“Hey Va’il. That’s nice and all, but you’re going to have to fill me in,” Kelin said.
Va’il looked at Ruby’s back for a moment, then turned to face his friend. He talked for a while and Kelin just listened, taking in every word. After Va’il finished, Kelin closed his eyes for a minute while thinking.
“Okay,” Kelin said, “I think I understand a bit. We’ll talk more in-depth another time, maybe with pen and paper. But for now, it looks like things aren’t over.”
“That’s it? No wondering about me being the son of the king?” Va’il asked.
“You’re Va’il. Son of King Fidel. And my friend. I’m both surprised and not. But the important thing is that I believe you. And that I’ve missed you. We all have. But at least, I’m not as worried as I was earlier. And there’s still much to do and say, and of course worry about. And there’s one other thing that I have to think of now, isn’t there?”
“What do you mean?” Va’il asked.
“Me,” Doufer said, appearing suddenly near Kelin.
“Father,” Kelin said.
“Sir, thank you for earlier,” Va’il said. He still felt twinges of fear in Doufer’s presence, but it was a different feeling than before.
“It was my duty,” Doufer said.
“Duty? But you didn’t have to do anything for me,” Va’il said.
“So you’ve never told him, Kelin?” Doufer asked.
“I couldn’t have guessed this. I just thought he was a commoner. I didn’t think anything of telling him more than that we were powerful nobles. I was wrong. But I did know he was special. And he is my friend,” Kelin said.
“All right. And now, son, I’ve got to laugh at it all. Just by being friends with him, you won. Do you think that’s fair to your brothers?” Doufer asked.
“I admit that my feelings were mixed. But my feelings are finally pure. I’ve always thought of him as a sort-of rival, as well as friend, and fellow lupus. But now, I’m happy for him, who he is, what he’s better than me at, what he’s worse than me at, and that he is who he is. And that my friend has paid me back. Maybe I’ve spent so much time working at beating my brothers that it does seem like a waste when I see I’ve always been at the goal. But you know what? I’m a lupus, and I’ve reached the goal, I’ve left those who lost behind me.
“I won. And that’s what matters. I’m no human who’ll worry about the fairness of the competition with my brothers. And knowing it was my best friend who helped me win, regardless of whether I knew it or not, makes me proud. Is that what you were asking father, the real question of whether I was thinking like a human since I’m around them so often, or that of my blood, the lupus?” Kelin asked. Va’il had never heard Kelin talk with such conviction of emotion before, but the content of the message was something he didn’t understand yet.
“Good answer. Congratulations son, you won. You won against those with so many years on you. You didn’t have to waste nearly as many years in ambition. And so I relinquish my duty. You inherit it from now on. Fulfill it. You are a lupus, and never forget that,” Doufer said.
“You’re relinquishing it now? But I’m still not old enough. There’s still the matter of official recognition. And besides, he needs more than me, doesn’t he?” Kelin asked.
“Yes, now. Immediately. And Rising’s recognition doesn’t matter to me anymore. This is the right child, I already have a personal reason to know that. Besides there are other things I want to do anyways. I’ll prepare to go home. And I have a feeling that based on how today went, your friend will eventually make his way there. Age doesn’t matter. You’re my son. You’ll do fine,” Doufer said.
“Thanks, but home? Do you mean home, or my home?” Kelin asked.
“Mine. So many years away. It’s time. Duty and family and all that. And the things I’ve heard of. Something important may have happened. This works out well for me. Take care of them. You have a true duty now,” Doufer said. He patted his son on the shoulders, then leaned down and told him a few matters in a whisper not even Va’il could hear. After that, Doufer walked out, leaving Va’il, Kelin, and Ruby behind.
“What just happened? You know who I am Kelin. But now I have to ask, just who exactly are you?” Va’il asked.
“Well, we’ve known each other for years, but I’ve kept some things private. You know lupus live for a long time. My father isn’t young either, of course. And he’s not just any lupus. He’s important. And now I am, now that I’ve taken over his job in Rising. I view Rising as my home, but that’s because I came here shortly after my birth. I was born in Aris, the lupus nation far to the northeast, as were all my other family members. I’m not a true citizen of Rising. We’re here on behalf of Aris,” Kelin said.
“What? Not Rising, but Aris? The nation of lupus? Wow,” Va’il said. At hearing all this even Ruby had to approach the boys.
“Aris, the lupine nation. The nation that Nightmare came from. The nation where a single female lupus stopped the Grip army from invading at Gren. You’re a real, not just by birth, but true lupus, aren’t you Kelin?” Ruby asked.
“Oh, you’ve heard of that? I wouldn’t think anyone outside of Aris would know of that kind of stuff. It’s interesting you mention that. They call her Nightmare? I suppose she would be. It’s not exactly a happy story for Grip I’d suppose. But enough of war stories in the far past regarding aunt Renshia. Aris and her lupus citizens don’t care for humans talking about them and their people, regardless of how old the stories are. But I suppose that’ll make some things easier for Ruby to understand, at least,” Kelin said.
“A family member,” Ruby whispered to herself, and for the first time she felt a little frightened of Kelin. Va’il also reacted slightly, but he couldn’t recall what in Kelin’s words made him react. Kelin picked up on Ruby’s reaction and chuckled slightly, and then continued.
