The Lupine Saga 119

The feeling woke Ruby up immediately, her heart racing. The large hands had grabbed her arms, and she felt her body forcefully lifted.

“Help!” Ruby said, and then one of the hands removed itself from an arm to cover her mouth. Her voice was muffled as she tried to say more.

There was a rush of wind as a man jumped into the midst of the two men that were about to attack Va’il. He had left with Va’il in tow before the two men could react. They were stunned for only a moment, and then both quickly jumped out the window to follow.

“Stop them, just her!” the man holding Ruby said to the other man in the room.

“But,” the other man said.

“No, just her! Go!” the man holding her said. Obeying, the final man also jumped out the window, this time to retrieve the two that’d left.

That left Ruby and the man holding her alone together. She stopped struggling for a moment, and let her rational mind recover from the situation. Her heart was nearly unstoppable, and the amount of anxiety in her made her feel like she was on the verge of exploding, but she took both into consideration once she had stopped her fright.

It wasn’t totally unexpected in her mind. She had known that at some point, they may be caught up to. She was, of course, caught unaware, but only to a point. This was something she couldn’t let happen, no matter what.

At this point, now that they were alone, she took action. She quickly opened her mouth wide and bit down with as much force as she could muster, and opened her mouth again just as quickly. The man jerked his hand away in unexpected pain while holding back the sounds of pain he should have made. At the same time Ruby had lifted a foot and quickly reached around with her free arm. She stomped down on one of the man’s feet as hard as she could with her heel, and in a fluid motion turned, grabbed the arm still holding her with her free arm, and twisted and moved around the man. The moments were all so quick and sudden that the man never had a chance to react to them, and by the time he realized what was going on his good arm was making a cracking sound behind his back. His wrist had already lost all strength, and Ruby was also out the window before he could understand what had just happened. After all, his mind had only enough time to realize his hand had been bitten and had only shaken it once before Ruby was trying to break his arm. Unnoticed to him, just before she jumped, Ruby had grabbed the ring on her left hand and thrown it into the room behind her.

Ruby landed on the roof below and started running, a momentary escape the reward for her work. But she had been spotted by the three men running back. There were already on her before she could scream for help again. This time, three men were restraining her quietly, with one covering her mouth in such a way she couldn’t bite him. The three of them met up with the fourth man, exchanged a brief word, and then carried her off, helpless. She struggled in their arms, her panic returning, her anxiety overflowing. But she could do nothing more that night. She had been captured with no recourse, and the thought of it kept her up that night with an incredible amount of fear and anxiety about what would happen to her.

#

Ruby woke with a jolt. She didn’t remember falling asleep. The sounds around her, the movements and feelings she had, they were all familiar. She internally groaned, realizing where she was, yet again. The back of a moving cart or wagon being pulled by a team of horses. She wanted to say “not again” while laughing, but she quickly remembered what had happened earlier that night, and for a moment she was terrified, but it quickly subsided. After all, it wasn’t her first abduction. It was daylight now, though she couldn’t tell how long she had been out. Her hands were tied behind her back, and her feet were bound with rope as well. There was something in her mouth, wet with drool, a gag to keep her from yelling too loudly. She opened her eyes and said something unintelligible while moving around somewhat.

“Oh, she’s awake,” a man said. Ruby looked around and noticed there were two human men sitting in the wagon with her, and two more in the driving area. The man who spoke was across from her. All of them dressed in dark clothes, had swords at their sides, and looked similar enough that she wouldn’t bother telling them apart.

“Good. Now I can hit her till she passes out again,” one of the men in the driving area, the one doing nothing, said.

“Oh shut up. Don’t harm the girl,” the man across from her said.

“Bloody talons I won’t! She didn’t rip the flesh off your hand did she? No, that’s right. And she didn’t nearly break your arm off, did she? No, that’s me she did! Won’t be able to move my arm well for a week at least! How you gonna repay me, eh? Lemme beat her with my good arm!” The man turned around while looking extremely angry. His left hand was bandaged, and his right arm was in a sling.

“Good arm, bad hand. Your own fault for getting hurt,” the man sitting next to Ruby said.

“You just shut it too. Couldn’t even get rid of the boy, let him get taken off by that weird man. And you were first to pursue. You all left me with her! Talons, you’re all a grandmother’s leg!” The man continued mumbling and turned around, watching the horses. Ruby made another sound.

“Well, let’s not keep the lady waiting,” the man next to Ruby said. He put a hand on her face and lightly ran a finger down her cheek. Ruby tried pulling herself away, struggling fruitlessly, while terror and fear reappeared in her mind. “Don’t harm yourself. Besides, I’m just playing with you a bit.”

Ruby stopped for a moment and felt chilled, but the man didn’t touch her further. Instead he undid the gag.

“Ug,” Ruby said, her mouth dry. She opened and closed her mouth a few times.

“Now girl, I’m just going to sit you up,” the man next to her said. He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her up. It was uncomfortable with her hands and feet tied, but at least she was upright and no longer gagged. “Much better, right?”

“Why?” Ruby asked, her voice still sounding off.

“Why not?” the man across from her asked in reply.

“What do you want with me?” Ruby asked.

“Well, that’s a private matter,” the same man said, “but I suppose we can tell you this much: we aren’t going to harm you. You’ll just have to put up with us for a while. And men, that’s all we’re gonna be saying.” At this point, each of the three remaining men replied affirmatively.

“Where are we going? Do you know anything about me? Do you work for someone?” Ruby asked. But the men stayed silent.

They didn’t speak to her again in complete sentences, no matter how much she talked. Or yelled. Or screamed. From then on all four men stayed silent around her, except to say very basic things. They replied when she told them she was hungry or thirsty or had to relieve herself. But as for questions and conversation, there was nothing. The men of the first day disappeared.

