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Seeing the Black Prince out of his armor was an interesting experience. It wasn’t something Alyssa had really considered. She had other things on her mind most of the time and his armor rated low on the importance totem pole. And yet, seeing him without it was shocking. She had compared him to Darth Vader upon first seeing him and Vader was never seen without his armor.

Brakkt stood in the middle of the stables, dressed in a fanciful robe similar to the dresses that Irulon wore to the Observatorium. Although his had slightly less jewelry woven into it. He looked smaller. Less imposing. His violet eyes were half-lidded and he was stifling a yawn as Alyssa entered. It was almost disappointing how… normal he looked. The Black Prince was an implacable man, an unstoppable force. Brakkt was an older brother, woken up by a Message from his little sister. He did still carry that enchanted sword at his side. Even without the armor, she doubted that he would be a pushover.

Luckily, she didn’t need to attack him. Neither did she want to.

“And how was your little journey?” he… cooed? “Did you have lots of fun?”

Musca and Izsha bounded over to him and started nuzzling him, getting head pats in return. Alyssa slid out of the saddle. She landed steadily on her feet. Finally, she was back where it all started. Or… where her latest journey had started. And she wasn’t even under arrest. Thinking about it gave her a pang of guilt, but she hoped Irulon would help out Oxart. At the very least, the princess would ascertain the truth. From her brief conversation with Oxart the night of the latest attack, she didn’t think that the captain was a traitor. Then again, a traitor would probably not blatantly advertise that fact. They wouldn’t last long if they did.

Irulon landed on her feet as well, sighing slightly. “Remind me, if I ever have a lapse in judgment and decide to seek revenge again, that I am rich and can afford to hire people to do it for me. It might not be as gratifying, but it’s a lot less trouble.”

“Things didn’t go as planned?” Brakkt said, voice much deeper and with a slight gravelly rumble to it. He turned his head away from the draken, looking to his sister. Irulon wasn’t paying attention, rubbing her forehead with her eyes closed again, but Alyssa was. His eyes narrowed, looking almost confused at something.

“Hm. I suppose that depends. We found a sizable outpost three days out, give or take.” Brakkt opened his mouth, but Irulon held up a hand. “Killed everyone inside and destroyed most of it. I’ll give you more details later. But…” Irulon’s hand drifted up to her chest. “There were a lot of revelations. I have a great deal to tell you and father. A lot of which neither of you are going to believe.”

A moment of silence passed. Maybe Brakkt was waiting for something unbelievable, but Irulon wasn’t offering.

“I take it the outpost is what the guard captain was talking about?”

“You spoke with her?”

“She is currently in a Central Garrison holding cell. Not too happy, but yes. She said she had important information from you. I listened.”

“The exact message should have warned of a million ants possibly being mind controlled by the Society of the Burning Shadow. I don’t believe that will happen any time soon now that I’ve destroyed the outpost, but it is a situation that still warrants consideration. Regardless, have Oxart transferred to a palace cell. I wish to review her situation personally. Though not tonight. I require rest, a bath, and some decent food.” Irulon glanced over to Alyssa. “Your food is just a bit… much for my tastes. Though I am interested in sampling more, so don’t consume it all.”

Alyssa just shrugged. If the princess didn’t want any, that was more for her. And maybe she could offer some to Tzheitza as a little apology for maybe being a little tiny bit responsible for destroying her storefront. She deflated a bit. That was another thing she had to do. Irulon had offered a room in the palace—they apparently had plenty—but Alyssa couldn’t just up and leave without saying something to the potioneer. Besides that, she had left a few things at the shop. Like her tent.

And she wasn’t sure that she could live in a palace. Any palace. It was too big. Too… crowded. Even if she had a whole floor to herself, there were just too many people living in the building. She wasn’t sure how she felt about servants waiting on her either.

Still, if Tzheitza decided that she didn’t want such a troublesome roommate anymore, Alyssa might have to agree. At least for a time.

