We’re back on track this week! I had fun writing and revising this chapter. It’s a bit of a change of pace so, hopefully, that will be fun to read for everyone.
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The day Ciel started to suspect would never come had finally arrived. She had stayed in this city so long that she started to worry she would be told to make it permanent. Most of her missions only required her to stay in one place for a day or two at most. The longer she stayed in one place the more questions people tended to ask, and with her abilities, answering any questions at all would cause an alarm to be raised. She tried her best to remain inconspicuous, but the fact of the matter was, there were only so many places she could stay in this city that were low profile enough to keep her from drawing attention to herself while still not allowing herself to be reduced to living in absolute squalor.
Now she had a way out and just knowing that caused waves of relief to wash over her. She knew her time in limbo was coming to an end. A message from High Lord Erramun informing her of his impending arrival was her ticket out of here.
Relieved as she felt, the message caught her off guard. Her employer never made an appearance like this on the job site before, but everything about this job turned into something unexpected. She wondered if she would be reprimanded for her failure. After all this time, she was still missing her second mark.
She made some advancements in that regard in the last few weeks, but it had not yet produced the desired result. Regardless of that, the High Lord already had the end result he had desired. No one suitable sat on the throne of Detreya. Without him saying so, she knew he was here to use his immense influence to get the new duchess under his control.
This entire mission had flown so far off course at this point that she did not know if she would be dismissed, commissioned for another task upon Erramun’s arrival, or if some other fate awaited her. All she did know was that his visit was official and she could not meet him once he entered the city without giving herself away.
She checked the message again, memorizing the location she was expected to meet with her employer. Then she burned the message. The note gave nothing away regarding what her fate would be. Although she technically failed to carry out the entirety of her mission, the end result was still the same for Erramun. Nyura was now the duchess and she was without any friends or allies, an easy target for someone as powerful as Erramun.
Ciel just hoped she would be able to leave the city permanently. Her comings and goings and constant moving from one boarding house to another had long since lost its novelty. She needed a break and just a day or two where she did not need to dress up and cover herself up to obscure her identity and restrain herself from speaking. Going weeks without letting her hair down and dropping her guard was wearing away at her patience.
Donning her disguise for what she hoped would be the last time in Detreya, Ciel set out into the city. She had paid for her room at this boarding house until the end of the week, but she did not know or care if she would return to it again. She left no word with anyone but also left nothing behind that she would miss.
Arranging for transportation out of the city without speaking proved a bit more difficult than her usual transactions. Her funds were not quite what they were when she first arrived, but she did still have enough to wave around and lure someone into allowing her to ride along in their wagon. She did not know if she was just in a mood today because there were so many unknowns in play or if spending too much time playing this part started to take its toll.
Being silent for so long certainly did get on her nerves. Her voice was her power and it did inspire fear, but she also had a need to socialize just like everyone else. She could write, and communicate to a degree with anyone through signs and signals, but it was no substitute for simply asking for what she needed. Most of the drivers leaving the city did not have the time or patience to interpret her request.
Finally she found a driver able to read her notes and arranged for him to take her to the end of his route for a few coins. It was not the most luxurious of means of transport, but unless she wanted to waste more time walking further into the city to hire more formal transportation a wagon would be her only option. She did not feel like wasting her time moving in the wrong direction just for the sake of her dignity and comfort.
After everything she had been through, she hardly even felt the indignity anymore. This entire city seemed to be designed to keep her ever so slightly off balance and unsure of where she belonged. Without a doubt, her standards had been lowered by constantly settling for less in this place. Whatever happened when she met with Erramun, she hoped that it would mean an end to her time sleeping in boarding houses.
The wagon only took her so far, and when it was time for her to disembark, she was grateful for the chance to stretch her legs. She was sick of being bumped and jarred constantly. She clung to thread thin patience while waiting for the wagon to get out of sight so she could remove her scarf.
The sensation of damp morning air on her cheeks felt downright strange after all this time. She did not know exactly how long it had been since she took a stroll in the countryside, but it was long enough to feel like a novelty. She took a deep breath and sighed loudly, reveling in the fact that she could make sounds now without worrying about sending chills down someone’s spine.
Using her voice out here seemed silly and she refused to start talking to herself even now, but she did allow herself the luxury of humming as she walked. Dew from the grass soon covered her boots and the bottom of her skirt. Even this minor inconvenience could not bring down her spirits. The mist was lifting as the sun shined and feeling the bright light on her skin brought her more joy than she could hope to express with or without words.
