The Lupine Saga 85

“Yes. Jin, don’t you know who he is?”

“No idea. Is he important?”

“He’s pretty much the ruler of Rising until the new king is ordained. He’s the regent. In fact, remember, I’ve told you this before. Why are you asking?”

“I guess I never paid attention before. Anyways, so he’s also the one that gave your mom a servant? He’s the one that makes the decisions about how many guards are in place? Would he have been the one to send Darius on missions, too? How long has he been regent?” Va’il asked. He was becoming intense in his questions.

“Ever since Fidel passed away. Right away. He has absolute power right now. And yes, he makes all those decisions. Why? Wait, what are you implying? Him?”

“It makes sense now! It was his name! I’m so ignorant of noble and kingdom affairs, I wouldn’t have known two years ago anyways! Maybe you didn’t hear it, but those three foreigners that we ran into at that time, they mentioned Jin.”

“Did they? I’m not so sure. Maybe a different Jin?”

“No, Ruby, it makes sense if they meant him. I bet they came to see someone important, maybe it was him. Is he a good guy or a bad person, Ruby? Is he doing things he’s supposed to? Is he being forced by them to do secret things?”

“I… I don’t know. He’s been an adviser to Fidel, and Fidel’s father. He was regent before, and is again. I don’t know much about him. I don’t think he’s a bad person.”

“Then maybe something else. Maybe a foreign nation threatened him. Or something else entirely. But now, I think we should find out more about him. Meet him, maybe?”

“You might be jumping to conclusions, it’s not an uncommon human name after all. But, I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe I was just being paranoid. Va’il, what do you think we can do? Don’t you think you can just be around, a bit more, and watch out for me? See if there is anyone watching me? You’re… you’re… we should go now.” Ruby stopped, stood up, and picked up a large sack that had been on the ground.

“What’s that?” Va’il asked.

“These are something fun. I wanted to show them to you first, now that they are finally done. Once we are outside,” Ruby said. She slung the bag around neck and under her right arm, and then took a step back. She looked like she was going to fall backwards, so Va’il rushed over to her. He put an arm on her shoulder and kept her up.

“Are you alright?” Va’il asked.

“No,” Ruby said quietly, and then she fell to her knees.

“Ruby? Hey, what’s wrong?” Va’il asked. He reached down, holding out an arm. As he bent over, he realized he was dropping too quickly.

Va’il’s knees hit the ground. His balance left him. He tried looking up, but his neck had lost its power as well. He glanced sideways. Closing in on him and Ruby was a group of people. One of them was the patron that had sat just a few tables away from them. Another was the waiter. With them was also a person Va’il couldn’t make out, as well as a bearan in the uniform of a city guard.

Va’il tried focusing, but he was having trouble. He managed to focus on another object, and a startling realization hit him. He saw the teacups. The waiter, the teacups, and the problems he was now having. Ruby was still next to him, barely moving, her eyes still open and wide with fright. They had both been drugged. But he couldn’t understand why.

In another few moments, the group was upon the two teens. They couldn’t resist as the men seized them and took them out the back of the restaurant. Va’il’s vision went in and out as he was carried. He couldn’t tell how much time passed as he was moved, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to put up any resistance in his weakened state. Unable to think of what to do, he could only think of one thing. “Save us,” he thought, repeating it even after they stopped.

The dirt ground wasn’t any better than being on the shoulder of the man. Va’il and Ruby were placed in what Va’il thought was a barn or stable. A few candle-torches lit the inside, revealing that they had been closed inside while the men who had captured them conversed outside. Va’il could barely make out the words, but his first priority was to check on Ruby.

“Ruby?” Va’il asked. He had trouble saying even that.

“Unn,” Ruby replied, unable to make a real reply. Va’il heard her, managed to push himself upright with weakening arms, and turned to look at the girl. She looked back at him, unable to move. They were at the back of the stable, and Ruby had been sat upright against the wooden wall. Va’il moved himself back, until he was sitting at Ruby’s left. He took her left hand with his right one. She gripped it, looked at Va’il, and then closed her eyes. Va’il could feel the effects of the drug as well, but he managed to keep conscious.

The door to the stable opened, and a bearan entered.

“They’ll be your responsibility,” a voice from outside said.