But that could wait until morning. Tzheitza tended to sleep early to wake up and get the shop going by the crack of dawn. Barging in now would just irritate her more.

Realizing that another silence had fallen on the group, Alyssa glanced about. Irulon had a hand to her chin, keeping her eyes closed. Brakkt was the opposite. He was staring unblinkingly at his sister.

“Did something happen to you?” he said.

“More than you can know…” Her eyes snapped open again. “But what are you referring to?”

“I’m not sure. Something about you is different, but I can’t quite place it.”

Alyssa stiffened. She had thought she had seen something similar, but had dismissed it over the past few days of travel as just a stress induced delusion. But if her brother was saying something was odd as well…

“You noticed something too?” Irulon had apparently seen something on Alyssa’s face because she looked over with narrowed eyes.

“I thought it was my imagination!”

Irulon had her eyes narrowed as she glanced from her brother to Alyssa and back. “Your trinket. Hand it over.”

Alyssa complied, not bothering to argue. As if she had done it a hundred times, Irulon switched it to the front facing camera and stared at her self. She stared a moment, eyes flicking black and white.

Then she started smiling.

And laughing.

“She has left me with a gift.” Her hand traced over the tattoos on her face. “They’re perfect.”

“A gift?” Alyssa said, staring. “Your tattoos? She fixed your tattoos?” How did she manage that? Tenebrael whined all day about how she couldn’t do anything, and then she does that? It wasn’t like altering the tattoos went unnoticed. Maybe if it had only been Alyssa, but Brakkt had noticed too. Was it just too small to matter in the grand scheme of things?

That was probably it, though Irulon had a wide grin on her face now, so it mattered to someone.

“She has blessed me.”

Ugh.

“Who has, sister?”

“I’ll tell you later. I’d rather not explain a hundred times to you and then have to go reexplain everything to our father.” She looked over to the draken and ran a hand down the tiger striped scales of Musca’s neck. “Your draken performed admirably. Praise them all you wish. Please remove their saddlebags for me and carry them to a room where Alyssa may spend the night. They have food in them that belongs to her. I—” She paused, clasping a hand over a yawn. “I need to sleep soon. I imagine father will be calling for me at morning to hear my full report.”

Irulon started walking toward the stairs only to pause. It took Alyssa a moment to realize the cause of her hesitation. Half of a head was poking around the corner. Green eyes framed by blond hair gazed around the room with no small amount of suspicion. Dark rings lined the one eye that Alyssa could see.

“Tess,” Irulon said, stifling another yawn. “I am pleased to see you on your feet. Draw a bath for me.”

The girl smiled, partially stepping around the stairwell’s corner. Her hair draped down over half of her face, covering up all the tattoos that she had on the left side of her. The bright smile faltered as her eyes drifted away from Irulon. She first looked at the draken, which made her her flinch. When she reached Alyssa, she just narrowed her eyes into a glare before quickly turning back to the princess.

“I’m happy to see you back safe, Princess Irulon,” she said, gloved fingers nervously clutching the hem of her outfit. “But there might not be time for a bath. Your father asked me to fetch you.”

“What. Now?”

Tess’ long hair bobbed as she nodded her head.

Irulon groaned. “What is the old man doing awake?” she mumbled to herself. “Fine. I’d better not keep him waiting.” Turning, she looked to Alyssa. “You’ll be fine on your own? With Tess here, she can find you a room to stay in if my brother is unable or unwilling.”

“M-Me?” Tess sputtered. “But I should be attending—”

“Oh, you will be attending to me. As soon as Alyssa is settled in, I want you to draw me a bath. Lay out my most comfortable clothing and ensure my bed is prepared as well.”

Though the heavy bag under her one visible eye made Tess look like a zombie, her face did brighten at having a job to do. “Shall I fetch you a meal as well?”

“Yes. Please,” Irulon said quickly. Almost too quickly. She glanced over to Alyssa and simply shrugged.

