Freedom of Choice
Rainwater dripped down the windows of Tzheitza’s potion shop. It wasn’t her first time seeing rain in this new world. One night while traveling to Lyria, she had needed to pitch her tent early. Thankfully, the tent was water proof and kept her and everything she carried dry, though packing it up in the morning hadn’t been all that comfortable. But it had only rained that one evening, providing ample time for her tent to dry over the next night.
Still, it was somewhat nostalgic. When younger, she and her brother had always sat on his bed during any kind of storm. Its head had been directly under the window, so they put their feet on the pillow and their heads at the opposite end. Lightning, as a child, had been awe inspiring to watch. Even heavy storms were fun. Whiskers had always freaked out in big storms. Poor old cat. He had passed away just a few years ago.
A crack of thunder rattled the windows. Alyssa blinked in shock before shaking her head. Earth felt so far away. But she couldn’t afford to get caught up in a reverie. To dwell in the past, to dwell on home, was to get stuck. Alyssa had to set out clear goals for her own sanity’s sake. Whether those be simple—survive the evening camping, get to Lyria, find a clean source of water—or more long term, such as getting home without angels interfering. Her current goal was to get this gang off her back.
“Tenebrael’s all madlike today,” Tzheitza said as another wave of thunder rolled over the shop.
With a suppressed scoff, Alyssa turned to correct the potioneer, only to hesitate. She had taken high school physics. She knew all about the buildup of static electricity in clouds until it became too large, discharging downward in a bolt of lightning that increased pressure and temperature in the air, causing the crack. But she thought about it for a moment. Tenebrael making lightning… actually wasn’t all that implausible. Iosefael could easily have said something to anger the dark angel. Given that this was her world, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult for Tenebrael to make rain and lightning. This could just be a little temper tantrum.
“Yeah,” was all Alyssa ended up with.
“Could be good for yeh. A blessin’ if she’s angry about the gang.”
Now that was extremely doubtful. While Alyssa could see Tenebrael getting upset about something and having a fit, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that the demonic angel apparently in charge of this world did not care in the slightest for its denizens. She didn’t care if they worshiped her or ignored her, if they sold humans—or monsters—as slaves or if they were the greatest saint to grace the world.
But that was something that Alyssa couldn’t say no matter what. Maybe to Kasita. Not to Tzheitza. “What did you do with Cid?” she asked instead. A glance to the door showed the black fog still blocking out view of the little cubicle. He hadn’t left.
“Sleepin’ for now,” Tzheitza said with a casual shrug. Which might have explained why she had wanted Alyssa to leave the room. Given that forcing him to drink one of the potions probably wouldn’t have gone over so well, she had probably used some sort of gaseous potion. Or maybe she had simply told him to drink or get his fingernails pulled off. “Don’t wanna see the haberin malefactor runnin’ about before we decide what to do about him.”
As it turned out, all those torture tools had been purely for show. Tzheitza had never used a single one of them. Every question asked of Cid got an answer straight away. Sometimes those answers had been obviously embellished… or the inverse when it came to his part in any unsavory events.
Waters Street was a large organization with no central leadership. They had their fingers in several illegal pies. Prostitution wasn’t illegal. Slavery was. At least for human slaves who weren’t branded heretics. Literally branded. With a hot iron. There were several varieties of narcotics that the royal family had declared hazardous to society. Then there were a bunch of run-of-the-mill crimes such as common burglary, arson, and protection payments. Apparently they had ties to some assassin’s guild as well, though Cid hadn’t known much about that. Thankfully.
They also took requests. If someone needed a disturbance or distraction to cover up other illicit affairs, they were the go-to group in the city. Maybe something like an evil mirror of the Knights Solaris.
When she had first heard that the gang was after her, Alyssa had to admit that a somewhat morbid thought had crossed her mind. Given her experience at the Waterhole, she had momentarily thought to take her shotgun and run down Waters Street, shooting everyone who looked like they might be part of a gang. Even if she hadn’t decided that doing so would be an absolutely horrendous idea, it simply wouldn’t be possible now.
