Tess came to wake Alyssa at far too early an hour. Then again, it was well past noon according to her phone. Regardless, Alyssa groaned as she made her way to the baths.
The discussion with her mother had been long and exhausting. She knew she had a lot to tell, but it still went on far longer than she had expected. Alyssa had spared no details. Every event of her misadventures so far had been laid bare. From Tenebrael first showing up the night the intruders broke in, Tenebrael eating souls, Teneville, Iosefael, Lyria, the Taker, and everything. Kasita had helped, even going so far as to turn into the people mentioned just so that there could be a face to all the names.
Alyssa hardly knew what her mother had thought of it all. The conversation had been almost entirely one-sided. Her mother had asked clarifying questions every now and again, but had mostly chosen to listen in silence. Daylight had been peeking over the horizon by the time Alyssa felt like she had covered everything. They hadn’t said much even after. Both Alyssa and her mother had been tired. Some almost unspoken agreement passed between them that they would simply go to bed and talk more when they woke.
And her mother had still yet to test out magic.
When Alyssa returned to her room, she found yet another new article of clothing laid out on the bed. A simple black gown. Far less elegant than the other one that Alyssa had, and it thankfully lacked those detached sleeves. Really, Alyssa still wasn’t sure that she should accept all the gifts Irulon gave her. Before, she had been wearing her dragon armor. To a prison, Alyssa felt like she would rather wear the armor. But maybe Irulon had other plans for afterwards. Or perhaps she felt Alyssa needed to impress someone. Maybe Oxart.
But it was clean. The armor had wound up sweaty from the fight and then she had worn it her entire time on Earth and throughout the night.
A second set of clothes had been laid out as well. A bit of a different style than what Alyssa was wearing. Instead of a single long dress, it was more like flowing robes. Almost like what the Pharaoh had worn, except with a clearly feminine cut to it and was of a dark black. Of course, despite lying on top of the bed her mother had used, it hadn’t been touched.
Alyssa glanced to the side. Her mother wore black slacks, a grey button-up top, a black tie, and had a pistol holstered to her hip. The badge on her shoulder identified her as a member of Bank Security. She looked like she was ready to head off to work just like she would have done any other day of the week.
The pistol brought up a tinge of minor annoyance. Alyssa’s holsters were still empty. Her cards were still missing. She had been expecting Tenebrael to pop up at some point, but the angel never had.
“Our house is here,” Alyssa said as conversationally as she could manage. That fact had been included in her summary of events, but it had been right at the very start. With everything else, it had been easy to forget about. “It is a two week journey by foot, but I was planning to go back soon with the help of the draken.”
“The dinosaur monsters.”
“That’s right.” Alyssa smiled, glad her mother had been paying attention. “They’ll probably drop the travel time to a day or two. Aside from a few guns and a few articles of clothing, it is basically the exact same as it was the night… uh, you found me dead.” Her tone dropped a bit, but she quickly moved on, trying to avoid dwelling on that. “We could pick up more clothes for the both of us. And anything else you could think of.” More guns and ammo, if Tenebrael was never going to show up and return what she had taken.
Alyssa wondered if she should be concerned that Tenebrael hadn’t appeared. At the same time, she wasn’t sure what good her worry would do. It wasn’t like she had any other angels’ numbers in her phone. No one she knew would be able to contact her.
Maybe if Iosefael or Kenziel showed up again. But Kenziel was supposedly locked in a box and… Iosefael probably was too. Was that where Tenebrael was? Since Iosefael had noticed the souls, she had been taken away. Now Tenebrael was running herself ragged trying to collect souls both on Earth and on Nod? That made a certain amount of sense. With Alyssa’s luck, someone was bound to die nearby soon, so she figured she would ask then.
Her mother hadn’t responded. Was she thinking about it? It was so hard to tell. Things weren’t supposed to be this awkward between a mother and a daughter. There was the possibility that all the awkwardness was in Alyssa’s head. On her part. It could be that her mother was acting perfectly normal, at least so far as the situation would warrant.
“You heard last night, but… in case you forgot: Irulon is going to take me down to wherever Oxart is being kept. I don’t really know why I’m going—what I’ll say or what I’ll do—but that’s beside the point. Did you want to come too? If not, I’m sure it won’t take long at all. Probably.”
Now that she was actually getting ready to go, Alyssa realized that she had no plan for helping Oxart. Going out to rescue her from fairies and fanatics? Yeah. That was something Alyssa could do. She might not like it, but between her weapons and her magical ability, she could fight. Navigating the intricacies of a political system that she barely understood in order to clear someone’s name?
Going at all would be a different story if she was actually friends with Oxart. Or at least if she hadn’t ruined their fledgling relationship by parading around a fairy against literally everyone’s recommendations. But they weren’t friends. Alyssa couldn’t imagine Oxart being happy to see her.
