The Lupine Saga 82

“Are you sure it’s alright for us to stay here?” Shiroi asked.

“It’s fine. They aren’t that bad. We don’t bother them, and they won’t bother us. Only because I’m with you, though. Only all humans might be bad,” Va’il said.

The valley seemed much more foreboding than it had a few days ago, thanks to the thought of wild wolves. Ruby and Shiroi were reluctant to enter, but Va’il had reassured them that he understood the howls and smells well enough to say what the local pack would and would not do. It still didn’t reassure the girls. Sleep was something to be feared that night. And they wouldn’t let Va’il retire either. So they sat around the fire for a few hours, never letting it dwindle.

“I’m getting really tired,” Va’il said. He yawned and started swaying where he sat. Shiroi, next to him, looked about the same, though her eyes were much more alert.

“A little longer,” Ruby said.

“No, I’m getting tired too. Let them eat me, as long as I get an hour nap,” Shiroi said.

“They won’t, really. Can’t you believe that?” Va’il asked.

“We aren’t lupus. And I’m an avian. Without the luxury of flight. Really, are we bird in name only, useless to the world?”

“No one is,” Va’il said.

Va’il stood up. He looked each girl in the eye, and then looked into the darkness of the valley’s forests. He looked up at a half moon in the sky. He took in a long, deep breath, and then let it out. He did that twice. He took in another breath. He let out a long, meaningful howl. It was the first either girl had heard him do. Shiroi straightened where she sat, her eyes and ears in full attention. Ruby did likewise. Va’il repeated the howl twice more. Then he let out a last, much shorter one. And then he waited.

He stood still for a while. After a few minutes, he turned around and looked at the girls. His eyes kept looking down, and his bottom lip trembled. He finally looked directly at Ruby.

“They didn’t answer,” he said quietly. Ruby tensed as his gaze made her think the unmentionable. Shiroi wanted to say something, but couldn’t. Her feathers moved without her thinking, and her sudden urge to hide almost overwhelmed her.

“They are dead,” Va’il said.

Neither girl was sure of what Va’il meant, exactly. Who was supposed to have died, they both asked themselves.

“Who?” Ruby asked, though a few minutes had already passed.

“The family. All of them. The mother and the two boys and daughter. I thought something was wrong, but I didn’t think it was them. But I’m sure of it now. The wolf family that owned this valley, they are no more, they aren’t a threat to us, or anyone, anymore,” Va’il said. As he spoke, he blinked more and more often. He raised an arm and rubbed his right eye. Without many more words, he settled himself and slept. Ruby and Shiroi, both scared and relieved, soon followed his example.

The next morning Va’il was silent. His silence gave Ruby a strange reminder that Va’il’s connection to certain animals was different from her own. She would have been more uncaring about the entire ordeal, as it was only a group of vicious animals that died. But Va’il’s mention of how the family was composed made her take a different look at it. They were different, but they also had families and ties, and desired to stay alive, even at the cost of others’ lives.

They briskly followed the valley path. However, at one point Va’il stopped. He turned and ran to the side, into the forest, without a word to the girls. Without hesitating much, the girls followed Va’il. They soon regretted that decision.

Within moments the two girls had returned to the valley path, pale-faced and tears in their eyes. Unable to control themselves, they gave way to tears. The mournful howling of Va’il off in the distance reminded them all too well of what they had seen. They sat on the road while they waited for Va’il to return. After a while, he emerged from the forest. His hands were covered in dirt. His cloths had bits of dirt and specks of blood. He smiled, and then continued the journey with the girls.

#

“Never thought I would be so happy to be here again,” Shiroi said.

“Me too,” Ruby said. “Waiter!”

“Anything will do. Lots of it,” Va’il said. He laid his head on the table and closed his eyes. The felis waiter soon arrived.

“What would the masters like?” the felis man asked.

“Your best three dishes,” Shiroi said in a slightly gruff voice.

“Certainly! Anything to drink? We have thirteen year old wine, Terrak’s Lilies, ready if the young masters so desire,” the familiar felis said.

“The table’s water will be enough,” Shiroi said.

“Terrak’s Lilies,” Va’il said quietly. “Cheap, diluted with water.”

“Absolutely,” the felis said before anyone could object. He sped off with the order in mind.

“Va’il, just because they were…” Ruby started.

“Zak, let him be, for right now,” Shiroi said. She made a few hand motions to Ruby out of Va’il’s sight. She wouldn’t whisper what she meant, as she knew Va’il might hear her. Ruby nodded.

