Willow had been gone for hours when Asa briefed the next shift of guards before heading back to their rooms. When he got there, no one was around. He was not sure what to make of that. He had become accustomed to Yuri’s hectic, unpredictable schedule making it unlikely for him to be around until much later in the evening, but he assumed Willow would be more available.
Now he realized he had made a critical error in judgment. Willow had already managed to find a way to keep herself busy. It took her no time at all to make herself useful. She was far too busy to sit around waiting for Asa to have some downtime. He needed to adjust to the fact that all three of them were going to be incredibly busy. They would need to plan around their schedules and carefully coordinate if all three of them wanted to have any significant time together.
Even knowing that he would need to accept Willow having a busy schedule, he still found it a bit worrying that her first day with the priests at their temple would go on for so long. He could not shake the feeling of easiness he got from the thought of her being away for so long today. There was nothing to justify this feeling but in a rush of relief, he realized he did not need to justify his instincts in this particular instance.
Yuri would be busy for hours yet if the energy given off by his councilors in the halls today was any indication. With Yuri busy, there was no one he needed to consult before he took a walk through the city to see if Willow was indeed okay. She probably did not need his help, but he could offer her company on the walk back. Going out into the city sounded like a better use his time than sitting in the palace waiting and wondering.
He jotted down a quick note for Yuri just in case he managed to break away from the nearly endless demands on his time before he returned. He tucked the note partway into the cushion of the chair by the window where Yuri liked to sit. They learned long ago never to assume anything left out in Yuri’s room would be private. When he knew his privacy had been violated it always ruined his mood, so Asa did his best to avoid anyone else finding Yuri’s notes before him.
He kept out of sight on his way out the palace. He did not want anyone to tag along to “protect” him. Willow had fought hard to go into the city on her own against his better judgment. Now he was going to do the same himself. He might need to rethink his stance.
The city was too quiet now. It filled him with a restless uneasiness. Part of him wanted to shout and draw a crowd because anything would be better than this emptiness. This was not the city he remembered. He wanted the city he knew back more than anything.
When he arrived at the temple, it was a bit more like he had remembered it being in the past. This place was always a still, peaceful place. This used to make the temple a sort of refuge from the noise and crowds in the streets. Now it was just an old and excessively stuffy building.
Even on the first floor, which its high ceilings and large doors opening onto the streets of the city this building smelled like old books. It was not a smell that bothered him, but it was one that always seemed to warn him he was out of his element. He had an adequate amount of schooling, but most of his training had been with the military to prepare him for the palace guard. No matter how much he had learned in school, his career choice caused scholars to look down on him.
The men in this temple were not only scholars but priests as well. They were twice as likely to look down their noses at him. He would take it in stride. He always did. His life had just turned out in such a way that he was constantly underestimated. Disproving them brought him a small amount of satisfaction. Somehow that made it worth it.
Proving them wrong requited getting their attention first. At the moment, that was easier said than done.
No one seemed to be around at the moment. He considered going further into the temple but thought better of it almost immediately. People were welcome to come to this part of the building uninvited, but further in were the priests living quarters and their vast research stacks. They did not take kindly to people going there without an invitation. He might need to be more patient, but the safest way to find Willow now was to wait for someone to take him to her.
“Are you playing security here or are you off duty, Asa?” the undeniable voice of Lady Saras said from behind him.
He turned to face her, putting on his most welcoming, diplomatic smile just in time.
“Lady Saras,” he said with more cheerfulness than he could consider strictly honest. “I didn’t expect to meet you here.”
“Ciel and I came for a tour.”
Asa nodded. He did not know what to say and he did not want to engage Saras in a drawn-out conversation. At least in this situation, he knew he did not have to worry about Ciel contributing to the conversation as well.
“Would you happen to know if Willow is still here?” he asked cautiously. As much as he wanted information, he was not sure it was wise to continue to engage in conversation with Lady Saras. She was a brilliant and staunch ally in this war, but Asa was wary of socializing with her. There was too much at stake for someone like him to risk messing everything up with a poorly thought through comment.
Saras shrugged. He was not able to put into words exactly why he found this response so unnerving.
“We saw her just before we went on our tour, in fact, we traveled here together.”
“But you haven’t seen her since then.” It was a question but he phrased it as a statement. He might be more brusque than was strictly polite, but the last thing he wanted was to get trapped in a pointless conversation right now. He wanted to find Willow.
“No. I imagine she’s still poring over the priests’ old books. Then again, she could have finished her work here and set off on her own. She’s rather independent, you know.”
