They would not have made it anywhere if it was not for Ciel. Willow knew that much for certain. At this point, even Ciel’s skills were being pushed to the limit. The closer they got to Detreya, the more on edge the other people on the road became. Soldiers outnumbered merchants.
If they were lucky, their travels for a day might leave them near a group of camp followers where they could enjoy safety in numbers. The concept of safety in numbers felt more visceral than ever before. During the day the soldiers and other men were too busy to pay them any attention, but at night they somehow always found excess energy to cause mischief. Willow found it unsettling to be constantly in the company of a trained killer and feel more uneasy about the others around her.
Nyura refused to warm up to her. Willow went out of her way to be pleasant, but it was useless. She understood the grudge to a degree, but she had no idea what she could do to improve their relationship.
Surprisingly, both Nyura and herself had no problems getting along with Ciel. Although she was taciturn and often snappish when she did bother to speak, she was still better company for Willow than Nyura. If the assassin was a bit more communicative, she might have found a way to build a sense of camaraderie within their little group.
As things stood, Willow found it easier to make friends among the camp followers on evenings they stopped near a group. Ciel grumbled every time she socialized with the women following the soldiers, but the grumbling stopped as soon as the quality and variety of food they had to eat started to improve thanks to trades made with the women.
Having a chance to talk to normal people as well as get some variety in their diet almost made it possible for her to forget that these women were following soldiers in an army intent upon taking Detreya away from Yuri. Almost. Even when she tried to forget, the fact never entirely escaped her mind.
Being caught up in a war was terrifying to the point that it almost did not seem real. She never forgot the looming threat entirely. However, unless she thought about it carefully, the danger seemed oddly far away.
So far their travels kept them on the northern caravan trail and the war seemed to be pointedly avoiding the old route. It seemed unlikely that the way would be safe forever, but in these early days, everyone seemed to believe there were still some lines that should not be crossed. Willow doubted that could last forever and every day they were on the road was another day for things to escalate further. Eventually, no one would care about the old trade routes and no one would find the least bit of safety in this desert. All she could do was hope that they would be long gone and safely in Detreya before that happened.
One day they were fortunate enough to stop walking near a small oasis where a small brigade of camp followers had also stopped. Willow approached some of the women with a bit of the overabundance of tea Nyura had insisted on buying for their journey. She hoped she might be able to entice someone to trade the luxury item for some salt. They were out and their meals were surprisingly bland without it. Willow never appreciated salt under ordinary circumstances, but going entirely without for day was enough to change her opinion.
She had just wrapped up the trade when a panicked whisper passed like a wave through the congregated women. Willow looked in the direction the whispers had originated and nearly dropped her newly attained supply of salt. Asa was striding confidently into the camp as though there was no doubt about whether he belonged here at all.
“Asa!” she called out as she stood up as tall as she could and waved to him.
“Willow?” He rushed over to her side looking more relieved than she had seen anyone appear in a long time.
“What are you doing here?” She was breathless, although he was the one who had been running.
There was a brief second of hesitation before he wrapped his arms around her in a tight embrace. It only served to remind her how long it had been since she last saw Asa or Yuri. She swallowed hard to suppress the urge to cry. This was not the right time for it. The women around them were all eyeing Asa warily. They could tell from just a glance that he did not belong here and she was not entirely sure the fact that he was a man was the only reason. If they suspected he was on the opposing side, she did not want to imagine what they might do.
He released her from his embrace and took a step back. “I was looking for you.”
Her jaw dropped. “How did you know I was here?”
He grinned. His eyes lit up with genuine happiness as he took her hand in his. “Word got back to use through intelligence channels.”
Willow closed her mouth, but could not entirely hide her wide-eyed surprise. She assumed she would make it back to Detreya without any of her friends knowing of her return. It was not as though she was set on it being a surprise, but she had entertained herself during the dull hours of travel with imagining Yuri and Asa being surprised by her sudden and triumphant return. Now she knew her movements were being broadcast all the way across the desert. Having Asa here now was certainly a relief, but she did not find the idea of her whereabouts being so easily determined to be terribly comforting. If Asa could find her, Erramun might just as easily keep track of Nyura and Ciel. She felt a swirling confusion of happiness and concern before even a moment had passed.
“Let’s go back to the others,” she suggested as soon as the shock subsided enough to allow her to speak once more.
