The Lupine Saga 76

“Coming, coming! Just wait there,” the felis waiter said. He finished picking up a few dishes from a group’s table and ran into the back. He could be heard yelling out orders for rice and chicken to the chef, and then ran back into the main room. “Come, come!”

The waiter entreated the kids upstairs, and they obliged. They took a corner table and sat on wooden benches.

“What’ll it be for the young masters?” he asked with a smile.

“Two noodles, a plate of greens, and a whole chicken,” Shiroi said before the other two could speak up.

“Anything else?”

“Hurry on,” Shiroi said in a somewhat gruff voice from underneath the hood.

“No drink for the masters? We have fifteen year old wine, Terrak’s Lilies, at the discerning master’s disposal,” the waiter said, his lip half curled.

“Water!” Shiroi exclaimed, and then slapped her hand on the table. The waiter quickly bowed and ran downstairs. Va’il and Ruby sat with stunned silence.

“Shi… Reft, what was that performance?” Va’il asked.

“I’ve never seen you act like that, what do you have against that waiter?” Ruby asked.

“Nothing, Zak. But,” Shiroi said, and then motioned for the other two to lean close to her, “we are incognito, and rather close to our objective, and close to the border. And think of what we are, compared to what we should pretend to be. Boys, headstrong ones who only answer to the master father. Though we aren’t of great means, we still demand respect on the behalf of our father, correct? We cannot give away the slightest trace of what we really are, for fear of safety, correct?”

“Oh,” Va’il said, and then grinned. “So you think we would have given it away if you hadn’t stepped in.”

Shiroi smiled without saying a word. Ruby acquired a sour look as she thought that she wouldn’t have given anything away. Much less to a common person of no consequence.

The waiter arrived again with plates and bowls full of the requested food, and then quickly left their presence without another word. The two had to admit that Shiroi was effective in keeping others from asking too many questions. The meal ended, and Shiroi pulled a few copper coins and one silver one out, just in time for the waiter to arrive.

“For the meal,” Shiroi said as she handed him the coppers. She held up the silver coin in a gloved hand, “Do you have an open room for the night?”

“Yes sir, please follow me if you’re ready,” the waiter replied, then held out his hand.

“As well, accommodate our horses,” Shiroi said as the group got up and followed the felis.

The waiter led them through the hallways until they arrived at the last room in the place. He pushed open the doors, which squeaked as they opened. The three children walked inside and closed the doors behind them. They remained quiet until the steps of the waiter disappeared.

“At least there’s something soft to sleep on, finally,” Ruby said as she eyed the bed in the corner. The rest of the room had the usual accommodations: benches, a small table, three candle-torches, and wine. They were in a corner room, which had a closed wooden window.

“Grass is softer than wood,” Va’il lamented, as he looked around the otherwise bare room. Shiroi laughed lightly, and Ruby turned around, a pillow being fluffed in her hands.

“What do you mean by that?” Ruby asked, but then laughed when she realized what Va’il meant. “Ah! I’m sorry Va’il, I guess these accommodations are only good for the girls.”

“Shh! Not too loudly, we’re boys, right?” Shiroi said.

“We’re boys, that’s right,” Ruby said in a deep voice and a mocking tone.

Va’il sighed and walked to the window. He unlatched and opened it. Looking down he saw the lights come on one by one as the sun’s light faded. The sound of people dimmed into the background, punctuated every so often by the whine or trot of a horse. The sun left the sky entirely, but behind Va’il the girls had lit the candle-torches. He breathed in deeply, smelling the scent of a new town. The lingering smell of the raw meat the merchants had been peddling just an hour ago mixed with the freshness of the ever-pervasive ivy and the sizzling meals still being created in the inn’s kitchen.

He smelled the air again and again, taking in Dent, remembering its scent. It reminded him of an area between the markets and fourth district of rising, sweat from hard work near mercantile offerings. There were fields of various crops that supported the area, and he took a moment to identify a few of them before the constant ivy smell overpowered them. He even tried figuring out the composition of the town from the different smells he knew of each species, but too many people passed through, he couldn’t tell which were the most prominent. He had a feeling it was a toss up between hares, humans, and felis in this town, though he could’ve been wrong. And by this point, he had noticed that it’d been a while since they’d been in a confined space together. He smiled as the familiar scents he knew very well reminded him of the path ahead.

