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Being back in Lyria was nice. Having a proper roof overhead while sleeping just made Alyssa feel secure, even if she knew in the back of her mind that the palace had just been attacked a week ago. At the very least, she didn’t have to worry about the rain that had started up overnight.

A small part of her had worried that she would wake up to find herself in chains and tossed to the dungeons, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Rather, she woke up to a full meal of bread, meat-filled stew, and alcohol that didn’t taste like it had been diluted with horse urine. After, she had been shown to an extravagant bath that had felt awkward to sit in. It was too rich. The servant—some younger boy, not Tess—didn’t even blink an eye when she asked for some clothes. He simply nodded his head and popped back in a few minutes later bearing a few choices. They were well made, but not nearly as extravagant as the things she had seen around the Observatorium. Cheap things designed to look expensive for guests? Or maybe Irulon had specifically mentioned that they should prepare clothes for her. The latter choice seemed more likely as she couldn’t imagine many guests showed up without anything to wear. Just her.

She wound up selecting a simple black dress that went all the way down to her ankles. It had no sleeves, though there were these… things that attached to her upper arm and extended down to a ring that went around her middle finger. Almost more like gloves except not quite. It showed off the tattoos around her right shoulder and arm. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Very few people she had seen had tattoos. Irulon had facial tattoos and Tess had an entire half of her body covered in tattoos. That was about it. And Tess went far out of her way to hide all her tattoos.

A light knock on the door interrupted her attempts at tightening the bicep strap on the detached sleeves. “Come in,” Alyssa said. Hopefully the servant boy wasn’t bringing her more clothes. She wasn’t sure that she could actually keep these and, honestly, wasn’t sure that she wanted to. Dresses were not really her thing. They weren’t practical enough. Alyssa preferred pants.

Speak of the devil.

Tess entered the room wearing that apron-like outfit. Her face, the half Alyssa could see, was poised and betrayed no emotion. Though it probably wouldn’t stay like that. The young girl seemed to get flustered and agitated easily.

“Princess Irulon only returned from her meeting with the Pharaoh an hour ago,” she said, stepping fully into the room. Her eyes flicked to Alyssa’s shoulder, but she didn’t say anything. “I regret to inform you that she has decided to retire for a time and will not be able to meet with you soon.”

Translation: An already exhausted Irulon stumbled to her bed and promptly passed out, Alyssa thought, glancing to the golden staff leaning against the wall next to the bed. No angel had stolen it back during her sleep, she was happy to note. Irulon had been tired from all her examination of the staff even before reaching Lyria. Spending literally the entire rest of the night talking with her father couldn’t have gone over well. And with how hard Alyssa had found it to wake her up… she would be lucky if they met today at all.

Alyssa didn’t like sitting around doing nothing. If she wound up staying in the palace, that would be exactly what she would end up doing. On top of her list of things to do now that she was back in the city was to go see Tzheitza. She needed to apologize for being at least partially responsible for the destruction of the front of her shop and stealing the healing potion. Depending on how Tzheitza reacted, she might have to pick up her gear and find a new place to stay. After Tzheitza… Chris Altrac. She at least needed to meet with him and explain the situation. Beyond that, well, he was a grown man. He better not need her to babysit him.

“I can leave, right?”

“Leave the palace? Certainly. Shall I show you the way?”

“Maybe in a minute,” Alyssa said, looking back down at her sleeve. Maybe all this wasn’t worth it. The dress didn’t even have pockets. Equipping her holsters would be a pain. It offered less protection than a denim jacket. Ugh, dresses.

“Like this,” Tess said with an audible sigh. She crossed the room, grabbed the sleeve, and twisted a little thing with one hand that tightened it around Alyssa’s arm. “Too much?”

“No. I think it is fine,” Alyssa said, stretching and extending her arm. “I can keep the dress, right?” If she couldn’t, then putting it on was pointless anyway. But she needed something to wear. The dragon hide armor probably wasn’t a better alternative. Irulon probably wanted that back given its rarity and value.

