Inbetween: Chapter Thirty

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With the palace so deserted, it should not have been too difficult to find one person, but Alenna seemed to enjoy making things more complicated than necessary. Instead of lurking somewhere near the throne room after encouraging Asa to seek her out, she disappeared into the palace and made him track her down.

Fortunately, he had an in depth knowledge of the layout of the palace, so he did not get lost and he had a good idea of where to start looking. If she was not aware of his knowledge, she might be testing him. Regardless, it did not take him long to find her. As far as he could tell this was just a game and a waste of time. If she had stayed close he would not have spent so long in transit.

There was no reason to have to go so far. With so few people in the palace these days, it was possible to find a private place to speak almost anywhere. He tried to let it go since there were more important matters to discuss, but his impatience turned every additional footfall into a missed opportunity.

He found her waiting for him, as though she had managed to very closely guess the exact amount of time it would take for him to separate himself from Nyura and Erramun and find her. He was not sure what he was supposed to make of her singling him out. She was making a point of antagonizing Erramun and befriending him. He was not powerful. In fact, when she had made her invitation, there was still a very real chance that he was about to lose the small amount of authority and influence he once had. Of all the people she could make an effort to know, he seemed an unlikely candidate for her to build an alliance with.

“Nice to see you again, Asa,” Alenna said as Asa stepped through the doorway.

She sat with the door to the room wide open and sat in a place where she had a clear view of the entrance. Why she behaved this way was a mystery to him. She picked fights with people in power and then acted as though she had no reason at all to take even slightest of precautions in this place. He could not imagine how much confidence she needed to possess to appear to be so at ease.

He hesitated to speak. Without knowing what she wanted or expected he could not imagine he had anything to contribute that would not be awkwardly phrased, unwanted small-talk or give away more than he should. Every day lately seemed to remind him that he had no business getting involved in political court intrigue. He was good at making the palace safe. He was good at managing his men. The complicated inner workings of the people that ran the world were beyond his understanding. This was more of Yuri’s game than his, but Yuri could not be here and he had to stand in as a very poor substitute. The fact that he knew he was a poor substitute for Yuri in this situation did nothing to bolster his confidence.

Out of his element and unsure of his ability to handle the situation, Asa felt acutely on edge. Alenna knew what she was doing and he remained in the dark. He did not even know if she could be trusted or what he should tell her and what he should keep secret until he conferred with Yuri. Their plans assumed Alenna would be vying with Erramun for Nyura’s favor, but she seemed to be ignoring Nyura. He did not know what to do since he already had her attention.

Alenna seemed to have been waiting for him to say something. He did not know where to begin. Eventually, she needed to speak again to get the conversation to start moving forward.

“I actually came here hoping to meet with Yuri. Word of Durya’s death spread much faster than news of Yuri’s disappearance.”

Asa nodded. It made sense to him. They did try to keep Yuri’s absence under wraps. The part that puzzled him was that Alenna seemed to be saying that she had no news about anything other than Durya’s death before she set out. They had assumed she came because it had become known that Erramun was working on building up a relationship with Nyura that would give him unprecedented power over the current ruler of Detreya.

“You don’t say much, do you?” Alenna said with an impatient sigh.

“I’m not sure what I should say,” he admitted.

“Ah! So you do speak!” she said as a grin spread across her face.

That made Asa even more nervous. He found Alenna to be more and more unnerving the longer he was around her. He could not shake the feeling that she knew more than she let on. He just knew she could tell there were secrets he was keeping from her. Something about the way she smiled when she looked at him seemed to say she knew just what he was thinking.

She pouted a bit when he did not respond immediately. “I guess I have to carry the conversation. That’s okay. I have a lot of questions for you, Asa.”

“What do you need to know?” he asked.

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” she said, still grinning.

The longer he saw her smiling like that the more he started to think that coming here might have been a bad idea. Something about how excited she was to talk about Yuri put him on edge. He wanted to be sure of her intentions before he did or said anything that might give away something about Yuri to her. With Erramun so obviously wishing Yuri ill, he did not want to run the risk of revealing anything if Alenna was of a similar mindset.

She gestured over to a set of cozy chairs by a large window. He followed her over, resigning himself to being stuck in this situation for now, but also steeling himself to stand his ground if he thought she was pushing him to reveal anything that might put Yuri in danger. He sat down rigidly. His nerves would not allow him to relax into the chair.

Alenna sat down in the chair opposite him. Her posture indicated she was completely at ease, but her eyes were alert and hungry. Asa tried to remain calm. He did not know Alenna personally and he had to admit that there was the possibility that he was misinterpreting her body language based on his own apprehensions about being here with her.

“Okay, now that we’re comfortable, let’s really talk. Have you really been looking for Yuri?”

“Of course!” Asa felt offended that she would even wonder whether he would look for Yuri. She had no reason to know how close they were, but even the notion of not trying to get Yuri back put him on edge. Nothing else occupied his mind but finding Yuri, at least until he found him. Now he wanted to keep Yuri safe, which at this point meant that he needed to tell some half truths. No one could know that Yuri was out in the desert until he was absolutely certain he could trust them. Asa was not taking any chances when it came to the safety of Yuri. After losing him once, he was not about to let it happen again. This time he knew what the risks were and what he could do to improve the odds of everyone staying as safe as they were now.

