The bar was perfect, unremarkable, but perfect. In fact, the ordinariness of the bar was exactly what had always drawn Yuri to it. It was a place for average, ordinary people to meet with their friends and unwind after a long day. These people rarely took notice of anyone unless they were bringing them a drink so it was an ideal spot for Yuri to visit and go unnoticed.
Yuri found them a booth while Asa ordered them drinks. No one paid them any notice, which was exactly what he had hoped and expected. When Asa joined him, they sat in silence with their drinks for what felt like far too long. The rest of the bar was far from noisy, but Yuri felt as though they were in their own bubble of silence so intense it should be tangible to the other patrons.
It was not that they were uncomfortable with each other. They could be perfectly comfortable talking or sitting in silence, but this time the silence felt a little more pointed than usual. They had dozens of things they could discuss, but none of it felt appropriate to bring up outside of the palace. This was not the place for planning and strategizing a military response to the threat presented by High Lord Erramun. Not only was it inappropriate, if anyone overheard them here they ran the risk of inciting panic in the populace.
Yuri was sure that most citizens were aware of the building tension between their city and the larger nations outside of the desert, but they might not be aware of the extent of the preparations in their government. Making matters official always seemed like a coin toss: it could put people at ease or incite panic. Right now they did not need the patrons of this bar going home to their families and telling them they had even more reason to worry than they previously thought.
Other topics worth discussing seemed to be hard to come by. Their lives had become focused on one thing and one thing only lately. Without time to dwell on anything else, it was difficult to come up with casual topics that were safe to discuss in public.
The only safe topic that came to mind for Yuri was to talk about Willow. He felt her absence constantly, even when his mind was otherwise occupied. He could not shake the feeling that everything would be different if she had not left. She had left, though, and it would be better for them to look forward rather than looking back and wondering how her presence might change about their current predicament. He managed a faint smile as he reminded himself that they would not be likely to all go to a bar like this together without a lot of protest from Willow. At least now they could come and go as they pleased without having any of Willow’s resistance. Even as he thought it, he knew that it was not entirely true. He actually missed their little debates and compromising to keep everyone happy. It just did not need to happen very often when it was just himself and Asa. They knew each other so well that they just sidestepped those little bumps in the road without any conscious thought.
“It’s hard to think of casual conversation topics these days,” Asa admitted abruptly.
Yuri nodded and allowed the silence between them to stretch on for a few more seconds. If he spoke just now they would inevitably start to discuss something too heavy for their current setting. There had to be something better, less consequential, even fun they could talk about, but even with a frantic search for a safe topic, he came up empty.
“When did our lives become so serious?” he said with a sigh.
“It’s not the seriousness that’s the problem, it’s that we’ve lost the enjoyable things that make it all tolerable.” Yuri’s eyes were downcast, watching a bead of sweat run down the side of his glass.
“There’s not much we can do about that at the moment.”
“This is supposed to be enjoyable,” Yuri pointed out.
“You don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself very much.”
His gaze slipped back down to the drink he had barely touched. Normally he would at least be on his way to finishing his first drink by now. Today, when he most desperately needed an escape, he could not leave his responsibilities back at the palace. They followed him all the way here and now he was even more bogged down by thoughts of his responsibilities back in the palace.
“It’s impossible to enjoy much of anything with this damn threat of a war hanging over us,” he said in a half-whisper.
Asa kicked him in the shin. “I thought we weren’t going to talk about that here.”
“We weren’t,” he admitted, “but I can’t get it off my mind so we’re in a bit of a situation.”
“I suppose we could just sit here quietly and finish our drinks before we go back home.”
Yuri rolled his eyes. “Yeah. I suppose.”
Asa’s brows furrowed and he pouted ever so slightly. “There’s no point in being out here if we aren’t going to enjoy it. We have plenty of work waiting for us at home.”
Although Yuri was in total agreement with Asa’s assessment of their situation, he was unwilling to give up on this outing just yet. They might not be able to relax and have fun while in this current state of mind, but they might be able to get some use out of the trip nonetheless.
There were perspectives to be found out here in the city that could not be found up in the palace. Up there, everyone was living under a cloud from the constant upheavals of recent months. The reverberations of those upheavals were felt in the city as well, but they did not know the full reason for their uneasiness. The first waves of panic were felt in the palace, but the lasting effects were for the people of the city to bear. The last war was long forgotten in the palace, but the citizens had far longer memories. Someone here would remember. They just needed to find the ones with stories left to tell.
He scanned the room, looking for someone who might have a story to share with him. There might be a few potential candidates, but he would need Asa’s cooperation in this little project or it would inevitably backfire.
“I want to know what the people of the city remember about the last war. Let’s try asking them,” he suggested finally.
“Can we do that without inciting panic?” Asa asked in a hushed tone.
“Do these guys look like the sort that frighten easily to you?”
“Good point. So how do we go about doing this?”
Yuri grinned. “We talk to them, Asa. Here I thought you were the down to earth one and I was the out of touch noble.”
“Hardly. You’ve never been one to struggle to strike up a conversation with anyone.”
That might have been true in the past, but now it was becoming more difficult. Nothing had changed about him, really, but he felt like he could not associate with people in the same way as before. It was not his title that had changed him, but rather his absence. Since coming back he felt as though he no longer had the same sort of connection with the city. His loyalty to the people never wavered and he felt his obligation to lead them more intensely than ever before, but he felt like an outsider in the city for the first time in years. Regardless of whether people actually cared or not, he was shaken in his sense of belonging and it ruined his confidence in associating with his people.
“It’s just not the same as it used to be. Disappearing from the city for so long has made me self-conscious of how much I don’t belong.”
Asa scoffed and then raised his glass to Yuri before drinking the whole thing in several gulps. Then he rose to his feet and in an act of courage that had to be fueled by his sudden, out of character intake of alcohol spoke to the entire room in a loud, clear voice.
“Anyone left from the old war here today?” he asked without a hint of self-awareness.
Even sitting with him was enough to subject Yuri to secondhand embarrassment in this moment. Nonetheless, he could not resist a quick glance around the room to see if anyone seemed likely to reply in the affirmative. Nearly everyone seemed to be ignoring his partner’s outburst which was about what he expected in a place like this. Asa would be far from the first person to let a drink go to his head and forget to mind his own business.
At least he seemed aware of what he had done. He sunk back down into his seat and deep red splotches adorned his cheeks. Yuri resisted the urge to laugh as Asa slouched further down in his chair, as though that would make him disappear from the collective memory of the bar.
Yuri expected he would be able to tease him mercilessly about this later, after the initial embarrassment had a chance to recede, but he did not expect his outburst to actually yield results. He was still holding back laughter so forcefully it brought tears to his eyes when an incredibly old man hobbled over to their table.
“You wanted to hear about the war?” the old man asked in a confident but worn out voice.
“We do,” he confirmed.
The old man grinned, causing his wrinkled face to become even more creased and showing off the few teeth he still had in his mouth.
“You’re in luck. Not many of us came back and even fewer of us are still kicking today. Looking for some war stories to pass the time, are we?”
“We’re looking for the truth about the war, not just the parts about the glory but your real experience as you remember it,” Asa explained.
The old man seemed skeptical at first but once he sat down and started talking, the truth was uncovered.