Inbetween: Chapter Twenty Five


Although she had more than a few doubts about her ability to survive in a desert, Willow found herself adapting to her new life with surprising ease. Expecting to have nothing but difficulty once she set foot in the desert set her standards very low. After a few days, she had to admit she was pleasantly surprised.

Her lack of skills and knowledge did put her at a disadvantage, but with a bit of help from Yuri and Asa, she was able to pitch in and even learned some new skills. It turned out not to be as difficult as she thought it would be. She knew she had a tendency to assume the worst would happen.

They found a place to stay in no time at all so Willow’s concerns about running from place to place in the desert were unfounded. Yuri and Asa spent part of their childhood living in the caves out here so they returned to those caves now. Instead of spending all their time moving from one place to the next, they settled in one place and had a lot of free time to spend worrying and wondering. In that way, it might have been better if they had been on the move.

One thing they did not do, even though they had plenty of time to do it, was talk. There was not a lot of discussion happening in their group. This became the new focus on Willow’s worries. She knew Yuri. She knew he was capable of being silent, but it was not his natural state. Asa, on the other hand, remained a bit more of an enigma. His general silence did nothing to help her get to know him. He seemed to be a good enough guy, but she did not know anything beyond his attachment to Yuri and his patience with her.

After a few days in the desert, it became apparent that they would need to return to Detreya for some supplies that it was not possible for them to replenish on their own out here. Going back to the city also presented an opportunity to see how things were going for the people under Nyura’s rule.

Willow tried to understand why they were here, who Nyura and Erramun were and why Nyura’s rule was so problematic for Yuri, but a lot of it still went over her head. The problem was obvious and fundamental to both Yuri and Asa and in this particular case, they did not seem to be able to break it down into concepts that Willow could understand.

Not understanding did not make her want to help any less. She needed to feel as though she was of use, and she hoped that helping would, in turn, help her to understand the world she was in.

Yuri could not return to the city to replenish their supplies. The entire point of fleeing to the desert was to keep him from being seen by anyone that might wish to do him harm. Asa had no such target on his back and Willow decided she would like to go along with him. She was not a liability in terms of recognition so there was no barrier preventing her from going anywhere at this point.

Part of her felt guilty for leaving Yuri alone, but after just a few days hiding in the desert, she was already starting to feel stir crazy. Getting out and stretching her legs seemed vital at this point. The only thing really giving her pause about going along on this supply run was knowing that she would be alone with Asa.

As far as she could tell, there was nothing for her to worry about, but her gut always warned her against being alone with someone she did not know well. Even after spending the past few days together, she felt as though she did not know Asa.

After the way Yuri talked about Asa, she had been curious about him. Circumstances made it hard for them to get to know each other. Even with a lot of free time, the tension in the air was palpable and it dampened their spirits to the point that they did not participate in much small talk.

Willow spent most of her time learning what she could about surviving out here, although there was less to do than she expected. The guys were mostly quiet around her, but she caught them talking together more than once. They would not discuss anything with her and she had to do her best not to let their secrecy get to her.

Going back to the city with Asa gave her a chance to get to know him. She also hoped that she might be able to pry some information out of him if she got him alone. Once Yuri had his mind set on something, she knew better than to try to change his mind, but she hoped she might get something out of Asa.

Yuri seemed to take being left alone about as well as she could hope. He was not thrilled with the idea, but he always seemed to try to remain positive when their eyes were on him. She suspected he did not really want to be alone out here for a whole day, but he was sensible enough to know that it was necessary.

The time of year made it more difficult to stay in the desert. There was less food to be found out here right now. With the equipment they had, they could not find enough food to sustain three adults so supplementing their food supplies with purchases from the city was simply a fact of life.

As soon as they were out of sight of the caves where they had been camping out, Willow tried to strike up a conversation. She did not know how it would go, but she thought she needed to give it a try.

“So, Asa, how did you know about these caves out here?”

He laughed and shook his head. “We’re all familiar with the desert here. It’s a fact of life.”

Willow shook her head. “It can’t just be that. If it were that simple, we wouldn’t be very well hidden out here at all.”

“Most people don’t come out here. It’s easier to live on fertile land.”

That logic seemed hard to argue with. Willow had to agree. Having ready access to water and fresh food, either directly from the land or from a shop seemed a lot less complicated than living in the desert where necessities were scarce. It was interesting to agree with a majority in a place where she was acquainted with none of the members of that majority.

