Before the door even fully opened, Tzheitza’s frost orb was in the air. It slipped through the narrow gap to the darkened room. Oz caught the door by the handle and slammed it shut. A half second later, ice spread over the door with the sound of breaking glass.
“Lights are out in there,” Oz said, voice quick and clear. “She smashed them?”
“Bonechill,” Tzheitza replied as she tossed another orb. This one, Oz caught. “But ye gotta hurry.”
Oz nodded, pressing his thumb down on the little metallic top of the orb. Instead of tossing it into the room as well, he just shook it around. Light spread around his fingers. Like it was some sort of glow-stick. He used the same ring that hung it from Tzheitza’s bandoleer to clip it to his belt. Only then did he open the door again, slowly this time.
Icy air rushed out, making goosebumps form on everyone’s arms. Except Kasita’s. The fireplace couldn’t even stand up to the mist rolling along the ground. The flames struggled to continue burning the wood logs, but frost formed over the wood while it was still burning. It didn’t stay burning for long. The yellow flames darkened to a pale blue before going out entirely. Crystals of ice covered every surface of the fireplace and even the floor.
Oddly enough, aside from the goosebumps, Alyssa didn’t feel all that cold. Certainly not as cold as she would have expected given that it literally froze the fire in place. Hopefully her nerves hadn’t been destroyed and frostbite wasn’t setting in. Neither Oz nor Tzheitza looked too concerned. Irulon just frowned at the mist before looking back to the slowly opening doorway.
Oz moved inside slowly and carefully. The light at his hip wasn’t as good as the stationary lights around the room. Not seeing Octavia standing in the middle of the area, he took the time to check the corners, both behind the door and the other door-side corner. Since he didn’t react, the assassin must not be there.
Alyssa just watched with a nervous feeling in her stomach. How was he supposed to breach a room with a stupid sword? The room was too cramped. If Octavia had been in the corners, what would he have done? He couldn’t swing the sword. Even if she was standing right in the center, swinging his sword would probably have hit the walls or shelves long before it hit anyone else. He would have to thrust and that probably wouldn’t work all that well. Even if she was abysmally skilled, Octavia had a lithe build. She could probably move like a gymnast.
Then again, neither Tzheitza nor Oz wanted to kill children, as Oz had mentioned. Alyssa charging in with guns blazing would just be another dead body on her conscience. A kid at that. She could at least partially justify killing home invaders, slave traders, and war mongers. Even if Octavia was an assassin-in-training… well, maybe she shouldn’t get so hung up about her being a child—a teenager. Had she killed people? If so, it probably hadn’t been in self defense. And given Cid and Bacco’s injuries, she could easily have tortured people as well. Maybe Cid and Bacco’s injuries had been her doing rather than the Taker’s.
Alyssa pressed her lips together, honestly feeling some sick relief that she wasn’t able to use her weapons at the moment. It meant that she didn’t have to make the hard decisions.
Tzheitza and Oz, on the other hand, did have to do so. Oz carefully crept over a toppled over shelf. Tzheitza gripped a pale green orb in one hand and an obsidian black one in the other. While both of them had a certain tension in their movements, Irulon only looked bored. The princess moved a step back so that she could lean against the wall, idly flipping through her tome as if it were a restaurant menu and she couldn’t quite decide what she wanted to eat. Kasita…
Where did that mimic get off to now?
There were only three people left in the main room. Oz was in the storage room and Kasita was probably doing something foolish. Right after she got fixed up too.
Alyssa didn’t even bother trying to look for the mimic. If she didn’t want to be found, nobody would be able to. Except maybe Irulon. Kasita did keep mentioning that arcanists had methods of locating disguised mimics.
Heavy wood thudded against the floor in the storage room. Oz jumped back just in time to avoid a larger bookcase-like shelf falling on him. The leather of his boot slipped on the icy floor as he moved. He didn’t fall, but the stagger was enough. Octavia leaped out from the shadows in the far back of the room.
Oz raised his sword. Not to strike, but trying to block a jab of her fist.
Metal clanged against metal.
Octavia pulled back, but Oz pressed forward. He thrust out his empty fist, throwing a hard punch. It connected with an audible thwack. Oz moved forward again, throwing out another punch, though this time with his sword hand.