“Ah. Then you are still traveling with Ciel and Nyura.”
His observation was good-natured enough, but it still made her grimace. Part of it came down to a feeling of sisterhood she had developed with Ciel and Nyura. It was not that she actually liked either of them, but they were hers and she almost felt sharing them with Asa would take away some of the satisfaction she got from being constantly exasperated by them.
“Yeah,” she said brusquely. She tightened her grip on his hand and led him on a winding route through the camp back to Nyura and Ciel. There was no sense in staying away any longer. She had procured the salt they desired and she wanted to avoid anyone getting too much of a clue as to Asa’s identity and affiliation. If he was found out it would mean trouble for all of them.
Her mind started to meander through the events that were nearly certain to transpire in the near future. They would need to eat, of course. With the salt, their meal would hopefully not be too bland. Asa would join them. From there, her predictions became murkier. Their meal might go pleasantly or it could be a disaster. They might all leave together or their group might end up fractured and it all depended on how everyone reacted to one another.
The last thing Willow wanted was to lose anyone. Asa was important to her, that was certain without a doubt. Somehow, she found herself attached to Nyura and Ciel as well. The thought of continuing the journey without any of them felt wrong.
In the meantime, she had a lot of questions for Asa and no safe place to ask them. She kept glancing over at him as the questions she wanted to ask passed through his mind, but she somehow kept her will strong enough to hold her tongue.
“Are you hungry?” she asked in a desperate bid to initiate a casual conversation on a topic that would not be likely to draw any attention from the women they passed by.
“Famished,” he said with a grin.
“Good. Food shouldn’t take too long and now that we have salt so it won’t be totally bland.” She shook the small box of salt she had recently acquired with more than a little pride.
He smiled but said nothing more. They continued to walk in silence, but she found the quiet to be more comfortable this time around. Her shoulders relaxed and Asa felt less tense next to her. She thought that they were less conspicuous when they were walking a bit more companionably.
Ciel’s expression when Willow returned with the salt she had set out to obtain as well as Asa was better than any words she would have refused to speak. In the span of a second Willow registered surprised, confusion and finally anger before she reigned in her emotions and restored her impassive mask. She knew the assassin was not pleased and could not deny that she found her displeasure entertaining.
Nyura, on the other hand, could not contain her excitement. She made a beeline for Asa and began to fill him in on everything that had happened to her since they last met. Willow was not sure how she felt about that. Nyura was always so cold toward her so she expected the animosity to extend to everyone who had a claim to Yuri’s heart. Realizing Nyura was capable of being civil toward Asa made her wonder what she had done in particular to cause problems.
She turned away as speculating about such things would only put her in a bad mood. There was plenty of work to be done and it would give her something to keep her mind off worrying. The start of a meal was in the pot over the fire. She moved over to add in a bit of salt and give the food a stir.
A moment later Ciel moved over to join her at the fire. They exchanged a look that assured Willow she was not the only one who thought that Nyura’s sudden attachment to Asa was yet another annoyance to add to a long list. Their ability to communicate wordlessly had improved immensely over the course of their journey and now Willow thought she was reasonably fluent in the wordless communication preferred by Ciel.
Her own ability to communicate without words was not quite as robust. She wanted it to be made clear that she had no intention of leaving anyone behind. It seemed like it might be a bit more complicated than she originally thought. The three of them had been an odd group from the start, but now that they were four, it seemed that they were an even odder group. The shift made her uneasy.
Moving forward as a group might be more complicated with Asa in the mix. When it was just the three of them, they could easily travel along and associate with the women in the camps. Asa would not be as easily welcomed. Men did not belong following behind an army. Not to mention, if anyone ever found out just who Asa was and where his loyalties lied, there would be hell to pay.
Of course, they would be able to make the journey without a problem under more ordinary circumstances. Unfortunately, these were far from ordinary circumstances. More people than ever were out in the desert these days and they were of a different sort than the merchants that only cared about getting their wares to market. As long as the merchants were sure they would not be robbed they did not care where a person came from. Now everyone wanted to know which side of the war everyone else was on and a wrong answer could be disastrous.
As they finished up preparing their meal, Willow and Ciel exchanged a series of looks that settled matters for the entire group without a word. They would move on without delay and hope to avoid most of the crowds. Willow hoped they could make good time on their way back to Detreya. She worried about lingering too much longer in the desert.