The Lupine Saga 27

Va’il’s arm healed after a few weeks. The break wasn’t as bad as expected. The worst part, according to the doctor, was the amount of time it took Va’il to come to him. The doctor treated the area, as the swelling was still an issue, and then put a cast on the arm. A few weeks later, the bones were healed enough to remove the cast.

“It’s white,” said Mai’ou.

“Mhm,” Va’il responded while bringing a spoonful of soup to his mouth.

“You should leave your arm in the sun for a while.”

“Mum, that’s silly.”

“But it’s white!”

“I’m always this pale,” Va’il said while holding up both arms together. Though the left one was whiter, it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the two arms. Mai’ou didn’t respond. She just stared disapprovingly while eating the soup.

“Did you have fun today?” she asked casually.

“Yeah! We found a beetle the size of a finger, with a scary looking head! Pete nearly had a conniption when I dropped it on his head!” Mai’ou stared at Va’il disapprovingly. He didn’t seem to notice. “But we had to leave it where we found it. Nobody was willing to take it home. It was pretty scary. How about you, Mum?”

“Oh, nothing much. It was a normal day at the store. Oh, there was one thing. One of my regular customers proposed to me. Mr. Eason, a lupus. I handed him two pounds of lamb, he asked me for my hand in marriage.”

Mai’ou twirled her spoon in the air casually while looking away from Va’il. She heard Va’il’s spoon finally fall into the bowl. She looked at him while smiling to see his expression. His mouth was closed tightly, and he was looking down. His eyes were wide, and his nose was flared. Mai’ou noticed that the claws on Va’il’s right hand were protruding. She smiled and remained silent. After a few moments, Va’il picked up the spoon and continued eating. He didn’t say anything for the rest of the night. Mai’ou smiled, and remained silent through dinner as well. She talked while putting Va’il to bed later that night, but Va’il remained mysteriously silent. It was a little worrisome to Mai’ou, but she didn’t pry into Va’il’s silence.

#

“We have a problem.” Va’il, Kelin, and Pete were standing in the middle of a small shack in Pete’s yard. They had outfitted the shack with a few chairs, hidden toys, and books. Papers detailing the various imaginative ideas and plans the children had come up with over the years littered the floor. They had just entered the shack when Va’il made his announcement.

“Gentlemen, let us sit,” Va’il said.

“Boys, did you want some juice or water?” A woman’s voice was heard at the door to the shack.

“Just some almonds, orange juice, cinnamon bread, and three apples,” Pete replied to Calatan, his mother. Va’il and Kelin each asked for milk. They made sure she had walked off before continuing the conversation.

“As you were saying, Va’il,” Pete said.

“Yes, a problem. A big one. Too big. I’m not sure I should even say it,” Va’il said.

“Just out with it,” Kelin said with a growl.

“You’re not going to like it. It’s Mai’ou,” Va’il said.

“What, what happened to Mai’ou?” Kelin asked. He became very interested, and Pete leaned closer while resting his arms on the table.

“It’s, she just told me the other day that she’s getting married,” Va’il said.

“What?” the other two boys shouted in unison. The shock was apparent in both of their faces; never had a lupus and a swine ever looked so similar. Va’il expected one of them to fall out of their chair, but both were leaning even closer now.

“Explain, now!” Kelin’s fangs were looking more prominent than usual.

“She said a customer, a lupus man named Eason; he’s the one who asked her,” Va’il said.

“And who is he?” Kelin asked.

“A customer,” Va’il said plainly. Kelin and Pete looked at each other incredulously.

“And, still, who is he?” Pete picked up where Kelin left off.

“Uh, I don’t know any more,” Va’il said while shrugging his shoulders.

“That’s not nearly enough! Didn’t you ask more?” Kelin asked.

“No, I didn’t know what to say,” Va’il said with another shrug.

“So you didn’t even object?” Kelin asked.

“No. So, you understand the problem now?” Va’il said.

“All too well,” Kelin said while shaking his head. “Va’il, you really need to learn to look into things with more depth. Come on, we’ve got work to do.”