Either the sword made him clumsy or Octavia was better than he thought. She rammed her elbow into his wrist and his sword fell with a thump against one of the toppled shelves. Moving into his guard, Octavia slammed a foot down on his and tried to strike him with something. A thin bit of metal gleamed between her fingers. But Oz caught her wrist and tightened his grip. When she tried to elbow his wrist with her free arm, he caught that one as well.
“Now, why don’t we all sit down and—”
Octavia reared back and slammed her head down onto his.
Both of them fell away from each other. Oz released her to clutch at his head, but she didn’t make use of her freedom except to grab at her own forehead. They both moaned and groaned. Alyssa would have laughed if she wasn’t so tense.
Tzheitza didn’t laugh. She charged forward, barreling into the room. For being still a little injured from her fall off the Brechen Overlook, she moved quick, slipping right around Oz to tackle Octavia before the wannabe assassin could recover. They both fell to the ground hard, Octavia underneath the significantly larger Tzheitza. Getting an arm underneath one of Octavia’s armpits, Tzheitza flipped the girl onto her stomach and slammed her face onto the icy floor. While one hand kept her head pinned down, the other managed to get both of Octavia’s arms by the wrists.
In the span of only a few seconds, Octavia couldn’t do much besides impotently kick her legs into the ground. Even that was taken away from her when Tzheitza shifted to move her own feet to trap Octavia’s.
All the while, Oz just stood to the side, rubbing his head.
“Ya mind helpin’ ye haberin fool?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said after a mild groan. “I’ll get a rope.” His words descended into mumbled rambles. “Stupid kid doesn’t even know how to do a proper headbutt.”
Alyssa’s head snapped to her side where Irulon held a card between her fingers. The princess had a deep scowl on her face. Possibly the most upset Alyssa had ever seen her. Translucent shackles latched tight around Octavia’s form, before Oz could take a step away. Once the other end of the chains formed in Irulon’s hands, she gave a sharp tug. Octavia didn’t move—Tzheitza was still on top of her—but she did shout.
“Well, well. What have we here?” Irulon took a single step forward with each word. Between, she tugged on the chains, keeping them taut as well as eliciting pained noises from Octavia. She slowly started to smile. It was not her mask, that delightfully pleasant smile that she wore in front of others. It wasn’t even that true-smile that she had on while Alyssa had been explaining where she had come from.
Her lips curled back, more like a wolf baring its teeth in a display of threat and prowess.
Irulon stopped one pace away from Octavia’s face. “Get off her,” she ordered.
Tzheitza hesitated, but all it took was one flick of Irulon’s eyes away from Octavia for her to release the smaller girl and move off to the side. Of course, the chains kept Octavia from moving even with Tzheitza off her back. It was all she could do to crane her neck far enough back to see who was standing over her, holding her chains.
“Seventh,” Octavia spat. A small trickle of blood leaked from the corner of her mouth, freezing as soon as it hit the ice. “Nice to see you again.”
“Sister. Dear sister. Your goals are a bit too high. Father always said you were a disappointment. You should keep that in mind when taking action far beyond your station.” She scoffed, throwing a glance toward Oz. “Even though he grossly exaggerates his abilities, a Miserable. Failure. Would never have a chance at defeating him.”
Alyssa looked between the two, wide-eyed. Sister? Had she heard correctly? Taking a few steps closer to get a better look, she… really couldn’t see much resemblance at all. They had the same violet eyes, but Irulon had sharp features and a darker skin tone, Octavia’s face was more rounded and pale. Their hair didn’t match either, with the former having brown and the latter a dusty-blond.
Somehow, and perhaps foolishly, Octavia managed to muster up enough willpower to force a smile. It, more than anything else, cemented in Alyssa’s mind the fact that they were sisters. The two wore nearly the same sneer on their face.
“At least my mother wasn’t a—”
Irulon jerked the chain forward, lashing out with her foot at the same time. She kicked Octavia hard enough to flip her onto her back.
“There you go again, being a failure.” Irulon stepped forward before Octavia fully landed, pressing a foot down on her chest. “When you cannot stand on your own merits, you feel the need to bring our mothers into it. Just like when you were a child. You obviously haven’t grown at all since then, have you?”
Mothers. Plural. That explained their drastically different appearance. How many wives or concubines did their father have? While he could have remarried, Alyssa doubted it. Pharaohs probably weren’t limited to one. In fact, was monogamy even a real thing in this world? She couldn’t even think of a single person she had met that had been married. Now that she was thinking about it, not a single person had introduced themselves with a family name.
