I’m pretty excited about this chapter. I hope you’ll enjoy it too. Things are really starting to happen now and I can’t wait to see where the momentum takes us.
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Willow had the various theories about what her parents would be told by Aspen about this visit. Even with nothing concrete to go on, she had a feeling she would be having a long phone conversation with her mother before too much time passed. She found herself wishing she could disappear off the grid for a few years until this mess blew over. She just wanted everyone to leave her alone and stop pressuring her to be with a guy just because of his proximity to her. That was not how a good relationship got started. It would not be healthy. It would almost be Stockholm syndrome or maybe some sort of perverse cabin fever. Whatever it was it would not be a relationship based on mutual interests and affection. It would be something based on just being physically close to that person for so long that they started to seem like a good alternative to being alone all the time.
She did not know why she was thinking like this. She was not lonely. She reminded herself that she was not lonely all the time. She was perfectly happy with her life the way it was and having a guy around for a little while was not going to change that. She did not need someone in her bed. She did not need someone to be there when she came home from work. She was perfectly fine on her own and that was the way it should be.
She was torn out of her reverie when she noticed Yuri watching her. She could not read the expression on his face. He looked amused and confused and overall far too conflicted for her liking. She had a feeling they were going to have a talk.
“What can you tell me about these demons you exorcise?”
“Not much,” she admitted with a shrug.
“Tell me what you do know then.”
“Well, I’m not even sure what I do know is true. I mean, until you fell into my life I was pretty well convinced that there was just this world and humans were the only creatures going around thinking and talking and, well, looking the way we do. Now you’re here and I can just tell that you’re not human, but you’re something close to a human, but from another world and if I think about it too hard I give myself a headache, but you being here has made me rethink everything I thought I knew and I realize I don’t know much of anything at all.”
“Okay. Explain it to me from the perspective of someone who actually believes in this sort of thing and isn’t going through some sort of existential crisis.”
“Hey, I resemble that remark.” She paused for a moment to sulk before taking a deep breath and continuing. “I wish I had a better explanation for you. I’ve never seen one of the demons that we exorcise. I’m supposed to be really good at it. People all say I’m the best this area has had in two generations, but I’ve never seen a demon. As far as I know these people are just upset because things keep going wrong in their lives and they want to blame it on something. Then they pay us to come in, throw around some salt and sage, say the magic words and then everything is just somehow supposed to be better for them. I don’t get it. I don’t think I ever will get it. It’s just a bunch of superstitious people wanting to have something to blame their bad luck on.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I’m not sure about much of anything anymore.”
“What if there really are demons. What are you doing to them when you do an exorcism?”
“I guess I’m sending them back to where they came from.”
Yuri jumped up from his seat and hurried over to scoop Willow up in a hug that lifted her feet off the ground. Caught off guard, she just stayed frozen in place and let him do this.
“What was that for?”
“You should exorcise me.”
“What? I can’t do that!”
“What if it hurts you or something?”
“I thought you didn’t believe in it.”
“I might not believe in it, but I also don’t claim to understand it. I don’t know what I’m capable of because as far as I know I’ve never done anything to any sort of being before. You’re definitely real so if I do have some sort of ability who knows what it might do to you.”
“Well, I’m hoping it will send me back where I came from.”
“But who knows if that’s what I really do?”
“The story had to come from somewhere. These sort of things don’t make themselves up. There’s got to be a grain of truth in it somewhere. If the demons aren’t true then maybe the way your powers work is the true part. We won’t know unless we try.”
“Yuri, I don’t want to hurt you.” She a surge of panic caused her heart to race just from the thought of the possibility of disaster.
“You’re not going to hurt me.”
“You don’t know that.”
“That’s not what your powers are supposed to do, right? If they work they’ll work and if they don’t then nothing will happen.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not how things work at all.”
“Just give it a try.”
His voice took on a pleading tone, but Willow forced herself to remain firm. She had a bad feeling about this idea.
“I’m not going to risk hurting you.”
“Don’t you want to get rid of me?”
“I want to get you back home, but I want to do it in a way that will be safe. This isn’t even going to work the way you think it will.”
“What is trying going to hurt? Look, I’m about as desperate to get home as you are to get rid of me.”
“What if it doesn’t send demons back where they came from. What if it kills them instead?”
“Hopefully we’ll realize that before you kill me in that case.”
“I don’t want to take the risk.”
“I thought you wanted to get rid of me.”
“I wanted you to go home. I don’t want to hurt or kill you. There’s a difference.”
“Is that your way of saying you like me?”
“I do like you, Yuri.”
“If you like me so much then why are you making such a protest about pretending I’m your boyfriend?”
“Because it’s dishonest.”
“It’s still dishonest to pretend I’m a friend unexpectedly stopping by for a visit and sleeping on your couch.”