The three boys stood up and walked out of the shed. They headed into the back of Pete’s house. His mother was waiting in the kitchen with a plate full of snacks and drinks. Pete had a good-sized house in the city’s second district. His father was a spice merchant and made enough to afford more than what they had. The house itself was simple, elegant, and spacious. There were five rooms, which allowed Pete separation from the rest of his siblings. His mother, a tall swine who was heavier than she looked, was a homemaker. She served the boys happily with peanut butter and apples. Glasses of milk were set on a fancy oak table. The boys quickly ate, said their goodbyes to Calatan, and ran out the front door.

“So what’s the plan?” Pete asked.

“We find the guy,” Kelin replied.

“And then?” Va’il asked.

“We… we do things. I haven’t got that far yet. We will think of a plan once we have investigated the enemy.” With that, the boys took off.

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The Lupine Saga 26

“Miss, it’s time for dinner,” Shiroi said. She was in a pure white dress that was simple and plain. It had no frills, no dirt, no wrinkles, or anything else that disturbed its simplistic purity. It matched the color of her feathers exactly. Her blue eyes were more pronounced when surrounded by the all-encompassing white. She was standing in front of a door holding a silver tray with a few covered dishes on it.

“It’s open.” A small voice was speaking from the inside. Shiroi placed the tray on the ground, opened the door, and then picked up the tray again. She walked in, placed the tray on an oak table with one large leg in the middle, and then closed the door she just entered.

In Ruby’s room there was a large bed, three oak tables, a large oak dresser, a window, four candle-torches, and three chairs. One hard chair was placed at the table used for eating, and another one was at the table used for studying. The third chair was a soft chair. It was large, covered in leather, and filled with cotton. Ruby, in a purple dress, was reclining in it with a book in hand. The chair was to the right of the window, and on the wall to the right of the chair was a large bookcase filled with books of all sizes. The left side of the room had the dresser, the bed, and the dining table. The right side had the studying table and the bookcase. The third table, a small one with a mirror on it, was in the left corner, between the bed and the far wall.

Strewn across the carpeted white floor were clothes, books, and paper. Shiroi sighed as she started cleaning the mess. The light from the candle-torches cast Shiroi’s shadow across the walls as she moved around. Ruby didn’t move from her spot until Shiroi was done.

“I’m not hungry,” Ruby said.

“Tonight’s dinner is lamb,” Shiroi said while ignoring Ruby.

“Lamb? Is that so?”

“Yes. Madam has forgiven you.”

Ruby closed the book, got up from the chair, and walked over to the dining table. She sat in a chair as Shiroi uncovered the meal.

“Finally! So I can leave the room again! I’ve been so bored day after day. And the food has been horrible.”

“Yes, but Madam said that you’re no longer permitted to leave the grounds. At all.”

“What? Till when?”

“Um, that is…”

“Shiroi?”

“Never.”

Ruby looked up at the stuttering girl. Shiroi didn’t look like she was joking. Nor was she allowed to, even though Ruby treated her like a friend instead of a servant. Her personal servant had the privilege of speaking with her, Madam Jane decided, but that still did not mean Shiroi was allowed to say anything unimportant. Ruby knew that Shiroi had to convey her mother’s words exactly.

“Was she serious?”

“She… she restricted you from leaving the house. She’s given permission to the guards to forcibly keep you from leaving, as long as they don’t break or seriously bruise you.”

“Seriously bruise? So a light or medium bruise is okay? She’s given permission for others to touch me, just to keep me from leaving?”

“Please Miss, don’t test her again. Finish eating, please. I need to return the dishes. Let me tend to you in the meantime.”

Ruby, her anger fading away while despair took its place, slowly ate the food. Its exquisite taste went unnoticed by the troubled girl. As she ate, Shiroi moved to the back of Ruby’s chair. She undid the back of Ruby’s dress, revealing her back. Shiroi took a small metal can out from a pocket in her dress. She opened it and took a handful of balm. She spent the next few minutes applying it to Ruby’s back. The orange, yellow, and blue bruises that covered her back were a testament to the extreme nature that belied her beautiful mother’s face.

“As long as it will eventually heal without spot,” was the motto of Jane Lucrene Melonscone’s discipline.

#

“Are you alright?” Aoi asked the fallen king. While walking in the hallway towards the throne room, King Fidel fell while at Aoi’s side. He put both hands on the ground and pushed himself back up as Aoi helped him. “Your crown.”

“I’m fine. Thank you, Aoi.” Fidel supported himself upon Aoi while he walked.

