Wilom waited for Vanda, for once, when they met for tea to talk through their next meeting with the Heads. He had brought a book to read, and sat at the tea shop, periodically telling the waitresses to give him “just another few minutes until my friend gets here” until Vanda arrived.
She finally did arrive, sitting down at the table and leaning back, tipping her head back until her hair brushed the top of the chair back.
“Rough time?” Wilom asked.
Vanda tipped back upright and looked at him blearily. “You have no idea,” she said.
The waitress came with the menu. Vanda didn’t take it. “House afternoon blend,” she said. “Please.”
“Edmarn, please,” Wilom said.
“Sorry,” the waitress told him. “We’re out of Edmarn.”
“Ah. Then just a green tea. Um …” He ran his finger down to the list, picking a green tea at random. “That one.”
The waitress nodded and took the menus away.
Wilom watched Vanda a little while, waiting for her to speak first. She didn’t say anything, though, not until after their tea came. She cut her usual ritual short, swirling it exactly once before she poured it into the cup. The resulting tea was so pale as to be nearly water, but she drank it down in just one go. Wilom waited a little for his to cool down first, watching Vanda.
She bent down over the table, hands clenched together, and forehead resting on her crossed thumbs. “Hey,” she said. “I have a question. But I want you to promise that you’ll listen to the whole thing before you give me an answer, alright?”
Wilom nodded. “Always. What’s the question?”
“Will you leave with me?”
Wilom waited for a moment for Vanda to continue, but she was hesitating, so he said, “For how long? Where do we need to go?”
“Technically, we don’t really need to be anywhere,” Vanda said. “And … forever. I mean, will you leave with me? Get out of this whole … thing.”
Wilom frowned. “Leave? What about Keri, Inushi and Rickart? And you said you wanted to take over from the Heads. What happened to that?”
“I was being rash. Not thinking about what I was saying,” Vanda said. “We can take Rickart and Inushi and Keri with us. We’ll skip the country, they won’t need to worry about police raids then.”
Wilom nodded slowly while he tried to think of a response. He didn’t like it, and he wasn’t going, but he had promised Vanda that he would hear her out, and hear her out he would. “Let’s … assume we find a way to do that without telling them about the ferryman or the lighthouse keeper. I’m sure we’d find a way. Where would we go?”
Vanda shrugged. “I don’t know. Wherever we end up. Stop asking so many questions.”
Wilom drew a deep breath, and sipped his tea. “What brought this on?”
Vanda slammed her cup down on the saucer. “If you’re going to say no, just say no. Don’t try and guilt trip me out of it!”
“Alright. Fair point,” Wilom said. “Look, I … didn’t mean to be condescending. But Vanda, we have responsibilities here!”
Vanda sipped her tea, not meeting Wilom’s eyes.
Wilom put his hand on his cup, but before he picked it up, he found himself talking again. “Vanda, I got into this because of you. I gave up a job, I’ve helped you break countless laws. I’ve nearly been arrested and executed. I’ve spent months lying to a family who took me in and trusted me. I’ve watched a good woman fret about her son on the front lines and known that I’m working against everything he represents to her. I’d do it again — don’t get me wrong, if you asked me again, knowing everything I know now, I’d do it again without thinking twice. But you can’t just ask me to drop it after all this, not before we’ve at least made sure everyone is safe.”
“Even if it’s impossible?” Vanda pressed.
“Aren’t you the one who said you couldn’t rest if we didn’t try?”
“Maybe I was wrong about that.”
There had to be something else behind this. “What happened?”
Vanda ground her teeth. “You know, for someone who doesn’t mean to be condescending, you’re doing a damn good job of it!”
“Well, what’s a non-condescending way to say ‘you changed your mind all of a sudden and I’m not sure why’?”
Vanda shook the last drops out of her teapot. “I’m just … sick of worrying about people,” she said. “I’m not like you, or the ferryman. Or the lighthouse keeper. This … the long game, the waiting … doesn’t come naturally to me. Everything feels stalled. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong!”
“We’re making progress,” Wilom assured her. “We’ll be working on the town soon.”
