Inbetween: Chapter Forty One

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Something about this place made Willow grow complacent. This complacency highlighted just how content she had been living her ordinary life. Until Yuri appeared in her world she had no reason to be aware of her complacency. Then her life turned upside down as she realized most of what she thought she knew was wrong. For the past few weeks she did not have a chance to adjust before new changes threw her off balance all over again.

Alenna’s home felt more normal than even her own home had felt in a long time. She did her best to avoid thinking about it that way, but the notion that she had a home again and some semblance of normalcy was impossible to ignore altogether.

The greatest hardship in her life these days was finding a way to pass the time. As days went by, she grew more comfortable in this place, and she started to feel bored as well. For all the problems it caused, being uncertain of her place in this world at least kept her mind occupied.

She never realized how much she had worried before now. With a lot more space to wander and explore now, she thought she would be better off than while they were confined on the ship but boredom still crept up on her.

She made a point of taking some time each day to wander around. There were a lot of hallways to walk and even more stairwells to climb up and down. She tried to turn her mind to building a mental map of the main building and the other connecting buildings she had access to. She did not know if it would be of any use to anyone, but she had to give herself some sort of task. It had been years and years since she last had this much free time. It was the first time as an adult she did not have a job of some sort. Even as a child she had helped with the family business. She was always participating in something or working toward some sort of goal. Now she had none of that and she latched onto any purpose she could come up with for herself.

As she explored, she could feel herself growing bolder. It was partly because she was starting to think of this place as her home. It made it feel as though she had a right to know what was behind the doors. She needed to know what was behind those doors and whether or not the thing behind those doors would be of any use to her or to Yuri and Asa.

Her curious explorations did not go entirely unnoticed even though she was mostly unacknowledged. First, the servants noticed her—probably because they were good at their jobs—and then Asa noticed as well. The servants left her alone aside from keeping an eye on her. She assumed her exploring would not incur Alenna’s wrath since no one in her service attempted to stop her.

On the other hand, Asa was not so easy to deter. He started to follow her, or at least tend to travel in the same direction as her. Being watched was annoying but understandable, but following was a bit more extreme from her point of view. She tolerated it for the length of one hallway before her patience ran out.

She stopped and waited. It did not take long for Asa to give in and come up to her. He smiled sheepishly as he approached her.

“Where are you going today?” he asked as Willow started walking again. His stride matched hers as though they had been walking together all along.

“I think I found a library,” she explained. “I want to check it out.”

“How can you not be sure if it is a library or not?”

She shrugged and tried to keep a smile from tugging at her lips. “I haven’t been checking most of the rooms, just walking around and learning the layout of this place.”

“Oh. Well, in that case, this will be a different kind of adventure today,” Asa said with sunny optimism.

She could not hold back the smile fighting to get out any longer. “I guess so, but I’m not sure how much of an adventure a library will be after what I’ve been through lately.”

He nodded. “It’s not quite the same as traveling by airship, but we need quiet places to retreat to like libraries. Not to mention, a library would be a great place to hide secret passages and stuff, don’t you think?”

“Are you looking for secret passages?”

“Not really. Alenna doesn’t seem the sort to have something so cliche in her home, but I wouldn’t be opposed to discovering I’m wrong.”

She giggled at the thought. Their conversation petered out until they reached the door that Willow believed held the library. She hesitated to open it. She was not sure that she was right in guessing that this was a library. The predicament would not exist if she had been alone. Asa was right at her side and watching her. If she was wrong, it would make her seem very foolish. She was pretty sure that he would not care one way or the other. He just seemed to be tagging along with her for the time being, but she still did not want to be caught looking like she did not know what she was talking about.

She glanced to the left and the right. No one else was in sight. There were no guards or servants to stop them from opening and passing through this door. Somehow it did not make it feel like she was doing anything less forbidden. This should be just about the most innocent thing she could do. They were given free reign to travel around Alenna’s home. That should mean she could go through whatever doors she saw fit, but it still felt as though she was doing something wrong right now.

She thought Asa might open the door for her if she hesitated for too long, but he seemed to be waiting for her. She needed to screw up her courage and make her move.

She opened the door and was gratified to see her suspicions confirmed. Rows and rows of shelves filled with books covered the room from one end to the other. Even the smell of the room matched her memories of libraries back home.

That smell was one of the first genuinely familiar experiences she had since coming to this world. A mix of nostalgia and homesickness kept her stuck in place.

“Are we going in?” Asa asked.

