Interlude 1 – Puppy Paddle
Elaine giggled at the loud splash that followed Clarice's yowl. As expected, Mariel shrieked angrily and immediately swam away from the cackling Feline. Undeterred, the Lynxlioness climbed ashore and dove into the lake again to create a bigger splash, which succeeded in submerging the unfortunate Hamster.
The Husky had to muffle a high-pitched squeal when the resulting wave also splattered onto her ears and nose. If there was one thing she disliked, it was getting cold water on her sensitive nose.
"Heh, sorry about that Princess," the brunette winked apologetically as she chased after the fleeing Rodent, but she still splashed more water onto the yipping Husky with her tail tuff.
"C-Clarice!" Pouting, she admonished her friend yet her voice was unable to sound as miffed as she wanted, for the playful Feline continued to giggle and flick her tail to splatter water in every direction. The Canine tried to shield herself from the wicked assault, her tail now curled around her waist.
"Hey! Stop that, Crazy Cat! Lain obviously doesn't like getting wet!" Mariel yelled animatedly from her hiding spot behind a huge rock. She flinched when Clarice sent her a predatory grin before resuming her Chase-the-Hamster game.
Sighing, Elaine wiped herself with a towel and did her best to give the unrepentant prankster a displeased glare. However, not only was the Feline's attention elsewhere, the blonde found herself smiling at her companions in fondness instead.
After all, it was difficult to stay peeved when she was so entertained!
She wiped her forehead again, ears drooping from the relentless heat of central Riphaeus. The trio had decided to relax for a whole afternoon at Lake Maucca, where water flowed beneath the Lauten Hills from the Nadira River that separated the continent from Tyradum. The small settlement of Sahn was one of the rest stations meant for merchants heading to or coming from the Xu Dou Mountain Pass. As it was closed, the place was quite empty and thus gave the three girls their space at this lake. They made hasty preparations in Reft, such as stocking up on their water supplies, but Clarice had also gotten them cloaks not only to keep them from being too obviously non-Feline but also to protect them from the elements. That was the kind of girl the Lynxlioness was, an endearingly sensitive person beneath the jokester exterior.
Furious shrieks and pained yowls indicated that Mariel must have either punched or kicked the persistent Feline again. Elaine giggled in amusement at the Hamster, who angrily tried to evade capture yet seemed to be enjoying the game underneath all that ranting. Indeed, she was really warming up to the older girls, a fact they took great pride and joy in.
However, the Canine was unable to relish in feeling pleased at her two friends' growing bond. She really cannot withstand the heat, being a Husky and all. She had already loosened her collars and taken off her long-sleeved gloves as well as the metal plates of her boots, but the sweltering climate was still too much. Whimpering quietly, she watched her lively companions, envious of Clarice's heat tolerance and Mariel's light clothing. The Lynxlioness had explained that she could endure both hot and cold weathers because of her crossbreed genes, while the Hamster mentioned that she had mostly lived in places with warm climates so this desert hotness was okay.
If only she could dive into the lake to enjoy its pleasant coolness too.
She shifted nervously so she was sitting at the very edge of a rock perch, and gingerly dipped her legs deeper into the water. After glancing at Mariel's scarf, which was tied like a bandanna, Elaine decided to do something similar as well by soaking her handkerchief and placing it on her head between her ears.
The wet fabric quickly became warm though, much to her disappointment.
"Priiiiiinceeeeesss~" Clarice called out exuberantly, now swimming back towards the shore since Mariel had gone far into the lake and was holding up a sizeable rock defensively. "Why don't you join us? You look really hot there, heh."
There was the dreaded but inevitable question. Elaine cringed bashfully and tried not to look at the Feline's bright grin. "U-um, that is… I am okay here…"
As expected, the Lynxlioness only blinked, "What? Is it because you don't have a fancy swimsuit or something? Aww, that's ok, just wear whatever shirt you can spare! Look at me, I'm just wearing my tanktop and a pair of shorts! Hammy too!"
When the blonde didn't reply, the brunette swam closer, "is it about your nose? Is it really that sensitive? You don't have to go underwater if you don't want to…"
"N-No that is not the problem," Elaine sighed in resignation as she looked up at the inquisitive stares of her two great-swimmer friends. "I cannot swim."
Both Clarice and Mariel gaped, obviously baffled that a Canine was incapable of such feat.
"Um, well, perhaps I could but only barely. You see, I-I just have an unnatural fear about going in the water…"
"It's a fundamental survival skill. Off you go!"
