Getting to meet with some priests on the day she made it back to Detreya was a stroke of luck Willow never could have hoped for. Since she crossed over again, she found herself thinking of more and more questions that could only be answered by the priests of this world. Admittedly, she had been on a quest for answers while she was at home, but crossing over again had added another layer of urgency to her desire.
She did not know much, but she had a growing sense that something about what she knew was horribly wrong. It simply did not add up and the only way she would figure out what part of her understanding was flawed was to get the truth from the priests. They had to know. They were the ones capable of opening a portal where there was none. Everyone else had to wait for one to appear. They knew more than anyone else. She had to believe it to be true. If others knew what the priests knew they would be just as capable of opening portals. They kept that knowledge secreted away from the public and there had to be a reason for it.
They would not want to give up the truth to her. She braced herself for a fight but also knew she had to do her best to get to the bottom of it with as much grace and tact as possible.
Upon reaching the room where the meeting would take place, her heart was racing. After all of the walking, she did to make it back to Detreya, she should not be so greatly affected by a brisk walk down a few hallways. The racing heart might indicate that she was winded by exertion, but her clammy, sweaty hands told a different story. Her heart raced out of fear.
The priests she had met so far made the idea of fearing them laughable. They were old, scholarly men and hardly a threat. She was certain they would not harm her. She was less than certain they would not laugh at her or mock her questions. They might refuse to answer her questions altogether.
She was a bit early for the meeting and found herself pacing the length of the room which she had the use of it. It did not do much to improve her state of mind, but it at least kept her legs busy while her mind turned over her pressing concerns. She needed to figure out what she would do if they refused her. Persistence might very well be the key to her success, but she needed to approach from a different angle if her first one failed.
Before she could solidify her alternative strategies, the priests arrived. They were precisely on time, which she would normally appreciate, but just now she was longing for five more minutes to think things over before they appeared.
Willow put a smile on her face and did her best to greet the priests with the appropriate amount of propriety for men of their rank and situation. From the looks on their faces, she was not the person they were expecting to see when they walked into the meeting.
One of the priests stood a step ahead of the others. He was obviously the leader. Not only did his position in relation to the others indicate this, but his bald head, wrinkles, and grey beard easily placed him at twenty years older than any of the other priests in the room.
She did her best to appear to have as much authority as she could muster. It had been a long time since she last wanted to make herself appear grander or more important than she knew herself to be, but this seemed to be an occasion to act in a way out of the ordinary.
They could not stand still staring at each other all afternoon. Someone had to make the first move, and as seconds ticked by, it became clear that she would have to be the one to make the first move.
“Hello, I’m Willow. Yuri sent me to speak with you in his place.”
Even as she spoke, she knew she was saying it all the wrong way. A shadow of dissatisfaction passed over the eldest priest’s face, but he said nothing on the matter.
She cleared her throat and continued on. Her mode of speech might not fit expectations, but she had no choice but to keep pressing forward until she gained their trust.
“I’m sure you realize as Duke Yuri is incredibly busy these days. He’s entrusted me to meet with you since I’m eager to learn more about the work you do. I assure you I’ll pass on any information that Yuri needs to know, but he has also authorized me to make decisions on his behalf. I’m sure if we work together, we’ll all benefit.”
The old priest stared her down with surprisingly bright eyes. She held his gaze, sensing that this was not the time to stand down. It felt wrong challenge a figure of moral authority in such a way, but the situation was unlike any she had been in before. The priests might be representatives of their order, but she was here to represent the government of Detreya. It was more authority than she had ever had before.
She hated it, but part of her loved it too.
Knowing that she had power in this situation, made her calmer than she would be otherwise. Without the armor of authority, she would be twitching with nervous energy right now.
“Very well,” the eldest priest relented finally. “I’m Brother Eren, emissary for the High Temple of Detreya.”
Willow smiled. She gestured for the priests to take a seat at the conference table and took a seat at one end by herself.
“Now, let’s start with what you need. I’m assuming it has something to do with the war.”
From her new vantage point she could see the younger, junior priests looked uneasy. Either they were about to ask large favor, brought terrible news, or she had managed to completely miss the mark with her guess. She watched them and waited for one of them to speak. Now that they were here and their business was underway, she felt certain there was no need for her to rush in with her own questions. They would be here for a while and she would earn their trust by doing whatever she could to get their message to Yuri. Then they would be more likely to help her by answering her questions for them.
“It’s not related to the war, Miss. At least, not directly,” Brother Eren explained.
She nodded. Speaking now would only delay the message these priests came to convey.
“You’re familiar with the lining that separates this world from its neighbor, correct?”
