Bacco was a dog. Literally. Or figuratively? Alyssa honestly wasn’t sure which. According to Irulon, what she saw was her interpretation of someone’s soul. So it must be figurative. His dog soul that that floated behind him like some dead pet wasn’t a particularly healthy dog. More of a mangy mutt with fairly ragged fur. But at least it looked well fed.
Cid, on the other hand, had a rat sitting on his shoulder. A rat with beady green eyes, a crooked tail, and teeth just as nasty as his real ones. It was so scrawny that its tiny ribs stuck out. His soul really didn’t paint a good picture of the man it belonged to.
Still, it was better than the worm she had passed on the way back to the inn.
Everyone had some kind of animal associated with them. Cats, dogs, snakes, birds… the innkeeper had a bear half stuck in the wall behind him. No one had anything quite so fantastical as Irulon’s dragon, but Alyssa at least had some reassurance that the princess wasn’t literally a dragon hiding in human skin. There was still something off about her with her eyes and the way she acted. Hopefully nothing that would come back to bite Alyssa. If she didn’t need magic to accomplish her goals, she probably would have disappeared into the city and avoided the princess at all costs.
“Ah, look who is back!” Cid said with his disgusting smile.
Alyssa didn’t bother responding. She slumped down into the seat opposite from the two thieves, shrugging off her pack onto the floor. The entire way back, she had had this feeling that she was being followed. It had to have just been paranoia. She hadn’t been able to spot anyone either with her normal eyes or with the soul vision. Of course, the soul vision hadn’t helped her paranoia. Irulon mentioning punishments for using it had made her worried that someone would notice that she had it on. Checking herself with her phone’s front-facing camera didn’t show off any sign that she was using the spell—her eyes looked perfectly normal—but her phone also didn’t show people’s souls, so it might just not be capable of capturing supernatural effects. No one had said anything to her or had even looked at her funny, as far as she could tell. Still, she was hoping that it would wear off soon.
“Something wrong?” Bacco asked with a small frown.
“Met with Irulon. She is… quite intense.”
“Irulon?” Cid said, leaning forward. “The Irulon? She always wanders around with such fanciful adornments and no guards! You didn’t happen to borrow any, did you?”
“I didn’t steal from the Pharaoh’s daughter, if that is what you’re asking.”
“Shame. A single gemstone from her collection would make that cloak you have look like a rotten rag in comparison. Speaking of…”
“Yes, yes. I have it,” Alyssa said with a sigh. She reached for her bag, only to have Cid lurch forward and grab her wrist.
“Not here,” he hissed, glancing around the room. “Unless you want to get lynched by every cutthroat and scoundrel who sees.”
This inn was on the shadier side. But to call the other patrons cutthroats seemed in poor taste. One of the burly men at the other table even had a bunny for his soul. Unless that was the Rabbit of Caerbannog. Alyssa frowned as she stared at him. Was that blood around the bunny’s mouth? Maybe she should be a little more careful of the people around the inn. They weren’t of the good sorts. She didn’t need soul vision to tell her that. That said, she hadn’t been about to pull out the cloak in public, she had been planning on heading back to her room first.
Outwardly, Alyssa narrowed her eyes at his hand. She had an image to maintain, especially in front of Bacco—Cid didn’t seem to buy into her scariness quite so much. “Not concerned about them,” she said. “But if you insist.”
“I do insist, thank you very much.” He pulled back his hand, giving Bacco a look. One of those ‘is this person serious?’ type of looks. “Anyway. I was going to say that we’re meeting with a potential buyer this afternoon.”
“You aren’t including me in this ‘we’ are you?”
“Arranging a buyer for such a… hot item wasn’t easy. Best if it changes as few hands as possible.”
“This was not our agreement.”
“We didn’t have an agreement other than you saying that you would give it to us. Besides, you have such a handy carrying case! Where would I put it to carry it across the city?”
He did have a point there. His clothing was well suited for the hot days, open and loose. The relatively bulky cloak wouldn’t fit in his pants and his shirt was still the same vest he had on before. Bacco, being the same, wouldn’t have an easy time concealing it either. Did no one change clothing on a day-to-day basis in medieval times?
Still, while she could see his point, how hard would it be to get a box to put it in or a blanket to wrap it in? Besides that, the way the little rat over his shoulder started rubbing its grubby little paws together activated the warning alarms in her head. None of the other souls moved all that much except to follow their owner. So the fact that his was acting like a greedy little miser didn’t sit well for her.