They chatted a bit while waiting. The first thing to arrive was a meal of fish and various vegetables and sauces. Va’il had eaten three soon enough. He was feeling much better with food in his stomach. A loud crash interrupted his peace.

“Blah! Tasteless dribble, you’re cheating the customers!” said a man at a table on the floor below. The rest of the room quieted as the disturbance grew.

“Sir, that was for another customer,” the felis waiter said.

“Oh, so that wasn’t the tasteless dribble I paid for, it was the snot you were going to feed another victim. Lousy cats!” the man said. His deep voice was resounding through the room, but no one was coming to the felis’ aid.

“Knock it off, it’s not his fault he was born worthless,” said another man who was sitting at the same table.

“And you took it forcefully!” the felis said in anger.

“What?” the man asked with a giant bellow. “Are you speaking back?” The felis waiter fell backwards as the man started walking towards him.

Va’il couldn’t just listen; he had to see. As did the two girls. They looked below as a single large human approached the cowering waiter. At the table were two more human men, each dressed in dark clothes. They watched with little care as the other man pulled the felis up by his robes, lifting him off the ground.

“That’s enough, we don’t need trouble,” the third man said.

“Come on, he’s been itching to go for a while now,” the second man said.

“We don’t need attention,” the third man said.

“Bah,” the first man said. He lowered the waiter until his feet were flat on the ground. The first man turned to look at the other two, and then gave a wide grin.

“Hah!” the second man said.

“Fine…” the third man said.

The first man moved quickly. He picked the waiter up, held him overhead, and then threw him across the room. Another crash as he landed on another patron’s table. The rest of the room didn’t need more motivation. The first floor emptied of people, while those on the second floor wished they could leave.

“Not as fun as the wolves, but oh well,” the first man said.

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The Lupine Saga 81

After travelling for a few hours, Va’il, Ruby, and Shiroi took a rest by a small spring. The sun overhead burned consistently, but the children kept their disguises on in vigilance, never knowing if someone may spot them.

“So where to now?” Va’il asked.

“Now to find Darius, of course,” Ruby replied. She removed her hat briefly, letting her long hair fall. She took a comb and brushed out a few tangles, and then put on her hat again with Shiroi’s help.

“How much farther?” Va’il asked.

“Another day. We’ll camp tonight, and should reach Farley before afternoon. That’s the southern border,” Ruby replied.

“Yep. And to the south of that are plains and farms, after crossing the river, and south of them is Ens. The kingdom of water, sounds fun,” Va’il said.

“Neither of you are going anywhere near water,” Shiroi said with certain firmness. Va’il and Ruby exchanged a glance. Va’il smirked, but Ruby quickly turned away.

“All right, let’s continue!” Ruby said, and then she jumped to her feet and hurried to her horse. Va’il and Shiroi quickly followed.

That night they found a cave to sleep in. They cooked a few eggs they found and ate a few ounces of meat that De’un had provided them with. The last of the meat was cooked and used for breakfast the next morning.

As Ruby had predicted, they arrived at Farley just before afternoon. It was a fort city, placed strategically at the narrowest portion of the river. The river itself was quite wide, and stretched from the mountains in the east to the sea in the west. At its narrowest point it would only take a few minutes to cross. That point was crossable by a concrete bridge, the great achievement of Rising’s past kings.

The children marveled at the sight of the old and massive fort resting on their side of the river. Made of stone and concrete, armed with several archer’s towers and cannons, it was an imposing sight. Although, some of its majesty was lost when its solitary position was considered.

“Reft, the guards here, we won’t be wasting time with them. Let’s hurry,” Ruby said. The children trotted up to the gates where a squad of soldiers greeted them.

“Sir, how can we welcome you?” one guard, an avian, asked.

“I wish to see the captain, who will certainly greet us in a moment should you tell him that three people pretending to be humans wish to see him. And tell him that De’un is involved. Now, understand or not, go tell him,” Ruby said.

The avian guard stood for a moment without moving, his eyebrows twitching in confused thought. A brief chirp heard from Shiroi made him open his eyes wide. He turned without remembering to acknowledge the children, and entered the gates. The rest of the guards were similarly confused, but made no actions while waiting.

“Will that work?” Va’il asked, unsure of anything Ruby was planning.

“Just watch,” Ruby said with a slight smile on the right edge of her mouth.

Va’il didn’t have to wait long, as his ears picked up a loud sound. He looked at the gates and cocked his head sideways. The sound grew louder. He started moving his head forward, closer and closer to the ever-increasing sound. Shiroi and Ruby didn’t appear to notice the same sound, but neither of them had ears like Va’il’s.

