Wilom had honestly hoped that Vanda’s meeting with the Heads might have been moved forward, so that he didn’t have to wait another day to see her. Even if it was just to have a cup of tea and listen to her complain, he would have welcomed the company.
Instead, he had nothing to do but sit in a café with a notebook open uselessly in front of him, tapping his pen, and listening to everybody.
Every day he’d been using the Ferryman’s Knowledge, and every day it got harder and harder to put off. Every time he felt knowledge coming to him that he shouldn’t know, he could feel how wrong it was, like peeping into his parent’s room to listen to their conversations about him. But every time he tried to turn his mind away from it, it was only because he was turning towards someone else, and the whole process started again. He found himself obsessively going over his conversations with the cashier and the waiter – what did he remember? Had he given his order? Did he order milk and sugar?
The coffee came with milk on the side and sugar on the table, and Wilom realised that didn’t answer his question.
He stared at the plain black coffee and marshalled his thoughts. It had been so natural at the beginning – just giving him the answers he needed and nothing more. But now it felt so intrusive. Why couldn’t he go back to how it was in the beginning? What part of his mind held the problem – what thing was he doing wrong that was stopping him?
He tried to drink the coffee and found that he couldn’t stomach it. He wasted time by stirring it, and then just gave up and left it on the table in front of him.
He didn’t want to eat, either, but he needed an excuse for a simple conversation, and he hadn’t eaten all day.
He waved at the waitress, and she hurried over.
“Is the coffee alright?” she asked.
“Yes, perfect,” Wilom said, trying to both let the Ferryman’s Knowledge say it for him, and to control it. “Thank you. It’s only that I changed my mind – would you get me a menu, please? I think I’d like some food.”
“I’ll be back in half a tick,” she said.
Wilom felt an odd itch in the back of his throat. It hadn’t worked. The Ferryman’s Knowledge hadn’t taken over properly.
She returned with the menu, and he scanned it quickly. Hm. A toasted sandwich, perhaps? Or just a light salad. He felt he might only be able to stomach the salad.
He waited with the menu until she was done waiting tables, and headed back to him to take his …
It was then that he realised that the menu was gone, and she was bringing him a salad.
“Here you are. You enjoy that, now.”
“Thank you, I will,” Wilom said, and he didn’t know if he’d meant to say that, if it was simply a reflex response, or whether it was the Ferryman’s Knowledge again.
When she left, he put his head in his hands for a moment, then took a sip of his coffee, trying to push the thought of the Ferryman’s Knowledge out of his mind. He never wanted to get used to that feeling.
But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t turn his attention to anything else.
The next afternoon, Wilom waited at the café for Vanda to get back from her meeting. He was glad he’d arrived to kill some time practicing with the Ferryman’s Knowledge, because Vanda arrived much, much earlier than expected.
“Tea first,” Vanda said. “Then we’ll talk.
When the tea arrived, Vanda accepted it like it was a meal she’d been waiting days for, but then took her time swirling the leaves around in the pot, waiting for it to steep and pouring herself a cup.
“I had an argument with the Heads,” Vanda said, when she’d finally taken her first sip and put the cup down.
“What, all five at once? From what you tell me, that must have taken some effort.”
“A bad one, then?”
“I … may or may not have said some things that both really needed saying and really shouldn’t have been said.”
“Oh.” Wilom knew all about those. “And they took it …?”
Vanda shrugged. “Badly. Well. Maybe. I don’t know. I sort of walked out afterwards.”
“What exactly did you say?”
“I think I started off by saying there was no housing left in the city, and that we needed to think of other ideas … and then things sort of got worse until I called them a bunch of self-absorbed fools without spines or the stomachs for the work they claimed to be so absorbed in.”
Wilom nodded. “I’ve certainly said worse to people in my time.”
Vanda chuckled, and it came out high-pitched and throaty. “So have I. But I don’t think they’re likely to be so philosophical about it.”
“What do you think they’ll do?”
Vanda shrugged. “Stop inviting me to meetings.” She took a huge gulp of tea, grimaced, and topped up her cup. “Never get into contact with me again.”
“Not send you out to the front anymore,” Wilom pointed out.
Vanda set the cup down on the saucer with a clatter. “Like there’s anyone left to go get? But that’s not the point. I’ve ruined everything! They’ll never let me stay now!”
Wilom reached over and gripped her arm. “You haven’t ruined anything,” he said. “Do we really need them to do this? If there’s nobody left to get?”
“Yes! I got in because of Vicdra. I still really owe him … Besides, we’ll never get any further than just moving people around unless we stay with the group.”
Wilom thought for a bit. “Are they still in the meeting?”
“I … I don’t know. It’s not been very long, I suppose.” Vanda drained her cup in one gulp. “Ow. Still hot.”
“Well, stop drinking it so fast, then.” Wilom let go of her arm, leaned back and drank some of his own tea. “You could try going back. They’ve been working you hard. Maybe they’ll understand.”
Vanda flushed. “I don’t think I could go back in just now.”
“Well, when’s the next meeting?”
“I won’t know until they contact me. If they contact me.”
“Then, don’t you need to go back now?”
Vanda made a little noise in the back of her throat, and poured the rest of her teapot into her cup.
“I won’t make you go back. But if we’re going to stick with the Heads, then I don’t see any other way.”
“Maybe we could think of something else,” Vanda muttered.
“Then let’s think of something else.”
Vanda smiled weakly and said “Come on, you need to stop being so obliging. This is where you tell me to get my act together and stop being such a coward.”
“Sorry. You’re a disgrace to our friendship unless you get back in there and fix this like an adult? Harsh enough?”
“You suck at this.”
“I’m out of practice.”
Vanda chuckled again, and took a sip of tea. “Alright, alright. I’ll …. I’ll have to go quickly.”
“I’m nearly done here,” Wilom said, downing the rest of his tea to prove it. “Ow! You’re right. Still hot.”
“Stop drinking it so fast, then.” Vanda held out her hand. “Done?”
“Yup. Just let me pay, then lead on.”