Maybe she should just call the whole thing off.
A knock at the door preceded Tess reentering. This time, she had Irulon standing just behind her.
“I’ll stay here.”
Alyssa glanced to her mother, eyebrow raised. “If you’re sure.”
“It will give me some time to think. And to rest. I haven’t stayed up that late since I was a teenager.” She smiled. It even looked like her heart was in it.
Trying to smile back didn’t feel like it quite worked the way Alyssa had hoped. So she nodded instead. “I’ll be back soon,” Alyssa said as she cast one more glance around their room. Kasita was nowhere to be seen. She hadn’t been around when Alyssa woke up and she wasn’t around now. Well, she wasn’t visible. Alyssa assumed that she was around. Either as some object on her person or on her mother’s person.
“The holding cell isn’t far,” Irulon said. “We’ll be walking. I haven’t much to say to the woman, so unless you’ve got a list of things to discuss, I estimate we’ll be done within the hour.”
Alyssa heartily nodded. That sounded much better than what she had feared. Spending a few hours in some dank dungeon did not sound like a good time. Poor Oxart. An hour was the least Alyssa could do. Even though this frame job had likely been planned in advance, she still felt somewhat responsible for the guard captain’s current predicament.
Tess headed off to fetch some food at Lisa’s request. Alyssa saw that as a good sign. A loss of appetite tended to mean bad things. But Alyssa didn’t stick around to see what Tess returned with.
Following Irulon, she quickly left the palace through the large doors at the main entrance.
Every other step they took, Irulon seemed to yawn. Considering that she had gone to sleep before Alyssa had even made it out of her room let alone down the stairs, she had to wonder just how early she had gotten up. Knowing what she knew about the princess, especially of her sleeping habits, Alyssa would be willing to put money on the table that she had woken up before Irulon.
“Do you sleep like you do, so heavily and so much, because of the dragon?”
They were outside, having just left the plaza and noble manors that surrounded the palace. Now that it had been pointed out to her as their destination, Alyssa could see the Central Garrison building standing just a bit taller than the surrounding structures. But Irulon stopped her forward march, turning to Alyssa.
“I would appreciate if you wouldn’t mention that quite so loudly. It is a matter than only the palace guard and a few of the city guard captains know about. And I would prefer to keep it that way.”
The wealthier sections of the city didn’t really see that much foot traffic. Maybe around the Observatorium. The markets as well. Neither of those were nearby. In fact, looking around, Alyssa did see people, but not a lot. None within listening distance. Magical listening enhancements like Tineye did exist, but…
Well, actually, if anyone was going to have eavesdroppers following them around, it would probably be a princess. Of course, they had talked about plenty of sensitive things inside places like Tzheitza’s shop.
Though Tzheitza’s shop did have some kind of magical defenses around it. Maybe one was to prevent people from listening in. Irulon would probably know that and speak more freely. Thinking about it now, Alyssa couldn’t believe that she had never asked what magic protected the potion shop.
Irulon, hands clasped together behind her back, continued walking. She hadn’t answered the question.
“It is also why you prefer meat, isn’t it? I mean, we had access to food from a whole world away, and you didn’t even seem all that thrilled.”
“That was forever ago. Why bring this up now?”
“I… I don’t know. I would say that I’m worried about what those angels said regarding your soul, but you don’t seem worried about it in the slightest. If you aren’t, then I probably shouldn’t be either. I guess I’m mostly looking for a distraction. Having my mother here is stressing me out.”
“Really? True, my interaction with her was… nonexistent last night. But she didn’t seem overbearing.”
“That might be the problem. I almost wish she would yell at me, tell me to go to my room and that I’m grounded.”
“I mean, not literally. But say something. I told her I killed people and she just stares.”
“My own maternal relationships are nonstandard for this world. I cannot imagine how different your origin society must be. As such, I am not sure exactly what you want me to say. Perhaps I could suggest that your mother is conflicted? Killing is an extreme taboo where you are from. At the same time, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that you saved the city. Now she is unsure about how to react, whether to encourage your actions or to decry them as deplorable. Give her time and she will figure out how to address the issue.”
Alyssa snorted, smiling not because of what Irulon had said—though she was probably right—and more because Irulon was actually trying to console her. “You know, for being you, you say some smart things sometimes.”
“All the time.”
“But…” Alyssa continued, ignoring Irulon’s harrumph. “Did I hear that right? Maternal relationships? Plural? How does… how does that work? You’re not considering the dra—Its mother, right?”
“Do I look like a fool? Of course I don’t. I obviously did not mean that. But I had numerous maternal figures, from my siblings’ mothers to handmaids and other servants.”
