Back on track! I’m so glad I didn’t let getting off track for one chapter snowball into all my chapters being late.
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From the moment the maid found the body of the Duke the palace descended into a mournful state of panic. Servants, advisers, and guards seemed to be in one of two states, tearful denial or underhanded looting. As captain of the guard, Asa needed to keep order.
He knew who he could trust and he relied on them to be his eyes and ears while he tried to figure out what had really happened. With the men he could trust keeping an eye on everyone less honorable, Asa went to find the one person he knew could be trusted to work this out with him. The advisers would be on his case soon enough along with the other lords of the city and courtiers. They needed to have someone in charge, a sign of solidarity and strength for the public to see. Not to mention, he wanted to make sure Yuri did not first hear the news in a room full of people all with their own agendas.
Asa hurried through the halls. He would be expected at the murder scene any moment now, but he needed to make sure some distraught servant did not wake up his friend and tell him the bad news without any sort of tact at all.
Everyone was too upset to notice that the captain of the palace guard dropped all pretense of decorum and barged right into the soon to be declared Duke’s rooms. Everything was silent, not the sort of silent of someone sleeping, but the silence of an unoccupied room. He checked the bed and noted it had not been slept in. His heart skipped a beat. The Duke was dead and Yuri was missing. He did not know how no one noticed, but he supposed that he was the one that would have to break this new bit of bad news.
He needed to stop and think, but he knew there was no time for that. People needed to know what was happening and now he had a murder and a disappearance to investigate. He left the room just as he had found it. There was no sign of a struggle, but that did not mean that there were not clues to Yuri’s current whereabouts in the room.
If he stopped to think right now he would start to imagine what happened and he could not allow that to happen. He needed to remain calm and gather the facts of the case. Panicking did not qualify as an effective investigation technique and at this point, it was more than vital that he provide a solid example for those under his command.
It was unclear to him now exactly who he was expected to report to and who his orders within the palace came from. For now, he would speak to the late Duke’s advisers and administrators and see what they though. Finding these respected officials proved to be the first simple task of the day. They were huddled in the hallway instead of meeting properly in a room. As he approached, he was bombarded with a question that had managed to escape him thus far.
“How are we going to tell Lady Nyura? Who is going to tell her?” one of Durya’s advisers asked.
All his thoughts went directly to Yuri and Asa completely forgot about the Duke’s daughter. Nyura had not been in the ducal palace for the better part of a decade. By the time Asa received a position with the palace guard Nyura had already disappeared from the public eye.
He heard rumors about her, of course. Everyone heard rumors about the Duke’s only daughter’s peculiar state of mind. Then Duke Durya adopted a son and named Yuri his sole heir and the rumors only grew in intensity. Asa tried to ignore the rumors out of respect for his friend’s new family, but Yuri confirmed that the rumors were not all that far off base.
Nyura spent more time in flights of fancy only she understood than she did in reality. She convinced herself years ago that Yuri was brought into the family to marry her rather than to govern the duchy after her father. Asa could not begin to guess how she would react to the news about her father and Yuri.
Everyone was looking at him and he realized they were expecting him to take care of this. He cleared his throat and scanned the faces around him looking for someone, anyone who might be better suited for this task than him. Everyone seemed to be looking at him, waiting for him to accept this task.
He knew he had no hope of getting out of this. These men outranked him and they had decades of experience throwing their weight around. He still had not adjusted to giving orders to his men rather than constantly taking orders himself.
“I should be here for the investigation,” he insisted. “There’s been a murder and a disappearance.”
“Your men are well trained. I’m sure they can get on without you for half a day,” one of the pushy, middle-aged advisers said before slapping him on the back.
Whether their motivation leaned more toward avoiding the task of going to speak to Lady Nyura or getting him to leave the palace and the investigation for the better part of the day he could not say. Neither reason seemed particularly pleasant to Asa, but now he knew that he was not going to get out of this. Everyone had silently come to the consensus that he was the one to go.
With the Duke gone he supposed this random group of men grasping for more power than they had any right to possess were the greatest authority in the land. He might be able to push back and argue with them to delay the inevitable, but nothing would be accomplished in the mean time. In the end, he knew he would be doing the same thing. He was young. He was new to his position. He lacked the connections that these older men had to increase their influence. At this rate, the only thing that could save him from being the errand boy for them all would be finding Yuri and getting him to take his rightful position as the new Duke.
Willow wished she was surprised to see Yuri sitting in front of her locked door looking dejected and cold. After dealing with her day job she did not feel terribly inclined to even ask why. She sighed and opened the door without saying a word.
Yuri scrambled inside looking sheepish and ashamed. She assumed he had suffered enough sitting out in the cold for who knew how long and decided not to scold him herself. She was not sure that it was even her place to scold him for anything. He was an adult, at least here he would be considered an adult until he opened his mouth and started going on about holes between worlds. There did not seem to be much she could do about that particular problem, but she could at least warm the poor guy up.
She shook her head before asking, “Do you like tea? I could make some tea.”
He nodded nervously. She was glad to have something productive to do particularly because her companion seemed more interested in keeping his point of view on the current turn of events to himself. She wondered in passing if his jaw was frozen shut before banishing the notion from her head. Once the kettle was heating up the water and the leaves were in the teapot, she had a few moments to spare for worrying about what was going on with her unexpected house guest.
“What happened today, exactly?” she asked as delicately as possible. The way he looked right now, cold and lost, made her feel terrible for how harsh she had been with him since he arrived. His arrival was not his choice and she should not take her frustration out on him. He might be a burden, but he was not an intentional burden and she felt that she needed to give him more of a chance before she decided to resent him.