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The Lupine Saga 118

“Madam Melonscone,” Kelin said. He stood and bowed deeply. He waited for Jane to sit before seating himself. The servant that had arrived with Jane left the room, while Shiroi moved herself far behind Jane’s seat, silently watching.

“Ah, I see you’ve been entertained while waiting for me,” Jane said with a pleasant smile.

“Yes madam. Thank you for the invitation today,” Kelin said.

“Good. Now I don’t have much time for you, but I figured I’d make some anyways. There is a most minor curiosity I have that you can appease for me,” Jane said nonchalantly. Kelin kept back a smile, knowing this was noble speak for a question. He didn’t worry about being offended over his own status, especially considering how the majority of other nobles regarded his family. Today wasn’t the day to be picky.

“If I can appease Madam Melonscone in the slightest, of course,” Kelin said with unusual humbleness. He didn’t flatter people often, but he was feeling anxious as his questions were resurfacing.

“Well, to the matter at hand. I suppose there’s no dancing around the subject today, and it’s not like your family is one that requires delicate handling. So, lupus boy, it’s only obvious that I called for you today because we have spoken before. That matter is, of course, the only thing your presence would be asked of, rather than a subordinate’s answer. To be honest, I’m feeling generous as well as curious, so your answering my curiosity will provide you with a minor detail as well,” Jane said.

“I see. That is indeed generous,” Kelin said. He refrained from adding that it was unusual for her character, regardless of what important matter it could be.

“As to the matter, a simple one, not requiring much time. So, answer me, son of Doufer, have you happened to hear from that lost friend of yours, or have you heard anything regarding him?” Jane asked.

Kelin was not ready for such a question. Of all the things Jane could ask him, he didn’t think she’d ask him if he’d heard from Va’il. Especially considering Jane’s calmness, and knowing he had previously associated Va’il’s disappearance with Ruby’s. Something was odd, but Kelin resigned to his honest answer.

“Unfortunately madam, I’ve heard nothing. Nothing whatsoever, in any way. That’s all I can give,” Kelin said. Jane looked at him for a moment, her astute character searching for any deception in him. It didn’t matter his species, as Jane was determined to know if she was being lied to directly, and she’d have some idea if that was the case. It went with her business. Lying was part of the trade. Even lying when knowing the other person knows of the lie was all part of the game, the negotiation. And Jane knew Kelin had heard nothing. She remained quiet for a minute while thinking and drinking some tea.

“Interesting. Well, that satisfies me. As for the other part. First, you already know the importance of keeping a closed mouth when needed.”

“Yes Madam Melonscone. This son of Doufer will say nothing that needs not be said.”

“More than usual, this time,” Jane said.

“It shall not be spoken of,” Kelin said.

“Correct. Then also, servant girl, come center,” Jane said. Shiroi was startled at the call, but she obeyed and stood in front of Jane. “Sit down too. You’re both to hear this directly.”

“Yes, madam, as you direct,” Shiroi said. She then sat neatly next to Kelin, as before. She was still very surprised. After all, she would have heard either way, but for Jane to bring her in front of her meant the next item to be spoken of was a very important thing. Kelin recognized this as well. His ears perked up more than usual.

“Very well. For a third time, speak of this to none. Your answer regarding your friend may make this somewhat unfortunate news to you. Ruby has been located, alive of course,” Jane said. She remained silent for a minute.

Kelin and Shiroi were too stunned for words. Both were overjoyed, ecstatic, and ready to jump. Shiroi especially. Her master was alive, her master was found, her master was going to return to her. She was ready to break into tears, to laugh, to go absolutely wild. All she could do at the moment, though, was remain silent while her thoughts went wild.

Kelin also shared in part of Shiroi’s joy, but it was much more tempered. His thoughts jumped for a moment, and then settled as he thought a moment more.

“Madam, that’s wonderful news,” Kelin said, “but you’ll have to forgive my interruption of the joy for a moment to ask you something.”

“I know. Ask it anyways,” Jane said, sinking Kelin’s heart.

“If your daughter was located, do you know if she was alone? If you don’t mind, can I also ask where she was? This is good news, but there are now thousands of questions that come up upon her discovery,” Kelin said.

“Yes, that’s the right way to think. This is why I asked of you first. For I cannot say for certain, but as far as I know, I was not notified that my daughter was with anyone else. The status of your friend is something I am unaware of. Perhaps his disappearance was unfortunate coincidence. And yes, there are more questions than answers at this point. How she ended up in Grizz of all places is a question in itself!”

“Grizz? That’s, forgive the outburst, but Grizz? Madam, she made it to Grizz? Is she all right?”

“As far as I was notified, yes. And Grizz, of all places. She made it quite far, this time.”

“Astonishing. But how was all this discovered? Is she safe and coming back? Regardless of my friend, of course.”

“It’s a private matter now. But I suppose it doesn’t hurt to discuss this. Some expeditions were sent out previously, of course. The regent assisted somewhat. He’s the one who notified me he had received a message about her. The bumbler hasn’t confirmed when her safety and return shall be assured, but that’s only due to the time it takes to hear back from such far reaches. By now it’s probably fine, though it’ll be a few weeks before we hear anything more. And that is all I’ll be willing to disclose. You’d do well to not inquire of our matters further.”

“Yes madam. It has been most gracious of you. I see that now. It is unfortunate I’m no better off than before, but the matter of your daughter is of course, of the utmost importance. Even though my friend was not mentioned, no, especially because of that, you didn’t have to notify me. This matter will, of course, be sealed. Madam, before I go, I will say this. You know of my family and our purpose here. Our duty, of course, comes first. But know this. I will not rest until I succeed our duty. I will be the successor, no matter what I have to do. When I am, I will never forget your graciousness. After our duty, the Melonscone family will come second. I will personally, for the rest of my life, see to it as well. You know how I am but a child, and you know how long a lupus lives. Before all but that which we are here for, will be the Melonscones. Count on it,” Kelin said. Jane gave the first true smile of the evening, and then nodded at Kelin.

