One of the swimmer girls volunteered to go first. A brown haired girl who looked a year or two younger than me, and who I didn’t recognize from the circus. At the mouth of the tunnel I explained, “A little way into the tunnel we will lose access to air. You must take a deep breath and hold it. Do not panic, do not struggle. Keep your body stiff and straight, and hold onto my collar.” I took her hands and wrapped her fingers around the back of my tunic collar. “I will swim and take you out. Halfway, I will stop and breathe into your mouth—I will pinch your nose when I do it so you don’t suck in water—alright?” I craned my neck to look at her behind me.
The girl nodded, her eyes big.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
Melia nodded again. Her face was pale but resolved.
I turned to face the black hole of the tunnel. “Take a deep breath,” I said, filling my own lungs with the damp air of the cistern before diving forward with my burden.
I swam for speed this time, not caution, hugging the bottom of the tunnel so I didn’t knock my passenger unconscious. And this time I counted. Melia didn’t know I had no idea where “half way” was, and I was determined that next time I would.
When I reached eighty I reached back for her hands and tugged her fingers off my collar. I swiveled in the passage, still gently kicking forward so to make the most of the time, and grasping Melia’s shoulders pulled her up to me. Her hands closed on my arms with deathly strength—she was afraid. I hadn’t done this since we’d fled Galhara; it was exhausting, dangerous, and unpleasant. Even with the girl holding my arms I managed to find her face with my hands, pinch her nose, and putting my mouth over hers blew my air into her. She let go of my arms and as quickly as I could I had her grasp my collar and I poured myself into swimming.
I had reached two-hundred and my burden had gone limp when I saw the pale of the river at the end of the tunnel. Another forty before we reached the surface. I towed Melia by collar to the steep stone bank near the alley where I was to meet Jemin. How were we to get out? I flung one arm up the bank, hooking my hand on the cobbled street and trying to pull myself high enough to see into the shadows of the alley. “Jemin?” I called softly. There was no answer. I shifted. I had to get this girl out of the water, then get water out of her, and I had to do it quickly. “Jemin?” I called again, a little louder. Please be there. “Jemin?”
A figure came out of the alley, crouched low, “Lady Zare?”
“Yes,” relief flooded me, “Give me a hand here.”
“Are you alright?” Jemin came to the bank and tried to take my hand.
“No,” I shook my head, “Get her.”
He noticed the head bobbing beside me for the first time. He looked surprised, but he reached down into the river, snagged his hands under the girl’s armpits and pulled her out of the river. I helped guide her body over the edge. Then I used both my hands to haul myself up after her. The cold night air hit me as a harsh reminder that this was autumn.
Jemin laid Melia on the cobblestone in the alley and I was glad when he set about the business of forcing the water out of her lungs so I didn’t have to. I leaned against a building and caught my breath as the girl hacked up water and coughed. She startled when she saw Jemin but he soothed her and helped her sit up. She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. He put my vest around her shoulders.
Jemin turned to me. “Are you alright? What happened?”
“I found the kidnapped girls. I killed a man. They are all in the cistern now waiting for me to get them out.”
Jemin stared at me.
“And my family has already been moved,” I added, wiping water off my face.
Jemin stared a moment longer then exclaimed, “I thought I told you not to get cocky!”
“If it makes you feel better it was an accident. And I’m sure not feeling cocky, I have to bring eleven more women the same way I brought her,” I pointed at the girl huddled by Jemin.
“Will they all arrive full of water?” he asked in annoyance.
“Hopefully not,” I huffed. Now that I had a count, I could space the breath better. “I have to go back. Maybe you can start thinking of a way to get out of the city. It takes roughly four minutes to swim the tunnel one way, so, don’t expect me back before eight have passed.”
Jemin shook his head, “Be safe,” he said, resigned. I turned and went back to the river.
The Tryber received me warmly and the trip back to the cistern seemed to take much less time than the trip out had. I was greeted at the other end by eleven pale, frightened faces in a dark cistern. If any servant girl did happen to see them, she would probably scream in terror at seeing the cistern haunted by such ghosts. I took the closest girl by the hand and explained the journey as I had to Melia. She was one of the acrobats and significantly easier to pull through the water, accustomed as she was to making herself stiff as a board for minutes at a time. Fit and aided by a better timed breath, she made it to the free air on the open river without ingesting water. I stayed in the water as she climbed out into Jemin’s care. Then I dove down again. Ten more to go. I felt the currents helping me along as I enacted the grueling evacuation. With each trip I could feel my limbs getting heavier and my head getting slower. Swimming took more and more effort, even with the Tryber’s kindly efforts. I tried to remember the last time I’d swum as long as this and couldn’t. Probably because I had enough to do counting and swimming. By the time Olena, the last to come, and I broke the surface in the river I felt that what I wanted most in the whole world was a warm bed. Right this instant, in fact.
Olena climbed out with but little assistance from Jemin. My arms shook as I pulled myself up and Jemin quickly reached a hand to steady me and help me to the alley.
“I should go back,” I mumbled wearily to Jemin, “and close the grates behind me. I had to prop them open to get everyone out.”
“Grates? Forget them, you’re not going back. The last twenty minutes there has been a commotion in the garrison, I expect soldiers in the streets at any moment.”
“I bet they found the blood.”
“I’m sure they did,” growled Jemin. He pulled me deeper in the alley, past the women huddled together in the darkest shadows, and stopped next to a small pile of crates. Probably the waste from the fine kitchen of the fine house we were hiding behind.
I sat down on the crates and tried to wring out my clothes, shivering in the night air. The moon highlighted the dark splotches on my tunic and I shuddered. Bunching my sleeves up I grabbed the cloth and twisted it savagely, wishing I could get all the blood out of them as I drove the water out.
“Are you hurt? Are those…” Jemin hesitated and I looked up at him.
“Stripes?” he pointed awkwardly to my forearms.
“Oh,” I had forgotten about those. Visible now after so much time in water, two blue stripes graced each arm, stretching from under my sleeves and trailing halfway down my forearms. “Yes, nymphs have blue stripes…camouflage in water. Mine are much more pale, and not quite so far reaching. They fade when we aren’t in water.” I pulled my sleeves down and shivered again.
Jemin shook his head in wonder and leaned against the wall next to me. “Here, my lady,” he put his arm around my shoulders to share his warmth.
I leaned in gratefully.
“We don’t have much time,” said Jemin, “Here is the plan.”