Inbetween: Chapter Twenty Nine

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He did not know what he expected when he reentered the palace after being gone for so many days. His face was still known and the guards at the gate let him pass without a question or comment. He thought he would run into more difficulties. When he did not, instead of feeling relief, Asa grew more anxious.

He should not have been welcomed back. He abandoned his post. If anyone else did such a thing under his watch, they would never be able to walk back into the palace without a summons.

Maybe that was the problem, he realized as he walked through the halls. He assumed Nyura and the others that served her would operate the way he would. Nyura and the people left working as palace guards were inexperienced.

Without putting any thought behind his actions, his feet started taking him back to his office. Once he realized where he was going, he decided to go along with it. In his office, he could get a change of clothes and regain his bearings.

Once he was back in his uniform he felt a bit more like himself. The change in attire changed his entire attitude. No longer did he feel as though he would be persecuted, putting on his old uniform made him fit in again.

He hated how empty the halls were now. He felt the lack of guards in his bones. The palace was vulnerable like this. Just from the brief glimpses of the gate and the halls he had so far, Asa could tell that the guard was down to about a third of its full force. He could not understand how Nyura could allow this to happen, but he knew even if she was aware of the problem, she did not have the leadership skills to do anything about it.

Now that he had his uniform to act as he armor, he knew he needed to make his way to the throne room. Nyura would be there and Erramun would certainly be at her side. If Yuri was right about why Alenna came here, then she would be right there with the other two.

He felt confident enough to go into the lion’s den, but he did not know how well received he would be in there. The uniform gave him the feeling that he had some sort of authority to be speaking to these people, but he knew he still did not look entirely like himself. After living in the desert for days, he knew he was looking a bit rougher than usual.

That might work to his advantage if he spun it the right way. If he came to them looking perfectly groomed they would not have a reason to think that he had been through anything that might keep him away for so long. At least now he looked like he had been somewhere and did not necessarily enjoy it.

Erramun made him unsure of his plans. He had a feeling that he already set up a network of spies in the palace. He knew Ciel worked for him and considering how that all turned out, he had to assume that Ciel was not the only person he brought to work behind the scenes. Erramun’s true motivations might be up to interpretation, but Asa had his suspicions that he was not working with only one other person. Ciel filled a very specific purpose. Erramun would need others to feed him information from every angle. Depending on how many spies he had working under him right now and what information they focused on, they might have a better idea of what he had been up to than he hoped.

He realized all of his worrying did nothing but delay the very reason he came here. He could not let this drag on any longer than was absolutely necessary. He had to think of Yuri and Willow waiting for him. Without him, they would be out of options. Yuri needed to stay out of sight and Willow was not comfortable enough traveling in the desert or shopping for supplies to be able to get them what they needed to survive on her own. Staying here too long put them at risk.

The palace was so deserted and quiet, he did not know where to look to make arrangements to gain an audience with the duchess. He hoped that he would be able to get to see her without any such formality as he did before, but he would rather not count on it.

The duchess might not have much concern for propriety, but with Erramun and Alenna present she might be coaxed into behaving in a different manner.

The halls were just as empty going from his office in the guards’ quarters to the throne room as it had been going from the gate to his office. It was not all that long ago that the halls were constantly full of bustling people. Foreign dignitaries, merchants and the people of the city were always coming and going. Some only came for a short while to speak to the duke, but others were long term guests. The rooms of the palace were often full. Nyura expressed her disinterest in such visitors. Now everywhere seemed empty and hollow.

He could hear the echo of his every footfall as he walked down the hall approaching the throne room. He was caught off guard when he discovered the door to the hall was slightly ajar and no guards stood as sentries.

It was a huge security risk and he found himself making a mental note to check the roster to see who should have been standing guard at these doors before he could catch himself and remember that he was not here as captain of the guard today. He did not know who was doing his job now, but he did not have any illusions that this person knew what they were doing.

It was hard for him to shake the thoughts of his past life. He slid back into his old role without any sort of conscious effort on his part. He had to shake himself out of it. He came here on a mission and worrying about palace security and guard rotations were counter to his current goals.

There was no one there to announce him so there was no other option for him than to slowly, cautiously push the door open and look into the hall. He tried not to expect to see her. With so few people around there was no reason for her to spend all day holding court. She could easily go elsewhere and find more productive ways to pass her time.

Even though he had little reason to hope, he still found himself holding his breath as he looked ahead into the room. He did not know if he was actually relieved or disappointed to see Nyura just where she should be at this time of day. He could not say that he liked the sight of it. There was no security and she was sitting idly, doing nothing to govern or help improve the lives of their people. He would have preferred to go looking for her if it would have meant finding her doing something that could at least be viewed as beneficial to the city. Seeing her sitting here doing nothing at all was a disappointment.

There was nothing left for him to do but step forward and get the ball rolling. The hall was eerily silent while he walked forward. He could hear his every footstep echoing off the walls. He made a point to not look at Nyura as he approached. He still faced forward, but eye contact at this point was out of the question.

As he approached the throne, Asa could not miss the very moment Nyura recognized him. He saw her eyes light up and she leaned forward in her seat. He made an effort to keep his expression neutral. Until he knew how she felt, he needed to keep all of his options open.

