Alyssa’s hand ached. Muscles in the palm of her hand and her wrist were all cramped up. They shouldn’t be. She had only been practicing drawing a perfect circle for two hours. Back in her grade school days, she had written pretty much all day long for twelve years straight. Two hours holding a pencil should have been a cinch.
Haha. No. By the end of it, her fingers had been locked in place. Her knuckles crackled and popped when she finally set down the fountain pen. She hadn’t even been using ink for the majority of the time. It was too expensive for simple practice. But Alyssa couldn’t fault the results. She had successfully tested a Message spell on Irulon.
Maybe not the most impressive spell to test, but also not a destructive spell. The actual act of creating the spell card had been fairly unimpressive as well. A few scribbles and… magic. A small part of her had expected some sort of ritual involved in their creation. Maybe a drop of blood in the middle or a few abracadabras mumbled under her breath. But no. So long as the designs were properly formed and the card contained the proper angelic text—which Irulon didn’t know the exact meaning of either, though she had mentioned that they were among the more difficult parts of spell creation—the spell would work.
Flicking her wrist to try to work the kinks out, Alyssa walked down the street with an occasional glance to a piece of paper. Directions. After Irulon decided that Alyssa’s meager attempts at perfect shapes were satisfactory enough—or maybe she had just gotten bored—Alyssa had asked for directions to that tailor that she had mentioned. While her modern clothes were less attention-grabbing than the purple cloak she had first worn to the city, acquiring some legitimate attire that fit with the local fashion sounded necessary, if not now then at some point in the future. She doubted that she would actually purchase anything as she had left most of Svotty’s cash behind. Scouting out prices and making contacts with important people were her current goals.
The wealthier side of the city, which contained the Observatorium and several of the larger more opulent homes, felt awkward to walk through. The streets were cleaner than the north and western areas. Larger as well. Some of the main roads were even paved with smoothed cobblestones. There were big houses, even bigger than Tzheitza’s shop, that didn’t even have businesses attached to them like many others did. Their yards weren’t like modern grass yards. They had grass, but they were more like miniature farms filled with all sorts of chickens and turkeys. Walking past was like crossing in front of a band of trumpeters.
But none of that really bothered Alyssa.
It was the slaves.
They were elves for the most part once again. Some would wander the streets with their masters. Others would be in their manor’s yards tending to the livestock or plants. It took a great deal of effort to keep her head focused forward and not get too worked up about their status.
The markets were far more fascinating. There were larger stalls like those at the city entrance, though there weren’t as many of the mobile carts compared to the permanent building shops. The permanent buildings were all oversized. Each shop was unique, nothing like a modern strip mall. Every single shop without exception had large signs hanging above the doorways, painted with their names and a logo. The names were actually far smaller than the logo. Perhaps for the illiterate. Tonks Tailory had a spool of thread with a single string stretching off toward a tunic. The leatherworking shop had its whole sign made out of hides. A barber’s shop had scissors and… leeches?
Not as many people wandered about between the merchants and stores when compared with the city entrance market, but both the people and the goods for sale looked far more expensive. Apples still lacked the glossy sheen of the modern version and were still bruised, but less so compared to the ones she had seen and purchased over near Tzheitza’s shop.
Checking her directions, Alyssa frowned. There was a tailor shop right in the middle of the main square, the second that she had seen since entering this market. It had a few people standing around it. But Irulon’s instructions specifically said to avoid Cott’s Cloth Emporium. Instead, Alyssa headed in the opposite direction down a dark and dusty alley. Despite it still being the middle of the day, it was almost like she had walked indoors. Or into a cave.
Save for herself, the alley was empty. No one bustled about down in this forsaken section of the market. Even the sounds of the crowd from the main square were nothing more than eerie whispers in the shadows.
Was this supposed to be Irulon’s idea of a joke?
Alyssa threw a glance behind her, just to make sure that she wasn’t being boxed in by two creepy thieves. For her meeting at the Observatorium, she had left behind her shotgun. Both her hip and underarm holsters were filled. Putting her hand on her pistol’s hilt, she crept on just a little longer.
The alley seemed to stretch on forever. It couldn’t, of course. There were other streets around. But no matter how far she walked, she never seemed to get closer to the light at the end. The bricks of the alley closed around her as if it were a mouth trying to consume her in the most unassuming fashion.
A flash of movement skittered about in front of her, tearing out of a small archway. Alyssa had her pistol out and aimed down the alley in the blink of an eye.
She didn’t need to use it. The skeletally thin mutt scampered off, startled from an alcove it had been hiding in. Alyssa clamped her hand over her mouth and nose as she glanced toward the alcove. A metal shutter contraption blocked off most of a doorway, but one of the metal plates near the bottom was bent back. Red viscera spilled out onto the ground. Blood mixed with dirt and saliva in deep gouges from claw and teeth marks. The starving dog must have found a snack, but ugh, what was it?
