The Lupine Saga 71

Va’il, Teena, and Ruby stood around the avian, entranced. No matter what, they hadn’t been expecting a life story.

“No, no, thank you,” Va’il said. De’un simply nodded.

“Va’il, it’s about time. I don’t want to be rude to you sir, but we have a friend waiting, who gets a little anxious if he’s made to wait. Really sir, thank you so much. Your story, your life, it is amazing. Before we go, what happened to that farm girl?” Teena asked.

“She’s at home, of course!” De’un said with a wide grin. Teena and Va’il smiled at De’un’s explanation, gave another bow and thanks, and then left to go find Kelin. “You are, miss?” De’un asked of Ruby.

“I, uh, sir, I’m, was that Va’il? Oh, I apologize. I mean to say, my name is Ruby Melonscone,” Ruby eventually replied after much stuttering. She hadn’t realized Va’il was almost beside her the entire time, and only noticed it was really him when Teena mentioned his name.

“Melonscone, is it? Hmm, you’re a fair young girl, so you must be Kaz’s daughter. Is that right?” De’un asked.

“Kaz Un Yeatre Melonscone’s only child, yes. My mother is Jane Lucrene Melonscone. Though, father died when I was only four. If you knew my father’s name, then you might have known my mother either under the names of Strawtree, with which she bore two daughters, or her maiden name of Midivald, from the house of Green Forest.”

“You’re a child of Melonscone and Midivald? The house of Scones and of Green Forest actually got together? I’ve been isolated too long, too long! Why miss, I’m not even privileged enough to look upon you, even if you are a child!”

“Please sir, it is fine. I was the one who eavesdropped on your story. It was enthralling. I couldn’t help but overhear, and I think that might have been a friend of mine. Was that boy you were speaking with a half?”

“Ah, so that’s what he was. I wasn’t sure. I see. Rising sure has developed quite a bit. A half… and a noble at that! Maybe… maybe. I really wonder who the next king is now. To see so many amazing things speaks wonders about its ruler. I wonder if Fidel’s child will be as wonderful as he was.”

“We will see, right? Thank you for your company, Marquis De’un. Enjoy your stay in Rising,” Ruby said. She then bowed and took her leave.

“Smart. She knew who I was without me ever once mentioning my name. Those families… looks like I better start drafting up some alliance agreements,” De’un thought to himself with a smile.

Ruby had faithfully accomplished her mission, but her mind was in turmoil. She was deep in thought over why Va’il had appeared. She thought and somewhat realized that he was friends with a couple nobles, but that wouldn’t matter. Ruby was a noble, and she didn’t want to attend. Much less should a commoner. Something seemed extremely suspicious about it to her. She passed off De’un’s assumption that Va’il was noble, but it did make her further suspect why Va’il had appeared. As she was musing it over, she happened to catch another glance of Va’il and Teena. She saw as they met up with Kelin. It then struck her that Kelin had told her specifically to come. She shivered once at the realization.

“Does he know?” Ruby asked herself. “Now I’ll just have to find out more.” Ruby went through a long train of thoughts and self-convincing, stirring her suspicions and masking her real motives from herself. She resolved, finally, to do something she had subconsciously wanted to do for a while.

The gathering drew to a close, which prompted Jane to find Ruby. They soon set out for their estate.

“Did you complete each task?” Jane asked. She was smiling and looking pleased. Her tasks must have gone well.

“Every one of them, exactly as asked, Mother,” Ruby replied.

“Even De’un?”

“Yes. He really was just like you said. An interesting person.”

“Well done Ruby. You’re doing well. Anything else, then?”

“Actually, a question. Where was Darius? I didn’t see him anywhere.”

“Darius? Still look up to him, do you? Well, it’s fine. He’s a good enough person when he’s out of my way. But, now that you mention it, I haven’t seen him either. There are a few things I wouldn’t mind discussing with him too. I’ll find out.”

“Thank you.”

#

“So, you told me to come, but where were you?” Ruby asked. Kelin looked up at her with a somewhat surprised expression.

“Excuse me?” Kelin asked. He and the rest of the usual group were sitting in the schoolyard under a tree as usual, not expecting the sudden arrival of Ruby.

“Common courtesy, correct? You said I had to come. I would have either way. But what was supposed to happen, Kelin?” Ruby asked.

“Ha!” Kelin laughed, and was feeling very amused. “I see, you took it quite seriously. My apologies, Miss Melonscone, I forgot all about our engagement. When I did remember, you were already being entertained by two dashing boys, and I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“Are you toying with me?” Ruby asked, indignant.

