- Project: Inbetween
- Chapter: Thirty Eight
- Word count: 3,461
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Returning to Detreya was extremely dangerous. Ciel had prepared to return to a risky place. Since she had no desire to wander that other world looking for other paths back home that may or may not lead her to a place outside of Detreya, her options were either come back to Detreya or remain in the forsaken other world.
Her arrival brought no attention so she believed she had a reasonable chance of making an escape from this city without alerting her former employer of her arrival. She knew better than to think that she would be any less than a wanted woman in the eyes of Erramun. The High Lord made it perfectly clear what would happen to her if she came back without succeeding in her mission.
Since Yuri had returned to this world a while ago and she had not, she had to assume that Erramun knew she had failed. She needed a place to go that was far, far away from him and Detreya. Erramun’s domain laid to the west so that direction was out of the question. Erramun’s wrath would not have subsided after so short a time and if he knew she was in this world, she would need a great deal of a head start if she was going to have any hope of outrunning it.
Seeking refuge with Alenna was an option, but she would need to cross through the desert and then head into the mountains before she had any hope of getting in touch with her. That journey seemed like a bit of a risk at this point. She lacked the means or supplies to undertake such a journey at this point. She needed to leave Detreya as quickly and quietly as possible in case she was recognized and the number of supplies she would need for such an extensive journey would take at least several days to procure, and that was even if she was able to get the sort of capital she needed to get any amount of supplies. No. It seemed seeking asylum with Alenna would be unfeasible at this point in time.
Since she needed to avoid Erramun to hold onto her life, and Alenna was too far away to be feasible at this time, Ciel knew her viable choices were all to the east of the city. There were a few small, isolated city-states to the east, but they were smaller and even more insignificant than Detreya, which meant that their rulers, populace, and resources had all been below Ciel’s notice. There was one significant empire beyond the small cities to the east. Siva ruled nearly all the world east of the great desert. She had a feeling that might be her best chance. There was a reason that she never had any professional exposure to Siva. His reputation for ruthlessness made even Erramun appear to be a safe, stable option.
With Erramun completely turned against her, she thought that she might have a better chance even with Siva. It was a long shot, and a long journey to undertake, but she thought it would be her safest option. She had to take into consideration that once she made it past the desert, she would have bountiful food options available for her. There was no need to take all the supplies she would need for the entire journey with her if she decided to go east. The terrain on the way east was less harsh—at least once she made it past the desert.
She stowed the thermal clothing she acquired in the other world and tended to her scraped hand before making an attempt to wend her way through the crowd in the marketplace. She needed a plan to get the supplies she would need for the journey.
She had a bit of money on her. It was the last of what had been given to her as a stipend while she waited for further orders from Erramun. She was not sure exactly how much she had left as she had carried the money on her person the day she left this world as a force of habit more than as a conscious act. It had been of no use to her while she was stranded in the other world so she had not given the familiar weight of the coins much thought over the last few days.
The number of coins she fished out of her pocket was disappointingly low. Getting food, water and shelter adequate for a journey across the desert would be next to impossible with these meager funds.
Ciel’s hopes that she would be able to exit this city without drawing any attention to herself seemed impossible now. Stealing supplies would only add to her urgent need to leave the city. She would need to create more enemies to escape the biggest threat to her life.
She needed to use her immeasurable charm to fill in the gaps. That just made it all the more vital that she leave the city today. She could not tarry if she did anything that might cause a stir among the locals, and charming or befuddling her way into the goods she required would cause quite the stir once they started to catch on to the scheme.
Fortunately, having spent so much time in the city she now had a pretty good understanding of the layout of the marketplace. She knew where to go to get what she needed and she knew just where she could go first, second and so on. Her priority was, of course, to find the supplies she needed, but she also needed to plan out just where she would use alternative means to acquire her goods. The shops could not be too close together. She needed to be sure that no one would figure out that someone was taking so many things until she was long gone.
Shopkeepers talked to their neighbors. Word would take longer to spread if they could not feed off each other’s outrage. As long as everything seemed isolated, she was confident that she would not be caught. The law enforcement branch of the city’s government was severely compromised by mismanagement. She could tell that much from her brief time interacting with the captain of the palace guard. If their force was in such disarray, the less professionally trained city guard would be in even worse shape. She could increase the chances of her misdeeds going unreported as well by targeting vendors she had previously observed to have less than reputable practices themselves.
Some of these shops were almost too easy for her to snatch a few goods from. She was patient and bided her time. She knew seemingly easy tasks could often turn out to be the riskiest because it lulled her into a false sense of security. She remained vigilant and kept moving.
