The arrival of Alenna’s airship armada was treated as a cause for celebration by the people of Detreya. Yuri was celebrating too, but not because he associated the appearance of so many airships with a festival day. He was relieved to finally see proof of his ally’s commitment to fighting and winning this war. Odds were now good that Detreya would still be standing after the first assault from across the western desert.
He took comfort in the knowledge that their ally was coming through for them and they now at least stood a chance. That comfort did not help him sleep at night. He still needed to get around to speaking to the people of his city directly about the impending war. He was not going to pretend that they did not already know. The signs were already there. The city guard was recruiting more able-bodied fighters. Food stores were being built up as much and as quickly as possible. Now with an airship armada coming in from the north, it was almost impossible to imagine that anyone still believed that Detreya was not going to war. Even if everyone already knew, he knew he should make some sort of official statement. Otherwise, it might look like they were trying to keep the war a secret.
Explaining it would not be easy. He wanted to find a way to do it without villainizing his sister, even if he felt as though most of this was her fault. Her imprudent betrothal and the end of that betrothal had stoked the fires, but he had no doubt that this war would have happened either way. It was just more out in the open now. If the marriage had gone ahead, the war would have been fought in secret, behind the scenes, as the people loyal to Detreya tried to maintain her independence from Garon.
He hesitated and worried enough to make Asa say something. Thankfully, he waited until the end of the day when they were completely alone before bringing up the matter. Yuri had felt the conversation coming and breathed a sigh of relief now that he knew that he would not have to carry around the repercussions of their conversation through the rest of the day.
It was a conversation he did not particularly look forward to having. Dread was too strong a word for what he was feeling since he was thinking much the same thing himself. He just needed an infusion of courage to go through with making his speech.
“Yuri,” Asa began once they were alone in his rooms and no one was around to eavesdrop. “You need to make a speech. Everyone can’t be left to glean the truth from rumors.”
“I know,” he admitted with a groan. “I just don’t know how to address the city when I’ve made a mess of everything.”
Asa dropped down in a chair and stretched his legs out in front of him. He stretched his arms above his head and an audible pop came from his back.
Yuri sat down on the chair opposite Asa and brace himself for the lecture he knew would be coming. He had put things off for too long and never did much to make his reasons for holding back known. He was surprised it had taken this long for Asa to decide to call him out for this. The situation had reached a dire point where he was unsure how to start moving forward again.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You never shied away from these sorts of responsibilities before.”
He sighed. It was hard to explain. Nothing was that same as it was before he came back, before Durya died, before all the responsibilities fell on his shoulders. Not only was it different when there was no one else there to pick up the slack, but he also did not feel like the same person as he was back then. He was not sure he could do what needed to be done.
Those doubts meant nothing. He kept telling himself there was no one else to rule. The pressure did little to bolster his confidence. He knew what needed to be done, but he just could not bring himself to do it. He was not sure he was strong enough. Maybe if he had Willow and Asa both at his side he would feel differently, but with Willow gone he felt his confidence shaken. He had been unsure before, but he felt sure back then that he would find his way. Now he had none of that surety.
Every choice made him more paralyzed. His duties did not guide him but served as weights dragging him down. He wanted to break free from it all and serve his people, but no matter how hard he tried to find a way to a better state of mind, he just managed to make himself more stuck in this state of immobility.
He knew he had been silently brooding for too long when he looked over and saw the worried look on Asa’s face. He scrambled to come up with a way to articulate everything that he had been thinking and feeling so that it did not just sound like more tired excuses to shirk his responsibilities.
“It’s been hard,” he admitted. “I know I should be doing more for Detreya and I have no right to call myself Duke if I’m not ruling, but I feel like everything will be okay if I just wait a little longer. I know that’s not the case, but I can’t stop feeling that way.”
Asa listened patiently while he said all of this and then there was a long stretch of silence between them. Whether he had nothing to say or was waiting for Yuri to come to his own conclusions, it did not seem to matter much at all. Yuri was on a roll and was going to keep going with his train of thought until it ran its course.
“Do you think people wonder about the way power changed hands over the last year? I was Durya’s heir for years, but then I wasn’t here when he died and Nyura took over. Then I came back just in time for her to not marry and have the city merge with Erramun’s territory. How can I tell everyone that we’re going to war with Erramun now and I don’t know where Nyura has gone?”
“It’s not exactly straightforward.”
“No. It’s a mess. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was determined unfit to rule after the mess I’ve made of things.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“It doesn’t have to be my fault for it to be my mess. That’s one of the problems with being in charge, you know that, Asa.”
“Okay. You have a point there, but the city loves you. They always have. You’re not going to fall out of favor just because things have been a little more complicated than usual.”
He sighed. “I know what I need to do. I just don’t know how to do it.”
Asa smiled slightly and leaned forward in his seat as though he were about to share a secret. “You do what you’ve always done. Things haven’t changed here nearly as much as you think they have.”
That was the problem. Yuri knew everything had changed. He felt it deep down in the core of his being. Getting out in front of the people of the city and letting them see how different he was now would only make it more real for him.
He still had the urge to be selfish and that was not right. Now that he was in charge, he no longer had the luxury of doing what he wanted. His life belonged to his country and he had to do what was best for his people, even if it made him unhappy and uncomfortable.