That brief question snapped her out of her reverie. She decided to move now so she would not end up regretting it later. Her feet carried her down the aisles between the shelves as she had done thousands of times before in other libraries.

She felt herself filling up with the peaceful reverence for quiet and tranquility that always came over her when she entered a library. She knew even without a librarian present to remind her to speak softly, she would never dare to speak above a whisper in this place. The silence was built into the room as surely as the shelves or the floorboards. The books here could keep her occupied for months, perhaps even years. If she read these books she might finally start to get a real understanding of the history of this place without having to worry about the information being modified due to the biases of the storyteller.

She had no idea where to start. The only thing she could do was pick a book off the shelf and see where she stood in terms of the subject matter in this library. She doubted the system here would be similar to libraries in her world so she thought it would probably make more sense just to browse.

The first book she pulled off the shelf was a heavy tome with a cloth cover and no discernible title visible. She opened the book to the middle, hoping to get a general idea of the sort of book she now held. None of the words on the first page were legible to her. The letters were all strange, unlike any she had ever seen before. She flipped to a different point in the book. The words were just as illegible there too.

She returned the book to the shelf and pulled another one. She flipped through the pages of this book as well. As far as she could see, there were no letters or symbols familiar to her in this book either. She shoved this second book back onto the shelf with a bit more force than strictly necessary.

There was not much reason for her to hold out hope, but she told herself she needed to try at least one more book. She hurried to a different part of the library, hoping beyond hope that she had just been unlucky enough to start her search in an obscure language part of the collection.

Her rush across the room drew Asa’s attention. He followed her into another row of shelves and watched her hastily select another book. Like the first two, this book was utterly unreadable to her.

She sighed and slammed the book shut. If a librarian was present, she would certainly be chided for her treatment of these books, but they were alone in this room and her mistreatment went unnoticed.

She looked up from the book and shared a frustrated frown with Asa. “I can’t read these books,” she explained.

Asa looked a little surprised by her statement. He picked a book off the shelf himself and opened it. She watched his eyes scan the text and she immediately knew that he was reading the words on the page.

Shame rose to the forefront of her mind. She knew she was a stranger in a strange land, but now she realized she was illiterate in this land as well. She might not have been a scholar back home, but she was literate and had a decent education. Now she knew nothing and she was cut off from the most straightforward way for her to better educate herself.

She looked back up and caught Asa looking at her with pity in his eyes. Heat rose to her cheeks and her gaze quickly darted away.

“You can’t read?”

“Not this language,” she shot back quickly. “I can read words written in the alphabet we use where I come from just fine.”

“I could read to you if you like,” Asa offered.

“I don’t need your pity,” she spat out before thinking. She immediately regretted her choice in words, but she did not know what to say or do to take back the damage that was already done.

She looked down at her hands which were fidgeting desperately to give her something to focus on other than her own frustration and humiliation at the way she had lashed out. There had to be a way out of this but her mind was panicking and drawing a blank in terms of how she could even begin to make things right again.

“Maybe I should learn how to read with this language,” she ventured after a great deal of hesitation. It was hard for her to accept that she needed to show a lot of vulnerability to make herself a stronger, more independent person.

“I could help you learn,” Asa offered immediately.

Willow was not sure why he was being so forgiving or her angry outburst and so eager to help her. She was slightly unnerved by it, but she knew what his intentions most likely were. Their relationship was still in the tentative stages. They knew each other a lot less well than they both knew Yuri so they were both uncomfortable with the conventional ways for them to move things forward. She was glad that he was willing to look past her own testiness and still reach out to her to keep getting to know her better.

“Maybe,” she said hesitantly. “But not here. I don’t want anyone to know. It’s embarrassing.”

“Don’t feel embarrassed. Plenty of people can’t read.”

She shook her head. “I’ve spent years in school. I know how to read. I just can’t read this language. It’s humiliating. I can understand all of you just fine, so I thought I would be able to read your written language too. Not being able to read was just really disappointing, you know?”

“I think I understand.”

“I’m sorry for being such a grouch about it.”

He hesitated for a split second before he reached over and gave her arm a reassuring pat. The gesture was innocent enough, but when she met his eyes, she could not miss the light blush coloring his cheeks. She gave him an encouraging smile in response.

“Maybe you could take a good practice book back with you so we can have a reading lesson later?”

He nodded and went to work looking for a book to fit that purpose with a bit too much haste. She knew that he was less forward than Yuri, but she had not expected him to be quite this easily flustered. She smiled at him when he selected a book and waved it victoriously in the air. He grinned and tucked the book under his arm and they left the library.

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