Tess confirmed Alyssa’s earlier theory. “Princess Irulon set them aside specifically for you.”

“All of them?” If so, that probably explained why they all fit. Irulon was observant enough that she would be able to pick out clothes that were just right.

Tess’ head bobbed, revealing some of the extravagant tattoos underneath her hair.

“I can’t carry them all. Or store them.” Alyssa sighed. Maybe, regardless of Tzheitza kicking her out or not, she needed to find a place of her own. Did the medieval magical world have apartments? How much would a little house cost? Over the next week, she’d check into it.

For now, Alyssa slipped into her underarm holster, pulled the belt of her hip holster on, grabbed her pack, satchel, and her shotgun, and took hold of her staff. She winced as she glanced in a large mirror set into one wall. The dress had looked nice enough on its own. Now she looked like some kind of a crazy hobo.

And Tess was smirking at her.

Ugh.

“You know I’m not a lich, right?”

“Princess Irulon may have clarified her earlier statements to me.”

“But you still don’t like me?”

Tess turned away with a harrumph. “Shall I lead you out of the palace now?”

Alyssa looked back around the room. Everything she owned, sans the clothes apparently, was now on her person with the exception of about two days’ worth of modern food on the table. She had repacked her backpack before sleeping and was able to fit much more in it than before, but not everything. For a moment, she considered trying to carry it all with her. Climbing the stairs with it in hand and her staff had been painful enough. Traversing the city would be worse.

“Please make sure that Irulon gets that,” Alyssa said, waving the staff toward the table. “If she doesn’t want it, tell her to let her brother try some. Or you, if you want.”

“I will see to it that your message will be delivered. Follow me, if there is nothing else delaying you.”

After a quick double check to ensure that she hadn’t left anything but food and clothing, Alyssa followed after Tess. They went right past the door leading to the kitchen. The end of the hall led to a wide staircase, covered in a violet rug and adorned with plenty of tapestries and statues. It was almost surreal just how much finery the palace tried to impress its guests with. Having seen a few of the less public areas, such as Irulon’s floor, it wasn’t just this area that was lavishly decorated while the rest of the palace was in squalor, but it still stood out as notable.

The stairs didn’t seem to take nearly as long to descend as the trip up from the stables had. The stables weren’t underground, unless they were and magic just warped the geometry of the place. Still, the stairs opened up to a wide, octagonal chamber decorated to the same degree as the guest areas. It had to be the main entry hall. Alyssa had skipped over it on her last visit to the palace, having climbed into one of the side room windows. She barely even noticed the spinning chandelier overhead. It was beautiful, but she was growing somewhat numb to it all.

There were far more people in this main hall. Aside from servants, Alyssa hadn’t seen anyone in the guest quarters. Here, there were guards set about at practically every corner of the room with extra at some of the doors. Alyssa could only hope that they wouldn’t recognize her. There were others as well. People standing about in clothes far nicer than those she had seen on people outside the palace. Nobles? The way they stood around talking in three distinct groups of two to three people reminded her of high school. Every morning, little cliques would form up in the halls before the bell rang.

Didn’t they have proper meeting rooms that they could use? That one room she had climbed through to enter the palace seemed like a perfect place for a few people to talk. Maybe they were waiting for something to happen. A meeting with the Pharaoh? If he only just got out of his meeting with Irulon, they might be waiting a while. But even that seemed like it could be done in side rooms.

Shrugging, Alyssa quickly caught up to Tess near the wide-open main doors of the palace. After a short walk though the gardens, she found herself at the main gate and the plaza where she had met with Oxart and Decorous. Right back where she had started with killing that shadow assassin.

And it was pouring rain. Luckily, there was a spell for that. One, even, that she had among the stolen deck of cards. It was extremely low rank at only Rank One. But that actually made Alyssa feel better about using it for the first time. Lower ranked spells, such as Flame and Light, worked exactly how Aziz’s book said they should work. The higher the spell’s rank, the more likely it would do something weird when Alyssa used it. At least, so far as she had noticed.

