Inbetween: Chapter Thirty Two

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Now that they were settled into a safe place the talks could really begin. Yuri felt a bit more confident now. There was no one coming to interrupt them here. Even if she had a crew on her ship, they were not with her now and they were not likely to make it all the way here without being noticed. Here he would be able to talk while at ease, or at least as much at ease as he could be when dealing with the leader of a much larger country that seemed to have developed a sudden interest in a tiny place like Detreya.

This little outcropping of rocks felt more like his turf. Here he was able to take the initiative. There was some element of safety in numbers in play as well. He was sure that he was safe as long as he was with Asa and Willow and Alenna was here alone. He tried not to allow himself to analyze that fact too much. He would not be okay with being outnumbered like this so he wondered why she agreed to it. Everything about her seemed to indicate that she was more sensible than this. He had to assume that she knew what she was doing and still had some sort of insurance in place. Even with safety in numbers, he would need to tread carefully. The last thing he wanted to do was push her into hurting one of the others.

“Maybe you can start out by telling me why you really came here,” he said after weighing his options. He knew he needed to be direct, but did not want to demand too much of her until he knew more.

“Fair enough. That’s as good a place to start as any,” she agreed with a heavy sigh. “It would be hard to miss the fact that Erramun was already on his way here. He didn’t waste any time so that meant I couldn’t hang back and wait either.”

“Why are you converging here? I know there was a power vacuum in Detreya, but we’re hardly large or influential enough to be worth the notice of either of your empires.”

Alenna smirked and waggled a finger at him. “That’s where you’re wrong,” she insisted. “You are influential enough to be worth our notice.”

“With all due respect, that’s not the case at all,” Yuri argued. “We’re barely present on the world stage. I would know. I’d been working with Durya on matters of diplomacy for years.”

She studied him for a moment. “You’re not playing with me. You really don’t know.”

“What don’t we know?” Asa broke in.

Apparently, Yuri was not the only one feeling bolder based on their current location and their superior numbers. He was glad for the support, but Yuri had to hope that the two of them talking would not cause the conversation to go off course. Usually, they worked pretty well together, but after they were apart for several weeks and now were under so much stress, he did not know whether he and Asa would be able to coordinate that well.

Alenna remained as unflappable as ever. With a calm look on her face, she answered him. “It’s your water, you see.”

“Our water?”

“Of course. It’s your most valuable resource, isn’t it?”

Yuri never thought of it that way, but it was certainly true. The rich veins of magic-infused ore made Detreya a fertile oasis in the midst of the biggest, harshest desert in the world. He nodded slowly, acknowledging her statement as fact.

“Nowhere else has stones with water magic like you have in Detreya.”

He could not disagree with her. It was certainly something that they as a community took for granted. He never considered that other places did not have access to water in the same way that they did. It just did not seem like it was a concern in other places. Living outside of the boundaries of the desert meant that there was water readily available from bodies of water without the involvement of magic. He could not imagine wanting to use magic for water when a simpler alternative was present.

“Why would there be interest in our water?” he asked.

Her eyes twinkled. He frowned slightly. He did not appreciate her amusement. He needed answers and she would rather play with him and lord it over him than just speak to him plainly. Her teasing nature was rapidly losing its charm.

“Is there something wrong with the other water supplies out there?” Willow chimed in.

Yuri felt Alenna’s attention drift from him to Willow. A weight lifted off his shoulders. Being outside of the direct influence of her strange manner opened up his mind. His thoughts did not seem so locked up now. He thought he knew what Willow was thinking almost immediately.

Alenna smiled at Willow. “Something is rather vague, isn’t it?”

Willow shrugged. “I could guess, but I didn’t think this was a game.”

Now it was Yuri’s turn to look at Willow. He did not want to think of the damage she could do if she became too disrespectful toward Alenna. She did not seem to have any concern at all for the way that her words or her tone might be interpreted or how it might affect their chances of forming an alliance.

Alenna continued to seem amused by it all. It was possible she was trained to hide her irritation well, but Yuri could feel the irritation radiating off of Willow. He needed to do something to diffuse the situation without drawing attention to it. Fortunately, he was sitting next to her. He reached over and took her hand in his. He was not sure how she would respond, but at the moment, he thought it was worth the risk.

