilom said. “You’ve probably known him longer …”
“And I know the rules better?”
Wilom glanced over at Vanda. “Yeah, exactly.”
The lighthouse keeper just finished his tea, without saying another word. Wilom quickly drained his cup, and then they went down to see the ferryman.
As always, he was waiting for them on the river, standing in his boat, with the pole resting on the gunwale.
“Good to see you again,” he greeted them. “Vanda. I wasn’t expecting you to come through this way.”
Vanda smiled, only a little insincerely. “Well, there are only so many ways one can die.”
The ferryman turned to Wilom. “I think,” he said, “you have something to ask.”
Wilom nodded, and took a breath. “Look, um.” He walked over and sat on the edge of the boat, as a way of stalling. “I need to talk to you. About the Ferryman’s Knowledge.”
The ferryman looked over his shoulder, at the bank.
“What, already?” the lighthouse keeper asked.
“It is a busy time,” the ferryman said. “But if you would like, Wilom, you could come with me, and we will discuss this on the way.”
Wilom glanced back at Vanda, who made a ‘your decision’ face at him.
He nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
A glance passed between the ferryman and the lighthouse keeper.
“Vanda and I will go back to the lighthouse,” the lighthouse keeper said. “We’ll entertain ourselves with a cup of tea and a little chat of our own.”
Wilom climbed into the boat, and the ferryman pushed off. They didn’t talk as they pulled up on the bank. Wilom went to hop out of the boat, but the ferryman put out his hand.
“I will collect this one,” he said. “It will not be easy.”
Wilom straightened a little. Time to take a risk, perhaps.
“No,” he said. “I’ll go.”
The ferryman moved his hand, and gestured for Wilom to go ahead.
A little way down the bank, Wilom found her. Or more accurately, she found him. He turned a corner around the rocks, and suddenly something hit him square in the mouth. He stumbled and saw stars for a moment, recovering just in time to push the second punch away.
“Good afternoon,” he said.
She squared her feet, but didn’t throw another punch, though. Her breathing was heavy, but steady.
“Are you a soldier?”
“You’re not the ferryman?” she asked. Wilom recognised the cadence of her speech — Inushi spoke the same way. He noticed her desperation, recognised that expression.
“No, I’m not. But I am working for him.” He braced himself as her fists clenched. “One question, before you hit me again.”
“What, exactly, were you planning on doing after you hit me?”
“You can’t run away, you can’t go back. It’s dangerous to stay here or run too far down the beach. Besides, eventually the ferryman will come anyway.”
She glanced around.
“You can hit me again if you like, and you can try running away, but I promise it won’t work. Or I can walk you to the boat now, and the whole experience will be nice for everyone.” After waiting a moment, when she didn’t answer, he chuckled. “I’d certainly prefer it to being hit again.” He held out his hand. “Are you ready?”
She took his hand and held it as he led her down the bank to the boat. They got in together, and sat on opposite ends of the same bench as the ferryman rowed them across.
She only glanced back once as she disappeared in the mist on the other side.
“Well done,” the ferryman said.
“Thanks. I’ve been practicing. With the Ferryman’s Knowledge. I need to talk to you about it.”
“I see. Are you ready to take the deal?”
“No,” Wilom said. “I want you to take it away.”
The hood turned to him and regarded him for a long time. “Why?”
“Because I don’t want to take the deal,” he said. “Not yet. I don’t like it, and I don’t like using it. I don’t choose to say the things I say anymore.”
“You do,” the ferryman said. “You always have a choice.”
“I don’t,” Wilom said. “I choose to let the Ferryman’s Knowledge decide – and sometimes it decides automatically. Sometimes I don’t even recall what I said afterwards. That’s not the kind of choice I want.”
“What happened, that you blame the Ferryman’s Knowledge for?”
Wilom had forgotten how much these conversations stung. “I think … I think I got someone killed.”
“Oh, good. She did come by you.”
“She would have come through one of us. That is how it works.”
“But … well, it seems odd to say it, but I’m glad it was you.”
“If it makes you feel better, I suppose there is no harm in it.”
Wilom decided to return to the topic he actually wanted to discuss – he didn’t have the energy to address that topic right now. “Well, never mind that. Can you take it away or can’t you?”
The hood moved from side to side slowly. “I cannot.”
Wilom put his head in his hands. “This is something else I never asked about, isn’t it?”
“That is correct.”
There was a long silence.
“Alright,” Wilom said. “You said I have a choice.”
“Does this mean I’ll get used to this? I’ll be able to catch it before I say things I don’t know I’m about to say?”
There was silence for a long time.