They passed a few hours doing little but talking and staring at the sky, and then turned in for the night. Va’il eventually closed the window, and then laid out a blanket on the wooden floor. He lay down and slept, dreaming of traversing though deep valleys and tall trees.

The next morning held a pleasant surprise. Not only were the horses fed and stabled for the night, as expected, but they also had been washed and groomed. After the trio had breakfast, they thanked the felis waiter with more copper, and then rode south out of town. Though brief, their stay in Dent had left them with a very positive impression.

The southern journey brought them through an apple orchard that went on for an hour, and then they arrived at a valley. It didn’t match the one in Va’il’s dreams, but it still held its own very significant charm. A single cliff gave character to the valley, and hills and greenery filled the rest of it. Colorful plants and trees of red, orange, and green accented the view, and streams of water were abundant. It had many animals, most unseen, but plenty heard throughout the day. Every stream passed provided yet another reason to take a break, which was encouraged by the warm and somewhat humid air as well. It wasn’t hot in the valley, only mildly uncomfortable.

They followed the path through the valley until nightfall, and then set up camp near the valley’s exit. After setting up a small fire they ate, and then slept. Though it wasn’t an inn with a comfortable bed, the valley’s ground was soft and grassy, providing even Ruby with a comfortable rest. As usual, they awoke early the next morning to set off again.

After exiting the valley, the land that awaited them was expansive. To the west a forest could be seen, and there were fields of grain in the east. South, the direction they were mostly still heading in, held rolling hills of green. After travelling for a short while, they reached the hills, which meant they were in De’un’s territory.

Encouraging the horses onward, they made quick progress though the land by a well-travelled road that passed by various small villages. They finally arrived at the town of Speck in the late of night. Along the way there, they had noticed that the only people they had seen since exiting the valley were avian.

The town of Speck was where De’un resided, but it was far too late to try contacting him. And there was another matter that needed attending. Ruby had not told Va’il about De’un. All Ruby had told him of was the search for Darius. Deciding to finish the night without trouble, the trio found an inn that was still open, and paid the avian innkeeper to stay the night.

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The Lupine Saga 75

The worn road made a straight path through the tall trees. They were straight, thin, and placed randomly in scarcity. The sun shone at a morning’s angle, and the trees had little to block with. The patches of grass and bushes could be seen from the road, also sparsely placed. The wind was dead, so no sound could be heard except for the intermittent calls of a bird.

A rabbit scampered away when it heard the sound of several hooves. The clap of the horses’ feet on the ground had shattered the silence with force. The horses’ riders also contributed to the noise in the area.

“Only another few days of riding, then we will be there,” Ruby said cheerfully. She was sitting on a tall brown horse. She was dressed in dark loose pants and a heavy tunic that hid her figure. She wore a flat hat as well. She was dressed as a boy, and even had a smudge of dirt on her face.

“You sure seem happy about this,” Va’il replied. He was dressed similarly, though lacking any smudges. He had a hat that covered his ears, and his tail was hidden in his clothes. He rode a white horse, and behind him was Shiroi on a smaller white horse.

“Of course! Darius! We will find him and have him explain himself!” Ruby said. Va’il hid his grimace. Of course, several thoughts were running through his mind, but he couldn’t tell them to his associates.

“Shall we stop at this village, Ruby?” Shiroi asked. She was also dressed as a boy, and also wore a large darkly colored hooded robe with long sleeves to cover her feathered arms. She wore the great hood of the robe instead of a hat, as her feathers were more difficult to hide than Va’il’s ears. They had come upon a small town in the southern areas of Rising. There was a small brook and a few houses, but father south was a larger town a half day away.

“Not long. And stop calling me Ruby. When travelling incognito, call me Zak, even if it’s just us. After all, we are just simple city boys travelling on father’s orders, okay Reft?”

“Fine, Master Zak. Reft is only his brothers’ servant, he will obey big brother Master Zak because of father’s orders,” Shiroi said somewhat sarcastically. Va’il stifled a laugh, and then made his horse go a little faster. From then on Ruby watched her own behavior, as it was her idea for them to be three brothers. She couldn’t very well go back on her own design and treat her brother as a servant.

