When he first heard Erramun wanted to arrange for peace, Yuri could hardly believe it. He wanted the war to end, of course. Life was hard enough for the people left in the palace and the city, he could not imagine how hard it was for the soldiers out in the desert. If there was an opportunity to end this, he had an obligation to try to make it work.
Everyone wanted to be a part of the peace talks. Detreya had so many allies in this war, there was not room for everyone at the negotiating table. Fortunately for Yuri, he had advisers who made it their lifelong mission to know how to smooth things over with leaders of other nations. He would delegate that task to them so he could focus on getting himself ready. He would need to be the duke and make everyone see he was capable of ruling in a way that benefited the whole country.
Lady Saras would be there. She had played a central role in getting these peace talks in place. That gave her a right to be at the negotiating table. Yuri also made sure Alenna had a seat at the table. They might not have made it this far if she had not been there since the start with her airships. Asa and Willow would be coming as well. He did not think there was any point in trying to convince either of them to stay behind. They would not listen.
He worried about having them with him in this situation, though. Asa would be overprotective. If things got heated, he might jump to Yuri’s defense too quickly when he would rather focus on resolving the situation. Willow would not cause any such disruptions, but he was still worried about her coming along. He did not know the full details of her research, but it was impossible to miss how pale and withdrawn she had become after her latest experiment. She needed to rest. Going to peace talks did not sound particularly restful, but Yuri knew she would keep working at her research if she was left to her devices here. He needed her close so he could make sure she did not find a way to get back to her research before she had a chance to rest up.
The number of people who wanted to come along greatly outnumbered the people Yuri was able to bring along. He simply could not bring everyone who wanted a seat at the negotiating table. The size of their party would expand exponentially as attendants and guards would be brought along for each new person. He realized he was incredibly lucky to have so many people clamoring to take care of this unpleasant task for him. If he had to do it himself, he feared they would never manage to leave the palace.
Even after doing so much delegating, he still worked with his most experienced advisers well into the night to prepare for the meeting. Most of the following day would be spent traveling and the peace talks would start as soon as everyone had arrived. He wanted to be sure he was prepared to represent the interests of Detreya before they left. Most of his senior advisers were Durya’s age or older and had decades of experience. Yuri tried to synthesize as much of their wisdom as possible before they set out for the agreed-upon meeting place.
He returned to his private quarters late that night. He expected Willow and Asa to be asleep already. It was what he wished he was doing already. Instead, he found them both awake and alert. The sight threw him off balance for a moment.
“What are you doing out of bed? It’s late.”
“Oh it’s not that late,” Willow shot back dismissively.
“Willow’s trying to decide what she should take along with her and now she has me second-guessing myself,” Asa explained as he pulled his clothes back out of a bag and began to scrutinize each article of clothing.
Yuri stifled a yawn. He wanted nothing more than to climb into bed and get as much sleep as possible before they set out in the morning. He realized he needed to pack as well. His gaze slid over to the wall near the door. Someone had taken the initiative and packed for him. It was probably his most tasteful, appropriate, and uncomfortable clothes. If he left with just those clothes, he would spend days itchy and miserable. He would have to go through it and make sure he had something along to wear outside of the negotiations that would not make him feel quite so uptight.
He swapped out a few of the formal outfits for things he could actually breathe in and was ready to call it a night. However, Willow was still struggling with her own luggage. Perhaps it was fortunate they had traveled so light in the past if she was agonizing over every inch of space in her luggage.
She was still struggling and Yuri could not fathom what was causing her to agonize over her options like this. She never cared all that much about wearing one outfit over another so it was a bit odd to see her spending so much time worrying over her packing now. Once he got closer, he understood. She was trying to bring a small library along for the trip.
“Do you think you’ll have that much time for reading?”
The sideways glance she offered him was all he needed to know his attempt at a lighthearted conversation was not appreciated. He did not push her further, but he stayed close just in case she decided she would like some sort of help after all.
She finally found her purpose. He would not begrudge her the tools she needed for her work. He saw how happy she was to have a purposeful way to fill her days. There was a lot at stake. Her work might be more important than peace negotiations. They still were not sure what the full extent of the damage from the deterioration of the path between worlds. It could easily cause more harm to this world than any war.
He sighed. Willow was going along to support him. He should be doing what he could to support her too.
“If you end up needing something you didn’t pack we can send for it and you’ll have it the next day,” he offered, even though he knew she probably would not consider that good enough.
She looked ready to argue with him. Then all of the fight drained from her expression. Her research had her working almost nonstop. She probably did not have the energy to get in an argument. If she was that tired, she should have stopped packing an hour ago and gone to bed.