“It makes you feel uncomfortable,” the ferryman said.
“Of course it does! I don’t want to look at someone and know that they’re afraid of being fired, or they’re late for work, or they’re looking forward to going home to their husband. I don’t have any right to know that.”
“The knowledge does no harm, correct?”
“I got Peggy killed!” Wilom said.
“It sounded as if she was drawing police attention to herself and you happened to be nearby at the time.”
“I as good as told them to take her away and kill her,” Wilom pressed.
“She told me what you said.”
“It was an awful thing to say.”
“She was not particularly happy about it.”
“But it seems to me as though it was the best option,” the ferryman said.
“Was it? It’s not like being arrested would have worried me much with Vanda there. We would have been with Peggy. We wouldn’t have gone to the Capital, and we would have been there in time to save her.”
“Perhaps that is also true,” the ferryman said.
“That’s not good enough,” Wilom said.
The ferryman didn’t respond.
“It’s good enough for the River,” Wilom said, “We don’t have to make the same kind of decisions on the River.”
“And yet, the Ferryman’s Knowledge has been helpful to you outside the River as well. Hasn’t it?”
“I …” Wilom paused. “Yes.”
“Then there you are. It is like any other skill you have learned. Use it wisely and it will help. You will get better with it in time.”
Wilom got up and stepped out of the boat onto the soft not-sand, feeling it under his shoes, an odd sensation but nevertheless very familiar.
“Thank you,” Wilom said.
“You are welcome. I hope this conversation has helped.”
Wilom took a deep breath and let it out again. “I think so. At the very least, I got some things off my chest.”
“I am glad. I trust I will see you again.”
“I’ll come back to visit,” Wilom promised.
Back in the lighthouse, Wilom arrived at the top of the stairs just as Vanda was finishing her tea.
“Good timing,” Vanda said, putting her mug down and standing up.
The lighthouse keeper sipped his tea and put his mug aside. “Well, if you say we’re finished, I suppose we are. And how was your conversation, Wilom?”
Wilom got the distinct feeling that he had interrupted something, but Vanda seemed eager to leave, so he didn’t offer to leave them for a moment. “It was … necessary.”
“I would offer tea, but I think Vanda might fidget her sleeve to death if I did. I hope we shall see each other again soon.”
Once the lighthouse keeper had showed them downstairs, Vanda took Wilom’s hand and led him into the Pathways.
“You seemed keen to get out of there,” Wilom said.
“He always makes me fidgety,” Vanda said. “What about you?”
Wilom sighed. “Nothing to be done,” he said. “I just … get used to it.”
“What did you want out of it?” Vanda asked quietly.
Wilom shook his head. “I don’t know. I thought I wanted one thing, maybe I just wanted to talk it through with him. Maybe I wanted him to tell me he’d been wrong not telling me about it before it happened.”
“He should have warned you,” Vanda said. “I learned about the Pathways long before I could ever use them. Well, beyond that one Pathway on the River.”
“I never asked,” Wilom said.
“You never asked? You say that all the time, but I’m not buying it. How were you supposed to know to ask?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think about things very deeply at all. Maybe if I’d stopped to think a little more, I’d have wondered. I knew he always knew names and how to say the right thing, but I never asked him how. Maybe if I had, he would have told me.”
Vanda shook her head. “You put up with much more than I could. I think if I’d been apprenticed to the ferryman, I’d have pushed him in the River a long time ago.”
Wilom couldn’t help chuckling at that mental image. “Maybe that’s why you ended up with the lighthouse keeper. I think the lighthouse keeper occasionally has the urge to push the ferryman in the River, too.”
Vanda pulled them out of the Pathways and into the suburbs near Marc’s house.
“You should get back,” Vanda said. “It’s nearly dinnertime.”
“Wilom,” Vanda said, suddenly. “I need to talk to the Heads the day after tomorrow. Maybe you and I can meet up after that.”
“That sounds good.”
Vanda fidgeted. “Well,” she said. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Sure. Is everything alright? You look like you want to say something.”
Vanda took a deep breath. “It’s so inconvenient when people know me. Look. I don’t think you’d be unreasonable if you didn’t like that the ferryman hadn’t told you. And I don’t think it’s entirely your fault for not asking. You need to give yourself a little bit more credit.”
Wilom nodded. “Thanks. I think I need to process it for a while.”
“Alright. Just as long as you don’t entirely blame yourself. He really didn’t tell you enough, you know. It’s not really fair to you.”
“Thank you. I’ll … try to keep that in mind.”
Wilom went back into Marc’s house, greeted Cathlin, and offered to make dinner so that he didn’t have to think too much about what had happened that day.