“But it’s closer to the truth so it is less dishonest.”
“That depends on how you feel about me, doesn’t it?”
Willow wanted to pull her hair out. He was picking on her again. She knew it and she still allowed herself to get baited into one frustrating conversation and then another. They were wasting their time like this. If they weren’t so absorbed in this debate they could be out searching for a way to get him home. She did not understand why he seemed to be at least equally invested in tormenting her as he was in using her offer of assistance in getting him back home again.
From one day to the next, Asa was not sure whether he had a job or not. Lady Nyura had become Duchess. He was sure that it was approved because so many hoped to be the one to control and manipulate her from behind the scenes. So far she proved to be rather skilled at having her own way and not giving in to the demands of others. Asa might have enjoyed the sight of the haughty advisers being knocked down a peg or two if the Duchess’s way of doing things made any sense at all.
No one knew if their position within the palace was safe from one day to the next. Everyone walked on eggshells, unsure whether their actions might be deemed objectionable or who might have their lady’s favor at the moment. The tangled web of politics and court intrigue made Asa’s head ache. He missed the days when a job well done all but guaranteed job security.
Asa and others in similar positions did whatever they could to ensure that the palace continued to function. Sometimes this proved risky, going against the explicit orders of their new ruler and mistress, but they could not stand idly by and see the fragile ecosystem of palace life grind to a halt.
The people, those in the city with no direct contact with the chaotic inner workings of the palace were pleased, for now. They saw the succession remain in Durya’s line. The Duchess might not have been the late Duke’s choice in an heir, but the people were happy as long as there was a smooth, uncontested succession.
He understood where they were coming from. With Yuri still missing, their options were limited to Nyura or a violent, chaotic period where many, many powerful men tried to wrest power away from all others to keep for himself. No one wanted that right now. Everyone was safe and satisfied from the late Duke’s rule. Allowing his family to remain in power seemed from the outside to be the way to keep life the way it was.
Asa knew better. He knew they were in a transitional period. The people that were working behind the scenes to keep everything functioning without their ruler’s knowledge would eventually be found out. Some of them might be forgiven for doing what needed to be done without the Duchess’s knowledge. They might even manage to be forgiven more than once if were caught while the Duchess was in a generous mood, but eventually, there would not be enough of them left to keep things running smoothly. By then things might have already gone too far. He could not even begin to guess who might be pulling Nyura’s strings by the time it all came to that.
He could easily imagine it all going wrong from here. He just could not see a way for him to prevent it himself. He was not a politician. He knew he lacked a political mind. His personal qualities made it so he could get his men to follow his orders, but he was not able to follow and comprehend the complexities of diplomacy.
One thing was obvious to him: he could stop this madness before it came to blows among contesting factions to depose the Duchess. He needed to find Yuri and get him to assert his position as rightful ruler. If he found him fast enough, Nyura might even step down without contest. That would all depend on which political factions had their claws in her and how deeply they had dug in. She might fight if she was already some aspiring soul’s puppet, but on her own, her adoration of Yuri would cause her to step aside immediately.
He wanted nothing more than to be searching for Yuri. He expended as much time and manpower as he could on collecting clues regarding his disappearance, but the palace grounds did not provide many clues.
Yuri had a habit of leaving the palace whenever his obligations permitted him the time. Asa knew all about it, and he knew most of his regular haunts because he was in the habit of going with Yuri if he was not on duty. Yuri made these trips into the city without any sort of protection aside from what he carried on his own person because these adventures were not officially happening.
Asa had not gone out with him that night. He suspected that Yuri went out alone, though. No one had seen him for hours that evening and it was obvious he had not slept in his bed that night, which some suggested meant that he spent that night at a brothel. Asa knew that was not Yuri’s style. He had no interest in those places and he had no need for them either. Asa was not going to be able to convince many other people of that fact and he eventually gave up on wasting his energy.
Yuri would not disappear like this of his own volition. Others that knew this were willing to help Asa to investigate even when they were not on duty. It was a small group and even with them on his side, Asa often found himself working alone.
Now the Duchess wanted to speak to him. Asa felt almost positive that he was about to lose his position. He felt a surge of panic. He needed his position and the authority that came with it to continue his investigation. He had barely made any progress so far and he would make even less if he did not have his title to convince others to actually talk to him.
Some of them would still talk to him because they knew him from before, but with strangers, he really needed that extra little boost of authority. With a position of power, he could appear more impressive and intimidate information out of people that would otherwise expect more money than he could hope to raise before they would talk. As long as he was in the guard they knew better than to ask for a bribe.