Water Repulsion covered her in an almost silty transparent membrane. It didn’t feel particularly pleasant, but if it kept her dry, it would be worth it.

Tess stopped three steps before the outside rain, hands rubbing together in a nervous fashion. “I trust you can handle yourself from here? I have duties in the palace and no time to be escorting you around the city.”

“Yeah. I’m fine. Just make sure Irulon gets that food. And… let her know that my pet rock has gone missing.”

“Pet… rock…”

“She’ll know what I mean. I’ll try sending her a Message later anyway.”

“Mhm. I’ll let her know.”

“Good. Take care of yourself.”

“Hmph.” Tess turned on her heel. With her hands clasped behind her back, she marched right back into the palace, leaving Alyssa free to leave on her own.

Which she did. She had been around Lyria enough to know her way around. At least, she knew her way to the Observatorium and to Tzheitza’s potion shop. She might get lost if she wandered off in a random direction. Tzheitza’s shop was not a random direction. It wasn’t that far either. Though, with the palace being in the rough center of the city, nothing was too daunting of a jog.

She made decent time, crossing the city. The torrential rain kept most of the streets clear from anyone too casual. A few market stalls were closed up entirely. Some were still open, but they didn’t seem to have many customers at the moment. Many of the brick and mortar shops were open as well. A blacksmith not far from Tzheitza’s shop actually had a number of people inside, though they might have just been using the heat of the forge to dry off a bit.

Rounding the corner that led to Tzheitza’s shop, Alyssa winced. One whole window had been replaced by a series of wooden boards. The door was made of several flat panels and lacked the little round window it once had. Alyssa took a deep breath before gently pushing it open.

It wasn’t locked. The store had to be open as the replacement door did have a lock on it. There wasn’t any potion maker behind the counter though. She stepped inside, dismissing the rain shield with hardly a thought as she crossed the threshold. “Tzheitza?” she called out, shrugging off the backpack on the employee side of the counter. If she wasn’t out here and the door was unlocked, Tzheitza was probably in the back room.

The first thing she noticed as she squeezed open the door was a… smell. Not a bad one. Definitely nothing like the smelly potion she had used to wake up Cid. It was more like a living room candle, but Alyssa couldn’t quite place the scent. It was almost a cinnamony thing, but not quite.

Tzheitza stood in front of a large jar of light at the workstation, holding a flask of ruby liquid at eye level. Her attire was unlike anything Alyssa had seen on her before. A pure white robe, smooth on the front but clearly tied together in the back. Alyssa would have called it an apron except it had sleeves and a stiff collar that hid her face up to her eyes. More like that medical gown they made you wear in hospitals if one discounted the collar. A simple bandanna covered her forehead and hair, white as well. Viewing her from the front, only a small strip around her eyes could be seen.

Those eyes didn’t even glance toward Alyssa. They were locked on the small dropper of black oil she held above the flask’s opening. Alyssa watched a single tiny droplet fall from the dropper. It left a long trail, like a string of saliva, but eventually hit the ruby liquid.

Alyssa winced as a light burned at her eyes. She could feel the brightness even with her eyes closed. Annihilator was worse, but this still caught her by surprise. And this, thankfully, lasted only a second or two. When she opened her eyes again, the red liquid in the flask had turned perfectly clear.

Tzheitza stared at it, swirling out the liquid before finally setting it down on the counter. She pressed a cork into the top and placed it on a shelf alongside a dozen identical flasks. Or… they weren’t quite identical. They were all triangular flasks made from glass, but the contents varied. One of them was almost perfectly ruby colored, just as the latest flask had been before the drop of oil. Some were of a pinker hue. Some with just a hint of rosy tint.

“Yer habberin squalbox riddin me of yer sight permalike. Yeh got some gottermore for me?”

