Myriasday, 4th of Longwater, 3830 AR

Duchy of Calyne


            They were trying to hunt her down, of that much Veyd was sure.
            Five days had passed since Danene Roster reappeared, five days since John Roster sided with Queen Elliah, took back his title of Duke of Calyne as was the title of his father before him, and put a bounty on all the known assassins working in the Gray Queen’s service.
            So the hunters became the hunted and more were getting caught every day. Some were tortured and new information revealed to find even more, some who could not be proven guilty were dragged out into the street on some old ugly business from some time ago by witnesses whose testimony wasn’t enough, and ended up shot to pieces.
            Veyd had seen such a group of bodies with her own eyes. Shoved into a one way alley and fired upon with fully automatic weaponry until super dead and then left to rot.
            Veyd was more worried about the others, the Yellow Eyes, and found herself catching strange sidelong glances from random people with flashing yellow in their eyes, the eyes of the crazies on the bridge, and the light of Talia perverted to some great madness.
            They were yellow eyes of the fallen priest…
            “Are you alright?” asked the real estate agent. He was a slender black man with a buzz cut hair wearing glasses and a dark brown suit, one of the few well to do educated men to come out of the Gray Queen’s rule in Calayne not as her subordinate or a corpse. She looked up at him thoughtfully for a moment and then nodded. “I sure hope Mr. Donnelly likes it,” he added a little uncomfortably.
            Veyd blinked tiredly and took the keys. “My uncle knows what he’s buying,” she said and looked up at the duke’s palace in the distance. It could be seen anywhere in the tight quarters of the tall, beautiful city of Calynyre, rising high up into the purple-black sky of a very early morning.
            It was old and wondrous with buildings all around that were cramped, miserable, and unpleasant but, Veyd noticed, that was already changing. People were coming around and fixing their neighborhoods, fixing their homes, cleaning the alleyways and, such as in the case of the queen’s assassins, removing its scum.
            Veyd leaned up against the house, eyes shutting for a moment, her Otomo beside her with a few ads formed on it. On the left side toward the front was “Marko Mechanics” with the double “M” symbol and on the exact other side was “Anywr Industries” with the symbol of Farru, the farthest and most polluted planet in the galaxy looking whole and healthy. They weren’t actually stickers, she bought the images for a couple grays and had them formed onto the sides near the front above the wheels.
            Her hair had curled again, still dark but not black and had a natural highlight tilted toward blond as they grew beyond the roots, and her eyes had changed to teal again all of which could mean literally anything. Her face was different too, subtly so, but still very recognizable and very beautiful and in fact, somehow, more her own even though she looked even less like Alan Veyd. She found herself staring at sometimes in the mirror as if she was really seeing herself for this first time since she escaped that purgatory.
            She felt certain this final set of colors and curls was her truest and most accurate form. She found, in the end, she liked the curls. She liked how they looked with her new hair but not her old red hair. It wasn’t just right for her and—
            “Who is going to live in this place?” asked the real estate. “I would not feel comfortable misleading a gentleman into purchasing a home he has not seen—”
            “Someday, if you’re lucky, my uncle will you show the inside.”
            “Really?” His eyes grew huge in playful mockery. “Really?”
            “What?” She gestured to the skeleton house with only a few old doors, the front and the garage being the most important, and a roof. Inside was nothing, really. Veyd had slept in there a few times in the shell so empty it didn’t even have stairs to the second floor and found it difficult to lose consciousness in the very cramped and dirty quarters. “This place is a palace.”
            The city was loud and people had been creeping around outside and doing drugs and other bad things but it was getting better. The Gray Queen’s taxes were going to the police and community projects and while that neighborhood would never be fit for aristocracy it would certainly not be the cesspool it had once been.
            By that time however Veyd was getting very paranoid. The Yellow Eyes were getting closer, she could feel them creeping up at her, and sensed or maybe just feared that Talia’s light was something they could feel. She kept herself a low profile by sleeping such scummy areas as her new house but cut her three weeks of hanging low in the city to five days.
            “You’ve got to go now, sir,” she told him pleasantly.
            The real estate agent was nervous and reluctant but eventually he did leave her there, he had no ability to keep her anywhere by law, but not before offering to take her somewhere safer.
            “No, this place is home,” she had told him and then gestured to the gun on her back. “I’ll be fine.”
            When he was finally gone Veyd took out one of her prized enchanted tools. She was very excited about what it was going to do. It was a kind of a flat black star-shaped device with a bright blue handle on the back. It had seven points for seven locations, and she placed it center top of the door. Then she placed another one, with three points and a red handle on the back, below it. Both stuck in like they were magnetically pulled onto the door and then watched as they moved to exact positions.