They kept walking as the candle-torches lit the way. The stone walls and blue flooring eventually led to the back of the throne room, where the royal chairs were placed. Before anyone could see, Fidel took his arm off Aoi. The entire room was filled with aristocrats and politicians. Fidel walked proudly for the very few steps he had to take to get to his throne. Aoi sat at his side, in the chair reserved for the non-existent queen. No one in the audience paid any attention to her; the past months had established Aoi as a supporting figure to Fidel. They no longer regarded her as something foreign. Much worse, she was treated as if she didn’t exist, which Aoi didn’t mind. Eventually, days, weeks, and months could go by without anyone noticing if Aoi was present or not.

There was one person who did mind though, and who twisted her pretty face in disgust every time she looked at Aoi. Jane Melonscone stood in the gallery above.

“How pretentious of her!” Jane said every time she attended a meeting. Every time she did, the wary marquises and earls surrounding her would pull away. They tried to ignore the woman that seemed to be on fire as they paid attention to the reports given to the king.

“Crime, hunger, and sickness have lowered just a little bit since last month, Sire. Though none are back down to where they were a year ago.”

“The expansion of Earl Bergamot’s fields has yielded an increase in our food stores. As a result, food prices had dropped.”

“The city planning commission has begun its work of expanding the city boundaries. The walls have already been extended west.”

“Irrigation is still an issue. We have enough water for now, but soon the city’s limit will be reached.”

“Civil disputes have continued to arise, and many are calling for the king to be the arbiter.”

The officials came in quick order to deliver their reports, bringing up many of the day-to-day issues that are faced when running a city. Soon after the city officials finished their reports, the country officials delivered theirs. City officials talked strictly about the happenings in the city of Rising, the largest city in the nation of Rising. Country officials briefly spoke on the issues of the various smaller cities in the land, about foreign relations, the general populous, expansion projects and issues, military affairs, technological advancements, taxes, and how content the people were.

“Continue constant patrols. Pay extra patrollers with food in amounts equivalent to money. As a result, food prices should keep stable. I didn’t hear a report on prices.” The king spoke with authority, disguising the internal pains he was feeling.

“Er, yes, Sire,” a small official said, unnoticed by anyone until now. His name was Dintin, and he was a strange looking creature known as a tanrac. A tanrac was a type of raccoon person. They had furry bodies, white fur around their eyes, short and pointy ears, tiny hands, and a striped tail. They stood three feet tall on average.

“Dintin, the report?” Fidel asked as Dintin kept rifling through a large binder full of papers.

“Just one moment.” Dintin spoke quickly, a tanrac trait. His tiny hands were moving very quickly through a large bundle of papers that seemed too large to have been kept in the binder. He finally pulled out a single sheet, and read from it.

“Dintin, royal accountant, reports to King Fidel. Currently prices are still slightly higher than optimal. From my calculations,” he said while pulling out an abacus, “distributing bread as military pay instead of further depressing the price of grain should help slightly. That’s all.”

Dintin quickly rushed off after giving his report. The chuckles from the various other officials and the outright laughter from the gallery above were all the motivation Dintin needed to get out quickly.

“He should really become the court jester. That would be more entertaining.” Jane was conversing happily with Duke Tourney, one of the few people who would willingly approach her. The duke simply nodded and smiled at her jest.

“For the rest,” Fidel said, “the policies that we have already implemented seem to be working. Agriculture, I’ll approve an irrigation plan upon its drafting. Please provide me with at least four separate options. I’ll make the final adjustments. Now then, is there anything else to report?”

“Civil disputes.” Diren spoke up while appearing at the king’s side.

“Yes, disputes. I will designate three arbiters to them.”

“That’s what I’d prefer, but that is the problem. The report is that the parties involved are refusing to have an arbiter other than you,” Diren said respectfully.

“I see. Fine, so I shall. But there has to be some order. Paper, yes paper would be great.”

“Sire?”

“Anyone who wishes for the king to be arbiter shall write their problems. Detailed, precise, and accurate descriptions of the problems. Both parties must write a detailed request. I’ll review them personally. Warn everyone that they will probably have to wait days, weeks, even months for their requests to be answered. Those that need resolution quickly must go to the judges we have already.”

The room buzzed with the thought of King Fidel moderating civil disputes. Fidel had never been an arbiter for the people before. His father rarely had, and his grandfather outright refused to. Fidel wasn’t making history; he was setting a precedent.