“I see.” It certainly sounded like a strange situation. Alyssa and her brother had, at one point in time, had a regular babysitter. Sabrina Collins. But, even though she had been over practically every week, Alyssa wouldn’t have counted her as a mother figure. In fact, her teachers from kindergarten and the first few grades of school probably counted more than the babysitter. Alyssa almost asked how Irulon viewed those people, whether she saw them as motherly or not, but something made her hesitate.
She had a feeling that she knew the answer.
Besides, they had arrived. The Central Garrison. It stood just a bit taller than most of the buildings around. What really set it apart was the material it was made from. The palace was a brownish color. Maybe sandstone quarried from the northern desert. But the garrison looked like a proper European castle with white-grey stone bricks making up most of the structure. Not marble, definitely, but maybe a hard granite. It wasn’t just the material that looked like it had come from a castle. The walls had crenelations and machicolations. Turrets dotted the high walls. The front entrance was a protected portcullis made from iron.
It was probably the most protected building in the entire city. Maybe even more so than the palace.
Guards stood around outside and inside, wielding pikes and spears. More guards than the city wall had at its gates. It seemed a bit excessive in Alyssa’s opinion, but it also made sense. A threat to the outer walls could be called in, whereupon these people would likely rally to defend. That was what had happened the night the trolls had attacked. But if this place held things that needed to be secure at all times, such as prisoners, it would have to keep a defense ready to fight against elements within the city. Citizens were harder to spot than approaching armies.
Irulon went up and started talking to the gate guard. They only exchanged a few words before he waved her through. This visit had probably been arranged in advance.
The portcullis opened up to a large field filled with training equipment. Dummies, archery targets, and even some primitive-looking exercise equipment. Irulon ignored it all, of course. She marched straight to the square building in the middle. Another guard stopped her at the entrance. A few more words had them inside and descending a spiral staircase.
Yet another guard greeted them at the bottom. This one was sitting at a small wooden desk in front of a wall of bars. He was a fair bit beefier than any of the others Alyssa had passed. Clearly he had seen some actual combat as well. His black hair didn’t grow in properly on half his face. A long scar curled from the back of his head to a milky-white eye. The ear on that side of his face was nonexistent. Just a little hole leading into his head.
“Still trying to learn to read, Harris?”
He looked up from a fairly thick tome, smiling. Or maybe sneering. It was hard to tell. Only half of his mouth actually shifted to something resembling a smile. The other half twitched a bit, but that was all it managed.
“Still tryin’ teh impress yer big brother?”
Alyssa took a step back, wondering if she should run and hide before sparks started flying. But Irulon just laughed.
“I’m surprised they keep you around.”
“Yea. Me too.” His initial retort to Irulon had been loud and boisterous. He wasn’t quite as hearty now.
“Could you even stop one of the prisoners if they got out of their cell with that arm of yours?”
Blinking, Alyssa glanced down. Both of his hands were on the table in front of him. It took her a moment to realize. His right hand, the same side as all his other injuries, wasn’t a hand at all. It was a wooden carving of a hand. Stiff and unmoving.
He shrugged. “Don’t need two arms to pull the lever.”
Alyssa flicked her eyes up to a hefty bronze lever stuck into the wall behind him. There were no labels on it, making her wonder just what it was for. Some kind of trap, surely. Or maybe it just caused all the gates to lock into place.
“My offer is still open, you know. Although all my toys were destroyed recently, so finding you a new arm would be a fairly difficult task on short notice.”
“Bah.” He waved his stiff wooden hand. “If I had two working arms, they might get it inteh their heads teh make me do sommat real work ‘round here.”
“Ah yes. Can’t have that. Speaking of real work, mind opening the gate? We’re here to speak to two-two-four-two.”
“Yeh, I heard.” Getting up seemed like a bit of a struggle for him, but he managed with only a small delay. Rounding the desk, Alyssa noticed a clicking sound every other step. He was missing a leg as well. Same side. His pants obscured just where the leg started, but the end was a narrow peg of wood.
As he pulled out a ring of keys to slip into the barred door, Alyssa couldn’t help but wonder: What happened to him and how did he manage to survive it? Feeling it might be rude to ask, Alyssa watched as he locked the door behind them then just followed him in silence as they walked down a narrow passage.
Bars lined the walls. Every so often, a solid line of granite separated the side rooms into distinct cells. There were no beds in any of the rooms. The only ‘furniture’ at all was a small wooden bucket placed in the corners. Those buckets probably explained the smell, though she doubted that the people within had bathed recently which probably didn’t help matters.
Humans made up the vast majority of the prisoners. Alyssa had passed six of them before seeing one elf. This prison held someone accused of treason, so she had to wonder what they were all in here for. Knowing what she did about how monsters were treated, the elf could very well have not done anything aside from having the misfortune of being captured. That might well apply to the humans too. Oxart was being held on planted evidence, after all.