“But it’s not actually doing anything for the war! It’s just … three people. That’s not enough!”
“Three people is more than running away and doing nothing.”
Vanda dropped her head down onto the table and covered it with her arms. “I know,” she said miserably. “Trust me, I now.”
Wilom gave her a long look. “So … did you want me to tell you that we have to stay? Or were you really hoping we’d be able to go?”
“Both. Neither. I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it.”
Wilom fiddled with the teacup on his saucer. “Listen … if you do decide to leave, just make sure you let me know, alright?”
Vanda looked up sharply. “What?”
“I wouldn’t blame you if you did leave. But if you do, please just let me know first. And let me know where you’re going, so I can come find you.”
“Don’t,” Vanda said. “If you’re staying, I’m staying.”
Wilom held up his hands. “Alright. Just … in case.”
“No. No ‘just in case’. I’d leave the Heads and wave as I went but I’m not leaving you behind.”
There was silence, and after a moment, Vanda said quietly, “Damn.”
Wilom reached over the table and patted her shoulder. “We’ve come a long way,” he said. “We can’t just back out now. Besides … this can’t go on for much longer.”
“We can,” Vanda said seriously, but without enthusiasm. “If I can walk away from the shore of death itself, then we can back out of this. The problem was never whether we ‘can’.”
Wilom paused and took his hand away. “Yes. You’re right.”
They finished their tea and started to go their separate ways. Then Wilom had a thought. “Vanda. Can you do me a favour?”
Vanda looked puzzled. “I … sure. What favour?”
“I need you to get Aghetian peppers for me. And a certain spice mix.” He passed her the name on the paper that he’d asked the waiter to write down for him. Having nothing else to do, he’d decided to take on a little personal project.
Vanda read the paper. “What are you planning?”
“Probably something that won’t end well. It’s for Mr Treene.”
Vanda snorted. “You’re right. It won’t. But I’ll get them just so I can imagine his face when you hand them over.”
As he walked in the door, Wilom noticed the change in Marc’s demeanour. He was cutting potatoes for dinner, just as usual, but there was a lightness about the mood in the room.
“Good day?” Wilom asked.
“Damn, I was hoping to break the news over dinner. How’d you know?”
Wilom shrugged. “You just look happy. I’ll wait until dinner, though. Speaking of, do I smell roast lamb?”
“Got it in one.”
Wilom put his bag in his room and went to do his chores. He was looking forward to an early night.
The lamb was cooked and resting, the vegetables finishing in some of the drippings while Marc made gravy with the rest when Cathlin and Jilli came home.
“Roast lamb!” Jilli cried immediately, running up to the bench with one shoe off and stealing a morsel from the bone before Marc could chase her off with a threatening wave of his spoon.
“It’ll be on the table in a few minutes — fingers off, and take your other shoe off!”
Jilli giggled and, popping the shreds of meat she’d snatched in her mouth, sat down and began to unbuckle her shoe.
“Did you get good news today?” Cathlin asked.
“I did. Wilom, can you give me a hand? The quicker it goes on plates, the quicker we eat it.”
Wilom served vegetables, while Marc carved the lamb and spooned gravy over everything.
At the table, Jilli tucked in straight away, waiting only just long enough for Marc to sit down at the table with his plate.
“Well?” Wilom asked. “Go on, what’s the special occasion?”
“I got promoted,” Marc said, obviously fighting back a broad smile. “I’m the new Western Regions Overseer!”
Cathlin clapped. “Well done! You found out today?”
“I did. The boss told me to put my things in a box — I thought he was going to fire me! But no, brand new office, with a window. And a to-do list as long as my arm on the table, but who cares about that?”
“How’s the pay?” Cathlin asked. “Much better?”
“No. Everyone’s pay has been cut again. But the new title and contract is a guarantee that they won’t be firing me unless the entire chain goes under, so it’s worth celebrating anyway.”
“That’s still good!” Jilli exclaimed. “Congratulations, Uncle Marc!”
He beamed. “Thanks, Jilli.”
“Yes,” Wilom said. “Congratulations! May we all be so lucky.”