“I have half a mind to keep the cloak and cut ties with you.” Bacco had been useful, but she couldn’t afford to not be pragmatic with her acquaintances in this strange world. At the moment, the princess was looking far more valuable than the pair of thieves. Strange and maybe unnatural, yes. Useful? Definitely.
“Now, don’t be like that. We’ve been good to you, haven’t we? Got you a room here for cheap. Bacco showed you around town. You’re going to take all that without paying us back for our kindness?”
“It was no trouble at all,” Bacco said in a mumbling voice, ducking his head. “We could just—” He cut himself off with a wince as something heavy thumped under the table. “I mean, it isn’t very proper to run off without repaying us.” There wasn’t a shred of conviction in his voice. The more she interacted with him, the more she wondered if he would have even gotten into criminal activity if it wasn’t for Cid’s influence. Either that or his natural vicious personality was completely suppressed by his fear of her.
How troublesome. She should have just not come back at all. Surely someone in this city was looking for a new employee. It didn’t matter if she had to do manual labor or more academically inclined work. Just as long as she got away from the criminals. But too late now. At this point, backing out would likely result in a fight. As long as no one used magic, she didn’t intend to lose any fights. She had three distinct advantages. One at her hip, one under her arm, and one slung over her shoulder. Technically she had a fourth, but the revolver in her backpack would be cumbersome to get to on short notice. But avoiding a fight altogether would be for the best. She didn’t want to hurt anyone if possible. Not even a rat.
“Fine.” Alyssa immediately regretted saying anything that Cid found pleasing. It made him smile. Just looking at his teeth made her nauseous. “But if this buyer of yours doesn’t take it today, no one will. This is your one chance.”
“And this one chance is all we’ll need. I promise you that. I know Svotty. He won’t turn down such appealing merchandise.”
Alyssa grabbed her pack and slipped into its straps, making sure to free her shotgun beforehand. Ignoring Bacco tensing, she looked to Cid. “I have things I need to do today still. We go now.”
“This is nonnegotiable. I came to the city for my own purposes and have exceedingly little care for your desires.” And, if this was some sort of ambush, going early would likely ruin everyone’s plans. “If you cannot rearrange your meeting with this Svotty, we’ll find a place to hide the cloak nearby. Bacco can stay and guard it to ensure that no one takes it before your scheduled meeting time.”
Cid pressed his lips into a thin line. His rat ceased its hand motions to simply glare with its green eyes. “Alright. Svotty won’t like—”
Bacco shook his head ever so slightly when Cid glanced in his direction. That shake turned to a slight slump as Cid stood up.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t care for something to eat first?”
“Not hungry,” Alyssa lied. She hadn’t had anything to eat but her unfinished porridge earlier in the morning. Since then, she had walked all over town and spent at least two hours in the library. It was closer to dinner time now than lunch, if barely, not that she had really had lunch as of late. Over the past two weeks, she had only eaten when she stopped walking. At most, she had nibbled on some of the stale bread while moving. Her modern granola bars were still being preserved for an actual emergency.
“Very well, follow us, I suppose.” He had to nudge Bacco before they both started moving. “It isn’t too far away from here.”
“No need to act so dejected, Cid. If what you told me is true, you’ll be rich by the end of the night.”
“That is what I’m hoping for.”
Together they walked. Well, not together together. Bacco led the way while Cid walked just a step ahead of Alyssa. For her part, Alyssa paid close attention to the streets and alleys they took, not wanting to get lost if she had to escape from the thieves on her own. She had her shotgun in hand with the safety off, though she kept her finger firmly on the trigger guard and off the trigger itself.
The roads of Lyria twisted and turned. There clearly wasn’t a city planner who had laid out all the streets in nice even rows. Even when she had been closer to the center of the city near the Observatorium, nothing was neatly organized. Which was probably because of the occasional oddly shaped building, like the Observatorium, that forced roads to bend around it. That one bulge spread out like a ripple, affecting streets for miles, combining with other buildings’ footprints to make a knotted mess. It got worse the further one got. All the way out here, the roads seemed to zig and zag before they finally crossed another street, making the occasional alleys between connected buildings almost necessary to get anywhere in a timely manner.
Thankfully, Cid wasn’t trying to waste her time, per se. She was sure that they weren’t using the fastest route to their destination, but they had yet to make four right turns. Their path, while it occasionally crossed back and forth, was steadily moving away from the central palace.