“I know. I’ll take care of it, thoroughly,” the bearan said.

“I expect no less,” the voice said.

“Of course. Still, who are they?” the bearan asked.

“Just do your orders,” the voice said. The door then closed.

“Of course, of course. You two aren’t very lucky, are you? Just who are you?” the bearan asked. He took a few steps towards Va’il and Ruby.

“Oh, you probably can’t answer, I’m sorry. Why do you deserve this? Can’t answer? That’s too bad. Well, it doesn’t look like we can chat, after all,” the bearan said. He looked down as the couple held hands, unable to respond to their imposing captor. He grinned widely, showing the great teeth of a bearan.

Va’il couldn’t resist the tears that started coming as the bearan came closer, his menacing visage of size and teeth and claws being that of an executioner. Va’il’s thoughts at first were very jumbled, confused, and as disoriented as his limbs. Through the haze, Va’il saw the bearans hands, and the sight of sharp claws cleared Va’il’s mind. He couldn’t help but to think one thing.

“Save us,” Va’il thought. He thought it repeatedly, unable to concentrate on anything else. The extraneous thoughts disappeared as that one urgent need took over. His right hand gripped Ruby’s, which had already gone limp. And his left scratched at the dirt beside him, in what seemed to be a half-hearted attempt to move away from the advancing bearan.

Va’il looked up at the bearan, who was now directly above him. His eyes met the bearan’s eyes for a moment, but then a feeling came to him. The disgust of a large amount of dirt under the claws on his left hand arose in him. He looked down at his hand, and with what remaining strength he had, he pulled his arm away from the dirt. He placed his left hand on Ruby’s left, and then looked up at the bearan man. He wanted to give the man a final look of scorn and hatred. The bearan glanced at where Va’il’s hand had been, looked at Va’il’s eyes for a moment, and then again looked at the dirt.

“There, you have my hatred. You can’t look at me again, can you?” Va’il thought. Resigning to the inevitable fate that the claws were soon to give him, he gave in to the drug’s mercy and fell unconscious.

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The Lupine Saga 84

“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?”

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The Lupine Saga 83

Without delay, the first man was drenched. From above, a large vat of water had been poured. The man looked up to see who had done it. No one was there.

He heard the sound of something hitting the ground behind him. He turned to see the boy behind him in a squat. The boy who had jumped from the banister above. The boy with a wolf’s ears, a wolf’s tail, and silver hair. Va’il turned to look at the first man.

For a moment, the man felt fear. The knit brow, the straight tail, the extended claws, and the visible teeth that Va’il was showing almost frightened the man. But what gave him fear was the expression on Va’il’s face. It was the recognizable look of hatred and contempt.

The man quickly reached out to grab Va’il, but he was already gone. He had run out the front door of the inn. The first man ran a couple paces.

“Don’t!” said the third man. The first man stopped and returned to the table. Conversing in whispers that Ruby couldn’t hear, the men gathered their belongings and left the inn. Ruby and Shiroi looked at each other for a moment, and then quickly ran down the stairs and out the inn. The three men were moving away quickly, but soon they were forcibly stopped.

“Are you the ones?” Va’il asked. He was on a rooftop, yelling down at the three men below him. At his side was a jar.

“You rascal! Get down here and take your beating, whatever you are!” the first man said.

“You! Did you travel through the southern valley? Did you kill the wolves?” Va’il asked, his voice becoming choked.

“Wolves, ha,” the first man said.

“We don’t need to say anything,” the third man said. He was speaking to both Va’il and the first man.

“Gardos, just mind your own business,” the first man said.

“I don’t need to ask, I can smell it on your hands! You foreigners! Next time you mess with those in Rising, remember what to look out for. I’m a lupus, and I’m ten times better than you!” Va’il said. His words had an immediate effect. The first man got angrier, while the other two had worried looks on their faces. They looked around to see who had heard Va’il; there were not enough people around to care.

Va’il lifted the pot. The first man below just laughed.

“I’m already drenched. Come on down and play like a real man, the human way,” the first man said. He put his fists on his hips, held his head high, and gave a mighty laugh. While the man was still laughing, his mouth still wide open, Va’il tipped the pot he was holding.

