- Project: Inbetween
- Chapter: Twelve
- Word count: 2,925
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Ciel remained on Erramun’s arm all the way to the throne room. She wondered if this was considered one first time experience or a long series of firsts. Worrying about that at this point seemed a bit out of place. She was about to meet the woman she had a hand in making duchess. Ciel knew of no reason to believe Nyura knew about her part in her ascension to the position, but even outside of the palace there had been whispers of the sweeping and radical changes taking place within the palace since Nyura attained her position. Anything could happen in this place and there was no way to begin to guess what thoughts might be passing through her mind or what the consequences might be. Even if the duchess had no way of knowing what Ciel had done, it was possible for her to still imagine some sort of crime or slight and place the blame squarely on Ciel.
She hated that she had been forced into this situation. She avoided ever doing this sort of thing specifically because it left her so vulnerable. She could not speak without exposing herself as a threat. Most of the nobility wanted nothing to do with someone like her unless she was in their employ. They just did not trust her not to do them harm — which, admittedly, was a justified feeling in this case. She needed Erramun to speak for her, and she suspected he would take some sort of sadistic glee out of leaving her hanging.
Her worries did not have too long to ferment in her mind. Once they entered the throne room they were quickly brought to the forefront. Although Ciel’s experiences dealing with the nobility were a bit different from what would probably be considered the norm, she imagined there should have been more people present.
No one else seemed to be waiting for an audience with the duchess. She could understand if the High Lord was given priority over others considering his powerful and influential position in the world, but as far as she could tell, no one else was being made to wait. They were the only ones admitted to see the duchess at all.
The paranoid part of her mind that frequently kept her from walking into traps balked at the idea of continuing down this path, but she knew she could not escape. Erramun continued to hold onto her arm and even if she wrested herself away from him she knew he would have her found and punished severely for defying his plan. She had to wait, but she did not have to trust him or anyone other than herself while she did it.
Nyura did not wait for formal introductions. “Lord Erramun!” she exclaimed and started to rise from her chair. She must have noticed the mortified expression on her lady-in-waiting’s face because she settled back into her seat and resumed a more neutral expression.
“Duchess,” Erramun said with a slight bow of his head toward Nyura.
Ciel felt Erramun’s gaze slide over to her as a wordless prompt for her to take action. She managed to remember a quick curtsy to the duchess a fraction of a second before it would become a faux pas. Now that they were speaking to Nyura all eyes would be on them, and she was sure that there were more eyes than she could see currently watching. She needed to practice decorum rather than scout out the place now.
“I did not even think to hope that someone of your station would be my first foreign guest,” Nyura said with a happy little clap of her hands.
Everyone else in the room aside from Erramun cringed ever so slightly. Somehow he managed to remain impeccably poised even as this situation grew ever more bizarre.
“I thought it would be a gesture of goodwill between our nations for me to personally come and offer you any support you might need as you adjust to your new role.”
Nyura appeared to giggle behind her hand at Erramun’s statement. Ciel barely reigned in her disbelief. She glanced over to the High Lord to see if his composure slipped at all due to the duchess’s response. As far as she could tell, his composure remained flawless. He maintained his serene expression while waiting for her to make a legitimate response to what he said.
“I appreciate your offer,” she said with a gracious tone that struck a disingenuous cord after her laughter. “But I am my father’s daughter. The ability to rule is in my blood.”
“Of course,” Erramun agreed with diplomacy that made Ciel want to roll her eyes until they fell out of her head. “I’ve heard rumors you are still looking for the boy your father adopted. The one that disappeared the same night as your father’s death.”
Nyura sighed as though the weight of the world rested on her shoulders. “Yes. My beloved Yuri is missing but I refuse to give up hope!”
“Perhaps you will allow me to be of assistance in that regard?”
That question caught both Nyura and Ciel’s attention. Ciel did her best to keep her expression schooled and neutral. This development came out of nowhere from her perspective. She knew now she needed to stay alert and hope that she had enough time after to prepare herself for whatever her role in this plot might be.
