The Lupine Saga 90

“Oh? That is strange. What queen?” Jin asked. Shiroi’s gaze, focused on Jin, noticed a twitch in his face, a micro-expression, the slight beginnings of a smile, cut short before it could truly live. There was a slight widening of his eyes which also disappeared as soon as it was manifest. Shiroi believed, from those, that Jin knew who Jane spoke of. Shiroi had an idea, but waited for confirmation.

“My youngest daughter, of course. I know you remember why.” Shiroi wasn’t as surprised as she expected herself to be. She felt a tug of sadness, as she knew that Ruby had no idea of her mother’s designs for her future. But Shiroi also thought that the news wouldn’t surprise Ruby either. Noble issues often concerned hereditary matters, and to be queen would fit well with the prestige of the Melonscone lineage. Shiroi knew an heir existed, but she had to wonder who he was, why he hadn’t been revealed to the public yet. She pushed her worries aside for the moment, and continued listening.

“Yes, yes, that’s correct. Oh, this is certainly a development. She is missing too! What a problem.” Jin shook his head slowly, closed his eyes, and then sighed.

“What has happened?” Jane asked.

“Happened?” Jin asked, his expression changing abruptly for the first time. Shiroi wondered what it meant, his look of sudden surprise, a non-deliberate change in expression. It was quick, and unlike any other action she had seen him perform. “Oh, no, nothing. Just problems as usual, I meant. The sad issues that arise when hearing daily reports about the misgivings of criminals that appear in the city, that kind of thing. Nothing unusual, in truth, though sad. You know, so many things to deal with, and just so few personnel worthy of handling them.”

Shiroi grasped the meaning. Jin had started gesturing, and his words were spoken quickly. He hadn’t moved his hands or spoken quickly until that moment. It was an obvious change. It was nervousness, Shiroi thought. It looked to her like Jin was hiding something, or felt regret over something he said. Although Jane didn’t pick up the emotional subtlety, she was an expert at dicing apart hasty words. In their different ways, each woman realized that Jin didn’t make sense.

Jane thought for a moment, realizing she had stumbled onto something, which may or may not have something to do with Ruby. Her haughty curiosity to know everything of any importance coming into play, Jane decided to pursue a new tangent instead of continuing her original objective. And Jin’s words had reminded her of something, no, someone she had not thought about.

“Few qualified people, you say? Indeed, few are good. But, thinking of adequate people, how about Darius? I haven’t heard of him being busy. Isn’t he rather adequate when it comes to various matters of the nation? Certainly usable, at least.”

“Him,” Jin said while shaking his head, “he is, certainly, adequately, surely, but not. Not available. Pressing missions, you understand.” Jin’s slow speaking and calm demeanor returned.

“Don’t lie to me. I know there aren’t any missions. I’ve let things go, ignored it and let it slide, until now. Where is he? If anything, I could use him for my purposes. Better yet, I want to see him myself.”

“Can I really not hide this?” Jin asked. His demeanor didn’t change, prompting Shiroi to wonder why Jin gave up so easily.

“Something did happen, didn’t it?” Jane asked.

“This is of utmost secrecy. Is that all right, madam?”

“Of course. This has been, the entire time.”

“Ah madam, I cannot hide it. This really shouldn’t have been revealed at all. But I fear the worst. No, with your declarations, it already is. I suppose you should know one thing, first. You see, I’m quite sure Darius knew Fidel’s son. He almost definitely knows who the boy actually is!”

Both women wore surprised expressions. Shiroi had her doubts about why the heir was still secret, but this confirmed that the heir to the throne was actually unknown. At the thought of an unknown child, Shiroi remembered Ruby’s reasons for going to that school. To search for a child. She shook her head, trying not to make the connections that were becoming apparent. She couldn’t help but feel anger, knowing that Ruby had been manipulated into searching for her own future husband, a complete unknown, under the guise of schooling. She thought of how Ruby had cheered up in the past years, constantly smiling, talking of others, and enjoying a somewhat normal life. All while searching for someone to change her own future.

An unknown, that even the adults were manipulating behind the scenes until the day that the person was revealed. Shiroi couldn’t articulate what she felt over these various revelations, but the feelings of distrust, disgust, and anger had made their ways to the top. Even if she could handle them arranging Ruby’s future marriage, something expected of parents and nobles, to be so fickle and deceptive with it was beyond her tolerance. They didn’t even know who it was, and yet were willing to arrange a marriage for them! Even the person with a better idea of who it was, Jane, in her arrogance had assumed too much and sent her own daughter out as a spy. It was just too much for Shiroi to accept. She couldn’t move, but the anger she felt welled up in her. However she was a servant, a statue, without her true master nearby. All she could do was wait.

She forced the anger back, keeping it from making any physical manifestation in even a single feather, but it had done something to her. There was a dull ache that started to form in her chest, and then moved its way into her back. It almost hurt, but Shiroi thought it was all in her mind, her emotions overwhelming her with no outlet available. Nevertheless she refocused on the conversation in front of her, knowing she shouldn’t let her emotions cause her physical distress anymore, she could deal with those later. She also wondered about what other secrets the people around her held.