“I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have. And I know you’ll fulfill it. Though not in the way you think. Look forward to the coming future, son of Doufer. You’ll be most interested in the coming developments. You may now take your leave. See him out,” Jane said.

Shiroi stood and led Kelin out of the mansion. They walked together in the yard of the estate, slowly heading towards the gates.

“She’s coming back,” Kelin said, and then sighed.

“Yes. Miss is coming back. She’s fine. She’s, she’s such a good person,” Shiroi said, unable to speak with more depth.

“That she is. Take care of her, Shiroi,” Kelin said.

“I’m sorry,” Shiroi said. She couldn’t utter another word, her throat was closing from emotion, both happy and sad. Kelin patted her on the shoulder once, to which she slightly flinched at. She still said nothing.

“It’s all right. I know it will be. We just have to wait. Did you also make it to Grizz, my friend? How much longer will you be there? Or have you already started your journey back? Are you with her or not? Or are you just around the corner, waiting to surprise me? Come back already. Before I have to come after you. Before I go crazy and decide to take a bite out of a bird after all. I hear avians taste just like duck.”

Shiroi stifled a laugh, and then pushed Kelin away slightly using the sharp tips of her talons against part of his arm. He laughed then walked ahead and stood at the gate.

“This is where we part, pretty avian. Next time we meet, let it be as friends of friends. If not, then as master and servant. Mother doesn’t need one, but I could eventually use one.”

Shiroi just smiled and bowed. When she raised her head, he was gone. The guards were closing the gates again. Shiroi stood there silently, alone, wondering if she should turn around and return to the manor. Her thoughts hadn’t calmed down all that much.

Ruby was supposed to be returning. It should have made her happy beyond belief. And she was happy. She knew that Ruby had to be safe. She couldn’t fathom anything being wrong, now that the hope she had kept bottled and under check was finally released. And yet there was a bittersweetness to it. She knew the caveat to Ruby’s return. Not just one exception either, but several.

Shiroi really was an ideal servant. Of course, she did things correctly and quickly most of the time, but she wasn’t especially good compared to anyone else at servile duties, and her true talents were elsewhere. The thing that was so ideal about her was her concern for her master’s emotional well-being. She was happy that Ruby was returning physically, but there were two matters that worried Shiroi more than her joy could overcome.

First was the thought of Va’il. She knew that it didn’t mean he was gone, but she was worried about it regardless. Especially if Ruby returned, but Va’il was nowhere to be seen. She knew it’d be tough on Ruby. She considered that maybe, Ruby was already a changed person, that maybe something had happened in the year she’d been gone. Shiroi knew this to be the case already, but she wondered what more her master had to go through. Her own past briefly surfaced in her mind, but she pushed it aside to think about the human she’d grown attached to. She didn’t want to see Ruby emotionally burdened by the loss of that one boy.

Second was the thought of what awaited Ruby’s return. An engagement that would dictate her life again. Shiroi knew Ruby expected it at one point or another, but the thought of burdening her with it so soon was heavy. Especially if her first concern proved to be a matter of consequence.

Yes, Shiroi loved Ruby. She was concerned for her well-being, both mental and physical. Shiroi was Ruby’s friend, but she also regarded herself as support in other ways to Ruby. It was more than just being a friend or servant. That concern wasn’t just something that’d translate to Ruby either, and it’s something Kelin had picked up on. Shiroi regarded Ruby as her master, but if someone else was the one in charge of her, she’d look out for them as well.

It made her desirable to have, that pristine avian whose background was unknown. She didn’t know who her parents were, or where she had come from. She didn’t know what kind of avian she was either, even though she looked similar to the rest. She had never been part of any avian community or family, as far as she could remember. She had only known Jane Melonscone, Ruby Melonscone, and Jane’s other daughters at rarer times. Jane looked after her somewhat, taking her in, giving her the role of a servant. But it was attending to Ruby that had given her a feeling of living, accomplishment, and a proxy to feel life through. Now she couldn’t even remember the terrible days before she met the Melonscones. And that made her happy. And, of course, wonderful. Enough to ignore other pains. Only a short while remained until Ruby would return to Rising. For at that time, she was much closer than she had been in a long time.

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The Lupine Saga 117

Kelin stood waiting underneath the big tree while students marched out the school’s doors. Soon enough each person he was waiting for arrived, first giving a casual wave, and then a greeting once they were close.

“It’s over!” Zeick said, and then sighed. He shook his head a few times then laughed.

“I suppose that means you did as usual?” Harnes asked.

“Better than, even. But it’s still exhausting. But the tests are over, I can relax. Well, for a moment. I have to run in a minute,” Zeick said.

“Again? Why don’t your reveal what you’ve been doing lately, mister secretly doing something?” Teena asked.

“Ha, just something to work on. Nothing really to talk about,” Zeick said, though he spoke plainly and lacked his usual smile.

“Zeick working, what an oxymoron,” Pete said casually while eyeing his next piece of fruit to eat.

“Yeah yeah. Anyways, enough of a break. I’ll see you all tomorrow,” Zeick said. He then walked off, going to work on things he wouldn’t speak more of.

“Anyways, Zeick’s doing his own thing. He’s fine. Don’t let him distract you,” Kelin said.

“Well, after the past week a distraction would be nice. Reviews and tests, reviews and tests,” Pete said. “This year was more intense than last year’s reviews. I’m even happy it’s all over, I’m going to have to acquire Zeick’s viewpoint soon enough.”

