“Just two more years,” Kelin said.
“I know,” Pete said.
“Just two more years, this one and the next,” Kelin said.
“Then what?” Pete asked.
“Everything,” Kelin said. “That’s what I’ve decided.”
“And just where did this all come from? What are you talking about?”
“I’ll be the one to inherit father’s work, duty, life. I’ll be the one who takes over, not my brothers. No matter how much older than me they are. And then, in my place, I’ll share it. With you, Va’il, Harnes, Zeick, and Teena. I will have us all, you all, rise to Ruby’s level, one day, together.”
“Kelin, I’m fine. Besides, what’s gotten into you?”
“It’s just the opening ceremony. I’m anxious. This year, then next year, then it will all begin. School will be over. Those lives we’ve been living will pass away. Ruby won’t be around next year either. Va’il, what will he do when the two years are up? Receive a noble’s education, then throw himself into a commoner’s work? I’m worried. That’s all. Let me vent.”
“Fine. But seriously, where is Va’il? Why is he missing the first day of school, already?”
“Let’s ask Mai’ou afterwards,” Kelin said. Pete and Kelin remained silent and listened to the rest of the speech given by the school’s administrator in the large auditorium. They had been quiet enough not to be noticed, but the speech was about to end. Soon Pete and Kelin would be freed from the auditorium, wander the grounds of Makeen, and then go to their first class of the new school year. But, no matter how hard they looked, they could not see any trace of their lupus friend with the silver hair.
The day before, a little after dusk. On a street in the second district of Rising was a mid-level restaurant. It was a quaint spot, and not as fancy as most everything else in the second district. Va’il walked inside and took a seat at a far corner table, where Ruby already was. The rest of the restaurant was occupied only by a few other people.
“Were you followed here?” Ruby asked.
“What? I don’t think so. Why would that matter?” Va’il asked.
“Just making sure. I’m not so sure about things anymore,” Ruby said. She was talking quieter than normal, but not by much.
“So what’s going on? Why did you call for me? Where’s Shiroi?” Va’il asked.
“One thing at a time. She’s at home. I slipped out, didn’t want her involved. I’m getting quite good at leaving without anyone noticing, you know,” Ruby said. She looked past Va’il, her eyes focusing on a patron arriving through the door. She continued again after a long pause. “I think I’m being watched.”
“Now?” Va’il asked. He then started turning around.
“No, no, don’t do that,” Ruby said. “Turn back this way. I don’t think right now, I mean in general. Things have started getting stranger. I don’t feel like I’m alone, ever. Being around Shiroi is one thing, but whether I’m at home, at school, with all of you, something feels odd. Like there’s always a shadow on me.”
“Does this have something to do with the increase in guards around the city?” Va’il asked.
“You noticed it too? I thought something was strange about that too, but I don’t really question what policies Jin puts into place. It might have something to do with the heir of the throne. It’s been a while, maybe they really do know who he is and are planning to reveal him, stepping up security as part of that.” Ruby looked past Va’il again as the patron who had entered took a seat only three tables away from the two teens.
“So do you think someone really is shadowing you? Why come outside, now, if you think that’s the case? And who is that?” Va’il asked. He wasn’t looking at Ruby anymore. He looked up and past her, somewhat lost in thought. Ruby didn’t reply right away either. The food she had earlier ordered arrived. They kept quiet and paid the human waiter while he delivered the food. He poured them each a cup of tea, and then left the table. They then ate while conversing.
“It doesn’t stop at home. Mother, she hired another servant. But not really, it was given to her by the regent. He always looks at me weirdly. It creeps me out. I can’t stand it, always being looked at like that,” Ruby said. She took a drink to calm down a bit.
“I’m sure plenty of people look at you with thoughts you’d think are creepy,” Va’il said while half smiling. Ruby looked at him, gave a slight huff, and then smiled.
“Come on, I’m not joking here. Be serious, Va’il.”
“Sorry. I don’t have to give you any reminders about how you look, and I shouldn’t joke about it. Our looks are always sure to draw attention, good or bad, so forgive me if I seem a bit skeptical. Shouldn’t you be used to getting looks that reveal thoughts you’d rather not know?” Va’il asked. He was serious, no longer joking with Ruby.
“Your looks… that’s right. You’ve had to deal with this more. Sorry Va’il, I didn’t consider that. But I still think I’m justified in my thoughts. A girl knows when she’s being looked at a certain way, and this is one of those times where I think it’s different. It’s weirder. It’s not about my looks. It’s just me. Someone, something, that I cannot see, is looking. It’s not just the servant at home. It’s creepy.”
“And why are you telling me?” Va’il asked, though he was still looking away from Ruby from time to time, as if she didn’t have his full attention.
“It’s been going on for a while. Progressively feeling worse. And it started at a point you know. Two years ago. Soon after we encountered those foreign men. That’s why.”
“You don’t think those foreigners have something to do with that, do you?” Va’il asked.
“Not so loud,” Ruby said. A few moments later, the waiter arrived and refilled their tea. Needing nothing more, Ruby sent him away, instructing him that they were done.
“I don’t know,” Ruby said, sipping her tea between every few sentences. “It’s been on my mind since then. Too many strange coincidences. Still no word on Darius. More guards. Doesn’t it seem like the city is more ominous at night?”
“I think you’re just noticing more as you get older. How does it feel to be sixteen, anyways?” Va’il asked.
“You’re still being annoying,” Ruby said.
“I got it!” Va’il said. His eyes no longer wandered about, and he looked right at Ruby. He took a drink, and then spoke. “You mentioned a name. I’ve been trying to remember if I’ve heard it before. Did you say something about a person named Jin?”