The sound reached its climax when the gates suddenly opened in an almost violent manner. There, hands-clenched, red-faced, husky, and human, was the captain, in full battle gear.

“Where are they?” the captain asked in a booming voice. “I’ll show them that Rising ain’t some place you walk in and out with no pass. No pass! Curses, why didn’t they go through Nopass? Bring this shame on me, will they? I’ll grind ’em and spit ’em out! Dare come back to me? Prisoners of De’un, eh? Well I’ll… eh? Where are they? You said they were here? Answer!”

“Sir,” a shaken avian guard, the one from earlier, said. “Sir, please. Them.”

The captain looked in the direction that the avian pointed. He looked up and around, then turned to the avian.

“What are you playing at? I don’t see anything,” the captain said. “You’ve eaten rotten seed again, haven’t you?”

“Sir, please look closely,” Ruby said loudly, before the guard could reply to the captain.

“See what?” the captain asked while casting half a glance at Ruby. In that brief moment, Ruby’s left hand turned once, briefly letting her palm face forward. “Just kids, isn’t anything to get worked up over.”

The captain looked at the avian guard, and then he turned towards the fort city. He took one step, and then stopped. He moved his head to the right, catching another glance of the three children behind him. He looked at Farley again and took another step forward.

“Three?” the captain murmured. His boots clanked as he took another step, but it was a step to his left. Another step and he had turned around. “Three. De’un. Ring?”

He moved his head left and right, taking in the sight before him. After a moment, he briskly walked up to Ruby. When he was within ten feet, Ruby turned her left hand again. When he was within five feet, she held her hand up. Immediately the captain took hold of her hand and looked closely at it.

The captain looked up at Ruby, his face no longer red. His lips trembled a bit. He opened his mouth slightly.

“No need, sir. I apologize for using such a means to get you down here, but if we can talk in more appropriate accommodations, it would be appreciated,” Ruby said quietly.

“I wouldn’t dare take an apology,” the captain said while starting to bow. Ruby quickly put a hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t do that! Your soldiers are here, and I’m not to be discovered,” Ruby whispered.

The captain quickly stood up straight. He turned and said, “All right, bring them in, welcome them as my guests.”

The soldiers took the horses and bags while the children went to the captain’s residence, bypassing any exploration of the city. It was a bamboo and wood house with paper windows and large rooms, which piqued Va’il’s interest. The captain constantly moved through the rooms, welcoming the trio into each room they passed. They eventually sat in bamboo chairs in a large room of only three walls, the open wall leading to a garden.

A couple human servants arrived and served the group tea, and then closed the doors when they left.

“Thank you for visiting me, sir. What may this servant do for you, sir?” the captain asked while slightly bowing.

“You can do two things. One is to sit. The other is to stop calling me sir. I’m a lovely lady, after all,” Ruby said, and then she removed her hat.

“Ah! My apologies, miss,” the captain said.

“Oh, and please skip the courtesies. You don’t need to be so polite with me, sir,” Ruby said.

“Thank you. Well then, what brings you to my fort? And what of that message the guard delivered to me. That did so, well, caused my inexcusable behavior. I’m quite ashamed now,” the captain said. Now that he was no longer stamping around with a face reddened with anger, the captain looked quite normal. He was a middle-aged human with dark hair and a beard. His eyes, no longer blazing with anger, looked clear and inquisitive. When he wasn’t bellowing, Va’il thought him to be an affable man.

“First, where is Darius?” Ruby asked.

“In Rising,” the captain said.

“Do you mean the city?” Ruby asked.

“Of course, what else could I mean? But what does he have to do with this?” the captain asked.

“So you mean to say, he isn’t here,” Ruby said.

“Of course not. I haven’t seen him in a few years, and then only in passing. Why?”

“I was told, by someone, that he had come here in response to an enemy threat. Was that person telling the truth? I’m asking you, requiring you to answer truthfully,” Ruby said. The captain’s look of bewilderment didn’t change.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve heard of nothing. Far be it for me to judge, but I don’t believe that was the truth. If it’s all right for me to say that, miss,” the captain said.

“I feared as much,” Ruby said. She sighed, and then took a drink. “Thank you.”

“Of course!” the captain said. A wide smile appeared on his face. “Anything I can do for one in your place. Assuming I wasn’t wrong in my acknowledgement,” the captain said.