The smell burned at her nose; a meaty, rank scent that was somewhere between rotting food and an outhouse.
Bugs swarmed over the viscera. Large bulbous bugs with sharp snouts. Like mosquitoes except they were the size of her palm. They stayed close to the bloody mess and away from her, but the sight of them still made her shudder.
Thinking she must have taken a wrong turn, Alyssa backed away. This couldn’t be the right place. A princess like Irulon would never be caught dead in such a dank place. There were even thick cobwebs clinging to overhead archways that stretched between the buildings, blocking out light. It was all too much.
No. Irulon would shop at some marble mansion filled with clothes made out of actual gold threads. There would be a hundred attendants surrounding her at all times, bringing her one dress after another as she sat in the middle, directing them like an orchestra conductor with her too-perfect smile.
Alyssa started out of the alley only to pause. She hadn’t noticed when passing earlier, but there was glass on this wall. A window. Dust had caked onto the glass so thick that it blended into the surrounding walls. The only reason she noticed was because of the massive spider web breaking up the fine layer of dust. Now that she was looking, she could see faint lettering etched into the glass.
Madame Webb’s Fine Threads
Glancing down at her directions, Alyssa confirmed that yes, this was the tailor that Irulon had mentioned. What a creepy place, she thought as she leaned in to try to peer through the glass. Even if the place actually existed, which Alyssa still wasn’t sure of with how empty and uninhabited the building looked, she still wasn’t all that inclined to enter.
It wasn’t empty. Something just moved inside. Brushing a bit of dust away, Alyssa got her first good look at the interior. Only a few candles lit up the dim room. A young girl sat behind a counter, she had to be younger than Alyssa. Maybe even a teenager. She had long black hair and… a blindfold covering her eyes. Even with the thick cloth on her face, the girl still turned to the window with a smile.
A knot formed in Alyssa’s stomach. But the girl couldn’t possibly have seen her. That was definitely not some false blindfold. It might as well be a wool scarf.
The girl lifted a gloved hand into the air and gave a small beckoning wave.
The knot pulled itself taut as Alyssa jumped back from the window. Nope. No no definitely not. I’ve seen this horror movie. Gun in hand and keeping an eye over her shoulder, Alyssa stalked back down the alley toward the main market square. Running away from someone who might be legitimately blind and had merely heard her brush away the window dust did make her feel a bit bad, but this was a world of monsters and magic. Alyssa would take her chances at the popular tailor shop in the well-lit market rather than some run-down back-alley hole-in-the-wall.
A narrow shadow blocked the light at the end of the alley as a figure moved toward her.
Grinding her teeth together, Alyssa aimed her gun. The market was just beyond, likely filled with people, but Alyssa found herself hard pressed to care at the moment. Between the bloody meat leaking from buildings, creepy blind girls, and dark alleys, she just wanted to be back out in the light. And this man was blocking her in.
Or… he had been blocking her in.
A scream echoed off the bricks in the alley. Not Alyssa’s scream. She was just fine. It had come from the man who was now sniveling in a heap on the floor with his hands clasped over his head. A handful of people passing the mouth of the alley glanced in. Either they didn’t care or they didn’t want to get caught up in troublesome things because they all continued on their way. At least one of them would probably notify a guard. Which might either be good or bad depending on who the guard decided was the aggressor here.
Right now, it was looking an awful lot like Alyssa.
After tossing a quick glance down the alley to ensure that this wasn’t some strange distraction while people sneaked up behind her, Alyssa took a cautious step closer to the man. Not because she wanted to, but because it was the closest way out of the alley. Thankfully, he had thrown himself to a wall, leaving her with plenty of space to edge around him. So long as the curved sword at his hip remained in its little sling on his belt… Alyssa frowned as she eyed the skinny man. His clothes were shabby. Nothing like what someone actually shopping in this section of the city would normally wear.
He peeked out from under his arms as Alyssa paused.
All sense of curiosity fled from Alyssa, replaced with rage. Her fingers tightened around the grip of her pistol as she brought it back up to aim squarely at the man.
“Cid,” she spat.
“P-please don’t hurt me!”
“Stalking me? Or out hunting for more victims to sell? Either way, I should send you to Tenebrael. That would solve at least two of my problems. Give one good reason why you deserve to live.”
“I…” He kept his head down, forehead pressed firmly into the dirt ground. His voice came out slightly muffled with how he was curled up. But he still managed to steady his voice enough to speak clearly. “I need your help.”
“Help?” Alyssa parroted. He had been clear, but she still wasn’t sure that she had heard him clearly. “You need my help? With what? Kidnapping more—” Cutting herself off as someone coughed, Alyssa looked up. Apparently not everyone had moved on. Three people dressed in a well-to-do style were staring. Others, curious at what was making a spectacle, were stopping to watch before moving on with their business. “I’m leaving. If I catch you following me again, I will shoot you and I won’t lose a wink of sleep over it. Rather, I imagine that this world would be a much better place.”
