Inbetween: Chapter Fifty Eight


The clothing Saras and Gorane had carefully crafted in their minds’ eye had been loyally created by the hands of their extremely talented tailors and were now in an embarrassingly large trunk waiting for Ciel to have an opportunity to wear them. She put off wearing them on their journey for as long as she could but soon ran out of excuses with Saras always nearby to press her to try on something new.

She had no reason to disagree with their view of light, pastel colors looking good on her, but Ciel felt uncomfortable in anything that made her stand out in the shadows. She knew, of course, that with her ability to conceal herself with a few words such a concern was ridiculous, but it did not change her desire to stick to grays, dark greens, and browns when she could not find a way to make black work. Lavender did not make her confident in her abilities to disappear into the crowd. She knew the color made her stand out and drew attention to her. It was something that she spent all of her life trying to avoid.

She wondered if Saras knew how cruel it was to insist that she dress in colors that brought her such discomfort. She wanted to believe her current benefactress would not do something specifically to torment her, but she knew better. Teasing and tormenting were two of Saras’s favorite past times. She could be more than kind to the ones she loved, but to her, Ciel was little more than a plaything. Her feelings and wishes were only considered when Saras wished to feel good and kind.

This was not a time for kindness from Saras. She expended a great deal of effort in planning these outfits down to the smallest detail and Ciel did not even want to imagine the expense of the materials and labor. She could understand, to a degree, why she was expected to wear the clothing without complaint. Vaisha needed her ruling family to be represented at this wedding and while filling the role of companion to their representative Ciel needed to look the part.

She made a public and very noticeable return to the palace in Detreya at Saras’s side. All the while her stomach twisted into knots while she anticipated swift retribution for daring to return. In addition to being the close companion of such a prominent lady, she was wearing a traveling frock of exceedingly practical design but utterly impractical color. Of course, it primarily featured the dreaded lavender that was doomed to be the theme of her time in this place and its exceedingly fine and undoubtedly durable fabric picked up all sorts of dust from the second she put it on. She doubted she would ever see it looking like new again.

The process of being announced and introduced took far longer than she would have liked. Everyone was arriving from all corners of the world at once and being formally announced was causing a bit of a bottleneck. She felt an immense amount of relief when she discovered that she was largely overlooked and could remain in the safety of Saras’s elegant shadow.

That was for the best. She could not afford to be distracted by conversation with strangers. She directed her full energy into observing all the faces around her. The bride was good enough to be present for the arrival of her wedding guests, but the groom was nowhere in sight.

Ciel wished she could be relieved by his absence, but it only made her wonder where he could be at such a time. She would much rather know exactly where he was rather than have their first meeting since her failure and escape from punishment be entirely on his terms.

As soon as Saras excused her from her so-called duties as her companion, she set out to regain her bearings. She might be stuck in clothes that were far too bright for sneaking around, but she still had her own power on her side. Under her breath, she chanted the words that would allow her to blend into the shadows and prevent her from being heard. She had not found an occasion to use these spells in a while and for the first minute she was worried that her tongue might get twisted around the words, but as she pressed on, she found her old skill coming back on its own.

She knew her confidence was lowered by the clothes she now wore. Her clothing of choice made her feel stealthy. She did not feel like herself in bright, pretty clothes, even if the outfit she now wore was mercifully designed with mobility in mind.

Her ability to use her magic seemed to be impacted by her shaken confidence. She tried to suppress those feelings, but nonetheless, felt her powers waver. She was shaken by her own weakness which only increased her doubts.

She felt her words falter before she could hear the wavering in her voice. Before the effects could throw her back into full view she started frantically looking for a place with more cover.

Even though she felt panic creeping up on her, she managed to keep her wits about her long enough to spot a passageway down to the servants quarters. The door was slightly ajar and she slipped through the gap without causing any further disruption.

The hallway for the servants’ use was more fully cast in shadow than the one for use by the duchess and her guests. This hallway was completely on the interior of the building. No natural light reached this passageway and only half the lamps on the walls were lit at the moment. She was more than able to cloak herself in the abundant shadows here and wait for her heart to stop racing.

She stopped chanting and allowed the shadows to act as her cover. Her eyes quickly adjusted to the dim lighting and being in a place where she did not have to worry about being seen or heard at the moment allowed her to regain her composure. As her heartbeat stopped pounding in her ears, she was able to listen for signs of anyone approaching.

About twenty feet down the dim hall from her there was a steep, tightly spiraling staircase. The only signs of life she heard came from the floor below. Behind her, the narrow hallway ran on and on, giving servants hidden access to all parts of the palace while remaining unseen. Below would be the servant quarters as well as the kitchens. She knew it would only be a matter of time before someone passed through here. Surely someone would be through to light the rest of the lamps before everyone would be hurrying to and fro to prepare their masters and mistresses for dinner and to run the food to the hall where all the guests were invited tonight to dine with the duchess and her fiance.

If there was one place Ciel did not want to be today, it was in the same room with Erramun. She spent most of the trip to Detreya trying to find the resolve to face him. She felt her disadvantage as soon as she entered the palace. Erramun had spent weeks familiarizing himself with this place and ingratiating himself to the population. She did not stand a chance against him on her first day here. She needed to re-familiarize herself with the layout of the palace and learn who she could trust before she could face him with any degree of confidence.