The organization was simply too large.
Waters Street was merely where they had begun. Twenty years ago, they had been a small time crime group that just doled out illegal drugs in their brothel. In the years since, they had expanded throughout the city and even outside its walls. Which explained a lot about why the guards didn’t just raid the street. There wasn’t much left that was important. Just their namesake whorehouse.
According to Cid, they were even trying to change their name to get rid of even that connection. Waters Street was just too ingrained in people’s minds for it to easily disappear.
Even if Alyssa could find the three generally considered to be leaders of the gang even if it wasn’t official, a daunting task in and of itself, going to the extreme of killing them probably wouldn’t get everyone else to go away. Though there might be some infighting over a new leader, which would work to her advantage, but it was still an implausible option. Cid hadn’t seen any of them in person in at least five years.
“So, any suggestions?”
Tzheitza scoffed with a slight shake of her head. “Keep yer head down. Hire on a proper bodyguard—not Ozheim—and hope those slaves weren’t a haberin dolly cost.”
Ducking her head, Alyssa sighed. “I suppose you don’t want me putting your store in danger.” Losing a roof overhead would be a blow. Especially such a safe place where she could leave her gear while out doing other things. Even worse than that was losing the company. She might only be able to understand Tzheitza a third of the time, but having someone to talk to made the evenings pass much easier.
Kasita didn’t count. In some ways, Alyssa felt like she could be a little more open with the mimic. However there was one glaring issue. Kasita only showed herself when it suited her. Even now, despite having called out for her, she was probably disguised as one of those torture tools. She would pop up sometime soon with a giggle about how unfortunate the situation was.
“I’m not about to shunt yeh roundabouts. We fought together, saved my life, or close enough. That’s worth more than an occasional assassin. ‘Sides. Any who darken my doorway’ll radecomb before they can break a single bottle. I dare ‘em to try.”
“Right.” Well, that was one worry gone. “But I can’t just stay cooped up inside. You have potions that need delivering and I have my own matters to attend to. Sitting around doing nothing but cooking…” Would be standing still. Her goals would remain forever on the infinite horizon if she wasn’t moving toward them. Alyssa’s eyes hardened and her fingers clenched into tight fists. “No. I can’t remain stagnant. I need to—” Cutting herself off, she glanced to the darkened window, realizing that she had forgotten something. “Is it possible to wake him up right away.”
Tzheitza made a face. After a long moment of hesitation, she nodded her head. “One minute,” she said as she headed back behind the counter. In a flurry, just as Alyssa had seen her do whenever customers needed something, she started pulling jars off the shelves, removing items from drawers and cabinets, and setting out her measuring and grinding tools.
Habit nearly made Alyssa walk over to watch. But she realized that there wasn’t much point to it. Unless Tzheitza actually started teaching her, she would just be grinding up and mixing various items. There had to be recipes somewhere, but the shop was surprisingly light on literature.
So Alyssa turned back to face the rain-spattered window once again, just in time to watch the sky shift from evening to night. The shop was officially closed. It had been a slow day, at least for the parts where she had been present, but she flipped the latch on the door anyway. Just in case Oz came barging in.
Or gang assassins.
As it turned out, one minute was a drastic understatement. After nearly a half hour of preparing an orange slime, Tzheitza put a small tin of it over the fire. A smell quickly filled the room. Faint at first. It smelled like ammonia, but with a fruity bend to it. A little unpleasant, but not unbearably so.
Five minutes later had Alyssa pressing her sleeve over her face. The rank scent burned at her nose and windpipe, making her feel as if she had just swallowed a bottle of Tabasco sauce. None of the windows opened and even with the door unlatched and wide open, the overpowering stench was just too much for such a small place to handle. It was getting to the point where running outside was starting to look like a good option, thousands of assassins hiding in the shadows or not.
