Yuri took the scroll and read it immediately. Willow’s heart raced the entire time. He started reading almost as soon as she returned to his room, well before she could offer him anything close to a summary of the meeting.
She dropped into a seat next to Asa, hoping to disguise her shaking limbs. Asa placed a reassuring hand on her arm.
“Are you okay?”
She nodded. “I won’t pretend I understood all of it, but I understood enough to know it wasn’t great news.”
“How bad is it?” he asked.
“We have to close the path between worlds,” Yuri said decisively. His hands deftly rerolled the scroll as he crossed the room to join the others.
“What? But what about Willow? How would she get home? And how would we even go about doing such a thing?”
“I’d have to stay here,” she said finally.
Saying those words just about tore her soul in two. Her entire life lately had been trying to pull her in opposite directions. It seemed as though equal pieces of her wished to stay with Yuri and Asa in this world and wished to return to the familiarity of her home. Staying here would leave her knowing something was missing from her life. She knew one day she would have to make a choice, but she always thought she would have time to think it over. She assumed she would have time to say goodbye and attempt to explain. Instead, she had disappeared without notice. Everyone would be left wondering what had happened to her. She felt terrible for the worry she had undoubtedly caused them for a second time.
Yuri knelt down in front of her and took her hand in his. “We can’t keep traveling between worlds if the barrier is on the verge of collapse. I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. She knew she had to do the responsible thing. If this world could be damaged by continued use, it stood to reason her world could be damaged by it as well. She would not be the one to put her friends and family back home in danger. Staying here forever might not be enough to save either world. In fact, it was likely the activity around Detreya was only a drop in the bucket compared to what was happening elsewhere.
“I think we’re at risk even if we find a way to close every single doorway between worlds in Detreya. I crossed over this last time into Garon. I don’t know if the opening was naturally occurring or produced through a ritual, but they were opening and closing frequently.”
He did not say anything for a moment and just continued to hold her hand in his and look up at her. She watched him quizzically as he formed a response.
“We can’t do anything about that right now. The only way we can hope to intervene there is by winning the war.”
“You know,” Asa chimed in, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the two are more connected. This war is about resources. We have water stones and the desert is taking over more and more of Garon. It’s not hard to guess why they would want our water.”
“There wasn’t any evidence of anyone trying to steal resources from my world.”
“Wasn’t that Barkly fellow thieving in your world?”
Willow nodded, uneasily. “He was, but the stuff he was stealing was mostly useless without the networks we have in my world. Here it’s just shiny hunks of plastic and metal.”
“But he wasn’t the only one and somehow this wasn’t causing mass panic. Who knows what else could have been taken.”
She considered it. The idea was a bit far fetched, but it was not entirely impossible. It made more sense than the thieves rushing across the barrier just to steal electronics that had no use where they were selling them. She had no idea what they might want or what they could be taking, but she supposed in the grand scheme of things it did not really matter.
“It doesn’t really matter why they were going. They were traveling between worlds and increasing the instability of the barrier. I guess the reason doesn’t matter considering the current state of things.”
“Knowing what they were really doing wouldn’t hurt,” Yuri pointed out, “but we need to put a stop to it no matter what they were doing.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were forcing the path between worlds to open. We know Erramun was not opposed to doing it here,” Asa said with a sigh.
Willow shook her head. “It’s impossible to say for sure, but I can’t imagine they would be sending men like Barkly through if it was being sanctioned by the government.”
“Why not?” Asa worded his challenge mildly enough, but it was still enough to put Willow on edge after the day she had been having up until this point. “None of them got caught until you showed up. Your set of abilities would be hard for anyone to anticipate.”
“I don’t know,” she said but knew she was not convincing anyone. “It seems like a stretch to assume they were there to harvest vital resources and stealing technology that is useful in this world as a cover. You didn’t see their shops. Collecting electronics is a popular trend there right now. It didn’t look like a cover for something more nefarious to me.”
Asa shrugged. “It’s impossible to say, but you’re right. It’s most likely they were just trying to make money however they could.”
“It doesn’t matter why they were crossing over. If they were doing it regularly, it’s only making the situation worse,” Yuri pointed out.
“How are we ever going to make them stop?” Willow asked with panic rising to the forefront of her mind. “There’s a war going on. Even if the fighting stops, they’re not going to easily trust what we have to say and greed is a powerful motivation.”
“We’ll have to make them listen,” he insisted.
She did not know how to respond. At this point, she was so far out of her element that she did not know if she could ever find a way back to something resembling her recollection of normal. She knew nothing of war strategies and politics. She knew next to nothing about how the path between the worlds worked. Every time she learned something new, it mainly served to teach her just how little she understood. Yuri and Asa could be much more useful. They had the training. She slowed them down.
Fretting over her shortcomings brought about a lull in the conversation. She tried and failed to hold back a defeated sigh. In the silence, the sound drew the attention of both Yuri and Asa. With their attention on her, she felt obligated to give them some sort of explanation.
“I want to help, but I don’t know how much use I will be.”
Yuri was quick to jump to her defense. “You can do plenty to help. There’s so much work to be done, and we need all the help we can get.”
“I know it didn’t go very well today, but there’s a lot you can learn from the priests,” Asa assured her.