With the major matters settled, the minor matters came and went quickly. After a short while, the meeting was dismissed. Soon, Fidel and Aoi were again making their way slowly through the hallway. They headed towards Fidel’s room.

“Aren’t you overdoing it?” Aoi asked.

“It’s fine,” Fidel replied.

“Are you sure you can handle the extra work that’s going to come with your decisions?”

“It’s fine. It has been far more painful doing nothing day after day. At least, now, I’ll have a more active role in my people’s lives.”

“But what about your life?”

“Really, it’s fine. I want to be remembered for my actions.”

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The Lupine Saga 25

They had already appeared and stopped by the time Va’il could turn around. Shiroi had dropped her arm quickly and run to Ruby’s side. There, gleaming in the sunlight, were the royal guards. They were in light armor and on horseback. There were twenty-five knights on twenty-five horses. A little in front of the group was a single commander, his armor a little different and his horse more decorated.

“Darius!” Ruby shouted as she started running towards the commander, who had already jumped off his horse. She jumped into his arms and hugged him tightly. “What are you doing here?”

The commander smiled at the young girl. He removed a gauntlet, kneeled down, and took Ruby’s hand in his.

“Miss, your mother–” Darius started.

“Oh no. Did she do something? Something that made even you move?” Ruby asked.

“Miss, let us return. Quickly.” Darius spoke softly and quickly.

“Darius, I’m sorry,” Ruby said sincerely, “you shouldn’t be involved with all this. I’ll go. I already was. Can you do something for me though?”

“Certainly, what do you need?” Darius asked in reply.

“Protection for the commoners. Those students, forget they were here, that they saw my visage. You and all your soldiers. Those kids don’t exist. You only found me. Also,” Ruby said while turning to speak towards the expressionless group of children, “all of you should forget everything that happened here. All of it, for your own protection. Tell no one. Some of you should forget more than others.”

Va’il felt a chill run down his spine. Ruby was looking directly at him. Her expression was caring, but quickly went cold. She turned towards Darius again.

“Can you do it?” Ruby asked.

“Certainly. You ruffians,” Darius yelled towards the soldiers behind him, “you never saw a commoner near her, understood?”

In unison, the soldiers shouted their approval and consent. Then, like a sudden gust of wind, Ruby and Shiroi had climbed onto horses and were riding away with the group of royal guards. Va’il caught the backwards glances of both girls before they disappeared from sight. The horses had arrived and left very quickly.

“So that was the speed of the royal guard,” Pete said with respect.

“Darius. Melon…” Kelin silently muttered. His face was white and his body was tense. Va’il hadn’t seen him look like that in a long while. Va’il smiled as everyone quickly regained their senses and stared at him in admiration. The request of a mysterious set of girls, followed by the arrival of the royal guard, made the events that just happened seem like a fantasy only found in a story.

“Did you say something, Kelin?” Va’il asked.

“Daring, amazing, you just never cease to amaze me,” Kelin said while changing back to his normal expression. “Do you know who were they? Those girls who knew Darius?”

“Darius?” Va’il asked, bewildered.

“The commander of the royal guard, Darius. The man in green who hugged that noble girl,” Kelin said. He was honestly surprised that Va’il didn’t know.

“Do you know her? I was just going to say I don’t really know anything about her,” Va’il said.

Kelin went silent. He went back into reading mode by pulling out a book. Va’il didn’t usually notice the books that Kelin read, but this one was different. It was one that he saw Kelin start reading a few days ago. The remarkable thing was that Kelin opened to a place near the beginning of the book.

As remarkable as Kelin’s actions really were, Va’il couldn’t think about them for long. The questions flooded in as every child decided it was time to interrogate Va’il. They were asking if he was secretly a royal bodyguard, or even a knight. They especially wanted to know who exactly the two girls were. Even Sensei was listening intently to hear any answer Va’il could give. Va’il knew he couldn’t answer any of them, let alone the ones that were obviously outrageous. How great it would be to be a simple knight even, Va’il thought to himself with a grin. He finally thought of a perfect answer.

“I don’t have anything to say,” Va’il said while holding his head high. Although the group was disappointed, they couldn’t help but laugh. Just a few hours ago, they had been so disturbed over this same answer. Now, it seemed like an answer that encompassed everything. More certainly than that, it was going to cause rumors about Va’il that wouldn’t be easily squashed.