Tzheitza handled the smell in a far more stoic manner. Even as Alyssa coughed and gagged in the opposite corner of the room, she stood over the small tin, watching the boiling liquid without a single expression crossing her face. Every so often, she would add some black strings that didn’t help the smell at all.
It took another ten minutes of agony before Tzheitza pronounced the putrid potion complete. She slid a cap over the top of the tin, but that didn’t magically make the smell go away. “Hope yeh weren’t plannin’ on sleepin’ tonight,” she said as she carried the tin into Cid’s little cubicle.
Though wary of getting closer to the tin, Alyssa followed her. Waking up Cid had been her idea after all. She couldn’t just hang back. Despite the smell having fully leaked into the partitioned room, Cid remained fast asleep. His arms hung down off the sides of the chair as he lay slumped in it.
At least, he remained asleep right up until Tzheitza dipped a wooden dowel into the liquid then shoved it up his nose. Alyssa winced, unable to even comprehend how horrid that must be. Cid’s eyes snapped open. For just an instant, he looked around, confused. That didn’t last. He started rubbing at his nose as his panic visibly mounted. Finding nothing to wipe away, he actually started screaming.
Tzheitza took a glass of water and threw it in his face. That got his screaming to stop, but he doubled over coughing as most of the water had gone right down his open mouth. He sputtered, trying to get a breath of fresh air.
A small vestige of empathy welled up in Alyssa. Cid was scum. There wasn’t a doubt about that. But having even a thimble of that smell right up his nose was a torture far worse than the effect of any of the tools Tzheitza had out earlier.
Alyssa dropped her arm to her side, uncovering her face. Given how little a cloth in front of her mouth helped, it wasn’t that big of a loss. She tried to put on as impassive a look as Tzheitza, but highly doubted she was succeeding. Cid, being in as much agony as he looked like he was in, probably wouldn’t notice much.
“I forgot to ask,” she said as soon as his coughing died away. He wasn’t even looking at her, too busy shoving a bit of his vest up his nose. Absolutely disgusting, but Alyssa couldn’t say that she would be acting any different in his position. “When we met in the alley, you said that you could get the gang off my back. How? And how does it tie in to helping Bacco?”
She had almost forgotten his whole goal. He wanted her help to rescue Bacco. Presumably he had some sort of plan. Alyssa couldn’t think up any scenario where rescuing Bacco didn’t bring down even more heat on her head. Which, for all she knew, might well be Cid’s plan. Rescue Bacco, run away, and leave poor Alyssa to deal with the fallout.
Still, she needed to at least hear him out.
Though it looked like she might not be able to do so anytime soon.
“What did you do to me?” he shouted, still trying to scrape out the interior of his nose. Tears welled up in one eye on the same side of his face. “It feels like someone tore off half my skin. I think I’d prefer that!”
“Kendrik our own noses,” Tzheitza said with a glare. “Get over yerself.”
“Right,” Alyssa said with a hesitant nod of her head, not quite sure she wanted to agree with whatever that meant. “But answer my questions, Cid. Or I’ll dump the rest over your head. I can’t imagine it would be pleasant getting it in your eyes.”
“I think it’s already there, up my nose.” He scrunched his eye closed until he caught Alyssa glaring at him. With a hefty snort right onto his vest, he settled himself down. “It’s simple. We kill the Taker.”
To Alyssa’s side, Tzheitza shifted slightly and deepened her already intense scowl. It must have been something significant, but not to Alyssa. She still had to ask. “What is the Taker?”
Cid put on a pain-filled grin, showing off his unsightly dental care. “Who is the Taker. He is a man. A bogeyman.” He paused a moment, apparently unable to hold back a hacking cough.
Another monster? Or just a general term for a scary person? For the moment, Alyssa decided not to interrupt. She could ask Tzheitza or Kasita later.