“Fair enough,” Alyssa said. On the way back, they had tried out a great number of foods. Irulon hadn’t found the Mexican to be tasty at all, but she hadn’t appeared to mind a turkey sandwich. “More for me, even if there isn’t too much left.” Two meals a day for three days split between herself, Irulon, and a ravenous hellhound left her with a significant chunk of food missing. Alyssa might have been a little upset at having to share with the hellhound if she wasn’t anticipating gathering more food when Tenebrael showed up in a few days.

Irulon took two steps toward the stairs before hesitating with a glance down at herself. “Ah. Tess. There is one thing I require of you immediately.”

“Anything, Princess Irulon.”

“Fetch a brush and remove as much dust as possible from my armor. I can’t appear before father like this.”

“Would you prefer a proper dress?”

“Not unless I’m being afforded enough time to clean my face and my hair. Best to appear before him as a successful warrior rather than a filthy princess. Any brush will do. I imagine Brakkt has one here in the stables.”

The Black Prince… whose title really didn’t fit him well without the armor on, nodded his head. “The door just over there contains supplies.”

Tess glanced to the door, then to the nearest draken—a larger one lying on its side amid a pile of hay not far from the stairwell’s doorway. She closed her eyes, took a breath, then practically sprinted to the door and disappeared inside.

“Alyssa, might I request your trinket? The phone? Explaining certain aspects of our adventure to my father will be far easier with that in hand.”

“Sure,” Alyssa said with only a little hesitation. Having had the opportunity to test out Tenebrael’s additional features, she was far less concerned about it going missing or winding up damaged.

It only took a minute for Tess to come back with a horse brush. During the short time she was inside the room, Irulon, phone now in hand, had crossed the stables to be right next to her. Without a word from either girl, Tess got right to scrubbing down the dark scales of the armor. Flakes of grime fell to the floor in droves, even creating a small dust cloud around the princess. Irulon held out her arms so that Tess might easier get to her sides.

It actually made Alyssa glance down at herself. Princess Irulon wasn’t even that dirty in comparison. Even after cleaning it on Earth, her armor looked like she had been tied behind a horse and dragged through a pit of mud. As much as she enjoyed the feeling of protection… and maybe actual protection given the few times she had fallen from Izsha and the one time she had been hit by a spell, Alyssa could really do with a change of clothes. Especially modern clothes. Maybe Tenebrael could provide her some when she…

A sudden thought had Alyssa scowling.

She was doing just what Tenebrael wanted her to do. She was relying on Tenebrael. The food. The weapons. The possibility of clothing. Her prayers were being answered, even if they weren’t literal prayers, and her dependence on Tenebrael was growing.

Maybe she didn’t need modern clothing. Asking Irulon for a few sets of local attire, regular clothes and not battle armor, might be the better option. She would still be depending on someone else, but she wouldn’t be giving the stupid angel the satisfaction of her plan working. Tenebrael was the better of the three angels she had encountered and probably the best of them all. Still, the thought of giving Tenebrael the gratification irked Alyssa.

It was spite. It was petty. It was the least Alyssa could do.

Turning away from Irulon, Alyssa found Brakkt already removing the saddle from Musca. Deciding to make herself useful instead of standing around waiting to be waited on like… a princess, Alyssa walked right up to Izsha and started working on the saddle she had ridden for the past week or so.

“I can handle it,” Brakkt said, hefting the heavy saddle from Musca without even a grunt of effort.

“It’s fine.” Alyssa quickly unstrapped the saddle from Izsha and did the same. Fully loaded, the saddles were not light. Not for the first time, she wondered just how bad the weight was for the draken’s backs. They weren’t beasts of burden, bred for centuries for the task of carrying heavy weights for humans like horses and other farm animals. Then again, they weren’t stupid animals either. They surely would have complained if the weight went beyond something they could carry. “I learned from watching Irulon,” Alyssa continued as she gently set the saddle on the ground. “Though, between you and me, I’m a little surprised she managed without Tess there to do it for her.”

