Inbetween: Chapter Forty Four

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With Saras acting as her introduction, Ciel sidestepped the complicated process of persuading members of his court of her worth and was lead straight away to Siva’s side. She tried her best to consider it an advantage, but of course, she could not help but wonder what might motivate Saras to assist her.

Knowing that this was her best chance of getting the audience she so greatly desired today did not make it any easier for her to trust or to believe that she was trusted. Even though she knew it was too late now, she still tried to think of a way to escape if this started to go badly. Whether this meeting went badly or not, she knew she was already stuck following this plan through until the end.

Ciel expected to be taken to some sort of public chamber where Siva would hold audiences with his people who wished to speak to him, have matters judged for them, and for foreign dignitaries to pay their respects and play the tangled political games that they all inevitably played while in the court of another land. After a bit of walking, it became extremely apparent that they were not going to any sort of public hall. Without knowing the layout beforehand, she could only guess where they might be going, but she could tell this was not an area open to the public.

She had questions, but she dared not ask them. Not only was she still slightly uncomfortable with the idea of trying to talk without making her abilities apparent, but she was also more than a little intimidated by the idea of talking more with Saras.

Saras seemed helpful enough, but there was something going on behind that and until Ciel managed to get a better handle on what that was, she wanted to avoid getting herself into more trouble than she was in already. It was hard for her to imagine what was in store for her now. Before she had a vague plan. It might not have been much, but it was something. Now she knew she was not seeing Siva in a public forum and it changed everything. There was a good chance that she would be alone with Siva and Saras. It would be entirely unpredictable without others around to guarantee civil behavior.

Saras kept her off balance from the start. Even now that she was silently guiding her through the halls, there was an unnerving quality about her that made it impossible for Ciel to get back on balance. Every time Saras glanced in her direction, Ciel spotted the faintest hint of a smile on her lips.

No matter the feelings of uncertainty she experienced now, Ciel made a point of appearing to remain completely composed. She felt as though she must be doing a good job of keeping her face neutral since she seemed to not attracting the attention of Saras as they walked.

The corridors they walked seemed to change in tone as they traveled onward. The opulence of the decoration did not decrease, but the materials and design seemed to become more personal and to exude a sort of warmth instead of merely an expression of wealth.

It was undeniable. These were the private quarters of the ruling family. She was not being treated as a foreign visitor wishing for an audience for an unknown reason. Saras was treating her like a close friend of the family and she dared not guess why.

She was curious. That part was more and more difficult for her to deny. Curiosity was vital for her survival, but she knew all too well that it could also get her killed in many of the situations she found herself in. Right now it was an urgent matter for her to discover whether she was in greater danger by knowing or not knowing what the motivations of her new companion might be.

They were alone. It was the perfect opportunity for her to try her own brand of magic, but she hesitated. She was powerful and she knew it. She knew she was strong enough to use her voice on even the most powerful of wills, but only if she caught them off guard. Weak minds or weak wills could be overcome even without the element of surprise, but those with some form of inner strength required stealth and luck. She did not know much at all about Saras. Intelligence reports about the rulers of Vaisha focused on Siva and no one else. Saras had not played a significant role in the politics as far as the reports went, but that did not necessarily mean that she was weak of mind or lacking in will. She had to be formidable in some way to end up with Siva. For that reason alone, Ciel restrained her instincts. Saras was too much of a wild card and it would not benefit her at all to reveal what she could do when it might end up being used to her disadvantage.

Ciel did not realize just how nervous she was until they stopped walking. Saras opened a heavy door with an ornately carved and gold gilded tree embedded in it. Ciel could not decide whether this door was beautiful or unnecessary ostentation. She had to assume it was art since it was placed in a spot where it would not be appreciated by many. It only made sense for true art to be hidden away where it could not be seen by all.

Following Saras into the room, she was in a place that felt more like a home than any she had encountered thus far in this place. Vaisha’s palace-fortress is shown itself to be formidable and beautiful in equal measure, but it appeared that at least part of the space within these walls was something resembling a home.

Her mind still worked in overdrive in response to the ridiculous number of unknown variables in the situation she now found herself experiencing. Some of it would, of course, be a waste of time, but some of her hyper-vigilance would surely pay off.

She watched Saras at least as carefully as she observed her surroundings. This was obviously a space that she was well familiar with. She was able to travel through the room without giving any of it so much as a glance.

Ciel thought they were alone at first. The place was so quiet that she was certain that the only two heartbeats in the place had to belong to them, but after a short while, Saras showed her to a comfortable chair and once she sat down, she could feel eyes on her. Although she could not see where she was being watched from, she knew that there were eyes on her somewhere in this room.

She tried to ignore it, or rather appear to ignore it to the best of her ability while subtly surveying the room for the origin of the gaze that would not leave her.

Siva materialized before her eyes and his appearance was nothing at all like what she expected. Although, now that she saw the High Lord she was not sure what she had expected in the first place. It was as though is appearance had been enough to banish all preconceptions from her mind. He was inconspicuous, slight of build and with no remarkable features to cause him to stand out in a crowd. All in all, he looked the least like a High Lord of any ruler Ciel had ever met and she had met a fair few in her day.

“I had a feeling you would be heading our way,” he said in lieu of an introduction as she approached.

Ciel was unsure if it was wise to speak. So far her silence had served her so well. It was almost working too well and the last thing she wanted to do at this point was throw anything off balance.

Siva dropped himself into a chair on the opposite side of the room and watched Ciel closely. “You don’t have to worry about hiding here,” he assured her with a wry smile. “We know what you are and our guard is up against any misdeeds you might attempt. Please, feel free to speak freely.”