Those that she could not fool with mere sleight of hand still did not cause her too much of a problem. She had more than sticky fingers in her arsenal. She waited, browsing until she spotted a moment when she was the only customer. Then all she needed to do was speak up. As soon as she suggested that they give her what she wanted in the right tone of voice, she found just want she wanted being handed over to her.
Even though it made things much, much easier to speak up, she tried her best to avoid abusing her ability. She was too afraid of what might happen if she got caught. As confident as she was in her power, she knew how easily she could be caught manipulating others or her environment. At best, getting caught would end up with torches and pitchforks chasing her out of town. No one took kindly to the idea of one who can manipulate the lives and actions of those around her and their reactions were generally to either attempt to end her life or—if she was lucky—run her out of town and hope that she would think twice about ever coming back.
Compared to what might await her in Detreya if she lingered, even that sort of reaction might not be the worst thing waiting for her. She did not think that she could get out of town fast enough if the torch-bearing mob formed and mobilized. Erramun would swoop down on her in a heartbeat if he saw a mob moving through the city after some sort of monster.
For that reason alone, it would be in her best interest to err on the side of caution. Haste and caution often operated as opposites, but for someone with as much experience as Ciel possessed with her abilities, it was far from impossible.
She had what she needed to cross the desert in no time at all. Without waiting a moment longer, she started heading east.
Willow never lived in a place like this before. The cave and then the ship were definitely low points in terms of her habitation history, but this place was in a league of its own.
She was not sure what she should call this sort of place. Detreya had a palace. This place did not seem like a palace of the same sort as the one she had seen from the distance during her brief visits to that city. At the same time, this place was too big and too luxurious to be considered a regular home or even a mansion. They were pretty much left to their own devices once they arrived so there was not much of an occasion for her to learn the correct terminology. It was hardly the most important part from her point of view. Mostly she just wanted to know what to call this sort of place so she could properly sing its praises when she laid down on her huge, soft bed and stretched out.
That bed alone made her feel ridiculously pampered. The rest of the room was lovely too. A mix of stone and wood made up the walls as well as the floor. The floor was covered in thick rugs so her feet never needed to touch the floor. Paired with the tapestries on the walls, it made the room feel warm even in the bitter cold of the mountains.
Having a whole room to herself was the definition of luxury in her book right now as well. She could let down her hair and relax finally. All the same, it was almost strange to be alone. She knew the Yuri and Asa were in rooms on either side of her so she did not have to look far for companionship when she decided that was what she needed.
Just for a while though, she wanted to be alone. She did not have much to unpack or put away and since they were not expected guests, it was not feasible for them to have baths right away. She did have a fire in her room so she was warm and comfortable and that made it all worth it. For the first time in what felt like an age, she was neither cramped nor cold. She did not care that she was dirty and her hair was a mess. She threw herself down on top of the bed and just laid there sprawled out and felt the tension in her limbs and her back slowly start to recede. A bath would do a better job, but in lieu of that, this did the trick.
She laid on the bed and stared up at the ceiling for an indeterminate amount of time. Her mind was able to wander and she drifted just on the conscious side of the awake-asleep scale.
When she heard a knock at her door, she could not even begin to guess how long she had spent settling into her room. She had to swim back through her own mind in record time so she could sit up and cross the room to the door.
She was not sure what she expected, so she could honestly say she was surprised to see Yuri on the other side of the door. She was in a good mood so a smile naturally came to her face when she saw him.
“Settling in okay?” he asked in lieu of a greeting.
She nodded. “This room is great.”
Yuri gave a noncommittal shrug. “At least we’re not locked up, right?”
“Yeah. That’s good too.”
“Want to hang out with me and Asa or are you busy enjoying your great room.”
She picked up on an edge in his voice when he talked about her room. If she did not think it was completely ridiculous, she would think that he was jealous or resentful of her enjoyment of the room she had been provided. She was feeling content enough at the moment to let it slide past without dwelling on it.
“Sure,” she agreed readily. “Let’s go get Asa.”
They left her room behind and headed down the hall to the room that had been given to Asa. A knock on his door was answered almost instantly, as though he was on high alert and just waiting for something to happen.
After just a brief exchange of greetings, after all, they had seen each other just a few hours before, they were all inside Asa’s room together again. It was as though they had not spent days upon days with each other and finally had the opportunity to have some time apart. That did not seem to matter now that she was here though. Being alone in a strange place was not particularly comforting and it was even more of a strange sensation after spending so long with the guys always by her side.
