Freedom of Choice
Helpless to Help
“You aren’t leaving it to him. That would be foolish in the extreme.”
Alyssa blinked, not having expected a response, she momentarily struggled to form a proper sentence. “I have to do something. I can’t just stand around waiting. The deadline is tonight, according to Cid. If I haven’t taken action, then I’ll be the one who… has action taken against her?” That didn’t quite come out right, but she shook her head. The meaning got across. That was all that mattered.
“Which is why you have come to me.”
“Yeah.” Honestly, Alyssa hadn’t thought the princess had been listening to the story. The whole time she had been telling her story, Irulon had sat hunched over three books, writing down spells in a fourth. The younger woman had hardly looked up since Alyssa entered the room. Only to call her over and to cast a quick spell.
Apparently, clearing out the whole of the library was a one time thing. Just like the first time Alyssa had been in the Observatorium, other students meandered about the books for their own studies and research. Many, many of them had their eyes on the princess. For the second time, they were watching someone breach Irulon’s bubble of personal space. Not only that, but that someone was engaged in a heavy conversation.
Though this time, the bubble was a little more literal. As soon as Alyssa had sat down, Irulon cast a spell. Another Fractal spell simply called Alternate Visage. Shards of glass surrounded them just like Fractal Mirror. Much larger shards than the other spell, but similar nonetheless. They differed in what they displayed. Namely, nothing at all. Alyssa could see right through them, only aware that the spell was active thanks to the occasional glimmers of light that caught on the edges of the shards. She shifted under the gaze of a young man with far too many rings on to be tasteful.
But his eyes slid right over her, tracking some other movement. He couldn’t see her.
Not this her, anyway.
Alternate Visage created a… Irulon’s explanation had been far too technical. Just thinking about it made her head hurt. Basically, everyone outside the bubble was seeing a conversation that could have been. Something far more innocuous than what they were actually talking about. Maybe they were talking about simple magic. Maybe they were discussing how their weekends had been. Whatever everyone else was seeing, neither Alyssa nor even Irulon knew what it was. Which wouldn’t have been much use if people were listening in and later asked them about it, but Alyssa had no intentions of interacting with the people in the Observatorium. Given the permanent bubble of personal space around her, Irulon likely wouldn’t either.
Alyssa shuddered. Watching everyone look at her but not quite her was just weird. Hopefully whatever was happening wasn’t embarrassing. There wasn’t much point in getting embarrassed in front of strangers who she would likely never see again—that was her general philosophy any time she did something foolish at a store or restaurant. But if she was coming to the Observatorium on any kind of regular basis, she might actually have to interact with some of those people.
A scraping sound pulled her attention back to where the princess was cleaning off the tip of her pen. She was meticulous in her care, first using a cloth to ensure that not a spot of ink remained before scraping the metal tip of the fountain pen on a stone to sharpen it. To Alyssa, it seemed a sharp tip would just punch right through any paper, but she really didn’t know anything about writing with a fountain pen and the princess surely did. After a bit of polishing, the princess finally finished by setting the pen into a gemstone-studded case. The sight of it almost made Alyssa laugh. It looked just like a case she had owned back in elementary school, except her case had those little adhesive-backed plastic jewels instead of being worth ten fortunes.
Stifling her smile, Alyssa looked up to Irulon. “So you’ll help then?”
“Hm. I’d like to. I can’t.”
“What? Why? I mean, I’m not expecting you personally to go fight this guy, but you’re the princess. Can’t you just order the city guard to…”
“To go and destroy Waters Street. Unfortunately, that is impossible. Save for defense of the city and the kingdom, the army cannot be mobilized without the consent of the Council of Nobles. A stuffy group. Mostly unpleasant,” she said with a mild glare around the room. The glare vanished quick enough, replaced with her overly polite smile. “While Lyria supplies a bulk of the army’s personnel, the majority are actually supplied from the nobles. They train and outfit soldiers in their own territories, a large portion of which congregate under the banner of Lyria. It reduces the individual strength of each territory to strengthen the nation as a whole, most of the soldiers wind up either at the Fortress of Pandora or at the various outposts throughout the land.”
Alyssa blinked, remaining silent as she took a moment to absorb the facts. Guardsman Ipo had mentioned something about the guard being unable to be deployed rapidly. And something about nobles. But that had been a week ago, a lot had happened in the time since, and she really had other things on her mind at the time. “So you can’t send the soldiers because they’re mostly owned by nobles. And you can’t convince the nobles?”