“Kelin Knight, son of Doufer Knight. One of the families that guard and work for the ruler of Aris. We are those who protect the nation from any threat, internal or external. And several years ago, around the time of my birth, there was a diplomatic mission from Rising. And Fidel was sent as part of that mission, to secure some things with Aris. This was before he became the king, very shortly before. And Aris decided to send a family with Fidel as ambassadors of a sort. That was my family.
“As you know, Fidel’s father and brother were killed, you know that battle from history, prompting Fidel to return as king, and us with him, as members of Aris. The job my father had was to assist in guarding the royal family, Fidel, and handling any specific matters Fidel entrusted to him. We didn’t even know we failed Rising until today. Even though we were unable to prevent the atrocity against King Fidel, there is still the royalty for us to think of.
“Va’il, my friend, a prince and king, Kelin Knight offers his claws and fangs to you. A lupus of Aris to work for you. A lupus of Aris to guard you. A lupus of Aris to take care of your foes. A lupus of Aris to guard those you hold dearest. A lupus of Aris commits to his word. A lupus of Aris, Kelin Knight, by order of the matriarch of Aris, is here for you. This is our duty. Accept it,” Kelin said.
“You’re my friend, Kelin. I don’t want you to be anything else,” Va’il said.
“Don’t say such things. We are friends. And always will be. So here and now, as a friend, as a lupus yourself, honor not just the things that tie us, but the commitment from our nation to you, the symbol of Rising,” Kelin said.
“I don’t plan on being king,” Va’il said.
“That doesn’t matter to us. Our nation only promised to look after the royal family. You are it. And I’m saying this as a friend, that regardless of this commitment, I always intended to protect my friends as well. Don’t you dare think this means I’m going to bow to you and say subservient things, I’m a pretty proud lupus you know. Aris is a proud nation. And I’m proud that my friend ends up being the person. For me it’s a two for one deal. I don’t have to work for some stranger now, do I?” Kelin asked.
“Then, thank you. I accept. I didn’t think you’d call me something fancy anyways. We’ll have to work on that,” Va’il said. He and Kelin both laughed and then shook hands.
“Well, that settled, I think we’ve been in this place long enough. We’ll have to talk more, but not here. I know Mai’ou’s gone, and before you ask, I don’t know where she went. We’ll talk more about that later, but she’s lupus, she must be fine. And well, now that I know who you truly are, there’s some guesses we can make about your mother, aren’t there? For now though, you don’t have anywhere to go tonight, do you?” Kelin asked.
“Thank you, I don’t. I understand, and I’m starting to feel a bit better about Mum. I’ll find her,” Va’il said. Kelin nodded. They took a couple steps, and then Va’il was stopped. There was a hand grabbing his arm.
“Don’t forget me here,” Ruby said. She looked at Va’il seriously, and held his arm tightly.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to. Are you safe going home, shall we all go?” Va’il asked. He felt bad and thought of what Ruby had said to him, and pangs of guilt affected him when he looked at her.
“Not today. Not tonight. Mother’s gone. I know Shiroi is there, waiting, wondering what’s happening. But it’s probably just her now. And then there’s tomorrow, and it’ll just be me and her. And I know this is hard and it’s embarrassing, but do you think you could all come back with me? The house is huge, with so many rooms, you can take any of them, just knowing that you’re all in the same place when it feels like I’ve been abandoned, just please. That huge, empty place, I don’t want it to feel that empty, not today. After the past year, after all this, to lose and gain so much, do you think, please? A lot of rooms, everywhere, you can pick any. Do you think?” Ruby asked, and almost pleaded.
“That place looks empty enough from the outside. Even being full inside, I wouldn’t want to stay there virtually alone either,” Kelin said. “Of course Ruby. In that case, I’ll catch up with you two in a little bit. First, so many things, so much to do.”
Kelin then took off without waiting for Va’il’s response, leaving Ruby and Va’il behind.
“I guess that settles it. Though a small room in a dingy inn on the side of a dusty road has its own appeal, sure, I’d appreciate a room and a bed fit for a king,” Va’il said while laughing lightly, taking a small moment of joy where he could, knowing the pains of the day, week, year, lifetime, were still there, waiting, wanting, trying to rise and overwhelm him and her.
“Thank you,” Ruby said while smiling and tipping her head very slightly.
And then, side by side, they left that great hall. They walked out into the light, and laughed for no reason while walking down the steps in front of the entrance.
They knew that things weren’t over. That their lives had some turns in store for them they couldn’t expect. And that the day was emotional and tumultuous and demanding. But the teens from one year ago weren’t here, and the ones in their place could momentarily set aside all the sadness, sorrow, and surprise, and together they laughed.
Ruby looked at Va’il, the boy who may have been a little younger than her, but had protected her. The boy that had been both a source of and a solution to problems of hers. But for now she set that aside and laughed joyously, knowing he was still there, that her wish could be fulfilled. She looked forward towards the future, knowing that it was a good thing, a wondrous thing, that Va’il was now something more, and could be even more. He was so much more now, so Ruby was proud to say that this was Va’il’s final day as her knight, her lupine chevalier.