Ruby and Shiroi had to cover their mouths to keep from laughing too loudly. They knew that the men were foreign, it was obvious. They had not recognized what any local would have. Va’il had tipped the vile contents of a well-used chamber pot on all three men. By the time they realized that the liquid coming at them was not water, it was too late. All three men were drenched with urine, and the first was on the ground, coughing. The men all looked down at the ground as they tried to keep the liquid of out their eyes. By the time they looked up, Va’il was gone, impossible to follow.

#

Gardos smelled the robe again.

“That putrid bugger,” the first man said.

“Your mistake,” the second man said.

“Enough you two. Eli, you’re the one who started it, your responsibility,” Gardos said.

“Nothing, I didn’t start nothing. That thing came out of nowhere, minding business that wasn’t its own,” Eli said. His shadow danced along the walls as he gestured.

“It’s your fault, Gardos. You’re just blaming Eli because you thought his antics wouldn’t matter. So we aren’t in the city yet, we are still in their nation. I’d have done it to, to those heretics. They don’t deserve better,” the second man said.

“I agree. Fine, I’m to blame. It’s my mission; I should have kept Eli in line. No, I didn’t need to. Eli, I’d have approved either way. It was beyond me to know that something would happen. Ridiculous as it was, strange as it was, we drew unnecessary attention. I may be your superior, but I’ll admit my responsibilities. Eli, my apologies,” Gardos said.

“You and your flowery speech,” Eli said. “Well, it was sincere enough. Accepted. Though, really we should be angry at that rodent.”

“Wolf,” the second man said.

“Lupus,” Gardos said.

“Heretics,” Eli said. “All unfit for the place they have here. Talking back, fighting back, and embarrassing us humans!”

“That’s what they are, and why we must keep subdued until our mission is complete. Our holy republic will spread ever closer with time, but I think our mission is instrumental toward something far greater. Something that will right things to their natural order,” Gardos said. He smiled and laughed softly. He walked over to a table in the middle of the room and sat at it.

“Shall I call the waiter? The one in this inn is human, at least,” Eli said.

“Not yet. Calan, what do you think of the natives, so far?” Gardos asked.

“Strangely subdued. Intermingling species of all kinds, all races, genders, everything, without distinction. Rising’s human kings surely have placated them well. But it’s an illusion, of course. The strange part is that I have to ask why. Why do they stay together, when they are so different? That lupus helped a felis. Certainly, the northern wolves would never answer to a felis entering their territory, so why they help each other here is a mystery. It’s almost as though they don’t recognize the differences to begin with. Just my thoughts on it, no weight to it though. Heretical thoughts, but you asked,” Calan said.

“I think Welnic suspects that the illusion will drop quickly, now that their king has died,” Gardos said.

“Isn’t there a child though?” Calan asked.

“Possibly. That, we might find out once we reach Rising. And even if there is, ha,” Gardos said.

“It won’t matter,” Eli said with a half-smile.

“Can we trust this Jin though?” Calan asked.

“Shh!” Gardos said. He slowly stood while keeping a hand out, signaling silence. The other two obeyed.

The wooden floor creaked with each step. Gardos arrived at the window and placed a hand on it. He turned slightly and motioned for the other two to come over. The moment the two of them started moving, Gardos pushed open the window and jumped out onto the roof of the inn.

Gardos scanned the area as the two behind him arrived at the window as well. He saw them, thirty meters away, already on the next roof. Though it was dark, he recognized the silver tail that one of the spies had. And he could see that the other had long golden hair. Before he could pursue, the two spies had jumped to another roof and disappeared from view.

“That thing again!” Eli said. He started moving, but an arm from Gardos stopped him. “What?”

“We cannot chase,” Gardos said.

“What’s this about?” Calan asked.

“I made a mistake. I heard them once, and paid no attention. The second time, I realized it wasn’t random or an animal. It was them. They were here, outside this window, listening. We made a grave mistake,” Gardos said.

“Don’t bother yourself too much over it. They are just children. Vile creatures, but just children. We don’t have to make a ruckus in chasing them. They are inconsequential, right Gardos?” Calan asked.

“Hmm. Maybe. Back inside, I don’t want us to catch any more attention. The last thing we need is to be detained by the locals. For any reason,” Gardos said.

