“But yes, of course,” said Schneed. He began removing more stones from the wall. “The more the merrier.” He grinned at me as the hole got bigger. “Ooh, can you imagine their faces when they find us gone? Haha, silly women.”
I sneaked a look over at Marv. She had her lips pinched tight like she was forcing her mouth to stay closed.
“Do you want some help.” I moved forward to take some of the stones out from my side.
“Oh, no, no,” said Schneed with a flurry of hands to wave me away. “I need to remember the exact order I took them out in. That’s the secret, you see. Location, location, location. You just stand back and watch a master at work.”
He seemed to know what he was doing so I left him to it. The hole in the wall slowly opened like the iris of a camera. On the other side, the stones were laid out in a distinct pattern on the floor around Schneed’s feet. And beyond them, Marv sat staring. She didn’t look happy. And she looked her unhappiest when she was looking at me.
Did she suspect I was onto her?
My working theory was that she was definitely a woman (yes, I was assuming gender) who had somehow managed to disguise herself as a man to infiltrate the rebels. It would explain why they always managed to prevent the men from carrying out any of their planned attacks. It didn’t, however, explain, why I was able to see through her disguise.
Telling Schneed would only cause problems for me, I decided. He wouldn’t believe me and once Marv knew she wasn’t fooling me, she would do something about it. She wouldn’t have been sent in deep undercover without the necessary set of skills to take care of herself, and of me.
As it was, we would escape, they would go off to the rebel base and que sera sera (nothing to do with me), meanwhile I would go my own way. The internal struggles between the citizens of Requbar were no concern of mine. Worst city ever.
If Marv suspected I wasn’t completely buying her act, I didn’t think she’d do anything to risk blowing her cover. I just had to make sure I didn’t do anything to force her to act.
That was my reasoning for keeping my mouth shut and doing nothing. Of course, I could be wrong and horribly misrepresenting a perfectly respectable ladyboy.
Once the hole was large enough, I climbed through—a feat that required a cross between the Fosbury flop and my innate limbo dancing skills. As soon as I was through, Schneed began replacing the stones.
“Are we going to have time before they check on us?” I asked.
“They never check, just pass the trays in and out. Should be a while before the next meal.”
This was true. The jailers hadn’t bothered to even say hello in the time I’d been here. They weren’t due for another few hours at least. The lack of supervision made sense if they wanted their woman on the inside to be taken to the rebel base. The escape was probably being allowed to take place for this reason. But had they expected me to be tagging along? I couldn’t see why they would want that.
Schneed finished returning the stones to their exact same positions and then moved to the back wall. He slid his hands over the stones until he found the one he was looking for, and slowly teased it out. I was watching him do it and I still couldn’t see how it was possible. I looked at the wall I’d just come through and placed my palm flat against it. I moved my hand around, pushed and tugged—they all felt the same to me, completely solid.
Schneed plucked out stone after stone, laying them in a neat pattern again. Marv stood up and watched him, occasionally glancing at me. She was a strapping lass, taller than me and with a decent build. Not quite as muscular as the soldiers I’d encountered with Laney, but no weakling. This only reinforced the idea she was an agent of the Queen.
Even though the going was slow and methodical, the hole in the back wall was soon large enough to crawl through. Beyond it, there was a dark tunnel with a cool breeze flowing from it and a whiff of something unpleasant. Smelled like something had gone off in there.
“Right,” said Schneed. “In you get.”
“Are you sure?” said Marv in her gruff man-voice. “I mean about him.” She nodded towards me.
I wasn’t surprised she didn’t feel comfortable taking me along, but it was a bit late to object. Which made me wonder why she was bringing it up now. Laying the groundwork for later? I’d have to be careful not to turn my back on her.
“Of course,” said Schneed, “he’s one of us. If you can’t count on a man, who can you count on?”
Nobody, would have been my answer, men included.
Marv nodded and picked up the candle that was the only source of light we had. I should have brought the candle from my cell but had totally forgotten. I had no intention of using magic to illuminate our way, not with the all rampant anti-magic bigotry going around. I’d rather stumble about in the dark. I squeezed through the hole on my hands and knees.
The process of putting the wall back in place took a while. Schneed used the stones furthest away first, until there was only a gap barely big enough to get his hand through and grab the last stone. It slotted into place seamlessly.
We were crouched in the dark, the candle in Marv’s hand flickering. It barely lit our faces.
“What’s that smell,” said Marv, her other hand covering her mouth. The rank odour wasn’t very strong, but when you caught a gust of it in the air it really turned your stomach.
“Don’t worry about that,” said Schneed. “That smell is your friend. Sulphur from the pits; not very nice, I know. But it’ll keep the rats off our scent.”