            She had been setting up the runes on the two doors, the front and garage, for three days although no one could see it unless they were looking for magic with a magical spell.
            She finished the enchantment by connecting the two stars to the runes which all glowed bright blue all over the door. They glowed, sealed to the door, then faded except for the two stars’ stamps which when she pulled them off revealed black points like a clock, the bottom pointing up, and the blue one above pointing to the point just right from the top which was her primary location.
            “My first location,” she whispered. “I’m so proud.” She went and did the same for the garage and it worked just as well.”
            Alan Veyd had been fantastic in enchantment. When compared to casting with someone like Danica she might as well been using a rabbit and hat but enchantment had always been a talent of his partly because of its logic and science-like relatable that had captured Alan in much the way engineering and inventing had.
            She checked the door, opened it to reveal the inside of the dirty house in Calyne, then used her own, biologically connected, spell, reached up, and turned the top star point from the left to the point straight up, her hand gripping air that had formed into a kind of solid maneuverable cog only her hand could feel. It could turn but only to one location while the bottom could not turn at all.
            The top, when not pointed straight up, opened to the actual house it was connected to. The bottom was just part of the whole ritual and could not be affected outside of the primary location. The had three points which equal twenty one locations, seven locations per point, eighteen in full technically as one point always had to point to the primary location so one could use the door to get back.
            Veyd opened the front door after moving its cog, felt the warm air hit her, and looked into the tower in Keldor, her primary location.
            It wasn’t a perfect door since that door was a single and the front doors of the towers were double and each one bigger, but it opened the right side easily enough. She shut it, moved the garage, and opened the house’s garage into the tower’s garage.
            Veyd grinned, pulled her vehicle in, and shut the door behind her. She turned the top cog on the inside so that no one could just walk into Keldor from her new house, went over to the front door after dropping her gun on the nearby table, did the same, and then opened it to look down the hillside in Keldor.
            Veyd felt pretty tired but she also felt like she was very hungry because she eaten very little in the last few days.
            She yawned, decided she would kick it a couple weeks in Keldor to relax and give Alice Amberwood some “proof” she was nowhere near Calyne when that nightmare occurred, and then would head back to Calyne equipped and ready to head north into Greenwood.
            She took a very quick shower, stepped out into the early morning light, the sun not yet up, wearing black sneakers, blue jeans, and a white t-shirt. She stumbled down the road, into the diner, and leaned up onto the counter at the woman working the morning shift.
            “You,” she whispered softly.
            Veyd sat down in the chair. “Dina, it’s been a time—”
            “How did you get past all the guards?”
            “Guards?” Veyd turned her head to the left and her eyes went wide at the side of Keldorian knights standing around looking bored along the street. She shot her head back. “Gotta go.”
            She slipped off the seat, turned around, and ran right into a guard.
            “You are the girl known as Alice Amberwood,” said the armored knight in his black cloak and a pink shield on his armored chest.
            “How the hell did you sneak up on me with all that shit you’re wearing?” cried Veyd.
            “You look different,” said the knight.
            “It’s her,” said Dina. “I don’t know why her hair is changing like it is. It changes even in pictures.”
            “Liar!” said Veyd and she turned to the knight. “My name is Joanna and my uncle is a premier real estate—” the man took her hand, not aggressively but not gently either “—crap monkey!” she cried.
            “Her Highness would like to speak to you.” He started to pull her out and Veyd pointed a finger. “You’re a traitor, Dina! A traitor!”
            Dina laughed as she was pulled out. “They won’t harm you,” she called out to her.
            “I know!” she snarled and tried to pull her arm free but the man’s armored hand was like a clamp. “I don’t suppose you won’t take a bribe,” she asked as she pulled hard, her teeth bared.
            “How much money have you got?”
            “Enough for a meal but I’m good for more.” He gave her a cynical amused look. “I can give you something more important than money. The carefree laugh of a young and beautiful girl.” She gave out a cute laugh then tried to pull again. “Let me go, let me go, let me go—” she looked around “—where did this large entourage of knights come from anyway?”
            There were over a hundred knights there, with various vehicles including two tanks, a couple of personal ships, and two dozen serving people: around the minimum entourage for someone like a—
            Veyd squeaked when she saw the long black and pink airship floating half a mile above the town. The yellow color was her color, the ancient color of the princess’s family, or at least the one that the princess’s new body came with.