“You are not as quiet as you think you are,” Irulon called, voice slightly testy.

“But I’m not hearing any objections,” Alyssa said with a smile.

“Hm. That’s enough, Tess. I’d rather not garner ire by delaying so long that another servant gets sent to fetch me. Alyssa, I will see about greeting you in the morning.”

“Yeah. Sounds good. Uh, before you go, this meeting with your father isn’t going to wind up with me arrested, is it?”

“Still concerned about what Oxart said? Don’t be. After all, she is the one incarcerated at the moment.”

“And I really don’t want to join her.” Tenebrael would free her in a few days regardless of what happened, unless, of course, they decided to jump immediately to execution. Better to avoid thinking about that. Although getting freed by Tenebrael would be yet another situation that forced her to rely on the angel. Compared to a Get Out of Jail Free card, accepting clothes was nothing.

“Put it out of your mind.” Irulon stepped into the stairwell entryway before pausing once again. “Oh. Try not to wander around the palace much. Last time I invited a friend to stay, they wound up lost for weeks.” She disappeared up the staircase before Alyssa could so much as open her mouth.

“That… was a joke, right?” Alyssa said, looking to Brakkt. “There aren’t people lost in this palace, are there?”

“Of course it was a joke,” he said as he pulled a large rock from between Musca’s scales, an action that earned a snap of its jaw in his direction. “My sister doesn’t have friends.”

Alyssa glared, not sure just how serious he was being at the moment.

“Shall I show you to a room?” Tess said, stepping closer. Only one step though. Her eyes darted to the relaxing draken once again before she took another step away. She sounded polite, but having heard the tone in her voice when she had been speaking to Irulon, it probably wasn’t anywhere near sincere.

“One moment,” Alyssa said, pulling out food from Izsha’s saddle. There was still enough that she didn’t want to leave it just lying about. As she worked, Brakkt started unloading the other saddle. Most of it was either Irulon’s belongings or their original supplies that Brakkt had sent with them. With an armful of packaged food and a golden staff pinned between her chest and her full arms, Alyssa stood and nodded to Tess. “Ready.”

“Very well.” Tess turned and started walking without a single offer to help carry bags. She definitely wasn’t getting a tip. “Follow me, the dungeons are right this way.”

“Uh…”

“I believe my sister meant the second floor guest accommodations, Tess.”

“Ah. Of course. Second floor guest accommodations. Those would be right this way.”

“If you find yourself descending, smelling mold, or surrounded by metal bars, send me a Message and I’ll ensure that Tess is suitably punished,” Brakkt said, stepping right up close to Tess. She shirked back, but he just held out his hand. “The brush, Tess. I’d like to tidy up Musca and Izsha as long as I’m awake.”

“Yes, Prince Brakkt.” Tess held out the brush with both hands, offering it as if it were a fragile bit of glass artwork.

He took it in one hand, returned to Musca, and started scrubbing away at the top of her head.

Shaking her head, Alyssa hurried to follow Tess. The servant girl was already halfway up the stairs and showed no signs of slowing. If she wound up left behind, she might be wandering the halls of the palace for weeks. Brakkt hadn’t denied that part of Irulon’s comment.

When she had first climbed the stairs of the palace to reach Irulon’s floor and later when she had descended down to the stables, the palace stairs hadn’t felt like more than a single flight despite the princess having her room near the top of the pyramidal structure. Alyssa hadn’t been counting, but she felt like she had been ascending far more stairs than a single flight would have. And they had passed doors as well, which Alyssa couldn’t remember having done any of the other times.

After passing three doors, Tess paused at the next. “We are arriving through the servant quarters,” she said softly. “Prince Brakkt’s private stables do not connect to any proper location in the palace. I apologize sincerely for any untidiness you may witness.”

“It’s fine. I won’t be, uh, offended or whatever,” Alyssa said. Tess didn’t sound sincere in her apologies, but Alyssa really didn’t care. Not unless this led to the dungeons.

