- Project: Inbetween
- Chapter: Twenty Two
- Word count: 2,320
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No one had seen Ciel this morning. Asa went around to all of the shopkeepers closest to the palace. Odds were not good that they would have been open for business when she left the palace, but most of these shop owners lived above their shops and were vigilant about monitoring the space around their businesses after hours.
He tried to remain optimistic, but at every stage, he had to cast a wider net. Expanding his search meant having more ground to cover. He knew his investigation was already far behind and it would take a miracle for him to catch up to her now.
Even so, giving up just was not in his nature. There was still a chance that he could find her and if that happened he could get back his best chance of tracking down Yuri.
The longer he spent searching, the colder the trail became, but he knew he still had options available to him. He just needed to approach the problem from a different angle.
Doing things by the book had only brought him grief lately. He realized now following the rules and being straight-laced did not count for much now that Nyura ruled the land. He needed to let go of the part of himself that identified as the captain of the palace guard and go back to being the person he was a long, long time ago.
Inside the palace walls, he knew he needed to balance setting a good example and playing the game by Nyura’s rules, but out here in the city, he was not obliged to do either. Out here he could go back to using whatever means were necessary to get what he wanted.
The only problem he could imagine coming from this plan was that he was much older than he had been the last time he tried to live in such a way. His old tactics might require some modification as he was a grown man now. It would not help him keep a low profile to behave as though he were still a small boy capable of slipping between legs in the crowd and squeezing into the narrowest spaces to hide and elude those who might pursue him.
Those strategies could not serve him well now, but some of his old skills would still be serviceable. Blending in and listening to the gossip on the street was still possible even now that he was grown.
Even though he spent most of his time in the palace these days, he knew his face would still be recognized in the city by some people. He knew being out here in his uniform made him stick out in the crowd and only strengthened his recognizability.
He regretted his choice in attire, but he knew going back to change would be a waste of precious time now. It might make things a bit more difficult, but he knew he was capable of making it work anyway.
The most important part was just hearing what people had to say. He did not even need to ask questions. It was just a matter of being in the right place when someone said the right thing.
He moved through the city at a leisurely pace. It was not as though he had all the time in the world, but he understood that he needed to move with care to ensure he was not missing out on any sort of useful gossip.
Working alone and using this method did mean he was missing out on hearing from the vast majority of people. It was a technique better suited to someone just trying to keep tabs on a small area. Here he was using it to try to track someone that could have left the palace in any direction and certainly did so hours ago. It was almost hopeless, but he refused to give up hope.
Asa knew this was an almost futile effort, but he needed to be out of the palace for a while to at least clear his head. Even if the odds of finding Ciel were not in his favor, he could also use this time to figure out what he could do next. That was a constant, nagging question for him these days.
His place in Durya’s court had always been clear. He was there to protect and keep order, of course, but peace and prosperity meant a lot of his time was spent solving little problems and making sure that the palace remained a respectable place. Now with Nyura as their duchess, everything was changing even as it seemed to stay the same.
While walking through the city and listening for anything that might be even the least bit out of the ordinary, he found himself starting to contemplate stepping down from the palace guard. Now that so much seemed to be going wrong, he was no longer sure that associating himself with the duchess was serving as an advantage.
At first, he felt sure that having her on his side would only speed up his search for Yuri, but now her new guest seemed to be holding all her attention. Asa had no evidence to back up his suspicion, but his instincts told him that High Lord Erramun would rather Yuri remained missing.
The frustration of not being able to accomplish his goals and the loss of so many capable hands in the palace made it tempting to try his hand at living the life of an ordinary citizen of the city.
If he got out of the palace and did not have to answer directly to the duchess or anyone else currently in her favor, he might find Yuri yet. At the same time, he knew he could not abandon the palace so easily. It was his home and had been his home ever since Durya decided he had too much potential to live out his life on the streets. Leaving his position in the palace felt like he was abandoning the late duke.
His internal debate on his loyalty to his position in the palace was disrupted when he heard some whispers among the people on the street that seemed to indicate something out of the ordinary was happening. He eavesdropped just long enough to get an idea of where he needed to go before he set off in that direction. From what he heard from the gossip—strangers in odd attire—it did not sound like Ciel, but as the first sign of something unusual he heard of he felt like it might lead him on the right track.
The strangers were apparently just a few streets over and were heading toward the center of the city. That sounded like the exact opposite of what Ciel would be doing right now. Going back to the palace after giving everyone just enough time to figure out that she had disappeared with such a vital document would be extremely foolish. Then again, High Lord Erramun seemed to be the one in charge now so she might be welcomed back without so much as a question asked about her actions overnight.
