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Visiting the strange temple in the middle of the city twice in less than a year was something Asa never thought would happen. Each time he was looking for the same thing, but this time he was not alone. This time Willow was going with him and, as luck would have it, Yuri found a way to escape from his responsibilities and join them before they set out into the city.
That was a relief. It was not that he was uncomfortable being alone with Willow. They got along just fine on their own, in fact. It was not that Yuri had any special set of skills that would help them on this day either. Asa was just glad to be able to spend time with both of them again in a way that actually felt normal. Their every move in the palace had been scrutinized recently. Everyone wanted to know everything they could about Yuri and that led them to try to gauge his relationships to use them as a sort of barometer for his moods.
Asa tried to make sure they were given the privacy they deserved, but he knew in this particular situation he was too closely involved to be entirely effective. If he was operating from the outside he knew he would be able to do it, but unless he wanted to spend his life on the outside looking in, he had to accept that he could not protect them entirely.
Today, at least, he was being trusted to do his job. There might not be many perks to being involved with the duke while also being captain of the palace guard, but being able to assign himself to keep an eye on Yuri while he was out in the city was one of the better ones. He was sure there would be no problems, especially considering all the times Yuri managed to sneak out on his own without causing any serious disruptions. Between the two of them they could handle just about anything, and if there was something really unexpected then Willow might have to step in and use some of those rather terrifying powers of hers to keep them all safe.
He expected everything to be fine, but as soon as they entered the city he felt the unease of the people. The unease had been there the last time he ventured out in the city to speak to this priest. People were still worried. This year brought a lot of upheaval after a long period of stable, consistent rule. It was understandable that people would be on edge right now. Asa had complete confidence that Yuri would put them at ease soon enough. After all the years he spent learning from Durya, there was no way Yuri could fail to meet and exceed expectations.
No matter what Asa and Yuri might think, knowing the sort of energy and atmosphere that was normal for this city, Willow was impressed by what she saw. This was only her second opportunity to spend any amount of time walking around int he city, and this was a much more relaxed experience than the last time for a multitude of reasons.
Her interest in the city gave him a surge of hometown pride, but it was tempered by a twinge of regret that she was not seeing the city at its best. If everything went well, she would be back in her own homeworld long before things settled back down to anything resembling normal around here. She said she would come back when she found a chance, but there was no telling if or when that might be. Asa refused to believe that she was leaving forever, but he could not muster the optimism to believe there would be a speedy return.
He tried not to think about such depressing things. There were plenty of things in the present to keep his mind occupied and he was likely to miss something or make a mistake if he let his mind wander while he contemplated the future.
A street of shops containing high-end exotic goods from around the world caught her interest in particular. Her interest made him wish there was more to see. A lot of the trade caravans had stopped again. This whispers of war alongside the second new ruler in just a few months had the merchants in the city and abroad uneasy.
“Things were probably a lot more exciting around here in the weeks leading up to the wedding,” he explained.
“There are still so many beautiful things for sale,” replied Willow.
He nodded. “But no one is buying so the traders will stop bringing new merchandise.”
“So this stuff… where did in the world did it come from exactly?”
Soon enough Willow was asking enough questions to keep Yuri and Asa both occupied answering them. That kept his mind from focusing on a distant, hazy future. The trip through the city passed quickly as they described various landmarks to Willow and Yuri shared some his favorite places visit when he snuck out of the palace.
Asa smirked as Willow expressed her disapproval of Yuri taking unnecessary risks. He often felt the same way himself, but he knew better than to think that it was in his power to convince Yuri to do anything he did not want to do. There were just certain things that really brought out his stubborn streak and restricting his freedom in a city he fiercely claimed as his own was a surefire way to make him defiant out of principle. He had long since given up trying to make Yuri see the risks he was taking were unnecessary. As a compromise, Asa tried to go with him whenever he had a chance, but he knew Yuri purposely tried to keep some of his excursions secret so he could go out alone.
The time flew by and before Asa knew it, they were at the temple. The building hardly looked like a temple. Its appearance was laughable no matter how many times Asa saw it. The buildings were tall in this part of the city. People could no longer build out in this part of the city so they had taken to building up, rather than move elsewhere. The temple was built to match the style of the surrounding neighborhood. Instead of a sprawling complex of buildings like the temples found outside of the city, this one was a narrow building that climbed as high as the tallest of its neighbors. Asa could not say for sure, but he thought it might be a story or two taller than the last time he visited.
He was the only one of their little group that had visited this temple before so it fell on Asa to lead the way inside the building. The door swung shut behind them of its own accord, blocking out all light coming in from the street. The room was only dimly lit, but no light source was visible. Somehow, this faint light did not make the room creepy but rather brought about a sobering effect. This was not a place for joking around. The details of the room and its ornate decorations were obscured by the dim light.
While he was trying to see what was more than a few feet ahead of him, an elderly priest, nearly doubled over from the curve in his spine, silently approached. Asa did not even know he was there until he was nearly on top of them. The priest turned his head slightly and looked up at them. Without a word he turned and headed toward the stairs.
He exchanged glances with Yuri and Willow. Words were not expressly forbidden in this place, but it still felt wrong to speak when it was not strictly necessary. It was difficult to see much of their faces with the limited light throwing their faces into shadow, but he assumed they were feeling as uneasy here as him.
Yuri had used his authority and position to send word ahead and make sure that they would be accommodated today, but it still felt wrong to just show up and have these priest know exactly what they wanted. It only added to their mystique to do everything with as few words as possible. Asa tried his best to understand why they would want to do that, but he found it hard not to resent them for trying to appear to be something more than the mere mortals they actually were. He preferred people that knew who they were and did not play mind games to make themselves seem more important.
For a little old man, the priest was surprisingly capable of climbing flights of stairs. They went up and up. Asa lost count of the number of flights. The number of stairs per flight was oddly uneven and some stories of the building seemed to be missing floors. He did not remember the building being this strange before, but somehow it felt right. The whole place felt as though it was made to play tricks on the mind.
Although it felt likely they had gone up many more flights of stairs then he remembered taking last time, when the old priest opened the door to let them into a room it was the exact same room he remembered visiting the last time. The stacks of books were as tall and dusty as ever, piling high and leaving only the narrowest of aisles between stacks. The room had an overwhelming scent of old books and incense and the silence of the whole building was amplified by the sound dampening towers of parchment once the door was closed behind them.
Asa saw Yuri and Willow exchange a confused look. He knew he would have to be the one to take charge. In this situation, he was fine with it since he was the one with the experience with this place. He knew someone would be in this room, even if it seemed empty at the moment.
As their ears adjusted to the extreme noise dampening in this room, he started to make out of the sound of pages turning from further into the room. He squared his shoulders and led the way between the stacks of books.
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