            “How in the hell did I miss that?” cried Veyd and she tried to jump up and down in her attempt to get free. “Is your hand cybernetic or are just a gifted masturbater?” she cried and he got annoyed suddenly as she almost got free when he laughed. He then pulled her close, picked her up, and carried her under his arm as he walked. “This is less than dignified,” she stated him and looked up at him. When he didn’t say anything she added, “So you work out, I see.”
            “You’re actually a very light girl.”
            “I know, it’s awesome. I’m thinking maybe I could become a model. Projections of my adult self-using my DNA show that I’ll have incredible rack.”
            “You are definitely not a normal girl.”
            “Figured that out, did you?”
            A force field tube of black shot down from the center bottom of the giant airship. Although Veyd couldn’t see it, she knew a circular platform was shooting down within that force field at a steady speed.
            Veyd felt the person within the instant she got close and then the force field parted at the bottom to reveal a tall golden haired beauty with bright purple eyes, like that of the morning, and with that hair tied elegantly behind her. She was in the black and pink dress of the Duchy, parts of glowing purplish-pink, her eyes staring into hers looking awestruck.
            “Hi Lilia,” said Veyd from the guard.
            Her beautiful face was filled with so much love and kindness it was disturbing yet there was sadness too, a kind of emptiness, which Veyd knew was a reaction to the curse and its effect on her.
            She rushed up to her, pulled her from guard’s grip, and wrapped her arms around her.
            At touch Veyd could feel her body as if she wore it, could feel her skin touching her actual skin, and could feel her body shake as she wept and held her.
            “So,” said Veyd awkwardly. “How’s the family?”
            “It’s good.” Lilia leaned back and looked into her eyes. “It’s very good.” She wiped away tears. “I’ve had another son. I have seven children now.”
            “I read about that. Good for you.”
            She was Lilia Alanara Nadorre and in another life she had been Lilia Marathir Dethara. The Alanara bloodline was not as famous as the Marathir bloodline that had once belonged to various queens of Quarran and ended up on a scarred girl who would end up the wife of the King of Doran but it was a powerful Doranian line once upon a time.
            The story that people were told was that Lilia, whose body really was descended by the Alanara bloodline, was a friend of the queen’s paternal family named after the deceased daughter, and had been raised in secret by the queen as a second daughter in order to protect her from the queen.
            Of course, Veyd knew that was not true and not just because he helped write that storyline.
            “So,” said Veyd tapping her shoulder’s with her fingers. “What happens now?”
            She leaned back and looked into her eyes. “Mother wants to speak to you.”
            “Really?” she shrugged. “Well shit.” She made a behind herself gesture. “I just need to go get something out my tower before—” she cried out as Lilia snatched her hand.
            “That doesn’t hurt. I know because I can feel what you feel.” She bit her lip playfully and pulled her close. “You’re not getting away from us like did Emily Lathor.”
            “Yay,” she replied blandly as she was pulled her up to the round platform. “Mother is very happy with you.”
            “Roster sided with the queen, I know.”
            “Within moments of being freed of the Gray Queen.” The force field appeared and they went upward into the ship. “What do you call yourself now? Really call yourself?”
            “Jessica,” Veyd replied. “Jessica Veyd.” Her eyes looked intrigued. “I’m the daughter I never had.”
            Lilia laughed.
            “Actually, I’m not joking. I might actually be the daughter I was supposed to have before the whole—” she took a deep intake of breath through her teeth “—Brotain thing.”
            Lilia’s body clenched. “Don’t speak of that man again,” she said a bit too roughly. “Please.” She bit her lower lip. “I’m sorry.”
            “Don’t be. You’re not the only person who got that idiot screwed over.”
            “The curse would have been broken and I would have been me.”
            “Shit happens,” Veyd replied. “All you can do is move forward.” She looked up. “Gods, this platform is slow.”
            “It’s scanning us for various potential dangers.” She looked at her, tears filling her eyes, and wrapped her arms around her again. “I owe you everything!”
            Veyd again felt her body again when she touched her. “It wasn’t any big deal,” she told her and looked out over the shadowed early morning world of Oakmudd. The fields were doing incredibly well, both farming communities doing fabulously, and surrounded by trees and forests and a mountain with an ever-so-familiar castle on top that she had nearly died in. “I can’t believe some asshole actually named this town Oakmudd.”
            Lilia laughed and kissed her on the back of the head, her arms around her from the back. “I love you.”
            “Of course, you do,” Veyd replied unhappily. “Now that I’m a girl all the women love me.”
            Lilia burst out laughing.
            “Gods all have the greatest sense of humor, don’t they?”
            Lilia held her tightly against herself tighter and was weeping again. “It was a big deal, Alan,” she told her. “It was a very big deal!”
            “I know,” Veyd replied and remembered.

