Ten minutes ticked by a lot slower when waiting for something to happen. Especially when Alyssa wasn’t sure at all that said something would even occur. When she had left Irulon’s laboratory, involuntarily though it had been, there had been a Fractal magic barrier over the only door out. She had Messaged Kasita essentially asking her to come down in the guise of Irulon to order around the palace guard. But that plan all failed at the first step if Kasita couldn’t even leave the laboratory.
The palace guards remained stubborn. Decorous had wandered over to the main gate and looked to be in a heated argument with the guards. The black-armored guard stood tall and firm, though he and his fellow knights had tensed when Decorous first approached. It was plain to see in their body language that they wished the man would just go away. Their hands moved closer to their swords than they had been before. The central leader-type knight, who had a small violet-colored emblem on his chest to differentiate him from the others, had his fists balled up as tight as his gauntlets would allow. Those further away moved closer to support their comrades should the need arise. But not so close as to leave vacant spots along the wall.
Decorous, if he paid attention to the movements of the guards at all, seemed unconcerned. His focus was solely on the leader. He wasn’t shouting and irate the way some customers had been back at the home improvement store, but he clearly wasn’t happy. Every few words he spoke was accompanied by a slash of his hand across his waist. The palace guard interrupted him every so often, but he did so in return just as frequently.
Alyssa couldn’t understand. Not letting some random civilian in made enough sense. If she were in charge of security, she wouldn’t want her here either. But the city guard? The palace was under attack. Or it had been, but they didn’t know that the fairy in her pouch had set all the monsters to finding the people actually responsible for this attack.
It was a case of two primary groups with supposedly similar goals but vastly opposite organizational structures, according to Oxart. The palace guard only responded to the royal family. And not even every member of it. There were apparently a lot of members of the royal family. Irulon had six older brothers, plus her father. Then she had a good twenty younger siblings, most of whom were children and teenagers. The pharaoh wasn’t an only child, having brothers and sisters of his own, most of whom had their own descendants. But the palace guard would only accept commands from the pharaoh and his line of family, and they had to be at least seventeen years of age. Should there be no valid royals, they would begin branching out. First to younger children, though that apparently stopped at age thirteen—anyone younger was considered too immature to make decisions. After that, they would finally branch out to Irulon’s uncles or aunts.
The city guard, on the other hand, were owned by the nobles. Nobles were generally land owners and regents of other cities, towns, and villages. Though not all. Some had been able to purchase their way into nobility, exceedingly rich merchants and the like, and a few had been granted titles due to worthy deeds performed by them or their ancestors in service of the pharaoh. The latter options tended to have less influence over the city guard because they contributed less bodies—most soldiers of the city guard were recruited from peasantry of the nobles’ lands. Those that contributed the most personnel and funds had the most influence.
However, the city guard had significantly more autonomy. The nobles could order them around, but most decisions were actually made by the captains. Though they had manors within the city, the very buildings that surrounded the palace where Alyssa stood at the moment, most nobles tended to spend their time within their own domains, managing their own people and their own armies, and only lived in the city for a few days a year. Hence the autonomy.
The hostility between the groups boggled Alyssa’s mind. The palace guard were actively putting the royal family into more danger by refusing to let the city guard help. It was insane. “Surely they realize that,” Alyssa whispered to herself.
Oxart’s muttering over the map on the table ceased as she looked up. Since Decorous had gone off to speak with the palace guard, Oxart had started casting spells at the map. Locating spells, judging by the names of a few of them, though Alyssa didn’t know what she was trying to find. Probably members of the Society of the Burning Shadow. Judging by the frown and the glare, her efforts were not being rewarded. “Realize what?”
“Oh just… that they need help ensuring that the palace is safe. There are what, two hundred fifty people out here? All trained swordsmen. And how many did you say they had? One hundred? That number includes the guards who were supposed to be stationed around and inside the palace. People who are probably dead now.”
“Very likely,” Oxart said with a nod of her head.
“Then how many people are out here standing guard? There are probably only twenty people trying to clear the palace. That place is huge!”
Oxart grunted an agreement. “They’re worried we might do something to undermine the royal authority. If the royals lose power, the nobles gain power.”
“But you aren’t going to do anything like that… are you?”
