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.
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.