“Are you sure he will be here tomorrow?” the baron asked. Only a small candle lit the room, just enough for Va’il to see the outline of the baron and another person, one cloaked in all black.
“Yes. Just keep them here until the morning,” the man said.
“And my reward?”
“A standard one. Two for the girl, half for the boy. If they are as you originally said,” the man said.
“I need to revise it. I was sure she was of good birth before. But I judged her status wrong. She is above the status of a marquis, that I’m relatively sure of. That must make her worth ten times that amount. The boy is just a Rising commoner, so that’s fine,” the baron said.
“Did you confirm she is noble? Did you check her ring?” the man asked.
“A ring? I cannot recall. She may have had one on her left hand. I don’t know. But I’ve spoken with her. Though I pretended to be a bit uneducated, she exceeded what I thought a child of Rising should know. Unless you can say that the education they provide is at such a level that even common children over there can exceed the rest of the world’s nobles, then I have no choice but to believe she is special. Well?”
“It’s possible. Provide me with her description. I will pass it along to Gardos. He will make the final decision tomorrow. If your description matches who he is looking for, even twenty times may not be enough. A hundred or more, if it is who he is looking for.”
“A hundred? That’s incredible! No longer will I be stuck as a measly baron! I’ll soon be in the palace itself! And of course, only under the wondrous hand of Grip!”
Va’il rushed off as silently as possible. His heart felt as if it were about to knock down every wall in the house. But most of all, his feelings were hurt beyond repair. He wanted to cry at the outright betrayal, but didn’t have time for it.
“Ruby, wake up,” Va’il whispered into Ruby’s ear.
“Tickles,” Ruby mumbled.
“Ruby,” Va’il whispered, “wake up. But be very quiet. Wake up, but listen to me without speaking. We have to go. We have to go now. Very, very quietly. Please trust me for now, and I’ll explain later. We have to go, now!”
“Understood,” Ruby said quietly. She looked at Va’il with sleepy eyes, watching the silver eyes filled with panic. His words sunk in, prompting her to move swiftly. She put on her shoes and slung a bag over her shoulder. Va’il also held onto a bag, and together they exited though the large front door without making too much noise.
Sendes, the blue moon, was directly overheard and provided enough light for the teens to see the majority of the town. They took the main road north, out of the city. Far to the south was Derlik’s house, but Va’il had already made the decision to not return. They moved quickly until they were out of the city, and started walking once out.
“What’s this about, Va’il?” Ruby asked.
“I don’t know how, but they knew we are from Rising,” Va’il said.
“And what about it? Sure, we hid it, but is it really that bad?”
“Gardos, remember that name?”
“That villain, how could I forget such an incident?”
“And Mister Laloo knows him as well. I overheard him talking with a man in black, a human man, about a price for you and I, about you being a noble, and that Gardos was coming tomorrow.”
“No, wait,” Ruby said, and then she stopped walking. “Is that everything?”
“That’s about all I heard.”
“But why? Why is he betraying us? Why does it matter that we’re from Rising?”
“Ruby, we still don’t know why we were taken from Rising in the first place! Whatever reason there is, it doesn’t matter now. I think I heard more. Something about a reward, and raising Mister Laloo’s rank. And something even worse, too.”
“Greed? A terrible reason to betray children! But one that happens all too often. Fine, we were tricked into believing that baron was good! I should have known better! Mother always said those with the worst intentions were those with the most eager smile. She knew that best of all, of course. What was the worse thing you heard?”
“About Gardos looking for a particular person, and that you might fit the description. They asked about a noble ring, the one on your left hand. Mr. Laloo didn’t remember if you had one on, but I know you do, turned inwards. And a hundred-fold reward for the person that fit the description of the noble they are looking for. What do you think, Ruby?”
“Coincidences can be weird. I doubt this is one of them. No wonder. No wonder, indeed. Va’il, I’m going to say something frightening.”
“Isn’t this all?”
“Derlik. The reasons are still hidden, but what if this all is part of the same plot? What if our encounter with Gardos years ago has something to do with Derlik? What if, terrible as it could be, that those people have some influence in Rising?”
“Rising, under the hand of Grip?” Va’il asked, musing aloud part of the conversation he had overheard.
“Grip? Did you say Grip? Where did you hear that?” Ruby asked, her voice filled with panic.
“Mister Laloo mentioned it. He said something about being under the hand of Grip.”
“Grip spies. Infiltrators! Planting people in the nation in the aftermath of Fidel’s passing! Of course! Of course! Va’il, it’s terrible! I don’t know what you know of Grip, but it’s bad if they are involved. Wait, it’s even worse than we thought. If Grip already has control over the baron, then it might be that all of Grizz is already in their hands! I heard about the expansions they had been doing, but didn’t think it would matter. If their influence has extended even to the hidden places in Rising, then the country is in trouble! How many other nations have fallen without us knowing?”
“Ruby, what’s Grip?”
“The nation on the eastern side of the continent. Just as Rising is on the west side, Grip is on the east. Just like Rising is ruled by a human, so is Grip. But that’s all for the similarities. Grip is militaristic, and has been the source of a few conflicts. It has its own internal struggles, so it’s usually been dealing with those instead of conquering other nations. But they still try. They are run by a different ethos, and look at the world differently. Rising’s main feature, unique among the nations, is the blended populace. Sure, there are different species everywhere, some blending into one nation or another at times, but only Rising is where you will find that no one group is the majority. Every species is there, and has a place.
“Discrimination against the others exists, but isn’t very pronounced for the most part. We live in an open nation, Va’il. One that allowed you and Zeick to be born. No other nation has that kind of intermingling. Grizz is all bearan, you’ve seen that. As with the hare lands, the swine lands, even the bovine lands. Those nations are all very uniform. And Grip is different. It’s one of the all human nations. But unlike the others, they don’t tolerate the other species the same way.”
“So is Grip only humans, and no one else?” Va’il asked, worried at what he was hearing.
“In the actual area that makes up the main nation, yes. However, they do conquer other nations. But those nations are taken for land and labor and subservience. Grip believes that humans are the only ones with the right to rule, and that all other species must be under human subjection. Every other species is lower. Anyone that is conquered is still kept separate from the human population. That’s why all these connections I’m now seeing are so terrible. They are the exact opposite of Rising.
“That also means Rising and Grip have been at odds with each other for a long time. Rising’s kings have usually opposed Grip, and helped other nations out when Grip made aggressive moves. And so, for agents of Grip to have such an influence in Rising, I can only fear what may happen. If it was due to Grip’s influence that you and I were, for some reason I can’t figure out yet, supposed to be killed, then there must be some terrible plot.”
“We’re going back,” Va’il said.
“Of course. Do you mean now?”
“Yes. I figured it out earlier that we needed to go back. We’ve been living too easily the past months. We got used to it, complacent, comfortable. I realized we should have left before. Ironic, that I’d notice at the same time we are forced to leave.”
“No one could have known. These things, these discoveries and assumptions, you couldn’t have known. I still don’t know if I’m right, or just guessing. I’m ready too. We should head back home, no matter what awaits us.”
“It’s going to be tough,” Va’il said. Ruby nodded, and then started walking. They walked for another hour, and then turned off the road. Once they were far away from the road, they slept uncomfortably.