His efforts were not in vain. Willow intense glaring at Alenna stopped almost immediately. He knew she was watching him with suspicion now, but he did not turn to look in her direction. If he did, he was sure that she would say something to him. Instead, he gave her hand a reassuring squeeze and hoped that it would be enough to give her some sort of serenity while they continued to talk to Alenna.

Their conversation only lulled for a few brief seconds while he tried to divert Willow’s attention, but it was more than enough time for Alenna to notice what was going on. She was watching them, looking as delighted as ever. Yuri found himself starting to resent her constant amusement. The longer her eyes seemed to sparkle as she watched them, the more he started to suspect it was all at their expense. She was only as amused as she was now because she enjoyed watching their discomfort and struggles. Alenna wanted to get under their skin and it pleased her to see Willow losing her temper during their conversation.

Yuri knew he could not stop this entirely without killing any potential alliance. There was too much he could not control, and it was not merely because he knew it was hopeless to think he could do anything to control Willow. He knew he needed to just accept that Alenna was the sort of person to find enjoyment in observing those around her and doing her best to manipulate the most interesting reactions out of them.

“Alenna,” Asa asked calmly, saving the day. “What’s happened to the water?”

“I can’t say for sure,” she admitted. “People are getting sick from the rivers. Wells are drying up. I’m sure you can guess why there might be an increase in interest in water stones.”

“We can’t possibly give away our own water supply,” Yuri insisted.

“I don’t think there’s much interest in waiting for you to give it away. These people are seeing their families die and their land dry up. They’re demanding someone do something,” Alenna explained.

So there was pressure elsewhere in the world to find a new source of water. He could understand the panic. Being without water became very dangerous very quickly, but taking water stones from Detreya would kill the city. It would mean war.

Then it clicked. Erramun was here working to make sure there would be no war when the water stones started leaving the city to parts unknown in the wider world. Erramun was making Nyura blind to his real intentions. Yuri knew now that it would be more imperative than ever that he regain control of Detreya. If he did not, people could die.

Willow frowned. “We’ve used water stones. They only last for so long. Why would people want to turn to such a temporary solution?”

“It is possible for those small stones to be recharged by someone with the right magical knowledge,” Asa chimed in. “The small stones won’t be the ones they’re after anyway.”

“You’re right,” Alenna agreed. “They’ll want to mine up the massive deposits under your city. Water stone of that size and purity would take centuries to run out of magic.”

Yuri remained silent for now. He listened but needed time to think as well. Obviously, Alenna was implying that Erramun intended to steal the water stones, but if the problem was spread across the world, Alenna’s people were in need too. She might seem like she was here to help, but she could easily be out to get the same thing. The way she acted made it all too likely that she was operating with some sort of ulterior motive.

To say he was suspicious would be an understatement. He knew something did not add up here and the fear of losing a potential ally would only hold him back for so long. He needed to be sure that Detreya was safe. His own safety and position were a distant second to the lives of the people of the city and surrounding farmland that relied on the deposits of water stones underground for survival. His purpose in life had been to learn how to best rule and protect those people. Just because he was not in his expected place as their ruler did not mean that he would do any less for them.

“What about your people?” he asked, deciding to delve right into the heart of the matter. “Is their water poisoned or disappearing?”

“Some,” Alenna admitted, “but we have alternative methods of collecting water. We don’t need to go underground to get what we know how to gather directly from the skies.”

Willow perked up and seemed to re-engage with the conversation instead of sitting and sulking. “If you have a way to get water, why don’t you just share that information with the people that are in need?”

“Alas, things are never that simple,” Alenna explained with a dramatic sigh. “Even if we offered to teach them what we knew, it would not be received well. The sort of distrust that builds up between people makes it hard to share information with no strings attached and have it be trusted.”

“So why not attach some strings?” Willow asked. “If that’s what it will take to make them give it a try, wouldn’t that be better than letting them rip a bunch of stones out of the ground?”

Alenna clapped her hands slowly three times. “I like the way you think. You could do well for yourself in the political sphere.”

“No thank you,” Willow stated emphatically.

“That’s too bad. You might be able to go far if you had an inclination for it.”

“Have you tried to give them the information?” Yuri pressed.

“Afraid not. Even if we told everyone what we knew, it would not work as well in other places. Someone might be able to come up with a way to adapt it to work elsewhere, but it must look easier to just take what they need.”

If her being entertained meant they would get the answers and help they needed, he did not mind too much, but he did not like being played with if it was not going to make a difference for them in the end. She might consider this a game, but it was no game to him.