Willow did not pay much attention tot he banter between Yuri and Asa at first. She was too busy comparing Asa’s room to her own. She wanted to know if they were being treated equally or if one of them was getting some sort of special treatment. It was not so much that she was worried that one of them was getting treated differently from the other, but it was more so she could understand exactly what Alenna or the people she put in charge of such matters thought of them.
As far as she could tell, the two rooms were just about identical, or at least what passed for identical when rooms and furnishing were not mass produced and fabricated to be just that. If there was any sort of effort being made, it would appear that the effort was skewing towards treating them as equals.
She would not know for sure if they were all being treated equally until she had a chance to look at Yuri’s room, but she was not going to go out of her way to barge into his space. He had been without a room of his own for a long time now and she wanted to be sure that she let him have his own space and room to process everything that had happened to him. Not to mention, she did not want to give either of the guys the wrong idea by trying to barge into their rooms. Their relationship had just barely started and as far as she could tell, they had done very little to establish boundaries. She was unsure whether asking to see Yuri’s room might be misconstrued as an expression of interest in something less than innocent.
She was not sure she wanted things to stay completely innocent, but she was positive that she did not want things to jump from nothing to everything all at once.
She knew she was spacing out when she glanced up and both Yuri and Asa were both staring at her. She gave them a sheepish smile as a token apology. “Sorry. What’d I miss?”
“We need to figure out what to do next. Now that we’re here we don’t have direct access to what’s happening in Detreya anymore. Our news will all be at a few weeks’ delay if we get any news at all,” Yuri explained.
“What can we do about it?” she wondered.
“We need to decide if we’re going to stay or go,” Asa added. “The sooner the better, too. If Alenna is going to try to keep us, we don’t want to give her too much time to fence us in.”
Willow shook her head. “I think it is up to you guys to decide. I’m not the one with experience with this sort of strategizing.”
“I think we’re all out of our comfort zone here. Willow, you have just as much to contribute here as either of us.”
She blushed at that response. She still had no idea what she could contribute, but thinking that he considered her perspective to be just as valid as theirs, was to some degree comforting.
“I really don’t know what we should do,” she confessed.
Yuri looked thoughtful for a moment. “What does your gut say? Can we trust Alenna?”
“I don’t trust her,” she said without hesitation. “She acts like this is all a game.”
“Maybe it does seem like a game to her,” Asa said musingly. “The stakes aren’t very high for her. It looks like her people are living in prosperity and her nation is isolated enough that they’re not a ready target. Alenna can choose how involved she wants to be in this conflict.”
“But that does mean that she made a conscious decision to get involved and we have yet to find out why,” Yuri pointed out.
“You’d think she’d want to stay out of it if she had a choice, but there was that whole thing about Erramun targeting others if he was allowed to get away with taking over Detreya.” As hesitant as Willow had been to engage in this conversation, she now found herself getting pretty caught up in it. She found herself pacing from one side of the room to the other. She could not get her thoughts to flow properly if she stayed still.
She tried to focus on working through the problem presented to her and ignore the growing sensation that two sets of eyes were following her progress back and forth across the room. She did not know why they were watching her, and she knew it was not the time to ask why they were watching her.
Yuri sighed. “We’re not going to come to a decision today, are we?”
“I doubt it,” Asa agreed.
“We can’t let this hang for too long. If we decide we need to leave, we need to give ourselves enough of a window of opportunity to get out of here without any entanglements.”
“There are other complications,” Asa pointed out. “If we decide to leave, how are we going to get out of here? Are we going to sail an airship or climb down the mountain?”
“Um. I’m not sure we can do either of those. I mean, I don’t think I can handle mountain climbing and no offense, but I don’t think we could fly an airship without crashing.”
“She’s not wrong,” Asa agreed.
Yuri sighed. His brow furrowed.
Willow felt a twang of guilt for being so negative. The last thing she wanted to do was discourage Yuri, but it seemed like she did just that. Obviously, he had some concerns about their precarious position in this place, and she just ran through all of his hopes of getting out of the situation easily and painlessly. If he had no hope, she did not know what he might do.
It was not something that she wanted to be responsible for. She wanted to give him peace of mind, not make his life even worse than it already was, and if she was completely honest, it was pretty bad at this point.
She did not know what to say, or if there was anything she could do to actually make a difference, but she could at least try to make him feel better. She reached out and patted him on the shoulder.
“We might not have a plan now, but we have the chance to gain more intelligence and then we’ll know what we can do.” She tried to sound more sure about this than she actually felt.
Asa nodded along with her statement and Yuri seemed to take comfort in it. Willow could feel that it was not nearly good enough, but it was the best she could manage for now. All she could do was keep her eyes open for opportunities and hope for the best.
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