Jane was shocked for another reason. Darius knew who Fidel’s son was. She wondered why she didn’t think of that sooner, knowing how close Darius and Fidel were. It made sense, but she had been deceived. She had to laugh inside at Fidel’s constant attempts to tease her, even when gone.

“He knows the child? But, then what? You still do not? Has Darius not spoken of it? Where is he?”

“Think about it for a moment, madam. Nothing has been mentioned of him for a while. It is because he isn’t in Rising. He won’t be coming back either. He is gone, and he took the heir with him! That’s what I believe,” Jin said.

“He left Rising? This is too much, Jin.”

“It is. And hopefully the heir is safe. I hope he hasn’t been harmed.”

“Hopefully? Explain. Why did Darius leave? Why take the heir? What about Diren, he was also close to Fidel, shouldn’t the former advisor know?”

“Ah, Diren, he too tried looking for Darius, as he didn’t know either. I did have my suspicions of that rash hare, but it was for naught. He also left us, though free of suspicion and for understandable health issues. No, I fear the worst for our future king. King Fidel didn’t have any child, and then, all of a sudden, at the end of his days, we find out he does? With no warning? It was unexpected, and completely against Darius’ plans. You see, madam, as trusted as he was, Darius was planning to take hold of the nation, take power once Fidel died!”

“Is that true? Even I accept that Darius was an acceptable commander and the soldiers showed him loyalty, but could he really be treasonous?”

“Madam, evil doesn’t display itself openly at all times. It sits in the corner, slowly developing, complicating itself. It grows and develops. It waits for chances. It looks for them, grabs hold of them, and doesn’t let go once it has taken root. There is no cure for it. And it is often connected to greed, desire for power, control, and willfulness. Our Darius, as good as he may have appeared, had a corner devoted to evil. I say I only believe this, but the proof is slowly stacking up. And latest revelations have only added to that.”

“It is true. Greed and power can corrupt,” Jane said. Shiroi had to keep from speaking her own personal thoughts at this point, resisting the urge to call Jane a hypocrite. She stopped herself and thought about whether that was true, though. Jane was powerful, greedy, overbearing, and cruel at times. But, for all her many faults and loathsome actions, Shiroi didn’t think of her as an evil person. She was severely misguided in her approaches, from Shiroi’s standpoint, but they mostly worked when used in the confines of her class, aside from a few matters Shiroi couldn’t forgive. In Shiroi’s current life, she couldn’t survive using Jane’s methods. The opposite could be said, as well. She calmed down and listened to the two incredibly powerful people speak of things that would affect lives and nations.

“Yes, truly. I will tell you, madam, that there is more as well. He may be seeking to take power. Or he may be attempting to offer the heir to our enemies. Or raise him as his own child, since we aren’t sure on the age either. I wouldn’t even put the idea of a rebel army past him, since he could claim the true ruler of Rising is with him. Sad as it could be, I can see that many would move to his side, unknowing of his designs.” Jane had to think a moment. She realized something of importance. Jin had not even the slightest idea whatsoever about Fidel’s son. All he knew was that there was a child. Jane, though, knew that the child had to be of school age, at least. By now the child could be no younger than seven. It was a small but important fact that Jane would keep for herself. She felt it was of importance to her, and she didn’t want Jin knowing everything anyways.

“Regent, there is still another matter. I do believe everything is related, and now my original reason for coming is much more important. Darius also saw the Right that Fidel wrote in his last moments. My Right.”

“Madam, that reminds me of the last, and most fearful aspect. By doing this, Darius may be aiming to steal the secret of the Right!”

“That would be a travesty! Never has a member outside the royal line possessed it. With it, what you said would be possible! Is he trying to usurp history now?”

“I wish I knew, madam.”

“But still, if we find my daughter, I believe there to be hope. If we find her, and then Darius, then we can take advantage of the fact that he saw that Right. He will hand over the boy, if he is alive, in order to fulfill it, if he doesn’t have possession of it. And we’d already know if he had it, certainly.”

“We can take comfort in that at least. But no, my dear madam, think again. He knew of your Right too, who it involved. He knew. This has been a most troubling series of revelations tonight. I fear the worst for our nation still. It is trembling due to the actions of one man.” Jin sighed.

“That, that means you think he has taken my daughter as well? Do you believe that?”

“Madam, I cannot state anything for fact. But based on what I knew, and now from what you tell me, I hate to make the conclusion that I’ve been presented with. I just don’t know. To think he may have returned to Rising to commit such an act, it is unconscionable. What we will do, I don’t know. But I will figure something out, you can have confidence in that. Actually, I have several ideas, and some plans in place. My worry is great, but my confidence has grown as well. How about, since we are discussing things, you lend me a few of your resources, and let me lean upon the house of Scones?”

“What are you asking? Outrageous! Those are mine alone, unless the king commands! To even speak of such a thing!” Jane said with a flash of anger. “Rely on the resources of the kingdom, it is at your disposal.”

“I’m sorry, madam. I may have overstepped suggesting something so outlandish to a high-noble. I mean no harm. Madam, the armies are controlled by the nobility in general, but answer to the king alone. But our king is gone, and a regent doesn’t fully take his place. To grant your daughter’s freedom, if it is still possible, to free your daughter from such a man’s grip, it will be necessary to take every precaution, and to search out every method. For all our sakes, please lend the kingdom your help.” Jin bowed his head a few times in apology.

