We entered the dark tunnel that led into the palace, which was a sort of tiered pyramid, covered in flowers. The tunnel was dark and smelled of peat or loam or whatever you call the dark stuff they chuck around on allotments.
I lit a ball of light, keeping it fairly dim so as not to attract too much attention, and followed Biadet. She seemed to flicker in and out of shadows, although that might just have been because of the way the ball bounced around over my head.
“This is exciting,” said Laney. “The warrior princess, the deadly midget and the Dragonslayer, entering the inner sanctum. Legends will tell of our feats.”
Even in the gloom, I could see her eyes glinting.
“I’m not a dragonslayer. I’ve never killed a dragon, and I don’t intend to. They’re just big, dumb animals. And Flossie’s the one who handles them. You’re encroaching on her area of expertise when you call me that, so please stop.”
Laney took out her sword in a sweeping movement, the shrill scrape as it emerged from the scabbard drawing a glance from Biadet.
“Very well. Then, you are to be called the Wizard Colin.” She looked down the length of the blade, the hilt held up to her nose. I thought maybe she was planning on knighting me, which I would have refused (her blade on my shoulder was not an appealing thought) but after inspecting the sword, she put it away again.
“I’m not much of a wizard, either. I can make light and heal a bit. It’s hardly stuff to sing ballads about.” I could also light dragon farts, but anyone with a naked flame and a death wish could do that.
“You are humble and modest,” said Laney. “It is good. You will make a fine consort.”
“Wait here,” said Biadet. “I need to take care of something up ahead.” She stepped away from me, and was gone.
“She’s showing off, again,” said Laney. “She wasn’t always like that.”
“What was she like?” I asked as we waited for Biadet to return.
“At school, she was very quiet.”
“She still is,” I pointed out.
“No, not like now. In a nice way. She listened, was interested in what people had to say, helped people with their homework. Then she changed.” Laney sighed, although it sounded like regret at losing a dogsbody.
“She had a little boyfriend, the groundskeeper’s son. I don’t know if he was really her boyfriend, I don’t think they ever did… you know… dirty things. Do you know about diiiirty thiiiiings, Colin?” She closed in on me as she luridly extended each word. I moved away, further along the tunnel. Whatever Biadet had gone to deal with, it had to be less horrifying than this.
I ignored the tongue sliding across her lips as she waggled her shoulder at me.
“So the boyfriend changed her?”
Laney stopped and snorted. “The boyfriend died. Then she went away for a while and when she came back, she was like… that.”
“Like what?” said Biadet, emerging from the shadows.
“I was telling my consort about our school days. What a delightful child you once were.”
Biadet nodded. “Yes.” She turned to me, her face blank and expressionless. “The Princess was always a spoiled brat, as I’m sure you assumed. She hasn’t changed or improved with age, but it is comforting in some ways to have a relic connecting us to our past. She is like an anchor, thick and heavy, especially around the bottom.”
“Are you disparaging a member of the royal line of Fengarad?” said Laney, hand on sword hilt.
“No. I’m talking about anchors. This way.”
We carried on until we came to the same room I’d come to last time, when I was taken down to the cells below. There were six women in full armour and weapons drawn lying on the ground. None of them moved.
“Are they dead?”
“No,” said Biadet.
“You dealt with all six of them?” asked Laney, trying not to sound impressed and failing.
“Seven,” said Biadet as she opened the gate to the lift.
“There are clearly only six here,” insisted Laney, not one to allow extra credit to anyone other than herself.
“Seven,” said Biadet.
I counted the women again. There were definitely six, and no other room or exit that might hide a seventh. “Is one of them pregnant?”
Biadet walked into the lift and waited for us to join her. She looked pleased. “Yes. That one.” She pointed to one of the women lying unconscious, who wasn’t showing as far as I could tell.
“I wonder who the dad is?” I said as I got into the lift. Laney followed and stood closer to me than she needed to.
“Whoever the Queen decided,” said Biadet. “She controls all means of reproduction.”
“For her guards?”
“For the whole of Flatland.”
Before I had a chance to clarify what this meant, the lift jerked into motion, this time going up. There were no buttons to press and no signal given. The box we were in rattled upwards, creaking and groaning.
“We’ll have to face her guardians,” said Biadet. “There is no way to avoid them.”
She said it rather ominously, or at least as ominous as you can sound when showing no emotion whatsoever (which is quite a lot).
“Not her Guard?”
“Some kind of monster?”
“Some kind.” She was being deliberately vague and enjoying it. Laney rubbed up against me. Both girls were perverse in their own way.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Laney. “I’ve never seen any monsters up there.”
“A cyclops?” I asked. “A minotaur? Does it have two legs or four.”
Biadet ignored me. Not knowing what we were about to face didn’t bother me unduly. I had been fine coming here with just Biadet. Of all the people I’d met in this world, she was clearly the most able. Frankly, she was OP and could win any fight, assuming she didn’t have some weakness. Which plainly she did, or she wouldn’t be under Peter’s control.
If I could find a way to free her, perhaps she would be grateful enough to help me out of a tight spot some day. For the time being, though, if she wanted me to get to the Queen, I had full confidence we would get there, monster or no, even if Laney was along to get in the way. Although why she’d agreed to that still wasn’t clear.
