Finally, before Vanda dropped Wilom back at Marc’s house, Wilom and Vanda passed the house where Rickart, Inushi and Keri were hidden. Vanda whistled as they got close, and the corner of the curtains tweaked.
Nervousness dissipated, relaxation.
Keri opened the door and welcomed them in.
The place hadn’t changed much, save that the corners of the makeshift privacy curtains seemed to be hemmed. Keri’s sketches were now hung on the wall, on whatever splinters and old nails were available. They’d set up a makeshift camping kitchen as well, out of parts Wilom suspected Vanda had smuggled in. Rickart was making some form of soup on it. Wilom was amazed how strongly he was reminded of Aunt J’s kitchen, and the stews she’d used to make.
“Welcome in,” Inushi said, from the corner. She put the pen between the pages of her notebook and put it on the ground next to her.
Keri sat back down in front of her sketchbook.
“If I’d known, I’d have made more food,” Rickart said, lowering the heat on the little camp pot and putting the lid on it.
Vanda shook her hand dismissively.
Wilom said, “No, if I’d planned a little better, I’d have brought some dinner with us.”
“Technically, you did,” Inushi said, gesturing to the pot, with an eyebrow cocked.
Wilom nudged Vanda. “That’s all her, that’s not me.”
“It’s good to see you again, though,” Rickart said, leaving the pot where it was and coming back to the main room to sit with them. “You, too Vanda, but it’s been a little longer since we saw Wilom.”
“No offense taken,” Vanda said. “He’s very hard to get out of his comfort zone.”
Wilom rolled his eyes and was about to return the dig, but all of a sudden he realised that nobody else had found it funny.
“I don’t blame him,” Rickart said. “I don’t know how you do it, Vanda.”
Vanda shrugged. “Had a bit of practice,” she mumbled.
“Beware of getting complacent,” Inushi said darkly. “It’s the first thing that will kill you, when it comes down to it.”
There was an awkward silence.
Vanda broke it. Brightly, she said, “So, we have news. And a question. Any of you know anything about this area?” She spread Wilom’s map out on the floor, and put her finger on the marshy area.
Inushi shrugged, and looked at Keri and Rickart. “I wouldn’t know,” she said.
Rickart and Keri gathered on either side of the map, craning their necks around see what Vanda was pointing at.
Rickart shook his head. “My town was on the other side of the Capital,” he said.
“I know it,” Keri said. “It’s right out in the middle of nowhere in the marshes. What about it?”
Vanda grinned, and tapped her finger on the map. “How would you like to live there?”
Rickart looked up at Wilom and raised an eyebrow. Wilom shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me. She does this to me all the time, too.”
“What’s there?” Keri asked dubiously. “It’s way off away from any towns, right?”
Vanda nodded. “That’s the point. It’s technically not covered by either of these two town boundaries, so their councils can’t touch it without changing policy first. And it’s pretty sheltered — even if they wanted to do something about you, they’d have to spot you first.”
Now Inushi came to join them at the map. “It seems … chancy.”
“More or less chancy than squatting in an abandoned farmhouse just outside the capital?” Keri asked pointedly.
Inushi shrugged. “This is true. Nevertheless.”
“Keri’s question still stands, though. What is there?” Rickart asked.
“Nothing yet,” Vanda said. “But soon we’ll be sending in building materials and seeds. The — our bosses will contribute the resources. We’ll get a little town set up, out of the way of all the patrols. Then you won’t be in as much danger. You’ll be able to grow food, and we’ll find ways to send in other things you need. What do you say?”
Wilom could feel Inushi, Rickart and Keri all trying not to be the first one to speak. None of them wanted to be the one to disappoint Vanda, though they all thought the project was doomed.
Wilom tried not to let that show on his face.
Finally Rickart said. “Well, it only has to last till the end of the war.”
“It’ll have a nice view,” Keri said quietly. “I wouldn’t mind getting away from here. I’m sick of shivering every time I hear a creak or a footstep. At least it’ll be harder for patrols to find us. And we can get outside for once.”
“Right?” Vanda said. “Come on, can we summon a little enthusiasm here?”
Wilom doubted it. Rickart and Inushi looked at each other with unreadable expressions. Keri went back to studying the map.
“Not until we see the construction start,” Inushi said. “I will be enthusiastic when I see the first crops planted, and not before.”
“I’ll take it,” Vanda said, a little strained, but still chipper. “Right, Wilom?”
“You know I don’t do enthusiasm,” Wilom said. “But at least it will be better than worrying about patrols.”
“Aw, you worry about us,” Rickart said, with a grin.
“He worries about everything,” Vanda said. “But he’s right. It will be very nice when we don’t have to worry anymore.”