Inbetween: Chapter Ninety Nine

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Announcing their engagement had done the trick. People had what they wanted. Now they had something else to think about instead of the war. Willow did her best not to begrudge them their distraction. It only really became a problem when someone decided that they could seek her out and begin to ask her questions. Some people stuck to the topic of the engagement itself, other people tried to ingratiate themselves in hopes of getting invited to the wedding, and some even tried to tell her what they would do for the wedding her shoes.

She was never one to enjoy excessive attention and being the focus of so many strangers was draining. When the opportunity to escape the excessive attention presented itself, she jumped at it. The fact that it was also a chance to do some of the research she had been itching to do for months only made her more eager to get out of the palace.

As soon as the invitation was extended, she made arrangements to visit the temple and make a real effort to learn more of the truth. Yuri and Asa were both busy with their duties within the palace so Willow was on her own heading into the city. At least, she thought she was on her own for a few moments.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Lady Saras appeared with Ciel in tow.

Since Willow knew she was going to be living in this world—even if she eventually found a way home again she had committed to her relationship with Yuri and Asa—she decided it would probably be to everyone’s benefit if she was as diplomatic as possible. It might not be her job, but she knew it would help Yuri. She did not have many connections in this world as it was, so she felt as though she should try to make friends whenever the opportunity presented itself. Ciel was probably a lost cause. There was history there and it was unpleasant at best. She just hoped Lady Saras was not already biased against her.

“You’re not planning on going into the city alone, are you?” Lady Saras asked.

Willow prickled at the question. She had a variation of this discussion already with Asa and she just barely got to have her way. If Asa or even Yuri got to have the final word, she would have multiple bodyguards escorting her into the city. Their caution was not entirely unwarranted, but she knew everyone already had enough work to do and she was sure she could take care of herself. The fact was she looked ordinary enough not to attract too much interest and if that did not serve as an adequate deterrent, she was more than capable of using her magic in self-defense.

“That was the plan,” she admitted. “I take it you disapprove?”

“Of course I disapprove. No one should travel without companionship if they can help it.”

“Is that an offer to join me?”

“Of course. Ciel and I could use an opportunity to stretch our legs.”

“Very well.”

There was no point in arguing with her. Much like her relative Alenna, Saras liked to scheme to get her way. Willow had long since learned that Alenna’s scheming was harmless, but she did not know enough about Saras to make the same determination.

The trio continued walking in silence for a moment or two. It was just long enough for Willow to start to hope this trip into the city would be like the days on their journey across the desert when Nyura was placated enough to remain relatively silent. Ciel could always be depended upon for silent companionship. It seemed Saras could not be relied on for more of the same.

“I think you and I have an opportunity to become friends,” she announced just before the silence had an opportunity to become truly comfortable. “We have a lot in common now.”

“Do we?”

The streets were not as crowded as they had once been. Much of the commerce in the city had been diverted to the war effort and the marketplace had shrunken considerably since the last time Willow traveled this way. She was not sure this was a good change overall, but it was easier to talk without being bumped and jostled by a crowd.

“You’ve agreed to marry a ruler. I did the same some years ago. I believe you were chosen for special skills rather than merely for reproduction. It’s not easy knowing you have another purpose when most people will assume the most straightforward answer.”

Willow continued walking in silence. She was not sure if Saras said what she did in an attempt to get a rise out of her or if she was really trying to reach out to her to offer guidance or solidarity in this transition to a new phase in her life. What little she knew of Saras did not give her much context to make a judgment. The safest course of action was to remain silent.

Saras continued without prompting. “The main difference between our situations is the makeup of our triads. I was lucky enough to have Gorane with me and she is more than happy to take on most of the family making responsibilities. This allows me to focus on using my skills with fewer distractions. You’ll need to handle all the reproductive aspects of your relationship while also providing the skill set that originally made you such an appealing partner.”

“I don’t think our situations are anything alike.”

The implications of Saras’s analysis made her bristle. It seemed to her like Saras had an outdated way of seeing marriage. She would be more concerned if she was not certain Yuri and Asa were not operating on the same outdated attitudes. Even so, a part of her felt a bit uneasy now. The idea of being burdened by having children, not just to make a family, but for the sake of an entire city was something she had not given proper consideration until now. She was not sure she could do it. She was not sure she even wanted children.

