“Eyalen! I came to visit!”
Someone screams my name and starts banging on the door, the sound carrying all the way from downstairs.
I break the kiss with an irritated sigh.
Selma is panting, trying to catch her breath. Her cheeks are flushed red and her gaze has trouble focusing on me. I’d almost think she was drunk, if I wasn’t the one responsible for her current condition.
“Who is it?” she asks me with a dazed voice.
“I think it’s your husband,” I reply.
Her eyes widen in panic. “What–! That’s–! We have to–!”
“That was a joke. Relax.” I chuckle and lick the beads of sweat rolling down her neck. A small shiver runs through her body. “It’s that idiot Preston. Again.”
“E–Eyalen, you know I can’t afford to antagonize Sir Preston. And neither can you, in point of fact. I think you should – Ah… Nnn…”
I shut her up with another kiss.
It annoys me that she’s right.
My life in the Planar Prison has been pretty good, overall. Selma, the owner of the ‘Thread of Marcurio’, treats her employees well – she treats me very well indeed – and as I’d expected, the work is simple enough for me to accomplish it without undue difficulty.
Such a peaceful life isn’t bad…
If there is one sticking point, it’s that Preston fellow, Ishwin’s subordinate, who manages the entire district.
In his dealings with the merchants and citizens under his jurisdiction, Preston is, by all accounts, a competent man – which I suppose makes sense, since he was given such important responsibilities. But any high-ranking official would not be a high-ranking official without his vices.
Preston’s is women.
I can’t really blame him for that, since I’m the same myself, but as the subject of his obsession, I can’t help but find him an incredible bother. Ever since I arrived in the Prison, he has never given up his ambition to obtain me. And he’s dutifully ignored all the hints I dropped that I wasn’t interested. On the contrary, over time, his advances have become more and more forceful and heavy-handed.
It’s not the first time such a thing happens to me, exactly, but that doesn’t make his persistence any less unwelcome.
bang, bang, bang!
The pounding on the shop’s front door continues.
“Eyalen! Open up!”
No way, dumbass. Do you have any idea what time it is? If you were anyone else, you’s already have been arrested for disturbing the neighborhood. Also, Selma’s husband is absent tonight, so I’m busy. Come back tomorrow.
But Selma doesn’t agree with me, it seems.
She pushes me away.
“Go talk to him, at least. Please. I don’t want to lose the shop over something like that.”
I sigh. “Fine, fine… I’ll talk to him.”
Selma smiles at me. “Thank you.”
I kiss her one last time, then get off the bed and head out of the room, grabbing my robe off the floor on the way and slipping it on. I go down the stairs.
Preston is still banging on the door. I’m starting to think he’s trying to knock it down.
I pick the key off the hook behind the shop’s counter, then unlock and open the door.
I firmly keep the distaste off my face when Preston’s appears in my sight, a filthy smile plastered on it.
“You sure took your time,” the shithead says as he steps inside, three of his bodyguards following on his heels while two more remain outside the shop, keeping watch over the surroundings.
“My apologies. We were working upstairs, and we didn’t hear you.”
“You and Selma?”
I nod. “Yes.”
His gaze sweeps over my body. “Hmph. Is that ‘work’ the reason you’re not wearing anything under that robe?”
…You sure are good at noticing the small details, aren’t you?
Without waiting for my answer or needing me to guide him there, Preston swaggers over to the room’s sofa like he owns the place – which he kind of does, in a way, but still – his three goons trailing after him and leering at me as they pass.
I follow after them after locking the door again, and explain, “It is, actually. We’re trying a new kind of fabric. I volunteered to test it first-hand and see if it was comfortable to wear.”
I take a seat in the comfortable padded chair in front of Preston’s sofa, while his goons stand behind him.
“New fabric?” Preston asks absently, not even pretending to be interested.
“Yes. Made from spider thread. It’s lighter and tougher, and we hope –”
“Eyalen,” he interrupts, rubbing his forehead as if this conversation is boring him so much he’s getting a headache, which I sincerely hope it is. “I think I’ve been patient enough already. It’s been a full year since you arrived in the Prison. Now, I’m growing tired of this little game, so I’ll make it simple.” He leans forward and looks me in the eye. “You can give. Or I can take. Your choice.”