“Yeah, much worse than last year. It was easier for everyone, all-around, without as many years to review. Even he did well on last year’s tests,” Harnes said.

“He did really well last year,” Pete said.

“He did better than me by far,” Teena said. The mood had dropped, and the four teens didn’t speak for a brief interval.

“That’s enough,” Kelin said. “There’s still stuff to do.”

The three nodded slightly, and then continued their routine. They had a bit to eat, chatted about the school day and the classes, and then said their goodbyes. Kelin read for a couple minutes after the rest had left, but shortly got ready to head back to his home. He walked out the school’s gates.

“Master Kelin.” A clear, familiar voice called out to Kelin.

“It’s you,” Kelin said. The person stepped closer to them and lowered the hood they’d been wearing. He was a little surprised at the personage he hadn’t seen in a while.

“Yes. I hope you’re doing well,” Shiroi said. Her appearance was basically the same as before, unsullied white clothes and meticulously cleaned white feathers, but the air around her had matured again. It appeared she had changed styles slightly as well. The cold season had ended, but she wore a long-sleeved dress with hood, all made of a sturdy fabric rather than silk.

“I am. And you’re a surprise. A pleasant surprise. It’s an honor,” Kelin said while grinning toothily.

“Save it for the lupus girls, Master Kelin. I’m the one who is honored, after all. And though I’d love to converse and jest with you, unfortunately I’ve come on business,” Shiroi said while maintaining the same calmed expression.

“It would be fun. But if you’re here on business, for me, okay. What do you need from me? I’d rather not guess.”

“The madam has informed me that you can be allowed a very brief meeting with her,” Shiroi said.

“She has? Why?”

“There is something you will tell her, she said. To speak openly as the friend of a mutual friend, Kelin, madam wishes to ask you something. Not something that’ll take long, though. Apparently there is something she’s curious about. That’s as far as I know.”

“There’s only one reason she could ask for me in particular. What’s changed, what’s she found out?” Kelin asked.

“I wish I could offer you more. I’m just as clueless. I suppose I’ll find out when you do,” Shiroi said. She sighed slightly and looked down.

“Let’s go. The longer we take the more thoughts I’ll have, and if we get this over with quickly I won’t have as much disappointment when I finally hear the truth. It’s been long enough that I don’t hold out false hope daily. But I haven’t given up.”

“I’m of the same mind,” Shiroi said.

“You’re pretty good at not showing it. You’ve matured Shiroi. But you’ve become more servant-like as well.”

“It’s a bad thing, isn’t it?” Shiroi asked. Kelin laughed slightly.

“If you can still ask that, you’ll be fine,” Kelin said.

“Thank you. I know it’s been a while, but thank you for talking with me. I’m feeling better than I have in a while,” Shiroi said and then bowed slightly.

“Good. Okay. Let’s see what she wants,” Kelin said. He walked a step towards the carriage waiting for them, and then reached out towards Shiroi and patted her shoulder once. She winced and pulled away.

“I’m sorry, it just surprised me,” Shiroi said quickly.

“Oh sorry,” Kelin said. He thought there was something strange in Shiroi’s reaction, but he didn’t dwell on it. It was time to head to the estate of Jane Melonscone, to find out what possible curiosity she could have regarding him.

#

The estate was as luxurious as ever, though thoughts on why Madam Melonscone was calling for him weighed on Kelin’s mind. He knew, through all possibilities, there was only one reason she could ask for him. But to associate Jane Melonscone with hope was a connection Kelin wasn’t comfortable making. He also knew it was possible something else could be in store, however unlikely. He was as practical and reasonable as ever, though it was just a front to suppress the emotions that’d come like a hurricane, should he let hope fester.

The magnificent estate, the heavy doors, the elegant staircases, the rooms and their decor, it all flashed before Kelin as he was led to the familiar waiting room by Shiroi. It was still magnificent, but felt emptier than before somehow. She sat him on a couch, offered something to eat, and then left to inform the madam. She returned a few minutes later, alone.

“Madam will arrive in a little while. She is still busy with some matters and has asked you to wait,” Shiroi said.

“Odd, to call me than make me wait. Even for her, I’d think,” Kelin said.

“Oh, that’s because I was told to get you after your schooling. There wasn’t a set time. I guess it doesn’t seem like the madam from your point of view. But to me it just appears a casual scheduling. She never casually schedules stuff when it comes to important things, for the most part. So all I can guess is that she’s either busy with something vastly more important, or the issue she called you for isn’t too pressing. I say this in confidence, of course.”

“Not too pressing? You’re guessing much for a servant, little white bird,” Kelin said with a touch of arrogance while wearing a grin. Shiroi briefly smiled and bowed slightly.

“Apologies for the presumptuousness, Master Kelin, noble one. This servant will watch her tongue around those with your status, unique as it may be,” Shiroi replied with such seriousness that Kelin had to chuckle.

“Oh? You’d fool anyone else with that tone. Come sit down, you’re going to make me feel bad if you keep standing there, taking this.”

“I couldn’t, not when the madam is due to arrive.”

“Whatever, I’ll command you if I have to. Sit next to me and chat for a while, avian girl. I feel like it. It’s been a while since jesting with someone felt good. Madam Melonscone will probably be a while still. Tell me something interesting about Ruby I don’t already know. Maybe she’s confided something in you about our other missing friend that would be interesting to gossip about,” Kelin said while smiling somewhat. Shiroi hesitated for a moment, and then sat next to Kelin on the couch.

“Are you sure? I wouldn’t think it all that fun to talk about them considering the circumstances,” Shiroi said.

“Normally. But feeling sad will happen eventually, regardless of what we reminisce about. I’d rather have another story or thought to laugh about when thinking about them, before getting depressed again. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“You’ve changed a bit too,” Shiroi said.