Asa just hoped that checking this out would not be a waste of his time. It seemed strange enough to warrant him giving a look either way. It might be nothing. It would probably have nothing to do with Ciel, but his training to protect the people of this city was too deeply ingrained for him to ignore such a thing.
He went a few streets over from where he heard the gossip. This was where the strangers must have been spotted.
Of course, by the time he got over there, there was no one out of the ordinary in sight. They were supposed to be heading toward the palace so he turned to head back that way himself.
He hurried as much as was possible with so many people in the way. Even if they were on foot like him, they had a serious head start. He just hoped that they were unfamiliar with the city and that would slow them down enough for him to make up ground.
As usual for daylight hours, the streets of the city were full of people going this way and that working, shopping, and talking to friends and neighbors. The crowds were not conductive to speedy travel, but overall people did not seem overly concerned or annoyed so Asa assumed the people he was searching for were not running through the streets pushing people out of the way.
After a couple blocks, he spotted a familiar shade of red hair ahead of him. His heart skipped a beat and he nearly slammed into the person in front of him as he increased his pace.
He narrowly missed bumping into several people as he squeezed between them to cover the yards between him and the person he spotted. He knew he had to be wrong. There was no way it was Yuri. It was just that Yuri was on his mind all the time now so he thought he saw the person he missed more than anyone.
He almost called out to him before he caught himself. He only saw Yuri because he had been on his mind. While he acknowledged he was probably seeing things, he still continued to follow after the person.
The distance between them closed. All the while, he told himself Yuri was hardly the only person to ever have that shade of hair, but he still could not shake the hope that it might be Yuri.
He closed the gap and as soon as he was able to look at the face of the person he had been following. His heart leaped to his throat. He tried to call out, but his voice was trapped by his racing pulse.
With no voice to catch the man’s attention, Asa was forced to give one final push to get close enough to get him to turn around. People seemed more than happy to clear a path for him now. He could hardly imagine how he must look charging through the street with hardly any regard for the people, animals or vehicles that were in his way. It was rare to see a member of the palace guard in such a hurry in the marketplace.
Time seemed to slow down which only made Asa wonder if it was happening at all. If this was a dream, surely he was about to find Yuri. If this was reality, in all likelihood he was about to grab the arm of a complete stranger. He needed to believe this was a dream, for abandoning his original reason for coming out into the city to chase after someone that could hardly be who he hoped it to be violated his sensibilities.
It was too late to turn back now. He knew at this point he just needed to let this diversion run its course so his mind could refocus on finding Ciel.
No more than thirty seconds since he started trying to catch up to the red-headed man, he caught up with him. His hand reach out and grabbed the man’s arm of its own volition. He knew he lacked the nerve to do such a thing consciously, but his desire to know for sure whether he had found Yuri or not overruled his typical tendencies.
Now he had the red-headed man’s attention and he got the opportunity to see his face up close. He knew what he hoped and what he expected, but he was prepared for neither.
Asa stood staring into Yuri’s eyes. He lost the ability to think or move. He merely stood and stared.
For a second Yuri seemed to be just as frozen as him. Then his face broke into a smile and Asa found himself pulled into a rib crushing hug.
“What are you doing out here? I thought I wouldn’t see you until I made it back to the palace,” Yuri asked in a flurry. His excitement did not leave time for Asa to respond between questions.
Asa shook his head, ignoring the questions in favor of asking his own. “What are you doing here? No. Never mind that. Where have you been?”
Yuri continued smiling. “That is a very long story. I’ll tell you everything once we’re home.”
“We can’t,” Asa insisted. All the joy of their sudden reunion drained out of him merely at the thought of Yuri entering the palace.
It pained him to have to share this news, but his priorities were already realigned. Now he needed to do everything in his power to keep Yuri safe. Pursuing Ciel further would do him no good at all. His concern with her theft was the loss of his ability to find Yuri again. He no longer needed the document she stole and he could not bring himself to worry why she felt the need to steal it in the first place. Since the duchess did not seem to care, he saw no reason to care himself.
Yuri frowned. “What do you mean we can’t?”
Asa sighed. He took a step back and took note people all around them going about their business. Not only would much of the news he had to share come as a blow to Yuri, but he did not want to be overheard speaking of his impressions of the current state of affairs in the palace.
“A lot has changed since you went away. Some of it I cannot explain here and some of it I would rather not tell you until we’re somewhere I know is safe.”
“Good lord! Is it all that bad?” The way he spoke sounded lighthearted enough, but the crease in his brow belied his cheerful tone.
“Let’s find somewhere we can speak privately. Then I will explain everything.”