“Then so be it,” Jane said. She shook her head sideways. “No,” she thought, “I don’t want to. But I think, I will. Why did I agree? Do I agree? Fine, it will have to be. My resources are needed. It’s an extraordinary time. For Ruby’s freedom. Her freedom? Is that really it?”

Jane exchanged final pleasantries with Jin, and then left, Shiroi in tow behind her. Shiroi was upset, but didn’t comment. She realized that all she could do was wait. There were so many things she had wanted to do and try in order to find Ruby, but the night had shown her many would be futile. In her current position, she had no power, no ability to do anything. She could only wait while cursing her own incompetence, and agonizing over the pain in her that’d gotten worse.

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The Lupine Saga 89

The teacup rattled. The dish clanked when Jane tried putting it down calmly. Finally managing to do it, the dishes remained on the table for only a minute before a servant came to remove them. And when they did, Jane got up and walked away.

“Prepare the carriage,” Jane said to the attendant when she went past. She didn’t glance at his nod of acknowledgement. She headed first to Ruby’s room, and opened the door. A desk, a bed, a bookshelf, tables, and chairs. But no occupant. Jane wandered around for a moment, touching the items in the room. She touched the book with the leather binding that was sitting on the desk. She sighed, and then left the room.

Standing outside the door, waiting patiently, was Shiroi. She didn’t speak, she could only look at Jane with pleading eyes, trying to communicate her concern.

“I’m going out. I’m going to find out more. I won’t abandon my daughter, ever. Don’t tell the others, she has disappeared. Are you, too, going to disappear from my life?” Jane said. Her melancholy breached her normally steel wall, and the first to receive of it was the servant that knew far too much of the matters of the nobles within the walls of this estate. Jane had known that Ruby didn’t run away, but her belief in that was reinforced by her interaction with Kelin.

“Madam, I will serve your daughter. I cannot do that elsewhere. Ever,” Shiroi said, and then humbly bowed. She spoke no further, and clarified her words no further.

“What do you think? Do you think she ran, or was taken?”

“The mistress didn’t run. Sneak out, yes, but not to run. Was she really taken?” Shiroi asked, her normally calm feathers moving with an agitated mind of their own. Her own belief in Ruby was reinforced, but her concern had doubled. A creeping fear in the back of her heart sent cold tingles throughout her. Her eyes locked with Jane’s for a moment, this being the one time in their lives they were of the same mind.

“Tell no one. It may be true. Especially not, wait, no. No one. You wouldn’t. To think this would happen to me. Look at me, I’m conversing with a bird. Truly ridiculous. I need to find out. That blasted regent. Tell no one, my daughter’s trusted servant. Tell no one, trust no one but her,” Jane said. It would be one of the few times Jane would ever speak to Shiroi directly. And in such confusion, Shiroi’s opinion of Jane shifted. Jane had shown trust in Shiroi, and that must have existed before this time, but never revealed until now. Her vulnerability was revealed, and through Jane’s pain Shiroi saw the fragile side of a person who always lived with such heavily selfish motives that they forgot their own faults.

“I want to look for her, as well,” Shiroi said on impulse. Normally she shouldn’t say such a thing. But she was resolved in all her wants and convictions, and was unwavering in her determination.

“No,” Jane said. “But instead, I’m reassigning you. Until she returns, you will by my attendant when I go out or receive guests.”

“But madam! Aren’t I a worthless servant that can easily be sent away without loss? I am worthless, but as such I can go to various places, places that you may not, and search those that are below the visible surface! I can go to far corners and scour deeply the fabric of lower society where she may have ended up!”

“Foolish bird, think about it harder. Lower dregs? That isn’t a problem. Easy even. No, think about this more deeply. At my side while I search. While I investigate. While I speak with those who may have played a more serious part than initially thought. This isn’t a simple thing, when it comes to the privileged. And more than likely, not done by those of simple means. Can you comprehend this meaningful thing? Or are you relegated to the dregs, a disappointment even for a lowly servant? Shall I forget this kindness, and return you to your former place?”

Shiroi opened, and then closed, her mouth. The meaning and true prospects behind Jane’s words had profound meaning, which Shiroi realized. Without another word, she gave a short bow. Jane smiled briefly, made a small grunt of approval, and then walked off. Shiroi tailed behind her. Soon the carriage was readied, and as the night grew, Jane traveled to the castle.

#

Upon arriving at the castle gates Jane left the carriage and spoke with the guards personally, for they would not open the gates at the directions of the driver. A while passed before she returned. She sat with a huff while Shiroi stared. The gates opened and the driver brought them into the castle’s inner areas.

“Asking their supervisors for approval, for me, their superior? And then for the decision to be deliberated, what a ridiculous endeavor,” Jane said. Shiroi wondered if Jane was talking to herself, which was the likely answer, or to Shiroi. She decided to speak up, since the madam was different from usual.