They stopped briefly in the village to eat, and then went quickly on their way. The sun soon rose overhead, and then began lowering again.

“Well, not a terrible start, right Va’il?” Ruby asked as they neared the town of Dent.

“Quicker than expected, I guess. Uneventful, so far, so that’s good too,” Va’il replied.

“Don’t you want something exciting to happen though?” Ruby asked with a smile. Va’il looked back at her and gave a half grin.

“Not this time,” he replied. “Maybe next time.”

“Well it’s not much either way Zak. Just see them, have your chats, then we go back. If madam finds out about this, it won’t go over well. You tricked her,” Shiroi said.

“I did nothing of the sort! She didn’t ask, so why should I tell?” Ruby said. “It’s her own fault for that. You heard it, be discreet. You two are discreet and good enough, why should we need anyone more?”

“Because we are three children,” Shiroi replied. “And travelling alone isn’t safe. Across the nation even! Shouldn’t you be more concerned for your wellbeing?”

“You’ve asked every day now! There isn’t anything we cannot handle. Besides, we look like regular commoners, no one will bother us. As long as you keep our names right and Va’il hides that he’s a lupus,” Ruby said.

“And I’ll keep asking it, day after day and week after week. Aren’t you concerned for Va’il’s safety?” Shiroi asked. Ruby opened her mouth to reply, but didn’t say a word. “And Va’il, how could you just come along at Zak’s request? Don’t you also have a family who worries about you?”

Va’il’s horse slowed down, until it was beside Shiroi’s. He smiled at her, and then looked ahead.

“A new question! It’s all right. Zak and I have a small agreement, and so I have to help him this time. Besides, we have the time to do this now. I remember seeing Darius before, so if Ruby wishes, how can I refuse?” Va’il asked, but his words didn’t reflect his real thoughts.

Va’il was worried about seeing Darius again, and whether Darius would reveal his identity to Ruby or not. When Ruby asked, no, demanded that Va’il accompany her to find Darius, Va’il wanted to object. But, other than that, he had no reason to. He knew Ruby’s character, and that she would demand and insist. If he still refused, she would go alone if she had to, which worried Va’il as well.

“And my family is fine. Mum was told where I am going. Even if I went to the ends of Fervi, she only needs to know where I am, and that’s enough to satisfy her,” Va’il said.

“But you’re younger than us! How can she just accept it like that?” Shiroi asked. She was feeling more anxious than before, and felt her feathers quivering. She couldn’t understand what Va’il meant.

“Hmm, it’s because we’re lupus, there’s some special stuff that means. She’s concerned for where I am, but lets me encounter my own troubles and tribulations to overcome, to journey into the world and then return. That’s the lupus way. Besides, we’re in Rising on a short trip, what harm could befall us?” Va’il asked.

“Not all people are good,” Shiroi muttered. “These two. One goes with trust. The other without. One uses others’ greed. The other uses faith. Where do I fall?”

Shiroi’s musings were cut off by their arrival in the town of Dent. It was a lively place, filled with red buildings and green ivy. The colorful town was different from Rising in its scenery and color, but it shared the spirit of the nation in its streets. People of all kinds, whether large, small, rhinos, or tanrac, littered the area.

Ruby’s entourage entered the town, passing by a group of hares working in a master’s fields. They were hardly noticed as they traversed the roads in search of an inn. They arrived at a two-story wooden building, aptly named Spiral Ivy. They tied the horses outside the inn and walked in, Ruby leading Va’il, Shiroi following behind. It was filled with an average number of customers, but the waiter still noticed them right away.

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The Lupine Saga 74

Far to the east, news of recent events made their way across the continent sometime after the death of Fidel.

A young man in his twenties stood before a figure of most imposing authority. As the young man knelt before the Head Lord, the Head told him of Fidel’s passing.

“That… is that really true, Lord?” asked the man.

“That thorn is gone. Now, now is the time to move. Receive the order!” The Head’s long gray beard shook as he spoke. He was dressed in black and purple, and wore a jade crown accented with gold.

“Yes Lord,” the young man replied. He bowed low and looked at the marble ground beneath him.