“No miss. Anyways, those two impetuous fools ended up bumping into Giovinni’s son by accident. They made the mistake of telling him to watch where he was walking, even though they were the ones in the wrong. They must not have known who he was. What do you think happened?”

“Giovinni must have been furious. Darney would definitely have been embarrassed, right?”

“Count Darney is resilient, I’ll give him that, but he still lost a pocket full of gold coins, in public no less.”

Kelin and Ruby kept talking about the affairs of nobles and the like, which the rest of the group paid little heed to. Soon a bell was sounded, and the lunch break was over.

The next day at lunchtime, Ruby arrived once more, this time approaching Teena.

“You’re Teena, part of Eason’s family, right?” Ruby asked. Teena gave her usual pleasant smile.

“Yep. And you’re Ruby,” Teena replied. “How did you know that about me? Have we met before?”

“No, we haven’t, but I’ve known Eason for a while. And just yesterday he was in a very talkative mood.”

“Ha! It seems everyone has known him. Even from the common Va’il to the rare Ruby. I should ask him tonight just how many things he’s done in his life to earn him such notoriety.”

“So he is a commoner only after all,” Ruby thought. She then went on to tell the eager lupus girl more of the things and the stories she knew about Eason. Teena giggled and laughed at the various things Eason had told Ruby, and kept conversing with Ruby until the bell sounding the end of lunch was rung.

A day later, Ruby heard the bell signaling the start of lunch. She packed her items and rushed out the school’s doors. She arrived at the yard earlier than most, and took a long look around. After a bit she stopped and looked up at the cloudy sky, lost in thought, for she hadn’t seen Va’il’s group.

“C’mon, hurry up,” Va’il said. “We gotta catch that spot before the rest.” He was right behind Ruby. She slowly turned. He was looking right at her.

“Well don’t just stand there, let’s go,” Kelin said as he rushed by, patting Ruby once on the back.

Va’il walked by her, turned around, and said, “You coming already?”

It took a moment for Ruby to realize what was going on. Harnes and Pete had already stopped at her side, and Zeick was behind her. She finally did, and emphatically said, “Yes!” Teena grabbed one of Ruby’s hands and pulled her along as they took their spot under a large tree. With that, Ruby had joined Va’il’s group.

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The Lupine Saga 70

“Boy, come closer,” De’un said. Va’il complied without question, once he saw that De’un was avian. “Ah, that’s certainly a… boy, can I ask you if you know what this is?”

“Do you mean the art or the outfit itself, sir?” Va’il asked.

“The art. You’re a… well, lupus is right enough. Is your family so audacious to wear such an item without realizing what it is?” De’un asked with a bit of annoyance. He was just polite enough in case Va’il was someone of great importance who he wouldn’t want to offend.

“No, no. My family is humble enough. I received this robe of avian art from a friend to wear tonight. I don’t know much about avian culture. Did I offend you, sir?” Va’il asked as politely as he could. He had previously realized that the art was avian, and seeing De’un’s reaction had sent his mind racing. His fear this entire party was of offending a noble accidentally, so of course he was somewhat prepared to apologize in case of an accident. But De’un’s expression immediately softened. He smiled warmly at the young Va’il. Ruby saw the smile, and so took a step closer to better hear the conversation.

“I see. No boy, I’m not offended. It’s just, that work reminds me of home. Everything that happened. My life, family, history, culture, it reminded me of all that,” De’un said. His voice was becoming stifled as he held back tears.

“Ah,” Va’il said,” then your life must have been something amazing, sir.”

“No need to flatter me,” De’un said. “I’m just an old Akkun who dwells on things of the past.”

“Akkun? And what past, sir?” Va’il asked. He was becoming curious at the old avian’s manner of speaking.

“Akkun is what I am, lupus boy. One of the avian races. And that piece you’re wearing, that’s our history. Painted by one of the six great Akkun scholars, Ani Onook. Its title is ‘Three times less on the eighth plain.’ It was painted because… wait, am I boring you?” De’un asked.

“Not at all!” Va’il and Teena replied together. The avian had a way of speaking that was full of pride, respect, and nostalgia all at once. The kids were young, but they had spent long enough being relatively bored at this party, and appreciated the story that De’un seemed to want to wholeheartedly tell.

“Very well then, how about this? I have a story which will make the meaning much clearer afterwards. First, the painting was done because of the Akkuns’ arrival at the eighth plain they had come across in their search for a homeland over a thousand years ago. After the Akkun had been forced to flee from seven other places, they thought they would never find a place to settle. But when they managed to keep the eighth plain, they said it took three times less time than expected to find a place to settle down. Okay, well maybe its meaning is clear by itself and my story doesn’t really have much to do with it. But I still enjoy that work. Thank you, boy.”