“You weren’t wrong.” Ruby held up a hand as she spoke. “You recognized correctly. I should explain away your doubts, but just suffice to say I thought the best way to get you to see me, as soon as possible, was to use inflammatory information. Though it was a gamble, the information De’un gave me paid off.”

“I understand,” the captain said. “So he told you of our little problem with the intruders, and I see why you used it.”

“What intruders?” Va’il asked, piping up for the first time.

“He is?” the captain asked.

“You’ll answer him the same as you would me,” Ruby said.

“Of course. A few days ago, a night watch spotted a small boat near the bridge. It was still a ways out, and by the time I was notified, it was gone. Next morning, quite by chance, another watchman spotted three men a ways off emerging from the river. A troop pursued, but the men were already too far north and out of sight. Their tracks merged with those of the road, and then they were effectively gone. May not get traveled much, but the road still has tracks of various travelers. And they probably left the path soon after, to throw us off. Best I could do was dispatch a messenger to De’un, tell him to watch out for three humans,” the captain said.

“Are you sure they were humans?” Va’il asked.

“Came out of the river naked, quite sure,” the captain said. His lips were curling upwards, but his frown was apparent.

“Why were they naked?” Va’il asked.

“Va’il!” Ruby said. Startled, the boy turned.

“What?”

But Ruby couldn’t answer. She looked at the captain, who was still between amusement and anger. She couldn’t justify her own reservations at weird topics, so she begrudgingly motioned for the captain to answer.

“To keep their clothes dry so they could run away as fast as possible. They abandoned the boat when they were spotted. Smart men. Hardy men, considering how long they stayed in the water. Human men. Three of them. Very, very suspicious,” the captain said.

The children thanked the captain for his information, and spent the day and night there. Unable to confirm any information regarding Darius, Ruby wanted to return to Rising without much delay.

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The Lupine Saga 80

“No, he isn’t. I’m quite sure,” De’un said.

“But, but that can’t be right! Mother heard it herself! And she wouldn’t lie to me when I’d have to brave such dangers! No, you must have been kept in the dark,” Ruby said. Her voice quivered slightly while she spoke.

Ruby looked much different from the day before, as De’un had provided clothes for her. Her hair was mostly down, though the right side had a comb in it. She was dressed simply, in a teal blouse and a silver skirt. Standing near to her was Shiroi, also in clean attire. Va’il was not in the room.

“Ha, in the dark? Miss, you underestimate me. Farley is the only city on the border, at the only possible river crossing. Now, I assure you, being the lord of the southeastern lands, I am aware of every development, large or small, whether or not someone wants me to know. The only information out of Farley was the notice that a group of foreign humans had crossed the border. Although, they did make it through without being caught. Anyways, the captain of the fort personally wrote me a letter detailing such. He surely wouldn’t fail to mention the arrival of Darius, would he? No, no, no. He isn’t here, or there,” De’un said. He added for emphasis, “He isn’t!”

“Sir, this might have happened months ago, it’s not necessarily recent,” Shiroi said.

“Yes yes, I know. But ever since Fidel’s untimely passing, travel to the south has vastly declined. A few trade carts, a couple families, at most. And all of them were accounted for. And this story about an outside threat? That would have come from the captain as well! There is no threat,” De’un said.

“But what does this mean?” Ruby asked, mostly to herself.

“Simple. Your mother either lied, or was lied to. I doubt she would incite you in such manner, therefore she was misled.” De’un said. He was about to speak again, but Ruby had already started speaking.

“Marquis, I’ll go there myself. I wouldn’t doubt your word, but I have to confirm with my own eyes. I’ll thank you for your help either way,” Ruby said. Her gaze moved away from De’un and upwards in silent thought.

“You’re set on it. That’s fine. Tell me if it turns out I am wrong. I’d want to know if my information network is incomplete, of course,” De’un said. He sighed deeply. Ruby took attention of De’un again, and then smiled.

“Yes, of course. Meanwhile, I didn’t come just to see Darius. You too, sir, have my interest,” Ruby said.

“Oh ho! Well, I suppose I was expecting the Melonscone pleasantries to arrive, after our last meeting,” De’un replied.

Shiroi took note of a nod in her direction from Ruby. Business matters were at hand, so Shiroi didn’t need to be present. It was for De’un’s sake, not Ruby’s, as most nobles were wary of other peoples’ servants. Even if De’un wasn’t, Shiroi was planning to find Va’il anyways.