“I’ve spent enough time in worry. I’m a lupus. I’ve already set my mind on what I can do now. I haven’t really changed. I just approach things differently than most other people. And I get over issues differently. But don’t mistake me, pretty bird. I’m far from over anything at the moment. It’s just you. He was my best friend. Is my best friend. And she is yours. I don’t know why it’s different compared to all our other friends, but I feel you’re like me. You understand best. I think we can get along somewhat. I guess it’s comforting, or at least makes me think I can say things to you I can’t really talk about elsewhere. Plus I’ll rarely see you,” Kelin said.

“I’m honored, Master Kelin. I can understand what you mean as well. Though I still think you’re stretching things a bit. Also, I’d highly advise you against falling for an avian girl, no matter how pretty. It just wouldn’t work,” Shiroi said, still sounding serious.

“Ha. I just think it’d be fun to tease someone like you. Sounding serious all the time when you really aren’t. Truthfully, I’d rather steal you away from the Melonscone household and have you work for me. But nothing more than that, truly. I mean the words I say upfront. There’s no double meaning today. You’re the ridiculous one, thinking a lupus would think of an avian like that. You’re taking after your real master too much. Only she’d think such crazy things like that.”

“I suppose I misunderstood. I don’t know how to deal with people all that well, other than her, to be honest. Maybe I do take after her in other regards as well. Speaking of which, that means you know about her and, well, that?” Shiroi asked, looking more relaxed than she had been, her misunderstandings over.

“It’s pretty obvious. It’s been obvious for a long time, for me at least. We don’t especially get along any more than usual, but I’ve enjoyed paying attention to her. She’s interesting. It’s fun to watch her sometimes, she always seems like she’s in some kind of special drama. She satisfies my boredom with her wayward glances and her small expressions that she tries to hide. The others don’t know. It wouldn’t occur to them anyways. She’s the only human in the group, after all. It makes me laugh a bit. Though I also think it can be sad at times, mostly to think about,” Kelin said, and then sighed.

“I know. Well, she hasn’t been too overt with me about it, but she realizes I know enough of her thoughts, and has said a thing or two sometimes. I want to always smile for her, but when I think of everything, I too get depressed. I want her to do well. I want her to smile without regard for the consequences. She hasn’t denied them either. She’s just pushed everything to the future that she knows she has to take up, and is regarding today as a time that’ll be looked back on only, and nothing more, no matter how much she wishes it didn’t have to be. Well, at least that’s how it was. If you and I have both changed in the past year, how about her? And him, what if they really are together? A year alone? What would madam think? I want her to come home and tell me. I want her to truly be alive still. I know she has to be. Even through all the nagging doubts.”

“It’s all right, Shiroi. She must be. They must be. He wouldn’t die. And neither would she. That girl is amazing, and you know it. If she was in trouble she couldn’t get out of, he’d help her. And if he was hurt, she’d save him just as effectively. They’ll be back, one of these days. It’s our job to welcome them back. Shiroi, be with her,” Kelin said while looking at the white-feathered avian girl. He then looked to the door. Shiroi smiled softly, and then stood. A moment later there was a click as the handle to the main door was turned. Jane Melonscone entered the room, and Shiroi was already at the door waiting for her.

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The Lupine Saga 116

The city had worn Ruby out, though she was happy to be sleeping in an inn again. She didn’t care much for the attitudes of the swine in Sounderthound, but she put up with them well enough when picking out some clothes that looked good to her. She didn’t care for merchants all that much, and it seemed like there was always a swine trying to sell her something on every corner. The sight of a human girl was apparently more than enough to set their merchant instincts on fire.

The Venus and its multiple types of inhabitants was a welcome reprieve in Ruby’s mind. Though she was somewhat influenced by her mother’s prejudice regarding anyone non-human, Ruby still felt comfortable surrounded by various species; it reminded her of home.

The dinner was decent, and Ruby wasn’t going to complain about having a meal that someone other than Va’il had prepared for her. Though they stocked provisions when they could, and she had enough money to purchase virtually anything she desired along the trip, it didn’t change the fact that they mostly travelled for long stretches of time without seeing other people or cities.

Ruby would complain to Va’il every so often about the lack of variety in what they ate for breakfast, though it was always just a tease. And as usual, he would just smile and take another bite. And the next morning he’d be up before her again, another small animal in hand. She sighed on the days he came back with bloodied hands, grinning widely as a large rabbit or small pig had been that morning’s victim.

Outwardly she sighed, but those mornings she took Va’il’s hands in her own and washed them, removing every trace of red from his palms and claws. It was a small thing that she could do that gave her a sense of happiness. But Va’il never noticed her look up at him every so often. He’d stand there, looking west, staring into the distance. Seeing that always reinforced her and made her return to a serious mindset. They were heading home. They were unfamiliar with everything around them. But they were heading home. She knew that as long as they were returning, Va’il wouldn’t stop staring west. It was for her sake as well, she knew. To return home, no matter what awaited. Pushing thoughts of what the future might hold aside, she dropped the newly cleaned hands and, as usual, as with every morning on the road, ate and then continued onwards.

The Venus had provided a decent dinner, and to Ruby’s surprise there was a bathhouse area as well. Unlike other public baths, it was separated into four sections, two for male and female swine, two for male and female other. Public baths for common folk was still something the noble felt awkward about, and it was amplified when other species were involved, regardless of prejudice, but she ended up alone anyways. She wondered about how she’d react if a bearan or bovine woman decided to enter into the large bathing space as well, but she wouldn’t find out that night. She then recalled the bearan family she had stayed with. How Derlik’s mother always made sure that Ruby got to use the bath first, how she’d keep the kids from bothering her, and the care Dena had shown her. It seemed like it was such a short time, even though they had spent much longer with Derlik’s family than they expected. Even still, Ruby had started feeling like those wonderful bearans were part of her family.