He hated the power imbalance. He was not used to being outmaneuvered. He knew Durya’s noblemen and courtiers so well that outsmarting them was hardly a challenge after a while and so few foreign dignitaries of his rank or higher visited, he had hardly any occasion to experience this shift in his own significance in the past. He needed to adjust to it and accept it as his new lot in life. He had no rank, no power or influence left in this world. He might not be nobody, but he could not be anyone as long as he was on the run and hiding from the public.

“It sounds like this doesn’t change anything for you one way or the other. Why are you involving yourself in this? What do you have to gain from it?” Yuri realized that it was going to take Alenna a good, long time to get to the point if she was not guided down the correct course. She enjoyed playing with them too much. It was up to him to keep guessing which questions would leave to the answers he wanted.

Alenna shifted ever so slightly. It was almost imperceptible, but it changed almost the entirety of her demeanor. The teasing smile left her lips and her eyes hardened. In that moment, Yuri knew Alenna was much more dangerous than she initially let on.

“It might seem like I’m meddling in affairs that don’t concern me, but I’ve been around long enough to know if they go after one resource they need by force, they’ll do it again.”

“You want to stop Erramun from taking our water because you don’t want him to become emboldened enough to come after your country next.”

It made sense. It all seemed to line up perfectly. It said a lot about Alenna to have her present herself as calculating enough to perform what basically amounted to an act of altruism. As long as her plan was successful, that was all it would appear to be on the surface. To the world, she looked like an eccentric altruist and no one had to be the wiser. Yet, she openly admitted to her true motivation when he pressed her on the matter.

Every time he thought he had Alenna figured out, he started to uncover another layer to her behavior. He did not know if he would have her all figured out anytime soon, and that was starting to become a serious problem. The more of a mystery she remained, the harder it was for him to feel like he could or should trust her.

The fact remained, he needed a strong ally. Alenna presented the opportunity to not only form an alliance with the ruler of a powerful nation but a chance to learn from her and he realized there was a lot he could learn from her. He knew he could be a good ruler with the training he received from Durya. The old duke knew more about taking care of the needs of his people than anyone else he could imagine, but Durya had done little to truly prepare him for the chaos of dealing with the big, powerful nations out there just waiting for the slightest sign of weakness to swoop in and tear Detreya apart. Alenna knew how to play the game and how to stay three steps ahead of everyone else. Yuri wanted to learn too.

Alenna did not speak, but the subtle shift in her body language spoke volumes. He hit the mark. He did not need her to confirm or deny it. He knew now.

That made it all that more apparent that he had come to a decision even before he consciously realized it. He needed Alenna and if he was going to survive in this world these days, he needed to make sure that Alenna needed him too.

He sighed. It was hard for him to admit he needed help and it was even more difficult for him right now to act without first consulting Asa and Willow. They were all in this together now and they needed to act as a unit.

“I think we’re going to need to work together,” he stated finally. He knew that Willow and Asa had been waiting to hear his decision and he felt some pressure lift off his shoulders as he said it. With that weight gone, other burdens began to weigh down on him. He made a decision for all of them in that moment. If it went wrong, they would only have him to blame.

Alenna smiled. “I’ve been saying this all along. We need each other if we’re going to make this work.”

Yuri nodded in agreement. It was simple enough. He made the decision and now that it was out of the way, he was starting to think about the future of this alliance. Possibilities stretched out before him that he could not see moments before.

“Well, are you still going to avoid boarding my ship, or are we ready to trust each other now?” The twinkle was back in Alenna’s eyes. She took great pleasure in teasing and tormenting him, he knew that and accepted that it would be a price he had to pay for her support and assistance. He hoped he would get used to it.

He looked to Asa and Willow before he said anything. He took enough of their agency away from them. They had a right to decide whether they would leave with Alenna or not.

Willow did not seem to have much of an opinion one way or the other. She was just watching Yuri with far too wide of eyes. If he did not know that she was almost unflappable in the face of real danger, he might think that she was frightened right now. On his other side, Asa was looking at him eagerly. His eyes were almost as wide as Willow’s but he was looking to Yuri with anticipation and excitement. It was a lot of what Yuri had been feeling himself. He was itching to have something happen. It was better to do something rather than going back to hiding in the cave and hoping that circumstances would change for them.

Getting on Alenna’s airship would be the first step to regaining some control of his life. It was a big step, he knew, but it was long overdue.

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