“They wouldn’t, they dared to not open the gates on madam’s authority alone?” Shiroi asked. Jane stared at Shiroi, her fierce look slowly becoming calmer and transforming to one of thought. She took a few moments to decide whether to acknowledge the servant who had disobeyed their status, or to ignore as usual. This period, this time, there were things far too different surrounding the circumstances of the night, and so breaking protocol by both noble and commoner was an allowed exception. Jane wouldn’t abandon her classic views, but honestly felt like speaking, venting frustration, to a live person instead of the air. She had far too many issues at hand to worry about momentary status differences. She’d return to normal later, that was a fact.

“That fool has enacted a blanket policy of closing the gates for all at night,” Jane said, her words carefully chosen. She wouldn’t concede that her authority and power could have any issues. Shiroi knew to keep silent, as there was no guarantee the madam would allow Shiroi to continue overstepping her bounds. And the madam’s small attempt to deflect the issue of her authority implied embarrassment, and pursing that issue could thus lead to complications for Shiroi later. She understood the madam well enough, realizing there was a person in power who irritated Jane in several ways.

A group of guards greeted them and led them through the halls of the castle, ending up at a room. One opened the door and let the two in, closing it behind them.

“Madam Melonscone, wonderful to see you.”

“And you, Jin,” Jane said. Shiroi stood dutifully, silently by the wall, just to the left of the door, and listened and watched everything that happened. Regent Jin was alone in a large room filled with all the normal items: cabinets, tables, dressers, a bed, a closet, and bookshelves. His private room appeared a cross between a bedroom and a study, which matched what little Shiroi knew of him.

“Good, good,” Jin said slowly. He appeared older than Jane by much, with a long beard, but seemed to be able to move with a spry step when he wanted. When he was seen, which was becoming more often as of late with his duties as regent, he would often carry a cane and had glasses attached to a small chain around his neck. He usually spoke slowly and carefully, choosing his words and tone. “So then, what has prompted this midnight visit?”

“A consultation on various issues,” Jane said.

“Various? Such as?”

“Serious matters,” Jane said, wary of Jin’s tone, trying to feel him out. She didn’t distrust him; she didn’t understand him well enough to trust him. “Would I come here, at this time, for anything less?”

She held back from saying that Jin should already be pledging his help for whatever matter, no matter what it could be. It was self-evident, in Jane’s view. But Jin wasn’t Fidel. She couldn’t make demands so clearly and defiantly with Jin.

“Ah, I understand,” Jin said while turning to look at Shiroi in the distance. “Something important and private. Your servant can reside in the room across the hall.”

“No, she will stay. A statue needn’t leave the room its master placed it in. I mean something different. It concerns the nation itself, even.”

“Ah, that is what you mean. Well, many things concern the nation lately. Have you heard of the issues with the two cities to the west? They have been having a rough time with crops this year. Much a problem. Or is it about the continued wall expansions? That’s a concern for me, lately. So many different things, all of great or little concern. How is it, what is your concern?”

“The queen, the future queen, is missing.”

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The Lupine Saga 88

The long fence passed to Kelin’s left for a while, and then he arrived at the entrance to the estate. Guarding it were a bearan and a swine. They looked down at Kelin with mistrust in their eyes.

“Keep moving,” the swine said when Kelin stopped in front of them.

“I’m here on noble business; I am here to see the mistress of the estate,” Kelin said.

“And I’m a noble. Keep moving, kid,” the bearan said.

“I am a noble. And you’re a couple of common guards, only lucky enough to end up at such a high-noble’s estate. But a false move and your employment will be terminated without a second thought. This is one of those false moves. You judge that I, as a child, am for some reason not a noble? Foolish,” Kelin said, and then he crossed his arms and huffed.

“Hey, the kid is in pretty nice clothes,” the swine said.

“A lot of kids are. Doting parents. Ignore it. Fancy words don’t mean a thing. Besides, kid doesn’t have business with the madam,” the bearan said.

“Fine, I had given you a chance. Instead, my proof,” Kelin said. He then held out a hand. The two guards looked down in bewilderment at the signet ring on Kelin’s finger.

“That’s a noble signet, right?” the swine asked. However, the bearan could only nod silently. “But even so, this isn’t a normal noble. It’s the madam. She’s not someone even a duke would casually come visit.”

“Normally true. I come with a letter of introduction, though,” Kelin said. “So shall we continue, or shall you let me proceed? I have nobility, and private matters to discuss, as detailed in a letter. Now, if you still do not believe me, I can show you it. However, I cannot guarantee what will happen to you if you see the contents, as it’s to only be seen by the madam. Well?”

“I suppose we can let an assistant come and take you to the waiting room,” the bearan said. He had started smiling nervously, pretending to be nice. Kelin smiled outwardly and sighed inwardly. It was necessary that he gain entrance, and the best way to do that was to act like a noble, of course. It was something he was good at, but its complexity was tiresome.

An attendant soon arrived and led Kelin to the house. He marveled at the grounds, which were more impressive than any he had seen before. A few items reminded him of his spy mission years ago, but the estate had changed enough to render his image of it from years past obsolete. There were pools, gardens, exotic animals, gardeners by the dozen, enormous trees, flowered bushes, and several more wonderful works of nature that were far too grand to summarize. The area felt less artificial than it had seemed in years past. Though it was all orderly, there was a natural quality to the estate. No longer were bushes all trimmed the same way or the same size. There were so many varieties of trees that Kelin was unable to count them during the lengthy walk to the mansion. It had matured in beauty, that was Kelin’s final decision on the matter.