The crowds were fairly thin out here as well. The market place immediately inside the gates of Lyria had been the most crowded area she had seen here and even the Observatorium had several dozen people meandering about on their daily routines. Here, while there were people around, few were traveling. Lots of people just sat about. Were they homeless? There were a few people just huddled together in a small alcove. It wasn’t actually cold yet, but they sure looked like they were freezing. One older man with a raccoon for a soul was slathering mud onto a fairly thick crack in one of the buildings. Most buildings were poorly maintained or poorly patched up, but his was especially bad. As they passed, he gave them a little glare, but didn’t otherwise say anything.
“We’re here,” Cid said, pulling Alyssa’s attention to a nondescript building three stories tall. “Welcome to the Waters Street Waterhole.”
“That’s a terrible name,” not surprised at all to find out that this was the infamous Waters Street.
It was a fairly plain place, the same brownish color that matched most every building in the area. There weren’t any cracks in the walls, to the building’s credit, but they had a great deal of patch jobs. He walked up to the wooden door and knocked out a series of taps. Two then three then two. Some kind of password. A slot around eye-level pulled open for just long enough for Cid to give a small wave before it slammed shut again. It took a moment longer before the whole door opened.
A thick waft of grey smoke poured out of the opening. It wasn’t quite tobacco smoke, though it definitely smelled similar. It was a hint fruity compared to what she was used to smelling on her coworkers. The smell still made her wrinkle her nose.
“You’re early, Cid.” A man stood in the doorway with his arms folded. He wasn’t as big as Bacco, but he still had four times the muscles that Cid had. Surprisingly enough, he didn’t have a sword at his hip like Bacco did. He had a small dagger. Maybe as big as a combat knife. His soul was a one-eyed hippo, though Alyssa honestly didn’t know why it had only one eye. His real self had two and neither were fake as far as she could tell. He was definitely using both of them to look her over.
“A few things came up and we had to push the schedule forward,” Cid said with a nervous timber to his voice that hadn’t been there at any other time. “Is Svotty available now?”
He managed to tear his eyes away from Alyssa long enough to sneer at Cid. “You’re in luck. He just finished with one of the girls. Maybe he’ll be in a good enough mood to see you.”
“I always did say that my luck is one of my strongest traits.”
The guard snorted as he stepped to one side, allowing passage. “She’s a pretty one. That will buy you a little more into his good graces.”
Nothing about this place or the guard’s insinuations or mannerisms reassured Alyssa in the slightest. She was starting to think that this wasn’t the murder and rob type of ambush, but one with a potentially far worse ending. Her only solace was that no one bothered to take her shotgun as Cid ushered her through the door and into the smoke-filled building.
Now that she thought about it, it was somewhat surprising that the inn didn’t reek of narcotics like this place. Maybe the innkeeper disliked it. Or maybe cigarette equivalents were more difficult to acquire in this day and age. Which made a whole lot more sense. The fact that only magic could start fires—allegedly—meant that not everyone would even have access to smoking wherever they wished. Availability had been one of the main reasons why opium dens had been a thing in her world. The same could be true here, except for fire being the scarce resource.
Though it couldn’t be that scarce in the city. The inn would surely have a fire constantly lit in a back room.
It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the relative darkness of the room. There were lanterns set about, but they really didn’t do much more than a candle for their local area. Blinking away a few spots in her eyes, her frown turned to a deep scowl. “This is a brothel.”
Half-naked, or in two cases, all-naked women wandered around a wide open room, carrying trays of… something between tables occupied by men. Occasional plates of food had been set out at the tables, but most every man had a long pipe, at least as long as her arm, as they leaned back in their booths. One man had a woman bent over on all fours, whipping her with a riding crop. Muffled noises came from that corner of the room every time he struck her. She must have had some kind of gag in her mouth.
Alyssa wasn’t sure if she should be glad that the room was so dim or if she should just start firing her shotgun around the room.
No. She might hit one of the working girls. And this establishment might be perfectly legal. Probably not. It had a knock-based password on the door and no signs or advertisements decorating the exterior. A legitimate business would try to attract customers. This place was clearly trying for an unassuming look.
For now, she just grit her teeth as Cid put a hand on her shoulder and led her through the main floor. He took her to a door opposite the main entrance where they entered a narrow hallway. A hallway thankfully lacking most of the smoke from the main room. She had been feeling a bit light headed just from the small pass-through. Here and now, she needed to keep a clear head above all else.