“I won’t,” Oxart said, though Alyssa didn’t miss the way her eyes flicked over to Decorous. “But it isn’t just me. Among my men, there are no less than fifteen nobles of varying stations in life. So long as I have eyes on them, none will try anything. I don’t believe any would try anything anyway, but there is always a chance that their houses have given them orders that I don’t know about.”
Alyssa grit her teeth. It sounded an awful lot like the palace guard were right to deny the city guard entrance. Would it kill these people to work together? Probably.
“You’re quite the conundrum.”
Blinking, Alyssa glanced up to meet Oxart’s eyes. “What?”
“You seem to have a habit of finding threats to the city.”
Ah. That. Alyssa couldn’t help her scoff. “Not by intention or choice, I assure you. If I could live a nice peaceful life where I didn’t have to deal with life and death matters every day, I would.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“Powers beyond my control,” she said with a wan smile. “Though I am looking into controlling, killing, or otherwise avoiding said powers. However, I haven’t had all that much time as of late to actually do research. Things like this keep cropping up. Ugh, I need a vacation. And a nap.”
“Mhm. I can already tell that this is going to be a night where I don’t get any sleep,” Oxart said, her naturally hard tone softening ever so slightly. “Though I cannot help but wonder if we are wasting our time here.”
“What do you mean?”
“You sent a Message to me earlier. Two, in fact. One warning about the shadow assassins, another about the gaunt. Perhaps it slipped your mind, but I cannot help but wonder how your sister is going to get Irulon to come down from the top of the palace while being… grievously injured, was it?”
“Ah…” Alyssa shifted where she stood. “Did I say that?”
“Ah. Well. I probably sent the message in haste before being fully aware of the situation. I had just gotten done being chased around by a gaunt, after all,” Alyssa said with a nervous laugh.
“So the princess isn’t injured.”
“I didn’t say that. Just that she might not be as grievously injured as the word grievous might imply.”
“You’re having your sister escort an injured princess through a palace that could be filled with monsters. How capable is she?”
“Ahh…” Alyssa rubbed the back of her head. A movement in the corner of her eye saved her from answering. The palace’s main doors swung open. Irulon strode out, looking like she owned the place, flanked on either side by black-armored palace guards. Alyssa turned to face the palace, though glanced to a now utterly still Oxart. “Quite capable, it seems,” she said with a smile.
The captain didn’t respond because the princess began speaking, choosing to stare instead.
“Palace guard! Attention!” Every guard nearby save for the two at Irulon’s sides turned to her, put an arm across their chest, and knelt down on one knee. They all moved in such perfect synchronicity that Alyssa had to wonder how many hours of their training went into genuflecting. The city guard also moved to show respect, but not quite to the point of kneeling. “You are to join the city guard in searching and clearing the palace of all threats.”
The leader of the palace guard, kneeling next to Decorous, looked up. “But Princess Irulon, we have…” He hesitated upon making eye contact, hand moving back toward his sword. “You aren’t—”
“Loophole,” Irulon snapped out before he could do or say more. A card between her fingers vanished.
The leader snapped back, moving to his full kneeling position that he had held before looking up. He started talking again, but his words were jumbled, sometimes coming out with multiple words spoken at once, sometimes with a single word sounding like it had been recorded on a faulty record. Then he flickered again, this time looking away from the palace with clenched fists in the exact pose he had taken while arguing with Decorous. He reset again, kneeling.
Irulon looked around with piercing eyes, daring anyone else to make a move against her.
No one did.
“You,” Irulon said, pointing to a random palace guard near the now constantly resetting leader. “What is your name?”
The knight ducked his head, looking at the ground. “O-Ogden.”
“Congratulations, Ogden, on your promotion. Before you make the same mistake as your predecessor, allow me to inform you of a few facts: I have had a bad day. I’m sure you don’t need me to explain why. I am in no mood for insubordination. All you need to know is that the sooner this mess is over with, the sooner everyone can go back to having a normal life. Do you know how many rooms are inside the palace?”
“Three thousand one hundred thirty seven. With the palace guard divided into three groups, assuming each room takes only five minutes to search, do you know how long it will take to fully search every room within the palace?”
“It will take three days, fourteen hours, and thirty minutes. That is assuming there are no breaks and no combat. Obviously, this is unacceptable. To that end, the city guard will be divided up. There will be at most two palace guardsmen per group. The city guard should be evenly divided among the palace guard. Your orders are to clear the entire palace of any hostile threats. There may be monsters within the palace. There is definitely a woman inside. She was wearing a hooded cloak, but may now be disguised as a servant, as such, all servants are to be detained until their identity can be verified. Are my orders clear, Ogden?” Irulon held up another spell card. “Or do I need to find someone else who can listen to simple directions.”