Based on the light colored clothes and focus on fashion in the wardrobe she was forced to exclusively pack for this trip, Saras did not believe there would be any need for her to rely on stealth. Ciel knew her ability to go unseen kept her alive more often than not so she had to get her bearings so she could feel secure once again.

Her heartbeat slowed and she felt a relative feeling of peace. She could proceed now. She just needed to decide whether she wished to try her luck back among the upper crust or if she would have an easier time getting lost in the crowd among the servants. If not for her attire, she would not question it for a moment.

She might not look the part, but she felt she could keep her head clear more easily with the servants. It was not just that she considered herself to be a servant of sorts herself—she knew she was easily overlooked by busy people. No one was busier than the servants in a place such as this on during the preparation for a major event. The guests, on the other hand, would be excitable and constantly on the lookout for new and familiar faces.

Before she could proceed, she needed to resume her chanting. While still and silent, it was possible for her to be mostly undetectable in the shadows, but any movement would draw attention to herself so she needed to counteract it. Silent and all but invisible, she headed down the stairs to begin her exploration.

Fully cloaked in her own illusions once more, she decided to venture downstairs. She did not know what to expect from anyone in the palace. That meant listening to the servants would make more sense. No one knew what was really going on in a place of this size except for the servants. Even so, it would not be easy to get the full picture from any one person. What Ciel really needed to do was find a secure place near a busy area and enough time to listen to gossip.

As soon as she made it down the stairs—a more complicated feat than she cared to admit while trying to compensate for the acoustics of a stone spiral staircase—she smelled the unmistakable aroma of the kitchen. She followed her nose, being sure to stay to the side and out of the way as she made it to the kitchen.

The kitchen below was nearly in total chaos. The staff did not appear to be equipped to handle such an influx of people. Pots and pans were banging and it sounded as though people in half a dozen different guests service were trying to help at once.

With no one person able to take charge, Ciel knew she could not hide away in the kitchen. Guessing where would be a safe place to hide away in the midst of chaos was too much of a gamble. Even so, she did not want to stray too far from the central hub of activity at this time of day.

She crouched down next to some sacks of flour near the entrance to the kitchen. She kept her chanting up and weaved some magic around herself so that she would remain unnoticed as long as she remained still, but she would still have the ability to hear much of what was said inside the kitchen and could see and hear everything in this passageway.

At first, she just listened. She stared at the stone wall across the way her focus shifted entirely to her ears. She might as well have had her eyes closed while she spent all of her energy on trying to unravel the tangle of voices in the kitchen.

The argument stretched on for longer than she thought would be possible. As far as she could tell, the meal was not going to be ready in time for dinner tonight and the kitchen staff was still resisting most of the offers of help and suggestions from others. Ciel found it hard to be sympathetic to the incumbent staff when she knew that their stubborn streak could result in her not eating a proper meal tonight.

It was a bit of a bore listening to the constant bickering. She had hoped to hear some gossip as the various groups mixed, but that did not seem likely to happen with the way things were going. At this point, there seemed to be no reason to hope she would have any better luck anywhere else. The argument in the kitchen was drawing most of the servants to either butt in or at least watch the drama unfold.

Ciel added another layer of concealment to the spells she already had in place and prepared to stick around at least until the crowd dispersed. Given a bit of time, she started to differentiate the voices and even made some fairly informed guesses as to who the different people were here to serve based on their accents. She could not be sure just based on words alone, but she was fairly certain the greatest tension was between servants of Erramun and the servants from Detreya that continued to work in the palace after Nyura took power.

If tensions were running this high between the two groups, Ciel could understand why Saras thought this trip would be so entertaining. Unfortunately, Ciel was not sure she would be able to enjoy it nearly as much since she would not get to view it from a lofty vantage point. She knew what Erramun was capable of and had met and in some cases tested some of the people in his employ. If this wedding did not work out as he wished, he would find other ways to get what he wanted and to make everyone else suffer for inconveniencing him.

Her attention remained on the developing situation in the kitchen until a light, feminine voice in the hallway instinctively put her on guard. She recognized that voice, but could not place where she heard it last. Part of her just knew this person was a threat.

She knew she was hidden away safely where she was, but part of her told her she needed to run and hide. Reason kept her frozen in place where she knew she was hidden and had a reasonable vantage point to determine if there really was a threat to cause her concern.

Of all the things she could have guessed when she felt terror strike, she never would have expected to see Yuri walking down this hallway toward her. Before she had a chance to wonder if she could follow him and figure out what he was doing back here, she saw who was walking down the hall with him.

The voice that set her on edge suddenly had a face to go with it. She could not remember the girl’s name, but she certainly remembered her strange power. Yuri was here with the girl that helped him slip away from her the last time their paths crossed.

Ciel knew she was in no way ready to confront them again. She let them pass her by without moving an inch. She tried to console herself by thinking that she had the upper hand since she knew they were here and they did not know she was here, but just before they passed her by, the girl met her gaze and Ciel knew in that instant that she saw past her illusions.

The girl did not say anything to Yuri, at least not while Ciel was in hearing range, but she knew she needed to leave and head back to Saras before she found herself in the sort of trouble she had been hoping to avoid by steering clear of Erramun.

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