Shiroi left the room, closing the solid oak doors behind her. She looked up and down the large hallway, and then walked to the right. After a while, she came to an open yard, where Va’il happened to be. A small pond, a few large rocks, and a garden of flowers occupied the yard. Va’il was standing over the pond.

“Hungry?” Shiroi asked in a teasing tone. Va’il looked back at her, then looked back at the pond full of small fish. He held out his right arm and extended a few claws.

“Three swipes, and then lunch will be ready,” Va’il said with complete seriousness.

“That would be somewhat rude, wouldn’t it? Towards the chefs who prepared breakfast not that long ago, of course,” Shiroi said. She walked over to the pond and squatted down. She put a finger in the water, and watched as a few small red fishes surrounded her small talon. Va’il looked at her, but didn’t say anything. Instead, he too squatted and stirred the pond a bit. Some time passed, and eventually the two of them made their way back to the guest room they had stayed in the prior night.

To Va’il and Shiroi’s surprise, Ruby was already in the room, and in her boyish outfit.

“Get ready,” Ruby said, “we’re leaving.”

“What?” the two asked in unison.

“Get changed, get ready, and let’s go. Well don’t just stand there! Shiroi, no, Reft, please make sure that we’re stocked up on provisions. De’un will supply anything more we need, so I leave it to you,” Ruby said. With that, she walked out of the room, and went in the direction of the stables.

“Might as well hurry,” Va’il said, the curl of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

“Of course. We are only here on her whims, after all. We should go on one as well, Master Va’il,” Shiroi said in reply. She and Va’il laughed a bit, and then went to work.

Yet another surprise awaited the duo. Ruby had asked for a carriage to ride out of De’un’s domicile in. Once they were a good ways away from De’un’s estate, the children stepped out and took rein of their own horses. The trio waited for a while until Ruby was sure the servants had returned to De’un’s residence.

“I want to try something, thus the carriage. Come on, we’re going back,” Ruby said. And so the trio rode back, even though two of them were utterly confused. Soon they arrived at the gates where two guards were standing. Ruby dismounted and started walking towards the gates.

“What business do you have here?” the brown-feathered avian guard asked. The blue-feathered avian next to him stared without speaking.

“I’ve come to speak with the master of the land,” Ruby said. She stood straight and dignified, but her clothes didn’t match her demeanor.

“Wait, you’re with that other one? So again? Didn’t I already say no? Get along now, no reason for peasants to be speaking with De’un. Take it up with the city guard if you have an issue,” the brown-feathered avian said.

“I’m nobility, and I know him personally. Please let us pass.” Ruby said. The blue-feathered avian gave a sideways glance to the brown one.

“Ha, you think we’re listening to that nonsense? Run along, silly common child,” the brown-feathered avian said.

“I’m a high-noble, do you recognize my ring?” Ruby asked. She held up her left hand. There was a ring on her middle finger, with the top of the ring turned inwards. She held her palm up, showing the face of the ring to the guards.

The guards turned to look at each other. They each chirped a few words, and then turned to face Ruby again.

“Sir,” the blue-feathered avian said, “go home. Your trinket is quite impressive, and whomever you bought such an exquisitely designed ring from was certainly a master. But these are serious matters. We must guard our master, and we don’t have time to play around with your silly whims. Go play with the other children elsewhere.”

The two avians looked at each other and laughed, and then walked back to their posts. Ruby eventually turned and walked back to Shiroi and Va’il.

“So you were right. It wouldn’t have mattered anyways. Well, now I’m glad things worked out they way they did. Thank you Va’il,” Ruby said. She then mounted her horse and urged it onwards.

“I guess, you’re welcome,” Va’il said, though only Shiroi heard him. She hid a wide smile under her large hood. Va’il wore a look of confused wonder for a moment, but then he smiled and shrugged. Together, the two of them caught up to Ruby before she reached the city exit.

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The Lupine Saga 79

“So Zak, what brings you here?” Va’il asked.

“Don’t give me that! What about you? And give me one reason why I should suffer this humiliation a moment longer! I only have for your and Reft’s sakes, so be quick with it now that we are together again!” Ruby said with a certain vehemence that had been building up for a while.

“Well, we aren’t guilty of anything, so eventually this will be over. It’s just a misunderstanding. Besides, it’s somewhat fun. So endure it. We won’t have to pay to eat or sleep tonight, anyways,” Va’il said. Ruby wasn’t going to accept it though.

“Master Va’il, that isn’t good enough,” Shiroi whispered. “And you didn’t explain how you got here.”