“Thank you. But you don’t have to stop. I really want to know,” Va’il said. “What’s your story? I have time, and I really want to know.”

“Well, if you insist,” De’un said with a smile. He then began his story. “I guess you could say I have, but have not, changed from when I was a child. It may seem obvious at first glance, but I was born to a family of high status. My father governed and defended the land, and I, in my foolishness, had dreams of being a gallant knight, fighting evil ones and saving my brethren, like the stories, even foolishly wishing I’d been born a few years earlier. I was only a stupid rich boy though, ignorant of how the world really worked at the time, unappreciative of the peace we finally had. I’d hunt, donate to the common folk, effectively just showing off. Until one day when riding along, I came across a farm. I was going to pass it by, as usual, but the daughter of the farm had come out.

“Her eyes, those incredibly deep eyes. They entranced me. Some knight I was. I had to stop, talk to her, be with her. I visited the farm girl more and more often. It seemed she too had an interest in me. Unfortunately, she was my type, but not my status. Our frequent visits didn’t go unnoticed. We had been followed several times. My father had become an unreasonable man. He wouldn’t let his years of hard work be thrown away by having his son marry an unworthy girl. In his own twisted way, he wanted to do something that would force me to give her up, without me turning against him. One day, while me and her had gone playing in the city, despicable ones, villains, raided and killed everyone in the girl’s family. We returned to see the farm was destroyed, burned, her family gone.

“I was useless. I gave her the gold on me, told her to stay safe for the night, and then I rushed home thinking I could ask my father to help catch the villains. If I was smart, I would have stayed with her. But it’s fortunate I didn’t, because that was exactly what my father was expecting. I arrived at home without anyone noticing. My father, expecting me gone, was there celebrating, congratulating the so-called villains. With the girl’s means of livelihood gone, he expected that the girl would have no choice but to fall further into despair. He thought I would give up when I saw what the girl would eventually become.

“I rushed back, but not before being seen by a guard on duty. Taking my precious horse, I found the girl exactly where I had left her. She hadn’t moved, only cried. How could I have just left her there? It was stupid, yet it still saved us. I grabbed her and galloped away. I told her of my father’s plan to make her a lowly beggar or worse, since a girl in those areas had no chance of living alone. Another mistake, I should have told her later and spared some of the trauma. Though my father’s men followed, we managed to get away. But the world that awaited us was harsh and cruel. We met a sneaky old couple who swindled our gold from us. We narrowly escaped death when some corrupt knights thought we were simple beggars they could just kill at random for fun. And I’ll never forget… well I shouldn’t talk about that one, too frightening to even remember. But we lived through it all. For year after year, running from one spot to another. My father had never given up, and it seemed like there was always someone one step behind us, always catching up at the last second to give us more grief.

“At first, when we first ran away together, even through the loss of her family, we were happy to be together. Well, I was. She pretended to be. But year after year wore on her after all. The suffering she bore always brought me to tears. But she wasn’t a farm girl for nothing, and had a resilience about her that I couldn’t help but admire. Still, she became paler day by day, and she was becoming thinner all the time. After a few years, I had reached the edge of despair. I feared that she wouldn’t last another year at that rate.

“It was at that point that my father’s pursuer caught up to us yet again. We ran and ran, until we fell down a grassy hill. We rolled and skidded until we reached the bottom. Dazed, I looked up. There, sitting on an unmistakable red horse, was my father. He looked down at me with his icy eyes. I couldn’t speak, but I could try to stand. As I did, he jumped down from his horse. The man I had feared so much came face to face with me. He had lost all the feathers on his arms, and the ones on his head had lost their luster. Wrinkles covered his face, and I realized just how much older he appeared. But those eyes, they hadn’t changed at all.

“He walked up to me. To my great surprise, he held out his arms, walked forward, and hugged me. It was a strong, affectionate hug. One I hadn’t received from him before. It was refreshing, and puzzling. I noticed something wet; he was crying. His arms didn’t loosen, but the strength of the embrace gradually diminished. It got to the point that his arms fell off me, and I felt his weight fall into my chest. The surprises in life come without end. My father had died there.

“I don’t know if he was planning to forgive me, ask me back, or not. All I know is that he had spent years stressing over me. Mother had passed away in the meantime, only adding to his pain. He had rambled on to his spies that he wanted my farm girl dead, so that I would have to return to his side. Maybe he went mad. But the sane part of him had already prepared everything for me. Upon his death, I inherited it all. Fortune and prestige greater than what I remembered awaited. As you can see of me now, I did get quite a bit back, things that I thought I had lost forever. As the men led me back to my father’s estate, my wife with me, I couldn’t help but think of all the adventures we had gone on together.