Though the outside was a spectacle of nature, the inside was no less an incredible masterpiece. Art, enormous rooms, maidservants, carpet, and more, were all in abundant supply in the mansion. Years could be spent explaining the histories of the masterful decorum in just the first few rooms, not to mention any of the rest.

Kelin took in a portion of the surroundings, which exemplified the prestige of the highest class, and then reminded himself to ignore it all and resume his pursuit. The attendant took him to a waiting room, took the letter of introduction that Doufer had written for him, and then left him in the room while the attendant fetched the madam of the estate.

It was a while before the attendant returned, whose reply was that Kelin had to wait for longer. Kelin leaned into the soft couch, knowing that it would be useless to try and rush the issue. It wasn’t of great importance, considering the freshness of the situation, and dusk was still waiting on the sun to drop a little more. For all Kelin knew, there was still the possibility that nothing adverse had happened to his friends. He could be wasting his time. There could be better ways of searching. He could be going down a dead end, ending up no better off than where he started, although with less pride in stock. Thus, it wasn’t of great importance.

As more time passed, Kelin avoided admiring the surroundings. His own estate was squalid compared to that of the high-noble’s. Though hours could be spent examining and explaining the history of the various artifacts, there wasn’t a reason to think of them. It was, as Kelin knew, to be expected. The admiration transitioned into a separate thought, one that was calm and had an element of determination. The idea that one day, stepping into an environment like this would be nothing special to him. To the inhabitants though, it’d be a different matter. Ambition had reared itself, and a satisfied smile appeared upon Kelin.

“The madam has arrived,” said the attendant, prompting the return of Kelin’s attention.

Kelin turned to see the always-incredible Jane Melonscone appear from close behind the attendant. The attendant moved into the background when Jane sat.

“A little boy?” Jane asked, but she was looking into the distance.

“Madam, I’m not just any boy,” Kelin said. He considered, briefly, whether he should be deferential, but decided against it. It wasn’t in his nature, he wasn’t used to it, and he didn’t want to put himself beneath anyone. In short, he sounded rude.

“Enough. I came at the behest of Doufer, and this favor was granted. Goodbye,” Jane said.

“Not just any lupus, but a friend of Ruby,” Kelin said. Jane turned her head, and then looked at Kelin in full for the first time.

“A friend? How pathetic. You cannot claim that. Nobility befriends nobility of the same status. And that friendship is ephemeral, lasting only until the smarter realizes the best way to profit. You come on introduction from Doufer. I know of him, and his occupation was just enough for me to let you consider a moment of my time. However, to claim familiarity is too much. You will go,” Jane said. Her voice was calm, her face pleasant, and her smile impeccable. Kelin decided to avoid running himself ragged with probing, and go straight to the truth of the matter.

“So the old man didn’t mention in the letter I’m his son? I’ll have to thank him. But if I cannot claim to be a friend of Ruby, then what should I do about my friend, the one that is missing just the same as Ruby? I know she isn’t here,” Kelin said, wishing he was wrong for the good of his friends.

Jane turned away, and then stood without a word. She walked over to the attendant, whispered a few things, and then returned to her seat. The attendant, meanwhile, gathered servants and other attendants, forced them out of nearby rooms, and shut all the doors near the room they were in. No chances were being taken; Jane didn’t want anyone to listen to their conversation.

“My daughter isn’t missing,” Jane said.

“You will go through such elaborate details to close us off from the rest, and then begin with such a lie?” Kelin asked. “There’s no point to it. They need to be found.”

“Assuming the possibility, where is my daughter?” Jane asked, her smile gone and her voice tinged with anger.

“I don’t know,” Kelin said. “But I don’t think she’s alone.”

“That fool. Why does she try running away?”

“I don’t believe that, madam. I don’t think she ran away.”

“Of course she must have. That foolish child never does what’s best for her. Making a mess of things time after time, and again! Playing with lupus and felis and swine, how ridiculous! And now she thinks her discontent is greater than mine at this development! Lupus, tell me where you think they went!”

“And I’m telling you she didn’t run away! I think something happened, and I’m here trying to get your help, you, the person with more power than anyone else, just to find my friend. His knack for trouble is exceptional, but to disappear is strange. I know this wasn’t his doing. And it certainly wasn’t Ruby’s. I’m asking you, high-noble, to please investigate. Or grant me assistance. A noble lupus takes what we want or need. But, for my ridiculous friend who has left the scent of trouble of an unknown kind, I ask, and may even plead. For your own sake, though, find out. This doesn’t smell right. It’s wrong. And I am only a child of Doufer, you understand the limits of my authority, and what that means.”

Kelin realized he had been standing for a while, though he wasn’t sure when he had first stood. He dropped his arms, their gestures no longer needed, and then sat down. Jane, for her part, was looking into the distance. A few minutes of silence passed.

“You can go,” Jane said. Kelin didn’t speak again. He stood, walked out of the room, the mansion, and the estate. After exiting, he looked back and saw the sign above the entrance.