“In a single afternoon? Not even if half of them weren’t corrupt. I suspect that some are paid off by the gang itself. Several others might even have closer working relations.”
Ugh. Maybe help taking down the whole gang was a bit too much to expect. Police in her world would have probably taken her into protective custody or given her a guard detail, both concepts that, even if they were familiar to this world, Alyssa didn’t really want around her if she could help it. But police would almost certainly not have charged into gang controlled buildings on a moment’s notice. There would be research and investigations… and a hundred miles of red tape.
“What about the Black Prince,” Alyssa said as the thought occurred to her. “I saw him cut through trolls like they were made of butter. He can at least get this Taker guy, can’t he?”
“You saw him. You were outside the wall.” Irulon’s pale eyes flicked over Alyssa, moving from her shoulders down to her hips then back up to her face. “Interesting.”
“Huh?” Alyssa shifted slightly, feeling far more self-conscious about that casual comment that she might have otherwise been. It didn’t help that the princess was back to her serene smile. As if she knew something that no one else did.
“My brother could deal with the Taker without a doubt. If he couldn’t, I would have to disown him.”
“In addition to the logistics of sending people out to take care of the problem, there is one more issue concerning anyone in authority taking action. Especially my brother.”
Alyssa just sighed and waited for the explanation that was sure to come.
Irulon stood up, walked around the table without leaving the bubble of Fractal magic, and sat against the table’s edge. Looking down at Alyssa, she tilted her head ever so slightly. “You mentioned rescuing some people from this brothel. Merchandise, your malefactor friend called them.”
“First, he isn’t my friend. Second, I thought malefactor was some potionspeak thing. Third… that is correct. There were four people who left when I did. Apparently another few left after.”
“People, you say again.”
“Yeah,” Alyssa said slowly, drawing out the word. This line of discussion wasn’t exactly heading in a direction that she was comfortable with.
That discomfort only increased as Irulon’s polite smile turned almost hungry. “Human slaves are illegal under my father’s laws. But they aren’t all that valuable. After all, humans are extremely common around these parts,” she said with a slight gesture around the room. “Certainly not valuable enough to get the Taker on your tail. I know his reputation—I’ve actually collected a number of examples he has made of his enemies. Many bodies wind up on the streets, all showing clear signs of torture or worse as a warning. Every one of them utterly fascinating. One man had his spine torn out without killing him. I had quite a lot of fun figuring out how.”
Her smile never wavered, sending chills down Alyssa’s spine. And she wasn’t even sure who she was shuddering at, the Taker or Irulon.
“No. You did something else. Either you stole something of significant value or… those people were far harder to acquire than your average humans.”
“I stole a bag full of coins,” Alyssa said. “It had several altus and a decent assortment of the smaller denominations.”
“Hm. At least one elf. Then… a harpy?” Alyssa didn’t say a word but Irulon shook her head. “No. Not a harpy. Then what? It must be races appealing for a brothel yet still suitably exotic to draw in patrons. No trolls or mountain giants. The ant people? No—”
“Alright! Just stop. It was an elf, a mimic, a bee-like thing, and some lizard woman. I don’t know what their races’ proper names are.”
“A lizard? Green scales or red?”
“Hm. No wonder they set the Taker on you.”
Alyssa slumped in her chair with a sigh. “Is that rare or something?”
“Let me put it this way. That salamander is probably the only one north of the Fortress of Pandora. And… Ah. You were outside the wall the night of the siege. You released them there and got caught up in events. I read the reports after our last meeting. You might be pleased to know that only trolls, goblins, and a single fairy were among the monstrous casualties. The monsters you rescued escaped.”
“Great. So you’re going to have me arrested now or something?”
“I should. But no. Your value to me decreases substantially if you are trapped in a cell. So long as word is kept quiet, I do not have to act. Which is why my brother cannot act in your defense. If he showed up to kill the Taker, those corrupt nobles I mentioned earlier would almost certainly raise the issue that the royal family acted in the defense of someone who freed monsters and set them loose, even though he would also be killing a known killer. It would not be a pleasant experience. Especially for me and my brother. We would likely be disowned immediately and charged as traitors to humanity. My brother is already on rocky shores with his draken.”
Slumping forward and letting her head rest on the table, Alyssa let out another long sigh. This whole thing had been a waste of time. She should have been helping Tzheitza make potions or finding other allies at the guild. Even if Cid insisted that she had to do this herself in order to convince the gang that she was a legitimate threat, having a significant number of friends she could count on would probably work as well.