Thinking about it occupied her for a few city blocks. Having children because it was expected of her made her feel dirty somehow. At the same time, she did not mind the idea of having and raising children with Yuri and Asa—eventually. Perhaps Saras had picked up on some of her reservations and taken it a few steps too far because of her own personal biases. She felt certain she would not be as opposed to being a mother as Saras.

It was a lot to think about. She had never given the idea of having children much thought. At this point, she was still adjusting to the idea of marriage. A part of her realized she should have already given this some serious thought, but everything was happening so quickly from her perspective. Matters were not made any easier by her desire to go with the flow. It was not likely Yuri or Asa would see childbearing as anywhere near as big of an issue as her. She would have to discuss this matter with them tonight. She only hoped she would not be distracted from her studies too much today.

While she could not forget entirely, she did her best to push the thoughts to the side for the time being. It took a few moments, but she was relatively successful in her attempt.

Lady Saras seemed to have taken pity on her as the troubling discussion was dropped and the talk shifted to lighter topics. Willow found it easy enough to give polite replies while distracted by her own thoughts. She wondered if this small mercy was intentional or not. Knowing how perceptive Saras could be, she did not think it was likely that this was an accident.

The walk was surprisingly pleasant from that point on and Willow was almost caught off guard when they reached the temple. She felt as though the city had somehow shrunk in size since the last time she walked through it, although she realized it was probably just a matter of the thinner crowds making it easier to get to their destination.

At the entrance to the temple, she hesitated. The invitation that Yuri had arranged only extended to her. Lady Saras and Ciel had joined her on a whim, but she felt like she still needed to offer them an explanation and an apology. Lady Saras was a major ally for Detreya in this war and as weird as it was to think of herself this way, Willow knew her actions could affect these alliances.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize anyone would be coming all this way with me today so they’re only expecting me.” She tried her best to be apologetic while not leaving an opening for Saras to invite herself along anyway. She wanted to focus on research. That would not be possible with Saras nearby waiting for a chance to tease her some more.

“That’s quite alright. We wouldn’t want to intrude. I’ll just see if anyone is available to give us a tour of this fascinating building.”

Willow could not be sure, but she thought Ciel looked less than thrilled by this plan. Of course, she was not going to say anything about it. For now, Saras seemed content to do all the talking and whenever that happened Ciel seemed more than content to step back and observe. Willow had enough of an understanding of the other woman’s abilities to realize she was probably also making an effort to conserve her magic whenever an opportunity presented itself.

“Well, thanks for the company. I’d better get going so I don’t miss my appointment.”

“Of course. I’m glad we had a chance to chat and I know Ciel was glad to see you again. She’s got a bit of a crush on you, you know.”

Just when Willow let her guard down because the conversation seemed to have shifted to polite farewells, Saras threw her off guard with an utterly ridiculous claim. She was sure she did not catch herself fast enough and her shock was clearly broadcast to everyone present. She was not so shocked that she missed the furious glare Ciel directed at Saras before turning the same look on Willow as well.

She quickly looked away. At first, she was certain Saras was just trying to stir the pot and get a rise out of her, but the way Ciel reacted made her question that assumption. She realized she could stay here, figure out how she felt, and react to it all, but she did not actually care enough to do so. In the end, it did not really matter and she had more important things to do.

Getting out of this awkward social situation was an absolute priority. Not only was she very nearly late for her appointment, but she was not inclined to stick around now that Saras had made things incredibly awkward.

“I hope you enjoy your tour. I must get to my appointment now.”

She turned away and hurried into the temple before another word could be said. Once she was far enough away she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Excellent. You’re just in time.”

The sound of a voice so close to her caught her off guard and she whirled around to face the speaker in surprise. The speaker was a grey-haired priest with an incongruously young face.

She smiled at him. Before she could say anything he continued to speak.

“Our situation has continued to develop and your input would be greatly appreciated.”

He indicated that he would like to walk while they talked. She stepped into stride next to him and listened to his explanation of the situation as it stood now. Her eyes widened in surprise as she realized how much she understood of what he told her without further explanation. Even better, she felt as though she saw a problem with a solution she thought she could help to solve.

She was looking forward to getting to work on a problem with a solution in sight.

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