We stare at each other silently for a minute.
…I see. So, that’s how you want to play it.
I take a deep breath and break eye contact.
“Tea?” I ask. I make my voice sound as if I’m trying to hide my anxiety.
Preston leans back into his seat with a smug smile on his face, crossing his legs, and rolls his hand in the air in a be-my-guest sort of motion.
I stand up and walk into the back room. There isn’t any doors or windows here except the one I came through so Preston isn’t worried I’ll escape. He and his goons don’t follow after me. I put some water to boil over the stove in the corner of the room, and while I wait for it to be ready, I lean against the wall and think.
This came earlier than I had expected.
No… Should I say he did well to resist temptation for an entire year?
Still, it’s a bit too early.
I have prepared, to some extent, but with my movement limited as it is, I can’t be too obvious. I can’t work too fast. There are still things I could arrange to put chance on my side. But Preston has somewhat forced my hand by confronting me directly and demanding an explicit answer like that. I suppose I could agree and become his toy for a while. It would give me the time I need. On the other hand, the man is a possessive little shit. He might just lock me up in his manor and forbid me from stepping outside while he enjoys me.
Right. I suppose I’ll have to risk it.
Three bodyguards inside, two outside. Preston himself doesn’t have much combat ability, from what I’ve gathered.
It shouldn’t be a problem. I did prepare, after all.
When I come back into the main room of the shop, carrying a teapot and a few cups, Preston looks at me and says, “So? Have you had time to think? It’s going to happen anyway, but are you going to fight it?”
I shake my head. “No, I’m not going to fight.”
Preston slaps his knee in joy. “Hahaha! A wise decision! I’m not going to treat you badly, you know. I take good care of my women. And a woman like you… Hehe…” He wags his eyebrows at me, as if I’m supposed to find this roguish and attractive. When I don’t answer, he tilts his head and continues. “Are you angry? Well, don’t blame me. If you really want to blame something, blame your own beauty.”
I carefully pour the tea in two of the cups, but I snub the bodyguards, even though I brought enough cups for them, too. I hope they’re offended, but I doubt they even noticed.
“Oh, I do,” I reply, taking up one of the teacups. “Very much so. But I blame myself more. This is my own fault, after all.” I let out a sigh and continue. “I really wish I could go back in time and slap some sense into my younger self. Or at least tell her that, for weaklings, beauty is not a blessing, but a constant source of trouble.” I shake my head in consternation. “Then, maybe, she would make a different choice, and I wouldn’t have to look like that.”
Preston frowns. “What?”
I ignore him. I stroke my chin, like some old sage meditating on a particularly thorny problem. “But then again,” I slowly say, “it’s true that I do have at least some measure of pride in my appearance. Because, after all, I’m not just beautiful. I’m incredibly beautiful. Even considering the fact that it forces me to deal with trash like you, I still can’t help but enjoy it. I suppose that makes me a vain person, doesn’t it?”
Preston is staring at me through narrowed eyes. I can almost see the cogs grinding in his brain, as he works through what I’ve just said. The goons, on the other hand, just look confused. I guess he didn’t hire them for their smarts.
I sip my tea and wait for them to finish their thinking. I’m not in any hurry.
Finally, Preston asks, “You’re not an elf at all, are you, Eyalen?”
I smile at him. “Indeed not.”
“Yes. Congratulations. You really are knowledgeable. Though you must’ve had contact with many different species while managing this district, so I suppose it’s not that strange that you’re able to recognize what I am, even though there are so few of us left, now.”
He nods. “Yes. You’re only the second asmodian I’ve ever seen. Well, maybe, there were more, who hid what they were like you did.” His voice gets colder. Something dangerous glitters in his eyes. “Being an asmodian isn’t a problem, in and of itself. The problem is that you hid it from us.”
“I’m sorry. I’m a very private person.” I glance at his untouched cup of tea. “You’re not drinking? It’s pretty good, you know. We imported the leaves from Jodene Fortress. Quite expensive, let me tell you.” I take a sip, closing my eyes as I savor it, like it’s the single most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted in my life, which it is not.