*          *          *

            “I’ve got a good feeling about this,” Alan said out loud just after he pressed the button to open the pod that held the spiritless body of a young a woman in a nightgown. “I was wrong.”
            That girl was not in what someone would call “good” condition.
            He looked at her for a long time standing in the warehouse he had purchased under a false name, the huge window showing the endless expanse of space, everything within locked nice and tight far from prying eyes. Even that window was only one way to prevent witnesses. To the outside a subtle force field made it look like it was part of the space station’s wall.
            The two rituals were on the floor: intricate, complicated, and dangerous magical rituals that took years for a professional to put together and were definitely going to be needed.
            The girl was named Aliana and she had not been a whore, the queen was very serious about that, but she had been a druggy, yes, forced into it at sixteen after a lifetime of physical abuse. She escaped, couldn’t drop the drug habit, was caught eventually by the same people who started her down that road, then killed herself in an attempt to escape again by over drugging herself into a coma at nineteen.
            She was blond and had Corvian purple eyes, at least where one could be seen, but not a whole lot else resembled the picture of the girl from the orphanage.
            “I think this very well might be the definition of a fixer upper,” said Alan.
            While Alan Veyd was no doctor but he was reasonably sure her face had been broken more than once, her nose was badly broken still, several teeth were knocked out, her legs and arms had the look of being badly healed after some kind of breaking and she looked incredibly malnourished besides, all skin and bones, with skin that had an ugly pallid to it and nasty pockmarks that came from the drugs she was forced to use, the kind that made a person scratch.
            She had got away for four years before they caught her and did that to her but she had never given the one thing they valued her.
            She still had her virginity.
            Aliana had been an orphan and lived a less than perfect life. Alan had asked for a pretty teenager, closer to thirteen than nineteen, a pure Doranian female with a distant royal connection, with every organ and body part there and beautiful when fully healed and healthy and on life support for at least seventeen days to help ensure the spirit and soul had moved on. It was no guarantee but that insanely expensive seer had assured her that her ghost was fully disconnected.
            Most likely because Aliana did not want to wake up.
            Well at least the body came cheap.
            It was actually the least costly part of the endeavor. Alan had to forward over half a million gray to the Elliah’s people just to ensure it went through unnoticed by the Gray Queen on top of what it actually cost and there were a sneaky group of people who were interested in a handout, the Order of the Three, threatening to rat them out to the Gray Queen if he didn’t pay. He was grateful he was about to die and never have to deal with those idiots again.
            Aside from her condition she was pure: a virgin, heterosexual just as the princess had been, her boyfriend being the one who rescued her the first time but was killed later when they were apart, and she evidently loved him so much she had not given herself to anyone in his absence.
            It was as good a vessel as one would find for Lilia Marathir Dethara save for her actual body which at present had the same density and texture as the contents of a cigar smoker’s ashtray.
            The body breathed easily, purple-pink eye detected under the broken part of her face, lying there with its small life support system connected to her. It connected to her arm for nutrients that were stored in the pod, over her mouth for breathing, and a clear set of goggles that kept the eyes watered since her eyes didn’t blink.
            “You’re going to like your next life a whole lot better than you did this one, Aliana.”