“You shall take a take a group of your own choosing and journey to Rising. Go to their capital city, and deliver the letter. You will be promoted another rank and serve as a special envoy. Be as discreet as possible, until you meet the letter’s recipient. Have him read the contents. Follow what it says from there. And then come back, for we will have many preparations,” said the Head.

“Yes Lord, I understand and will obey. Your wisdom is great, it will succeed,” said the young man.

“And Gardos, know that my expectations are to be met. This is a simple order, but still something representing me. If you handle it well, greater ones will come. Don’t disappoint me.”

“Yes Lord. I’m but your humble servant, and am overawed that you have chosen a young and unqualified man such as myself,” Gardos said.

“Go now, I’ll send for you again within the month with ready orders,” the Head said.

“A month, Lord?”

“No rush is needed. After all, Fidel just died. And the supposed heir is purportedly a toddler. Even if that’s true, it won’t matter. That heretical nation’s tyrant is gone. Our people have taken their places already. We can work slowly without straining our other campaigns. The only thorn I worried about is gone,” the Head said.

“Lord, rest assured that none have any power, all heretics are dust to our holy country. Your plans are perfect; I shall wait until I am called on. I shall begin preparations to make the trip as soon as you wish me to. Though I’ll be gone many months, I will return with glad tidings,” Gardos said. The Head gave a nod, and Gardos left his presence.

The room’s guards re-entered upon Gardos’ departure, leaving the Head Lord of Grip to his thoughts. Grip, also known as the Holy Human Republic, was the major nation in the east. Welnic, the Head Lord, sat in his gold and silk chair, contemplating Gardos’ attitude. He was feeling pleased, as he had just heard some of the best news in his life.

“That Gardos will serve me well. But he has a glib tongue. If he succeeds in Rising, that’ll be good. If he fails and gets killed, I don’t have to care; he is just fodder,” Welnic thought.

#

Jane Melonscone simply nodded.

“Is that really all? Just that, mother?” Ruby asked.

“What more do you need to know?” Jane asked curtly. She and Ruby sat in one of the various rooms discussing a request Ruby had made a while ago. It was a summer evening, and the several lights around the room highlighted the mother and her daughter. One wore green and gold, and the younger wore red and silver. Both were silk and cool to wear in the warming climate, though still distinguished and fashionable.

“But he’s not a simple soldier! Nor the regular army commander! Why would the commander of the royal guards be assigned outside the city, even to address a threat?” Ruby asked, upset but careful in her tone.

“Ruby, though that’s sometimes the case, this isn’t such a simple matter, not when Grip is involved. Truthfully, I wasn’t even aware of his whereabouts until just earlier. I can understand now, as I know of the threat they possess. Now, I hope there is nothing more.”

“I want to see him,” Ruby said. She stared at Jane hard with the willful look that Jane despised.

“Ridiculous,” Jane replied. She held up an empty teacup, which an older human manservant from behind took. Behind Ruby’s seat Shiroi stood, silently watching. “He won’t be back anytime soon.”

“No, I want to go personally and see for myself,” Ruby said. Jane turned her head a bit to look directly at Ruby and glared.

“Don’t try me. You haven’t that much liberty. Nor would risking a journey out of Rising be acceptable. Stay here, that’s all you can do.”

“There’s no risk if I have others. And, it’s not independence I need. It’s a valid reason that I can present to you in exchange,” Ruby said. “De’un.”

“What of him?”

“His territory is near the southern border. Allow me to go on the condition of seeing Marquis De’un as well. I’ve heard you mention him more often, let me go as your representative and strike a deal with him. Grant me this freedom, once,” Ruby said with a smile.

“I do have an idea or two in mind regarding him, and he doesn’t engage in business with others often. Still, there is no guarantee, and you still wouldn’t be safe,” Jane said. But the smile creeping across her face showed her change of thought. Valuable as Ruby had become, Jane still viewed her as both an asset and a liability, and someone whose potential gains always seemed worth the risks. In addition, the thought of granting Ruby a small bit more freedom and responsibility was acceptable, though Jane didn’t know why.