Preston ignore my blathering. “On the form you filled in when you arrived, I distinctly remember there being a field asking you about any special abilities you might have. I also distinctly remember there being a warning written on that same form telling you that any falsified information would be severely punished.”
I open my eyes and look into the distance, squinting, as if I’m trying to remember something from the distant past. “Yeeees… There might just have been such a thing, now that you mention it. But ‘special abilities’ isn’t exactly explicit, now, is it? How was I supposed to know –”
“Please, don’t tell me it didn’t occur to you that we might be interested in knowing you’re a shapeshifter.”
When Preston spells it out for them, the three goons get restless. They glance at me with open suspicion. Their faces are pale and they’re sweating profusely – well, those aren’t necessarily due to their restlessness…
I shrug. “Sorry,” I say. “With the shock of suddenly leaving Caldera forever, I mysteriously forgot about it. The teleportation must have messed with my memory. I just remembered I was an asmodian while I was making tea, a few minutes ago. That’s why I’m telling you now. Because I’m an honest person.” I nod a few times in self-approbation.
“Don’t take me for a fool, Eyalen…” He blinks. “Is your name even Eyalen?”
“Of course not.”
“Of course not…” Preston sighs. “Well, whoever you are, you are quite an idiot. No one suspected you. You could have lived your life in peace, but you just had to –”
“No, no, Preston,” I interrupt. “I really couldn’t have lived my life in peace. Because of your persistent interest in me. I find it quite annoying, to be frank. So I have to take steps against it.”
Preston scowls. “‘Steps’? Didn’t you say you weren’t going to fight it?”
“I’m not. I dislike fighting. If I ever fight, it means something somewhere has gone very, very wrong.” I lean forward and look him in the eye. “You misunderstand me, Preston. I’m not the victim you thought you could bully. Nor am I a warrior who leaves for the struggle. I am a mean, shameless, dishonorable killer. A murderer.” I lean back into my seat and look smug. “Which is why I poisoned you.” His eyes flick to the cup of tea, still resting on the tabletop. “No, no.” I wag my finger. “The poison isn’t in the tea; that would be too obvious. And you didn’t even drink it. Are you an idiot? The tea is just that. Tea. The poison is in the air.”
“Y–You’re bluffing. You’d have been poisoned as well, in that case. Or are you trying to die along with us?”
I shake my head. “Poison doesn’t affect asmodians. So, no. I’m really not bluffing.”
And right as I finish my sentence, two of his bodyguards drop down to the floor behind him, bleeding out from every orifice.
Now that is what I call timing! I really calculated it well. Their deaths add a very dramatic punctuation mark to my little speech. Very nice. Very satisfying. Smugness is definitely justified, here.
The third goon is even paler and sweatier than before. His nose is bleeding. His lungs are working like bellows. It’s only a few seconds until he too drops dead, lying bonelessly next to his comrades.
I wonder if any of them even realized how they died. They were probably too dazed to even hear my explanation.
Preston is staring at me with wide eyes. His hands are shaking. He swallows his saliva and licks his lips in anxiety.
“H–How did you…”
“Magic, of course.”
“That’s impossible. I didn’t feel any qi fluctuation.”
“Aaah. Secrets of the trade, that.” I glance at the three dead goons. “It’s a custom compound of mine. Very effective against oni.” My gaze turns back to Preston. “You’re a high oni. More resistant than them. So you’ll live a few minutes longer.”
“W–W–What’s stopping me from calling the two guards outside? They can barge in here and slaughter you before the poison affects them.”
“You’re welcome to try, of course, but you’ll have to call them very loudly indeed.” I smile sweetly at him. “Don’t you remember? We added sound insulation runes to the walls of the shop, to prevent the noise of the sewing machines from disturbing the neighbors. You authorized and funded those yourself.”
“That was… eight months ago. You…”
“What can I say? I like to be prepared long in advance for every contingency.”
Preston falls silent. His glance flickers back and forth between the front door and me, as if he’s trying to judge his chances.
I just smile at him.
Beads of sweat roll down his cheeks. Eventually, he seems to give up that particular plan as hopeless – and rightly so. He closes his eyes, his brows furrowing in concentration. I suppose he’s trying to slow down the poison with his qi.
