Inbetween: Chapter Fifteen

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An almost reverent hush fell over the palace in the hour before dawn. These were the last, still moments before many of the servants would rise and begin their day’s work. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath and trying to savor these final restful moments. Ciel did her best to preserve the silence for them. If what she thought was about to happen this morning came to pass, their lives would be in for an upheaval in the near future. This morning at least, she could offer them a small mercy and let them sleep for five more minutes.

As long as everything went according to plan, she would put an end to the rightful succession of Detreya today leaving only the ineffective Nyura to rule the people. With Erramun already present, it did not take a genius to guess that he had his sights set on annexing this land into his own domain. She started out with just a notion that this might be the case, but this morning she could feel the political turmoil building in the air. She was merely a pawn in Erramun’s game, but she realized no she was far from alone.

She wondered how long this plan had actually been in motion. Had Erramun been prepared for this possible eventuality? She assumed not. The odds of such a thing happening seemed astronomically small to her. Even someone as well prepared and well connected as Erramun had to have a limit to the number of eventualities he could plan against.

He adapted with surprising ease. She imagined her time idly waiting and researching within this city coincided with a flurry of restructuring and adjusting of plans to meet the new circumstances. While she had barely managed to keep herself sane through the boredom, it seemed everyone else had been moving around her.

She was just glad that she was able to be included in his plans beyond her initial role. While it might be a matter of her imagination running away from her, she did not like to think of the fate that would await her if she ceased to be of use.

Erramun waited at the gate where he instructed her to meet him. She hesitated for half a second. He was not alone. Her instincts regarding her employer were rusty because she failed to consider who he needed to include for the sort of work they were doing.

She bowed to him as she joined the group before turning her attention to analyzing the others. The others looked like priests, but she withheld labeling them until she determined whether the clothes they wore were their uniform or a costume.

A part of her breathed a sigh of relief at being in a group again. Erramun’s personality was a bit diffused by groups as he knew he needed to keep her abilities a secret and never forced her to speak around others. Knowing that she would at least be spared from that uncomfortable aspect of working with Erramun, she felt ever so slightly more optimistic about what the day would hold. With so many factors remaining unknown to her, Ciel could not bring herself to be anything other than cautious.

“Now that we’re all here,” Erramun began, “let’s get started before the city wakes up and we have to contend with hangers-on.”

Ciel nodded in agreement. The people of this city were so starved for the novelty of celebrity that any word of someone of the High Lord’s station moving about within the city would draw copious amounts of attention.

As the three priests led the way out of the gate, Ciel noticed the lack of sentry on duty. In her research of the palace and the habits of those who protected it, she learned that these gates were never supposed to be left unguarded. Even this insignificant little city practiced that modicum of self-defense. She wondered how much it had cost Erramun to convince the gate’s guards to take an unscheduled break from their post.

No matter how he did it, they were able to leave the palace unseen at an hour when no one would ever think to look for them to be anywhere other than their beds. Ciel was constantly shocked to realize just how naive and trusting everyone, even the aristocrats who should know better, in this city could be. Nowhere else she ever visited in this world trusted so easily and put their trust so often in the hands of those who were untested or unworthy.

A carriage waited just beyond the gate. In Ciel’s mind, she added one more person to her tally. Now she counted six involved in this pre-dawn excursion. The number seemed to swell at every turn. Ciel did not know how to handle it. Working in groups was no her strong suit. She barely swallowed and accepted taking orders. Having to work with a team was borderline intolerable.

Even while thinking this she joined the others in the carriage. She was either in this group or she was dead. The constant threat hung in the air and she might not particularly enjoy where her life was going right now, but as long as she went along with the plan she would at least have a life.

No one, not even Erramun, spoke in the carriage. All three priests were pale with fear as they sat up straight on the bench opposite her. Their eyes were wide and a bit too large lending credence to her belief that they were less than willing participants in all of this. That made it likely they really were priests. She dared not try to imagine what Erramun said to them to get them to come along on this little field trip. Imagining that would make her just as jumpy as the priests.

She grasped for some thought to distract her from what this outing might hold for her. The fact that she had not been told suggested to her that she would not like what she was going to do. If it was in her original job description she was sure that she would have been told so she would be prepared for it.

Knowing she would need her voice was apparently enough for this trip in Erramun’s opinion. Ciel disagreed but thought it prudent to keep her opinion to herself. She did make an effort to have her voice in top working condition as was requested, although it was something that she would always do when going into a risky situation as her words were her best chance to keep herself alive.

In a field outside the city, Ciel was forced to wait even longer. The sky was lightening to a pale, sickly purple as the sun approached the horizon. At this dim time of night, the priests still needed lamps to read over the documents one more time.

While the priests stood huddled together out in the field, Ciel, Erramun and the driver remained with the carriage. As the priests conferred they often glanced back to the carriage as if they wanted to run if they saw signs that they were not being watched.

These men were stalling. The way they paused, speaking in rapid, hushed tones after every small step made it clear they wanted to find a way out of performing this ritual. She did not fully understand what the documents she recovered contained. It was a ceremony of some sort. She did not have the background or the training to understand the significance of the steps, but the way the old priest in the research library had acted and spoken of his findings, she had to believe that it was not good news.