“As I entered the mansion, the one I grew up in, I was expecting to see the same things I had seen in the past. But in the greeting room, the first one you enter, all the various items that had been there before were removed and changed. Two wooden chairs faced a single wall. On that wall hangs the painting that you now wear on your robe. As I remembered its title, its meaning, how couldn’t I cry? My father must have thought he lost me forever. He sat for night after night in one of the chairs, imagining the day I would sit at his side and enjoy the art with him. My return would be his three less, the mansion our eighth plain. Certainly, since I had never expected to come back, to say it took only a third the time as expected for me to reach the eighth plain with my wife, the painting had meaning for me as well. That, young boy, is the emotion that is conveyed by that work. Thank you.”

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The Lupine Saga 69

“Did you see him?” a male hare’s voice asked.

“No,” a male human’s voice replied.

“Drat. I was hoping he’d show up. Do you think he abandoned us?” the hare asked.

“Diren, I don’t know what to think at this point. I really can’t figure out what has gotten into him. Unless it’s that. And if it is… let’s assume it’s not,” the human said.

“He’s not that kind of person. He has always been loyal. Rillin, you know that too well. I’d be more inclined to believe a drunk stabbed him and hid him from us,” Diren said.

“Don’t speak of such things! That man wouldn’t die so easily. But that’s the problem. If it isn’t that other possibility, then I fear someone has trapped him in a plot or scheme,” Rillin said.

“Sorry, impulse. But who would have a grudge against him? No, he couldn’t have made any enemies. If we’d stop being so pessimistic, then maybe we could assume he was sent on a secret mission of importance. I heard that they have been on the move,” Diren said.

“Trouble just never ends. I wish I could help more. But without my power, I’m just a wretched old man. I don’t have a fortune I could use to assist with. My apologies,” Rillin said.

“It’s all right. I’ve still got my contacts. I did do a second search, this time with a bit less discretion. Still nothing. And chances are that Jin found out. I’d be happy if he didn’t though. That stickler is never happy when things aren’t approved. Much less from an ex-advisor who doesn’t have any real power left,” Diren said, and then sighed.

“That doesn’t exclude everything though, does it, Diren? You know something we don’t, right?” Rillin asked.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Diren said. But his voice betrayed his real thoughts. He wasn’t a good liar.

“The heir. You can fool the rest, but not these old eyes. Aoi left the same as she came, she had no child. I’m not an old man for nothing!” Rillin said with a grim chuckle.

“No, Rillin. That’s all. Besides, if there were such an option available to me, do you think I’d do something more? Really, we need to focus on the main issue. Where is Darius? Where did he and his missing subordinate disappear to? And what do they know of the heir? These are the important questions. Though, I doubt Darius would know something more than the two of us. Fidel trusted us all. Even Jin, who admittedly does have regent experience. It’s not like the two of us will be advising him. I suppose it’s fine to be among the people again. What do you think?” Diren asked.

“I think you speak too quickly. I’m beginning to think the reason Fidel liked you so much was because you speak the way he thought. Come, my friend, let’s go drink,” Rillin said. The sound of the two ex-advisors walking away was heard, and then their sounds disappeared.

Va’il and Teena were breathless and silent. Though it was an accident, they had overheard every word clearly. They would have run off upon hearing the two men start speaking, but the mention of Diren’s name had frozen Va’il. He didn’t want to make any sound whatsoever, in fear that Diren might spot him. Before the night began, he had feared meeting anyone who had seen him in front of Fidel before, especially Darius and Diren, since they knew of his existence.

But to hear that Darius, and by deductive reasoning, Var, were missing, was a depressing thing for Va’il. Although he feared Darius’ plans for him, and didn’t wish to see him again, he nevertheless held respect for Darius.

He knew Diren even less, but from what he knew and heard, he now had a measure of respect for him. He knew Diren had to know his identity, yet Diren let things continue on without involving Va’il, even appearing to mislead others for his sake. Just who was Diren, exactly, Va’il had to wonder, and why didn’t he try to meet with Va’il? Though Va’il wouldn’t soon get an answer to those questions, just the fact Diren did leave him be was enough to let Va’il forget about him.

“Va’il?” Teena asked quietly. He didn’t respond, so she called again. “Va’il?”

“It’s cold out here. Let’s go inside,” Va’il said.

Va’il and Teena made their way back to the main room. Not too much time had passed, so they kept looking at things to waste time until it would be time to meet up with Kelin.