Jane thought for a moment longer, while Ruby remained silent. Jane thought of the facts she knew. The person that Ruby wanted to see, Darius, was stationed near the southern border in preparation for news of Grip’s movements. But, as far as Jane knew, there were no definite reports as to whether Grip was moving or not, especially so far west. Last she knew Grip had control of its neighbors, but its threat was still a great distance off, the distance measured in thousands instead of hundreds, and the time measured in months rather than weeks, across the known continent. She concluded that they posed no real risk at that time.

Jane then thought of De’un and the reports of his land. There were plenty of trade items and revenue in his lands, many of which would add a nice boost to Jane’s wealth if properly traded. And the potential for future business opens itself once initial business had been established. The temptation was too strong for Jane once the plans started running through her head.

“On one more condition,” Jane said.

“Yes, mother?”

“Be discreet. Don’t take many people with you. I don’t want the others hearing about this ahead of time. Even still, I’m worried. How will you fend for yourself? How many people can you rely on? I certainly don’t trust the paid servants; once they leave the city, they are no better than ruffians are. On second thought…”

“I have a few people in mind already, they will be discreet and protective as well. Besides, you already know Shiroi and I can take care of ourselves. I’ve proved that before. That was much more dangerous! Yet I came back. And, not only that, but I know someone who gets along with De’un much better than I. They can help!”

As strangely as the situation played out, Jane ended up giving in. She couldn’t help but question why she was giving in to Ruby, especially when Jane ruled with an unyielding hand. But she felt like it was the right choice to give Ruby an ounce of freedom, even if she was somewhat motivated by greed. One thing that Jane overlooked was who Ruby would take on the rather long trip. Of course, being a person of status with guards near her at all times, having protection was something Jane took for granted, and she assumed that Ruby would choose appropriate guards as well. It was only a logical assumption for Jane. It was wrong.

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The Lupine Saga 73

Va’il’s face was as white as his hair, sweat was starting to form in his palms, and his heart was attacking his chest. As much as Va’il wanted to hide his surprise and worry, it was obvious to any onlooker. But Ruby misunderstood. She suddenly realized that anyone hearing her story would be astounded. She realized that it didn’t matter whether Va’il was common or not either as he could easily end up telling people of importance without too much trouble. And it also dawned on her that she didn’t know what she was expecting by telling Va’il. Therefore, she recanted.

“I’m not serious,” Ruby said, and gave one of her smiles. “But it sure makes a good story, right? You didn’t really believe that, right?”

“Isn’t she overlooking the obvious?” Va’il thought to himself. He could have sworn at that moment that he could see the fringes of his hair out of the corner of his eye. Everyone called his hair silver, but it was extremely close to the white color that Fidel once had in his healthier youth. Then Va’il calmed down enough to realize a key item. He was a half, and that wasn’t something anyone could possibly expect of Fidel’s son. It had been an assumed fact that Fidel’s son would be human, to carry on the line of kings in the future. Realizing this, an odd thought came to Va’il, a mischievous one.

“You’re not joking,” Va’il said. He started with a pale grimace that gradually lightened into his toothy grin. “There really is a kid here who’s the secret son of the late king, that nobody knows is here but a few important people! Amazing! Let me help you find him.”

“What?” Ruby asked with a touch of shock. “Are you the one who’s joking with me now?”

“No Ruby, I honestly believe you. I’m a lupus, after all, I can sometimes smell it when people are telling the honest truth or a complete lie,” Va’il said. It happened to be a convenient truth for Va’il in this matter, though he left out it was usually only applicable to bad liars.

“Well… why not?” Ruby said, mostly to herself.

Afterwards they returned to class as normal, and continued schooling as normal. Every so often Ruby and Va’il would leave the other members of their group to search through more and more human children. Va’il would always offer another idea for how people could be hiding their identity, and even suggested checking the girls to see if the boy was hiding in a different way. Though Ruby noticed they never found anyone of interest, it didn’t matter to her. The task was one her mother required. Her obedience earned her greater amounts of freedom. It was much easier to be obedient in such an easy manner than to object, so Ruby’s secret qualms receded from the surface of her mind for a while.

Va’il’s initial fears about being discovered by Ruby subsided. He consistently helped her in the task, appearing as sincere as he could. He did feel he was deceiving Ruby, which didn’t make him feel much better. But he knew that joining her removed him from suspicion, and he enjoyed the time they spent together.

