Once she was alone with her grandmother the words just started spilling out. She told her grandmother everything, or at least everything that she could in a highly condensed form. Willow talked way more than she meant to, but she knew that it was necessary.
Her whole family was waiting to hear what happened to her so telling her grandmother as much as possible would help everyone hear the story without overwhelming her. She had more than a few questions of her own she needed to ask so telling her story seemed like a fair price to pay.
The story stretched on and on. Willow started to wonder when someone would pop in to check on them. As far as she could tell everyone else stayed in the kitchen the entire time they were talking.
She tried to be patient and thorough. Context needed to be provided and questions needed to be answered before she could switch gears and get her own questions answered.
Finally, she realized she was running out of story to tell. With her grandmother caught up and armed with as much context as Willow felt capable of providing, she felt ready to start asking some questions.
“Grandma,” she began with more trepidation than she anticipated. “What should I do now?”
“That depends on what you’d like to do.”
“I really don’t know. All I could think about was coming home while I was there. Now that I’m here I’m lost. That’s not to say I’m not happy to be here. I missed all of you, but I don’t know what my purpose is now that I’m home.”
Her grandmother sat quietly for a moment. Willow found herself holding her breath waiting for an answer to her long-winded series of statements that were not actually questions, although she was still hoping for an answer.
“You shouldn’t stay here,” her grandmother said with absolute confidence and authority.
Willow opened her mouth, but no words came out. Doubt flooded her mind. Did she make a mistake coming back here after all?
“Stay with Aspen,” her grandmother said with a raised hand to stop Willow from winding up into another ramble about nothing at all.
“W-what?” she managed to stammer out.
“You won’t be happy here with your parents and Aspen could use the help.”
Willow knew she was right. Her parents meant well, but they had a tendency to smother her. She was their only child and they seemed to fight the empty nest syndrome with every fiber of their being, and the only way to keep their nest from being empty was to keep her home and stop her from acting like a full-fledged adult.
It was the reason she had pushed herself to move out when it was still a struggle for her to make ends meet. Getting out on her own had done wonders for her relationship with her parents. Moving back in now when there was so much to repair in their relationship would be a major obstacle. Seeing them often but not at every turn would do them all a lot of good.
Living with Aspen might prove to be challenging in its own ways. They got along great while Willow was growing up. She idolized her cool, young aunt. Then she grew up and she started to doubt the way things were done and everything she had been taught about the family business. She still adored her aunt, but her faith in everything her family said was true caused friction between them.
Now she was back to questioning everything, even her own preconceptions of what her family got wrong. Either they would hurt their relationship by butting heads or they would strengthen their friendship by going to uncover the buried truth together.
Willow took a deep breath. There was a lot at risk here, but she knew what she had to do.
“You’re right. I’ll be better off staying with Aunt Aspen than here with Mom and Dad.”
Her grandmother smiled and patted her arm.
Another deep breath was necessary before she could continue. She held it a little bit too long and felt a bit lightheaded. She exhaled suddenly and gasped in another breath for fresh air.
“Will you help me tell everyone else what happened?”
“Of course, dear.”
She might not have gotten many answers at this point, but she was feeling better already. Now that she had her grandmother on her side, she felt sure that she would get more answers with time. The hardest part was over. Everything from this point forward was just small bumps in the road rather than huge mountains to overcome.
Moving in with Aspen would be hard. Telling her parents she would not be staying with them would be utterly overwhelming without having her grandmother on her side. It was her idea, after all. She steeled her nerves and prepared for another marathon ordeal in the midst of a really long day.
Chasing Lady Nyura across the desert was one of the stupidest, most miserable tasks Ciel had ever been assigned. She hated the desert, but she hated that she was running right into Erramun’s clutches even more. She worked hard and risked her life to ensure that she would be safe from his revenge. Now she was running right back into his clutches. The proximity was only part of the problem. Her mission of stopping Lady Nyura would make it impossible for her to fly under the radar. There was nothing low profile when it came to Lady Nyura.