“You! With the silver tail, stop right there!” a voice close to Va’il said. He broke out in a cold sweat, fearing for the worst. Slowly, he turned around.

#

“Those idiots,” Ruby thought to herself. She had just finished ignoring the Darney boys, who didn’t give up at trying to speak with her for quite a while. She had already spoken with a few other nobles about certain propositions, one of the many minor tasks she had been assigned by Jane. She had finished the last one on her list when appearing at that exact moment were the two boys. She ignored them as they commented on how lustrous her hair was. She scoffed internally, because it was in a bun and hidden under her hat.

They went on to talk about her eyes and nose using common idioms, trying to gain her favor by simple flattery, which would never work on her. They were about to use another expression to say her lips looked like a small red plum, but to say something so forward to a high-noble was likely to get them in trouble. Even idiots could understand not to keep trifling with power.

Seeing their advances weren’t working, they left. Normally, it would be appropriate to approach a child’s parent and set up a future engagement. With such a difference in status though, the boys wouldn’t even be allowed to look at Jane Melonscone, and their father would probably never say a word in Jane’s presence. So they had no choice but to try to woo a higher-class girl who would provide the needed influence on the parent. Though Ruby was young, it was common for parents to engage their children to other families even before the children could walk. As it was known that such was not the case with her, as far as most people knew, none were surprised that someone was trying to obtain Ruby’s hand in marriage. Many were, actually, but few were as foolhardy as the Darney boys. The power and prestige of Ruby’s mother, deceased father, and their families was incredible. Anyone would kill to have their child be Ruby’s spouse.

She wandered around, passing the lesser nobles by without a word. She ate a few items as she passed the banquet tables, and continued her wandering. After a while, she heard a small shout come from somewhere near her. All she heard was, “Stop right there!” She turned to see who was speaking. Imagine her delight when she saw the speaker. He was an avian with brown and white feathers on his arms and head. At the edge of his face the feathers were a mix of black and red. He had a plump chest and a short, sharp nose. It was Marquis De’un, and to Ruby’s surprise, he was talking with a silver-tailed lupus. From her vantage point, and the hat on the lupus, she didn’t realize it was Va’il. Nor would she have imagined it could be him, since he was a commoner. Not wanting to annoy the marquis, she stood a few feet away and listened in on the amazing conversation that was to follow.

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The Lupine Saga 68

“Button Ruby, button!” Shiroi said while her fingers moved strategically from place to place on the blue gown.

“Ruby! Aren’t you ready?” a distant voice asked.

“Yes, mother!” Ruby replied with a yell. She buttoned the last two buttons on her collar, kept her stomach taut as Shiroi tightened a jade colored sash around her waist, and then inhaled. Shiroi placed the final piece, a hat, on Ruby’s head, after which Ruby quickly thanked her. Ruby dashed away, leaving Shiroi in the room alone. After all, Ruby had a party to attend.

“In, in!” Jane Melonscone said as Ruby approached the carriage. Ruby ran in front of her and quickly sat inside. Jane followed behind her, but in a much more dignified manner. She was a proud noble, why would she run? The passengers sat inside and gave the word, and then off the carriage went.

“Now then,” Jane Melonscone said, “are you ready?”

“Yes mother. I’ve done what you asked, I’ll fulfill each item. They are simple tasks. May I enjoy myself afterwards?” Ruby asked.

“Good. You may, but I have a couple items to add. First, stay away from Count Darney’s two boys. If they approach you, and I know they will, lecherous boys that they are, ignore them. Viscount! Does he think he can let his sons even look at my young girl?”

“Is one fifteen, tall and blond, and the other thirteen, medium height with dark hair?”

“Yes. Count Darney has been extremely suspicious as of late, and his two boys seem to be trying their hands at courting any young lady. You’re too young, of course, but I want you to be cautious nevertheless. I don’t want you accidentally caught in any schemes that man is planning.”

“Yes mother. And the second matter?”

“Marquis De’un is coming, much to my surprise. I want you to try speaking with him. You don’t need a pointer from me on this, any speaking will do. Just try to engage him in conversation.”

“Just speak? And who is this marquis? I haven’t heard of him before.”

“He’s a slightly older avian. He rarely leaves his home in the southern province, much less often does he come to the capitol. He controls an important area, and there are some concerns if he decides to retire anytime soon. But he is a very odd person, apparently. I’ve never made his acquaintance, and I hear not many have. Though he’s older than me, apparently he detests conversing with mature people! So, you should try.”

“But mother, why? Are you planning on taking his land afterwards? I don’t want to be a part of that,” Ruby said, respectfully objecting to her parent.

