The stone slid back out again. “Yes?”
The news of Requbar’s impending demise had suddenly made me less keen on my hideaway holiday home. It was fine for a visit, but I wouldn’t want to be buried alive here. I wasn’t looking for that kind of long term commitment.
Not that I entirely believed his claims, either. Men are always showing off in front of each other, exaggerating to make themselves look cool. The number of women they’ve slept with, the amount of money they earn, their intention to destroy an entire city and murder thousands of people—just boys being boys.
“You seem like you know this city. I was wondering if you could fill me in about how things are in Requabar. I’ve only just arrived here myself. I’m Colin, by the way.” There was a time when introducing myself to someone would have set my teeth on edge and broken me out in a cold sweat. How far had I come that I was now able to hold a perfectly normal conversation with a homicidal maniac.
“Only just arrived and already banged up in the highest security cell in the city?” He chuckled to himself. “Well, well. You must have done something pretty bad to catch their attention so quick.”
“I didn’t do anything.” I sounded a little defensive. “They think I’m somebody I’m not.” Now I sounded evasive.
“Well whoever this other chap is, I hope he’s out there making a nuisance of himself.” He chuckled some more. For someone about to commit mass murder, he was in a very good mood. “The name’s Schneed. Baker by trade, now a full-time advocator for men’s rights” Even though we were separated by a wall and all I could see was his mouth and occasionally an eye, I could sense him puffing out his chest with pride. “Not that I’m saying women don’t deserve some rights, too. Just that we should have more than them. Only fair.”
I didn’t see how that was fair, but I wasn’t going to argue with him. I might even vote for him if he went up for election.
“So is it all women that’re the problem?”
“No, some of them are quite nice,” said Schneed very gallantly. “It’s the ones in the palace that cause all the bad feelings. They’re the ones who have to be stopped. Of course, no woman can be truly trusted, but the Queen’s the one who’s making life miserable for us. Do this, do that, nag, nag, nag. And when it’s something we want to do, oh no, that can wait. I mean, it’s only fair we should get to make some of the decisions. Just the little ones. But no, she refuses to listen. That’s why we have to resort to extreme measure. If you push a man into a corner, he’s going to come out fighting.”
There was a blur of movement in front of the hole and some hard breathing. It was hard to tell, but I think he was doing some shadow boxing.
“What did they put you in here for?” I asked him. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“No, no, I don’t mind. I’m what you call a freedom fighter. Or a terrorist, if you’re on the other side of it. Not a pleasant thing, hurting people just to make a point, but what can you do? Can’t say I’d recommend it other than as a last resort, but when you run out of options, it’s the innocent who have to suffer. Sad but that’s just the way it is.”
I couldn’t really see the logic of what he was saying, but he was so genial in the way he justified murder and mayhem it was hard to take issue with him. He was a surprisingly jolly terrorist.
“So that’s what you’re rebelling against? The women being in charge?”
“Oh no, not just that. Well, it’s a big part of it, of course, but it doesn’t really matter who’s in charge—whoever it is, they’re bound to turn mad from the power. Mistreat the people, embezzle money from the treasury, make a few people they don’t like disappear. Who wouldn’t if they had the chance? But, you know, spread it around. Mistreat everyone equally, that’s all. Don’t just pick on one group. That kind of prejudice isn’t right, is it, Marv?”
There was a grunt from behind him that sounded like it agreed with him.
“No, it’s the whole atmosphere of tyranny and oppression. Ooh, do I not like tyranny and oppression. Ooh, I do not. Having said that, there’s a lot to thank the Queen for. Have you had time to look around Requbar? Lovely city. When the flowers are in bloom, nothing compares.”
“Yes, I saw a bit of it before they threw me in here. Very pretty.”
“Oh, come now, it’s more than pretty. I may not agree with the way Her Majesty tramples our rights and freedoms, and keeping people in line using fear and intimidation is no way to run a healthy society, but I have to admit, she does know how to make the place look nice. It’s blooming gorgeous. Haha. Not unlike the Queen herself. What a looker. Ooh. I wouldn’t chuck her out of bed for farting, know what I mean? Haha. I mean, obviously she’s a despicable tyrant and we plan to put a stop to her reign of terror, goes without saying, but she does have one of those smiles that can light up a room. Such a shame it has to end this way.” A regretful sigh slipped through the hole in the wall.