She wished stealth was less of a necessity. Then she might have been able to make the journey in one of High Lord Alenna’s airships. Certainly, if stealth was not a requirement, better arrangements would have been made. She was better equipped than she had been on her last trek into the desert and she was certainly in better physical condition this time.
Her journey should have been made easier by these preparations, but she still struggled. Her time with Saras had made her soft. She had grown used to having hours of time every day spent in a chair. She was used to sleeping in a bed and having tasty food prepared and brought to her. Going from months of such luxury to the hardship of roughing it in the desert was a wake-up call. She thought she had kept herself fit and trim while being treated as some sort of lady’s companion, but by her second day crossing the desert she was feeling just how far off her estimations had been.
Fortunately, Saras had spared no expense in furnishing her with supplies for her journey so the difficulties she experienced were not exacerbated by inadequate access to food, water, and appropriate attire. Her body protested what she was trying to do, but day by day she felt herself returning to her former self. She softness she acquired while reading books and drinking tea among ladies that for some reason took pleasure in her company was eroded by the beating sun and arid wind while she walked. By the time she started to spot signs that she was approaching the end of the desert and the start of Erramun’s domain, she felt as though she was cleansed of the weakness that had been inflicted upon her since she fled to Vaisha.
She still had no sign of Lady Nyura, but everyone was certain she would have run to no one other than Erramun. The closer Ciel got without catching up to the lady, the more likely it became that she had actually reached her destination. Getting Lady Nyura back once she was secured under Erramun’s rough would be significantly more difficult, but admittedly not impossible.
Now that the desert had helped Ciel hone her skills and body back into a sharp-edged instrument, she felt a lot less apprehension about her mission. It was true that Erramun was quite familiar with her style, but he had never experienced going toe to toe with her for real. Over the years he had tested her and always shown himself to be far more resistant to her abilities than the average person, but caught off guard her would fall just as easily as any of her other numerous victims—many of which she had killed on his behalf.
Her transformation back to her former self was nearly complete when the terrain started to show signs of a cooler, wetter climate. The grass and sparse shrubbery were still quite dull and hardly green at all, but it was still a sign that the desert was coming to an end. Her mind had hardened during her journey and she felt ready to use her skills ruthlessly and with all of her former precision once again.
One facet of her old self had not returned. The confidence and certainty she once possessed did not appear to be returning. She wished she felt differently, but she knew it was unlikely to change at this time. It was not that she doubted herself, but that she knew who she was up against this time. She could not be confident when it was likely that she would end up face to face with Erramun.
She could not forget for a moment that he told her he would kill her if she failed him, and she not only failed him but abandoned his patronage to seek protection under one of his rivals. While trying to get Lady Nyura to be reasonable and return to Detreya, she would be trying to remain beneath Erramun’s notice.
The trail was still cold. There was not much of a chance to confirm if she was on the right track while in the middle of the desert. Now that she had made it to the other side, she had more of an opportunity to check the signs and get a feel for things. Outside of the desert, there would be actual roads to follow instead of the markers for the small caravans that usually crossed the desert in starts and stops.
Those caravans had stopped now. The threat of war put an end to them before anyone else had much of a chance to even adjust to the idea. The traders and merchants dared not risk losing money when war was declared. It meant Ciel’s journey across the desert was even more lonely than usual.
Now there was a better chance of seeing someone again. She dreaded seeing someone as much as ever, but now she also desired it. There was no other way for her to get clues regarding where she might find Lady Nyura.
As soon as the desert seemed to be well and truly behind her, civilization seemed to pop up around her by magic. Ciel glanced around and took it all in. Most of what she noticed was barely worth her notice.
Then she spotted an inn in the distance. She had a finely tuned sixth sense when it came to inns. She could always tell when one was about to appear on the horizon and her eyes were ready and eager to see a comfortable place to pause her journey after many days of resting where and when she could and accumulating dust and sand that she would not fully do away with without a proper bath. An inn offered her that opportunity as well as prepared food that was a most welcome change after the travel-ready fare that had sustained her during her journey thus far. If the inn still managed to drum up a steady business under the threat of war, she might manage to overhear something useful.
At the moment, nothing seemed to matter as much as securing that bath.