Nyura exhibited no such discipline. For all of her affectations of poise and nobility, she continued to wear her emotions on her sleeve for all to see. Whatever noble blood she inherited from her father, it was not enough to compensate for her other failings which most assuredly cost her dearly while contending with an opponent like Erramun. She leaned forward in her seat and her eyes shone with hope and excitement. Ciel could not believe their foe in this place was this woman. She could not believe that she was much of a threat to anyone at all, let alone the entire population of a prosperous duchy.
“I have brought with me an expert in such matters,” Erramun continued. He gestured to Ciel.
Just like that, she now knew what her purpose in this place. She felt a bit of a thrill knowing that she would have another chance to finish the job that had so far eluded her. The research she had been tasked to do while she was ordered to remain in this city would now serve her well as she worked under the noses of every concerned citizen in the city to find Yuri and finally kill him.
Ciel curtsied again. Now she was more than eager to see where the rest of this meeting would take them. She knew her purpose so her attention gained a point of focus. This was just the sort of thing she could usually handle. Working out in the open would be strange but she knew she would adapt and adjust to this change in time.
Nyura looked positively enchanted with her at this point, but Ciel still felt caught off guard when the duchess called her forward. She glanced to Erramun, playing the part of an obedient servant. His impassive expression told her nothing so she stepped before Nyura with no idea of how to handle being in such close proximity to the new ruler.
Of all the things she expected to happen as she stood before Nyura, one she did not anticipate was the duchess standing and moving forward to clasp Ciel’s hands within hers. She exerted a great deal of willpower to stop herself from pulling away or retaliating with her voice. Being touched without permission set her on edge nearly as quickly as someone badgering her when she refused to speak. This duchess was so unguarded she knew a mere whisper would fell her just as quickly as it had her sleeping father.
Fortunately for Nyura, it appeared for now that Erramun wanted her alive. Ciel knew her place, swallowed her pride and tolerated this indignity.
She nearly allowed the frown she felt on the inside to slip out when Nyura looked away to bark an order at her lone lady-in-waiting to find someone named Asa. Her perfectly schooled expression re-solidified as soon as the duchess turned her attention back to her.
“I’m going to have you work with Asa. He’s been looking for Yuri for me all this time. Together you’ll surely find him.”
Ciel saw no way around it so she nodded eagerly and hoped that it would be enough to satisfy the duchess and convince her to release her hands.
Willow said her car was dead. Yuri dared not question how something that was never alive could now be dead. If the question still plagued him, he would ask when her mood improved. He stayed up waiting for her to calm down so they both could sleep. She refused to talk to him about what was bothering her and while she slammed doors and stomped around he thought it would be best to stay out of her way and make his presence in her apartment as small as possible.
She ignored him for the most part so he assumed he did a good job of giving her space. Eventually, she did settle down, stopped stomping around and went to bed. This allowed Yuri to get a few hours of sleep.
Without Willow to actively throwing a fit and giving him something outside of himself to worry about, his own thoughts started to take over his mind. After dozing for a few hours, he noticed the sky outside the window lightening up and resigned himself to rising with the dawn.
His thoughts seemed to be filtered through a sieve. The substantial, important matters stayed behind, but all his tiny, niggling worries slipped through the cracks and tormented him. His options for distraction were limited. He did not want to disturb Willow after she took so long to settle in for some rest. He had not dared to try anything that might upset her more at this point.
Everything going wrong for Willow lately could be traced back to him. If he never came here, her life would be as it had always been. That could not be changed now. He did not have the ability to alter the past, and he was not sure he would want to meddle with such a thing if he had the option.
For now, he tried to use the power he did have for good. He knew how to be stealthy. He crept around the apartment, getting ready for the day without making a sound. He even remembered to step over the floorboard that tended to creak. It might not be much, but he thought he owed it to Willow to continue to try to be the best house guest he could possibly be. Just trying to get him back home at this point was such a huge inconvenience for her that he wanted to avoid adding to that burden.