For a day, Va’il, a half, was the singular mysterious hero of every child, even though they knew nothing of his actual deeds and accomplishments.

#

The setting sun bathed Rising city in a warm orange glow. There were clouds near the horizon that colored the sky red and grey. The distant ocean in the west seemed to reflect portions of blue into the sky above.

Exhausted from the day’s journey, which had been extra slow due to the events of that morning, a large group of children and a few adults approached the north gate of Rising city. Guards were at the towers on the walls, and the gate itself was open. The adults nodded to the guards as they walked in, and the guards smiled in return. City guards were commoners, and very friendly. Both traits that made foreigners and some local nobles underestimate their extremely thorough and rigid training.

A division of guards had been assigned to greet the returning students. Some of the guardsmen were fathers to a few of the children. A guard was assigned to each child to escort them back home. The fathers in the unit took their own children back home.

A single royal guard was usually assigned to a unit of city guards, and this unit was no different. This one was to be Va’il’s escort, a very tall bearan with coarse brown fur. He carried a giant spear that had a long tip shaped like a lance. Bearans looked very similar to their non-sentient bear counterparts, but their legs were more suitable for walking upright. A bearan as massive as this one would frighten almost anyone.

“Commander ordered me to escort this one personally,” the bearan said to Sensei, who nodded in very respectful agreement. The bearan, who looked like he could pick up ten children hanging onto his spear at once, introduced himself to Va’il. “Little one, my name is Var. I’ll escort you home.”

Va’il quietly obliged. Though he wasn’t scared, it was hard to reply to a bearan who was large enough to pick him up with one hand, or possibly even one claw. With one free hand, Var took Va’il’s bags.

Mai’ou jumped at the sound of something crashing on her door. Wondering what could have possibly happened, she ran to the entrance and opened the door. Standing there was Var, his hand still outstretched from knocking on the door.

“What, the guard?” Mai’ou was surprised in many more ways than one.

“Sorry, ma’am. Tried to knock lightly,” Var said.

“Oh, well then–” she started to say.

“Mai’ou!” Va’il ran out from behind the massive bearan.

“Va’il!” Mai’ou gripped her son tightly as he ran into her arms.

“Too tight, ow, ow!” Mai’ou released her grip and looked down at Va’il. His arm was splinted and in a sling. Var, seeing the interaction, dropped Va’il’s bags inside the door, waved once, and walked off.

“Commander’s orders. Cute kid. Pretty woman, considering she’s a lupus. Still, did he need me as a guard? Hmm.” Var mumbled to himself as he navigated the tight alleyways. Var shrugged off his thoughts once he remembered that he had seen Va’il a few hours earlier, though just briefly.

“What is this?” Mai’ou asked with a frown. She was looking at Va’il’s arm. “Did you hurt your arm?”

“Mum, it’s broken,” Va’il said sheepishly. He looked down, expecting to be reprimanded for not being cautious.

“Well, I suppose you had to break something one of these days.” Mai’ou was already undoing the splint to investigate the damage. Va’il breathed a sigh of relief.

“It’s got a story though, a great one! It was worth it,” Va’il said.

“Silly boy, I’m sure it is. But, next time you score a winning goal, or climb the tallest tree, or win a footrace, please try and keep from injuring yourself. I don’t know if I can stand it when you get hurt so badly,” Mai’ou said while hugging Va’il’s head. “My silly boy.”

Va’il remembered what Darius said, so he decided he’d just let Mai’ou think that his accomplishment was something physical. Mai’ou didn’t hear the story that Va’il was going to tell her; the story that he shouldn’t have told her, but was willing to speak of anyways. Mai’ou, for her part, was just glad he was there, safe, and still in one piece. An exciting but dangerous story wasn’t something she wanted to hear. But, those were simply Va’il’s thoughts.

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The Lupine Saga 24

Everything had been packed by the people that had been left behind. Va’il was surprised at the sight. Even his stuff had been neatly packed. It was time for everyone to return to Rising. Everyone had eaten just before leaving on a search through the forest, so there was nothing to do but pick up the stuff and go. Without much dawdling, that’s exactly what happened.

Unlike the trip to the lake, the trip back was made as one single group. Va’il walked a little separate from everyone else, and was near Sensei. The two of them were at the back of the group. He still felt downtrodden, but wasn’t going to give much attention to it. He was used to being separate to begin with.