“Oh, right. This is why, come closer Ruby,” Va’il said. He got off the bed and walked to the barrier separating the cells. The barrier was really just a number of wooden supports connecting the floor and ceiling, and there was a gap between each one wide enough to stick a hand through. Ruby approached the barrier as well, standing not even two feet from Va’il.

Va’il reached into his clothes for a moment, and then withdrew his still-bound hands, revealing a comb in one. He reached through the barrier and placed the comb in Ruby’s hair. He took a step back and nodded.

“Good, good!” Va’il said, and then he sat down on the bed again.

“Fine,” Ruby muttered.

A few hours passed in relative silence. Eventually the sun set, and the children were served a very small dinner. A vegetarian dish, to Va’il’s great dismay. Ruby caught herself wishing she had at least had something to eat at the restaurant earlier. Shiroi hadn’t yet expressed an opinion on anything.

The head guard returned with a loud stomping soon after dinner finished. He eyed the children suspiciously, especially Va’il. He didn’t stare for too long, as a slight twitch around an eye would appear if he did. He took a step closer to Ruby’s cell.

“So, are you fed and ready to speak?” the head guard asked.

“What would you have me speak on?” Ruby asked.

“What country did you come from?” the head guard asked.

“We are citizens of Rising, just like you,” Ruby replied. She crossed her arms and stared at the avian with a piercing gaze.

“And just where did you come from, then?” the head guard asked.

“Rising, the city, if you must know,” Ruby replied.

“Just you three? Through the valley?” the head guard asked. He smiled briefly in a smug way.

“Yes, just us three, through the valley” Ruby responded. She sounded almost as irritated as she was feeling.

“You hear that? She said just the three of them came from Rising,” the head guard said towards the subordinate that had been watching the children. The subordinate laughed with a high-pitched avian sound. “Miss, you’re lying. Now, why don’t you tell me the truth?”

“What? I did! Any more of this and, no, forget it all. Reft, this isn’t going anywhere, let’s just stop,” Ruby said, and started raising her left hand. Shiroi jumped from the bed she was sitting on and placed a hand on Ruby’s shoulder. Ruby turned to look at her. Shiroi shook her head once, which prompted Ruby to drop her hand.

“Eh, care to explain?” the head guard asked, his interest piqued.

“Why do you say I lie?” Ruby asked, her voice angrier than before.

“Because you’re too young, you don’t have enough people, and therefore the wolves in the valley north of here would have made a meal of you. Or is that only common knowledge to those who are actually residents of Rising? Now, if you please, fix your story,” the head guard said, a smug grin appearing on his face. The feathers on his head that had been slowly creeping upwards had begun to fall into place.

Ruby didn’t know what to say. She looked at Shiroi, who could only shrug her shoulders. They were a noble girl and her servant, how could they have known what any proper transport or guard in Rising would know? More importantly, they had never encountered any wolves in their travel through the valley. A minute passed as the girls continued in their speechlessness.

“Wolves?” Va’il quietly asked. The avian turned towards Va’il and cocked an eyebrow.

“Yes, wolves. Vicious, horrible, incorrigible wolves that own the northern valley, forcing any travel through it to be well guarded or risk attack,” the head guard said. His eyebrow lowered and turned into a frown. “You… you…”

“Oh, those wolves. Yes, they do live in that valley. I remember that quite well,” Va’il said. The guard’s eyes went wide as he finally realized what species Va’il’s tail made him. The two girls looked at Va’il with inquisitive eyes.

“What are you?”

“Lupus,” Va’il replied.

“Ah,” the avian said, his frown softening. “Well, that would explain it. No sense in a wolf attacking a lupus. Wolves are smarter than that. Hmm. Then I guess your story checks out well enough,” the head guard said. He turned towards a subordinate and gave a deep chirp. The subordinate responded in like manner, and then stood up and ran out the door.

“Wait! Stop him, don’t do that!” Shiroi shouted. But the subordinate was already gone.

“What? Why not? And… wait, you are?” the head guard asked. In response, Shiroi removed her hood and ran up to the cell’s door. She opened her mouth and a soft sound came out in the avian language. The avian man opened his eyes wide yet again in one of several astonishments he had previously and was about to have in the near future. He quickly responded with a chirp of his own. For about ten seconds, they went back and forth in like manner.

Shaking her head, Shiroi said in Fervish, “You dull man! Please let us out, or stop your subordinate, please. Don’t send De’un back after he’s come all this way to see what commotion we’ve caused. Please! We need to see him!”

