After the spectacle that served as an announcement of the cancellation of the wedding before any formal word could be circulated, Ciel expected Saras to prepare to return home immediately. With the celebrations cut short by at least a week, there might be a chance of them returning home before Gorane’s baby was born. Ciel could not understand why they were lingering.
Many people were trying to speak to Yuri now that he was back and taking his place as leader of Detreya. So far, Saras had not shown the least bit of interest in following the trend. She gave no instructions to prepare for their departure and sat in a high backed chair in her sitting room looking as though she were waiting for someone to visit for a cup of tea.
Ciel hovered, unsure of what to expect. She had no assigned task but was given express instructions to stay. She stayed near the wall even though she had no hope of blending into the background. Her outfit was once again full of pale pastels. The scant pieces of dark clothing she managed to sneak along had since disappeared without explanation. The low table which all the chairs were arranged around was prepared for tea time. Saras had not touched any of it.
She seemed to be waiting for someone. She did not seem to mind the wait. In fact, she seemed perfectly calm and poised, which probably meant she was actually neither.
Ciel hung back, watching and waiting to see what would happen. The arrangement of baked goods on the table drew more of her attention than it should. She was not sure how long it had been since she last ate. As long as the person they were waiting for arrived soon and wanted tea, she was sure everything would be fine. If she had to wait too much longer she was not sure she could will away the headache that was threatening to form behind her eyes.
The waiting stretched on and on. Ciel tried her best to remain stoic and allow the time to pass. Her skills had truly atrophied at this point, she felt the full weight of each minute as it passed by. No matter how much she tried to redirect her thoughts, she found her mind constantly drifting back to her stomach and the untouched food on the table.
Finally, a knock on the door gave her the distraction she so desperately craved. Her attention shifted from the food waiting on the table to the door. A maid crossed the room to answer the knock and Ciel resisted the reflexive reaction to slip back into the shadows before the new arrival had a chance to spot her.
As soon as Alenna stepped int the room the atmosphere changed. Ciel felt herself go on high alert. There was no reason two people representing so much of the world could have to meet like this that did not have very real consequences for the whole world.
“Alenna,” Saras said with a widening grin.
“Saras,” Alenna replied as she breezed into the room and took a seat across from the other woman.
Ciel hesitated. She was not anywhere near in the league of these two women. She felt painfully out of place in this meeting. Although she only made a slight start toward the door, Saras sensed her intentions and gave her a look that ordered her to take a seat as well.
She had no choice but to obey. She sat down in the chair closest to her and did her best to bury any body language that might suggest she wanted to be anywhere but here. Now the food on the table was tantalizingly close, but no one else in the room seemed to be paying it any notice and she felt it was not her place to be the one to start eating.
“This is a friend of mine, Ciel,” Saras explained. “You’ll have to excuse her silence. She prefers to listen rather than speak.”
Alenna gave a slight nod of acknowledgment in her direction. “I’m familiar with your friend’s reputation.”
“Shall we get down to business?”
“What makes you think this is anything other than a social visit?”
Saras smiled in that way Ciel knew meant that she was thoroughly enjoying whatever game she was playing. Even a few weeks ago that smile made her wary. Now she accepted it as part of her average day. Sometimes it ended up as a headache for her, but more often than not she made it past those smiles unscathed. What alarmed her this time was the matching smile she saw on Alenna’s face. Anyone who could match her current mistress in gleeful scheming had to be a force to be reckoned with.
Much to her relief, tea was poured for the three of them and she finally felt at liberty to eat something. Since she had no intention of talking anyway, it should not matter to anyone if she filled her mouth with food.
The others sipped their tea and stared at each other over the rim of their cups. Someone else might think that the conversation was not progressing, but Ciel spent enough time communicating silently to pick up on subtle cues in others. Small shifts in expression were almost always missed by people that usually felt free to use words to express themselves.
Without saying much at all, Saras and Alenna appeared to have reached some sort of understanding. Even being in the room with them the whole time did not make Ciel privy to the nature of the understanding. She could only guess that it had something to do with events that had recently taken place here.