*          *          *

            “It’s you,” whispered a voice the instant they were up.
            Veyd felt that one too but less strongly than she felt Lilia. She turned and saw the blond girl with pretty purple eyes staring at her who was almost the same exact age she was with the exact same face as Lilia and Veyd knew exactly who she was.  “Hi—”
            Aliana threw her arms around her and hugged her tightly.
            Veyd hugged her back. “I just had to be a freaking girl, didn’t I?”
            Alan Veyd had used a priest of Talia for the naturalization ritual. One can make themselves the permanent owner of a foreign body, the process known as naturalization that, once succeeded, prevented clerical powers from harming them as Veyd had done to Marissa Forne and others, but there were subtle unpleasant qualities to do owning another person’s vessel not the least of which is that their spirit might haunt your dreams or even your waking hours if they were angry or bitter enough.
            The priest had used her powers to ensure that Lilia’s first child would be Aliana herself reincarnated in a new body, almost a perfect copy it would seem, which would remove the final problem in owning her old body.
            Aliana was weeping uncontrollably evidently very much like her new mother in temperament and personality apparently.
            “Seriously,” Veyd told Lilia. “Why am I a girl? When I was a guy I couldn’t women to look at me unless I grabbed their ass or slid them a platinum.”
Lilia laughed and touched her shoulder and then slipped down, hugged her, and started to cry.
            Veyd felt sensory overload coming on her. She felt herself, Aliana, and Lilia, all at the same time.
            “Why is everyone weeping?” cried Veyd. “We’re alive and happy so stop making me feel weird!” She shook them off and stepped away. “Look, ladies—” she curtsied awkwardly “—I’ve got things to do. I’ve got a curse break, a meal to have, I’ve got—”
            “Her Majesty is ready,” said a voice and Veyd groaned and looked over down the hall to see a man standing there.
            “Goddamn it all,” said Veyd.
            “It’s okay,” said Lilia. “We love you.”
            “I know and you’re both beautiful girls. I did something annoying to the gods and now they’re all chuckling about how the women in the world love me too damn lte.”
            Lilia’s eyes looked into hers. “You are an incredibly beautiful person.”
            “And my mother desperately wants to speak to you.”
            “I could speak to her but then you could just say I jumped out of the airship and flew away.” She grinned. “Please? Seriously, I want to keep a low profile.”
            Lilia smiled and held out her hand. Veyd took it unhappily and let herself be led down the hall to another room, a communication room somewhere along the side of the airship, a huge window showing the bright expanse of bluish green morning sky, the sun just about to rise up.
            “I deserve this,” she told them. “How dare I come back for a burger?”
            Lilia giggled and kissed her on the head stepped out. Aliana hugged her tightly for a moment then followed after.
            The large monitor in front of her went on and there was the queen. Queen Elliah, who did not look old at all. Maybe in her forties, which was much younger than she had been the last time Veyd had seen her: a beautiful, red haired woman with bright teal eyes and a sexualized, beautiful shape that Veyd’s new body had little interest in.
            Veyd knew that but she had never looked at her closely before. She wanted that part to slide away and sneak in and break the curse like last time but things we’re getting out of control.
            “I just had to go through Keldorvyre,” Veyd said.
            “It is you!” the queen squeaked.
            “Oh for the love of—yes it’s me! Me and my big mouth!” Veyd had not counted on the fact that she might have been able to slip out through the queen’s cynicism. “How’s it going, Your Majesty?”
            “It’s very good,” she told Veyd and she bit her lower lip. “Look at you. You look so beautiful and young and—that hair.”
            “Don’t even get me started on the hair. First I’m a teal eyed curly haired redhead, then I’m a blue eyed straight haired raven headed girl, and now I’m this, a teal eyed or something with curly hair but still dark and slightly blond. I don’t know what’s going on.”
            “You broke part of the curse,” she told her.
            “That does not help me figure out why my hair is going whacko but yes I did and more is coming,” Veyd told her with a laugh. “I have a job to do and I intended to damn well do it.” She leaned back in the chair and looked at the queen. They looked a lot alike, she realized: beautiful, sculpted modelesque faces, the face of that poor girl who Marissa Forne once mutilated. “A Quarranese beauty,” she said out loud.
            The queen’s eyes narrowed in thought and said nothing for a moment. Then they widened and she said, “So how do you like you’re new body?”
            “Being a young and beautiful girl? Honestly?” Veyd grinned. “I like it a lot. I didn’t think I would but I do. I was always a rogue and never much of a fighter so now, I mean, you have no idea how easy it is to get away with things when you can just burst into tears or play stupid and everyone will actually care as opposed to, you know, laughing.”
            “I do, actually, because I was once a pretty young girl.”
            “I like it,” Veyd told her. “I really do.”
            And so Veyd and Queen Elliah fell into their strange equal to equal relationship that, honest to the gods, had no business existing between an outcast from the Tytos Cluster and the true queen of Doran.
            But it was there and it was strong enough to surprise them both.