“N-No ma’am… I mean yes ma’am. I mean… Right away, ma’am!”
“Ufu~ Good. That is what I like to hear. You may begin.”
Irulon bored a hole into the man with her gaze as he stood on shaking legs. Ogden gave one glance toward the man he had replaced before turning around. “You heard the princess! Let’s get moving.” He started pointing out people, both palace guard and city guard, and started barking out orders. The city guard were far more hesitant to follow through, often looking to Decorous or Oxart, but neither made to disagree with his orders. Though Decorous definitely looked like he wanted to. His face was set into a deep scowl, but his frequent glances to the Loopholed palace guard were enough to hold his tongue.
“Alyssa, to me,” Irulon called across the pavilion.
“Ah. Well, nice talking with you Oxart. Better not keep the princess—” A gloved hand slapped down on Alyssa’s shoulder before she could take a full step away. Oxart pulled her back and put her lips right up to Alyssa’s ear.
“That isn’t Irulon,” Oxart hissed, so quiet that Alyssa could barely hear her even with the proximity. “The man she spelled was one of the few who could have identified that. What is that spell?”
A knot formed in Alyssa’s stomach at hearing Oxart’s words. Of course, Alyssa knew that this Irulon was Kasita. But no one else was supposed to have known. This was it. The thing Kasita had been worried about since Alyssa had first met her. Oxart could detect mimics.
And Alyssa had to defuse her before she pointed it out to anyone else. “W-Well… That’s… The palace guardsman. He’ll be back to normal in ten to twenty minutes.”
Oxart’s fingers dug into Alyssa’s shoulder. “Explain.”
“Loophole. Irulon explained it to me one time. It’ll keep him trapped in warped time until the spell wears off.”
“That’s too long. Without him, if the fake princess orders the palace guard to attack us, they will.”
“Best to act like nothing is wrong then, right? I guess I’ll just—” Alyssa tried to walk away, but Oxart’s vice grip didn’t let up.
“The fake princess isn’t injured in the slightest. You knew that. You know she isn’t the real Irulon.”
The knot in Alyssa’s stomach pulled tight as she felt something sharp prick her back.
At the same time, Kasita put her hands to her hips. “Is there a problem, Alyssa?”
“N-No,” Alyssa called back, wincing slightly as the dagger pressed harder. “Just a moment.”
Kasita’s violet eyes widened, possibly realizing what was going on. She started forward, only to pause as Alyssa waved a hand.
Somehow, Alyssa had to defuse this without Kasita directing the palace guard to attack the city guard. And vice versa in the case of Oxart. The truth seemed like a good start. Oxart seemed like the kind of person who would respond well to being told everything. The real problem was whether or not she would believe the truth.
Only one way to find out.
“The Irulon up there is a mimic.” The dagger bit into Alyssa’s back just a bit deeper, so she started speaking faster. Though she didn’t raise her voice any louder. The less people who knew about this, the better. “The real Irulon is high up in the tower under a stasis spell. She is injured to the point where, should the spell wear off, she will die in about fifteen minutes.” Alyssa paused, taking a breath. She took it as a good sign that the dagger hadn’t dug further into her skin—she was trying to fight down images of her intestines spilling out at the Taker’s hands. “I know you might not believe it, but we are only trying to save Princess Irulon’s life.”
Biting her lip, Alyssa waited. She could hear Oxart grinding her teeth together. Was that good or bad? Probably bad. Hesitating for just a moment, she tried walking forward. To her surprise, Oxart’s hand fell away from her shoulder. Turning, Alyssa stared with a horrible feeling welling up inside her. The woman looked so… betrayed. “I’m sorry,” Alyssa said. “I’d explain more, but Irulon has already been in stasis for several hours. I can’t take the chance that there won’t be more distractions delaying me further.”
“If… If your story is true, we should call for the menders.”
Alyssa actually laughed at that. The noise drew a few looks, but most of the guardsmen were too busy organizing according to the orders of Kasita’s newly promoted palace guard to stop and stare for long. With the quiet way she and Oxart were speaking, no one would hear even if they did watch. “I’m trying to save her, not subject her to a painful death over the course of a week.”