Alyssa blinked. Then blinked again. Tzheitza had spoken to her, right? “I must have been gone longer than I thought because I used to be able to understand at least a little of what you say.”

Tzheitza reached back behind her head and carefully undid the bandanna over her hair. She held it up in front of the light potion jar, inspecting the front and back before setting it off to the side. Underneath the white robe, she wore a far more normal tunic and pants. The robe took a bit longer to inspect, but she held it up and looked it over all the same. Only when she set it down on the workstation did she finally turn toward Alyssa. Her hands went straight to her hips as she stared without a hint of a smile.

The silence made Alyssa shift uncomfortably. “So, uh, sorry for… running off. And your shop. And the potions. And… lots of things, I guess. Um. How was your week?”

“Those black feathers,” Tzheitza said slowly. “Yeh can get me more?”

Tenebrael’s feathers? Alyssa nodded slowly. “Possibly. In fact, probably. I might even be able to get a bunch in just a few days. Are they useful for something?”

“I need as many as yeh can find. I got a supposin based on a few tests.” She tapped the latest glass flask on the shelf. “The feathers can cleanse the plague. Or put a hamper on it, anyhow.”

“Plague,” Alyssa repeated. “The demonic plague that turns people into demons. That plague?”

“Yeah.” Short. Simple. And…

Made a lot of sense. Alyssa didn’t know how Tzheitza figured out that the feathers would do something against the plague, but to Alyssa, it should have been obvious in retrospect. Tenebrael was an angel. If anything would put a stopper in a demonic plague, it would be an angel. Getting more of the feathers shouldn’t be too hard. Tenebrael would probably offer up a bucketful if Alyssa asked. There was one big problem, however.

“Where do they come from?” Tzheitza asked. The clarity she was speaking with obviously highlighted how important this was to her. “I need to secure a steady supply.”

And that was the problem.

Alyssa hesitated in answering. Could a single other person on this entire world acquire Tenebrael’s feathers? She doubted it. Her unique situation made it possible, but angels couldn’t be perceived by anyone else. Even those feathers had passed right in front of people without them blinking an eye until Alyssa touched them.

Tenebrael did have some control over the world. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have a temple and festival in her name. So she had to be able to interact in some way, though that might be limited to interacting with people on their deathbeds. They wouldn’t be in any position to gather her feathers. Maybe Tenebrael could leave a dead drop of feathers periodically. That, unfortunately, would require convincing her. Given her casual disregard for people’s lives, she probably wouldn’t care enough unless Alyssa could frame the argument as sticking it to the plan.

There was also the possibility that she wanted the plague to run rampant on her world. Perhaps whatever demonic entity lived down in the Underworld wasn’t under the same restrictions that she had. Maybe she had managed to keep monsters around and build herself a temple thanks only to Her… or whatever it was.

But none of that presented an answer to Tzheitza’s question.

Where did the feathers come from. If Irulon had asked, Alyssa could have told the truth.

Alyssa furrowed her brow. And why can’t I tell Tzheitza? She might laugh or shake her head in disbelief, but she probably wasn’t going to rush off to the guard shouting about the heretic in her shop. It wouldn’t be easy to explain, but… Maybe she should only go as far as saying that the feathers came from an angel. Explain it like she had to Oz and the other two guild members.

“Are you hungry?” Alyssa said instead despite not being hungry herself. A quick meal would give her time to think. “Have you had breakfast yet? I managed to get back to my homeland while I was gone, though only temporarily, and brought back some food from there. I can tell you all about my… adventure while we eat, including where those feathers come from. I guarantee that you’ve never had anything like food from where I’m from.”

Tzheitza crossed her arms, staring hard. Her eyes traveled up and down Alyssa, to the staff, to the shotgun slung over her shoulder, and finally back to Alyssa’s face. “Right. Gottermore yer happenings, huh?”

“Huh?”

“I could eat.”

“You could have just said that. Let me grab my pack.”

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