Willow knew she was a little bit obsessed with her research, but she finally found something she could excel at. She never experienced having an aptitude for something and actually having access to resources to continue to grow and improve. It seemed as though the supply of texts never dried up. The task of selecting a collection of reading materials to take along with her had nearly undone her. As soon as she thought she had winnowed the list down, she remembered something she felt certain she would need in the next few days.
She was still not sure she made the right decision. At the very least, she should have brought more with her. There was not much for her to do other than reading and at this rate, she would run out of material.
These peace talks were all about politics and she tried to keep her head down when it came to that. She did not understand how it worked in an academic sense and she got the feeling she would make a mess of things if she tried to get involved. It was better for everyone if she stuck to her reading and let more experienced people handle the politics. She agreed to tag along because Yuri needed moral support. Meddling would not help him in the slightest.
She kept her head down and read (and reread) her books. Even though she remained close to the action, she still felt completely lost when she finally looked up and took in the scene before her.
Her eyes scanned over the other faces in the room. Yuri and Asa were familiar, comforting presences. Even the harried, worry lined faces of Yuri’s advisers reassured her by being recognizable.
Across the room, she saw faces she did not recognize. They represented their one-time enemies, the people of Garon. She considered them. They looked so ordinary. Even after crossing the desert and seeing so many soldiers, she allowed herself to imagine their enemies as cartoonish villains. Meeting their eyes today erased those distorted notions and once again made her acknowledge them as real people.
Finally, her eyes drifted to the last person on the far side of the tent, Erramun. She thought she knew what to expect. She saw him a time or two before, but never up close. She thought knew what to expect. She was wrong.
Willow recognized him. It was not from months ago in the palace in Detreya or from the statues she barely managed to take in while she was rushing to get out of Garon.
Erramun exuded the same energy as the final presence she encountered in the space between worlds. What did it mean? Her mind rushed in a panicked flurry to analyze the implications. However, she immediately knew this made the peace talks more complicated than ever.
She sat back and off to the side with the scribes as she considered herself to only be here in a supporting role. It only made sense since she was not one of the negotiators. Hanging back should have made her blend into the crowd, but Erramun stared right at her.
His anger resided below the surface today. Others in the room might not notice it at all. Outwardly, he looked calm and alert. His intensely sharp eyes were the only crack in his otherwise benign diplomatic armor.
They were both aware of the other now, much like they were in the space between worlds. Both times Willow was caught off guard. This time it would be harder to run away from the problem.
She needed a plan, but first, she needed to put at least a little space between herself and Erramun. She mumbled an apology to the scribes, closed her book and slipped out of the tent before anyone could question her.
Once she stepped outside, she felt lighter. Erramun’s oppressive glare no longer weighed on her. He was obligated to stay and continue the talks to establish a peace treaty. For now, she was safe.
She was alone out here for now. That might last for a few minutes or a few hours, but eventually, someone would look for her.
Knowing that intimidating presence was Erramun changed everything about these peace talks. Right now they were trying to stop a war taking place solely in this world. No one thought to discuss the incursions into the space between worlds and by extension her homeworld. Yuri and the others were aware of the problem, of course, but they needed to know Erramun was their enemy twice over.
But what could they do?
Yuri could do more than her at the moment. He at least needed all the facts before he agreed to any of the terms Erramun might suggest.
The thought of returning to the negotiations terrified her. That look Erramun gave her sent chills down her spine. If she put herself in his way again, he might decide to do more than just glare daggers at her.
She stepped back in the tent and immediately tried to get Yuri’s or honestly anyone from Detreya’s attention without being overly conspicuous. Yuri was preoccupied trying to listen and be heard while three members of his council spoke over each other. Willow saw no point in attempting to add her voice to that chorus.
Instead, she turned to Asa. He would listen to her and others would listen to him. As soon as she started walking she felt as though all eyes were on her. Reason told her that was not the case, but the feeling refused to dissipate. She made a point to avoid eye contact with anyone and rapidly crossed the tent.
“We have a problem,” she whispered in Asa’s ear.
He inclined his head, indicating he was listening.
“Erramun has been in the space between worlds. I saw him there when I closed the first door.”
As soon as the words left her lips, she felt better. The weight was no longer hers to bear alone. Only time would tell if it was enough, but at least she was not alone anymore.