“And how do you intend to accomplish that, lumber hauler?”
Hand drifting slightly closer to her satchel, she said, “I have a rejuvenation potion.” Alyssa slipped her hand inside, careful to keep the flap closed with her other hand. Her fingers curled around the glass of the potion bottle, bringing it out just enough to flash it to Oxart as proof. Unfortunately, she had that fairy hidden right next to it, so she couldn’t do much more without potentially revealing the monster. Bringing the fairy along might have been a mistake in retrospect. She had thought that the fairy would help to protect her from any monsters they came across, but all they had come across were humans. It would have been better to have handed the fairy to the gaunt and told her to march them both out of the city, bringing all the other monsters with her if possible.
A mimic was one thing. If Kasita wasn’t imitating a princess at the moment, Oxart likely wouldn’t have been so upset about it. From her time in Lyria, Alyssa had learned a few things. Mimics were treated more like pests than actual threats. Annoyances to be shooed away. Nothing to be frightened of. A fairy, on the other hand, could take complete control of a person. If the captain caught a glimpse of the fairy, everyone would be in grave danger.
After her eyes flicked down to the corner of the potion peeking out of the satchel, Oxart nodded her head. She relaxed just a little more, hopefully believing what Alyssa had said. She turned her head to the side and barked out an order. Or rather, a name. “Ipo.”
The guardsman in question clearly took it as an order to approach. Which he did without hesitation, leaving behind a group of guards he had been a part of. “Captain?” he said as he got closer.
“You are to attach yourself to Decorous’ group.” Oxart spoke in the same hushed tone she had been using with Alyssa. “Keep an eye on him, but don’t move to stop him if anything untoward happens. I wouldn’t trust him not to find a reason to silence you. I expect a full report when I return.”
“Return? From where?”
“Mhmm…” Oxart stepped closer to him and began speaking too softly for Alyssa to hear. She did nod her head toward the palace guard who was trapped in the Loophole and, after a few more words, Ipo whirled to glance at Alyssa before Oxart jammed her elbow into his side. Their conversation finished with Ipo staring up at the fake Irulon.
Unsurprisingly, Oxart turned back to Alyssa as Ipo walked off in the direction of Decorous. “I will be joining you. I will not accept no for an answer.”
Alyssa nodded her head, Oxart having said exactly what she had expected her to say. In all honesty, she couldn’t say that she was displeased with the situation. Oxart had a fairly thick spell tome probably filled with all kinds of excellent spells that would come in handy should anything go wrong. It also gave Alyssa some time to further defuse the situation. She would really like it if Oxart didn’t hate her forever. The real Irulon should help with that, assuming she did survive beyond Tenebrael’s countdown.
“Let’s go then. I don’t want Irulon’s stasis to run out before I get there with this potion.”
“Lead the way,” Oxart said, voice icy cold.
Alyssa caught a glint of something shining hidden in the folds of Oxart’s sleeve. The dagger, undoubtedly. Her other hand rested on the spell tome, fingering a page despite the book being closed. Altogether, it sent a chill up Alyssa’s spine. She had a feeling that she might not have the most pleasant of nights if Oxart found anything she disliked.
Keeping her hand firmly on the flap of her satchel to ensure that the fairy stayed hidden, Alyssa started walking toward Kasita.
“If you’re finished, your highness, my time is not unlimited. I do not appreciate being kept waiting.”
Ugh. Kasita was really hamming it up. Not really what they needed right now. Before Alyssa could stop her, Kasita’s violet eyes flicked to Oxart.
“I do not recall asking for your presence, Captain Oxart.”
“That’s my fault Princess Irulon,” Alyssa said as fast as she could. “I asked the captain to come with us. Given her repertoire of spells, she surely can help detect monsters that might be hidden in the palace before they might ambush us.”
Kasita immediately stiffened. It only lasted a moment, but Alyssa was certain that Oxart noticed. Likely the only reason she hadn’t acted was because of the two palace guards flanking Irulon. “Very well, if you insist. We should make haste before anything else goes wrong tonight.” She turned back to head into the palace, only for one of her guards to hold up a hand.
“Princess, forgive my impertinence, but you are safe here. Heading back inside before the palace—”
“I appreciate your concern, guardsman. However, I have time-sensitive experiments running. If they are allowed to run without maintenance for long, I fear the entire tower could collapse. Stop me if you must, but be warned that you would be putting the rest of my family at high risk.”
