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Somehow Lady Nyura had come to the conclusion that Ciel was part of her retinue now. Just the thought made her feel a little queasy.
Overall, it was easy enough to continue her original mission while acting in some sort of ill-defined role within the lady’s household. Being given day to day tasks to complete on Lady Nyura’s behalf gave Ciel all too many opportunities to frustrate Nyura’s attempts to see Erramun.
Most of the time distracting Lady Nyura was fairly simple, but each of her moods had their own particular quirks and from time to time her state of mind shifted and she became strong-willed and determined to achieve her goal. During the quieter times, Ciel plotted to deter her during her more stubborn moods in ways that did not make it immediately apparent that she was defying her.
She felt like a fool for hiding and sneaking around while acting as something between a companion and a maidservant for this woman. It should have felt humiliating to be so far removed from her preferred profession, but it was far from the most degrading work she had taken on this year. Once upon a time she had been incredibly successful, worked for some of the most powerful people in the world and had their fear and respect.
Technically, she was still in the employ of people with incredible wealth and power. Saras was not someone to be trifled with under any circumstances, and with her husband’s title to back her up, she was even more formidable. The work she was doing now just did not have the same prestige as her former job.
Granted, she now had several spectacular failures on her record. It certainly tarnished her name in certain circles and she might spend the rest of her life trying to live down the magnitude of those failures. Even knowing that, her current lot in life felt like too far of a fall from her previous perch.
She played the part expected of her to the best of her ability, but she was never much of an actor. She was used to being in the service of the great and powerful, but she never considered herself a servant. The constant blows to her pride, along with the effort to restrain her magic whenever she could not avoid uttering a word—a far too frequent occurrence these days—left her feeling like a ghost of her former self. Her personal will and resolve to continue her assigned mission was harder to find with every order she was given by Lady Nyura.
With her grip on her will and personal identity slipping more by the hour, it was no surprise to Ciel that she was eventually outmaneuvered by Lady Nyura. The fateful event happened during one of Nyura’s more obstinate moods, of course.
All of the diversions Ciel had orchestrated ahead of time failed to work to her advantage. Perhaps she had underestimated Nyura’s relentlessness or perhaps her distractions had just missed the mark. Either way, before she had a hope of trying to orchestrate another distraction, they were on their way to the High Lord’s palace.
Ciel’s heart was racing. She held her tongue, not out of fear of Nyura or even fear of what fate must surely await her if she came face to face with High Lord Erramun again, but fear that she would lose control of her own voice.
Her power had been tamped down for quite a while now. She was almost growing used to using her voice without any power behind it, but she felt her control slipping now. It was understandable, even if she considered her lack of self-control unacceptable. Walking into a palace she knew she was not likely to walk out of again caused a sort of stress she was unaccustomed to processing.
She remained silent, hoping to avoid drawing attention to herself as well as desperately scouring her own memories for anything that might spark a plan for escape. So far the secretive nature of her former life seemed to have worked as a sort of protection for her now. So few people in this palace had regularly seen her when she worked for Erramun it was unlikely anyone would recognize her now.
Of course, their visit was not a quick one. Everyone around them was doing everything they could to accommodate their noble visitor. It was not difficult. Ciel knew they had plenty of experience with dignitaries from all over the world visiting. They probably just were not expecting High Lord Erramun’s former fiancee to appear unannounced.
Ciel had done her best to keep news of Lady Nyura’s presence in the city from reaching the palace and now that they were here, it appeared she had done a passable job. No one was prepared to deal with her.
They were starting to get desperate, it seemed. Everyone tried to accommodate, and probably hoped to distract, Lady Nyura along the way. She was eerily gracious to everyone they met, but she did not alloy their diversions to distract her or even slow her down. As they passed from one room into the next, Ciel found herself impressed with her determination. Everything she knew about the woman both from personal experience, as well as research and rumor, indicated that she was determined but flighty. The single-mindedness she displayed now lacked the flightiness and distractability that were hallmarks of her personality.