After walking through the forest for a couple hours, the entire group in front of Va’il came to a halt.

“We weren’t supposed to be stopping at this time,” Sensei said. Did something happen, Va’il wondered.

“She’s calling for you.” Jo’se had just made his way through the group of children to the back where Va’il was.

“What?” Sensei asked.

“Not you, Sensei, Va’il. There are a couple of strange girls that appeared in front of us! And they are asking for Va’il,” Jo’se said.

“Shiroi…” Va’il plunged into the midst of the group while he ran. The children that he was about to run into jumped out of his way quickly. Va’il had soon split the entire crowd in half. There, with one standing with her arms crossed and the other bowing, were Ruby and Shiroi. They had four large bags with them, each of which seemed too heavy for one of them to carry. But the astounding thing wasn’t this display of girlish strength. It was what the bowing girl was holding. While bowing, Shiroi had her arms outstretched with paper in her hands. The paper was marked as packaging for food. Va’il was aghast yet overjoyed at the sight.

“Please, where’s Va’il?” Shiroi asked with her head still down. Ruby was standing sideways, trying not to look at any of the children. She noticed the group part as Va’il came to the fore. She nudged Shiroi. The white avian looked up at Ruby, who pointed towards Va’il. Shiroi turned to see him. She dropped her arms, and walked over to him.

“Hi, Va’il,” Shiroi said quietly. She put one arm around his shoulder and turned him to face towards the rest of the children. All of them had expressions of wonderment on their faces. A few were staring very intently at Ruby. But she continued to stand sideways and not look at anyone.

“Can I have your attention?” Shiroi was speaking loud enough for everyone to hear. They all looked at her. She held up one hand, the one with paper packages in it. “I assume you know what these are?”

“Of course we do. That’s what we package our food in.” Twill had made her appearance. “Definitely ours.”

“Then you’ll understand this much. I stole it,” Shiroi said, “not this boy.”

The students all whispered to each other. Who is this person, and how come she knows Va’il, they asked among themselves.

“In fact he had no part in this. I gave him some of your food that I had stolen after he had drowned saving her. He broke his arm for her. He protected her from your search party in the forest.” Shiroi had pointed back towards Ruby, whose face was reddened at every mention of “her.”

“But–” a kid started to say, but he was cut off by Shiroi.

“To protect her, he took this upon himself. We aren’t going to forget that chivalry. Therefore, even though I am making Va’il’s effort go to waste, we are going to clear his name,” Shiroi said.

“You, but what about the secrecy? Are you going to be alright, exposed?” Va’il asked.

“Ah, we’re just fine, Va’il,” Shiroi said quietly. “She really can’t stand when someone innocent is accused. She’s rash, even. But it’s fine now, this is worth the risk. Probably, no one will know about us. Just two girls stranded in the forest that needed something to eat.” The last line was louder and directed towards the group of children. The murmurs started again.

“Well then, anyone have any more questions of our chivalrous little Va’il?” Yan said loudly; his question was rhetorical. Everyone was taking the words of Shiroi at face value. Those that didn’t, at first, had only to look upon Ruby to change their mind. Va’il noticed it too. Ruby was in a bright blue dress. Her hair was in a bun, but covered by a blue silk hat. She didn’t look plain at all. Everyone noticed just how different she looked, which convinced them that Shiroi was speaking the truth about Va’il defending her. Wouldn’t we have done the same, for nobility, people started saying amongst themselves.

Va’il heard some of this. It was a thought that hadn’t crossed his mind before, though now it seemed obvious. He turned his head, and looked over Shiroi’s arm.

“Nobility,” he uttered in Ruby’s direction. She heard him. Her shoulders tensed for a moment. Dropping her arms, she walked over to Va’il. She stood at his side and looked at the children, whose eyes were all glued to her.

“No wrong was done,” Ruby said quietly. She then took a few steps backwards and started to turn.

Kelin and Pete shook off their astonishment as they realized they needed to be with their friend. Harnes walked with them, down the path between the children that had been formed earlier by Va’il.

Kelin walked up to Va’il and put his hand on Va’il’s head. He quickly retracted it in surprise. Va’il looked up to see Kelin’s surprised expression. Kelin wasn’t looking at Va’il; he was looking behind him. The sight of Ruby did something strange to Kelin, is what Va’il thought. Then Va’il realized the sound of something fast approaching was the real cause of Kelin’s surprise. Behind them was the sound of at least twenty horses approaching quickly.