“The house of Melonscone was lonesome. Was I not worse, though?” Kelin asked aloud.

He traversed the city, wandering from estate to estate, garden to park, and business to merchant. He ended up on a road around the corner from Va’il’s house. He stopped walking, unable to move further. And then he turned and walked away, this time with purpose, towards his own home.

His own house, his own room, his own walls that he stared at. And, unable to articulate his thoughts, Kelin did all he could think of. He clenched his fist and hit the wall. He was silent, and the thuds didn’t reverberate far. But inside, he was yelling, screaming, and yearning for something more.

“This is it, this is my limit. My ridiculous limit. Relying on others, humbling myself, unable to ascertain the truth. Being left out of whatever truths are discovered. It isn’t right. It isn’t how I want it to be. I need power. I need to climb higher. To the top, the absolute top. I will climb. I’ll find out, myself. Because today, all I can do is weep at my own ineptitude.” Kelin didn’t speak to the wall again. He cursed it, knowing that it was a symbol of his own incompetence. Knowing that wall was the same barrier as the one that would prevent him from knowing anything more about his friend. He knew it was, and that things wouldn’t change. It was a revelation that he wanted to deny, as it meant nothing would happen for him. The problems that had seemed hazy a few hours ago had suddenly materialized, even though there wasn’t proof, yet.

The coming days would only solidify the unfortunate realizations Kelin had. They would also form a fire of motivation.

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The Lupine Saga 87

There wasn’t much Kelin could glean from his exchange with Mai’ou. He thought of what more he could have done, asked, but it seemed there was a mystery on the tip of his nose, and no way to know if it was real. He walked to the first district, considering how to approach his next target. He pondered exactly how to approach and ask the formidable nobles he was to face, but could only sigh at his lack of experience.

He arrived at an estate in the first district. Between two other well-sized estates laid the one he stopped at the entrance to. Its lawn was mostly easily maintained grass and evergreen trees, though some shrubbery existed. Compared to the massive, colorful gardens that he knew existed in the estates to each side, the estate he was at was plain.

It even lacked a fence or wall, something that most estates in the first district had. However, the archway above the entrance clarified why. In large letters that no would-be burglar would dare miss, it clearly stated exactly whose estate this was, as well as what species they were. The occupants being lupus, no fence was necessary.

“Is he home?” Kelin asked as soon as he shut the door behind him. The house and furnishings were normal, for a noble family, even if the estate itself was rather plain. Art and decorated weapons on the walls, and carefully crafted furniture in the rooms, added to the prestige of the environment.

“In the third study,” said a female voice from another room. Kelin’s mother could be heard chopping and cutting tonight’s dinner, but Kelin didn’t investigate further.

“That’s amazing,” Kelin said under his breath. He hesitated for a while, as he hadn’t planned on his father being home that day. It had originally been a single thought, an impulse, something he thought he could act on without any actual consequence. But his father was there, and that in itself was a consequence.

Sighing slightly, Kelin headed upstairs and towards the third study. He wasn’t nervous, but he was caught off-guard. He thought of what he should ask, and if he should really ask his father all that was bothering him. He knocked at the door.

“Who is it?” Doufer asked from inside the room.

“Kelin.”

“Ah. Come in.”

Kelin opened the massive oak door and entered the room. It was relatively small, compared to the rest of the rooms in the house. At the opposite end of the room was Doufer, sitting at a desk that was topped with several books and various papers. Above the desk was a window. To the sides were enormous bookcases reaching the ceiling, each filled with hundreds, possibly thousands, of books.

“You’re home today,” Kelin said.

“I’m here enough. What is it?” Doufer asked. He moved slightly and ended up turning his chair around. He had black and abundant hair, piercing dark eyes, and a slightly weathered look about him. He looked to be between youth and middle-age, the human equivalent of early thirties. He was more than thrice that at least, which meant Doufer had a surprisingly youthful look, even for a lupus. Together, his attributes showed power, experience, and confidence. That was always the impression Kelin had received, and one very close to the truth. And then there was the fear, one that seemed to be in the air itself, trying to seep into anyone too close to the sitting lupus.

“There is a situation I want to look into,” Kelin said. He had gradually grown accustomed to his father over the years, but even still he had trouble keeping composure. He knew it best to be clear and direct.

“And? To the point, just say what you’ve come seeking of me,” Doufer said, his face emotionless.

“Advice. Insight. And, though I hesitate, to ask for help,” Kelin said, resisting the urge to cut his comments short or to look away from his father’s piercing stare. He’d be thrown out if he dared to look away, he knew that much.

“Hesitate, my son? You’re being overly frank and humble,” Doufer said. He smirked slightly. Kelin hesitated, and breathed a beat quicker.

“It’s an important matter, a matter dealing with a friend or possibly two of mine. For him, no, for them, I’m coming to you, even against my desire,” Kelin said.

“Ha!” Doufer laughed momentarily, and then stood. He was tall, in addition to all his other features. “Some child you are. Do you really need me, or are you taking the easy way out? How is your friend involved?”