They were two of the most influential people still in the palace, possibly the two most influential now that Erramun had departed with his entire retinue in tow. Neither woman was clamoring with the others to get a few moments with Yuri. At the same time, they were not consoling Nyura or turning around to head home in a hurry. They both had a plan and the instant, wordless connection implied that it was the same exact plan.
“He’s going to need all of the help he can get,” Saras said as she sat her teacup back on its saucer with a tiny little clink.
“I agree. We can’t leave Yuri and Detreya vulnerable. If there isn’t some sort of deterrent, Erramun will arrive home and turn around at the head of his army to come straight back here.”
“Armies tend not to fair well crossing the desert,” Saras pointed out.
Alenna smirked. “I’m sure he’s been gaining expertise during his time here wooing Lady Nyura.”
“And have you been doing something similar with Yuri?”
Ciel caught a glimmer of surprise in Alenna’s eyes. Nothing else about her expression changed, but ti was not enough to hide her surprise. She held her tongue and placidly watched Saras and dared her to continue.
“I know he must have run to you when he disappeared.”
“And what brought you to that conclusion?” she asked.
Alenna’s poise was back. Saras might be close to the truth, but it was obvious she was not close enough. The game would shift now so Saras could figure out just where she had made her mistake. With no one paying any attention to her, Ciel nibbled on a scone and waited for the next development in this unfolding drama. She had no concern for her safety at the moment. These women enjoyed their game, but it posed no threat to her. Saras would not allow anything to happen to her as long as she served her. For once she felt completely secure in someone’s employ.
Saras steepled her fingers and her smile all but disappeared. “I know Yuri had to be hiding somewhere Erramun could not find him and there aren’t many places he can’t reach. Out of everyone who might have given him refuge, you’re the one most likely to manage to keep the secret.”
Ciel could feel that Saras was right, but Alenna did nothing to show her hand. Impressive, but not as entertaining as an overblown reaction. They were making it difficult to focus on more than one thing at once. Fortunately, she had already eaten about all she could stand of the sweet pastries put out for tea. She would probably be hungry again in an hour, but that was a problem for later. For now, she could watch and wait. Something was about to happen. She felt it in the air.
Alenna’s face remained unreadable, with a small smile on her lips but the rest of her face as still and serene as a porcelain doll. Her eyes seemed to be the only part of her face actually alive and they lit up as she had a chance to respond to the accusations laid at her feet.
“Yuri has been my guest recently, but he was not with me the entire time,” she admitted.
Saras nodded. Although Ciel never revealed all of her history prior to leaving Erramun’s service, she now knew her current mistress well enough to guess that she was piecing it all together, if she did not have it all figured out already. Revealing that information now somehow seemed even more unnecessary. She was grateful for that much, at least.
“I think,” Saras said in a conspiratorial whisper, “we’re going to need to work together with Yuri just until we’re sure Erramun isn’t planning to mount a retaliatory attack. After all, he missed out on marrying into possession of this land by just a few hours.”
“And you want me to help Yuri see the wisdom in our collective experience since he already knows and trusts me.”
Saras nodded. Her smile grew. “We’ll wait. He’ll be overwhelmed right now by everyone trying to get on his good side. We don’t need to rush just yet. Moving an army across the desert takes time.”
“But if we’re to provide military support we’ll need our own troops to have time to cross the desert as well.”
“Well, I believe you have a fleet that could help with that problem.”
“I have a few ships, hardly a fleet.”
“It would still be more than enough to give an advantage.”
Ciel found herself sitting up and paying close attention to the course of the conversation. She did not expect war to come up over tea. Now that it did, she was not sure how she felt about it. She had a feeling she would be a lot closer to it than she usually liked. Saras liked to be in the middle of things while Ciel preferred to observe from a safe distance or wait to hear the news after the fact from halfway around the world. Now it sounded like she was almost assuredly going to be caught up in a very messy fight.