They all knew the war was coming and Asa thought he knew what to expect, but the effects of the war were nothing like what he expected. He thought he would be doing something. he had the military training to make him useful to the war effort, but he was barred from serving outside the palace on Yuri’s orders.
There was a time when he would purposely go over Yuri’s head to make sure he was not being shown unfair favor. Now that was impossible. Yuri wanted to keep him close and he had no choice but to obey.
Asa tried to console himself with the duties that were placed upon him. With a war going on, Yuri was in need of extra protection and being able to personally guard him every day was a bit of a relief. He had many good men serving in the palace guard under him, but he could never feel entirely assured of Yuri’s safety during moments of anxiety unless he was able to confirm for himself that he was currently safe and secure.
More often than not he felt as though he was not doing his part. The days were long, dull and left him with plenty of time to think of others out there risking their lives for their country. Every day news of the war trickled in and compounded his guilt over his relative comfort and safety.
It was not that their soldiers were in grave danger at the moment, but they were out there preparing to defend them all. As soon as the rumbling rumors of war started, there was some conflict between Detreya and the oasis villages and nomadic desert tribes that covered the vast span of desert between the city-state and the empire of Garon.
Like Detreya, these communities were small and isolated enough to mostly be left out of the jostling for power amongst the world powers. Once Garon’s sights were set on fighting Detreya, they found themselves in the middle of a war whether they wanted it or not. With their survival on the line, they needed to pick a side. It came as no surprise to Asa that many of their neighbors thought their chances of survival were better if they chose the side of the large empire.
With Alenna and Saras offering their support to Yuri, the lands to the north and east of Detreya were all allied to a single side, so their closest neighbors in those directions had the luxury of remaining neutral for now. For now, it seemed unlikely their enemies could manage to surround them and block all trade in and out of the city. Even if Erramun could muster enough support from the desert dwellers to completely surround Detreya, Alenna’s fleet of airships would still allow goods and people to move about freely. Even if Erramun could scrape together enough air stones to get a few ships patrolling the skies over Detreya, they would be no match for what Alenna already had in the sky.
At the moment, the air above them was not the primary concern of Detreya’s army. Their primary concern was what could happen on the ground. Beyond the city stretched miles of fertile farmland. If they did not defend it, the farms and hamlets would be pillaged and burned. Once that happened, there would be nothing stopping the land from being swallowed up by the desert.
Asa heard all of the news while watching over Yuri. Technically, listening to these conversations was not part of his job description. Yuri never said a word about it. He never saw a reason for acknowledging any distinction between the two of them. On the other hand, his advisers, many of them with decades of experience assisting the old duke, did not like to see him rising above his station.
In the past, Yuri ignored their grumbling. From his perspective, it was just a matter of time before everything was put in order and Asa became his consort. Asa knew better than to expect such sweeping changes. The old courtiers would have to accept him as a permanent feature in Yuri’s life then, but they would not suddenly overcome their contempt just because of a little ceremony. Not to mention, more than a few of them probably had children of the right age to attempt a match with Yuri. They would probably prefer their Duke to marry someone with family and connections.
With the war causing more tension in the palace, Yuri was trying a bit harder to be agreeable to his advisers. That meant Asa stayed out of the way and focused on standing guard and nothing more. He had to agree it was only proper. He had no authority in this situation. His command was over the palace guard and he was kept abreast of all matters of security concerning the palace and particularly Yuri’s safety. The outside world was well cared for in Yuri’s capable hands.
Asa almost had himself convinced that everything was fine when Yuri went out of his way to make time for the two of them to spend off duty. Normally, they would spend most evenings together, but the war demanded far more of Yuri’s time than his ordinary duties. Taking time out of his overbooked schedule to spend time with Asa seemed like a misuse of his time. Agreeing to the request made him uneasy, but he did so anyway. He never possessed much of an ability to say no to Yuri.
They met in Yuri’s suite after the evening meal. One of Asa’s guardsmen was posted just outside the door since Asa himself was technically off duty and Yuri was to be personally guarded day and night now in addition to increased patrols. He tried not to think of what could be overheard through the door and almost managed to forget about it for minutes at a time.
“Is everything alright?” he asked straight away.
Yuri smiled and nodded. “As alright as things can be in the present situation.”
“You seem to be in good spirits tonight,”
“I am,” he agreed with a widening grin.