Her pace quickened unconsciously as the ability to freely breathe fresh air for the first time in weeks made her feel stronger. Soon she would make it to the end of the fertile lands. The duchy needed no formal borders. Although they could lay claim to the drifting desert sands, the value of such land was insignificant in comparison to the fertile farmland within the duchy’s control and over the centuries, few ever attempted to bring an army across the expansive, barren desert.
The location where she would meet with Erramun, fortunately, was not in the desert. While on the outskirts of the influence of the magic that made Detreya into a perfect oasis in a sandy wasteland, this area was still a significant step up from the desert proper. Out here the greens of the fields and the leaves on the trees were a bit more muted. Even with enough water to keep things growing, the desert tried to take back what naturally belonged to it.
Ciel climbed up the final, tallest hill and waited at the top. This high vantage point was designated to be her meeting place with Erramun. From here she could see quite a way out into the desert, seeing the rise and fall of the dunes stretching all the way to the distant horizon. Behind her were the rolling hills, growing lusher and greener as they gradually flattened out and the gleaming oasis city of Detreya rose up to meet the sky. It was a beautiful sight and always a welcome one for anyone daring enough to venture across the desert. There was a good reason so many described it as a shining emerald in a sea of sand, but Ciel found that the city could not hold her interest now. She trained her eyes on the near blinding brightness of the sun-beaten sand dunes and waited for her lord to arrive and mete out the consequences for her failure.
Ciel had not expected to follow Erramun right back into the city. Everything about this mission seemed to fly in the face of all of her previous experience. Even more, she did not expect to be riding back into the city opposite him in the comfort of his carriage.
She contemplated the wisdom of returning to the city. She dared not question Erramun, even if she thought he was putting her at risk. He was not just her employer, he was a man of great power and limited patience. She knew at this point she could obey or lay down her life. Whatever she was involved in now was so much bigger than she previously imagined. This was not just about the assassination of all the capable, legitimate heirs to the throne of a minor duchy. She made a point not to question the motivations of her employers. She was not in this business to determine who had the moral high ground in any particular transaction. She was paid to perform a service — usually a deadly service on the part of the recipient. She was paid to act, not to ponder the validity those actions.
Before this job, she never would stay in a city after a job and she never left a city only to turn around and enter it again. Now more than ever she was grateful she put effort into keeping a low profile while she waited for further instruction. Reentering the city in the party of a High Lord would thrust her into the spotlight. While she could make an effort to remain in his shadow, even hiding in his shadow effectively felt like a spotlight to someone like Ciel.
She remained silent as ever during the return trip to the city. She now wore her scarf around her neck instead of over her face. Erramun tolerated her choice to remain silent, but he would not let her hide the lower part of her face in his presence.
The motivation behind his demand escaped Ciel’s understanding. Most people wanted as much insurance as possible that her voice would not be used against them. Erramun never seemed to feel any sort of fear in regard to her abilities at all. That aspect of his personality intrigued her. She never knew of someone that did not feel at least a little bit nervous around her due to her abilities.
Even people that had every reason to trust her felt more comfortable if she took precautions against any sort of accidental damage. Whether Erramun was just reckless, or he believed he was impervious to her abilities, Ciel could not begin to guess. She had never encountered someone who exuded so much confidence around her even after being aware of the true nature of her skills.
Everything about the High Lord exuded confidence and a sense of superiority. Coming from anyone else she was sure that she would be irritated by such an attitude, but he pulled it off. It was a matter of course that the High Lord was extremely powerful. His strength and confidence wrapped around him as an aura. Even without knowing who his identity it was impossible to mistake him for someone insignificant.
His lack of fear and his outright insistence that she put him at risk caused her to feel drawn to him. She did not know if this was an intentional consequence of his actions or if he was oblivious to her emotional state. There was no reason for him to even consider her feelings. She knew she was nothing more than a tool for him to use and put away as he wished. His mind had to be occupied by far loftier concepts and his sights were set on more significant goals. She knew feeling drawn in by her admiration of his fearlessness could only end with her getting hurt, but she could not fully repress those emotions.
After being so isolated the last few weeks her emotions were running close to the surface. Being in such close proximity to an enigma like Erramun did not help matters. It was just as well that she was not in a position to speak on this ride because she was too flustered to consider having a conversation anyway. She did not know if her nervousness in talking while feeling any sort of strong emotions was something that came with her lack of experience with conversation in general or if others felt this way too. Either way, she was grateful that her silence could be interpreted any number of ways and would not be assumed to be caused by nervousness.