They weren’t her family. Even though they were wonderful people, and Ruby had enjoyed the time with them, with the strong mother, the silly grandparents, the energetic children, and Va’il, she still had the desire to return home. To see her mother, regardless of her disposition. In the past she could never decide if she liked or hated her mother, the always-commanding Jane Lucrene Melonscone. She still didn’t know whether her mother would welcome her back graciously or slap her for taking so long to return. But this long separation had taught her that as long as she could return, even a slap would make her happy. She wanted to see Jane again. She’d even be obedient, once or twice. It was the first time in a long time she had wanted to willingly see her mother. And she even somewhat hoped it’d be a slap and scolding waiting for her. That was the mother she knew.

She finished in the bath and went to the room where Va’il was waiting for her. His hair was still wet and it was obvious he hadn’t taken that long, but at least he was clean for once. She was sure that if she hadn’t been always so concerned for how dirty and smelly she personally was during their travels, she would have been unable to stand how dirty and smelly Va’il was. No matter how natural that would be for anyone spending weeks traveling by foot across the continent, a lady of her upbringing still had that concern in her mind.

“You didn’t dry off completely,” Ruby said. Va’il laughed a little and then swung his tail back and forth a few times, throwing a bit of water around.

“It’s all right,” Va’il said, and then shook his head back and forth a bit. “Besides, it’s better than before, right? We finally get to relax a bit.”

“Yes, you’re right. Better than waking up with dirt in my hair. At least for one night. And a bed. A bed? Only one?” Ruby asked. She was annoyed, but only a little.

“Ah yeah, I asked a guy about it. He said they have lots of travelers, so they want as many rooms as possible. Saves space if each room only has one. Sorry, they don’t have any with two. Well, not sorry really. Feel bad for me Ruby,” Va’il said, his voice in a false plead.

“I could take the floor this time,” Ruby said.

“No.”

“Fine fine. I don’t mind taking the good portions.” Ruby walked over to the bed and sat on it, and then bounced a bit. “Well better than the ground at least. Or floor.”

“Stingy,” Va’il said with a scowl.

“Hypocrite,” Ruby replied and stuck out her tongue. Va’il laughed and then sat on the floor in front of Ruby. He looked up at her.

“It’s still kind of early, isn’t it?” Va’il asked.

“Not at all! After all that happened earlier, we’ve lost a lot of time today. The sun went down a while ago. It’s late, Va’il.”

“Yeah, I guess. It’s just, we’ve always been on the go lately. Even at this time of day we’d still be going, finding somewhere to stop. And then we’d finally find somewhere and collapse.”

“You’d collapse. I, on the other hand, politely drift to the ground,” Ruby said, making Va’il laugh again.

“Of course, miss. A pretty girl doesn’t collapse after all. She faints or daintily drifts,” Va’il said. Ruby grabbed the pillow next to her and flung it at Va’il. It hit him squarely in the face. He took it, stood, handed it back to her, and then sat again.

“Jerk. Me, a pretty girl? Not lately. Not that it’d matter to… but yes, it’s good to not collapse tonight. But it’s not early,” Ruby said.

“This is nice. It’s like before. We haven’t talked for a while,” Va’il said. He looked down for a moment before looking up at Ruby again, still with that same smile. Ruby was silent for a moment. She then smiled back at him. She got off the bed and sat down on the floor across from him.

“We haven’t. All that running. All those worries. And before that, always surrounded by other people. I see. It’s early, isn’t it Va’il?” Ruby asked. She was feeling happy that it was Va’il who started, who wanted to talk.

“Yeah. I was thinking about home. About ditching the others and looking for secret people. It was fun. Or talking by the fire at Derlik’s home. At least, the times when Tico didn’t try and use me for a pillow. Bearan sleepwalkers are pretty frightening,” Va’il said with a small laugh.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you scared except for those mornings when you’d be white as a sheet with Tico’s mouth open in front of you. He slept soundest those nights though. Ha, it was fun,” Ruby said. She couldn’t help but poke a little fun at Va’il.

“You just don’t see me when I’m frightened,” Va’il said. “I will admit Tico was scary in a different way though. Much different than the thought of Link and Greta catching you, though,” Va’il said. His expression changed somewhat, and it made Ruby feel somewhat bad.

“It’s all right. We’ll be fine. Definitely,” Ruby said. She hesitated for a moment, and then reached up. She put a hand on Va’il’s head and patted it a few times.

“I’m not a dog,” Va’il said, but he was smiling happily. Ruby noticed his tail twitch a few times back and forth, making her laugh. She pulled back.

“Sure sure, Mr. Wolf. Lupus. Human. Half. My chevalier with the silver eyes,” Ruby said. She felt her face redden a bit.

“Silver. Yeah. Silver. Silver and Gold trying to return to the bank they came from. When will we get back? These stupid cities never have enough information. The maps are never good enough. Keep going west to reach Rising, right? Just how much farther? Three days from here to Farrow maybe? Longer? Shorter? Or where exactly in Sounderthound are we? This road leads that way, they all say. Everybody already knows where they are going apparently. It’s not that great being a traveller here,” Va’il said. He sounded annoyed, and he had scratched at the floor with a claw for a bit.

“I know,” Ruby said. She reached up again, this time flicking Va’il lightly in the head. “I know, but we’ll get there. I’ll get there, you’ll bring me there. No matter what. And if you can’t get me there, I’ll bring you there instead. And then we’ll get back, we’ll go to school. We’ll play around. We’ll annoy Kelin. We’ll play to worst prank possible on Zeick. We’ll see Pete, and we’ll, uh, do something. Scare him, I guess. Maybe something more. And Teena will hug everyone too tightly. And Harnes will sulk for a moment before jumping at you. She won’t let go this time! She’ll be so angry that she’ll chirp wildly, hurting those sensitive ears of yours! That’s before she breaks down in tears. And my friends, every last one of them, from the best to the silliest, will be there. Shiroi too. And then we’ll all cry, and laugh, and cry,” Ruby said as she felt a mix of emotions welling up in herself.