“Are these rats going to be a problem?” I asked. We didn’t have any weapons and they may not have been your average rats. I expected them to at least have glowing red eyes.
“Not as big a problem as they’ll be for the women. Terrified of them, they are. Ooh, no, a rat, a rat! Bunch of Jessies.”
He acted quite concerned about the rats himself, so mocking others over their fears felt a bit unreasonable. Rats spread the bubonic plague. That was worth a little crap in your pants. Obviously that was in the Middle Ages. Not like these rats would be carrying the Black Death in this pre-industrialised world that was technologically equivalent to our… Middle Ages.
“Do they carry diseases?”
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” said Schneed. “But it’s their swords and spears you should be more concerned about.”
“They use swords?” I blurted out.
“Of course. What did you think? That they’d use their claws and teeth?”
That was exactly what I’d thought. Rats are such a mundane animal in our world that I’d overlooked the possibility these were more like the mouse people I’d encountered back in Probet.
“How big are these rats?” I asked.
“Ooh, I’d say most would come up to about my chest. Vicious buggers, they are.”
The memory of the Mouse King and his mate sent an unpleasant shiver through me. I really didn’t want to go through something like that again. Even in the near darkness, my apprehension must have shown.
“It’ll be fine as long as we stay out of their way,” said Schneed. “If we come across a patrol, stay quiet, stay hidden and don’t panic. If they spot us, then panic all you want. We go down fighting.”
I can’t say I felt completely reassured.
“The important thing is not to lead them back to our base. That cannot be allowed to happen.” He sounded very determined on this point. “We’ve managed to avoid catching their eye so far, I won’t be the one to ruin everything, not with a new leader and everything. Embarrass myself like that? It’d be mortifying. Better to die in these tunnels than to let down the Ocean Man.”
“Ocean Man,” said Marv, her ears perking up. “He will be at the base?”
“Of course. Where else would he be? He’s a great man, that Ocean Man. I know him quite well, I’ll introduce you.”
Marv’s interest in this Ocean Man didn’t strike me as though she was interested in a meet and greet. Schneed’s interest, on the other hand, was more like a thirteen year old girl’s interest in Harry from One Direction.
“Let’s be going then,” said Schneed. He took the candle from Marv, stood up and set off like he knew exactly where he was going, although there was only the one tunnel so not like there were a lot of options
I’d expected it to be hand and knees all the way, but the tunnel was surprisingly spacious. I had to bend over slightly to not hit my head on the roof, but otherwise there was no difficulty in walking upright.
The walls were rough and uneven. If I ran my fingernails across the surface, grit and dirt fell off, but there wasn’t the feeling the roof was about to fall in. Not that I would be able to tell if it was.
We walked in silence, trusting in Schneed. The tunnel met others and there were plenty of twists and turns and intersections. Marv seemed as nervous as me, but Schneed showed no signs of doubt.
“I been making this journey since I was a practically a boy,” he whispered in reply to no one’s question. “Know these tunnels like the back of my hand.” The candle went out.
We stood in the dark until I finally said, “Are you still there?”
“Yes,” said Marv, in a much more feminine voice than normal. I think she was too freaked out to remember she was supposed to be a bloke.
“Don’t worry,” said Schneed. “We’re nearly at the first drop.”
I had no idea what he meant. It was pitch dark and I was having a hard time remembering which way I was supposed to be facing.
“Just wait there,” said Schneed, his voice a little further away than it had been a second ago. “I’ll be right back.” Even further away.
Then there was silence. The only noise was some scuffling which I assumed was Marv nervously moving from foot to foot. At least that’s what I hoped it was.
“You alright there, Marv?”
“I’m fine.” She was back to being gruff. “Don’t think I don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?”
“You can see me. I can tell. You can see through the geas.”
I paused to think how best to answer her without making things awkward. “A gay ass? What’s a gay ass.”
“Don’t try to be smart.” She hissed it at me but kept her voice low. “The Queen’s geas makes all eyes see me as a man. But not you.”
“I don’t know what you mean, you look like a maaa—” My words caught in my throat as I felt something sharp in my thigh. It was too dark to see, so she had aimed blind. I couldn’t tell if she had excellent spatial perception or if she had missed.
“Don’t lie to me. I am a trained operative of the Queen. I know when I’ve been seen. You can see me.”
“Actually, I can’t see anyaya—easy.” Whatever she was sticking in my leg was getting closer to an area sharp things shouldn’t get close to. “Okay, I can see you. You’re a very pretty girl. Happy now?” I threw in the flattery because girls like that sort of thing, right?
I wasn’t expecting the flattery to actually work!
“Now tell me how you are able to penetrate the geas or I will gut you.”
Ah, yes, now that was more like it.