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After several weeks, the day Willow had patiently waited for finally arrived. Lady Saras had gone off on some sort of adventure and not returned yet, but the priests she sent for arrived and set to work straight away.
She wanted to find a way to express her gratitude to the priests, but so far they proved to be unapproachable. They shut themselves away in a room and the only proof of life from their little group came from the servants that brought them food and the books of lore they requested. Willow thought they might be willing to talk to her since she was the reason they came all this way in the first place but that did not prove to be the case at all.
Their arrival did not spark the sudden change she expected. They needed time. She tried to understand that, but it was still a great disappointment. She thought the last great hurdle to her return home would be cleared once the priests arrived. Realizing they still required so much time to prepare was disheartening.
She wanted to go home. The more apparent it became that she really would get to go back, the more impatient she became. For the most part, she kept her impatience to herself. Constantly badgering Yuri and Asa about wanting to go home only made all three of them miserable.
Instead, she tried to stick to other topics while around them. She knew it was hard to hear her constantly talking about going home. They tolerated it well enough when she was trying to learn everything she could about the ritual to open a portal between worlds, but she found it difficult to focus on that now that the priests had arrived. It seemed futile, and she was worried about hoarding precious information the priests might need in their preparations.
She tried to be as pleasant as possible in the short time they had left together. Yuri had certainly been dropping less than subtle hints that he wanted her to come back, and she sometimes thought that she surely would be back just as soon as she tied up the loose ends back at home. The rest of the time, she was not so sure. Having people that wanted her around certainly gave this world its own sort of appeal, but her whole family was at home and leaving them behind intentionally would be like cutting herself off from her roots.
She learned a lot about herself while living in this place, but she had a feeling she could learn a lot more from her family now that she knew what questions to ask. She might have learned it all sooner, but she spent most of her life trying to avoid expressing any interest in her family’s business. The business side of things still did not appeal to her, but she was almost desperate to find out exactly what her family knew about the things she now knew she could do.
Now all the time she spent with Yuri and Asa felt like she was trying to build up to the courage to say goodbye. She wanted to treasure each moment with them, but there was always an underlying sadness to everything they did. Even mundane activities left her feeling melancholy as she thought about each activity being the last of its sort she would do in this world.
The finality of it all became an undeniable reality when Alenna came to say goodbye. Willow had not expected anything resembling a formal goodbye from Alenna, but it made sense once she realized it was happening. Alenna was important enough to require a degree of formality, even if she did not seem all that interested in going in for that sort of behavior most of the time. It was rather strange for Willow nonetheless.
Having Alenna come to call on her was just plain bizarre. It was one thing to have Alenna and Yuri play their parts, but she was not used to being important enough to warrant any sort of special treatment. She tried to keep things brief since she was terrified of somehow making a social blunder if their conversation went on for too long.
The niceties only extended so far. Then Alenna mentioned the priests. Willow had to ask her what she knew. Her patience was at its end.
“Do you think the priests will be ready to perform the ritual soon?” she asked, trying to sound casual but failing to keep the whining, desperate tone out of her voice.
“I wouldn’t know. They’re holed away in that room of theirs and no one has been in to see them in days.”
“Oh, I was hoping they might have given you an update or something.”
Alenna shook her head. “I have no more access to them than you do. Yuri might be able to compel them to let him in, but priests aren’t exactly accustomed to taking orders from anyone.”
“So I’m not going to know anything unless I ask nicely and they just happen to feel like talking to me?”
“What can I say? They’re here as a favor and they’re not keen on being particularly accommodating. Maybe if Saras was here she’d be able to get in to talk to them.”
“Do you think she’ll be back? I thought the two of you were going to help Yuri deal with Erramun.”
“She’ll be back eventually. Trust me, we’re both invested in keeping Erramun from spreading his influence any further. We won’t be abandoning Yuri and his people.”
“You’ll keep them safe, won’t you?”
Alenna smiled sadly. “I’ll do my best, but it won’t be the same as having you here. I’m sure you’d do a much better job if you stayed.”
“You want me to stay too,” Willow said with a sigh. It seemed as though no one knew or cared how homesick she had felt this whole time. She understood she had a place in this world, but she could not leave so many loose ends back home.
“It doesn’t matter what I want.” Alenna shared what Willow assumed was supposed to be a reassuring smile, but the effect was less than she would have desired.
“I don’t know what is going to happen, you know.”
She was exasperated now. She started pacing around the room trying to alleviate some of her nerves through motion. The future was a giant question mark and the lack of surety haunted her. She had been unsure for quite a while now, but the future that lay before her now somehow felt even less sure than usual.
“I want to come back, but I don’t know what I’ll find when I go home. My family might not understand if I try to leave again. I might have debts that need to be repaid. There’s so much I don’t know right now. I can’t reassure myself let alone anyone else.”
“No one can help you feel assured about your role here or there other than you.”
Willow fell silent. There was not much more to say. Alenna was right and she needed to take responsibility for feeling as though she had a place. She could choose to believe she belonged or not. That meant it all came down to doing what felt right to her and the responsibility weighed heavily on her mind.
The priests named the time and place for the ceremony to take place. Willow had waited for it for so long that having the event so precisely pinned down set off the butterflies in her stomach. Their instructions brought the party to a fallow field outside the city well before sunrise.
As far as Willow knew, the priests had been cooped up in their rooms practically since they arrived in Detreya, but they somehow managed to have an elaborate array of symbols painted on the ground by the time Willow, Asa, and Yuri arrived. Wondering how it happened seemed like a waste of time now. Everything about these priests was intentionally shrouded in mystery. After having so many questions go unanswered she learned to spare herself by trying to avoid wondering.
Their party was perfectly exclusive. Years of sneaking out of the palace helped Yuri perfect the art form of coming and going without attracting attention to himself. Those skills assisted their midnight escape from the palace tonight.
Willow was glad that they were not followed. Saying goodbye would be hard enough without an audience. She could not imagine trying to figure out how to say goodbye with others skulking around and waiting for a chance to ask a million questions that she knew she was ill-equipped to answer. She knew Yuri and Asa well enough to guess what they would ask her and she had spent days agonizing over forming adequate answers for them. Sometimes she thought she might have it right, but she would not know for sure until the words start to tumble from her mouth.
Their goodbyes ended up being a blur in the end. She scarcely remembered what she said or what was said to her. More than any of the words exchanged, she remembered the multitude of tears she blinked back. She managed not to let any of them spill down her cheeks through willpower alone. She knew if she started she would not be able to stop.
The portal to her world was activated. The faint shimmer of intense magic was reminiscent of heat rising from blacktop in the summer. She remembered the look of it from the time she crossed into this world with Yuri.
This time she would have to cross over along. Of course, she understood all along that she would be going home alone, but the reality of crossing the eerily empty space between worlds all alone had not set in until now. She knew others had made the journey on their own just fine, but knowing how disorienting it had been with Yuri there to keep her from completely losing her wits did not do much to bolster her confidence it making the crossing on her own now.
After everyone went through so much effort to make this happen, she knew she could not chicken out now. She took a confident step forward before turning to look back at Yuri and Asa. She smiled at them but did not dare try to say anything more for fear that she would start to cry. Before her nerves had a chance to ruin everything, she spun back around and stepped forward.
The magic swirled around her. The world faded away and before she could take a breath she was in the place between worlds.
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