She perked up. This was more than she could have hoped for from this meeting. They were here to talk about the very thing she wished to discuss.
“I wouldn’t say I know how it works, but I’m more than passingly familiar with it.”
“In that case I’ll get right to the point, the stability of the lining has been eroding away as of late. If we don’t act soon, the consequences will be dire.”
Willow did not like the sound of that. Hearing that the lining between worlds was eroding away was bad enough. Hearing the priest call the consequences dire sent a chill down her spine. Something was not right here and she needed a better view of the big picture before she could understand what was going on. There were a number of questions she needed to ask, but she needed to pick the first one carefully.
“Do you know why the lining is eroding?” she asked, measuring her words carefully.
“Use,” the old priest said the one word as though it was a full explanation in itself.
The word fell on her like an accusation. All at once she was reminded that she had asked for these priests to help her find a way home and had been quickly and resoundingly denied their assistance. After their refusal, they found other priests from further abroad to help and she had left for home. Of course, they would be aware of this and her return indicated she had passed between worlds twice since she had been denied their assistance. If they disapproved of opening one doorway, they would consider two to be doubly evil.
“I’m sorry. I know the priests of this city cautioned against the opening of doorways between worlds, but no one has ever explained to me why it was such a risk.”
Understanding their concerns and the cause for calling this meeting fortunately overlapped with the sort of questions she had wished to ask the priests in the first place. She did not know what to make of this. It had to be more than a coincidence. Nothing would ever be this easy without some sort of catch. If her questions were connected to the priest’s concerns, they might be in more trouble than she had previously thought.
“The nature of the veil is not something that can be succinctly summed up. We need action, not further discussion.”
She leveled them with a hard stare. “And what advice would you have me pass on to the duke if you won’t explain to me why this is a matter of concern for the state?”
Her demands seemed reasonable enough to her, but the priests were affronted by her question. Part of her wanted to appease and backpedal. It was the way she had been socialized her whole life. When it came to authority figures, she was taught that her primary goal was to keep the peace. Today the only thing she managed to do was rock the boat. She found it liberating. The priests appeared to hate it. She kept her back straight and her gaze level. A feeling of certainty came over her. She would get an explanation as long as she was willing to wait long enough.
The youngest priest lost his patience first. “Can’t you just pass on the information to the duke? We don’t have time to educate a stranger on matters that require years of study.”
“I’m a quick learner. Maybe I could offer up some information from my world. Surely your scholars are interested in that sort of thing.”
Brother Eren held his hand up to silence his young companion before he could respond to Willow. “We shall consider your generous offer. For now, please relay the information to the duke so we can act before the situation gets any more out of hand.”
Willow frowned and stood up. “I can’t say I disagree with the idea of taking this matter seriously, but you can’t expect me to be able to get much of a reaction from Yuri while his attention is so caught up in the war with the scant information you’ve already given me.”
The old priest did not seem intimidated by her in the least. He remained seated and merely looked up to meet her eyes. He reached inside his voluminous sleeve and pulled out a scroll.
He held the scroll out toward Willow. She leaned forward and accepted the scroll with a surprised look.
“That information was meant for the duke. As his representative, I’m sure he would have no objection to you reviewing the information.”
He did not say it, but she heard the unspoken implication that she lacked the education to be able to understand the contents. She would not let something like that deter her. She broke the seal on the scroll and began to read.
Many of the words were incomprehensible to her. She read them anyway, hoping to eke out some sort of understanding and refusing to admit to the priests just how limited her understanding really was. Even without understanding everything, she knew the news was terrible. Her ego still called for her to push to get the information she wanted and show these priests that she should be taken seriously, but seeing the words written down added to their weight and urgency.
She rolled the scroll back up and looked at the priests. They were still watching her.
“I’ll get this to Yuri immediately, but is there anything you would like to add? I mean, you came all this way to meet with him when you already had this all written up.”
“There’s no need to discuss a course of action. We merely need permission from the duke to act. The only options are to act or idly wait for our doom.”
Willow thought the priest might be a bit overly dramatic, but she held her tongue. Their task here was undeniably an important one, even if she wondered why they needed to come all this way for a meeting to pass on a seemingly straightforward message. Perhaps she was just bitter that they were unwilling to do anything to help her learn.
She fumbled her way through taking her leave of the priests and left the room. As soon as she was in the hall she felt as though she could breathe again.
Nothing went as she had hoped in the meeting. The priests seemed as unwilling to teach her about the path between the worlds as ever and she even failed to take decisive action on Yuri’s behalf. She tried to think of a way to spin the meeting so she could at least fool herself into thinking that this meeting had not been a complete failure.