“Well, thanks for your time and sorry for wasting it, I guess.” No sense not being polite. Alyssa had no intentions of dying no matter what happened. Burning a bridge just because the princess couldn’t help her in this situation would only result in pain later on. “I suppose I better go make preparations.”
“Leaving so soon? Surely you’ll accept my gift first.”
Irulon flashed her most polite smile before moving back around the table. “I am aware that your spell library is… lacking.”
Alyssa wasn’t so sure about that. She had Bercilak’s deck of cards. Though she had only identified a handful of the spells. It seemed quite versatile, having spells like the fireball and the chains, good for both offense and defense. Honestly, she still wasn’t sure what she thought of magic. Her shotgun seemed far more reliable. Still, she wasn’t about to argue against the princess. Not if she was about to give something away.
The princess picked up her tome, still open to the very page she had been writing out while Alyssa had been telling her story, and plucked the page from its bindings. It was much larger than the spell tome chained to her waist. More of a research notebook. Flipping it over for Alyssa to see, she placed it on the table. Four spells were drawn on the front. No two were the same.
“Just a few items I thought might help with your issue.”
“You drew these out for me? For this specific situation? How? You started working on them before I even told you what was going on.”
“When you walked in, I noticed differences between today and both other times. You displayed traditional characteristics of fear. Dilated pupils. A sheen of sweat gracing your arms and face. Worry and despair once you looked around and noticed the other students. Occasional glances behind you, clearly afraid of being followed. That is when I started. Early on, you mentioned the Waters Street gang. From there, it wasn’t difficult to ascertain your problem. Most of your story was entirely superfluous.”
“Well, thanks for letting me waste all my breath,” Alyssa mumbled.
“It gave you something to do while I was working,” she said with such a natural smile that Alyssa was almost ashamed for having commented. “Besides, it is always best to have more information. You could have said something that would have changed my selection of spells entirely. You didn’t, but the possibility was there.”
“I could have helped draw cards at least.”
“Watching you do so last time was physically painful for me. I would hate to have you arrested for assaulting me.”
Alyssa narrowed her eyes at the princess’ bright smile, but didn’t say anything. Arguing with Irulon just wasn’t worth it. Instead, she looked down at the sheet of cards. The spells were all on the same piece of paper—or parchment or whatever these people used. But Irulon quickly solved that issue by drawing a small jeweled knife from somewhere on her tight dress. Its blade split the spells apart without her even needing to press hard. The edge was just that sharp. In short order, the four spells were all on their own cards.
None of which, Alyssa noted, she had ever seen before.
“What do they all do?”
Rather than respond verbally, Irulon reached out and flipped one of the cards over.
Invisibility spell. Works by wrapping you in a fractal field, showing anyone looking in your direction what the world would look like if you didn’t exist.
“It is a bit more complex than that, but this is far more effective than an illusion variant for going unnoticed.”
Alyssa couldn’t help but frown at one word in the description and another word in the title. “This isn’t like that Fractal Mirror spell, is it?”
“Ah hah, ah no.” Irulon’s laugh sounded both stiff and sarcastic. It gave Alyssa the impression that she didn’t laugh all that often and probably hadn’t laughed just now. “It is only Rank Four and should be significantly less intense and less draining just because of that. Moreover, it shows you nothing but the world around you, rather like this spell we’re under right now,” she said with a wave of her hand around the shimmering barriers.
“That’s good. I think I can handle that.” The bubble they were under didn’t bother her at all. It was like looking out of a window, if said window had some cracks in it. And was moving around. And there were a lot of them. Even if it was a little distracting, it was nothing like seeing an infinite number of herself, all doing different things.
“You will be able to interact with things outside the shroud as well, so keep that in mind. Don’t go bumping into anyone you don’t want alerted to your presence.” Irulon flipped over the rest of the cards one after another, not stopping to explain any. Each had a title and a short description underneath. The spells were divided between Fractal and Death magic, two of each. “You can look them over on your own time. All of them should be self explanatory. None of them are higher than Rank Five, so you shouldn’t have an issue casting them.” As she spoke, she stacked them all up into a single deck and held it out to Alyssa.
“Thank you,” Alyssa said, accepting the cards. She still wasn’t sure that she was going to use them over her shotgun—it was somewhat depressing how quickly she had resigned herself to having to kill yet another person. Invisibility sounded nice. She could just sneak up and shoot him in the back of the head. But Cid seemed to think that she needed to fight him in the open in order to get the gang off her back.
Ugh. What a mess.
Author’s Note: Just a reminder to vote on TWF!