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Willow barely remembered the rest of their escape from the palace. Everything was a blur of adrenaline from the time they climbed out the window until now. She was out of breath and from the looks of this side street, they were nowhere near the palace now.
They said scarcely a word to each other once they started moving. She had no idea how they had managed it, but the three of them managed to stay together so they had not lost one of their number since Barkly decided to split off and make it out his own way. Willow was not particularly fond of the sneaky little man, but she did hope that he managed to make it out somehow.
As she managed to get her breathing under control, and she started wondering what they needed to do next. She was in a state of panic in a city entirely unfamiliar to her. It was beyond her abilities to formulate a plan in such a state.
She looked from Ciel to Nyura and back to Ciel again. These were the only people she could depend on in this whole city. Barkly was the only other person she knew and from their short acquaintance, she knew better than to depend on him. Neither Ciel nor Nyura was a much better prospect, but they had the advantage of being here.
“What do we do now?” she asked, her voice sounding weak and shaky to her own ears.
“We should head back to Detreya,” Ciel replied with some authority.
“I’m not going back.” Nyura sniffed haughtily. “Erramun and I haven’t discussed setting a new wedding date yet.”
Nyura could not stay behind. Willow might not know much, but she knew that much at least. They needed to stick together. If Nyura went back, it would just be that much easier for their pursuers to track down Willow and Ciel. She glanced over at Ciel, trying to convey her desperation and helplessness in a single look.
Ciel’s sharp glare seemed like it might be Willow’s saving grace. As soon as she started speaking, Willow knew she had some experience dealing with Nyura already. The logic of her argument was not very, well, logical, but it seemed to do the trick for Nyura. In no time at all she had woven a tapestry of pseudo-logic convincing Nyura that she was needed back in Detreya to prepare for the new wedding. Eventually, that lie would cause its own set of problems, but at least they would be far, far away from this place by the time that happened.
“We’re going to need supplies for the journey,” Ciel said as she pulled a coin purse from a hidden pocket in her tunic. “How much money do you have?”
Willow felt the spark of magic in her question and knew it was intended to make her answer honestly. Much to her relief, the magic failed as her own power met and disabled it. The spell was unnecessary in any case. Their survival depended on them being prepared to brave a notoriously harsh desert. Unfortunately, she had nothing that would be considered money in this world on her. Nonetheless, she reached into her pockets and produced the few coins she had left to her name.
She smiled sheepishly as Ciel’s raised eyebrow. It might not be much and it did nothing to improve their situation, but at least she was trying.
“Useless,” Ciel spat out.
Just at that moment, a spark of inspiration struck in her mind. The coins might not be so useless after all, but before she could say anything Nyura piped up.
“I have plenty of money back in my room. It’s more than enough for a return journey.”
“Good,” Ciel said with an approving not toward Nyura before fixing her gaze on Willow. “You’ll have to go get Lady Nyura’s things. They’ll be looking for us, but no one will know you.”
She gave Willow precise direction to the hotel, even instructing her on what to say at the reception desk to be allowed into the room. Willow did her utmost to commit the directions to memory but felt certain she would forget something and lose her way.
“We’ll meet back here at dusk, in the meantime, Lady Nyura and I will do our best to procure the bare necessities with my funds.”
Willow nodded in agreement and started to turn to leave when she remembered Barkly Jokin’s side business of selling items pilfered from her world. She thrust the coins that had been deemed useless toward Ciel.
“Take these and see if anyone is willing to buy them off of you. Apparently, people in this city have a bit of a thing for stuff from my world. You might get lucky.”
Ciel looked skeptical but accepted the coins. Willow breathed a sigh of relief and finally turned to go.
She kept her eyes forward as much as possible and concentrated on keeping the directions clear and orderly in her mind. The city had plenty to offer in terms of distractions, but she could not afford to indulge or to allow herself to look like too much of a tourist. Barkly had given her an idea of what the merchants in this city were like and she knew showing even a hint of weakness would make her a target for all sorts of trouble if the wrong pair of eyes caught sight of her.
Whether the people of this city were simply inclined to ignore a foreigner or she somehow managed to absorb a bit of Ciel’s innate power. She passed through the streets confidently and unharassed. The miraculous aura of confidence continued to serve her well at the hotel and she made it in and out without so much as a questioning look.