She had just returned to the city. It was the first chance she had to spend time with Yuri in weeks. It was the first real chance she had to speak to Asa outside of the public eye even though she had been traveling with him for days. Yuri had made a point of taking some time away from his responsibilities and she did not want to keep pulling him back into his work, no matter how desperate she was for more information for her own sake.
“You’ve taken time away from your duties today, haven’t you? Let’s actually take a break.” She hopped up from her seat and walked over to the window. “I know I could really use a one.”
“You’re right. I took a break so I should actually try to stop working for at least a little while.”
Willow smiled. It was nice to have her opinion respected. It was not something she often experienced at home with her family, and she certainly did not have much in the way of respect while they were marching across the desert. She thought she could get used to it, but she knew most days would not be like this. Yuri would be busy. Asa would go back to his work and she would be left trying to find her purpose. If she wanted to continue to pursue her studies under the priests, she was sure Yuri would do his best to convince them to accommodate her, but it was not the same as having a real job.
That was not a problem for this moment. After succeeding in convincing Yuri to take a break, she could not allow herself to waver and lure him back into his work. He deserved a break. There was no telling when he might have another opportunity for a respite.
“Well, Yuri, what would you like to do with your time off?” she asked him before any of her other impulses got the better of her.
He ran a hand through his hair. “Honestly, I want to watch you because it’s still hard for me to believe you are really back.”
“I told you I’d come back. I just wasn’t necessarily planning for it to be so soon.”
The words slipped out before she had a chance to fully consider them. It seemed as though everything she said somehow looped back around to remind them that there was work to be done. Perhaps there was no escaping it.
“Was your visit home satisfactory?”
“It wasn’t supposed to be just a visit,” she said, trying to hold herself back from despair. She tried so hard not to think about how her plans with her family had gone so far off course. “I didn’t manage to do any of the things I meant to do while I was with my family.”
“You’ll try again. I’ll make sure you’re able to see your family again.”
“I left without explaining again so now I’ll have to explain my disappearance twice.”
“In the meantime, do you think you would be comfortable with our relationship progressing?”
She considered the question carefully. It was something she had wondered herself. She told herself and anyone who asked that she was going home to make sure her family knew she was safe and to reassure them before she returned to Yuri and Asa. Coming back had always been part of her plan. Being here felt right. She mattered here. She could learn more about herself and her power here than she could ever hope to learn at home. There were people interested in the study of this world in her own world, but overall, her feeling was that this world knew a lot more than her own.
She could not deny that she wanted to be in this world to learn and to grow her abilities, but only acting for her own interests was not what Yuri had in mind. She knew it. Everyone seemed to know it.
Until now she had managed to avoid asking herself what she thought of it. She cared for them. She would not deny that to herself or to anyone. The hesitation only appeared when she was faced with the prospect of moving beyond the current state of their relationship. She liked the way things were now, but it was obvious Yuri was more than a little eager to change things.
“I hope neither of you will take this the wrong way, but I’m rather content with the way things are now. I’m not personally in any hurry to change the way things are.”
Yuri sighed. Willow was worried he was annoyed, but his expression and posture did not indicate anything other than weariness.
“You know I’d wait as long as it takes for either of you,” he said, looking between Willow and Asa. “I’m just getting a lot of questions about when our attachment will be made official. With the war happening, there’s a lot of pressure for me to wed and work toward securing the line of succession.”
Willow tried her hardest not to look unnerved by certain words in Yuri’s statement. Marrying Yuri and Asa someday was intimidating, but not entirely out of the question, however, she did not feel comfortable living her life to minimize political repercussions. She spent her life since she was a teen resenting her family’s plans for her, she was not going to break free of their idea of how her life should be only to have someone else take over and make even more control. It set a dangerous precedent for continued interference.
She cleared her throat. It was hard for her to find the words to articulate her feelings without seeming like she was disregarding everyone else. “Wedding to present a united front is bad enough but having kids to keep some nobles from worrying about who will rule next is way over the line.”
“I agree completely.” He was quick to assure her.
“It won’t be easy to completely disregard their concerns,” Asa pointed out.
An idea popped into Willow’s mind, fully formed and so simple and obvious she had to wonder why none of them had considered it before now. “Do you think a token gesture would be enough to keep them happy for a while?”
“Do you have something in mind?”
She did. Having something resembling a solution to offer to the group made her feel a bit giddy. “Would an engagement announcement be enough? It’s not like getting married in the middle of a war is a great idea anyway. Weddings are supposed to be a big deal and it would be hard to invite people when they might need to cross enemy lines to get to the ceremony.”
Yuri grinned. “Would you be willing to do that?”
She considered it for a moment. It was a big deal and she felt butterflies in her stomach as she realized she had in a way been the one to propose.
Yuri looked to Asa. “And you?”
“Then I guess it’s settled. We’ll have to arrange to make a formal announcement.”
She realized they had just decided something momentous. It might not have been a down on bended knee proposal, but she thought this sort of discussion was superior anyway. There was a tumult of emotions running through her already, and she was certain she would only feel more as the full weight to the conversation sunk in. For now, she felt giddy and just a bit apprehensive.
Only time would tell if she would regret changing the status quo, but she had a feeling she would not regret solidifying her attachment to Yuri and Asa. There was a better chance she would regret the attention she would receive from everyone else in Detreya once the news got out. It would be worth it, though, once she got used to it.
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