The Lupine Saga 93

The cold air was pierced by the sounds of hooves tearing at the ground. It was a steady and calming sound. The dirt road’s only illumination was the light from Sendes, the great blue moon.

On a road was a covered cart pulled by a few horses. They were moving at a quick pace, but weren’t being overly hurried by the driver. The cart passed through fields and forests, across smooth and then bumpy roads. The wooden wheels shook as the unpleasant ground made its displeasure known, but the cart wasn’t going to let itself be damaged. It remained sturdy and held together, though its occupants must have been troubled.

A bump made the cart jump. His head hitting the floor of the cart woke him. The shock had forced his eyes open, but there was overwhelming confusion plastered over his mind. He couldn’t make out what was happening, where he was, what he was doing, and even who he was. The shock of being woken so suddenly was having strange effects, but they gradually subsided as he let the world around him come into focus. It was dark, but his eyes adjusted quickly.

The smell was different. It was familiar, containing all the smells of life and nature, but it wasn’t something he was used to. As he gradually regained sense after sense, his awareness sharpened, and his memories screamed at him with newfound clarity.

“Where am I?” Va’il asked while he sat up. He immediately brought a hand to his throat. He could barely hear his own words. His voice was hoarse and his throat was dry. He then noticed an overwhelming sense of hunger. He looked around and saw Ruby, asleep. He felt a wave of drowsiness come over him, but he didn’t succumb to the feeling. He tried standing, but he fell over when a small bump was hit.

The cart stopped while the horses grunted. Va’il looked up from his fallen position and saw the driver stand and turn.

“You’re awake, finally?” the bearan asked.

“Yeah, what’s happening? Who are you?” Va’il asked, his voice stronger now that some saliva had formed. He gazed absently for a second, but his eyes soon focused on the bearan in front of him. His memory didn’t fail him, for he recognized the bearan. It was the same bearan from before. As if the current reality wasn’t enough, Va’il looked at his chest and arms to see if anything had been cut or bitten. He was in fine condition, not counting the dehydration, hunger, and dry skin. He also felt annoyed at the dirt on his claws on his left hand that had dried and stuck to him.

“You!” Va’il said, and then scrambled to his feet. He hunched over and extended all his claws, ready to attack.

“Wait, wait. I’m not going to harm you,” the bearan said.

“I don’t believe you! You drugged us and tried to kill us! Tried? Ruby better only be sleeping! You better not have done anything or else!”

“Hold on, I said,” the bearan said with a booming voice. “If I was going to kill you now, why wait until you’re awake? It’s been a while since the day you first passed out, and I could have easily done you in while you were asleep.”

“A couple days? A few days? That explains the hunger. But I still don’t believe you. Why didn’t you do away with us? You were going to! Right? Was that just an act? No, it doesn’t make sense.”

“Yes, I was going to kill you. As I was ordered. But I ended up saving you instead.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“What? Who told you to kill us? And why wouldn’t you know your own reason?” Va’il stood a little, relaxing the aggressive posture. He was still ready to move, should the need arise.

“I won’t say who ordered me.”

“What? But you’re saving us from them, betraying them, right? If not, then this is all just an act to gain my trust. I’m not so easy to trick.”

“No. Honest truth here. I didn’t want to save you. I just had to save you. That’s all. Asking me to explain it won’t help. I’m not going to go any further than that, like tell you about my superiors, who I’d like to think I’m still loyal to.”

“That all doesn’t matter anymore! You’re not making sense! Saving us because you had to? That’s wrong. Didn’t you want to?”

“No. Come on, I just do what I have to do, I cannot explain it better.”

“Geh. Fine. Nobody would use that excuse for a lie. And I’m still alive. Still won’t trust you. But I guess that’s fine. So, where are we?”

“Leaving Farrow.”

“We left Rising? Farrow? No, go back!” Va’il felt a rush of emotion when he realized they were no longer in Rising. He briefly turned to look out at the forest behind him. He realized it wasn’t one he knew, and the area was different from the areas of Rising he knew.

“I can’t do that. You’re supposed to be dead. I can’t be saving you if you go back there and end up getting killed. Forget about Rising,” the bearan said while crossing his arms. His uncaring, exasperated look was annoying Va’il.

“I can’t do that. Turn back. Or I’ll just jump off and go anyways.”

“And leave that girl? Or get her killed by returning? She’s a noble. Even I know that. The moment she returns, the people who ordered me to kill her would find out. She’ll be gone soon after. You might be able to hide. She can’t. Am I wrong?”

“But, this isn’t right! None of this! Why us?”

“That’s just how it is. Be thankful you’ll be saved at all.”