He knew. That possibility was in the back of his mind the entire time. Willow did not need him to walk her home from this meeting. She was not expecting him. She could have left already either to return to the palace or explore the city. He just needed to know for sure she was not here before he returned to the palace.
“I guess I won’t know until I try to track her down,” he said before bidding a hasty farewell to Saras and Ciel. He then headed further into the temple to continue his search.
There continued to be a distinct lack of priests. Now that he was further inside the temple he expected to see someone. The priests lived and worked here. At least some of them should be going about their day at the moment.
The silence did not sit well with him. More than likely he was just being paranoid, but he could not shake the feeling that something was wrong. His instincts were usually at least partially right. He might not sense the exact nature of the problem but he could pick up enough clues to spot that something did not add up. He had that feeling now, but he also had his doubts. This was not a place he felt an innate familiarity with. His instincts could easily be off base in this situation.
Even if that was the case, he did not think they would be so far off as to see something wrong when there was nothing at all out of the ordinary happening. Something had to be off here.
Since there did not appear to be a serious threat behind the odd behavior taking place, he felt more curious than cautious. He continued his investigation by pressing further into the temple.
There was plenty to see in the form of decorations and tapestries on the walls of these hallways, but there was still no sign of any of the priests. His mind could not get past the fact that it was not normal. It made him worried for Willow. If she was still here, she had to be caught up in whatever was keeping the priests from going about their day to day lives.
All of his senses were on alert. So far there was nothing to notice. Then, after he had climbed several stories up into the oddly vertical temple, he heard something. He strained his ears to determine the nature of the sound, but he was still too far away to discern what he heard.
He changed his gait to make his footsteps as silent as possible as he moved forward. Even as he drew closer he still needed to strain his hearing to pick up the sound he had originally heard. He should be moving closer to the source of the sound. It was as though the sound was intentionally dampening as he drew nearer. It was a mystery of a sort he did not expect to encounter on a simple visit to a city temple.
It was not until he had already passed the source of the sound that he realized he needed to turn around. He retraced his steps even more slowly than before. The sound was slightly different at each door. Nothing about this made sense and he wanted to figure out the puzzle.
He paused in front of a rather heavy wooden door. The lack of adornment made the door easy to pass over on his first walk by. Much of the significant parts of the hall were ornately decorated. A plain door initially made him think this door might be something more mundane like a broom closet. If the sound had not caused him to retrace his steps he would not have given this door a second look.
Now that he had, he realized he had made an error in judgment the first time around. While plain, this door was heavy and made of a type of wood not common in the city. It was too sturdy and inconspicuous for these choices to be unintentional. He paused and listened at the door to confirm his suspicions.
There was no doubt about it now that he strained his ears to listen. A muffled, but energetic discussion was happening behind this door. One of the voices belonged to a woman. As this place was populated only by priests, he did not think it was a stretch to assume the voice belonged to Willow.
He knocked on the door and the murmur of conversation from the room beyond stopped. After a few beats of silence, the door slowly swung open and Asa was face to face with a tall, rail-thin priest with an ageless face.
“I’m looking for Willow,” he explained lamely.
The priest nodded and moved aside to allow Asa to enter.
He did not know what he expected to see on the other side of the door, but he certainly did not expect to see what looked like nearly every priest in the temple along with Willow and more stacks of books than even all these people could hope to read in a day.
Willow’s expression brightened as soon as she saw him. He smiled in return. His courage was bolstered knowing that at least one person did not mind him barging in. Many of the priests looked in his direction but did no more to acknowledge his arrival.
Asa was shocked to see how many people were in the room with Willow—as well as the size of the room. It seemed to take up most of the interior of the building and the ceiling was two or three stories above their heads. The walls were covered in bookshelves and more loomed in orderly rows across the room, casting immense shadows with their great height. Was this room always here? He did not remember noticing anything like it when he had been here before.
While he took in his surroundings, Willow rose from her seat at a nearby table and came over to greet him.
“How’s your research going?” he asked.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” she answered with breathless excitement. “I don’t have answers yet, but we’re getting there. I think we can fix things.”
She grabbed his hand and led him over to her table. Before he had a chance to ask, she started explaining all that she had learned that day. Admittedly, it was a lot and most of it was indecipherable to him. He was impressed. A lot of the terminology went over his head. Surely she must have learned most of this today. It was rather remarkable how much she had learned in such a short time. If there was ever a doubt that she was in her element when it came to the more mystical aspects of the workings of the world. He listened patiently and even with his meager understanding came to realize Willow might actually be able to fix the path between worlds.