Over a few days, Yuri’s private quarters had rapidly filled up with books. He was surprised the first evening when Willow and Asa both walked in with their arms loaded up with books. Since then the books seemed to multiply every time he returned his rooms. Most of them seemed to be loaned from the priests in the city for Willow’s continued study. Then the order bills started showing up on his desk.
The cost was not an issue from his perspective. He would not begrudge Willow anything she desired and research books were an easily justifiable expense. However, his advisers were not so easily satisfied. When they saw her expenses they immediately protested. They complained about it as an unnecessary expense during wartime. They claimed she had no right to his money. Yuri somehow held his tongue and refrained from pointing out that hit was not their money either. They could complain all they wanted but at the end of the day, he was in charge.
It was becoming easier for him to think of himself as in charge. However, there was at least one moment each day when his advisers made him feel like a child playing pretend. He tried his best to listen to those that had more experience than him as they provided him with advice, but he could not see how they had any right to decide to force Willow onto a strict allowance. She was not the sort to spend money frivolously under any circumstances, and in this particular spending spree had a real and vital purpose.
Her studies were so in-depth and specific that they had entirely outgrown the temple’s collection. A few of the more erudite priests that had something resembling a specialty in her area of research now came to the palace to assist her, but she was rapidly becoming more of an expert than any of them. Yuri was immensely proud of her progress.
Now he had the pleasure of informing Willow of a request to see her and join her research team had arrived. It did not take long at all for her to start to get attention for being as brilliant as he had known she was all along.
He held onto the letter all day, waiting impatiently for an opportunity to present it to her personally. He wanted to see her eyes light up as she read the words. He tried to rush his work, but it was impossible. As fast as he worked, he could not make other people talk faster, or get them to finish their reports for him sooner. He was left waiting even more impatiently than usual.
When he finally did finish up his final task for the day—approving an agreement between the farmers and priests for more water stones so the army would not devour the city’s grain stores in half a year—it was already late. He wished this was a rare occurrence, but it was annoyingly common. It was a gamble every time he returned to his rooms. There was no way to guess who would be around and awake to see him.
Asa’s schedule was unpredictable at best. It irritated Yuri to no end since Asa was the one in charge of setting the schedule for every member of the palace guard. He could be home every night if he wanted, but his sense of duty was too strong for him to seriously consider that an option.
Yuri knew he did not have a leg to stand on when it came to making sure work did not bleed into leisure time. He was the one consistently working late and hoping that everyone else would bend their schedules to work with his. He knew he needed to do better and he should not expect more from Asa until he managed to get his own routine under control.
Tonight he just hoped Willow would still be awake so he could share the good news with her. Somehow, her routine had become even more erratic than his own. She was so absorbed in her research that she just kept working until exhaustion forced her to stop.
Upon arriving in his rooms, he discovered he was the last one to finish his work for the night. Asa was reading a book and Willow was curled up with a cup of tea. Her bleary, red eyes looked as though she was barely managing to stay awake. He considered withholding the message until after she had a chance to rest. However, he knew he would have a hard time keeping the news to himself. She would know he was keeping something from her.
“Willow, I have a letter for you,” he said as he produced the message.
She gave him a look of silent surprise as she accepted the letter. She opened it and immediately began to read. He knew it was rude to stare. He had more than enough etiquette lessons to have that drilled into him to feel in his very bones that he should be more polite. However, seeing the look on her face as she realized her work was being recognized by others studying this subject elsewhere in this world.
Her frustration at the lack of knowledge and even interest in things involving other worlds in her own world had obviously frustrated her greatly. He watched her struggle to get answers to even the simplest questions. When she explained how her studies in her homeworld upon her return had yielded few answers, the discouragement was clear on her face. Her joy was equally apparent when she started to make progress with her research with the priests.
All this time he had worried that she might struggle to find a place for herself in this world. The last thing he wanted for her was to have her life defined by her relationship to others. She would never be satisfied merely being a wife, even if it did make her a Duchess-consort. Many others might jump at the chance, but not Willow. It was one of the things that drew him to her, even though it made the prospect of the two of them building a life together more difficult.
“They want to come here to work with me?”
