Inbetween: Chapter Forty Eight

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Yuri knew this mountain range stretched far into the north before curving to the west and continuing for quite a long way at this far northern latitude. He knew it well enough on a map, but in practice, he could only guess how far they had flown. Even if he had watched every single mountain pass by, he would not have known the geography well enough to pinpoint their location.

Alenna steered them through the mountain range without consulting maps or her compass, seeming to have the entire route memorized. They never veered off course or had to made a sudden climb in altitude as a pass grew drastically narrower. Every bit of the journey felt perfectly choreographed, which only left Yuri with more questions about where they were going. Try as he might, he could not fathom what could be in this frozen land of jagged peaks to induce her to such familiarity.

They weighed anchor at a primitive village situated just below the snow line. Once they disembarked and walked into the village, Yuri immediately noticed it was an even smaller settlement than he had thought from his first view from above. This was not so much a village as a small collection of plain, small houses huddled together seemingly for safety. With no buildings other than houses, he found it hard to imagine what they might be doing here. This was obviously their intended destination, but their reason for stopping here could not be more elusive.

Things became a little more clear as people came out of the houses and greeted the few crew members that had come along to help fly the airship. They specifically came along on this trip to see these people, probably their families. Now with that mystery solved, he just needed to figure out why Alenna came here and why she wanted to bring them along for this trip.

He only found himself with more questions when Alenna just walked into one of the houses on the street without so much as a knock. He stood at the doorstep and exchanged confused looked with Willow and Asa. The door was left open, perhaps as an invitation for all of them to follow, but none of them seemed all too eager to be the first to step inside.

From inside the house, he could hear the sounds of excited conversation. No one seemed upset by Alenna’s intrusion, and his curiosity was growing. With a heavy sigh and a shake of his head to Willow and Asa, he stepped inside to see for himself just what was going on. As soon as he found the nerve to move forward, it seemed to embolden the others. He felt them close on his heels as soon as he crossed the threshold.

Inside, Alenna was holding a small boy who was clinging to her neck and chattering happily in her ear. The look on her face was one that he found to be completely alien to all his previous interactions with her. Her entire expression had softened, as though for once she had no reason at all to be shrewd and calculating.

As soon as he entered the room, a man stood up from his seat near the fire, as though he was going to intervene and turn them away. Alenna took a step closer to him in an attempt at reassurance.

“It’s okay. Yuri, Asa, and Willow are my guests. I’d like the three of you to meet my husband, Mason, and my son, Elbie.” Alenna performed these casual introductions as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

Yuri had no idea before this moment that Alenna had any family whatsoever. She appeared to be quite alone at her home. As far as he saw, there was no sign of a spouse or a child in her home. They appeared to live here, which only brought more questions. How did someone as powerful and influential as a High Lord have a family that no one in the outside world knew about? She was constantly in the public eye, surrounded by dignitaries from nearly every civilization in the world at some time or another. He had been brought up to believe that the idea of a private life was not available to leaders. Now he was starting to think that there were loopholes to this generalization.

There were no dignitaries or courtiers here. The crew from the ship seemed to be comprised entirely of people originating from this village so perhaps there was some sort of hometown loyalty at play. The concept had some appeal for Yuri. The last thing he wanted to do was foist his position onto Asa and Willow, neither of whom had the disposition or expressed any interest in being part of politics. He often felt the strain of his responsibilities hanging in the air between them even now when he was utterly isolated from the scrutiny of the public eye. If there was a way to shield those he cared about from suffering under the burdens of a role they were not made for, he wanted to learn it.

Aside from his own musings about the potential skills and strategies he might learn from, the thing that most struck him was the stark contrast between Alenna and her husband. Alenna looked bird-like and fit for a life in the sky. Mason appeared to be as solidly built and sturdy as the mountain he called home. The pair of them seemed rather mismatched, but because of their differences, they seemed complementary. He wondered how an outsider might view him with Asa and Willow. To him, they seemed normal and well suited to each other, but he had no idea how things might look from a different perspective. Anyone who could make things work, especially with so much distance between them for so long, must have a pretty strong relationship.

He doubted Alenna brought all three of them here just to reveal that she had a husband and son hidden away in the mountains. The real reason for them being brought along here was still a secret for some reason. He had asked to be brought back into the loop as far as the world of politics was concerned, but so far none of this seemed to be part of a political mission.

Alenna had fallen into a hushed conversation with her husband while her son hid behind his parents’ legs. He looked over his shoulder at Asa and Willow who looked as unsure and out of place as he was trying not to feel.

He put a lot of effort into masking his uncertainty. Years of training to mask his true training from people that were watching his every move for signs of weakness made it second nature for him to concentrate on hiding his true feelings. He wished he could do something to reassure them so they would at least stand a chance of hiding their true feelings.

So far Alenna seemed much more interested in explaining the current situation and reason for her bringing along three unexpected guests to Mason, but Yuri had no doubt that she was carefully observing all of them and their reactions.