The two become close friends as a result. It was a strange sight, to see a young low-class half boy and an exquisitely dressed slightly older high-class human female together all the time. But in some ways, both were outcasts of society, so none of the children or teachers said anything. Va’il was a half, and that alone was enough to keep people away from him. Ruby was outcast for a different reason. Her class was too high. The number of people in all of Rising equal to her were only a few dozen, and most weren’t ever seen in public or even in the city of Rising. But her power and influence were unparalleled, if she chose to exert it. Rather than take a risk, everyone would avoid her. If they had to speak to her, it would be in as few words as possible while gazing at the floor.

During her times at school, she finally felt that a group of people treated her like a real person. Va’il was blunt at times, smart at others, and usually looked Ruby in the eyes when talking to her. The other five also always looked Ruby in the eye. Pete always treated her with kindness, and his laugh made her laugh. Teena would talk with her casually, like any other girl, even ignoring the difference in their species. Harnes took some getting used to, as she seemed happy at times, but cold at others. Harnes did have some reservations about associating with a high-noble, but warmed to Ruby in her own due time. Of course, Ruby’s often-jeweled clothing and golden hair were shiny enough to endear her to Harnes earlier.

Zeick stayed his troublesome self, to the point where Ruby once threatened him that she’d move his family far away, should he ever repeat certain actions again. She was only joking, but Zeick never again repeated those actions in Ruby’s presence. Then there was Kelin, whose status was above Zeick’s, but lower than Ruby’s. That didn’t deter him from treating her as if she were no different from the rest. Eventually, she did discover more of his and Va’il’s history. She couldn’t help but feel a bit of admiration when she learned that Kelin had become friends with Pete through their parents, which were a story in themselves, and then they became friends with Va’il. However, she never did check what Kelin’s family did, and she didn’t feel it would be appropriate to treat him as anything other than a friend, just as he treated her, even knowing her status.

A noble lupus and a merchant swine were as different as oil and vinegar, yet they added milk to the mix with Va’il. Just why they all became friends, stayed friends, and even added in more strange people to the mixture, was a wonder in itself. Ruby thought of this, but it seemed like none of it mattered to the others. It was as if that was just how things were naturally, contrary to the reality of world around them.

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The Lupine Saga 72

Some time afterwards, on a certain rainy spring day, Va’il finished eating lunch in the classroom, and then stood up. Zeick was busy scribbling away at a paper, Harnes was eating delicately, Pete was talking with Teena, and Kelin was reading a biography. The weather was boring Va’il, and nothing special had recently happened that he wanted to pursue.

“I think I’ll walk around some,” he said aloud while standing.

“Then you’re going alone then,” Zeick said, “because there is no way I’m letting Pete and Harnes out of my sight!” The two mentioned stopped their respective actions and looked at Zeick, both wondering why. “I still need to finish that report, so you two have to help.”

There was a collective sigh as the dreary afternoon’s prospects diminished even further. Va’il chuckled lightly, and then walked over to Harnes.

“He’ll take more feathers than you expect,” Va’il whispered in passing. He was out the door before Harnes could give him a ferocious scowl.

Down the hall Va’il walked, admiring the various children around him. His thoughts turned to the short time before the school year ended, the years of schooling that remained, and everything involved. And then everything would change. How though, he wasn’t sure of, so he didn’t give it too much thought.

As he turned another corner, he saw Ruby in the distance, conversing with a couple younger boys in the hall. The thirteen year old girl in the patterned blue dress, soon to be fourteen, was as strange as ever in her actions. A human boy with charcoal-dark hair was bowing in front of her. She reached up and plucked a hair, looked at it closely, and then walked away. The boy and his two friends looked at each other with utter bewilderment. They then shrugged and walked away.

Va’il followed Ruby, and was about to call out to her, but he stopped himself when she arrived at a corner and removed something from the bag she was carrying. He saw her mark a few things down with a pen, and then she put it away and walked off. Va’il followed.

As Ruby walked the halls, stopping here and there to say something to the various boys that passed her, Va’il couldn’t help but follow in wonder. Although Ruby had spent some months associating with him regularly, Va’il didn’t know much about her. Much less what odd task she could be doing.