Whatever might happen to him now, he knew that he needed to find a way to keep searching for Yuri. He knew he had to be out there somewhere. There was just no way Yuri could die without him knowing it. He also knew Yuri would never leave him alone and now that had happened. He would be lying if he said he was not hurt by the fact that Yuri said nothing to him nothing before disappearing, but mostly it just made him more suspicious. It was so out of character that he knew something unusual had to be going on.
Yuri disappeared. He might have been kidnapped, but why would there be no ransom note if that was the case? If he was dead, wouldn’t it be to the benefit of his killers to confirm his death to remove the hopes and dreams of the people that thought he would one day come back to them? Asa shook his head. He could mull over all these things time and time again, but without anything new to go on he knew he was getting nowhere fast.
Allowing himself to think about all of this just before his audience with the Duchess put him in a bad mindset for dealing with her. He needed to be calm, collected, and have his wits about him in case she did something bewildering. Right now he was distracted, unfocused and feeling more than a little desperate. He tried his best to clear his mind and to keep his expression neutral. Looking too upset right now might give the Duchess ideas.
Her receiving hall was deceptively quiet. At first, he thought they might be alone, but as he approached, he noticed about a dozen ladies in waiting sitting silently, half concealed in the shadows. He found them to be more unsettling than the Duchess.
Nyura sat quietly, calmly waiting for him to approach. He could not see much of a difference from the lady he met that day and told about her father’s death. He swallowed hard. He did not know what to expect from her. The response she had to the news of her father’s death — if he could even consider that a response — had been so bizarre that he did not know how he was expected to react. He feared from the looks of things that he would be dealing with the same sort of thing today.
He bowed to her and waited for her to speak. A moment of silence seemed to stretch on and on. Since he did not know why he had been summoned here he did not know if he should speak or what he would say if he did. The safest route seemed to be to just allow her to act so he could react appropriately.
“I have heard that you are still searching for my dear, lost Yuri on your own time. Is this true?” she asked finally.
Asa was unsure how to respond simply because he wanted to cause the least possible damage to his position in the palace guard, but he could not think of a way to deny the fact if she was already aware of it. “Yes. I’m searching for Yuri. I believe he would be here if he had a choice in the matter. Something must have happened.”
“So you don’t think he’s dead either?” Nyura asked. She leaned forward in her seat. Her eyes shined, but Asa dared not interpret the reason behind that look.
He remained guarded. Other people fell into similar traps, thinking that she was behaving normally and she could twist it around on them before they knew what was happening. Then she had them caught and they were in trouble they had no hope of escaping. He wanted to avoid such a fate for himself so he exercised the utmost caution.
He swallowed hard before answering. He knew he needed to respond and he forced himself with a great deal of trepidation to open his mouth and speak once more. “Without any evidence to the contrary, I have to believe he’s alive.”
The Duchess clapped her hands gleefully. Asa just barely held onto his composure and remained impassive in the face of her eccentricities. She seemed pleased now, but it was impossible to guess what she really thought or where her mood might turn next.
“I’m so glad you think so too. Everyone else here is acting like he’s dead and buried,” she glared darkly at one of her ladies.
Asa held back a sigh of relief to know he was not the target of her anger at the moment. He waited, expecting her to have more to say.
She leaned over to one side in her seat on the throne. Her elbow rested on the arm of the chair and her chin rested in her cupped hand. “I’ve been told I should marry as quickly as possible. We know that’s impossible, though, don’t we? Yuri’s alive and I will wait for him. You’re going to bring him back for me.”
“I am?” he asked incredulously before he could stop himself.
“Of course,” the Duchess said with a confident tone. She straightened herself up in her chair once again. “You know Yuri is still alive as well as I do. I want you to find him for me. Officially.”
Asa almost did not know if he could believe his ears. He in no way imagined that he would be getting asked to continue his search in a more official capacity. His disbelief made him think that he had to be missing a catch. Something would have to be a serious drawback in this arrangement.
He bowed to the Duchess and tried to slip away before the catch caught up with him. “I assure you, I won’t let you down. Finding Yuri and bringing him back is of vital importance to me as well.”
With those words, he started to make a hasty if carefully respectful retreat.
“Wait,” Nyura said before he managed to leave the room altogether.
He paused. There was no other option. He could not leave her presence if she did not will it, and his training for taking orders was too deeply ingrained in him. That tone of authority always got him and Nyura seemed to have it perfected.
“Ask about the portals to other worlds. I don’t think Yuri is still in the city.” She advised.
It was something Asa had not dared consider himself. Hearing her say it now suddenly made it seem possible. He could hardly believe it, he had a new, unconventional lead to follow and explicit permission to continue looking. He could pour all his time and energy into this search as long as the Duchess wanted him to keep looking. He just hoped she would not change her mind or lose interest, both of which seemed as likely as not from what he had observed so far.