Of course, some of them were bound to be guilty.
One cell made her stop. A scrawny skeleton of a man with a mouth of rotted teeth sat with his back to the wall. Despite him staring straight at her, he didn’t actually seem to see her until she called his name.
“Cid? Is that you Cid?”
Sunken eyes looked up to her. It still took a minute before he blinked and actually saw her. “You!” He scrambled forward, one hand grasping the bars while his other stretched out toward her. Alyssa had to take a step up the hall to keep his yellowed fingernails from touching her. “I’m so glad you’re alright,” he said, tears in his eyes. “I was so worried.”
“Sit yerself down, cretin.”
A wooden hand slammed against the bars above Cid’s head. The noise sent him scrambling back against the far wall. But that only lasted for a moment. He ran back up to the bars, though he kept his hands to himself this time. “P-Please, you have to help me. You have to tell them that I’m just a victim in all this. It wasn’t my fault. Waters Street just used me! I wasn’t a part of their little gang.”
“You’re lucky, Cid.” Alyssa said, crossing her arms as she looked down at him.
“L-Lucky? I’m trapped in here! An innocent man! My poor family, they must be worried sick. They even forgot to bring me food last night.”
“You’re lucky you’re trapped in there. I swore that the next time I saw you, I would kill you. I—” Alyssa hesitated, a sudden thought made her wonder what her mother would think of that declaration. But… “There is obviously no need to do so now.” Turning away, Alyssa shook her head. “Be grateful, Cid. Enjoy what few meals they do deign to feed you. It’s more than you would have gotten from me.”
With a look to Harris and Irulon, the latter of whom just shrugged, Alyssa continued on into the dungeons. Cid shouted after her for a minute, more proclamations of his innocence. Alyssa ignored him. She well knew what kind of a liar he was.
The rows of cells stopped with a turn at a right angle. There were no cells at all for a short passage, just granite walls. Another right turn brought them to another holding area.
Oxart was seated on a cot in the second cell on the left. When Alyssa had seen the lack of any amenities in the other cells, she had worried, but Oxart’s position didn’t look terrible. Cramped, yes, but at least she had things. She had a cot, a blanket, a small stack of books, and even a jar of liquid light. All the other cells were lit from small jars hanging from chains in the hall, well out of the prisoners’ reach.
Despite her well furnished cell, she didn’t look happy. When she looked up and saw who was standing outside her cell, she looked even less pleased.
Oxart’s lip curled. “Thank you, Harris. But you can take them away. I don’t have a thing to say to either of them.”
“Now, now,” Irulon said, striding right up to the bars. “Surely you must want some of your tedium alleviated with a little conversation. My days are busy, but I’ve taken some time just to meet with you. Appreciate it.”
Alyssa winced at the bluntness. The poor woman had been stuck behind bars for who knew how long. There wasn’t even any daylight getting in. But, it did get Oxart to snap her book shut and glare at them. Though she wasn’t entirely sure that the glare was an improvement.
“What do you want?” Oxart spoke like she was having her wisdom teeth pulled.
“I want you out of here.”
Oxart pressed her lips together, nodding slowly. “Then get me out of here. What do you need from me?”
“If only it were that simple. The nobles are claiming ownership of you and your investigation. They don’t want you to be innocent, it keeps you gone while allowing Decorous to run the guard freely. Every day more and more evidence piles up. As much as they’re trying to bury you, they are also trying to keep this under wraps as much as possible. Aside from the men who worked under you, I doubt half the city guard even knows that you’re not at your post. If they know who you are at all. You aren’t going to be flogged, executed, or otherwise brought to the attention of the general populace. It would be too embarrassing for a proper noble guard captain to be found guilty of treason. You’re just going to be down here, forgotten by all except Harris and the rats.”
Irulon fell silent, watching Oxart. The woman took a deep breath through her nose, held it, and let it out in a long sigh.
“I understand. You want me to abandon my house and serve the royal family directly, do you? You’ll be able to gain control of the investigation and make it all go away if I do?” She gave a low, sardonic chuckle. “And my family?”
“They’ll be given the usual compensation. But they won’t have the embarrassment of having a traitor among their number.”
“I expect that I wouldn’t be able to inherit the house while in prison anyway should anything happen to my elder brother.”
“I’m glad you are so quick on the uptake,” Irulon said, pulling a rolled up document from a small pouch she carried. “Then, if you would be so kind as to sign this.”
Oxart stared at the paper. Irulon stared at Oxart. Harris turned his one good eye from one woman to the other.
And Alyssa had just one thought running through her head: I-Is this extortion?