“It’s a noble matter. Father, I’m deferring to you for today. Shall we speak on equal grounds, instead of this pointlessness?” Doufer closed his eyes for a moment, and then let out a long sigh.

“All right. If you speak like that, I have no choice. You’re growing up to be a fine lupus, really. Denying the fear that I bring, that’s good for a lupus boy. Beginning to remind me of when I was your age, trying to face sis. Enough, enough, I’ll listen with emotion, this time,” Doufer said. He sat down again, his expression slightly different, and the aura around him seeming much more approachable than a few minutes prior, and the tension in the air dissipated.

“Thanks,” Kelin said, and then smiled slightly. He felt a twinge of relief, and reinstated the mindset he usually carried when around anyone other than his father. “I’ll explain. I have two friends, a commoner and a high-noble, at school.”

“A high-noble?” Doufer asked. His expression instantly changed to one of bewilderment. “At that school? Which of them would ever lower themselves to letting a child go there?”

“You would think that. But it’s Melonscone,” Kelin replied.

“Are you serious?” Doufer asked, wide-eyed at the revelation.

“The reason, I’m not entirely sure of, so ignore it for the time being. I don’t know what goes on with them, but it’s not important. What is, is that I believe the daughter may be missing. My friend as well. Don’t bother asking why, for the reasons aren’t something I have to give you, but this commoner and Miss Melonscone are good friends, and both were missing at school today. And according to the mother of my friend, Miss Melonscone probably called them out last night to meet somewhere. My friend hasn’t been seen since, and I don’t know about Miss Melonscone.”

“Are you positive? Madam Melonscone has never been one to be quiet when an important matter arises. She’s caused a disturbance over her daughter before, as well. There hasn’t been anything I’ve heard about that so far. It may not be directly related to us… yet it is in another way. For me to not know, and for Madam Melonscone to remain silent as well, it seems strange. Though lately… I wonder. This morning’s meetings were normal as well,” Doufer said. He pondered thoughtfully while Kelin replied.

“And if she acted twice the same way, that would help. But I know, the same as you, that the only times she’s made a fuss over Ruby would be when Fidel was still alive. Has she been just as proactive since then, father?”

“It’s true that she has been much more subdued lately. More specifically, it seems her influence doesn’t have as much effect anymore. She has gradually done less and less as the regent has enacted stricter policies that require less contention. Never mind that, politics you shouldn’t know, and those items aren’t part of my work. Your points aren’t without merit, if nothing else. So what do you wish for?”

“I want to meet her and ask more. Can you help with that?”

“I won’t go there, this isn’t yet my concern.”

“I’m not asking you to. I will go, alone. But as it stands, there is no possible way for me to do that.”

“And so you’re asking me. I could give you a signet and a letter. It may be enough. However, I don’t think I will unless you can answer something. You are my son, so you should know what this will mean.”

“Ask me. You’ve been open to me, I have nothing to hold back, and we do not lie,” Kelin said while tightening a fist in a brief flash of worry.

“Your brothers would figure out a way on their own how to contact a high-noble in their current standings. And you have come seeking my aid. Are you not the lowest of them, with this concession?” Doufer’s eyes narrowed on his youngest son, and he again implemented his imposing aura. A smile flicked once at his lips, and then was gone, replaced by the seriousness required for the decisions pending in his mind.

“My brothers would definitely find some way of contacting her. They are shrewd. They’d sniff out a partner or other noble associate of hers that would provide the necessary means of contacting her. They would use their connections in the best manner possible. There aren’t many high-nobles, but the number of relatively powerful yet still approachable nobles are numerous enough. First, do you agree that would be the method they’d likely use, and probably the best, at that?”

“I concede that the way they would use is contacting someone else first.”

“Then, father, I have approached a relatively powerful, but nearly impossible to approach, noble lupus using the connections available to me. So I’ve done better.”

Kelin had spoken with conviction and in a manner that conveyed he understood the difference between blood and business. Which was what Doufer was looking for, though he wasn’t going to admit it.

“I’ll write a brief letter in a while. Come back in a few minutes. That was acceptable, this time.”

“Yes, father.”

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The Lupine Saga 86

“I’m going to head home,” Pete said.

“But what about seeing Mai’ou?” Kelin asked. The boys walked together without any other friends around.

“Same as the rest; I’ve got to get ready for tomorrow. They really didn’t spare us, even on the first day. Besides, I’m sure Va’il’s fine. Let me know if he’s sick tomorrow, and once school calms down we can all go see him,” Pete said. He smiled cheerfully, and then waved goodbye as Kelin stood in place, stunned.

“Fine, that pig can have his rest,” Kelin said under his breath. “It’s not like the work is difficult. Bah, fine, maybe he’s right and I’m just over-thinking it.”

Kelin continued talking to himself while continuing on the road to Va’il’s house. Correct or not, he wasn’t going to stop just because Pete and the rest had decided to do their heavily-assigned schoolwork. The first day had already given them an introduction to their new teachers and schoolmates, as well as assignments in classical works to start reading and problems to be immediately tested on. The new teachers had shown they wanted to assess the children immediately, which threw several plans for relaxation awry. Kelin didn’t need to relax, but his plans were ruined nonetheless. Not only were Va’il and Ruby unseen, but only Kelin and Teena shared the same class. That was good, but it still meant that the group was broken apart. Zeick, Pete, and Harnes all added something to the atmosphere, the comfortable one that Kelin decided was best. Kelin reached Va’il’s house; he stopped musing on the events of the day and knocked on the door.