“I was trying to find the way back home. The way I came through might have closed up, but there could be other passages nearby.”
“I guess you didn’t find one, huh?”
He shook his head. “I looked, but I did not stray far. Your world is strange and cold.”
“Well, it is November,” Willow agreed. “It’s cold at this time of year.”
“It’s never cold like this where I come from.”
“You need a coat. The cold isn’t so bad if you dress for the weather.”
She got up and went to her bedroom closet. She had to reach all the way to the back of the closet, but she knew exactly where it was. With a little bit of effort, she was able to retrieve the hoodie she had in mind. She had to admit that she got a small thrill out of the thought of giving it a new lease on life.
She returned to the kitchen and held the hoodie out to him. “Here,” she said while waiting for him to take the hoodie off her hands.
“Thanks,” he said with more than a little skepticism in his voice. He took the hoodie from her and looked it over carefully.
“It’s clean,” she assured him. “It should be big enough for you. It belonged to my ex a long, long time ago.” She felt like an idiot for adding on that last part.
He shrugged and pulled the hoodie on.
“I’ll have to find you some warmer clothes to wear while you’re here. I mean, hopefully, we can find you a way home soon, but you really can’t be going outside without something warm to wear.”
She had no idea when she started to believe him, but here she was talking to him as though she had completely bought into his story. She could not even tell herself what she believed at this point. She liked to think that she was one of the most hardened skeptics out there. She committed herself deeply to waiting for evidence before she ever believed in any of the things that her family swore to be true based on the stories passed down through the generations. How could she be unwilling to take her own family’s word, but hear an unbelievable story from a complete stranger and find herself inclined to believe it after only a few hours and a night’s sleep?
When she came back from her mental reverie, there was a look on Yuri’s face that she could not read. He looked more than a little lost in thought and she did not know if she was expected to break him out of it or leave him alone.
The kettle whistled and she jumped up, glad to have something to do that she could be sure that she was doing right. She took the kettle off the heat and pour the water into her teapot.
The sound of the kettle’s whistle seemed to break Yuri out of his reverie. When Willow turned around she caught him staring at her. She smiled awkwardly and sat back down.
“Can you tell me about where you came from?” she asked softly. She tried her best to speak carefully. She knew if she spoke in the wrong tone she would very easily come across as combative. It was her default tone the last few years and for the most part, it treated her well. Now it was not the time to pick a fight.
Against her own will, she found herself wanting to have a deeper understanding of him, his homeland, and how he came to be here. She felt uncharacteristically willing to believe in things she could not touch or see. She did not know what it was about him that made her want to believe, but now she was stuck in this place, thinking this way and feeling like a total hypocrite.
He sighed heavily. “I don’t know where to begin. It’s nothing like this place.”
“How is it different, though?”
“It’s warmer. Drier,” he began. “It’s strange to say, but I never realized how straightforward everything was there. Here everything is a contradiction. People live so spaced apart, but somehow there are so many more of you everywhere. I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Do all people where you come from believe there are other worlds?”
His first answer was a noncommittal shrug. “I can’t speak for everyone. Plenty of people know someone who disappeared into thin air one day. Not many have come back, but the ones that did have stories of other worlds to tell.”
“Do people that don’t belong ever just pop into existence in your world?”
He shook his head. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. Does it ever happen here?”
“No. I’ve heard of some strange things happening — I never believed them — but you’re the first person I’ve ever heard of just appearing from another world.”
“Do you think I’ll be able to get back?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “This is all so strange. I can’t believe I’m buying into all of this. It’s not possible.”
“I’m here. Isn’t that proof that it is possible?”
“No!” she very nearly shouted. “You could just be some insane person that managed to break into my house while I was sleeping. Maybe there’s something in the air in this apartment that’s causing us both to hallucinate the same thing. Except…” She trailed off. Her thoughts veered off track and she felt her grip on reality start to slip. She had never had a nervous breakdown, but she imagined it felt something like this.
“Except?” Yuri prompted.
She looked down at her hands as they fluttered and fidgeted in her lap. She wanted to avoid saying the words that had started to come out of her mouth, but it appeared that it was too late to turn back now. Her stomach tied up in knots at the notion of putting that particular thought into words and releasing it into the universe. Holding it back felt as though she was tearing her own mind apart. Speaking and holding it in both seemed like the wrong choice now, but she had to do one or the other. There was no third option. She folded her hands neatly in her lap and looked up to meet Yuri’s eyes.
“Except I’m pretty sure you’re not human. I’m not sure what you are, but from the first time I saw you I could sense that you’re something different from me.”
Willow had no idea what sort of reaction to expect from Yuri at such a confession. She knew she would not take too kindly to someone telling her that they had pegged her as something other than human, but she saw none of the expected emotions in Yuri’s expression. He was not angry or insulted, or even confused. She was too nervous to read him with confidence, but she wanted to think that he almost looked relieved.
Yuri reached over and squeezed her hand. “I could tell you’re different from me too. I’m not sure how exactly you are different, but it is enough to make it obvious from a mere first impression.”
She smiled slightly before jumping up from her seat. “The tea!” she hurried over and pulled the diffuser out of her teapot. She poured the tea into two mugs and brought them over to the table. She sat one in front of Yuri and immediately nudge the sugar bowl toward him. “I over steeped the tea. It’s going to be awfully bitter.”
He wrapped his fingers around the mug. “I don’t mind as long as its warm.”