“Asa,” she said heartily enough, but her smile seemed forced and did not extend beyond her lips. “You’ve come back to us.”

He bowed to her in response. He immediately noticed her choice of the word us and wanted to see who exactly comprised that group at the moment before he proceeded any further than necessary. Fortunately, the bow seemed to be enough to satisfy her in terms of communication. Nyura was more than willing to be the one doing the majority of the talking herself, at least for now.

“You look terrible. Where have you been?”

He prepared to answer her, but before he could get a word out in response, Nyura continued. He breathed an imperceptible sigh of relief. Every second he did not have to speak was a gift. Any information he could get without giving any in return put him at an advantage.

“I thought you and that Ciel must have gone off to get Yuri back for me, but then Erramun told me that he had sent Ciel on another mission. I had no idea what had happened to you. Did you find Yuri? Have you brought him back to me?”

Nyura leaned forward in her seat. Her eyes were shining with excitement. Asa almost hated to lie to her. Even now her whole mind seemed to turn toward Yuri with obsessive dedication. He knew it was not healthy for her to behave like this, but as long as her state of mind kept her from idolizing Erramun he could not help but feel at least a little bit happy to hear her talk like this.

As long as she was having thoughts and feelings that were undeniably her own, he knew he could still reach her. She might be easily shaped to match someone else’s means, but her will was not weak enough to disappear entirely in less than a month.

“Unfortunately, I lost the scroll you were so good as to help me find. I was trying to track it down again,” he answered easily enough. It was not a lie. It was what he had done initially, even if that reason for his absence lasted only a few hours. He felt confident that no lie would be detected. He had no reason to think that Nyura would dig any deeper if as long as his answer did not shock her.

Just as he finished giving his answer High Lord Erramun casually stepped out from somewhere behind the throne. Their eyes met. Erramun did not seem to have much of a reaction to Asa being there nor did he give any indication of having an opinion on what had been said so far.

Once Erramun’s gaze broke away from Asa, it was as though a spell had been broken. Although nothing about Erramun’s expression or posture seemed to change, the atmosphere of the room suddenly became icy and uninviting. Erramun leaned in over the arm of the throne to whisper in Nyura’s ear. The effortless fluidity with which he draped his body over the throne suggested that he had done this many times before. He whispered in Nyura’s ear for a moment and during that time Nyura only had eyes for him.

As soon as Asa felt the change in the temperature of the room, he knew this would not go well for him. He braced himself, wondering just how bad it could be in the end. He could prepare for just about anything if he knew what he was getting into. He could see too many variables and he had no way to prepare for all of them. He was reasonably good at seeing these things, but outside of a fight, he had little experience in using the skill.

Nyura’s expression went through several phases as Erramun whispered to her. She adored him. That much was apparent from the look in her eyes as soon as they lighted upon Erramun. When he spoke, he had her full attention. Asa doubted he could have torn her focus away if he had tried. Instead, he waited.

He knew he was playing into Erramun’s hands by not trying to pull Nyura’s attention away. As long as he waited patiently he was making it subtly clear that there was only one dominant personality in this room and it was certainly not him.

Whether things would have continued to deteriorate for Asa or if he could have gotten a better handle on it, he would never know. Before matters could improve or deteriorate, the atmosphere of the hall changed once again.

The door quite a way behind Asa opened and closed again with two almost imperceptible clicks. The sound of light footfalls steadily grew louder. It took all of Asa’s willpower not to turn around and see who was coming. He had his suspicions as to who it was, and he desperately wanted to know if he was correct, but he forced himself to be patient. He could not let his curiosity do anything to put him at a disadvantage or to turn his back to Erramun even for a millisecond. He knew he would be on the lookout for just that.

“Oh! We’re holding court today,” an amused, feminine voice said from right behind him.

“Lady Alenna,” Nyura exclaimed joyfully. “I’m glad you decided to join us. Asa here is going to find Yuri for me. It’s his duty to me and to all the people of Detreya.”

The dramatic way Nyura said this made Asa want to gag, but he resisted the urge to react at all. His survival might very well depend upon remaining stoic no matter how over the top Nyura became.

“I see.” Asa could hear Alenna’s lips curl into a smile as she spoke.

There was an awkward pause. Nyura seemed to still be pleasantly diverted by gazing at Erramun. Meanwhile, Erramun was staring past Asa at Alenna, he had to assume.

The tension in the room continued to mount. Nyura appeared to be oblivious to it. Asa wanted no part in it. This seemed to be between Alenna and Erramun, which did not surprise him.

He was not involved and he wanted to keep it that way. Getting between two people with so much power and money to back them up did not seem like a way to keep himself or his friends safe from harm.

The spell was broken when Alenna moved. For the first time since she entered the room, he was able to see her. He was not sure what he expected, but he imagined someone different. She was shorter than he had expected, and not at all as imposing in appearance as the energy she exerted seemed to suggest.

“Well, I won’t hold you up any longer. Asa, if there’s anything at all I can do to help you find Yuri, please come find me after you’re done here.”

He did not need more of an invitation than that. As soon as he could get away from Nyura and Erramun he would be going to see Alenna. She had something to say and if she would not say it here, it was probably worth hearing. He just hoped going to see her private would not anger Nyura and complicate his plans to return to the desert.

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