They continued on past several rooms, all with closed doors. Alyssa tried to ignore the sounds coming from inside. She walked robotically, mind still reeling from the sights and smells in the main room. Cid took her downstairs to another long hall, below ground level. The air was even clearer down here than in the upper hallway—again, thankfully—and the area was better lit as well, with brighter lamps burning around the hall and rooms. It seemed more of a place for employees than customers. Walking down the lower hall, she passed by a kitchen with some actually good smelling food over the fire, a waiting or break room for the girls, and several closed doors. There were more guards down here as well, one stationed at the break room and another at a lonesome door at the end of the hall.
A door that Cid and Bacco were heading straight toward.
“Heya, Bennie. Heard the boss might be available.” Cid rubbed his hands together, mimicking his rat-soul, though the way he moved looked far more nervous than miserly.
The guard, like the one up top, had a knife on his hip. Not a full sword, which Alyssa could understand now. Trying to fight with a sword like Bacco’s in a narrow hallway would just wind up with the blade clanging off the wall. A spear would work better than a knife. They could just aim the pointed end toward the hall and run down anyone trying to get in.
He glared. Most people glared at Cid, Alyssa couldn’t help but notice. Including herself, for that matter. He was just a very glarable person. “When he has me break your legs and toss you out back, don’t blame me.” The man’s voice was softer than she would have expected from someone whose face was covered in scars. Rapping his knuckles against the door, he called out. “Hey boss, Cid, Bacco, and some girl here.”
A muffled “What?” came from the other side of the door.
“Cid, Bacco, and some girl are here. She looks like some traveler.”
“I heard ya the first time, idiot. What do ‘em want?”
This time, Cid responded, taking a step closer as he shouted through the door. “Heya, Svotty. I’m here with that proposition we discussed earlier. You remember, right?”
This Svotty didn’t respond right away. He mumbled and grumbled a bit, but nothing that could be understood from this side of the door. Even Cid and the guard glanced at each other and shrugged. “Uh, boss?” the guard said.
“Let ‘em in, let ‘em in.”
So he did. The guard opened the door, letting a cloud of smoke out into the hallway. This smoke lacked the fruity taste of the smoke up above. Alyssa actually coughed a little as she waved a hand in front of her face. It didn’t help.
“Well don’t just stand there.”
Cid steered her into the room before she could say anything. Bacco followed a moment later, having to duck to get under the low doorway. “This is the girl I told you about, boss,” Cid said, stopping her right in front of a thick desk.
Alyssa got her first good look at the boss. Svotty.
He was a portly man. More wide than tall with a squat, pig-like face. His clothes were larger still, looking baggy on his bulky frame. Every single one of his fingers had thick golden rings reaching from his knuckles to the first joint. He wore his hair shaved to a fine stubble. Just behind him, an equally portly pig hovered in the air. His soul.
Despite all the smoke in the room, he didn’t have a cigarette, cigar, or pipe anywhere on him or on the wooden desk he sat behind. It took her a moment to notice the little black urn on the corner of the desk. Incense, though that wasn’t necessarily incense burning. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be healthy to breathe in this much smoke.
Before she could turn her gaze back to Svotty, she noticed a smear on the ground. A red smear. Two sets of footprints had stepped in it, one barefoot and the other with some flat-soled shoe. The bare feet left a trail that dragged off to the office’s door while the other set disappeared behind the desk.
“Don’t mind that now, got a bit overexcited earlier,” Svotty said with a hearty chuckle, rolling his stomach. He leaned back in his chair, propping his feet up on the desk. Cid mirrored the laugh, though didn’t sound quite so happy about it. Bacco just grimaced and looked away.
Alyssa found herself clenching her teeth together. She could put two and two together. When the guard up top had mentioned him finishing with one of the girls, she had assumed sex. After seeing the main brothel floor, that assumption had only been reinforced. Now she couldn’t help but wonder if the poor girl had even survived. It wasn’t a lot of blood, true, but it could have been stifled with a rag or she had simply left before it got everywhere. Even if it wasn’t lethal on its own, getting a bad infection in this day and age would almost certainly be a death sentence. If there were magic spells to cure infections, a working girl likely wouldn’t have access to them, either ability-wise or financially.
Something hot burned under her collar. Anger. Svotty’s eyes looked over her, appreciating everything they saw. Her fingers tightened around her shotgun as she tried to keep calm.
“You did good this time, Cid. She has a pretty face. A pretty face gets me a pretty price,” he said with another boisterous round of laughter.
With a slight haze in her mind, Alyssa moved mechanically. Almost automatically. She brought the butt of the shotgun to her shoulder, moved her finger off the trigger guard, and squeezed.