Ciel very nearly smiled. It was hard to resist the urge. Something about Siva’s unassuming appearance made it all too easy to feel at ease in his presence. If she did not keep her wits about her, Ciel was certain that she would be lulled into a false sense of security. Her awareness of this innate ability did quite a bit to dampen the effects.

Although self-control kept her from smiling, she must have expressed at least a slight facial tick for Siva to pick up on. A self-satisfied smile came to his face and he seemed to relax into his seat.

At the appearance of Siva, Saras seemed to melt into the background, as though she willed herself to cease to be a person and to become part of the furniture so that he could be the center of attention. After the initial arrival of Siva, she reappeared out of the woodwork, having practically become one with the wall for a moment, and perched on the arm of Siva’s chair.

If there was ever any doubt that she was outnumbered, those thoughts were now completely banished. Saras brought her here where it was two against one and she was more than helpless against both their numbers and their awareness and preparedness against her abilities.

She swallowed hard before settling her nerves and asking, “How did you know to expect me, my lord?”

A sidelong glance passed from Saras to Siva before he answered. Aside from that brief glance, there was no indication of even a moment’s worth of consideration before he answered. “Do you think we would ever get to where we are today if we were not sure to have eyes and ears everywhere that matters?”

Ciel smiled at that. Of course. He wanted to be sure that she knew just how much power and influence he had as if anyone would ever forget. It seemed in their brief acquaintance that the rumors held some credence. Siva was just as formidable as the rumors made him out to be, although he was certainly not the sort of monster she had initially imagined. His brand of terror and intimidation was harder to put into words. Since no one had managed to successfully express just what it was about Siva that made him such a terrifying enemy, her mind had been forced to fill in the blanks to the best of her ability. Now she knew the truth and it was of no comfort at all.

She bowed her head, breaking eye contact with the couple and allowing her hair to fall into her eyes. She watched them through the strands of her hair as she thought of her next move.

“Surely you know just what brought me here if your spies are as good and far-reaching as you say,” she said as a hint of a challenge in her voice. She certainly was willing and able to believe that his spies were very nearly everywhere, but he did not need to know that. It would be much more interesting if she got to play the skeptic at least a little.

Fortunately, her gambit appeared to amuse him. The shift in his expression was almost imperceptible, but Saras was much easier to read. She functioned almost as an amplifier of whatever Siva seemed to be thinking and feeling. She was the one that actually openly expressed the emotions being felt on their side of the room. She was the barometer by which Ciel could gauge Siva’s state of mind. It was more than a small risk, she had to admit. There was always a chance that either intentionally or not, taking cues from Saras might mislead her.

So far luck seemed to be on her side. Siva approved of her challenge. He steepled his fingers under his chin and his eyes bored through her skull and into her mind.

“You’re hoping to find a safe haven here.” Siva looked confident and he had every right to, but Ciel was not impressed. The statement he made was correct, but she could not consider what he said to be too much of a victory. He only stated the obvious.

Her lack of impressed reaction must have spurred Siva to continue. She held her tongue and watched Siva intently. No matter how uncomfortable his stare made her, she would not look away or blink. She wanted to know what he knew and showing weakness now would give him the chance to back out of his end of their current bargain. She would not allow him to do that. She needed to know what he knew about her reasons for being here.

As much as she was struggling, it seemed to be no problem at all for Siva. Her turmoil appeared to not register in the least for him, but she could not shake the certainty that he knew just how much she needed to be here.

“Erramun will kill you if he catches you unless it would be to his disadvantage to go after you. It sounds simple enough to save your neck, but you’re certainly well aware that there aren’t many ways to put someone like Erramun at a disadvantage.”

Siva leaned forward in his seat as he spoke. The change in his posture along with the words he spoke sent chills down Ciel’s spine. She was not surprised by anything she heard, but it was the way he said it filled her with dread.

“Fortunately,” Siva pressed forward. “I would be a serious roadblock to Erramun’s plans to end your life. If I decided to employ you, an attack on you would be an act of aggression against my nation. Then again, if I decide to employ you, knowing what I do about your history with Erramun, it could be seen as me trying to steal you from him and undermine his authority.”

Ciel bowed her head. She felt that it might have been a mistake as soon as she broke eye contact with Siva, but it was too late to repair that damage now. Looking up at him again would not reverse the brief second where she showed weakness and deference to him. She needed to press forward, and use this moment of subservience to her advantage any way she could. Her mind worked quickly. Years of experience might not prevent all missteps, but she could use years of practiced poise and deferential grace to make mistakes work to her advantage.

“I apologize for putting you into such an awkward position, but as you have already pointed out, I have nowhere else to turn.”

“Except to your death,” he quickly appended.

She nodded almost imperceptibly before raising her gaze to his face again. “Yes, but I’m not willing to die while I think I might still be of use in this world.”

“And what use might a disgraced assassin be to me?”

“I have information that others might suspect, but only I know to be true. Find some use for me, take me in under your protection and you can know everything I know.” She was bargaining for her life and she knew it. Inside she was desperate, but she remained cool and aloof on the outside. It was her only hope. Any indication of desperation could ruin her so she hid it deep down inside where she could even pretend she did not see it herself.

Siva’s eyes twinkled. The rest of his face was stony and unreadable, but his eyes gave away his interest in what she had to offer. She knew before he spoke that she had him. Her eyes were focused on him, but out of the peripheral of her vision, she noticed Saras.

She continued to perch herself on the arm of Siva’s chair. Her expression was not nearly as carefully controlled but seemed to be a lightning rod for the emotion that was not permitted to take hold on Siva. From the delighted, welcoming smile on her face, Ciel knew that she could get what she wanted out of this situation.

Of course, she would have to give up some things, but she was pretty sure it was all things she could live with. After all, she would still have her life.

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