“Leave the monsters to me,” said Laney. “I’ll protect you.”
“Did we have to bring her?” I asked Biadet.
“Of course you did,” said Laney, completely oblivious to my point.
“The Queen is wary of visitors.” I wasn’t sure if Biadet meant Visitors like me, or visitors in general. “And she doesn’t like crowds. When she gets nervous, bad things happen. But she has met the princess before and will not mind her presence. And she will come in useful in… other ways. Princesses always do.”
There was a definite edge to the way she suggested Laney’s usefulness. One that Laney ignored, of course. Did the monsters we were headed towards have a thing for redheads?
“You see, I bring something to this party that no one else can.”
Well, that was certainly true. Something no one else could or should bring.
“What you said about the Queen controlling reproduction, she gets to choose who has babies? For everyone, including Visitors?”
“Ask her yourself,” said Biadet.
“Do you want to make babies, Colin?”
“Not now, Laney, I’m busy.”
“Ooh, later then.”
I probably shouldn’t have left it open-ended like that. Something I’d have to deal with at some point, by getting Jenny to deal with it.
The lift stopped and Biadet slid the iron gate aside. We were in a hall that was not very big. The top of the pyramid was obviously a lot smaller than the base, in case you weren’t familiar with how pyramids work.
Ahead of us were very tall double doors, either side of which stood an equally tall guard. They weren’t quite ogre-size, but they were close.
They wore white boots and gloves and a kind of skirt-cum-loincloth. Their physique was muscular and hairless. Smooth like they’d been waxed and oiled. They didn’t seem very monstrous, other than their height, but their faces were entirely covered by a white cloth that did jut out a bit. Could have been a large nose. Or maybe not. They each carried a halberd with a giant blade about the length of Biadet, and probably just as deadly.
Biadet stepped out and then to the side. I stepped out after her and also went to the side. It was then I noticed that the two guardians of the doors also had tails. Long, pink ones.
Laney stepped out and went to the middle of the hall.
“Pfft. They don’t look like monsters to me.” She drew her sword. The guardians did not move or react in any way.
“Are they rats?” I asked Biadet. She didn’t respond, but I got the feeling it was an affirmative silence. “Why are there rats up here? I thought the Queen’s Guard were anti-vermin.” I snapped my mouth shut and turned to the ratmen. “Sorry. No offence.” They remained as impassive as ever. They could easily have been statues.
“I’ll take the one on the left,” said Laney. She giggled with excitement.
“Aren’t you going to take care of this?” I asked Biadet.
Biadet shook her head. “The princess can deal with a couple of guards. Head on.”
I caught an evil glimmer in Biadet’s eyes. This was revenge for being hit from behind. I thought it was a little too gallant of her not to take umbrage at how she had been knocked out.
“You want them to kill her?”
“If she lets them. Thank you for healing me, by the way. I appreciate it.”
“Oh, so you owe me then. I can expect you to pay me back?”
“I already have,” said Biadet. “After they have taken care of her, I will bring you to the Queen.”
“Come, Colin,” said Laney, grinning. She didn’t seem to have any problem with being set up.
“What exactly do you see in front of you, Laney?”
“The same as you. Two men of average height and no doubt average ability.”
“What about their tails?”
She looked over her shoulder at me, her grin bouncing into a frown and back. “Tails? What tails?”
Laney didn’t see what I and Biadet saw. Although, even if she had, I doubt she’d act any differently. As bonkers as she was, you had to admire her relentless stupidity in the face of danger. Preferably from a distance.
“Good luck, Princess,” said Biadet, the hint of a smile on her lips.
“Won’t need it, midget.”
“Can’t we just knock?” I said. “Maybe the Queen wants to see us.”
“Hyeaahhh!” screamed Laney as she charged. It was going to be a massacre.
“Stop!” squeaked Nyx. He was standing on the other side of the lift. He hadn’t been in there with us, I was fairly certain, and there were no other exits that I could see.
Laney did stop and the guardians moved for the first time. They turned to look at each other.
“Where did you come from?” I asked him.
“Secret door.” He pushed the wall behind him and it swung open.
“You’ve been here before?”
“Yes, I live here. It was my mother who sent me to join you.” He was a lot less timid than usual.
“Your mother… The Queen is your mother?” It was possible, but why send him to spy on me? “So you aren’t a rat? It’s a disguise or a geas or whatever?”
He shook his very rat-like head. “No disguise, and a geas doesn’t work on your kind. I am as you see, Nyx Hura’nyx, seventh son of the seventh litter.”
It didn’t make any sense, and then it did. “The Queen is a rat?”
“Come, let us greet her. You two, open up there.”
The two guardians both half-turned and pushed each side of the door open.
“They’re of the first litter,” Nyx whispered as he walked past me. “Very strong, thick as boat planks.”
Laney gave me a confused look. I gave her one back. Biadet just looked disappointed.
“Come,” said Nyx, waving us to follow him. “I couldn’t bear to see any of you hurt and I do so want you to meet mother.” He walked back to take me by the elbow to help me along. “And,” he whispered, “you may be the only one who can stop her.”