Her eyes met Asa’s. She could tell he understood, but her work was not done. The two of them were not going to be enough in the end, but it was a start.
She backed off and waited. She knew better than to expect them to negotiate the entire peace treaty in one day. They had time to react. She tried to take comfort in that fact. It was not a comfort.
She tried to remain calm, but by the time everyone else was ready to talk, she felt as though she needed to do something.
Her thoughts started to veer toward the reckless. Even their hastiest action felt too lethargic for her. She could act faster than them. Finding the sort of calm she needed to use her power effectively would be difficult. This camp was like a small city and instead of walls, there was only canvas to hold the sounds of the outside world at bay. Her concentration might not be the best, but certainly, it had to be better than doing nothing.
As she tried to find the inner calm she needed to summon up her magic, doubt started to creep back in. Less than perfect concentration might have unknown consequences. There had been a reason for requiring conditions for perfect concentration during her first attempt.
She shook her head and cleared away those thoughts. She needed to take this risk. Her eyes closed and she tried her hardest to suppress her anxiety and instead find peace.
At the moment she felt herself starting to reach the state of mind she needed to cross into the space between worlds, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. The sensation of another person nearby broke her concentration.
Yuri’s voice rang loud in her ears after several minutes of peace and quiet. “What are you doing?”
Her eyes sprung open. Yuri and Asa both stood over her. Their expressions were concerned. They never saw her try to perform this sort of magic so their reaction was reasonable.
“I was trying to get back to the space between worlds,” she explained. “I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed to do something.”
Asa sighed. “You had to know that would be risky.”
She nodded. She expected to be chastised for acting recklessly. She had not expected the hot stone of anger in her stomach begging her to lash out at them for their complacency. She took a deep breath and summoned reserves of self-control she did not know she possessed and held her tongue.
“We’ll put a stop to whatever Erramun is doing soon enough,” Yuri said with complete confidence.
Willow had more than a few doubts. “What if this peace treaty is a distraction? This war and the destabilization of the space between worlds must be connected.”
“Even if they are, with Erramun here to negotiate, he won’t have time to do more damage now.”
Willow was not sure she could disagree more. She thought she understood why they were hesitant to push forward. If she took drastic action, it would jeopardize the treaty. They could only see that as a liability. She only remained patient by reminding herself of the difference between her magic and theirs. She could sense things they could not. They did not feel the damage being done to their world by the overuse of the portals. Now that she was attuned to it, she felt this world’s gradual creep toward the point of no return. She could stop it. She was sure she could.
“The damage is being done as we speak. I might be able to reverse at least some of it while Erramun is distracted.”
Her argument was flimsy. The words to explain her reasoning failed her. She tried to summon up new, better words to describe how she knew waiting would be a disaster, but words were failing her at every turn.
Yuri and Asa both waited and listened while she restarted her argument several times and stuttered her way through as best she could. The entire time she knew from their patient expressions that they remained unconvinced. Her frustration mounted. Of course, she could not convince anyone with words. This was all about feelings. She had long since given up hope of using words to convey her discoveries to the researched that had come to work with her. They had the words. All she had was the ability to experience what could only be theory to many of them.
That settled it. She would show them the things she could not explain.
“Look. I know you are worried about your people and I’m still just an outsider.”
She saw they were about to protest the last part of her statement and she put her hand up to silence them so she could continue.
“I care about this world too. How could I not? Both of you are here and my homeworld—and my family—has been twisted up with your world maybe since the beginning of time but at least for centuries.”
She paused and shook her head. She was getting off track again. They were listening but the more she said, the harder it became to see her point.
“The treaty is important,” she said, jumping to another track. “We need Erramun to agree to stop this war. But,” she clasped her hands together in front of her, “it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Everything is connected. We can’t just stop him from trying to take over Detreya. Will you let me show you what I mean?”
Getting all of the words out, no matter how confusing they might be, exhausted her. She needed to find some reserves of strength somewhere, though as Yuri and Asa both agreed to be shown what she meant. It spared her from failing to tell them again, but now she needed to attempt a feat of magic beyond anything she had tried so far.
She needed them to experience the space between worlds with her. If they knew she intended this for them, she doubted they would have agreed, but the situation was too dire to worry herself over consent that was less than fully informed.
They needed to experience this for themselves.
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