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The Lupine Saga 23

“They were interesting.”

The sun had barely moved before Va’il had to stop walking, but it was not out of exhaustion. He had barely walked for five minutes before his renewed senses picked up a noise. His questions about the ambiguous girls were pushed from his mind.

A sound was slowly moving towards him. He strained his ears to hear. The sound became louder and louder as it got closer. Eventually, he realized that it wasn’t just one sound, but a large collection of sounds; the sound of children talking. He started walking quickly towards the voices.

“It’s Va’il!”

“The half is still alive!”

A large group of students had been searching through the forest when they suddenly saw Va’il walking out of the depths of the forest towards them. Amidst the many shocked expressions were two quickly moving objects. Va’il spotted Pete as he rushed towards Va’il. Behind Pete was the small Harnes. Kelin was casually walking. They were the only three that were moving, as everyone else had dazed expressions.

“You, you!” Pete cried out. It was all he could muster as the hefty swine put his arms around Va’il. Va’il felt his shoulders drop a bit lower from the weight, but it felt good. Kelin, silent in his joy, simply patted Va’il on the back. Va’il could feel the tension in Kelin’s hand.

“My friends…” Va’il said, the tears finally coming to him.

“We thought you had… um, I mean, you’re alive, Va’il,” Pete said. Sensei had walked over as well, showing a relieved smile.

Va’il nodded slightly. He then flinched. Harnes had just discovered his broken arm. Not two seconds passed before she ran off as fast as she could. Pete let go of Va’il and stared him straight in the eye.

“What happened?” Pete asked. The tears running from his face didn’t match the serious tone he had.

“I’m not sure entirely, myself,” Va’il said honestly. He still wasn’t sure of the answer. While in this group of friends, the events that had transpired didn’t seem real. He looked down at his left arm. The break was real. The splint was real. The bandages were from a dress; that too was real. But everything else, especially the drowning, didn’t seem as if it had really happened. “There was a whirlpool under the lake. It sucked me into a cave. Eventually, it led out.”

His one sentence explanation seemed to be enough for Pete. Explaining everything wouldn’t be good, Va’il thought. He thought of Ruby’s attitude, and her silent conversation with Shiroi. I’ll protect them at least. As thanks for the help, and they seemed really troubled that anyone would know who they are, Va’il thought to himself. He mustered a little courage from this thought.

Kelin looked at him with squinted eyes. The explanation didn’t suffice for him, but he wasn’t going to make an issue of it now that Pete had stopped crying. Soon, though, the questions he had would arise again.

Va’il tried answering questions that the other kids had. He explained the feeling of the whirlpool and the experience of walking for hours and hours, which wasn’t much to say. He avoided talking about Ruby, whose name he still thought was Shiroi. It still didn’t seem real to him, so he also didn’t mention the underground cavern filled with statues and a pavilion. He also wasn’t sure how much people would believe him. No one seemed to ask about what happened to the person who was drowning either, but Va’il didn’t even notice that part of the hole in his story.

“Oh, but how much time has passed?” Va’il realized that the sun was still quite low in the sky.

“A couple days. Today is the trip back,” Kelin said calmly. Va’il was shocked. The time in the tunnels had passed much differently. He knew that the hunger and exhaustion he felt were extreme, but two days was longer than he expected.

“The trip back? Today?” Va’il asked.

“Yes. It’s still morning even now. The campsite is being packed away by everyone still there. We leave when we get back,” Kelin said.

“But, then, why are so many of you out here in the forest?” Va’il asked. They had barely moved as a group when Harnes came running back, breaking the flow of the conversation.

She was carrying real bandages and a shaped splint; part of the medical supplies they had brought. Everyone stopped and waited as Harnes addressed Va’il’s broken arm in her usual noiselessness. She carefully undid the bandages that Ruby had tied around his arm. Harnes seemed to notice that the material was previously clothing, but she ignored it as she continued with her work. Va’il took each of the bandages in his right hand as Harnes undid them.