“Now,” Irulon said, not taking her violet eyes off her sister, “I believe I only have half the story, but I can add context together better than anyone. You, dear sister, are a traitor to father and the city, siding with deviant criminal elements.”
Octavia snorted a sarcastic laugh, spitting out another glob of blood. “You don’t know the half of it. Go ahead, Seventh. Throw me in your oubliette. I won’t be in there for long. Waters Street has big plans. Bigger than you could possibly know. I’ll be the one sitting at the top of the tower. Not you!”
“A coup then? Ahahaha.” Octavia’s mouth snapped shut with a click as Irulon went down on one knee. In a voice barely above a whisper, she said, “Whoever told you anything was an even larger fool than you are. Hm. Unless they intended for you to be captured and to deliver misleading information. That is something I might do.” Frowning in thought, Irulon’s head drifted off to the side. “What advantage would there be in implicating Waters Street as more than just criminals? A coup. Distraction? Rivals? Foreign meddling?” As Irulon mumbled, her eyes twitched back and forth, occasionally flicking to their black and white mode. With her head tilted to the side, neither Tzheitza nor Oz could see. Only Alyssa could.
Alyssa and Octavia.
Irulon, eyes normal once again, snapped her head back to Octavia. “A puzzle to put together later. For now, dealing with my traitorous sister.” Wrapping the chain around her wrist, Irulon let go. The translucent links didn’t vanish as they had with Bercilak’s minion. They remained tightly wrapped around Octavia, leaving Irulon free to page through her tome again. Selecting one of her cards, she pulled it free from the rest of the book.
From her angle, Alyssa couldn’t see what was on the card. The same was not true for Octavia. Her eyes widened when she saw what was on the front. “Wh-What do you think you’re doing with that?”
“You know very well what happens to traitors. Oubliette? Don’t make me laugh.”
“I’m a princess. Father won’t let—”
“You are a traitor. A title that suppresses all else. And a traitor must be dealt with as a traitor deserves.” She raised the card, fully angling the design toward Octavia. Opening her mouth to speak, she—
“Wait!” Alyssa blurted out, unable to stop herself. She stepped forward, only to take a step back as Irulon slowly turned. Excepting that one step, she held her ground, gritting her teeth. “You can’t just kill her.”
“Why? What do you mean why? Doesn’t she get a trial? Or something.” Alyssa didn’t even know why she was speaking up. Possibly because this was all her fault. If not for her trusting Cid and Bacco, if not for her rescuing the monsters, if not for her abusing Tzheitza’s trust for a place to stay, if not for her casting Desecrate Spells around Kasita, if not for her running to the only person she could think of for help… It weighed on her conscience. Oz’s plan was much better. Let Octavia get rehabilitated through community service with the guild. Or something. Not killed. Alyssa had already killed enough people. And those that she had had at least been grown adults who had made their beds. She had just been helping the people lie in them. “She’s only a teenager. Teenagers are idiots! I know. I was one!”
Octavia snarled. “I am not—”
“Shut up!” Alyssa shouted at the stupid girl before she could make things worse. Sometimes it felt like everyone else in this entire world was lacking something vital to functioning normally. All the way from Tenebrael down to the random village people who celebrated the deaths of the suicidally depressed.
“She has already attacked your friends with the intent to kill.” Irulon bent and picked up a little narrow bit of metal. Maybe a piece from Octavia’s outfit or a small bracket from one of the toppled shelves. She brought it up to her nose and gave it a little sniff. “Medusa venom extract.” Her gaze turned, searching the room. She took one step away from Octavia to kneel in front of a little shattered jar. “From here. Possession of the substance is illegal, resulting in a fine and time in the stocks,” she said, looking over to Tzheitza.
“I have a permit,” Tzheitza said, slow and clear.
“Hm. If this had gotten into someone’s bloodstream, they would have been turned to stone. Maybe only partially in the case of a limb, but she was clearly trying to strike him in the face.” Irulon nodded toward Oz. “In addition, she has already admitted to plotting a coup. The only meaning a trial could serve would be delaying the inevitable.”