They had suffered enough upheaval in recent months. The people needed strength and stability right now. War might make stability a bit harder to come by, but he could at least stand before them and let them know what was to come and assure them that they would not be alone in this fight. He would at least be a constant for them from now until the day he died.
Knowing what needed to be done did not make it any easier to do. With Asa looking at him with sympathy but no real understanding of the weight of the burden he now carried, Yuri started to feel claustrophobic. It was not just the walls and the still air in the room that were pushing on him, he felt smothered by Asa’s attempts to be supportive. He needed to get out and breathe, if only for a few minutes.
Rising to his feet, he sighed heavily. He had been thinking far too much and for far too long. It felt redundant to say he needed to think when that was all he had been doing for a long, long time, but it was the simplest way to explain his process.
“I’m going to step outside for some air. I’ll be back soon.”
“Do you want some company?”
He put his hand out reassuringly. “That’s okay. You just got off work and I won’t be long.”
Asa smiled but the expression did not reach his eyes. “Okay. I’ll be here when you get back.”
Yuri quickly left the room, feeling guilty over the amount of relief he felt as soon as the door closed behind him. He trusted Asa and he knew that he meant well, but right now he could not stand his self-righteous attitude. He made it seem easy to put everyone else first, to serve. Yuri knew he was too selfish to do the same effortlessly. In moments when he wanted an easy way out and excuse to put himself first, he struggled to live up to the expectations his beloved placed on him.
In the hallway, he felt the burden on his shoulders lighten a bit. Here, he no longer felt pressured to do the right thing or constantly be the perfect leader he doubted he could ever be. Turning the pressure down made the prospect feel slightly more possible but he knew he still needed to think of a way to explain what needed to be said without causing greater panic.
He told himself this would be a short walk since it had already been a long day, but the more he walked the clear his mind seemed to become. The palace had plenty of corridors so it was easy to tell himself he would walk just a bit further every time he considered stopping.
The halls were practically empty. Without even thinking about it, he selected a route that would allow him to avoid running into too many people. It suited him just fine and only made his irritation all the greater when he rounded a corner and nearly bumped into Lady Saras.
“Oh my!” she exclaimed in a way that made him wonder whether he actually caught her off guard. “Fancy meeting you here, my dear Duke.”
Yuri had almost forgotten the lady from Vaisha was still his guest. So many people had been coming and going since Nyura’s canceled wedding that he could hardly keep track of his visitors. More had come since he returned, perhaps to wish him well, or perhaps to see with their own eyes that he really had returned. Either way, he had assumed that Saras would have left by now considering a message from her wife and husband had arrived nearly a week ago announcing the birth of their child. He wondered if she was sticking around just to avoid her share of diaper changes and late night feedings for a little while longer.
“Lady Saras,” he said with a slight incline of his head.
“Is something on your mind? You appear troubled.”
For some reason, he felt inclined to unburden himself to her. He was not sure why, but he felt like she might understand.
Before he knew it, he was unburdening his worries on Lady Saras. They were practically strangers. He knew of her as a political entity, a person of significantly greater importance than him on the world stage, but he could not say that he knew her like he knew Alenna, who, arguably, had even more political power. Even so, he felt right now as though their lack of familiarity was a benefit.
“I need to tell my people that we’re likely to go to war soon and I’m not able to do anything to stop it. They’ve been through enough this year and the thought of bringing them more bad news…” He trailed off.
“You are in a difficult position,” Saras agreed. “However, I might be able to offer some bit of hope that you can pass on to your people.”
Yuri had to admit he was intrigued. He had not heard of any news that was worthy of a public announcement that came anywhere near being good news. If there was something that he could share that might stand a chance of lessening the pain of a declaration full of grim announcements.
“What do you know?” he asked cautiously.
“It’s not much,” she admitted with a smile twitching at her lips, “but you should be seeing your sister again sometime soon.”
“Nyura? But she’s disappeared. I was sure she’d gone after Highlord Erramun.”
“Precisely,” Saras said with a nod. Her smile widened. “Lady Nyura did go after her former fiance to try to win him back, but I sent someone after her.”
“But that doesn’t mean much. Nyura is unpredictable and who knows what was waiting for her if she reached Garon.”
Saras grinned now. The gleam of her teeth matched the gleam in her eyes which did not seem like it could possibly be a good sign for Yuri. He did not see an easy way to escape this conversation so he put on his best diplomatic neutral expression and prepared to endure whatever might be said next.
She leaned in close to him as though they were courtiers taking part in some new conspiracy. Yuri found himself involuntarily playing along and leaned in as well so hear her whispered news.
“I’ve sent someone very reliable to retrieve her. She won’t be deterred by Lady Nyura’s stubborn streak and should have the means to compel her to return.”
“There’s still a chance she won’t come back. Nyura can be… unpredictable.”
Saras nodded grimly. “My servant is quite capable, however, and she is familiar with our enemy which means she can circumvent any mechanizations he might have in place to keep Lady Nyura and divide your people.”
Yuri had his doubts that Nyura’s defection would divide the city, but he would feel better if he knew she was safe. Even if the citizens of Detreya were certain to remain loyal, they would still feel more confident and secure if they knew Nyura was safe.
He thanked Saras for this information and continued on his way. He was not sure how Saras’s news changed anything, but he felt lighter. There were people on his side that did not have a personal reason to support him and he felt ready to face his people. The news might not be good, but they deserved to hear it from him and prepare accordingly.