He stepped back to stand next to Asa and leaned over to speak out of the side of his mouth, hoping to avoid being overheard even if they were being watched. “Calm down. I don’t think we’re in any danger here.”

The glare he got in response only made him worry that he had only made things worse. Willow stood on the other side of Asa, too far away for Yuri to discretely share communication. He caught her eye as she leaned forward to look around Asa at him with confused, questioning eyes. He offered her his most reassuring smile and a shrug he hoped told her that they would have to wait to converse freely.

He turned his attention back to the couple having a hushed discussion on the other side of the room. In the scant seconds he spent with his attention on Asa and Willow, Alenna dropped all pretense of hiding her emotions now. Although they were keeping their voices too low to be overheard, Yuri could tell she was on the defensive. Mason was irritated and had his arms crossed over his chest while he kept shifting his gaze away from his wife and onto the three unexpected guests standing near the door. While he did seem irritated, he at least seemed to not be losing his temper.

Nonetheless, Elbie appeared to be distraught by his parents’ disagreement. At the same time, he refused to leave their side. He seemed to be torn between wanting to escape from the sound of their disagreement and continuing to seek refuge and support hiding behind their legs.

Yuri decided to try to take matters into his own hands. He did not know whether he was good with children or not, but he thought that it would be better to offer an olive branch to the kid than to continue to be a source of terror for him. He knelt down to more easily have eye contact with the boy. He struggled to guess just how old the child was. His features were a mixture of his parents so going by his size alone could put his at a wide array of ages. He seemed tall when compared to his mother, but he seemed to have a greater share of her build than his father’s. A tall, thin boy could be younger than he seemed, or he might be several years older and simply take after his mother completely in build. Yuri thought, based on his distress, the boy was probably young and just exceptionally tall for his age. Whether he was on the young end of the possible age range or not, he looked as though he was old enough to talk. That meant the best way to get him over his fear of strangers was to talk to him. Whether he would move past it because he would learn that at least some new people were worthy of his trust, or simply because they would no longer be strangers once they started to know each other, it seemed like it would solve the problem of his shyness.

He might not know much about children or have any skills for dealing with them, but Yuri had a feeling that getting on Elbie’s good side would do a lot to get him into his parents’ good graces. Being down at the boy’s level made it easier to smile at him without seeming like he was intimidating. He considered the effort to be more than worth it when he managed to get the boy to look across the room at him for more than a few seconds. He waved at him, and he thought he saw the faintest glimmer of a smile in response.

It might not be much, but he decided to press his luck and see if he could get the kid to actually open up. At this point, anything was better than trying to figure out where he stood in this situation outside of his current interactions with Elbie. Alenna and Mason were still having an intense debate which seemed like it was supposed to be more private than it was at the moment since the room was more than a little full.

Willow and Asa were being awkwardly uncomfortable and not at all up to the task of social interaction. That left Yuri himself and Elbie to break the tension in the room. He was gung-ho about this. He doubted he would get any answers or resolution to this situation until the air was cleared.

He kept his voice low. The last thing he wanted to do at this point was interrupt whatever tiff Alenna and Mason were having. He might wish she they were having somewhere in private, but he was not able to control that, and he had not been invited to go to any other rooms in this home so, from his perspective, they were trapped as spectators to this disagreement.

“Hey,” he said quietly. As soon as he started speaking, he became increasingly aware of all of the little things he did that might make him seem intimidating to someone small, young, and shy. He smiled, but he worried that his smile might look scary. At the same time, he did not want to avoid smiling because that might make him seem too stern. At least when he spoke, he was able to hold Elbie’s attention. He tried not to worry about the minutiae too much and just tried to act in a genuine manner and hope that it would shine through.

He pressed on. “My name is Yuri. I’m a friend of your mom’s.”

Elbie’s eyes lit up and he stepped halfway out from behind Alenna’s legs. “Are you her vassal?”

That question caught Yuri off guard. He had not expected the child to know words like vassal. “No. I’m not her vassal.”

“Then who are you?”

He had Elbie’s attention now. The shyness melted away and the boy left the safety of his mother’s legs to move closer to Yuri.

He stayed knelt down so he could more easily maintain eye contact and hopefully continue to be seen as less of threat. He needed to consider what he was going to say. It was a complicated question, but giving a complicated answer to a small child seemed like a bad idea. He might be underestimating the boy, but his instincts told him that simple was better.

“I’m her friend.” It was more of an oversimplification than anything else, but it certainly suited their arrangement better than allowing himself to be described as a vassal.

Elbie frowned and put his hands on his hips. “My mom says she can’t have any friends. Everyone is out to get something from her.”

It was so starkly depressing to hear a young child say those words that Yuri did not know how to respond. He knew exactly what Elbie meant. He felt much the same way sometimes, although he believed he had at least a few people he knew to be an exception to the rule.

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