Kelin knocked a second and then a third time in rapid succession; the first knock was likely heard. When he considered knocking again, the door flew open. Standing in the doorway was Mai’ou.

“Oh, it’s Kelin,” Mai’ou said. She turned sideways and motioned for Kelin to come in, which he obliged. She closed the door and sat at a table.

“Mai’ou, hi,” Kelin said, lost for better words. He wasn’t expecting calmness from Mai’ou, but seeing her like this made him think that nothing was wrong with Va’il and that he was worrying for no reason.

“Are you here because of Va’il?” Mai’ou asked.

“Yeah. Is he not feeling well? We didn’t see him today at school,” Kelin said.

“No,” Mai’ou replied. There was a lack of emotion that Kelin noticed. Mai’ou hadn’t once smiled yet, either. A small shiver ran through him, making the environment seem cold.

“Va’il isn’t here, is he?” Kelin asked. He hoped he was jumping to conclusions.

“No. I don’t know, either,” Mai’ou said. Her eerie calm was slowly dissipating, and more emotion could be heard in her voice.

“I see. That brat does run off at times, though,” Kelin said.

“Not without telling me, not anymore,” Mai’ou said.

“Maybe. There is something else that makes me think it, though. Another one of our friends was missing. Do you know if maybe he’d be with them? Considering who she is, I doubt it, but there is a possibility.”

“Another person? I don’t know. Maybe. I think that’s what he said last night. That he was going to meet a friend. Oh! So you think my son is with this other person? A friend? A girl, did you say?” Mai’ou asked, sounding somewhat relieved at the prospect of her son being foolish instead of missing.

“Wait, you said he went out? Why am I asking things in the wrong order? First, when was the last time you saw Va’il?” Kelin felt like knocking himself once for forgetting to ask the most important question until now.

“Last night. He said that he and a friend were going to meet up, and didn’t need dinner that night since he’d eat with them. A girl? Really? Lupus? I’m not well caught-up on Va’il’s friends other than you and Pete.”

“A noble human girl. Very high in status. Sorry to disappoint, she’s just one of our stranger friends. But she wasn’t at school either. For her to be gone is one thing, she’s a noble. But for Va’il to be gone as well, missing even, after having seen her the night before, is strange. Did he say where he was meeting her?”

“Human noble girl? Va’il’s really made some odd friends, it appears. But anyways, I’m not sure where. Can you lead me to this friend’s place? We can ask if Va’il is there together.” Mai’ou looked at Kelin with bright eyes filled with the usual vigor he had seen in them. She was used to being worried over Va’il, but had learned to relax and realize that Va’il was becoming someone who’d be safe without her. Her worry over the prejudice he faced was slowly being replaced by the confidence that lupus placed in their youth, the children who grew up strong and resilient by nature.

Kelin had to turn away briefly, his face feeling flush. His crush on Mai’ou had never really disappeared, even though he had begun thinking it was just admiration and childish love. It still wasn’t something that would disappear. His thoughts came together quick enough. Mai’ou couldn’t come. She couldn’t know who Ruby was, either. He thought Mai’ou was common, of absolutely no status. She had no reason to even know a noble, let alone meet one. Kelin, of course, ignored the fact that he was a noble himself, while excluding Mai’ou. Most importantly, though, was exactly who Ruby’s family was. Kelin couldn’t even begin to guess at Madam Melonscone’s erratic temper, and didn’t want Mai’ou anywhere close to it. Even though Kelin thought Mai’ou would never be in a position that could lend to her meeting Jane, Kelin didn’t want to entertain the thought. And, if his relief was only temporary and Ruby was missing too, he could only imagine the fury Jane would display.

“No, I’ll find out alone. It’ll be easier,” Kelin said.

“Suspicious. What are you hiding?” Mai’ou asked.

“Unless you want to approach a noble?” Kelin asked, and then regretted his tone.

“Ah, that’s true. Well, dear Kelin, please tell me what my mischievous son is up to. But I won’t set my expectations too high. If there is a problem, if he’s somehow gotten into something over his head, it is fine to let me know. Even if, well, no, hopefully not. But just in case. Please, okay Kelin? He’s all I have here.”

“Yeah,” Kelin said. He thought that he should say that he knew. That he understood. That he wanted to do all he could for both the mother and son. But enough of his persona had already cracked. He wasn’t in control of the situation, and it was infuriating him that his friends had gone missing and he didn’t know why. But the slightly callous acknowledgement was enough, for both him and the understanding Mai’ou.

“Thank you,” Kelin said, and then he walked out the door.

“No use crying,” Mai’ou said once alone. She scratched her head a few times while her face echoed her troubled thoughts. She smiled softly a few times, and then acquired a solemn look.

Mai’ou walked into the various rooms of the house, picking out items from here and there and placing them on a chair in the main room. Eventually she brought out a large blanket and placed it on the chair.

“In case, just in case. It’s been a while.”

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