“Thanks,” Va’il said. He acquired his old smile. Ruby felt herself calm down, and didn’t end up crying after all.

“So what now?” Ruby asked after a bit of silence.

“We’ll keep going. On and on. Till we see those smiles and tears. Till we see our parents and their punishments. I guess, for you and me, it’d be parent,” Va’il said.

“I want to meet your mother,” Ruby said.

“Of course you will. Oh, but we’re not special people or anything. Just common folk. So don’t expect her to be in a grand mansion or anything,” Va’il said.

“That’s all right. Rich or poor doesn’t matter,” Ruby said.

“Oh, we’re not poor. Just common. Common third district residents.”

“Not poor? That’s interesting. I guess that’s true of the third district. Just common, then. Well, common, noble, high-noble, doesn’t matter in Makeen. It doesn’t matter as much in Rising as everywhere else. And I’m sure your mother will be lovely. She raised you, right? All by herself. Just like my mother, I guess. But happier,” Ruby said.

“Don’t start sulking Ruby!” Va’il said.

“Oh, sorry. No, no I’m fine. I don’t know. I almost wish your mother could be my mother. Tell me about your mother. What kind of mother is a lupus woman who’d have a half?” Ruby asked.

“Of course, I’ll tell you all about Mum. She will love you. Though she’s my Mum, no stealing! Okay, let me tell you about this one time after a play, years ago. Mum did the silliest thing!”

Ruby relaxed a bit while she listened to Va’il talk energetically about Mai’ou. She laughed at parts, and felt sad at others. Through it all she stared at the boy she had been traveling with for all these months. All this time. The boy she had met several years ago. The boy who she was ready to forget the moment she met him. The boy who had surprised her so suddenly that the feeling she suddenly had never left her. The boy she had thought about a few times for three years whenever she was depressed about something her mother had inflicted upon her, or when life was stressful.

She had never been all that true with herself openly, purposefully never asking herself questions about herself. She knew she would be disappointed in the end. Her position doomed her to begin with. And though she had been tempted over the years to give it up, there was a part of her that loved being noble. That even though she resented her mother at times, she acknowledged that she was her mother’s daughter. She tried her best to take only the good portions of her mother into herself, though she knew some parts of her would never be perfect. Years ago she had finally overcome the depressive side of those thoughts and grown to accept everything about herself.

But for five long years, no matter how much time she spent learning new things to fill her time, enjoying things as they came, being a noble, being a friend, having friends, she couldn’t accept one thing. Now, finally separated from everything else, she confronted herself. She knew it was futile in the end. That she’d just be hurting herself by asking and answering. That even if by some chance her status didn’t interfere, the likelihood her feelings would not be reciprocated. The anxiety of knowing that no matter what she admitted, she was just a human girl, separated by something she couldn’t cross.

There was also that sliver of hope that’d shine in her every so often. Thoughts of how the line was only half as far as it’d be normally. It wasn’t like it’d be inconceivable, considering the past that led to his existence. And there was that smile that brought her up every time. That smile that, although it brought her up, also depressed her. Always the same smile, to everyone, not just her. She knew not to ask.

That hope has risen and fallen, but was always just a small glimmer, for several years. And though it hadn’t changed, Ruby had. She couldn’t ignore herself, not when the past months had nagged at her, over and over. Telling her to ask and answer.

Va’il continued telling stories about Mai’ou, and some about things he, Pete, and Kelin had done. She smiled and laughed as the night grew later. In the midst of it all, Ruby couldn’t help but pay attention to her own thoughts for a moment. That here, enjoying this environment, she was forced to acknowledge.

“Yes. I love Va’il,” Ruby thought. She answered herself. She answered, laughed, hiding both the joy and agony of her thought, and asked Va’il to keep talking. Now that she had answered, she wanted to boy she truly loved to keep talking to her. Even if he didn’t know, didn’t reciprocate, didn’t think of her as anything more than a friend, or worse, only a human, she still held onto her answer. She had acknowledged it. She knew she’d probably silently cry before falling asleep that night, but she was still happy she admitted it, told herself, answered herself.

She was tempted to whisper it as quietly as she could into her pillow that night, but she didn’t. Va’il had once told her something that surprised her. That although he could track Ruby down by smell sometimes, that was only because he had been careful to never stray too far from her and he knew her scent extremely well. His hearing, on the other hand, was comparatively better in many ways, and that in the right circumstances he’d be able to hear farther than he could smell. So that night she bit her lip while her tears made their appearance, fearing that if she didn’t she’d whisper quieter than any human could hear in a bittersweet hope Va’il might. She’d rather he hear her quietly crying, as she knew he had heard her quietly cry so many times before, and understood why she did without question. However her courage could only go so far that night. And the night was still not that far along. Though she had laid down to go to sleep, Va’il a bit of a ways away on the floor, her night was hardly over.

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The Lupine Saga 115

They took a couple minutes to relax their arms, and then began anew. The drunk counted down, and then they started. However it was the drunk who was surprised. His hand managed to stop two inches from defeat, even with a significant amount of strength in it. He pushed back some, feeling as if he were resisting a falling wall. He gradually pushed more strength into his arm, and in a matter of seconds had forced Va’il’s arm up straight, and then over. It was over, the drunk having won. Though the look on his face was one of genuine surprise.

“A surprisingly good job, boy,” the drunk said.