This sort of ritual was utterly unheard of as far as she knew. No one ever crossed over purposely and no one ever came back. Once it was believed someone disappeared to the other world, friends and family gave up hope.

She tried to take it all in as the priests got to work under the scrutiny of the High Lord’s steady, unwavering gaze. Her purpose in all this was never explicitly stated, but she had a feeling she would be the one stepping through that hole between worlds.

Everyone else present had an obvious purpose. The priests were here to open this portal. The driver was their means to get out here. Erramun orchestrated the whole thing, and even if he could, in theory, take care of this matter himself, he was above doing anything that might get his hands dirty or sully his reputation. His image bought him things even his vast wealth could not. Ciel’s reputation made her disposable.

As the disposable one she felt it was her duty to question the wisdom of this exercise. No one really knew what was over there. Of course, there were theories and rumors that came to light if one listened carefully to drunkards in taverns.

There was a whole other world out there, apparently. For those rumors to exist someone must have come back from over there. That part was probably why she was being sent. Someone, possibly more than one someone, had at some point in time returned and Erramun could not risk Yuri repeating history.

She felt a knot of worry start to build in her throat. She swallowed to try to put it away, but it persisted. Her nerves were already acting up even before her mind fully comprehended what had her concerned.

Going there seemed like the easy part. Would anyone bother with bringing her back again?

The priests were hard at work now writing runes on the ground with white chalk. For lack of anything else to do, Ciel watched them although she had no understanding of the significance of anything they wrote or even an understanding of the characters they used. Considering the ritual they were performing had apparently fallen so far out of common knowledge that it took the curator of the most ancient part of a monastic library more than a week to uncover even while it was his top priority, it only made sense that this ritual would be performed using words and methods that were not in the common, modern language.

The entire area was hushed. Usually, this final hour of the night would be filled with the sounds of birds awakening or at least the whisper of a breeze passing through the crops and the trees on the farmland. The birds, beasts and even the land itself seemed to know that something big and strange was about to happen. Ciel tried to take comfort in the silence. For once the whole world seemed like her, afraid any wrong sound might cause irreparable damage.

Finally, Erramun broke that silence with confidence only someone of his uncontested authority could possess in this sort of environment. As much as Ciel resented the loss of the beautiful, all encompassing silence, she eagerly awaited to learn what her purpose in this exercise would be to put an end to all the guessing she had done this night. She always felt better when she was allowed to act.

“I’m sure you have enough sense guess that you’re going through that portal this morning.”

Ciel nodded. She hoped that her nonverbal response would be accepted this time since the driver was well within hearing range.

“I conferred with my priests overnight. The ritual provided is quite thorough and should take you to the same area as the holes created by magical disturbances in Detreya. You’ll have one day to determine the fate of Yuri. Do what you must to ensure he won’t be coming back before tomorrow morning or don’t bother coming back yourself.”

His plan and his orders were harsh, but Ciel expected nothing less. She had failed her mission in the first place. Being given another opportunity, no matter how slim the chance might be, to make it right was more than any assassin expected or deserved. Although this might end in her permanent exile from her own world, it seemed fair to her. There was even a narrow window of opportunity for her to redeem herself, which she fully intended to use to the full extent of her abilities.

She doubted Erramun expected her to succeed in a strange world with such a short time frame. After so much time, Yuri surely would have moved beyond the vicinity of his disappearance. Sometimes luck stepped in when her skills were of no use and she wanted to see the look on Erramun’s face when she did succeed.

There was no need for her to agree to his terms. She had no choice. Honor and duty bound her to this just as surely as the underlying threat of a painful and untimely death at the hands of Erramun did.

The sky continued to grow lighter. The stars in the sky disappeared one by one and the priests started chanting. The priests started chanting in a language completely alien to Ciel’s ears. She traveled across much of this world and heard many languages in her time, but this one, in particular, gave her chills. The underlying bite of magic had to be something like what others felt when they heard her words. These words had power behind them and the very fabric of reality acknowledged and respected the power of these words.

As the chanting continued the chalk writing on the ground began to sink below the surface. As the last of the strange symbols slipped into the earth, the ground itself began to appear less solid. Mere sight informed her that nothing had changed and the ground within that circle was exactly the same as it has always been, but a deeper, instinctual part of her being knew the ground was no longer solid and anyone or anything that stepped there would slide out of this world and into something else.

The sun was just becoming visible over the eastern horizon as the chanting stopped. The priests were deathly still. Nothing and one one moved except beams of sunlight moving across the ground. The light caused the eerie circle on the ground to shimmer ever so slightly.

“We’ll be waiting here for you tomorrow at dawn, Ciel,” Erramun said and she knew it was now time for her to go.

She nodded and rose from her seat. Erramun stood as well. Before she could step away he grabbed her arm. She turned to face him and he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead and then released her arm.

The world felt slightly off balance now, but she did her best to hide that as she took that final step into the circle and slipped into the space between worlds.

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