He heard her ask a couple people about their parents. Another few she asked for a hair. A couple she didn’t ask, she simply took without them noticing. Every time, it was a human boy, of any age. The younger kids she passed she stooped down to speak with, and patted their heads a few times. She would then smile sweetly and walk off, leaving the young human boys with an enormous impression.

A while passed like this, further expanding Va’il’s growing curiosity. Finally, Ruby stopped seeking people out. She went to a quiet corner, took something out of her bag, and started writing. Va’il thought for a moment, and then decided to approach her, as there was no one else around anyways.

“Hi,” Va’il said. He had quietly approached, though not on purpose. Ruby swiveled on the spot, saw Va’il, dropped the paper in her hand, and gasped, holding a hand to her heart.

“Ah!” Ruby breathed after a second, and then spoke, though not calmly. “Va’il! You really startled me!”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“Hmm, can I really believe that? Why did you come up behind me like that?” Ruby asked in a teasing tone, already somewhat recovered from her previous fright. She bent down to pick up her things.

“I was following you. So, what were you doing?”

“You were? That’s weird. Why? You could have just come up, you know.”

“It was interesting. What were you doing? And don’t avoid the question like usual!”

“Ha! Fine, Va’il, do you want me to be direct? I was going around asking various people some questions,” Ruby said, though she felt the urge to say more. She had a secret she wasn’t supposed to talk about with anyone, but she still wanted to lament over it with someone.

“And those questions were? About their hair, right?”

“Yes. You really did follow me around! Didn’t you have anything better to do?”

“Nope. It’s a rainy day, and following you was interesting. So, why? Something interesting about all their hair?”

“Just a task assigned to me by mother. I told you once before, find a certain person at school,” Ruby said. Up to this point she spoke freely, but she wasn’t sure about whether to say more. The fright Va’il had given her had disrupted her ability to create anything deceptive, and she didn’t want to lie to Va’il anyways. She did hope he wouldn’t ask anything further, but only for a moment. The restrained side of her was losing. Her thoughts changed, and she asked herself why she shouldn’t speak more. After all, in her mind Va’il was a common boy. Yet there was the incident a while ago where she had seen Va’il at a place where no commoner should have been. It made her wonder what would happen if she revealed more.

“Oh, find someone for your mom? Sounds strange, but mothers can be weird! Mine is always doing things I don’t understand,” Va’il said with enthusiasm.

“It is, but isn’t strange, when you know the reasons why. Say, Va’il, can you keep a secret? It’s not like you have anyone really important you could tell, but it still has to be kept silent. Well, Kelin shouldn’t hear, so you cannot ever even hint it to him. Want to hear why I’m talking to all those boys?” Ruby asked. Va’il’s mischievous grin had appeared on her own face, minus the pointy teeth. “Why not?” Ruby thought to herself.

“Of course! Not a word to even mice under baskets!” Va’il replied.

“Okay. Well, I’m actually on a secret mission. No one’s around? Good. Closer, I don’t want to be too loud. You know how, after King Fidel’s death, it was announced that he had a young son that wasn’t yet old enough to ascend the throne, and so Jin took the place of regent?” Va’il nodded twice in reply. But that was only because he couldn’t speak. He felt a knot in his throat, fearful of what Ruby could possibly say next.

“Well, most people, even some of the high-nobles, think that the child is that of Aoi’s. She was an assistant to King Fidel. Anyways, nobody knows who the child is. And of course, they all think he’s only one or two years old. But during Fidel’s last few breaths, my mother was with him. He revealed, probably by accident even, that his son was going to this school! Makeen! And only mother heard, no one else. Even those who think that Aoi isn’t the mother don’t know this! Only mother, and she thinks maybe one or two other people might know this as well, or even whom the child really is. So mother decided to look for the boy discreetly, and that’s where I came in.

“In exchange for much freedom, I’m supposed to look for Fidel’s mysterious son in this school. Unfortunately, the only way to identify who he is would be by hair. Fidel’s hair was white, just as his father’s was, and just like every king’s hair has been. It is unique to the sons of Rising’s royal line. This means the son of Fidel has to have white hair. If he’s going to this school, he has to be coloring it to hide his identity. That’s why I’m systematically checking every human boy in this school. Some allow me to without question, others refuse for a while until I show them my high-noble signet ring, and others are obviously the natural children of their parents. So what do you think?”

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