I was dizzy from all the flip-flopping. It was hard to tell why he was so set on bringing the Queen’s rule to an end. He seemed like her number one fan.
“And how’s it been going?” I asked. “With all the death and destruction, I mean?” The city had looked in perfect order with not much in the way of anarchy from what I’d seen, other than one dead dog.
“That’s the thing, you see. Every time we’re on the verge of instigating an atrocity that’ll bring the city to its knees, the Queen’s Guards swoop in and arrest us all. How they always know is a complete mystery. I suspect magic—they do say the Queen has the gift.”
This caught my attention. If the Queen could do magic, did that mean she was a Visitor?
“Made some infernal bargain for her soul in return for the gift of foresight, and the power to keep the streets free of litter, I shouldn’t wonder. Have you been to Fengarad? Oh, the filth… absolutely disgusting, it is. I have to say, torture chambers or not, strictly on a hygiene level, you can’t fault Her Majesty. If she did make some dark deal with a nefarious supernatural entity, I can only commend her negotiating skills.”
Hard to tell if he was aiming to remove the Queen from power or get an autograph and a selfie with her.
“But won’t they just stop you again this time?”
“Oh, not this time,” said Schneed. “This time it’ll be different. We’ve got a new leader. A real visionary. He’s got us working around the clock on a plan that can’t fail. Complete annihilation, one hundred percent guaranteed. Just you wait and see.”
He certainly sounded confident.
“And is just the three of you, in the rebellion? You, Marv and the leader.”
“Oh. Haha. No, no. Hundreds strong we are. She may be able to catch us before we have the chance to do any real damage—all credit to her, she’s a sharp one—but she hasn’t been able to smash the organisation like she’s been trying to. You see, we have a little secret.” His voice dropped down to a whisper. “They’ve locked up so many times we’ve got this whole place mapped out and full of escape routes.”
I made my way closer to the wall as his voice got lower. “You’ve been here before?”
“Sure, plenty of times. Most of us have been locked up in here one time or another. And we always get out.”
This didn’t make much sense to me. “You always escape and they always put you back in here? Isn’t that a bit dumb.”
“I know, but that’s the thing about women—they may have the muscle and the fighting skills, and sure, their threshold for pain is way beyond anything we could withstand, but up here—” there was a pause which I assumed was for him to tap his head “—not the smartest. They have no idea how we do it.”
Somehow I doubted the jailers would keep putting them in the same cells if there was an easy way out. Even if they didn’t know how they were doing it, no one would keep making the same mistake over and over. Not unless they had an ulterior motive.
“Are you saying you found a way to leave your cell and make it back into the city without them ever being able to figure out how you did it?”
“And how do you do it?” I didn’t expect him to tell me but thought I’d ask anyway.
“Well, I think I can trust you, even though you don’t have much of a beard. You’re still one of us. Here’s the thing. We spent so much time in here over the years, we slowly took the place apart. Look.”
He began removing stones from the wall one by one. They slipped out like he was taking apart a puzzle, each piece perfectly made to fit with the others. Before long there was a large hole in the wall.
“See? It’s that simple. And then we put it all back together. You wouldn’t even know it was possible. Solid as a rock.” He banged the side of the opening with his fist. Nothing moved.
I banged it on my side. It did feel completely stable. “Impressive.”
He smiled at me. Now that I could see his face clearly he looked even less like a terrorist. He had a large round face, a trim white beard and a heavy walrus moustache. There was nothing very terrifying about him.
“Of course,” he continued, “no point being able to take the walls apart if you’ve got nowhere to go, which is the other mistake the little darlings made putting us in here.” He raised his eyebrows and paused.
“Which is?” I asked, taking the bait.
“We’re so deep down, we’re right close to the rat tunnels. You go through this wall back here and you’re into a network of tunnels the like of which, ooh, like a maze it is, couldn’t find your way out even if you had a map.”
“Then wouldn’t you just get lost in there?”
“Oh, we know it well enough to get to our base. We’ve got a super secret hiding place they’ve been trying to find for years. Never even came close.”
He seemed very open about telling me all this. I would have thought if he wanted to keep his rebel base super secret, telling a complete stranger about it probably wasn’t such a good idea.
“Take down the wall, pop through the other side, put the wall back. Gone.” He grinned at me. “It’s that easy. Ain’t that right, Marv?” He moved aside to address his buddy who was sitting against the far wall.
Which was when I realised something wasn’t quite right. Marv, for a start, was very clearly a woman.