#

The next morning Ruby, Va’il, and Shiroi left the town as early as possible. Shiroi didn’t know of the small adventure Ruby and Va’il had while she slept, and the two of them had decided not to tell her. The rest of the return trip to Rising went without event.

Va’il parted with the girls once they entered the city. Ruby took her horse back, the one that Va’il had grown attached to. After giving a final wave, he headed home, a place he hadn’t seen for quite a while.

Mai’ou gave her son a big hug while smiling widely. She set up a bath, cleaned his clothes, and prepared a meal for the weary child. That night, Va’il told Mai’ou about the small adventure he had, which she listened to with great interest. She expressed worry about the lack of information about Darius. She nodded in quiet contemplation when Va’il related the story about the wolves. And she gritted her teeth in anger when she heard the few things Va’il could remember about the foreign humans.

Their night then ended, and that chapter in the lives of Va’il, Ruby, and the rest, ended for a while. Va’il engaged himself in schooling and playing with the rest of his friends. Ruby didn’t tell Jane more than she had to, and Jane didn’t ask for more, or care. Darius wasn’t a concern to Jane or Mai’ou anymore. Va’il’s doubts lingered, but he didn’t dwell on them. Ruby lost all leads that she had, and so she gave up on finding Darius for a while.

Every so often, Ruby would talk with Va’il in private about Darius and their small adventure, but neither child ever had any idea of what they could further do. They thought of the foreign men as well, but didn’t know what, if anything, they could do. So they continued living as well as they could without dwelling on things they didn’t have the means to figure out.

Va’il’s circle of friends stayed consistent. Va’il, Kelin, Pete, Zeick, Teena, Harnes, and Ruby were their own group at school and afterwards, occasionally doing events together. But the secrets that some of them had never became property of the group. As they shared secrets and adventures, Va’il and Ruby would often talk with one another, whether in the confines of their group or around the city.

This pattern of casual friendship continued. Though several items of importance did occur, the day-to-day life that they had was comfortable. In this comfort, two years passed.

#

End of part one.

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The Lupine Saga 82

“Are you sure it’s alright for us to stay here?” Shiroi asked.

“It’s fine. They aren’t that bad. We don’t bother them, and they won’t bother us. Only because I’m with you, though. Only all humans might be bad,” Va’il said.

The valley seemed much more foreboding than it had a few days ago, thanks to the thought of wild wolves. Ruby and Shiroi were reluctant to enter, but Va’il had reassured them that he understood the howls and smells well enough to say what the local pack would and would not do. It still didn’t reassure the girls. Sleep was something to be feared that night. And they wouldn’t let Va’il retire either. So they sat around the fire for a few hours, never letting it dwindle.

“I’m getting really tired,” Va’il said. He yawned and started swaying where he sat. Shiroi, next to him, looked about the same, though her eyes were much more alert.

“A little longer,” Ruby said.

“No, I’m getting tired too. Let them eat me, as long as I get an hour nap,” Shiroi said.

“They won’t, really. Can’t you believe that?” Va’il asked.

“We aren’t lupus. And I’m an avian. Without the luxury of flight. Really, are we bird in name only, useless to the world?”

“No one is,” Va’il said.

Va’il stood up. He looked each girl in the eye, and then looked into the darkness of the valley’s forests. He looked up at a half moon in the sky. He took in a long, deep breath, and then let it out. He did that twice. He took in another breath. He let out a long, meaningful howl. It was the first either girl had heard him do. Shiroi straightened where she sat, her eyes and ears in full attention. Ruby did likewise. Va’il repeated the howl twice more. Then he let out a last, much shorter one. And then he waited.

He stood still for a while. After a few minutes, he turned around and looked at the girls. His eyes kept looking down, and his bottom lip trembled. He finally looked directly at Ruby.

“They didn’t answer,” he said quietly. Ruby tensed as his gaze made her think the unmentionable. Shiroi wanted to say something, but couldn’t. Her feathers moved without her thinking, and her sudden urge to hide almost overwhelmed her.

“They are dead,” Va’il said.

Neither girl was sure of what Va’il meant, exactly. Who was supposed to have died, they both asked themselves.