“I cannot do that. You’ll have to explain much more before seeing De’un. We have all night, I’m sure we can get you an appointment in a week if it really is urgent. De’un is a busy man. Now, explain why you are here,” the head guard said.

“Arg!” Shiroi exclaimed. “We need to see him!”

As Shiroi stamped her foot, both a crash and the sound of breaking wood was heard. Va’il had broken down the door of his cell.

“I’ll go get him!” Va’il said. He stood in one spot for a brief second. During that time, he clenched his hands and pushed them together. He brought them to his mouth, and then he chewed on the ropes binding them. The sound of the rope around his wrists cracking and subsequently breaking was still ringing in the avian guard’s ears for long after Va’il had rushed out of the room. After another shocked expression, he turned to the girls. He pulled a key out and unlatched their cell.

“Lupus, really. They are…” the avian said, and then shuddered. “No wonder the wolves won’t get near them. Just a boy, too.”

“Really?” Ruby asked, her interest rising. “Aren’t wolves in packs and dangerous? Wouldn’t they be scarier than a lupus?”

“Hah,” the avian said, and then he gave a nervous laugh. He simply held out a hand towards the door. The girls, not waiting for a change of heart, graciously took the offer and left as quickly as possible.

They soon arrived at the entrance, where a spectacular sight awaited them. De’un and Va’il were hand in hand, Va’il leading De’un towards the building. Seeing that the girls had arrived just in time, Va’il smiled.

“Why why, what an entrance! A performance! And you have companions! Wonderful!” De’un said.

“Yes, they absolutely have to speak with you,” Va’il said. He let go of De’un and stood next to Ruby.

“Marquis De’un, it’s a pleasure to meet you again!” Ruby exclaimed.

“And you too, little miss. But dear, what happened to you! Your face is all dirty, your clothes unkempt, and what is with all this conflubbery? First I get reports of humans in the south, then humans in the city, then one of them has a tail, and finally the commotion was so horrendous I was supposed to come and figure it all out. But at the moment I arrive, I’m told to leave! Then your friend came running out asking who De’un was! Surprise after surprise! Now that you’re here, it’ll all be sorted. I think an explanation is in order. But first, come take a rest. You look like you need it,” De’un said.

The children, somewhat giddy that they had finally been able to reach De’un, forwent the explanations and took De’un’s offer. They entered a waiting carriage, which then took them to De’un’s residence.

Since it was late into the night by the time they arrived at De’un’s, the children had a brief meal of chicken and spinach soup, a quick wash, and then went to sleep in comfortable beds in appropriate clothing. They slept very soundly that night.

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The Lupine Saga 78

“Where did he head off to?” Ruby asked.

“I don’t know. He was here a moment ago,” Shiroi replied.

“You see, you shouldn’t have argued with me. We bored him away!” Ruby said.

“Me?” Shiroi asked with a tone that didn’t show any bit of servile attitude.

Ruby gave a small huff, and then took the reins of her horse. Shiroi followed as Ruby went into the more populated areas of town.

“Here,” Ruby said as she arrived at a stable. Va’il’s horse was tied in front of it. She stopped by it and scanned the area, looking for Va’il. “There.”

“What makes you so sure?” Shiroi asked when she saw where Ruby was pointing.

“It’s the right time. Besides, it’s right across from this stable. It must be right,” Ruby said. She dismounted, brought her horse to the restaurant on the opposite side of the road, and tied it there. Shiroi followed, and soon they both entered the restaurant. They didn’t see Va’il anywhere, but still took a seat in the back corner while waiting for the waiter.

“He’s not here, and there’s something different,” Shiroi said.

“Maybe he already ate. Well, let’s just wait. I’m hungry anyways,” Ruby said.

“What can I get for you… sirs?” The waiter asked. His expression quickly dimmed when he saw who the patrons were. A strange looking human boy and his hooded companion didn’t inspire any confidence in the waiter.

“What’s the best dish?” Ruby asked.

“That is… well, we are a…” the waiter muttered, and then chirped something. Shiroi’s head moved slightly upon hearing it. She reached into her pockets while the waiter kept muttering in reply to Ruby’s ever-increasing frown.

“Ah, that would be the Spinach Gnocchi,” the waiter said when Shiroi placed a silver coin on the table. She was just about to speak up, but Ruby was apparently more hungry than she’d let on.

“Spinach?” Ruby asked. “That’s not a dish. Isn’t there some chicken or duck?”

Shiroi would have covered Ruby’s mouth, but it was too late. The waiter took a step back, a look of horror on his face. He turned and walked off at a brisk pace.