“No, that land isn’t, well, stay focused child. It’s to make his acquaintance. And to find out why he is here. Maybe he’s here since it’s the first party of this size since King Fidel’s passing. But that alone doesn’t satisfy me. Ruby, just see what the old bird is up to. Or, better than that, find out if he knows who the future king will be. He’s quite good friends with Diren, apparently. Imagine that!” Jane laughed once, thinking it ridiculous how a hare and an avian could be close friends. Of course, she did have additional motives, but why would she tell Ruby?

From what Jane knew, De’un, having been a recluse, didn’t hear of Fidel’s passing as soon as it happened. The land that De’un lived on was actually annexed by Fidel’s father, after which the avians there lived peacefully under the rule and name of Rising. Fidel had also met De’un years ago, and greatly enjoyed his company. Fidel acted immature and positive, traits that endeared the ruler to De’un.

Seeing that he heard so much later after the fact, De’un must have been sad at the recent news of his beloved ruler’s passing. This was important because his land was a unique area, practically its own avian nation, and it governed itself for the most part. Without having a respectable leader at the head of Rising, De’un and the avians may secede from the nation. Jane knew this, and so wanted to have Ruby, the future queen, build a rapport with the avian, in order to secure another part of Rising’s future, and her own legacy. Jane may have had her own thoughts of what was truly going on that she hid, but she hadn’t lied to Ruby, for who knew what this avian might say. Or if he would even speak at all.

Soon the carriage arrived at the estate of the host, Duke Tourney. Like most nobles, his estate was large and magnificent. However, Ruby’s rank was above that of a duke, so she wouldn’t dare be impressed by the various precious items that littered the front of the estate. She stepped out of the carriage, put on an expression befitting her settings and status, and walked a single step ahead of her mother.

When greeted by the host, Jane replied and spoke a few words with the duke who had a good rapport with her, while Ruby’s acknowledgement was simply looking at the host when welcomed. She acted just as Madam Jane Lucrene Melonscone wanted. It was part of her duty, after all. Many of the people in the next room would be just like her if they were of the same status. But most, no, all were lower; therefore, they would all treat Ruby like a precious object that they weren’t to be honest or casual with. If they made a mistake, the Melonscones’ power would crush them. If Ruby made a mistake, or revealed a family secret, others would scheme against her.

Faced with the absoluteness of hypocrisy and deceit if she dared to be too casual, Ruby had to make the only decision there was: be a high-noble. It wasn’t something she had to become friendly or emotional for.

#

Va’il stepped onto the masterful carpet and looked around at his surroundings. Food, fountains, and musicians of all the highest caliber entertained the surrounding nobles. All were dressed in garb similar to his own, in terms of expense.

“A little overwhelming?” Kelin asked with a smile as his friend stared and gaped. The estate was enormous, the halls were wide, and the size of the single room that everyone had gathered in was staggering. Hundreds had gathered, but there was still plenty of breathing room. The artworks on the walls could have ten admirers each, along with each gold or silver bust or statuette. Seeing that Va’il wouldn’t comprehend much, let alone have time for looking at all the majesty of the surroundings, Kelin pulled him along to meet Teena, who he had already spotted.

“Amazing,” Teena said, in much the same stupor as Va’il. Kelin sighed. Here were two supposedly common children at one of the most prestigious, exclusive, and important events of the year; the situation was absurd. Eason was noble, but he didn’t have a taste for the finer arts, so it was no surprise that this event was the first extravagant thing Teena had been to, or so Kelin thought.

“You two… I don’t know what to do with you,” Kelin said.

“Well, what are we supposed to do?” Va’il asked.

“Socialize. Well, you shouldn’t. I should. At least, I need to say hello to my brothers. Turns out they are here too. Then to go handle Darney’s two boys. Boring stuff, really. Want to meet up somewhere when I’m through? Maybe by the fountain with the deeri statue, remember seeing that one?” Kelin asked. He was looking anxious. He had quite a few things to do, and although he wished he could hang out with his two friends, he couldn’t.

“Sure, I remember,” Va’il said. He looked to Teena, who had broken out of her trance.

“Meet us as soon as you can, Kelin. Thank you!” Teena said. Kelin smiled at her and then walked off. He was soon lost in the crowd of people.

“So, where to first? You see something interesting yet?” Va’il asked.

“Food!” Teena said with a giggle. It was an excellent impression of Pete, minus the girlish laughter. Va’il couldn’t agree more. Soon they set their sharp fangs upon beef, fish, oysters, tomatoes, petal soup, apple cider, and cherries. They had planned on taking more than just a small sample, but they were full after just a few of the appetizers. Looking on at the unfamiliar but surely better dishes, they felt slightly sick.

