Tunnel Rat - Chapter 172: Smiling
Chapter 172: Smiling
Old Healer was very interested in hearing what Smiley had to say and came immediately, the hulking form of Harry following behind. Larry picked up Tallsqueak’s cot and put it next to Smiley, then put Justin next to Tallsqueak. Several people noticed how easily Larry did this, carefully walking through the infirmary with a grace he had never had before.
Larry looked different. The changes were initially subtle but became very apparent over the next hour. He was walking upright with ease, and his hands and feet were smaller. His eyes were much closer to each other in size, although one was green and the other blue. His teeth were the most significant change. Larry had always had too little mouth for how many large fangs were fighting for space. They stuck out at odd angles, and he had never been able to close his mouth. That had changed. The largest fangs had fallen out or been pulled out by Larry when they got loose. Gendifur had given him a small bag to put them in. The remaining teeth were working together now. Larry could chew normally and smile. He was very happy about that.
“Larry likes smiling!” Smiley gave him a thumbs up, nearly too tired to smile himself.
The fairies had come into the infirmary in a flutter of wings, already knowing about Larry’s official Hero status. They had immediately started brushing his fur clean and making sure he had enough ribbons and flowers attached to him, as appropriate for his status as a Hero.
Old Healer sat next to Smiley. “We need a few answers. How were you poisoned?”
Smiley looked extremely sad. “Well, that would be Charlotte. She stuck a knife in my back and whispered ‘surprise,’ and I couldn’t move. But Rif was the one who told her to do it. We were talking about stuff, and suddenly they both got real serious about this crazy plan of Rif’s to take over the Hollow and run things. Rif has always wanted to be Cheese Master; everyone knew that. But he wasn’t good at things and screwed up sometimes. He was always trying to skip steps and get things done quickly. He made a mess of things more than once.”
The old rat nodded. “And Bleusnout noticed?”
Smiley snorted. “If by ‘noticed’ you mean ‘scream and rant for half a bell,’ then yeah, he noticed. We had the nicest little collection of mushroom beds going down in the basement, and then Rifkin didn’t pay attention when gathering and some spores from poisonous varieties got mixed up in the beds. We had to clear them and start over. Wow, was Bleusnout pissed! We needed those shrooms for making rennet. It takes a lot of specialized rennet, mushroom powders, and molds to make all the different cheeses for a Hollow. We could only make cottage cheese for a week until we grew some basic shrooms. It wasn’t very good. People got sick of eating it. We had to buy cheese from another Hollow. We’ll never use all those casks of cottage cheese.”
Milo wanted to know more about the plan. “Who else was part of the plan, and what did it involve?”
“Crazy stuff. He said he had ‘People who would help.’ Other Hollows would send warriors and special cheese, and he would scare everyone with a fake spider attack. Spiders! That was when I freaked out. He sat me down and explained it all. Said I could be Master Gatherer if I wanted. I told him it was a crazy plan. Then he nodded at Charlotte, and she poked me with her knife. I couldn’t move at all; I just sat there drooling. After that, I just listened for a while and then fell asleep. He told her I’d make a great alibi. Crazier than fruit bats at cider time, the two of them.”
“That’s all I know about until I wake up with Gendifur leaning over me.”
He looked over at the Chef. “They got Bleusnout too?”
Old Healer sighed. “Yes, but it’s unclear exactly what ails him. Did Bleusnout have a cheese problem? Do you? Rifkin said he found Bleusnout passed out with his face in a bowl of cheese. He is not suffering from an overdose of bleu. He has spider mites and Black Mold in his system, as did you.”
Smiley was shaking. “He said that? Bastard. The chef’s got a reputation for liking bleu cheeses, but that’s because of his whiskers. His family has always dyed their whiskers that way. It was an award they earned back in the first rebellion. He’s proud of it. The idea that a Cheese Master might be an addict? Damned silly.”
Old Healer looked pained. “We were too trusting of Rifkin and to quick to judge Bleusnout. But time enough for regrets later. Did Bleusnout ever mention a cheese caravan?”
Smiley shook his head. “No, other than wishing we were near one of the main trading routes. He said the only way we’d ever get a regular caravan to show up here was if we sent out our own and could welcome it back! But wagons and beasts cost a lot of cheddar. The few times we got caravans to visit, we had to make some costly deals. After a while, it didn’t seem worth it.”
Old Healer nodded to Milo, then turned to Smiley. “Thank you, Smiley, you have confirmed many things and helped us fill in the holes. I leave you in Gendifur’s care. Conserve your strength; we will have stronger medicine for you tomorrow. Others can tell you what is happening.”
Smiley relaxed and lay back on his pillow. “Yeah, this puppy is tuckered out. Say, who do you have running the mess hall?”
Ringtail and Tweedle chose that moment to come into the room bearing huge stacks of puffcakes and cheeseycakes on platters.
Smiley stared, then rolled his eyes. Larry sniffed the air. “Cheesy cakes? Larry is very hungry again.”
“Hey, save some of that grub for brave guards who have captured dangerous sneaky guys.” Brutus walked into the room with Rifkin tied up and gagged over his shoulder. “Your dwarf friend Vary caught him, Tallsqueak, but I tied him up and brought him over after I was off shift.” He tossed Rifkin down to the floor near Old Healer, who had a gleam in his eye that boded ill for the assistant cheese master. Smiley wasn’t looking happy to see him either.