Erramun remained silent as well. Ciel realized as their journey progressed that she was along for the ride, but she would not be privy to the entirety of his plan. She knew they were returning to the city, but she did not know what they would be doing once they got there. She could guess, but she knew she would be wrong.
She tried to keep her mind on safe topics, but the excitement of unnamed possibilities kept drawing her back in. With nothing else to look at inside the carriage her thoughts and her gaze kept drifting back to Erramun. Her looks had not gone unnoticed. After the fourth time she glanced his way while he appeared to have his attention elsewhere she noticed his lips curling into a slow smile.
She felt heat rise to her cheeks and hastily looked away, but she knew it was too late. From that point on she made a point of keeping her attention focused on the countryside passing by outside of the small window next to her seat.
Traveling by carriage meant the trip back into the city only took a fraction of the time it had taken Ciel to travel out of the city. In no time at all, they were back within the city walls. The carriage slowed its pace then, taking its time so that the pedestrians and lesser vehicles could clear the way for them.
Everyone on the street seemed to realize without any sort of announcement that this carriage was important. Ciel was not surprised. In the weeks she spent in this city she had started to grow accustomed to the pedestrian lifestyle that seemed to dominate this city. Most of the wheeled vehicles were wagons and carts that were only used to transport large items and goods from outside the city. Citizens used their own two feet to move around the city. Anyone traveling by other means had to be of some significance. A large, lavish carriage like the one used by Erramun was notably luxurious anywhere in the world, but it was almost incomprehensibly ostentatious by the standards of this small city.
Finally, the carriage came to a stop and the doors opened. Beyond those doors stood the main gate to the palace. Ciel’s heart skipped a beat as a hand was offered to help her step down from the carriage.
She did not know why it had not occurred to her before now. She was going to be going with Erramun into the palace and fully in view of the public. She never liked to be openly visible like this, particularly with her face in full view. It was not her style. The suspicious, survival-oriented part of her mind started to suspect she would be sacrificed to get Erramun into the good graces of the new Duchess. He could easily throw her to the metaphorical lions, preventing her from ever revealing his part in the death of Durya, and garner the esteem of Duchess Nyura and anyone else looking for justice in the wake of their duke’s death.
Her mind would have continued to be occupied by paranoia if Erramun had not offered her his arm after he exited the carriage. She accepted his arm and tried to calm her nerves. This was not the way to lead a prisoner or a sacrifice to the slaughter. Even knowing that she could not help feeling a bit anxious. Walking into the palace on Erramun’s arm seemed to be presenting her as his equal. She could hardly guess what his plan might be, but she resigned herself to going along with it for now.
Erramun was just as silent as her. She expected him to say something. She hoped he would at least whisper what he wanted from her in her ear, but there was no time for him to speak to her unnoticed. A pair of guards escorted them into the palace. It was not a security measure, but a sign of respect and hospitality for the High Lord, but it had the same effect. Verbal communication would be impossible.
For Ciel that would not be a problem. Speaking was rarely an option for her. Most of the words she said were not part of a conversation. For Erramun, she imagined nonverbal communication had to be a less often used skillset. If that was the case, he showed no signs of distress or difficulty. He exuded an enviable degree of confidence.
Normally confidence and disdain were at the forefront of Ciel’s repertoire. This day, and Erramun himself, disrupted her inner balance and left her feeling as though she had no center. She did not know what would happen next and the lack of knowledge and preparedness had her in a constant state of high alert.
She did everything she could to take in as much of the palace as possible. Her instincts were screaming at her to have a solid plan for escape from this situation. She tried to do her best to suppress those thoughts and feelings. Everyone else appeared to be calm so she needed to do the same. Out of everyone present, the only person she was sure was calm inside and out was the High Lord. He seemed as unflappable as ever, but even the guards appeared as though their stoicism might be a front.
The energy of the palace was notably different from the last time she visited it. Granted, she visited in the dead of night last time, but this feeling was the sort that permeated the very foundation of the building. It ran through the halls leaving an acrid electric taste to the air Ciel recognized as fear. The city outside might not feel it yet, but the very center of their world was shaken by it.
Once Ciel tasted the fear she felt her own confidence soar. The very bones of this place were in a state of panic. This sort of environment was one where she could thrive.