“Wait! Please.” Cid reached out, grasping for her ankles until she stepped on his hand. She ground her heel in, eliciting a sharp groan. But it wasn’t enough to stop him from talking. “It’s Bacco. T-They took him! He’s all I have. If something were to happen to him…”
No matter what universe, there was a generally agreed upon rule that a tragedy befalling someone did not excuse their crimes and disgusting personalities. Sympathy should only be afforded to the sympathetic. Which Cid most certainly was not. Even if he had lost his arms and legs to goblins, she wouldn’t have cared in the slightest.
But Alyssa still found herself stopping. Not because of Cid, but because of Bacco. The larger man had helped her out and had been slightly more tolerable than his partner. In the end, he had still tried to sell her, but he had seemed at least somewhat reluctant about it. Maybe that wasn’t a good reason to forgive him. In fact, no! It most certainly isn’t a good reason to forgive him. Especially when he had probably only been reluctant because he had been afraid of her. Had she been any old regular girl, she would likely be confined to a bedchamber right about now.
“I don’t see why I should care. Get out of my sight.”
Cid clutched his hand to his chest the moment Alyssa lifted her foot. Leaving him to his sniveling, Alyssa started walking again. She shot a glare at one of the men watching the altercation from the main street; he quickly decided that he had other places to be, leaving the alley exit open.
“They’re after you too!” Cid called out from behind her. “And they’ll find you. Don’t think you can hide behind your potion seller forever!”
Alyssa’s steps froze with one foot in the air. A small bit of perspiration formed on her back as she slowly lowered her boot to the ground. She stood there with her back to Cid, mind flashing through possibilities and worries.
“You’re lucky I found you first.”
It was a good thing the safety was on. Alyssa’s finger wasn’t even in the trigger guard, but her hand was shaking with how hard her fingers were wrapped around the grip. Whirling on her heel, she got her first good look at Cid’s face.
Days old cuts lined his face. Each were thick, like they had been drawn on with a pointed stick rather than a metal blade. His lips were split in several places. One of his eyes had swelled almost to the point of being shut entirely.
Curling her lip, Alyssa stalked back to him. She squatted down, not even caring that the hem of her dress brushed against the dirt. “What are you talking about?” she hissed. “Who is after me?”
“Who do you think? Waters Street.”
“Great.” Alyssa bit her lip. She had considered that the gang might be larger than Svotty and his guards, but with a week passing and having heard nothing about the gang, she had put it out of her mind. “They’re upset about Svotty?”
Cid scoffed. “Knocking off Svotty wasn’t even a big deal. He’s already been replaced. I doubt they were even worried about the loose coins. They’re… upset about you stealing their merchandise.”
“Merchan—The monster girls?”
“Unless you took something more valuable that I don’t know about, yes.”
A faint tingle brushed the hairs on Alyssa’s neck. She threw a quick glance about just to make sure that no one was sneaking up on her. “So what is after me? A few thugs like you and Bacco? How many?”
Cid put his disgusting teeth on display—now missing one or two more than he had before, but that was hardly noticeable. As he smiled, one of the cuts on his lip broke open, spilling a fresh trickle of blood down his chin. “I’ve told you enough. You help me, and I’ll help you.”
His smile slipped as the silence dragged on. Alyssa wasn’t about to agree to anything he wanted. Instead she stood and started walking away again. “I’ll deal with it myself.” Tzheitza had to have some good ideas on what to do. And she was infinitely more trustworthy.
“Please,” Cid called out as she turned her back on him, all trace of his momentary schadenfrude missing from his voice. “Help me save Bacco. He’s a good kid. Doesn’t deserve this life I’ve dragged him into. I’ll tell you everything I know. Once we find him, you’ll never have to see us again.”
Alyssa continued on for another few steps, but each one came slower than the last until she finally stopped. He had a point. She knew absolutely nothing of the Waters Street gang save for what she saw at the brothel. Tzheitza might know about the gang, but she might not just as easily. Cid was, if not a full member of the gang, a close associate of them. He had up-to-date insider knowledge. And had likely been tortured at their hands if his wounds were anything to go by.
He wouldn’t be loyal to them after that.
“Get on your feet. Keep your hands away from your sides and do not make any sudden movements. They will be your last. And quit smiling! It repulses me.”
“You’ll help me?”
“I’ll consider it. I won’t give you anything more concrete than that until I know more. But not here.” Even if they weren’t really paying more attention than a simple curiosity deserved, Alyssa didn’t like her business being aired in front of half the market square. Not to mention she was still in the same alley as that creepy tailor shop. No. She would discuss things with Cid someplace where they were safe and alone.
And Alyssa couldn’t think of anywhere safer than Tzheitza’s potion shop with the potioneer herself helping to keep an eye on the criminal.