*          *          *

            Veyd stared into her reflection into the mirror, a pretty white dress over her body, her makeup done impeccably.
            “You and Danica Lanor,” she said. “I’m not a doll.”
            Aliana giggled and looked her over. “You’re so—inept. You have no idea how to do makeup.”
            “Well give me some credit, Aliana,” she said. “I’ve been a girl only for a few months.”
            Aliana nodded but her face turned harder. They were not walking alone, several servants were behind them, and there were guards too although they were not focused on them. They were walking down the hall alone toward the dining section of the airship when Aliana asked, “What actually happened?”
            “What do you mean?”
            “How did you—you know—do it?”
            “Well, it wasn’t easy,” she replied but then shrugged. “You think it would be with my condition but—” she shrugged “—it wasn’t.”

*          *          *

            It hurt placing Aliana’s body onto the proper ritual, all of Alan wounds burning in pain from the effects on his limbs. He limped away, grimacing as he did, and turned around to watch. The first layer of runes began their job the instant he was outside of the runes.
            The girl began to jerk a bit and there were the sounds of cracking all throughout her body. Her face did not change its expression, the same blank expression, but he could see the jaw painfully rearranging itself. The girl’s broken face turning steadily back to normal with new teeth reforming, perfectly straight next to their siblings who were turning white and healthy and matching. The broken nose made various squish-crunch sound as it straightened and lost all sense of ever been breaking and the jaw was fixed within moments.
            Then he saw that it was actually getting taller. She had been malnourished long enough to be short during her growing period but that was changing. Veyd liked that, a taller than average girl, and, he noticed, her hips began to push out and her breasts began to grow.

