Inbetween: Chapter Twenty Three

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Asa knew he needed to find a quiet place to speak privately with Yuri. It sounded easy enough, but the city was overflowing with people. Market days always filled the city, but even more people than usual were visiting the city these days. High Lord Erramun’s visit seemed to add an irresistible appeal to traveling to the city. People that normally stayed home were making a point of coming to the city now. Most spaces that would ordinarily be empty at this time of day were crowded with people.

While he agonized over this issue, Yuri took charge.

“I think I know of a place where we can talk,” he announced decisively.

Yuri turned and started walking. Asa followed after him and so did a young woman Asa had not noticed until just now. He looked over at her, trying to figure out if he recognized her face.

He could not remember seeing her before. He knew it was possible that he had seen her in passing and forgot the incident in the time since, but he doubted it. She did not look like a local. She was pale with dark circles under her eyes. Her mussed hair and armfuls of strange clothes also made it hard to tell how she looked under better circumstances. Her strange attire just made him more sure that he had not seen her before today.

Her eyes briefly met his and she offered him a half-hearted smile and a slight shrug. Unsure of how else to respond, Asa smiled back.

Yuri knew exactly where he was going and wasted no time in leading them there. They had no choice but to follow behind him and do their best to keep up.

Asa knew there was no reason to doubt Yuri’s plan. He knew this city as well as anyone. Considering the number of times Asa knew Yuri snuck out of the palace to roam around the city, he had a feeling that he might have a better understanding of certain aspects of the city than anyone else from the palace.

There was not much to say since they already established that their conversation needed to continue in a more private location. That did not stop Asa from having the urge to pelt Yuri with a flurry of questions.

Yuri led them out of the worst of the crowds and into a less polished part of the city. Asa breathed a sigh of relief as he finally felt as though he had elbow room. Now that the city seemed a little less chaotic, he found himself growing more impatient to reach their destination.

The woman with them seemed a bit less relieved to be moving out of the bright, crowded part of the city. She moved closer to him and he caught her eying the buildings nervously as they walked past.

Her presence was not even the mystery weighing heaviest on his mind. She made him curious, of course, but he needed to know what happened to Yuri more than he needed to have any passing curiosity explained to him.

The streets were almost completely deserted by the time Yuri directed them down a short flight of stairs to a door barely visible from the street above. Asa followed Yuri without hesitation and was surprised after the skepticism she expressed that the woman followed them down the stairs without a hint of protest.

Inside Asa observed a small, dimly lit bar completely devoid of patrons. Yuri seemed to know this place and crossed the room to sit down at a table in the back corner of the room.

All three of them sat down and remained in an impatient, awkward silence until a waitress came over and Yuri ordered a drink for each of them.

Asa was on the edge of his seat waiting for Yuri to start talking. He did not know why Yuri seemed to be putting it off over and over again. He had to know just how much it was killing Asa to wait.

After all of the waiting and worrying he did over the last few weeks, Asa knew he should be able to wait a few more minutes now. That did nothing to stop him from feeling increasingly impatient for his explanation.

Finally, after what felt like an agonizingly long wait, but was probably no more than a moment or two, their drinks arrived. Then he waited expectantly for the explanations to begin, but no one seemed to be ready to talk. He could only guess what they had been through. Just based on the strained, exhausted look on Yuri’s face he had to assume it was something awful. He wanted to be patient, but it was too much to bear.

He realized that he needed to be the one to break the silence and begin the explaining. It was hard to do it. He knew the news he needed to share would not be well received. He wished so much that he could share some sort of good news, but now that he was on the spot, he could not think of any good news to share.

He took a drink and resigned himself to being the one to initiate a conversation. Now that he had a chance to get a good look at Yuri and his friend, Asa realized they were in no condition at all to be doing much at all in the way of thinking or talking. Both looked exhausted and overwhelmed by even this dim and quiet setting.

“Yuri,” he started carefully, deciding to get the easiest matter out of the way first. “Who is your friend?”

Several emotions passed over Yuri’s face in quick succession. Asa could tell that he managed to forget that an introduction was even necessary. He assumed there were much larger matters on his mind and did not blame him for the lapse in manners, even if it was amusing to think of someone so carefully trained in courtesy and diplomacy forgetting himself so easily. Asa knew his own manners left much to be desired and usually hoped it would be overlooked.

“Asa,” Yuri began carefully, as though he was making a point to say these words carefully since they had been neglected before, “this is Willow. Willow, this is Asa.”

Willow’s face lit up. As soon as they sat down she seemed to zone out, but this introduction seemed to have done the trick of drawing her back in.