A puzzled frown creased her brow. “Why?”
“You’re making progress in fields of research that had only grown at a snail’s pace before now. You’ve made a lifetime’s worth of progress in a few days.”
She looked as though she did not understand the weight of her own contributions. Yuri was tempted to explain it to her, but he was not sure he could do it justice. Either way, he was sure that she would not believe it if she heard it from him. It was something she would probably have to hear dozens of times and slowly adjust to the idea over days or weeks.
“They really want to come here to help me with my research?” she asked again under her breath.
Yuri knew she did not really need an answer to that question. She just needed time to think things over on her own. He sat down and waited.
Eventually, she said, “Would it be okay if I said yes?”
“Of course,” he replied without hesitation. “We need as many sharp minds working on this problem as possible.”
Willow breathed a sigh of relief. Yuri had not realized she was so tense until now.
He moved to sit down next to her and took her hand in his. “You’re putting yourself under too much pressure. Take a break tonight and relax.”
“I really shouldn’t. I have to keep going. Time is of the essence.”
“You’ll think better if you give yourself a break and you’ve got even more help on the way soon. They’re all counting on your so you should rest so you can be at your best.”
Her eyes met his. There was a weariness in her gaze, but he smiled at her and some of that weariness seemed to evaporate. He leaned in and kissed her.
He hesitated. Their lives had been so hectic lately there had been very little time for romantic pursuits. He had been hoping for a chance to change that, but he had made a point not to push either Willow or Asa why they had so much else on their plates.
That did not stop him from slipping up from time to time. As much as he wanted to be mindful of the time and energy they had to dedicate to such things, there were times when he needed to feel close to them and he could only put it off for so long. Asa was accustomed to it, even if he was not as reliant on affection and companionship as a way to stay grounded, but Willow did not have the same years of experience dealing with him. Yuri did not want to upset her.
He drew back and looked into her eyes. The weariness had dissipated and her eyes shone with happiness. At least, that was what he thought he saw. The last thing he wanted to do was misinterpret and assume she had room in her mind for romance at the moment.
“Is this okay?” he asked. “I don’t want to presume.”
She smiled. “Of course. We are planning to get married eventually, aren’t we? I think we can afford a bit of presumption.”
His heart fluttered at the mention of marriage. It was still a long way off. They all agreed they needed to wait for the war to end because they could not afford to split their focus. He agreed, of course, but he could not deny he was impatient. He wanted to start the next phase of his life now.
In practice, their life would not be much different after they were married. They already shared rooms. It might not be entirely traditional, but Detreya was progressive and no one balked at the idea of unmarried partners sharing living space and a bed anymore.
Asa understood this. He had grown up in the same place and had spent years with Yuri looking forward to a time when they could move their relationship forward. Willow had come from a different place. When she was first faced with the prospect of being in a relationship with both of them, she had needed time to come to terms with an arrangement. Yuri did not want to cause her more inner turmoil by potentially pushing her too far too fast again.
He was at least partially reassured by her words, but it was not enough to put him completely at ease. Perhaps it was stress from other aspects of his life making him excessively cautious here, but he did not feel as though he was able to take any sort of risk when it came to Willow.
“What’s with that serious look?” she demanded abruptly.
A deep breath, nearly a sigh, calmed his thoughts and grounded him back in the present. He struggled to come up with an answer. The question was simple enough, but forming a simple answer was next to impossible. He gathered his thoughts and did his best.
“I’m worried about things moving too fast for you. You have so much on your plate right now with your studies. I don’t want to distract you or push you too far too fast.”
She laughed. It was a joyful sound. The tension left his shoulders. Something about knowing she was happy made it easier for him to persevere.
“You have to stop worrying so much.”
He could not disagree. He worried. Most of it was justified. These were trying times and the choices he had to make affected many more people than just himself. It was a heavy burden.
When he said nothing, Willow continued. “We both need a break from worrying, at least for a little while.”
He nodded in agreement. “I don’t get too many opportunities to take a break these days.”
“Well, you’d better take this chance and kiss me again.”
Her logic seemed sound enough. There seemed to be no sense in arguing with it, so he kissed her.