As she made her way back to their meeting place, her veneer of confidence became something more real. She could see herself making it back with time to spare. She had been this way before so things were at least vaguely familiar. Not to mention, her memory of Ciel’s directions remained pristinely detailed in her mind. Either she was in a particularly potent state of focus or a bit of the songstress’s magic had gotten into her along with her words.
The confidence caused her to be a bit more reckless than she might have otherwise been. She was more concerned with getting back to their meeting place early than anything else and she did not consider any of the normal precautions she often took to be necessary. Normally she would have taken more care to hide the fact that she had a sum of money on her person.
Today she did not bother with such precautions. Everyone seemed to take no notice of her so she did not consider her inattention to be particularly risky. At least, she did not think it was risky until she felt an uneasy chill run up her spine. It was not an entirely unfamiliar sensation. Someone was following her.
Her heart leapt to her throat. She started searching for a way to slip away without getting herself utterly lost. The only part of the city she could navigate at all was the route she had committed to memory. Going even a block or two out of the way put her at risk of getting lost.
She resisted the urge to look back over her shoulder. She did not need to see a person following her to make it real. Her pace picked up a notch or two. The feeling that she was being followed persisted and she accepted that she would need to take more drastic action to lose her pursuer.
At the next small side street, she made a quick, sharp turn off her route and broke out into a run to find another cross street to duck down before the person following her could see which way she had gone. The problem with taking off running down an unfamiliar side street was that she had no idea what she was getting herself into.
The street was a lot narrower than she expected, and to make matters worse, crates and other debris littered the unevenly paved alley. Her top speed was slowed to barely more than her normal walking pace as she tried to balance speed with a desire not to stumble and fall.
She knew she was still being followed. Her heart was racing as though she was still sprinting. She cursed herself for letting fear and desperation drive her in this direction. Her attempt to evade trouble had only brought her into greater danger. If she was still on the main avenue, she at least stood a chance of having a kindhearted individual intervene on her behalf. Back here in isolation, she knew better than to hope for anything of the sort.
A loose board on the middle of the alley nearly tripped her as her foot hit it and sent it skittering down the path ahead of her. She managed to only stumble and not fall down, but the brief moment of shock and fear gave way to anger. Instead of pushing forward, she whirled around to face her stalker.
He could not have been more than fifteen feet behind her, but even as she looked him in the eye, her panicking mind would not allow her to register his appearance. Even so, she stood her ground and stared him down. She was tired of running.
“Your money or your life, girl,” the man said in a gravelly, growling voice.
“It’s not mine,” she protested before she could stop herself. Engaging with a mugger did not seem like a good idea. Then again, turning to face one was not particularly safe either.
“All the more easy to give it up then,” the man reasoned.
In an instant, the man drew closer to her. She frowned. This was not magic, she was panicking and that was causing her not to think clearly.
She stepped back. She just stopped running. Starting again with him so much closer now would be a wasted effort. Instead, she glared at him.
“Leave me alone. I’m warning you.”
With her mind racing as it was, she could not say for sure what the man did or said, but she knew he did not take her warning seriously. Fleeing was already eliminated as an option. The prospect of fighting was not particularly appealing to her. She was not a trained fighter and she was not very strong so she did not like her chances. Knowing she had no good options available to her, she froze.
Her eyes were fixed on the man as he approached her. He smirked, probably thinking how she had made herself an even easier target. There was no one to intervene on her behalf. He would be certain to get away with his crime.
Willow’s fist clenched at her side. As much as her panic dominated her mental processes, she started to become more aware of anger rising up within her as well. She needed this money or she would be stranded in a city on the opposite side of a war from everyone she cared about. Just because she looked like she did not belong, it did not give this man the right to try to take advantage of her.
Before she lost her newfound nerve, she stepped forward. The man hesitated mid-step. Willow felt a bit more confidence seep into her spirit and she continued forward.
Her movement did not leave the man befuddled for long. He reached out to grab her.
She reached out as though she thought she could push him away. A loud, screeching no escaped her throat and her power surged forward and pushed the man through the debris and against the wall.
His eyes widened in shock and Willow felt her mouth fall open in surprise at her own reaction. After just a beat of frozen shock, her muscles unlocked and she took off running back to the main street. She did not return to a normal pace until she reached the street where she was supposed to meet up with Ciel and Nyura again.
As glad as she was to still have the money, she was surer than ever that they could not stay in this city any longer.
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