He wanted her to have a break from helping him after the disaster with her car so he decided to continue his search on his own today. Even as he tried to do things for himself to spare her the burden of it all, he realized he relied on her. Willow provided him with the warm clothes he needed for this strange, frozen world. She also bought the food he ate. Without her, he would surely have perished in this world.
He knew he owed her his life, but she was so angry with him now that he wondered if she would ever come to know just how grateful he felt. He knew he messed up. He guarded parts of his life from her because he had hoped to return home soon and for a time he thought he could do it without getting attached. He knew his intentions in this were good, but hew as unprepared for his own feelings for her to start to grow and develop. She still seemed to keep him at arm’s length so even as his feeling changed, he never hoped for more.
He did not know if she was truly as upset with him as she seemed to be the night before, or if her reaction had mostly come from the high running emotions due to stress over her car. Whether she meant to be as harsh as she had been or not, he knew she had not disguised her true feelings from him. His secrecy hurt her.
Then he tried to be honest and seemed to make it worse. He had been caught keeping secrets and she made it abundantly clear that he hurt her. Whether the pain from his secrets prevented her from understanding or the concepts he presented were alien to her, she did not accept it. Her reaction was exactly what he feared it might be.
Willow fascinated him, but at every turn he ran into reminders that she could never fully accept him. He saw her realize time and time again that they were not the same but soon enough she seemed to forget again. He still hoped, in an irrational, wishful thinking sort of way, that she might want to go home with him. After the way she reacted, he had to be realistic and acknowledge that seemed impossible now.
A part of him wished there was a way for him to stay here. He knew that would be impossible. The time he spent here already put an unfair amount of strain on Willow. He needed to go home as soon as possible to spare her any further grief and spare himself from any more feelings for her.
He wanted to keep her from going to any more extraordinary lengths for his sake. That meant he needed to find a way to take on more responsibility himself. He turned all his unused energy toward hunting on his own today. After his first disastrous attempt at exploring the outdoors in this world by himself, he tended to remain close to the apartment unless he was with Willow.
Every day now seemed to be colder than the last, but thanks to Willow’s generosity he was better equipped to handle the weather now. He doubted even a hundred years in this place would allow him to adjust to the damp and the cold, though. After living his entire life in a place with an almost endless supply of warm, sunny days he would never be able to consider the dark and cold weather of this world as normal.
Traveling far from the apartment would not be possible on foot, but he could make an effort to check the local area for any signs of a path between worlds opening up. Something could have changed in the last week or two and it would be a shame if they missed something this close to the apartment.
This time he knew better than to lock himself out, but that meant taking Willow’s keys. He knew he risked starting a fight if he took her keys and left without a word. He had every reason to believe that she would sleep for a long while and he could plan to be back before she ever woke up, but that sort of plan was proven time and time again to be exactly the sort that always screwed up for him these days.
He knew waking her up to tell her he was going out would be a terrible idea too. He wanted to stay far, far away from her until he was sure that she was in a less explosive mood. He felt sure that he needed to give her space. The more he tried to talk, the angrier she got. Until he knew that matter had changed, he wanted to let her have a chance to speak to him without feeling as though he was hounding her to say something.
He grabbed a notepad and a pen off her desk and wrote her a note before he realized she would not be able to read his message. One of the first things he figured out in this place was that he could understand the language and was understood, but their system of writing proved to be completely alien to him.
Back at home, he was quite proud of his education. After the duke adopted him, he resisted the crash course in education to get him to the skill level that was seen as the bare minimum needed for a ruler. As time went on he started to understand the benefits of the education he received and he learned to take pride in what he knew. In this place, he was just as ignorant as he had been as a child and he saw no opportunity to improve himself here.
Accepting that he had no effective way to communicate with Willow through writing, he knew he had no choice but to go without leaving word. He hoped if she saw his note she would at least understand the intention behind the note and would not blame him for going out without her.
Stepping out beyond the apartment door liberated him. He had his mission and he was prepared to carry it out without any further distraction. There had to be a way home for him around here somewhere and he intended to find it himself.