The palace guard hesitated, throwing a glance at his companion. When all he got was a shrug in return, he stepped out of the way and allowed Kasita to pass.
“Ufu~” Kasita hummed with a plastic-like grin. Almost exactly the same as the one the real Irulon wore at the Observatorium. It was somewhat scary how good she was at mimicking the princess, but then, that was her job. “Back to the top then. I hope the space contraction spell on the stairs hasn’t worn off. I am all out of such spells at the moment.”
It hadn’t. The stairwell Kasita led them to felt like a single flight of stairs yet they found themselves all the way up in the servants’ quarters, not far from the kitchen. On the way, Alyssa found out that Morgan had, indeed, escaped.
“I believe she is still inside the palace,” Kasita said, emphasizing herself in just the sort of way that made Alyssa think that one of the Irulons had been the one to come to that conclusion. “It was quite a pain securing the experiment so that Morgan wouldn’t find it while I wasn’t in the room.”
“But you did secure it?”
“You’ll see when we get there. First…” Kasita stopped at the stairs that led from Irulon’s floor to the upper floors and turned to the two palace guardsmen. “Continue to the higher floors. Find and secure my elder brothers, if possible. Do not worry about me,” she added before they could protest. “Between my magical skills, Alyssa’s talents, and the unexpected presence of the captain, there should be nothing here that will pose a danger to me.”
The same one that had spoken against Kasita earlier frowned in Oxart’s direction. The captain kept her face carefully impassive, just as she had been since her conversation with Alyssa had ended. “This is highly irregular.”
“I should hope so,” Kasita shot back. “I do not want monsters traipsing about my home regularly.”
The guard opened his mouth, paused, and snapped it shut with a nod of his head. He and his companion moved up the stairs after Kasita dismissed them with a wave of her hand.
Shortly after, Kasita’s form shimmered. In mere seconds, Alyssa found herself staring at herself. Or rather, a form remarkably similar but not quite exactly the same. The hair was longer, the breasts bigger, and the eyes sharper.
“The sister?” Oxart blurted out, snapping open her tome.
Alyssa pinched her nose and groaned. “Why did you change?”
“I thought you said she knew.”
“I said she knew you weren’t Irulon, not that you were… you. Why do you even look like that? Where is your normal self?”
“Ufu~” Kasita looked down at her body, rubbing her hands from her shoulders to her hips. “I like this one. Sticking with one body for my whole life would be such a bore.”
Feeling like she wanted to slam her head into the wall, Alyssa rolled her eyes. It really didn’t matter, she supposed. Oxart was getting antsy, clearly considering using whatever spell she had pulled out of her tome. Not wanting to find out what it was, Alyssa changed topics. “Where is Irulon?”
“Come on,” Kasita said, strutting down the hall toward Irulon’s laboratory. “When you disappeared, the barrier did too. The two Irulons started telling me all kinds of things, like how many rooms were in the palace and that I should use the spell on the first palace guard who spoke back to me. None of it made any sense at the time, but I guess it does now. A shadow assassin got inside almost immediately after, tried to kill me, killed one of them, tried to kill me again, and again, and got the other…”
The first thing Alyssa noticed upon entering the laboratory was the mess. A large mound of… meat piled up in one corner reeked like the local meat packing plant. She pinched her nose as she continued surveying the room. Several of the skeleton cages had been damaged. As had one of the operating tables. The far wall, however, had Alyssa scowling. “Where’s Octavia.”
“—and again… Octavia? Oh. Right. It maybe-accidentally-maybe-intentionally freed her while trying to kill me. She ran off in the middle of it all. Don’t know where to.”
Alyssa pressed her lips together, but nodded. She didn’t like the sound of that. “What about the other one. You said one died…”
As they spoke, Oxart walked past them, observing the room with narrowed eyes. As before, it had a number of corpses in it. Not just those of the shadow assassins. Alyssa almost asked Kasita another question, but noticed the captain from the corner of her eye.
She was standing over a body of a young girl with dark hair and several tattoos around her closed eyes.
Alyssa sucked in a breath, eyes widening. “Where’s the real one?” she hissed.
Kasita started to say something.
Oxart whirled on them, spell card in hand. “Subjugation!”
For the second time this evening, a wave of fiery orange light blasted toward Alyssa.