            “Now we’re talking,” he said with a laugh. “Nothing ensures male loyalty like a top of the line set of boobs.”
            Alan was trying to amuse himself but it wasn’t working. That body thing would fix Lilia and help Aliana too but felt like a covering over an amputation when reattaching the limb was needed: the curse would not break and the Gray Queen would live on.
            Aliana’s body’s expression did not shift in the slightest in its completely and spiritually dead state and it did not even react when her brain was being fixed. That was the dangerous part. If it had a spirit, hence memory, the brain would cause mania, memory loss, and other problems but since no one was in there it could be fixed to a perfect, albeit blank, example of the human brain. At the level he was fixing it she would guarantee to at the very least lose all her memories.
            He looked down at her face, growing prettier by the second with those high cheekbones and full pouting lips, and looked into those purple eyes: Doranian eyes from an ancient female bloodline that a relative of a queen could boast. Not the queen’s direct female bloodline, the Gray Queen had wiped all of the Marathirs, but what they found was at least something. She had approved of it and they went forward and he left prison a couple years early on “good behavior” and got to work.
            “If you want to do something right then you have to do it yourself,” he said and looked at the body uncomfortably, the voice of the gypsy in his mind, repeating that phrase, You will lose your manhood forever, over and over again.
Damn that fucking space gypsy, he said himself for the millionth time. “Seriously,” he cried. “I told her I don’t want to know my future!”
            Aliana’s body did not reply.
            “Fine! Be that way!”
            Alan lied down on the other ritual listening to the sound of the girl breaking back into full health and listening to the sound of her gown stretching as her hips widened and breasts grew and leaned back.
            Alan grinned. “Nice,” he said. “It’s such great masturbation material for a younger man. I think I’ll just—” he blinked “—I’ll just—” he blinked again “—I can’t seem to keep a thought—”
            He looked over at the girl barely fitting into that gown that had been so long before.
            “This is—” he shook his head “—goddamn it—” he shook his head again “—this is a real—” he blinked up through the goggles at the ceiling and breathed through the device “—that felt pretty fast—” It wasn’t, actually. The mind was just shifting in and out of consciousness and one shift moved from one vessel to the other but she had actually knew it would take no less than five hours.
            Seven hours was the balance number but Alan was avoiding that because she needed to be unbalanced for this to work properly.
            Alan felt some great pain but it was nothing even close to what had been feeling before and with real hands felt something real the first time in decades. The next stage of the ritual went through and he felt his, now her, entire body, convulse and grow very nauseas.
            Alan ripped off the girl’s IV and mask, noting even as she crawled up to the blue bucket that had been placed there that she felt fabulous in a comparative way to her old self, and then vomited into the bucket. She vomited hard, black and yellow and green substances coming out of her mouth passed through newly formed straight white teeth.
            The pain she felt when the body’s insides exploded in fire-like agony was not nearly enough break her and she vomited again, again and again without growing even close to despair. The spell did something to her new body, she felt it shift, and vomited out so much more she thought she would see organs come out.
            There was so much toxin in that body it was disturbing. It was also leaking out of her skin everywhere, all over herself, black and nasty. It was a high level magical detox turning the girl’s wasteland of a body into a perfectly suitable host by transforming drugs and other toxins into bile to be vomited out or dirty sweat.
            It cost about a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of rare spell ingredients and years of practiced ritual magic organized by Allayne Forne herself and it was doing a fabulous job.
            When it ended she felt sick and a fever came over her. She grabbed her gown and pulled it off, the strained buttons from perkier larger breasts popping off with her pull, and stripped off her underwear, the bottom only for she had no top, and then very tight shoes, and grimaced.
            She was breathing heavily and, despite the fever, felt really, really good for the first time in forever. She looked at her hands on the side of the bucket, wiggled her new, feminine fingers, and grinned.
            “I like my new—” she felt another pain hit her hard again and she fell back onto the ground in a flood of agony “—goddamn son of a bitch, bitch, bitch!” She crumpled down onto the ground as the pain overwhelmed her.
            It was far worse than anything earlier but still nowhere near the worse she had felt.
            Her weak muscles were regenerating then as opposed to healing. She felt as if they were all being pulled at once, un-pulling, then pulling again. Everything in her body was getting tighter, becoming stronger although not strong, regenerating to the point of a healthy, reasonably fit, girl. Increasing strength was another ten thousand gray’s worth of ingredients the queen decided wasn’t necessary in a proper lady. She was still going to look pretty athletic for a while, though, and that was nice.
            Her heart was beating like crazy but with all of its toxins gone and it being young it beat well and strong and, it too, was regenerating.
            Alan forced calmness: that was why she was in there at that moment. She needed to fight it and control it. To do nothing, to lie there and be disconnected, could kill the body which was why she had put herself into it first.
            Someone needed to fight to keep it alive.
            She felt something, looked down and watched her breasts started to lift up. They were perking up with a healthy regenerated youth. “Alright!” she hacked out. Those would be useful in the area of men for its future owner. “Time to fill out that bridal gooooown—” her voice turned into a loud, long groan as her stomach twisted inside of her “—oh gods—is this all you got! Is this it? I got more where this comes from—” her eyes rolled into the back of her head from something touching on sexuality and almost shrieked.
            And then it was done in what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds the runes on both sides faded down and looked like gray carvings in the ground.
            She remained there on her hands and knees for almost ten minutes breathing, covered in sweat, and felt all the filth on her body turn to water in the last final, easier, stage of the spell.
            In the other ritual there was nothing left.
            Alan Veyd was gone forever and all that was left of him were the cybernetics required to help him move above.
            “The perfect crime or something or whatever,” Alan said and laughed, her voice musical, and lively. “I’ve got to be out of my mind.”
            Veyd forced herself to her feet, her memories already fading with natural law, and grabbed the folded up letter on the wall that was covered in bright red light from a bulb above to, presumably, get her attention afterward. In simple black text it said, “Go to the Queen quickly” and had directions and a small easy to read map. “Open when you get there,” was below that.
            Veyd looked into the mirror, looked at the beautiful blond girl with purple-pink eyes, and felt her resolve starting to crack. She shook her head tightly and the voice in her head came back.
I can’t ask you to promise, said the voice.
I promise you anyway, Alan had replied. You don’t deserve this and that’s enough. I promise. Alan’s emotions were going crazy and she almost screamed, almost cried, almost did a lot of things.
            She turned, threw on the clothes she had come by with, stretchable black pants, gray flip flops, and a gray hoody, and then started walking down the satellite, her envelope in the front pocket clutched in Aliana’s hands using Aliana’s feet to walk, feeling whole.
            “I always keep my promises,” she whispered. “Always.”