Although he tried his hardest to use his own internal logic to make sure that what he said was not technically a lie, Alenna still seemed to sense some sort of falsehood in him. The way her eyes narrowed while she scrutinized his face told him that she did not entirely believe what he said.

He tried to remain stoic even once he realized she did not believe him. Panicking, trying to backtrack on what he had already said, these things would only make matters worse. The only course of action he saw before him was to stick to the story he had presented to her. It was something he could do. It might not be perfect, and it certainly did seem to be backfiring on him already, but he could not tell more than one version of events to anyone in the palace. They would be here after he was gone and he had no way at all to control or even know if they spoke to each other and figured out he had been duplicitous.

He understood this could go very badly for him now that she suspected him of trying to deceive her. She was not as notorious as Erramun for her ruthlessness, but she did not come into her position by being kind and gentle or letting people walk all over her. He had crossed a line. He felt it. Then his gut calmed down his panicking head. He knew he had to be concerned, but her eyes looked more amused than irritated.

“I get the feeling you can’t really talk to me here,” she said with a sigh.

He remained silent. There seemed to be no point in confirming or denying the statement. Alenna already knew without him giving the answer a voice.

He worried that she might start to grow impatient with him if he just sat there trying to be as stoic as possible. He needed to open up to her in some way, even if it was only a token gesture to keep her from getting bored with him.

He needed her to be their ally. They could not trust Erramun and as long as Erramun was here, Nyura was not on their side. They needed Alenna. She would be the only thing that could help level the playing field for them. He needed to make sure she did not get fed up with the game they were playing before they even had a chance to get the ball.

“It can’t be easy,” he began with great hesitation. “You came here to pay your respects and by the time you arrived, Erramun was already here playing puppet master.”

He could have kicked himself as soon as he said those words. He was in Erramun’s territory as long as he was in the palace. He could not be saying anything negative about Erramun without putting himself at risk. There were ears everywhere. Fortunately, out of all the people that he could be talking to, he felt pretty certain that Alenna was the least likely to be siding with Erramun.

Alenna seemed amused by his comment. He did not know if he felt the least bit comfortable with her reaction. He wanted to be taken seriously. He needed Alenna to have at least a speck of respect for him so he could do a better job of determining whether she could be trusted.

Being caught between two powerful enemies was a much more intimidating proposition than having one of the powerful people on their side. If Alenna proved to be just as dangerous to their goals as Erramun, everything that they had been planning up until this point flew out the window. Yuri might have a contingency plan, but if he did, he was still keeping those cards very close to his chest.

He could feel his expression starting to shift. If he did not get a handle on his thoughts soon, his face would start to give him away. His control was slipping.

He forced himself to relax and took slow, methodical breaths until he felt as though he was back under control. At this point, he did not think that he could speak normally and after all that he did to keep the extent of his inner turmoil under wraps, he did not want to throw it away with too much emotion in his voice.

Alenna seemed almost too calm. Nothing at all seemed to bother her. Her confidence only put Asa more on edge, but he still tried to consider it a good sign. If she was not rattled, he did not think there was any reason for him to assume that there was any danger of him being found out during this meeting. She knew exactly what she was doing and she had manipulated the circumstances so she was the dominant and only source of power in this situation. He did not know how she managed to do it, but she apparently outmaneuvered even Erramun for the time being.

“I can tell you don’t want to talk right now. That’s fine. I get it. You’ve had a rough time of it lately and you need to settle back into your life again,” she said in a way that seemed to be for show more than part of their actual conversation.

Asa did not know if he was supposed to say something back or if he was allowed to maintain his silence for now. He bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment but kept his mouth shut. He told himself he just needed a few more minutes, but he honestly did not know when he would feel ready to speak again. Even a week from now might be too soon if this sort of atmosphere stuck around.

Relaxed as ever, Alenna continued. “Tomorrow evening I’m thinking about taking my ship for a sail out over the desert. I hear the stars are quite bright out there with no clouds and no city lights to dampen them.”

Asa knew he failed to hide his start of surprise from her. He did not care. Now he knew that he did not need to worry. He was able to see what she intended and the way she was going about doing it made him sure that she could be trusted.

“The desert at night is quite beautiful,” he agreed.

“Yes. I’ll go out there alone for the solitude, but there’s no telling if I’ll get much alone time. Stargazing is a popular hobby.”

“Indeed.”

Alenna shifted slightly and pulled a folded map out of her pocket. As she unfolded it she said, “Since you’re from the area, maybe you could point out a good spot for some peaceful stargazing.”

He felt a bit of a thrill. Alenna had thought of everything, it seemed. She was going to let him pick their meeting place. He just needed to point out a spot that would be easy enough for them to get to from the cave, but far enough away so that their hiding place would not be immediately given away. It was almost too easy. He had studied the landscape of the desert so many times he knew just the spot.

It was all almost too convenient. He wanted to pinch himself, but he knew that would have to wait until he was out of Alenna’s sight. In the mean time, he needed to think of a plan for getting out of the palace with an adequate excuse. Now that he knew that he had not completely burned bridges in the palace, he wanted to preserve the connections he still had here for future use.

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