“Thank you. Though I had no chance of winning. Lupus have bursts of strength at times. Maybe underestimating one could end up with a very surprised human. Though I’ve still never beaten Mum, or even Kelin, so I guess I can only go so far. But this isn’t what I was talking about,” Va’il said.

“Well boy, surprising as that was, it still wasn’t anywhere near the rest above your level. Most lupus women would still blow you over without much effort. And those Grip men, don’t mess with them still. Strength isn’t enough,” the drunk said. He laughed aloud a bit as well.

“No, this isn’t all that strong. I think I know something more about you though. You should visit Rising one of these days. I don’t think you’ve been, or at least not to the main city, recently. You don’t know what Makeen teaches. This physical stuff isn’t strong at all. It’s nice, but it has its limits. I was taught much more than arm wrestling. And now that I’ve met you, I can’t help but get a bit more annoyed. If you had just helped instead of saving me, the three of us could’ve done it. A shame,” Va’il said, and then shook his head.

“Hey boy, don’t go underestimating them people,” the drunk said.

“I’m not,” Va’il said with a smile. “You’re right, those people were strong. I would’ve had a bit of trouble handling two of them. But if you had helped with one, I could handle one, and together we could have handled the last one.

“Ha, now I know you’re insane. There were four, not three, boy. Anyways, I wouldn’t help like that. I can’t fight. I won’t harm anyone if I can help it,” the drunk said. He looked down at his own hands for a moment, but then looked up and smiled widely at Va’il.

“Four, I know. I didn’t forget about that one. And like you, I don’t want to fight or hurt anyone. Even last night, I didn’t bring out my claws. Like I said though, you and I together would handle three of them. That’d be enough, probably. For students in Rising, that is. Assuming that silly noble didn’t act like a silly noble and actually paid attention and practiced like everyone else,” Va’il said. He lost himself in thought for a moment, and then nodded strongly.

“Boy, seriously? You’re counting that woman of yours? You are crazier than I,” the drunk said. He couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Maybe. And stop calling her my woman. She wouldn’t… nevermind. Like I said, as long as that silly noble girl didn’t act like a silly noble in school, she’d be trained in at least a few things. Probably. Most of the nobles don’t really slack in Makeen’s training, but I don’t know about her. But don’t underestimate her. Anyways, it doesn’t change anything. I’ve been stubborn. I apologize. I’ve been rash. It wouldn’t have been a guaranteed chance of winning. It might have been half, at best, even if we were willing and prepared. I should acknowledge that. Thank you for saving my life,” Va’il said. He then bowed deeply.

“All right. Boy, you sure are something. You’re welcome. Go meet your girlfriend as soon as you can. Head toward Rising again, I know you’ll meet her. Those captors will see her there safely, that’s the job they were assigned. Against her will and into who knows what kind of peril once they arrive, but at least I know that,” the drunk said.

“One last thing though. I need to get back to that city, go back to that room. And, truthful as you are, I’ll decide on my own where to go. After all, I don’t trust you,” Va’il said while lightly smiling. The drunk laughed again.

“Fine, fine. Head directly northeast for about twenty minutes, you’ll reach it soon enough. I won’t ask you why you’re going back, but it don’t matter. After all, this is where we part, boy.”

“Thanks. We probably won’t meet again,” Va’il said.

“Kind of sad, after all that. Sure you aren’t going to beg for help, boy? I ain’t gonna help you again. No way, no how.”

“That’s fine. Though, if you ever feel like seeing Rising, I can endorse it,” Va’il said.

“Ha, after all this maybe I’ll check it out. Rising, eh? I’m always interested in tasting a new place’s finer delicacies. Plenty of people to steal from, I’d think. How about you, boy, where would you happen to be if I did want to check out how you’re living later on. Just out of curiosity.”

“Me? Hmm. I’ll either be around the city like normal, in prison, or in the palace. Ha, the last two are a joke. My home’s a normal place in the common areas of the city. But I have a feeling someone like you would be able to find me easily enough. That’s one part of you I’d say is trustworthy.”

“Ah, all right boy, thanks. Take care out there.”

Va’il nodded and took his leave from the drunk. He didn’t look back once, but he did smile as he made his way back to the city.

“So they aren’t all bad,” Va’il said aloud to himself. “Former elite soldier of Grip, how interesting.” Va’il cackled slightly and drew closer to the city while wearing a grin. Soon enough he had dropped it when he recalled what was still left for him to do. He did ponder the drunk’s words, wondering about strength and fighting. He’d been trained to hold back, in truth. Makeen taught how to fight without relying on claws and teeth, and surviving without harming others irreparably. Any fight with claws involved were ones Va’il didn’t want to be in. After all, he didn’t want to hurt others. He did look down at his hands after a while, brought them up, and let his claws extend, even locking them in place. He contemplated the claws and fangs that’d pierce and tear if used, and regrow eventually if broken or removed, sharp as ever. Va’il had to consider their purpose and use, knowing that even the animals of Fervi didn’t regrow all the things some sentient species could, and even the way they worked and were formed were different than their beastly counterparts, yet more things separating humanoid from animal.

“After all that’s happened, would using these have been better, or would they have made things much worse?” he asked himself. After pondering the question, he settled his mind and heart. He then retracted his claws.

He made his way back to the area the inn was at, and then used the surrounding rooftops to get to the third floor of the inn, the window he had so forcefully been taken from the night before. It looked like he was the first person to return to it. It was still early enough that the innkeepers hadn’t checked the room for its residents, and so there were a number of items that Va’il would have to gather before setting off again. As he gathered the bags full of food, the bags with slipskates, and the extra bit of clothing that Ruby had been so overjoyed to previously obtain, he noticed something extra. Something that incited memories and emotions in him. He reached for it, held it tight, and promised.

“Just wait. I’ll be by your side soon enough.”

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