Va’il glared at the bearan. He considered his words, but decided he wouldn’t be able to go back to Rising that night. Va’il had not given up on the idea of returning to Rising, but did consider it prudent to wait until some time had passed. He thought of Mai’ou, and felt strings of attachment tug his heart in various directions. He wanted to see her, to tell her he was all right. All he could do was look up at the blue moon and hope that somewhere out there, she was seeing the same thing he was.

A while passed while the cart was driven a few more miles. The bearan eventually stopped it in order to sleep for the night and rest the horses. Va’il considered waiting for the bearan to fall asleep and taking the reins himself, but a second thought dashed that hope. He didn’t know where they were and how long it would take to get back. And his hunger, soon appeased by the stores of food the bearan had packed, told him that going somewhere without proper preparation would be foolhardy. He was soon distracted by something more important.

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The Lupine Saga 92

“They are missing today as well,” Teena said. Harnes nodded and looked at Kelin, who was reading. Together the entire group, minus Va’il and Ruby, were sitting underneath the big tree at school.

“C’mon Kelin, Pete, I thought you guys were gonna check out his place. What’s going on? It’s been several days already,” Zeick said.

“I haven’t had a chance to go. Sorry,” Pete said. Kelin had remained silent and turned another page.

“You’re the last left,” Teena said.

“I haven’t spoken because there is nothing to say,” Kelin said without looking up.

“Nothing? But there’s plenty. Anything, any hint of what’s really going on?” Zeick asked.

“That’s the problem,” Kelin said.

“Another day of this, it’s wrong,” Harnes said.

“But what of Ruby as well?” Teena asked.

“Think something happened to both of them at the same time? They did hang out a lot,” Zeick said.

“They were?” Harnes asked.

“Yeah. A lot, stuff I heard about afterwards in passing,” Zeick said.

“Like?” Harnes asked.

“I don’t know. Secret stuff, I guess. She’s a high-noble, plenty of things she’d have secret. They’ve done a lot without us. Maybe she ran away again,” Zeick said.

“I never heard about that,” Harnes said.

“You just didn’t realize it at the time,” Kelin said, closing his book. “Fine, just be patient and listen.”

The rest quieted and rested their eyes on Kelin, expecting more than he knew he could give.

“Guess I’m the only one who knows enough to check everywhere. And I hate to tell you, but I don’t know where they are. Mai’ou is gone too. I couldn’t face her, blame me all you want for that. Slipped a note saying what I knew, and the next day she wasn’t anywhere to be found. Even checked inside, it was open. Va’il’s been gone before, but this is different. I’m sorry. But we’re just kids at this point. If you want to know more, then I’m sorry, we don’t have access to that. You know Ruby is important. And I’m pretty sure she’s gone too. With Va’il. And I don’t know what I mean by that. I don’t know where they went. And if they went voluntarily. That’s the problem. That’s all the current me can find out,” Kelin said. He was serious, unable to drudge up more emotion than what he had already expended over the past few days.

“Kidnapped?” Zeick asked with astute observation.

“That’d be my guess. I was hoping nobody would think that,” Kelin said.

“But why? Va’il, kidnapped?” Harnes asked, the worry running through her observable in her features and feathers.

“Not him, but Ruby. Thus Va’il by proxy, if he was with her. And he was, I’m sure,” Kelin said.

“But why would she be?” Teena asked.

“I want to know that too! But I don’t know. I don’t have any further ability to find out. And I’m stuck here, cursing the day and reading to escape. No, not escape, to grow. Learn more, grow, and rise. Can you all listen in all seriousness for a second?” Kelin asked.

“We already were,” Zeick said, and then smiled.

“Course. I just want to say, that this has confirmed something for me. We live in a world of adults. We’re in the midst of privilege as well, being in a unique school. One that’s a second home to people of all classes, mostly, and all learning the same tenants. Some of us are already powerful and need knowledge to wield that power later. Others have little, but still have the knowledge. That’s a blessing. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I cannot get what I want just by asking. I have to be someone or have something. And I may be that someday. If I try. And I live in a place where others can get there by simply trying as well.

“Not sure if this is all making sense yet. But what I’m trying to say is that I want power. And I need it, so that things like this don’t happen again. And if they did, I could do something about it. Maybe there is something going on that won’t affect our friends for a while. Maybe there is a chance to find out something more. Maybe it’s all futile now. But I’ll never find out if I don’t ascend to a spot where I can ask questions from a place where others need to answer. Just a lowly kid now. And you’re all just kids too. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, all ages that are worthless to us today. Don’t you see that soon this opportunity will be over? Will you go back to the lives that you’re inclined towards already, or will you take a step onto my path? I’m trying to ask two things of everyone here. And none of you have to help with either. I’m just frustrated and ranting and unsure of what else I can do, say, or ask. And still unsure of whether these words make any sense.

“First, can you all help me? I need to prove to my father that I’m better than my older brothers. I need to be a greater person. More powerful, intelligent, stronger, cunning, that kind of stuff. That help means assistance with studies and the like. And if there is a connection with an important person you discover, help me out with connecting to them. But at the least, to improve my studies is a first step.