“No. You said that they were planning a coup. That’s nothing but conjecture. All she said was that she would be out of jail soon enough. Maybe she thought that Waters Street was going to break her out. Or the pharaoh. You even said, immediately after suspecting a coup, that it wasn’t a coup because nobody would be stupid enough to tell that idiot something actually important…” Alyssa took a breath, having run out of air while speaking. That breath made her think for a moment. “No one would have told her something important,” she said slowly. “But what if she found out something else of import? Something Waters Street didn’t want anyone to know about. Knowing that she is a liability, they told her something even bigger, like a coup, so that she would blab about that instead. If treason is punished by immediate execution, she would be dead before she could talk about anything else…”
Irulon smiled. Not a gleeful smile. Not a vicious smile. Her eyes went innocently wide as her lips pressed into that vapid blank smile that she wore in public. “Hm. Sounds like conjecture to me. But—” Her smile widened as her eyes narrowed. “—I’m glad my faith in your mental alacrity was not wholly misplaced. I agree.”
“You can’t—” Alyssa blinked. “You do?”
“Perhaps not with your outlined scenario. It is far too convoluted. Too prone to failure. However, there is something that anyone who has met her can attest to: The Eighth is an imbecile beyond measure.”
Octavia started grinding her teeth together loud enough for the whole room to hear. “You are always like this. Always so smug. Always so… This is why everyone hates you. Our older brothers… Our younger siblings… Our fath— Ah! Ah-Ah!”
Alyssa had stepped forward and pressed her foot down on Octavia’s fingers. “I am trying to keep you alive,” she hissed, leaning down. Her words grew quieter and quieter the closer she got to Octavia’s ear. “Do you want to die? Do you know what happens when you die?” She didn’t give the would-be assassin a chance to answer. “It isn’t what you’ve been taught. You won’t be whisked off to peace and happiness. Your soul will be torn from your body and consumed like a cheap chunk of bread.” By the end, she wasn’t even sure if Octavia could hear her voice with how quiet it was. Her lips were practically brushing against her ear. “Tenebrael is a monster worse than any other.”
To get so close to Octavia, she had needed to kneel down on the ground. With a broken arm and a still injured hand, it took a bit of effort to get back standing again, but she managed. Everyone in the room was staring at her. Oz, Tzheitza, and, of course, Irulon. Alyssa didn’t meet any of their eyes. Would Oz and Tzheitza thank her for trying to save the girl’s life? She had tried to kill them and had destroyed probably a decent amount of money’s worth of potion reagents. But they had said that they didn’t like killing kids. Irulon… Honestly, Alyssa hadn’t a clue what the princess was thinking. One moment, she had been about ready to slaughter her sister right in front of everyone. The next, she had been… praising Alyssa for stopping her?
“Open your mouth again and I won’t lift a finger to help you. I need to talk to her anyway.” As soon as Alyssa spoke, Irulon’s eyes twinkled. Not literally. They didn’t have any magic going on in them. But there was a certain curious thought behind them that made Alyssa snap her mouth shut, wishing she hadn’t added that last bit. Irulon was too good at putting small clues together to see the larger picture. Even if she had painted the entirely wrong picture of Alyssa at first, she hadn’t been completely off the track. The only reason she had the wrong idea had been because Alyssa being from an entirely different world had been so far out of the context she could think in that it might as well have been impossible.
Now that she knew that little tidbit, her guesses were probably going to get closer and closer to the mark the more they interacted.
Thankfully, Irulon didn’t start throwing theories out. After that little twinkle of her eyes, she turned back to Octavia.
“Regardless of what Alyssa says, you, dear sister, are a traitor. But, in light of you possibly knowing—even unwittingly—more than you are saying, I imagine that Father will wish to speak with you before any punitive measures are taken. So you have achieved a stay of execution until he returns from surveying Pandora.”
Alyssa pressed her lips together, not sure at all what she could possibly say. If Octavia was involved in some sort of coup, then the pharaoh did need to know. Unless Alyssa wanted the coup to succeed, which she didn’t—even if she disagreed with the slavery and a few other things supported by the government, the idea that a gang would run it any better was laughable at best. If the pharaoh chose to kill his own daughter, there was nothing she could do about it. All she had done was save Octavia from dying at her sister’s hands right away. Maybe if she told what she knew, she would be granted some clemency, but that was a far-fetched notion with her personality. As Irulon had said, her sister was an idiot.
“Besides,” Irulon said, smile turning nasty once again, “public executions not only serve as a deterrent to other traitors, but they are always more fun.”