“He is the reason the city guard leaves the Waters Street gang alone. He is the reason why, when the guards are forced to show some spine, the gaols are empty by morning. He has Bacco, he almost had me, and he’ll soon have you. Unless you do something about him. Kill him and the gang won’t touch you. You’ll have proved yourself scarier than the bogeyman.”
“Alright stop,” Alyssa said, changing her mind. This couldn’t wait until later. “Is he human or is bogeyman a type of monster that I haven’t heard of yet.”
Cid opened his mouth but Tzheitza beat him to answering. “A human,” she practically snarled. “A traitor.”
“Oh yeah, I bet you’d know him. Used to be in the guild,” he added as an aside to Alyssa. “Got a bit too bloodthirsty. He went an—”
“Gab yer gottermore yeh malefactor.”
“Ooh, a bit touchy are we? Sore subject?”
Tzheitza thrust a hand into her pocket and tore out a vial of silvery liquid. With an undignified squeal, Cid cowered back in his seat as much as he was able. Alyssa put a hand to Tzheitza’s arm before she could throw it, or whatever she had been planning on doing. The older woman, face bright red with anger, turned her ire to Alyssa just long enough to regain her composure. She took a deep breath, somehow managing without choking on the foul air, and slid the vial back into her pocket.
Once sure that there wouldn’t be any accidents, accidental or not, Alyssa addressed them both. “So he is just a human then.” That was good news. She hadn’t resolved herself to actually hunt and kill anyone, but at least a human wouldn’t be able to shrug off bullets like the trolls had the other night if she did end up deciding to take that option. Though it might not be necessary. Tzheitza looked about ready to rush off and take some rash actions. “I assume he isn’t just a regular Joe walking down the streets.”
“Regular? Ha. Rumor has it that he summons up demons just to drink their blood. Excepting the Black Prince himself, the Taker hasn’t got an equal in swordsmanship within Lyria. His spell work is top notch as well.”
That had Alyssa frowning. Not such good news there. She still had those fractal futures burned into her memories. Irulon was apparently one of a highly exclusive number of the most powerful arcanists in the city, so maybe this Taker wouldn’t be so tough, but Alyssa had tried to attack the princess in several of those infinite possibilities. Exceedingly few had succeeded.
“Do you have a plan?” Alyssa asked, still not committing.
“Do I have a plan,” Cid repeated with a raspy chuckle. Glancing over his shoulder, he opened his mouth to say something only to stop dead and turn back with a frown. “Yes, I have a plan. And it isn’t just to sneak in and assassinate him. That won’t impress anyone. You’ll have to fight him in front of people who can tell the story.”
That sounded even less appealing. But Tzheitza was nodding her head. “Makin’ ye all scarylike ought to work. And the Taker. One of the guild’s own. The haberin traitor worse than a rottymix…” Her words quickly became less intelligible as she started grumbling under her breath.
Alyssa hadn’t a clue what that meant, but it sounded distressingly like an agreement with Cid. “Great. Lovely.” Maybe she could ask for Irulon’s help. She did have a few cards from earlier in the day that might do some damage and she still had Bercilak’s deck of cards, which Irulon had tasked her with looking up on her own. Something about how it would be good to identify common spells based on their patterns. Really, she was probably just too lazy to look them over. “I’m going to need to know everything about this guy,” she said, glancing between the two. “What spells does he like to use, how does he like to fight, and so on.”
“I can say,” Tzheitza said. “I knew him.”
“Good.” Maybe Oz could help too. And the rest of the guild. If he was some traitor, taking him out might even be a job they would do on their own. “And you?” she said with a glance to Cid.
“Know him by reputation only. Never seen him in action. But I can take you to him. I know where Bacco is and he won’t be far away. Just leave everything to good old Cid.”
Which just got a groan from Alyssa.
“We shouldn’t wait too long. They’ll know I escaped by now. He’ll be hunting tomorrow night. Better to jump him early.” He tried to grin again only to scrunch up his face in pain. “As soon as my face stops feeling like it’s on fire! Agh! I think some ran down the back of my throat!”