“Second, consider the same path. The path to power. The governmental path, actually, based on the annual tests. Pete, you’d make a great merchant, just like your father. But you don’t have to settle at merchant. You’re really, really smart, more than you realize. Use your family’s knowledge and your own and aim to be an advisor to the king. Not instantly, just on the path that would lead there. Like the rest, I don’t expect anyone to make it to the top, but just to get somewhere in the midst of it, somewhere with power. Harnes, you’re good at science and engineering. You’re always drawing diagrams. You’re studious. But you’re only in Makeen due to being in Rising. You’re a fourth district commoner, and were going to end up in the fields, just like your parents. Aim for Minister of Engineering. Just aim. Prove your worth and rise above nobles. I know it hasn’t ever happened, though that’s because the school system’s history is still too short. Aim, rise, get power.

“Zeick, wish I knew what you should do. But aim higher. And you know what, you have that father. Take his place, oust him out, prove your worth. He recognizes you, even if it has shamed him. His power isn’t anything to scoff at. But I know that you hate the suggestion. I think you’ll find something, I know it. And you’d excel.

“Teena, I don’t know if I should include you in this. You’ve been wonderful to us. But I don’t want to throw something on you after all you’ve gone through, and all the adjustments you have made. But if you wish to help, thank you. If you wish to rise as well, then rise. I’ll support you. Eason will, as well. I’m sure he’d support you in anything. You don’t have to follow them in medicine or teaching, you can do something you desire. I’m hesitant to push my selfishness onto you. I don’t know where I’d stop. I realize, everyone, that I’ve been distant and secretive the past few days. I guess now you understand why. I know I’m probably stepping over a lot of bounds by being so extreme. And I get the feeling I’ll wake up tomorrow and think this was all dumb and I should have waited until I had a clearer picture of everything. That’s all.”

The group remained silent and unmoving for a couple minutes. Amidst the sounds of laughter and crying in the background each child was running through the decisions placed in their heads. Each wondered what the other thought, and all stared with wonder at Kelin. The silence fed the growing trepidation and embarrassment in him. He had done something so different from what everyone knew of him, and exposed thoughts he usually kept to himself. He laughed internally, as he had been modifying his image for some while now, and aging usually did that to a person. But he couldn’t be normal, his version of normal, when the person he considered his best friend was missing.

He tried telling himself that Pete was just as much a friend, but there was a connection with a fellow lupus that couldn’t be replicated with other species. Va’il was his friend, rival, and counterpart. Someone he could both joke and fight with. Someone who he could knock on the head for their lack of seriousness, and then lose a race to. Someone who fit in just as much as Kelin. In his view, Va’il was glue. Kelin didn’t like that he had formed such an attachment, but he did believe that Va’il was the reason he was bonded to the people next to him now. He worried that without Va’il, they may break apart. He couldn’t bear to lose a single friend at that point.

Though they weren’t glue, they were all just as important. Pete’s strength and stability, Zeick’s passion and energy, Harnes’ rationality tempered with concern, and Teena’s grounded determination were what he valued. And here he was, already missing Ruby’s personality, including all its selfish hints that were tempered with hidden desires. Without Va’il, Kelin feared something may fall apart. Without Va’il, Ruby had already disappeared, fulfilling the first part of Kelin’s fears. The others also felt, to various degrees and in their own words, their own personal fears over their current circumstances.

“I think, I get it,” Pete said, being the first to speak up. The others nodded slightly before offering their own opinions. “It sounds tough. But necessary. Maybe even fun. Hadn’t thought of it. I may just focus on something I’ve liked for a long while now.”

“I won’t end up in the fields. That’s all,” Harnes said, her face flush, her every emotion easy to see when set against the background of her raven feathers performing their own small movements on her head. She had previously resigned herself to a predetermined life, which is why she had been so serious in her studies at school. It was her only chance, considering her family and situation. She had known that the knowledge would all be wasted, but that thought had only spurned her onward, as knowledge would be a place in the world she could occupy with her own power. It wasn’t until Kelin pointed out the testing system that she thought she could accomplish more. Like others, she was expecting defeat without trying.

“That’s right, didn’t think you’d know what I’ll be doing. Don’t you worry, I’ll be up and powerful before you know it! Well, probably. Using my own strength,” Zeick said, a smile again occupying his face. He decided that day to immediately enroll in something he’d thought about previously.

“Thank you, for all of this,” Teena said. She looked down for a moment, and then shook her head. She looked up, smiled, and continued her speech. “I’ll help you any way I can. I don’t know if I can be much use, I’m more inclined towards something a little different. But if there is any chance of finding out more, I see why this is the best way. No, even if there isn’t a way to find out more, I still like it. Band together and rise together. In the nation of Rising, there is a group of kids who want to be rising stars of the nation. Isn’t it a great story?”