There was no doubt in Ciel’s mind that Lady Nyura was infatuated with High Lord Erramun. That much had been apparent for months. Her continued dedication to seeing him again seemed to suggest that her feelings might be deeper than was usually assumed. She might even be in love with him beneath all of the politics of their formerly planned union.
No one who spent more than five minutes with High Lord Erramun would believe there was a chance of him feeling the same way about Lady Nyura. She had been a means to an end and he left her the second she no longer offered him what he had wanted. The lady was too infatuated to see that, though. She did not see how losing her place as Duchess had ruined her chances of ever being with the man she loved.
They passed through another room. This time a high-level minister, Garon’s treasurer, if Ciel’s memory was to be trusted, tried to stop them. He had an authoritative voice that almost certainly allowed him to have his way when speaking to most people. Unfortunately for him, he was not dealing with most people. Lady Nyura was not accustomed to taking orders and was delusional enough to see herself as the most important person in just about any room. Ciel had simply never functioned within the usual power structure within a palace or within society as a whole. While she knew how to obey, she never learned to associate an authoritative tone with obedience. Her orders came in the form of half-whispered cryptic allusions to the desired outcome and coded missives.
So far Lady Nyura had been all politeness and smiles as she breezed by anyone who tried to slow her progress toward her beloved. The Treasurer in his arrogance and perhaps in response to being ignored—a man in his position with a voice like his was not likely to respond well to being disregarded—stepped in Lady Nyura’s path through the room. The pleasant, if determined, look on her face evaporated. Her brow furrowed and her expression darkened.
To his credit, the Treasurer was startled out of his indignation by her sudden shift to wrathfulness. Ciel jumped into action the second his guard was dropped. Her voice was unlikely to be effective against someone of his power and experience when his guard was up, but the second it dropped he was just as vulnerable as a random citizen on the street.
She spoke the words of power in a low voice that still managed to reach every corner of the room. The Treasurer and everyone else who happened to be in the room, low-level courtiers based on their susceptibility to her power, seemed to suddenly forget that there was any reason to be concerned by Lady Nyura’s presence.
Lady Nyura glanced in her direction. Her smile was almost sly. “My, you’re very useful, aren’t you, Ciel?”
There was no need to respond with words. Ciel merely bowed her head briefly and they continued on to the next room.
The next in the seemingly endless series of rooms was empty except for a pair of guards standing at the pair of doors on the far side of the room. Each room so far had someone doing something in it, even if they appeared to just be passing through like Lady Nyura. The quiet, empty room set Ciel on alert. Something about this place made her certain that they were approaching danger.
The palace was far from straightforward in its layout and in her previous time spent here Ciel had tended to stick to the less trafficked hallways and corridors. Her position did not require her to see others or be seen like most courtiers so she kept out of their way. Even so, she knew enough about the ebb and flow of this side of palace life to know that this empty room was highly unusual.
Lady Nyura approached the guarded door. Ciel followed a step behind. She already anticipated some sort of trouble and remained on the fence as to whether she would intervene again. Perhaps they had come far enough and being turned away now would be enough to squash Lady Nyura’s lingering hopes of seeing her former fiance again.
For a moment there was a silent standoff at the door. Apparently, Lady Nyura assumed the guards were here to open the door for her. The guards seemed to be hoping she would take the hint and turn around. Ciel sighed and waited patiently for the inevitable. She knew the guards had no hope of dissuading Lady Nyura by merely blocking her path, but she wanted to see them try.
“Let me pass,” Lady Nyura demanded. Her eyes remained fixed on the door ahead of her. She never gave either guard even a passing glance to acknowledge them.
“High Lord Erramun is in a meeting and will not permit disruptions of any sort,” the guard o the left said haughtily.