“I want to keep them,” he said to her, quietly. She nodded and threw the sticks that formed the crudely made split away. The arm was covered in scratches and bruised. The swelling wasn’t as bad as before, and Harnes slowly adjusted the splint to Va’il’s arm. Part of the splint went around Va’il’s neck. His arm was now supported in front of him. He said, “Thank you,” to Harnes, and used his good hand to try and put the old bandages in his pocket.

Va’il noticed too late. His fumbling with his pocket when putting the bandages in it caused something to fall out of it. It was a folded paper. It fell to the ground with the markings facing up.

Twill, previously unnoticed, was immediately at Va’il’s feet. She picked up the paper faster than most people could notice. But Twill had noticed, and took personal responsibility to reclaim what she thought had been lost.

“Va’il,” she said calmly, “is this what I know it is?”

“Uh.” Va’il was at a loss. The sudden change in atmosphere caught him completely off guard. He didn’t think anything of the package in his pocket a minute ago. He was quickly realizing that this was something he should not have had.

“It’s the paper package for our food, right?” Sensei asked.

“Yes,” Harnes said as she finished tightening a loose bandage on Va’il’s arm. It was now too tight.

“One of the stolen ones, yes it is,” Ter’ae said with the widest grin he had yet shown. A few of the kids standing near Ter’ae moved a few feet away from him when they realized how close he was to them.

“Wait, stolen? That is presumptive, isn’t it?” Pete asked.

“Evidence is evidence.” Twill was uncharacteristically slow in her reply.

“What kind of evidence is that? There’s no reason to think Va’il hadn’t had it earlier! We all eat the same stuff, there is nothing proving that is one of the missing packages,” Kelin said.

“It’s never been wet.” Twill’s answer silenced everyone. She held up the paper, now unfolded. The edges were still sharp, the ink hadn’t run, and it folded and unfolded with ease. Anyone could see that this paper had never been wet.

“The white and clawed thief makes his appearance!” Ter’ae shouted happily. The crowd of children had formed in a circle around the main characters, which in turn were all looking towards Va’il, a small child amidst many people older than him. His few, but reliable friends were not going to give up so easily.

“Still, Va’il can explain, right? We all saw him go down in the water! This accusation doesn’t make sense, if you think about it,” Kelin said; the usual calm in his voice was missing. Twill scowled at him.

“And just what do you think we were doing while he was supposedly off drowning? That’s right, trying to figure out who was still stealing food! Don’t you forget just why we were searching through this forest! Tracking down the thief who was careless enough to leave a few tracks leading in the direction your friend just came from!” Twill huffed while her feathers ruffled.

“Va’il, say something. You didn’t do this, right?” Kelin asked pleadingly of his small friend.

“I…” Va’il didn’t know just what to say. I need to think about this calmly, he told himself. The small boy was thinking rather clearly considering the irrationality of everyone surrounding him. The pressure of the world in that moment didn’t seem to exist in Va’il’s mind.

The only pressure he felt was the nagging feeling in his chest. The thought of two unique girls was imposing itself in his mind. He considered if he should tell everyone about them, but not for long. He didn’t want the girls to be discovered. They had helped him too much for him to want to expose them. He thought of the secrecy that they showed. More than that, he remembered the girls’ whispered conversation.

His decision was one some people would call foolish. He listened quietly to the surrounding children. There were shouts and yells. There were his two friends along with Harnes and Twill surrounding him, even protecting him. The voices and sounds faded from his mind. He thought of the fact that the two girls were a short walk from here. Not even ten minutes. He heard the sounds of the air rushing through the trees behind him. The sounds of the leaves cracking, branches cracking, wildlife scattering. The sound of wood breaking reminded him of his own break. I’ve already sacrificed much to protect them, he thought again. A little more sacrifice is fine, he decided.

“I don’t have anything to say.” Va’il spoke as he stood tall and held his head high. He exuded an air of confidence, arrogance, and pride. He did feel proud, but not for the reasons that he made everyone think he was. Be unapologetic, he told himself over and over again.

The reaction wasn’t expected. Everyone went silent again. Even Ter’ae didn’t know what to say; his accusations wouldn’t matter anymore. No one questioned Va’il after that. There was the question that circulated, as to whether Va’il actually confessed or not. They all decided to walk back, disgusted. Va’il noticed that even Harnes walked back with her head down. She stayed with Twill and the rest of the children, who all walked together, separate from Va’il.

“I don’t believe you,” Kelin said, then walked off towards the campsite.

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