“So this is Asa.” She tried to shift the bundle of clothes in her arms so she could offer her right hand for a handshake.

Asa shook her hand. Doing so merely confirmed the stray thought in the back of his mind that there was something different about her. Touching her hand intensified that gut feeling that there was something powerful and dangerous about this girl. He tried not to let his concerns show. Yuri trusted her, and he trusted Yuri. Whatever had happened to him and wherever he had been, he was sure Willow’s part in it would be clear to him soon.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” she confessed. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Before he could say anything else, Yuri interjected. “So why can’t we go home? What’s happened?”

Asa knew it was coming, but it did not stop him from cringing inwardly when he knew the time had come to be the bearer of bad news. He fought against the urge to divert the discussion to the questions he had about Yuri’s disappearance and reappearance. He knew Yuri had a right to know and he needed to be told as soon as possible.

He tried to break the news delicately, but it still hurt. Watching grief overtaking Yuri’s entire countenance pained him. Seeing Yuri’s pain cut Asa deeper than even his own grief had.

The words themselves did not take all that long at all to say, but the pain brought by those words dragged the seconds into an eternity. He knew Yuri needed some time to process and grieve, but he was also impatient to hear where Yuri had been all this time.

In the end, the one to drag them out of the silence was Willow. As the only one who knew nothing at all about the Duke, she did not need to recover from a shock. Asa tried to understand that she had questions of her own waiting to be asked and answered.

He was only able to sympathize with her impatience because he too needed reign in his desire to get more information about Yuri’s whereabouts recently. Piecing together the puzzle for Yuri did serve a purpose, but everything seemed to be changing at such a rapid rate these days that their priority needed to be on getting everyone caught up and on the same page as quickly as possible.

For the first time in a while, Asa found himself in the company of allies. Through all the chaos since Durya was killed, Asa felt so isolated. He had lived with so much uncertainty that he had a hard time believing that he did not need to guard himself here and constantly second guess the motivations of those around him.

With Willow’s assistance, Asa did eventually hear the story of Yuri’s adventure while he was missing from this world. He could not help but feel a bit of pride over figuring out that Yuri had crossed over to the other world.

Yuri and Willow kept exchanging glances while they spoke. Asa knew he was not getting the full story, no matter how complete the explanation seemed to be to him. He tried not to worry about them keeping things from him. He trusted Yuri to tell him everything he needed to know. Weeks had passed and neither of them could easily tell the other everything that had happened in a timely manner. The smaller details could be filled in later.

Although Asa had at least a million questions to ask Yuri about his time in the other world, he knew he needed to prioritize their safety over his own curiosity. Going back to the palace now would be undeniably risky. Without a doubt, Nyura would welcome Yuri’s return, but with Erramun on her arm, he was not sure that Yuri would be safe in his own home.

The High Lord’s grab for power and influence in Detreya was not hidden from anyone that cared to look. If Nyura handed the duchy over to Yuri, Erramun would lose his influence. Asa suspected that he would do anything to keep that from happening.

With the palace out of the question, the issue of finding a place for Yuri and Willow to stay became a priority. As an outsider, Willow did not have much to contribute, but Asa knew he and Yuri could figure something out.

“If the palace isn’t safe, is the city going to be any better?” Yuri asked.

“You’ll be part of the crowd. No one will be looking for you,” Asa insisted.

Yuri shook his head. “If you’re thinking that Erramun can’t be trusted, I think we need to consider the city to be dangerous as well. Anyone could be a spy.”

“Where else could you stay? A farmhouse? I can’t think of anyone we know well enough to trust outside of the city.”

“Maybe we should try to avoid being seen at all until we know for sure who can be trusted.”

“Where can we stay where we won’t be seen at all?”

Yuri grinned. “We can always go out to the desert. We’ve done it before.”

Asa groaned. They had lived in the desert before, but that was almost a lifetime ago. Doing so again would be possible, but it was not something he particularly wanted to do.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea? You’ll be isolating yourself from potential allies just as much as your enemies.”

“We have to do it for now. I need to get my bearings and come up with a plan, and we can’t expect Willow to run and fight when we could give her some degree of safety.”

“I’m not a helpless damsel and you know it,” Willow argued.

“Do you want to be stuck fighting my battles?”

“No. I’ve had enough of dealing with your enemies to last me quite a while.”

“Then we’re going to be camping out in the desert for a couple days,” Yuri said with the decisive tone he learned in the palace.

Asa knew better than to argue with him now. They needed a plan and he settled on one for them. Now they just needed to find a way to get out of the city without anyone drawing attention to Yuri. As long as word did not reach the palace, they were buying some extra time to develop a real plan.

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