The rote explanation and the stiffness of both guards suggested to Ciel that they were new to this assignment. They would be rigid, inflexible and incapable of smoothing over the facts of their assignment to sooth and flatter a lady such as Nyura. As much as she hoped they would be the ones to finally convince her to give up on this quest, they did not appear to be up to the task.
She could see Lady Nyura preparing to argue with them, or possibly attempt to give them orders of her own. She seemed to assume that her brief stint as Duchess of Detreya (or perhaps just the fortunate circumstances of her birth) meant she outranked just about everyone she met. She was also delusional enough to believe everyone knew who she was and knowing her identity was enough to convince anyone and everyone to serve her. Ciel herself had fallen prey to that delusion.
At first, she assumed she would be able to slip out of her new role easily, but the longer she stayed the more entangled she realized she was. There might not be anything there, or Lady Nyura might, in fact, be a lot more devious than anyone cares to give her credit for. If the latter turned out to be the case, she actually hoped she was able to somehow convince High Lord Erramun to marry her after all. It would be better for the whole world if they were busy scheming and plotting against each other in the bonds of matrimony than for the two of them to need to look outward to find someone to catch in their web.
In a snap decision, Ciel decided she did not want to risk causing a scene here in this room. If she was going to get caught she would rather the capture made by someone other than some new, overly serious guards only worthy of being entrusted with the task of guarding an interior door.
There was no need to wait for them to drop their guard before her words did the trick. These young men were too inexperienced to have any sort of mental fortitude against her variety of magic. Her magic was sung softly so it was barely audible. Her words were brief, but they did the trick and the guards no longer blocking their progress. She tossed in a few words to stop them from remembering just because she did not want them to be able to use this as an experience to spur them into learning to counteract her brand of magic.
The next room they entered was much the same as all the others, bright and lavishly decorated with furniture that would only be truly comfortable for those who spent their whole lives believing appearance was everything. Unlike the last room, this room was not unoccupied.
The first person she saw was a middle-aged man, finely dressed but with a face that suggested he had spent far too many nights sleepless for a man his age. Her gaze was not immediately called to the other man so she was frozen in place the instant she looked to his face and realized they were in the presence of High Lord Erramun.
Seeing him again after so long filled her with unease her in place. She at times she doubted whether his threats to kill her for her failure still held true. She had been avoiding bumping into him all this time because she was so unsure as to whether or not he would follow through with his threat. Now that she was here, she realized it would be more than easy enough for him to find a way to kill her in this place. There might have been a time when she could consider this to be her territory, but now it was solidly Erramun’s turf and his alone.
If he cared about her at all, he did not show it on his face. His gaze slid over her and landed on Lady Nyura.
“Excuse me,” the other man said. “This is a private meeting. You’re not supposed to be here.”
They knew that already. It was obvious enough from the fact that they had to slip past some guards to make it into this room. This middle-aged man, although obviously important, was no cause for concern. Even when he tried to call the guards into the room to escort them back out he was in no way an actual threat.
Lady Nyura smirked. “That won’t do any good. Ciel made sure those guards at the door wouldn’t bother us.”
She turned her attention back to High Lord Erramun. “Aren’t you glad I was able to come all this way to meet you again, my dear?”
Ciel knew her former employer was cold-hearted, but the way he let his gaze drift over Lady Nyura and away again without the slightest change in expression to indicate that he recognized her. Instead, his expression shifted to Ciel. The change in his expression was small, but with her gaze fixed on his face, Ciel noticed it immediately. Surprise and shock were conspicuously absent from his expression. Their sudden appearance had not caught him off guard in the least. Whatever he was about to do, he was going to enjoy it.
He snapped his fingers and six guardsmen appeared out of the shadows. They left no magical traces when they appeared seemingly out of nowhere. These were not ordinary guards using parlor tricks to improve their surveillance. These were elite guards, probably hired specifically to defend Erramun against attackers such as Ciel herself.
“Arrest the intruders.”
Erramun spoke the words with a complete lack of emotion. Ciel was certain he was enjoying himself nonetheless.
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