The first thing Alyssa noticed as Tess opened the door was the lighting. The parts of the palace that she had been inside were well lit to the point where she could easily have assumed they had access to modern lights had she not known better. Here, the jars were smaller, filled with less liquid. It was a kitchen, much like the one that Alyssa had passed through on the way to Irulon’s room. Though she had been in a bit too much of a worry to really examine it at the time. An open flame boiled some kind of stew sitting in a pot. It smelled great compared to just about any other food she had tried in this world. Had she not eaten a little while ago, she might have found it quite appetizing.

“A guest of Princess Irulon,” Tess said, looking to a corner.

Alyssa jumped. She hadn’t even noticed the man seated in the corner, garbed in decent but far from fancy clothing. He must have been the chef. Or maybe he was just watching the fire to ensure it didn’t burn down anything.

He nodded his head. “The Lavender Room is occupied. Any of the others are free.”

“I’ll see to it that she is comfortable in the Room of the Vigil.”

He nodded again, face betraying no surprise despite the Room of the Vigil probably being the worst room they had. Either he expected it of Tess or she hadn’t picked the worst. Either way, Tess said nothing more to him as she crossed the kitchen to the door opposite the stairs.

The hallway beyond was pure lavish opulence. Even more so than Irulon’s floor of the palace. Which made a certain amount of sense when Alyssa thought about it. Grand statues towered over each doorway. Beautiful tapestries adorned the otherwise blank spots in walls. The ceiling was covered in long strands of glass, all filled with the light potion, creating flowing rivers of light along the ceiling. Every tile on the floor looked like it had received a modern waxing.

And all of it was simply to impress upon visitors just how rich the Pharaoh and his family were.

The Room of the Vigil was no less grand than the hallway. A bed, larger than any Alyssa had slept in but not absurdly unreasonable, occupied the majority of the room. It was one of those fancy four poster ones with curtains shielding it from the outside world. Not far away was a roaring fire set into the wall with an assortment of seats arranged around it. Wide windows opened up to a vista of the city. The southern side, it looked like by the mountains in the distance and distinct lack of yellowy desert.

“If you require anything, the bell here will ring the servants’ quarters,” Tess said, gesturing toward a rope dangling from the ceiling near the bed. “Do you wish for a hot meal brought to you?”

“No. That’s fine. Thank you, Tess.”

“Hmph.” Hands clasped in front of her, Tess gave the curtest bow possible before backing out of the room and closing the door.

“Well, Kasita,” Alyssa said, moving to set the food down on a polished wood table, “this place sure looks nice. Too nice for me, I think.”

She waited a moment for a response… but none came. No giggles. No commentary. No Kasita.

Frowning, Alyssa looked down at her pack as she set it on the floor. Was the mimic really not here? Had something upset her?

Hopefully she wasn’t getting into trouble around the palace. Actually, Alyssa scowled now that she was thinking about it, that is probably exactly what she is doing. With any luck, she would be with Brakkt. He obviously didn’t mind monsters with his fascination with the draken. A mimic probably wouldn’t bother him. If she had hitched a ride with Irulon, she would be lucky if she wasn’t found out. Through Oxart, Alyssa had finally seen evidence of people being able to detect mimics. And the Pharaoh would surely have guards that would be looking for just that sort of thing. Especially if that Loopholed palace guard had told people that Irulon wasn’t who she appeared to be.

And Irulon would probably figure out that Kasita was around even without a magic spell.

Alyssa glanced to the bell rope, wondering if she shouldn’t tell Tess. Shaking her head, she decided against it. Kasita knew what she was doing… probably. She had been the one worried about being detected. Alyssa started stripping out of the armor—and almost rang the bell to see if she could get a bath before deciding against that as well. In the morning for sure. For now, she would try to get some sleep while it was still night, even if she wasn’t all that tired just yet.

Kasita would show up on her own time, as she usually did.

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