“Who?” Ruby asked, though a few minutes had already passed.

“The family. All of them. The mother and the two boys and daughter. I thought something was wrong, but I didn’t think it was them. But I’m sure of it now. The wolf family that owned this valley, they are no more, they aren’t a threat to us, or anyone, anymore,” Va’il said. As he spoke, he blinked more and more often. He raised an arm and rubbed his right eye. Without many more words, he settled himself and slept. Ruby and Shiroi, both scared and relieved, soon followed his example.

The next morning Va’il was silent. His silence gave Ruby a strange reminder that Va’il’s connection to certain animals was different from her own. She would have been more uncaring about the entire ordeal, as it was only a group of vicious animals that died. But Va’il’s mention of how the family was composed made her take a different look at it. They were different, but they also had families and ties, and desired to stay alive, even at the cost of others’ lives.

They briskly followed the valley path. However, at one point Va’il stopped. He turned and ran to the side, into the forest, without a word to the girls. Without hesitating much, the girls followed Va’il. They soon regretted that decision.

Within moments the two girls had returned to the valley path, pale-faced and tears in their eyes. Unable to control themselves, they gave way to tears. The mournful howling of Va’il off in the distance reminded them all too well of what they had seen. They sat on the road while they waited for Va’il to return. After a while, he emerged from the forest. His hands were covered in dirt. His cloths had bits of dirt and specks of blood. He smiled, and then continued the journey with the girls.

#

“Never thought I would be so happy to be here again,” Shiroi said.

“Me too,” Ruby said. “Waiter!”

“Anything will do. Lots of it,” Va’il said. He laid his head on the table and closed his eyes. The felis waiter soon arrived.

“What would the masters like?” the felis man asked.

“Your best three dishes,” Shiroi said in a slightly gruff voice.

“Certainly! Anything to drink? We have thirteen year old wine, Terrak’s Lilies, ready if the young masters so desire,” the familiar felis said.

“The table’s water will be enough,” Shiroi said.

“Terrak’s Lilies,” Va’il said quietly. “Cheap, diluted with water.”

“Absolutely,” the felis said before anyone could object. He sped off with the order in mind.

“Va’il, just because they were…” Ruby started.

“Zak, let him be, for right now,” Shiroi said. She made a few hand motions to Ruby out of Va’il’s sight. She wouldn’t whisper what she meant, as she knew Va’il might hear her. Ruby nodded.

They chatted a bit while waiting. The first thing to arrive was a meal of fish and various vegetables and sauces. Va’il had eaten three soon enough. He was feeling much better with food in his stomach. A loud crash interrupted his peace.

“Blah! Tasteless dribble, you’re cheating the customers!” said a man at a table on the floor below. The rest of the room quieted as the disturbance grew.

“Sir, that was for another customer,” the felis waiter said.

“Oh, so that wasn’t the tasteless dribble I paid for, it was the snot you were going to feed another victim. Lousy cats!” the man said. His deep voice was resounding through the room, but no one was coming to the felis’ aid.

“Knock it off, it’s not his fault he was born worthless,” said another man who was sitting at the same table.

“And you took it forcefully!” the felis said in anger.

“What?” the man asked with a giant bellow. “Are you speaking back?” The felis waiter fell backwards as the man started walking towards him.

Va’il couldn’t just listen; he had to see. As did the two girls. They looked below as a single large human approached the cowering waiter. At the table were two more human men, each dressed in dark clothes. They watched with little care as the other man pulled the felis up by his robes, lifting him off the ground.

“That’s enough, we don’t need trouble,” the third man said.

“Come on, he’s been itching to go for a while now,” the second man said.

“We don’t need attention,” the third man said.

“Bah,” the first man said. He lowered the waiter until his feet were flat on the ground. The first man turned to look at the other two, and then gave a wide grin.

“Hah!” the second man said.

“Fine…” the third man said.

The first man moved quickly. He picked the waiter up, held him overhead, and then threw him across the room. Another crash as he landed on another patron’s table. The rest of the room didn’t need more motivation. The first floor emptied of people, while those on the second floor wished they could leave.

“Not as fun as the wolves, but oh well,” the first man said.

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The Lupine Saga 81

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.

“What?”

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.

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