They did get a few strange looks here and there, but no one tried speaking to them. If they had acted like proper and upright nobles, they may have been asked their names, but being completely unknown, their actions, and the fact they looked lupus gave them a certain unapproachability. If they’d known more of Rising’s structure, they’d have understood that there weren’t many noble lupus in Rising, and the ones that were there were more the type to approach rather than be approached. They went outside to catch the chilly winter wind, which somehow soothed their stretched innards.

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The Lupine Saga 67

A few weeks passed, the air grew colder, and the next month’s seventeenth was gradually approaching. To suit him for the occasion, Kelin had provided Va’il with an outfit that would keep him from being embarrassed at the gathering. One of Kelin’s own, it needed to be adjusted to Va’il’s size.

“Right arm now,” Mai’ou said. Va’il obliged and extended his arm. He was standing on a box while Mai’ou circled him making various measurements and sticking pins in the clothes.

Va’il was dressed in a long gown of peach color. It was heavily embroidered with gold and silver threads, forming famous scenes on his chest and back. There were mountains in silver, trees in gold, birds in blue, and clouds in gray. If it were laid out, the learned observer would have noticed that it was a scene from twelve-hundred years ago, “Three times less on the eighth plain,” by Ani Onook, an avian artist of the period. It was a celebration of the land itself, and its magnificence was completely wasted on Va’il.

The gorgeous scene took Mai’ou by surprise, but she could only admire it without knowing any of its deeper meanings or particular heritage.

“Okay Va’il, I think we got it. Arms are a bit shorter than Kelin’s are… but he’s older anyways. Look at yourself!” Mai’ou said, holding up a mirror.

“Wow… amazing!” Va’il said. “So, do I look like a noble boy?”

“Strangely enough, silly child, you do,” Mai’ou said while grinning. “Still, I can’t believe all this. And all because he lost the race, really Va’il? And still, are you sure you want to go? They are nobles after all.”

“Yeah. Why not? It sounds fun. Well, even if it isn’t, at least it’ll be interesting. Besides, how much trouble can it be? I can just pretend to be bossy; I’ll fit right in,” Va’il said. Mai’ou couldn’t help but laugh.

“Silly boy. You’ve been associating with Kelin just a bit too much. But more importantly, from what you’ve said there will probably be quite a few of the more powerful nobles there. It sounds like it will be a pretty big gathering. I’m just worried you’ll run into someone you can’t handle.”

“Ha, well in that case I’ll try to keep from talking. Besides, who couldn’t I handle, especially with Kelin around?”

“Darius,” Mai’ou said, a concerned expression appearing.

“He… do you think he will be there?” Va’il asked, realizing what Mai’ou was getting at.

“He certainly might. A lot of people will be showing, up, right? Why wouldn’t the commander appear? And when he does, there is a chance he could spot you. And he might try talking to you. So, I’m a little worried.”

“Mum, he hasn’t come back since then. I don’t think, even if he did see me, he’d do anything. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad just to meet him again anyways. He’s not going to start revealing things in the midst of all those nobles. Besides, he actually is a nice fellow.”

“Yeah, I know. We can’t attack the messenger after all. Well, you’ll be wearing a hat anyways, so I won’t worry.” When alone together, Mai’ou and Va’il no longer had any troubles speaking about their previous ordeal. Neither believed Va’il would have to take the heavy responsibility that others had tried forcing upon him, so after a while they could say silly things casually. However, Mai’ou still had not told Va’il much about her previous life and marriage to Fidel, and Va’il wasn’t keen on asking, this being one matter his curiosity failed him in. Barring that, they were very open with each other.

“It’s avian,” Va’il said suddenly.

“What is?” Mai’ou asked.

“The artwork. See here? The lines of this mountain give it away. I wonder how old this scene is. Doesn’t look like anything famous I know of.” Va’il looked down and around his gown, while Mai’ou just smiled.

To the casual eye, art is simply art. But Va’il’s schooling, the education of Makeen, the large school at the top of the hill in Rising, encompassed much. Being in the capital, Makeen was mainly for those who would hold positions of authority in the nation, even though commoners made up the majority of the student body. Country commoners wouldn’t need scholarly education, so in a sense, Makeen was unique in the nation. Only in the capital was there a school that most children could attend.