*          *          *

            Aliana said nothing for several moments.
            They were sitting in a little waiting room and Veyd was drinking cola from a can with a straw to avoid messing up her makeup. “Why do aristocrats always have to get dressed up to do anything?”
            “Because our shows never end,” said a voice.
            Veyd turned and looked up at Queen Elliah as she entered. She was that beautiful woman still barely forty with vibrant red hair. She had Lilia when she was fifteen or so and Lilia was fifteen when she “died” and Veyd supposed that meant that when Lilia was rebalanced in Aliana’s body the queen went with her for some reason. “How did you get down here so fast?” asked Veyd.
            “I was already here,” she said. “We were communicating from a hundred feet away.” She walked up to her, lifted her chin, and looked into her face. She looked conflicted for a moment before she said, “I’ve missed you.”
            Veyd shrugged. “I wasn’t far. I was on vacation on a boring tropical island with one palm tree with the sun never ending. A real treat and I got to stay there for thirteen years or so.” She put her hands behind her back. “How’s Allayne?”
            Allayne Forne was always a private person. The most non-private thing about her was her position as court magician but even in court she shared very little. Veyd’s knowledge of Allayne was that she was still Elliah’s court magician and that her daughter had married an upstanding Doranian aristocrat with a bloodline property and no female relatives to inherit and they were then enjoying their fifth child, a third girl.
            “She’s just happy as a clam,” said Elliah but she was grinning when she said it.
            “Kalea is a little—touchy and angry at her mother.”
            Veyd had never met Kalea Forne, the last daughter of Allayne Forne and the Gray Queen’s younger sister. She had to switch places with her in the purgatory of the pillar and had less than a moment of meeting with her and even then it was just a passing of minds as she went one way and Alan went the other. “Trouble in paradise?”
            “Kalea and Lilia were married at the same time and Kalea gave birth to a daughter who is Aliana’s best friend by the way. She thought that meant she was done with her family’s bloodline obligations but her mother made her continue having children. The two boys for her husband the two more daughters for her mother’s family. She’s—worried it has affected her beauty and blames her mother for the trouble.”
            “She has nothing to worry about,” said Veyd. “I’ll make sure when I see her to tell her that her breasts are well above her waist even if they aren’t.”
            “She’s not going to like that coming from a pretty young girl.”
            “She was very attractive. I enjoyed the minute or two that I was her.” Veyd laughed. “What now?”
            Queen Elliah took her face in her hands again and kissed her on the forehead. “We have breakfast and decide on our next course of action.”
            “Just let me get something out of this room back here—”
            “I’m not falling for that,” Elliah stated. “Emily Roster is absolutely furious at your running off.”
            “Everyone wants a piece of Jessica Veyd,” Veyd replied with a smile.
            “Dine,” commanded the queen.
            “Yes, Your Majesty,” she replied and obeyed.

*          *          *

            Veyd told them stories about her adventures so far for the next few hours.
            Breakfast was a modest affair. Queen Elliah had been poor so long that she did not feel comfortable with opulent spending unless it was a requirement or for show. They had a personal cook but it wasn’t the cook they use for normal occasions, the duke’s secondary cook he was paid salary, and they bacon, ham, various forms of eggs, sausage, toast, the kind that was huge and sugary and triangular, and various forms of fruit all in a casual, diner-like environment.
            “I never liked that Order of the Three,” said the queen.
            “They’re the worst,” said Veyd. She had already told them, “They found my body before my spirit did and made me their accountant. It was awful.” She grinned in memory. “That wedding was insane.”
            Aliana smiled at her sweetly.
            By that time it was early afternoon, the huge window showing an expanse of bright blue sky and sun, and they were all still casually eating and talking.
            “You know I have to go on,” said Veyd.
            “I know,” said Elliah. “I want to give you an escort.”
            “Bad idea,” she told her. “An escort is a flamboyant invitation for trouble but—” she leaned forward with a sudden thought “—it can be useful in a different way.”
            “Go on?”
            “I’m heading into Greenwood,” she told her and smiled. “Let’s send an escort into Merrent and tried to keep a version of me there but out sight.”
            They’ll be looking for you in the wrong district.”
            “Exactly,” said Veyd. “The queen will looking in the east and I’ll be in the north.”
            The queen’s face darkened. “With that lich,” she whispered.
            “With that lich,” agreed Veyd. “There isn’t much I can do about it.” Dannon Fladd, one of the founding members of the Fladd family of which the Goblin was famously descended from, was the living dead. No one knew how he became a cyber lich or what he did to become like that but he was there, in the castle, where the Greenwood pillar was.
            “What a nightmare,” Elliah said. “I can’t allow you to wander into that deathtrap all by yourself.”
            “You have no choice,” Veyd replied. “It’s my destiny and you know it. As a lone girl, I can disappear and be anyone, but as a group, specifically a royally trained group, I’ll never be able to hide from the Gray Queen.”
            Elliah looked at her sadly for a long moment. “One of the women who saw you break the Calyne pillar said that you had red hair suddenly.”
            “I have no idea about that,” Veyd answered honestly. “No idea at all.”
            Veyd was not lying but as the day wore on and they watched movies and talked and the queen set up her fake entourage a strange an unpleasant feeling came over her. That red hair comment just made her uncomfortable and she didn’t know why. She had no clue why, not even a little one.
            After a while she realized she was frightened too.



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