“Zak, I know you didn’t mean to,” Shiroi quickly whispered to Ruby, “but this place is for vegetarian avians. The ones here are not raptors! To mention birds, of all things!”

Ruby gasped slightly. She knew about the different avian races, but it hadn’t occurred to her that she would need to know what race she was talking to before speaking, even though certain avian races avoided most forms of edible flesh by choice. “I didn’t realize,” Ruby said in soft reply.

“I didn’t either at first. I should have noticed earlier.”

Shiroi then nodded, knowing that Ruby honestly didn’t mean any harm. But the harm was done; it was too late to correct it. All Shiroi could think of was to exit the restaurant quickly before causing any more disturbances.

The two of them rushed out the front door, and then ran to their horses. As they fiddled with the reins, Ruby glanced back over her shoulder. She took a second look, and then dropped the reins she was holding.

“Zak! Be quick about it, please,” Shiroi said. But Ruby didn’t reply. She pointed across the street. Shiroi hesitated for a moment, and then turned to look. Her eyes opened wide as she realized what Ruby wasn’t pointing towards. She wasn’t pointing at Va’il’s horse, as it was no longer there.

“Where… where did he go? When was he here?” Ruby muttered. Her attention went back to the horse, and soon she was on top of it. There was a commotion arising within the adjacent restaurant, so Ruby and Shiroi hastened down the roadway at a quick trot.

They trotted down one road, galloped down the next, and stopped at the last. Whether it was planned or not, there was a crowd of avians in their path, waiting for them.

“The other two!”

“Spies!”

“Humans!”

“Foreigners!”

Before another moment could pass, a group of guards surrounded Shiroi and Ruby. The one that appeared to be in charge held up one hand to the crowd, silencing them, and then held a palm out towards Ruby.

“Sir. Please dismount and follow me. Immediately,” the head guard said. His tone was friendly yet forceful. Thankful that there was some civility to their arrest, Shiroi jumped off the horse. Ruby darted a look at her, but didn’t utter a word. She couldn’t see Shiroi’s expression, but she wondered what she should do. She could either comply, or stay on the horse. She was a high-noble, and all she had to do was make that known. She pondered for a moment, wondering what Jane would do.

Ruby recoiled at her own realization. She was considering what her mother would do in the same situation! Ruby quickly let go of the horse’s reins, dismounted, and stood next to Shiroi. She took in a breath and spoke deeply.

“Guard, please explain why you are detaining us first,” Ruby said with determination.

“Certainly. A report of three strange humans was received. Those who aren’t residents of Rising should be more open with the authorities as to who they are. Those who cross the border without authorization will be investigated. We’ve already got your accomplice. No more questions, come with me for now,” the head guard said.

She didn’t understand what the guard meant, and so Ruby couldn’t think of a reply. “A misunderstanding? Our accomplice? Va’il!” Ruby thought. Deciding it was more important to see what trouble Va’il had caused, Ruby obediently followed the authorities.

After a short walk, they arrived at the guards’ office. Sure enough, in a nearby cell sat a complacent Va’il. He was laying on a bed, one leg crossed over the other.

“These your companions?” the guard asked of Va’il. Va’il looked up, saw the two girls, and smiled.

“Are they?” Va’il asked. He flashed a wide grin. Va’il moved his hands from the back of his head to in front of him, revealing that his hands were bound with a coil of rope. Ruby watched the head guard closely, and noticed a slight twitch in his cheek at Va’il’s comment.

“Bah, the report said three humans. Maybe it was wrong. Just as well, maybe this one isn’t human either,” the head guard said. Before she could react, the avian had snatched Ruby’s hat off.

Unbridled, Ruby’s long golden hair fell. The avian took a step back, somewhat shocked. Va’il laughed a little as he saw the man’s surprised expression.

“Why the surprise?” Va’il asked, still smiling.

“A… a human girl? This… this. Hmm,” the avian said as he gradually regained his composure. Now that he had a good look at her, he realized that anyone would be able to tell she was female. But being in an avian-only area for the most part, the necessary connections were never made in his or the other natives’ minds. They all made the mistake of judging by basic appearance.

“Just go in while we figure out what to do,” the avian snapped as he opened the wooden door of the cell next to Va’il’s. He put Ruby and Shiroi inside, but didn’t think to un-hood Shiroi. He was already preoccupied. After doing so, he latched a brass lock, snapped at a subordinate to watch the children, and then left the building.

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