Makeen embraced several ideals by being freely open to commoners and nobles alike. As such, they learned everything from artwork to military tactics starting at a young age. Husbandry, archery, fencing, hunting, and martial arts encompassed the non-intellectual pursuits, requirements that would serve any future guard, soldier, or gallant knight well. Due to time constraints, only a minor amount of time was given to teaching basic blacksmithing and general medical aid, both things that would require years of serious tutelage under a master and wouldn’t serve nobles as well as something like hunting would. Stitching, sewing, dyeing, and weaving were taught as well. Intellectual pursuits included mathematics, art, literature, and other items. No matter whether they were looking to be a soldier or a diplomat, Makeen could provide a foundation. Those who were born into certain trades still generally were taught by masters and parents, but enough still took advantage of the optional and additional schooling provided by this school in the capitol, a very recent addition to the city of Rising.

Even a basic foundation in all things was more than what some nobles had, so the commoner children that made up the majority of the school’s populace could appreciate what they’d been given. They could recognize that it could make even a commoner eventually useful to a noble family. And with such a special education, they couldn’t complain about the incomplete, hidden, and missing parts.

True, Va’il had been lax in his absolute concentration on the various studies Makeen had given to him over the years, but he was still at the same level as his peers, until recently. For the past few months, Va’il had paid extra attention to every lesson, lecture, and instruction given to him. He retained information well once he decided on learning something, so month by month his rankings in the school rose. Not by much, but enough to place him around the middle of his peers, most of which were really a year older.

The reason for Va’il’s increased studies and concentration was a deep secret, one that Va’il didn’t fully think of. After his encounter with Darius, and rejecting the kingship, a small nag developed in the back of his mind. Anytime at school when he felt like not doing something or not listening to each important word, the nag would appear and ask, “What kind of knowledge should a king have?” With such a small but significant doubt appearing in his mind every so often, Va’il almost unconsciously started paying attention to things he would have passed on in times past. Though consciously he didn’t want to be king, the feeling that a king would need to be knowledgeable and educated forced him to take account of himself. One could even say he was trying to live up to a parent’s expectations. Of course, with all this extra knowledge and attention, Va’il could at least notice something like the style of another species’ artwork.

“So Va’il, my little prince, your order?” Mai’ou asked playfully, after hearing Va’il’s scholarly thoughts about the work he was wearing.

“Hmm, well, first, it’s time we discuss that marriage agreement with Eason Ar Raign,” Va’il said in a haughty manner, pleased to play along with Mai’ou. Both had touched on subjects that others might consider sore, but for Va’il and Mai’ou they were now both topics for jokes.

“Ah, how I pine for him,” Mai’ou said in a dramatic voice, “but woe keeps me from him. A wife, a wife. Three clawed and two talon’d; how could I commit such a crime?”

“Ha! Mum, you do know some theatre after all,” Va’il said, surprised at Mai’ou’s exact quote of a famous foreign drama. “But it’s kind of interesting, thinking about Eason.”

“Ah, is it now? He hasn’t caused anymore proposal troubles, has he?” Mai’ou asked, smiling.

“Not proposal, adoptions. Part of the reason it’ll be fine that I go to the party is because of him. I have to thank him for this. It turns out that he is the one who adopted this lupus girl I met in Tendal. She will be at the gathering too, so we can stick together while Kelin does noble stuff.”

“Oh really? Just the two of you running around together? A lupus girl you met several months ago? And you seem friendly with her! So, have you just been hiding this from me since then?” Mai’ou asked, her grin showing several teeth.

“Ah, I just forgot. She’s a pretty girl, sure, with long brown hair. She’s been hanging out with us for a while now. Teena, Teena Fen, daughter of Alen. That’s how she introduces herself, always, because her deceased father always said to introduce herself like that,” Va’il explained thoughtfully and devoid of hidden meanings. Mai’ou though, had scrunched her face into a frown.

“Did she really say her father’s name is Alen?” Mai’ou asked.

“Yeah, A-l-e-n. Although, I’ve never heard about her mother. But she doesn’t talk about her parents more than her introduction, and that they are deceased. It’s a sad topic,” Va’il said.

“Renshia,” Mai’ou said quietly.

“What was that Mum?” Va’il asked.

“Oh, nothing. I think we’re almost ready with this outfit. What do you think? Since the gown itself is peach, how about either red or green underneath, and let’s go with either the blue or black pants that Kelin gave. My suggestion is black,” Mai’ou said.

They finished planning the adjustments that needed to be made to Va’il’s noble outfit, and then ate before sleeping. Va’il slept soundly soon after Mai’ou laid him down. She closed the door of her own room behind her, and lit a single candle-torch by blowing on it softly. As the air stirred it to action, the single light illuminated Mai’ou’s sleek form as she looked out her window. She looked at the moon and castle she had gazed at many times before.

“Alen, Renshia Fen, are you really gone? Is it my fault?” she asked the cold night air. A tear leisurely strolled down her left cheek.

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