Vanda was out somewhere — probably working for the lighthouse keeper — and Wilom had no desire to see anyone. The Heads still hadn’t sent the date for their next meeting. He didn’t fancy spending another day wandering around coffee shops and trying not to listen in to people’s personal lives. And he definitely did not want to see Mr Treene.
He’d finally run out of excuses, it seemed. He left a note for Cathlin and Marc that he had had a call from a friend and would likely be late if he was home at all. He caught a train, waiting patiently for the guards to shuffle through his papers at both stations, and got off at Harmon Point.
From the train, he bypassed the town and walked directly to the lighthouse.
The lighthouse keeper met him at the door, as usual. “Wilom.”
“Hello. Long time no see.”
“It is nice to see you again. No Vanda this time?”
“No. She’s off running her own errands. Or yours – she doesn’t really tell me which one. She’s following your instructions, I promise.”
“Not mine. My instructions were not to tell you the content of the errands she runs for me. She’s more than welcome to tell you when she’s on them. That part is entirely her own decision.”
“Well, either way,” Wilom said.
“How very ferryman of you,” the lighthouse keeper said, and Wilom couldn’t help but bristle.
He changed the topic instead of trusting himself to respond. “How have you been?”
“I’ve been the same for several centuries, lad,” the lighthouse keeper said. “But it’s nice of you to ask anyway. Now, I’d offer you tea as usual, but I’m afraid I have some things to do. I assume you came to see the ferryman rather than me, anyway.”
Wilom looked away. “I intended to have a good long chat with you,” he said, “But you are correct, my main purpose was to talk to the ferryman.”
“As well it should be. I’d start to worry that the world had turned on its head if one of the ferryman’s charges came down here just to see me.”
Wilom chuckled. “One of these days I’ll remember that you usually aren’t half so offended as you sound.”
“As I sound? This isn’t my offended voice. You’d know if it was my offended voice.”
Wilom had a sudden image of the first time that he’d walked down the stairs as a cocky seventeen-year-old, and that sudden image of the lighthouse keeper and his gleaming teeth. A shiver went up his spine.
“Now – let me take you down the stairs, and then I’ll go my own way and you can go see the ferryman. I probably won’t be finished by the time you are, so I’ll have to talk to you properly next time.”
Wilom followed the lighthouse keeper down the stairs. Despite feeling ridiculous, he made sure to keep well within the light.
The ferryman, as usual, was waiting on the bank, as if he didn’t have a single other place in the world to be. Wilom sat down on the gunwale of the boat without a word. The ferryman looked down at him.
“Sorry,” he said after a while. “There must be …”
But then he realised that there wasn’t.
“Must be?” the ferryman prompted.
Wilom shook his head. “I was going to say Duty. But there isn’t.”
The ferryman’s hood inclined. “It took you a moment to realise,” he said. “Have you been having troubles with the Ferryman’s Knowledge?”
Wilom bristled. “It’s not that I have trouble using it. My problem is that it comes up too much!”
“You are fighting it, then.”
The ferryman waited for Wilom to speak again.
Wilom sighed. “Don’t you have some piece of wisdom to give?”
“Do you try not to need your hearing? Your sight?”
Wilom shut his mouth and turned away towards the non-sand near his feet.
“I am only saying,” the ferryman said gently, “That you seem to be attributing a judgement to it that it does not deserve.”
“I have to be able to choose to use it,” Wilom said. “Otherwise what’s the point?”
“What is the point of choosing to choose wrong? Choosing to risk making mistakes and hurting people?”
Wilom looked aside. “Because it feels like cheating.”
Wilom took a deep breath. “If I’m just saying what other people want to hear, it’s great for them, but I’ll always be distant. If I never have to make an effort for someone, it feels like fakery. And that’s not how I want to live.”
“I see,” the ferryman said, but he didn’t elaborate further. Wilom knew that he had failed another test.
Then, both he and the ferryman turned to look down the beach.
“Duty,” the ferryman said simply.
“Would you like to come?”
Wilom stood up, shook his head, and straightened his trousers. “No,” he said. “No, I asked what I needed to ask, and I said what I needed to say. I’ll leave you to your Duty.” He stressed the ‘your’ in ‘your Duty’ a little. It was petty, he knew, but being petty was the only way he really had to salvage his ego.
He hadn’t thought like that since he was seventeen and he’d first come to the River. He ought to be beyond that sort of thing by now. But he didn’t apologise, either.
“As you like.”
Wilom felt in his pocket and realised there was something in here, that he’d brought and then forgotten about.
“Wait,” he said, holding a hand up.
The ferryman paused, pole raised, and looked at him. “Yes?”
Wilom pulled the square of fabric out of his pocket. “This is yours,” he said. “I cleaned it.”
“I have several,” the ferryman said. “You did not need to return it.”
“I’ve got several, too,” Wilom returned. “And one of your future apprentices will likely need it.”
The ferryman nodded, and took the handkerchief, re-folding it precisely and then putting it inside his robes. “Thank you, then.”
“And thank you,” Wilom said. “I needed it. And I appreciate it.”
The hood inclined. Then, “Goodbye, Wilom. I do hope to see you again soon.”
“You will,” Wilom said. He didn’t doubt it was the case.
For the first time, he realised that what he felt was not quite nerves, and not excitement. It was something much more like melancholy. It hurt – he might not have always seen the ferryman as a friend, but he felt like such a constant, and in many ways a comfort. Now … well. He had to get petty, and angry, and now he and the ferryman were growing apart.
“I look forward to it,” the ferryman said.
“I mean, I’ll probably just end up asking more annoying questions,” Wilom said, with a grin that was hard to keep on his face.
“I have said before that there is no such thing,” the ferryman assured him, and then turned and poled away.
Wilom had planned to spend the night in Harmon Point, but he found he had changed his mind. He took the overnight train back to the Capital.