He tilted his head but held his tongue. That grin meant that asking would turn this evening into a game to coax the truth out of him. With their time alone like this so precious these days, he did not want to waste it on silly games, so he waited instead.
Without encouragement, Yuri gave in and shared his news. “I received the most unexpected report today.” He paused for an added dramatic effect. “Willow is back or rather she’s on her way back.”
“What?” Asa could scarcely believe what he was hearing.
“She’s in the eastern desert, heading west. Toward us.”
Asa had no reason to doubt Willow when she told them she would come back. Her homesickness sent her away. Making it so she could go home at all had been a monumental effort requiring favors from Yuri’s allies. He assumed she would stay with her family for longer and need plenty of time to find a way back from her world. Then again, she had not returned directly to Detreya. Perhaps her sudden return had not been intentional.
“Did you report say if she is well? Is she safe?” he asked finally.
Yuri gave an uncomfortable shrug in response. Asa drew back a bit. The last thing he wanted to do was add to the pressure Yuri felt. Everyone else was constantly pressing him to make determinations as quickly as possible with limited and evolving information. He had an hour or two at most this evening to step away from those responsibilities and Asa did not need to ruin it.
“It’s hard to say,” he admitted as he crossed the room and retrieved a sheet of paper. He handed it to Asa before taking a seat by the window.
Asa drifted over toward the window as well to utilize the last rays of sunlight. He scanned the dispatch twice, the words slipping through his mind like a sieve the first time around. His comprehension the second time around was only a little better. The news was almost beyond belief.
Willow was traveling from Garon in the west back to Detreya in the company of Ciel and Nyura. That explained why they were getting news of her travels. It did not explain what she was doing in Garon in the first place and it did nothing to assure that she was able to cross the desert in safety.
While she was a resourceful girl, he had his doubts about the company she was keeping. Ciel was not the sort of person he would ordinarily trust, but Lady Saras trusted her and he doubted anyone would dare to cross her. Lady Nyura was another worry. She was harmless ordinarily, but she had taken an instant dislike to Willow when they had first met. They might clash now.
The biggest obstacle he imagined had to be the two armies amassing. Surely they would be traveling well out of the way of any of the clashes happening in the desert, but there were still risks. He would feel a lot better if someone went out to fetch her.
“We should someone out to meet her,” he said finally, a spark of hope in his heart that Yuri might realize he was well suited to the task.
The odds of Yuri allowing him to go out of the palace and leave him alone here were not good. The war made travel even more dangerous than usual, not to mention, Yuri probably wanted to keep him close so he was not alone during the small amounts of free time he managed to find. He was eager to feel as though he was of use, but he did not want to risk being less help to Yuri in return. He waited and barely dared to breathe until he heard an answer.
“I suppose you want to go out and bring her back,” Yuri said with a tired sigh. “I want to do it myself, but I know I can’t abandon my responsibilities here.”
“And I have responsibilities too.”
Yuri nodded. “It’s difficult to step away these days. Our duties are like anchors. Luckily, you have someone with the authority to tell you to shift your responsibilities for a while.”
Although he heard Yuri, he was not really listening. He was trying to figure out who was reliable enough and could be spared from the guard to go out and retrieve Willow. She certainly could not be left to make the entire journey with only Ciel and Lady Nyura as her companions. It was a miracle she made it anywhere at all with the company she currently kept.
“Would you go if I gave you leave?” Yuri asked.
“Of course I would.”
“I hope you can find someone to take over your duties on short notice. Since I can’t go, you’ll have to do it for both our sakes.”
He wanted to solemnly accept this assignment. Instead, he broke out in a grin, unable to conceal his eagerness to be put to use.
“Of course.” He could not keep his enthusiasm out of his voice. “I’ll start making arrangements right away.”
“Wait. We should delegate.”
“Delegate?” The concept was far from alien to Asa, but hearing Yuri suggest it was certainly novel.
“Yes. Delegate,” he said with a pleased grin. “If I’m not going to see you for a few days, I want to spend every moment we have tonight together.”
Asa’s heart soared. All the moments of feeling overlooked and underutilized washed away. Not only did he have important, serious work to do, but he also had Yuri’s undivided attention for a night. He crossed the space between them and kissed Yuri.
“We’ll have to make tonight count, won’t we?”
The sly smile that appeared on Yuri’s lips indicated he had every intention of making the night count.