He felt a rush of relief as she abandoned her attempt at packing and stalked into the next room to get ready for bed. The relief was short-lived and overtaken by guilt almost immediately. The last thing he wanted was for her to think that he did not value what she was doing and he certainly did not want to come across as dismissing her concerns. He looked to Asa for support or advice and got none.
Fair enough. He screwed up and he would have to deal with the consequences himself. Going to bed angry was a terrible idea under most circumstances, but staying up to hash it out tonight would be against their best interests. There would be plenty of time to talk while the spent the day traveling tomorrow.
He sighed. He tried to let go of his guilt. However, he knew he could have been kinder, more sensitive. His regret would make it difficult to sleep.
The palace contained a strange sort of energy tonight that was not conducive to sleep. An undercurrent of tension from people rushing back and forth as quietly as possible left him feeling uneasy. Their efforts just made the unavoidable sounds of moving through the halls that much more distracting.
He must have fallen asleep at some point because he woke up with a start in the pink-grey light that came just before dawn. He needed to be awake soon anyway so there was really no point in trying to get back to sleep.
The hushed hustle and bustle from the night before was no longer quite so hushed. It was almost as though the whole palace was moving out. He did not doubt that more than a few people that were not officially invited to join in the peace talks were following along anyway in hopes that they would be needed after all. The palace would be left nearly empty.
He wearily wondered if he needed to make more provisions to ensure things would run smoothly while he was gone. It was probably too late now and there were several experienced men from his council who were supposed to keep things running smoothly while he and others were away. He needed to worry less and show some faith in the people he selected to help him.
Willow woke up this morning in a vastly different mood from the night before. Perhaps a few hours of sleep changed her perspective or she might have just accepted that there was no time to tear apart her trunk again. Someone had finished packing for her and tidied up whatever had not managed to fit. He did not know if Asa or a servant had done the deed and right now he could not care less. It was done and Willow did not mind. He thought it might be best to avoid bringing up the topic just in case it became a sore point again.
Things were peaceful this morning. If he did not know better, Yuri might even mistake this for an ordinary day. Unfortunately, he did know better. Anything approaching normal stuck out like a sore thumb right now. He just hoped that one day they could accept ordinary moments as ordinary. Perhaps if these peace talks went well, they could start working toward it as soon as they returned.
Some servants coming to remove the trunks. Another brought them food. Yuri tried to eat since they would not be stopping until midday and that was a long way off. He nibbled at some fruit since he felt too anxious about the day ahead to eat much else. Willow and Asa appeared to be feeling similarly apprehensive as much of the food was left untouched. He grabbed some dried persimmons in case he became hungry later.
There had been some debate over how to travel to the selected meeting place. Alenna’s airships were offered up as an option but quickly shot down. There were concerns it would appear too much like an act of aggression since the airships had been used heavily in the skirmishes with Erramun’s armies. Instead, they would be traveling in slower but less threatening carriages.
Part of Yuri wanted to get there quickly and get things over with. They were not the ones to initiate the peace talks so, from his perspective, they did not need to appear contrite. That should fall to Erramun. However, Yuri knew better than to think that would ever happen.
Somehow the journey went by in the blink of an eye. There was so much for Yuri to think over and he hardly noticed the scenery passing by. Doubt was setting in now that the negotiations were changing from an intangible possibility to a tangible reality.
The passage of time changed once they arrived at the neutral meeting place. Their journey had flown by in a way he had not expected. Now everyone was busy constructing tents and organizing their camp for the next few days. Time seemed to slow down as Yuri was one of only a few people left without much to do.
Willow was still engrossed in the latest book she produced in a seemingly endless supply. If she saw what was happening around her, she paid them no notice. Asa, on the other hand, had thrown himself headfirst into making sure the entire camp was secure. It was not his responsibility, but he found a way to insinuate himself into the work. Yuri could not find a way to do the same himself. Everyone insisted they could handle the work without him.
Eventually—without conferring with him—his most senior advisers decided he should leave the camp so he could arrive at the same time as Erramun. Yuri could not imagine what purpose this could serve. They tried to explain their concerns about everyone perceiving both parties as equal. Yuri was not sure he believed any of it. No one could give him a straight answer as to whether arriving first put him at an advantage or disadvantage, but he decided to go along with their plan. Leaving at least gave him something to do. It had to be better than sitting around and waiting. He wanted this war to end and the last thing he wanted when they finally had peace was a crowd of counselors waiting to undermine him as retribution for what they would perceive as too much independence. Overall, it was a small price to pay for what he hoped would be peace on more than one front.