…Good luck with that.
A few seconds later, he seems to realize the futility of his efforts. He suddenly grasps his teacup and sits back into his seat, crossing his legs once again, feigning his usual arrogance. He even drinks some of the tea, perhaps to demonstrate how steely his nerves really are.
And I suppose I am a little impressed with him. Not everybody could even pretend to be calm under the circumstances, but the effect is a bit diminished by the shaking of his fingers.
The tea must be cold, by now, too. He really should have drunk it earlier.
Preston forces a smile on his lips and lets out a shaky laugh. “Haha… Ha… Very impressive, Eyal– I mean… Very impressive. So. What do you want in exchange for the antidote? I can be quite amenable when my life is on the line. Do you want me to stop pursuing you? No problem. No hard feelings. I can even hire you, or recommend you to Sir Ishwin or Lord Hardron. Your skills would be very much appreciated, I’m sure.”
I quirk an eyebrow. “Antidote? I’m sorry, but there is no such thing. I would give it to you if I could. Really. But you know a bit too much about me, now. I did tell you I was a very private person, didn’t I? I only really talked so much so that you would be too distracted to notice the poison spreading through your body, but I wouldn’t have used that method at all if I hadn’t been perfectly confident that anyone listening to me wouldn’t have the opportunity to repeat it to anyone else.”
Preston’s eyes look dazed. His body is swaying. “W–Wh–Whu…?” The teacup drops from his nerveless fingers and shatters, spilling its contents over the floor. “Tha–That’s… I should have more time. Why did the poison grow stronger? I–I didn’t…”
“Ah, yes. Sorry, I lied. The tea was poisoned too, actually. I only did that as an afterthought, to be honest. I didn’t expect you to actually drink it.” I shrug. “Well, the results are the same anyway. It just came a minute or two earlier than expected. No big deal.”
Preston dies before finishing his sentence. He drops onto his side, lying over the sofa as if he’s sleeping.
I let out a tired sigh.
While my magic dissipates the poison fouling the air, I lean back into my seat and finish my cup of tea. It’s not as good as I pretended to Preston, but it’s better than nothing, even with the poison inside it. I wish I had some Atherean brandy to go with it.
Once the air is pure, I head back upstairs.
Selma’s corpse has fallen at the foot of the bed.
Of course. The poison was airborne. It spread everywhere within the shop, without sparing the second floor where Selma was waiting. If I’m not wrong – and when poisons are concerned, I’m never wrong – she should have died at about the same time the bodyguards did. She’s not an oni, so the poison wasn’t as specifically deadly to her as it was to them, but she doesn’t have as much bulk as the bodyguards did, so it became potent more quickly.
I did say I wouldn’t have talked about myself if I wasn’t sure that anyone who could have possibly heard me wouldn’t be around to repeat it afterward…
I sigh again.
I don’t apologize, because I’m not in the habit of talking to dead people.
I riffle through drawers and cupboards, gathering warm and comfortable travel clothes and enough dry food to survive a few days, even if I don’t hunt. I fill up a water skin. Just in case, I grab a few magic cores and all the money from the safe in Selma’s husband’s study – it only takes me a few minutes to break into it.
And then, I head back downstairs.
I can’t stay in this fortress anymore, now that I’ve killed Preston.
I’ll handle the two goons left outside, and then, I’ll have to leave.
I’ll head to Rayyan Fortress. That should be far enough to dodge Hardron’s wrath.
Before leaving, I shift my features into something much plainer and much less conspicuous than my usual appearance. I reduce the size of my breasts. I shrink ten centimeters and put on some girth. After a second of consideration, I also grow two small horns from my forehead.
I grit my teeth against the pain.
Shifting my skeleton always hurts, these days. I miss my youth. My powers were so much easier to use, back then. But I had a lot less sense than I do now, so I guess it evens out.
I focus for a moment.
I can feel Preston’s men, right outside, standing on either side of the door, completely oblivious to the death of their master and comrades.
I breathe out slowly and, with a flick of my wrist, one of the knives concealed up my sleeve falls into my hand.
I unlock the front door.
Let’s get to work…