Both Yuri and Asa seemed to think nothing of living in the desert. Neither of them seemed to think it was ideal, but that did not cause them to grumble and sulk. Most of those things seemed to be the result of political strife rather than their current abode or lack thereof.

Neither Willow nor Asa could keep a conversation going. Both tried, but after spending the last few days almost entirely together, there was not much in the way of small talk for them to go over. This difficulty resulted in stretches of silence that took a lot of Willow’s courage to overcome.

Their trip was long enough to allow Willow to gain the courage to speak again before the farmland of Detreya was even in sight. “How did you and Yuri come to have so much experience with living in the desert?”

Finally, Willow seemed to have asked the right question. The energy and enthusiasm that had been missing from their earlier discussions were present at last, and in a way, Willow got so much more than she had asked for in Asa’s answer.

He opened up to her and gave her a better answer than she would have expected from Yuri on a good day. It was not that she ever got the feeling that Yuri was lying to her, but she did get the impression that he only wanted to present his best self to her. As far as she could tell, Asa felt no reason to hide certain facts from her.

“When Yuri and I were very young, we lived out here. Neither of us had a family to look after us and no one was interested in adding another mouth to feed to their family.”

Willow frowned. It sounded so unfair, but she believed it. Calling it wrong or railing against those who left young children without food or a bed seemed pointless when this all happened so long ago. Their fortunes had obviously changed at some point, but she could not help feeling glad to learn how they learned about the desert.

“How did you manage to survive out here as children? I mean, it’s not that hard for me to learn as an adult, but I have you and Yuri telling me what to do.”

“We weren’t alone. There was a plague. A lot of kids lost their parents over the course of a year or two. There were too many kids and not enough adults to look after us all. I don’t think anyone did it maliciously at first, it came down to making sure their own family survived even if it had to be at the expense of a neighbor’s orphan. We were pushed out of the cities. Farmers took in some of the older, stronger kids, but most of them were treated more like slaves than children.”

Asa grew quiet after that. Willow tried to be patient. Hearing this was difficult. She could not imagine what it was like living through it. Suddenly, she was impressed by just how normal they were. If she lived through something so terrible, she felt sure she would not be able to hide her scars.

They walked for a while in silence. Willow thought it would be kindest not to push him to say more before he was ready. He spoke about it calmly enough, but she did not want to assume he was not hiding the true extent of his feelings from her.

They barely knew each other. That made it all the more likely he would not be entirely open with her. Being nosy with him at this point in their relationship seemed inappropriate. Even after spending weeks getting to know him, she was not sure she would feel comfortable asking Yuri probing questions about this. He had been so caught up in grief and worry lately that Willow found holding a conversation with him almost impossible.

The more she thought about it, the more it seemed like it would not be so inappropriate to ask Asa a few questions. After all, he had been willing to talk about it with her in the first place.

Her curiosity won out around the time they could see the start of the fertile farmland on the horizon. He could always refuse to answer if she crossed a line, she reasoned. She would rather take this chance than continue walking in silence with the questions whirling around in her mind.

“How did you end up in the desert, though? It’s not exactly the first place I’d imagine kids would go if they were looking for some place safe.” She held her breath after she asked her question, unsure of how it would be received.

“I guess it does seem a little strange,” he admitted and then took a deep breath. “The desert is one of the only lawless places left. It’s not somewhere I’d go if I saw any alternative, even now. There are some people that take advantage of that lawlessness, though. They saw the plague orphans as an opportunity to raise a new generation with their way of thinking.”

“So a cult took in all the orphans?”

Asa shrugged and went silent for a moment before continuing. “They taught us how to live in the desert, but there were too many of us and water and food were scarce. It didn’t take long for them to encourage us to steal anything we could get our hands on — as long as it didn’t belong to them. That’s when Durya stepped in to stop the raids. He probably could have killed us and nobody would have cared. Most of us weren’t even from Detreya, but he took us all in instead. He put us to work in his army — not fighting at first — but earning our keep and we all had food and a place to sleep so it wasn’t so bad.”

“Durya was the duke who was killed. How did Yuri end up next in line?”

Asa sighed and shook his head. “That’s something you should ask Yuri.”

Willow let the conversation die down after that. She had enough to think about to occupy her for the rest of this trip, at least.

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