“All of you, you guys are pretty awesome, you know?” Kelin asked, laughing under his smile. “You should see what I was reading. Wonderful story, indeed.”

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The Lupine Saga 91

Jin sipped some tea while listening to Jane and Shiroi be led away. The gates soon closed behind them. And from behind Jin came the sound of a closet door closing. Someone was heard walking across the room. They stood behind Jin’s chair for a moment, and then moved to the spot Jane had been sitting, and sat in it.

“Well?” Jin asked.

“I managed to hear it all. Interesting. Very good job, by the way,” Gardos said. He was dressed in black, though in not the same clothes seen on him a few years ago. Two years had chipped away at portions of his youth, though he looked as well as he ever did.

“Thank you, sir. I apologize that I did falter in places, but it was fortunate that everything worked to our benefit. And now a goal, one unexpected to be accomplished so quickly, has been.”

“Yes, getting cooperation was a good feat. As was placing the blame on that man, I admit that was quite good. But I have some issues now. That child was being monitored, like the others, you know that, correct?”

“Yes sir. What did happened to little Miss Melonscone? I would have thought you’d guard her against anything bad.”

“We had to dispose of her and the child she was with. If I had known about her being the future queen, we would have avoided it. Even still, there was a problem with the conclusions she was drawing,” Gardos said.

“What could be so harmful about a little girl? Is this how Grip now does things, or is it just incompetence? She was useful, valuable! How can I guarantee anything to Madam Melonscone now?” Jin asked, and then slammed his cup on the table.

“Watch your words with me, if you want to keep your precious position,” Gardos said.

“Excuse me. But I cannot believe a little girl could be any threat,” Jin said, calmly this time.

“If you had heard the conversation she was starting, you’d rethink that. It turns out I have had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting her and one of her friends before, years ago. And it seems like she and that brat overheard things they shouldn’t have. And were about to connect my visit to your name. Before they could connect anything, we got rid of them. Immediately. It was drastic, but necessary.”

“I see. Yes, if she truly was going to be a threat, it was, in that case. To think children could stumble upon things so great. That’s why, Gardos, always be cautious about what you say, even in private. Regardless, wouldn’t it be too late soon enough? It’s unfortunate, then. But we can still use her. There is something the girl should have had. A ring, a signet signifying her nobility. Search the body for it, and please let me have it. I can use it in the future. It’s unfortunate; we’d be able to do more, much more with her alive.”

“I’ll ask my men. It was a hasty endeavor, I’m not sure where she is, outside the city somewhere. But it shouldn’t be a problem, the body wouldn’t have been looted. Will you use it to manipulate the mother?”

“Of course. Thank you, Gardos. I apologize for my manner, ambassador. This play as regent must be going to my head. All for the great Grip empire, should I say?” Jin laughed slightly, and Gardos with him.

“I’ll be returning to Grip soon. I will inform Head Lord Welnic of all that has transpired. I do have a question, though, for you. What of the heir?”

“Still nothing. We’ll keep trying to pry that information out, if it exists. It looks like the puppet will have to suffice. Honestly, I do not believe the heir even exists. I believe it, but knowing Fidel and his dually obnoxious and secretive ways, I cannot shake the feeling that he hid a child as a last prank on his friends, and also to spite all his enemies. In all likelihood, even if the boy does exist, he wouldn’t have been raised as an heir. He probably doesn’t even know that he’s royalty, assuming he lives.”

“That isn’t reassuring. Welnic believes the boy does exist. And from what I’ve heard, I believe it too. I hope you understand the consequences, should he appear.”

“It’ll be easier to deal with if I have that signet. It’s unfortunate the girl is gone. She could be used in both cases. I’m going to have a problem if Madam Melonscone finds out the truth. Did you really kill the child? Truly, or are you keeping a secret from me as well?” Jin asked, his voice trembling.

“It was hasty, but yes.”

“And you saw it yourself?”

“Well, mostly.”

“Mostly? Gardos, may I ask? Did you actually see the lifeless body?”

“No. I didn’t confirm it. But it should have happened.”

“I see. Well, the signet should settle things. I’ll plan the for the rest, regardless of the girl’s true status. Thank you for the privilege, Gardos. When you’re about to leave, please do not forget to see me one last time.”

Gardos took his leave. Jin sat alone, staring at the ceiling. He contemplated the events of the night, and the struggles he was facing. He dropped his old and feeble act, and pulled off the fake beard, revealing a far younger man. He stood up and quickly paced around the room, gesturing and mumbling to himself. He walked to the table and picked up the teacup. He finished off the contents, and then held the empty cup in front of his face. He thought of Fidel, Jane, and the other powers that tried to oppress him. He threw the cup across the room.

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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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