A loud screech was all they heard before a tiny black shape sailed across the air and plunged into the water with a cringe-worthy splash. The environment then regained its tranquil silence as the river resumed its flow, its surface completely smooth and undisturbed.
"Er, Hector? She's not coming back up…"
"How strange, you'd think that tail of hers is a float of some sort…"
"It's probably soaking up water and weighing her down-hey, Pup, don't!"
Determined to save her friend, Elaine dove into the stream in spite of her daddy's warning, gasping fearfully at the cold wetness dragging her downwards. All of her limbs, including her tail, paddled desperately to stay afloat yet soon the currents pulled her beneath its surface and stole her air.
Her vision blacked out for a moment before bright sunlight burst behind her eyelids and enveloped her with faint warmth once more. Gulping for air, she clung onto Tal's neck and whimpered into his ear. Tiny hands grasped frantically at his scruffy hair as well as the soggy black fur on the other side of the man's head.
The Alsatian's rumbling voice easily soothed Sakura's terrified mewls. "There there, I've got you both now. Damn it, Hector, what were you thinking? My baby and Kura almost drowned!"
A sheepish chuckle came from the shore. "Oops? Come on, Tal, my ma used to do that to me and El so I figured that's how you treat kids!"
"Now now, Hector, they are not Sabertooth Cubs. Do treat them more carefully."
Elaine giggled at her mother's soft reprimand, even more so at the powerful thump and pained groan that followed. Her tail wagged rapidly now that she was safe and perching on her daddy's shoulder with her friend's furry tail in her grasp. Sakura's large ears were flattened as she bared her tiny fangs adorably at the grumbling Sabertooth.
"Heh, that's Ala for ya. Now, let's just get you both dried up and-" Tal let out an undignified bark when he slipped on a moss-covered rock and toppled into the deep river.
Frantic yips filled the air once again.
"That's just pitiful, Tal," Hector Arthland laughed heartily and hauled up his best friend by the collars, while Elaine was draped over his broad shoulder, coughing. "Now, where is that little blackball?"
The moment the Sabertooth tugged Sakura out of the river, her squelchy tail smacked his face in reflex. Gagging, the esteemed leader of the rebellion stumbled and knocked into Tal, who was still disorientated.
The four of them fell into the river yet again.
After several more splashes, howls of pain and outraged hisses, Elaine found herself wrapped comfortably in a thick blanket and cuddled on Heidi Lakshme's lap. The Maned Wolf's tail swished leisurely while she brushed through the young Puppy's damp hair, making the latter wag hers as well.
Bright amethyst eyes watched the scene before her in mirth. Though dwarfed by the two cowering men in front of her, Alainna Calatrava-Alsace softly admonished their conduct with a gentle smile on her face. The Husky's tail slowly went from side to side like a ticking clock, twitching a little when Sakura yipped angrily even in her curled position by the woman's feet. The tiny Foxroach shook herself and tried to lick her tail dry, buzzing every now and then in utter irritation.
"I swear I didn't mean it, Ala! I was just trying to toughen her up!"
"She is but four years old, Hector, you should know better than that. And dear? You should watch your steps."
"I-I agree with you, honey. I tried my best, honest!"
Heidi chuckled quietly when the austere Husky drove her fists into the Alsatian and Sabertooth's stomachs, making them double over and collapse on the ground. "Your mother never ceases to amaze me, Elaine."
The young Puppy giggled and straightened her ears in pride.
"That is why I grew up with bruises," Alfonso Calatrava chuckled softly as he placed his brush on the easel to squeeze out more paint onto the palette. "It is tough being the younger sibling, though I am certain my fate would have remained the same even if I were older."
"Excuse moi, Alfie?"
"Ce n'est rien, ma chere soeur," the good-natured man replied hastily when Alainna glanced at him with a dangerous curve to her lips. "Just chatting with my niece, oui?"
Elaine smiled at her uncle, who winked and moved to the side a little so she could see his work so far. A beautiful gradient of blue seemed to blend with the sky while the river flowed continuously from the waterway onto the canvas and back to its path in nature. The artist has captured the environment onto the rectangular canvas so seamlessly that Elaine almost didn't notice the difference at first.
"I do not know what to do next," Alfonso's tail flicked as his chocolate brown eyes twinkled in humor, "they are making too much of a ruckus for me to paint them. I still want to include them though, what do you think mon petit chiot?"
"Well…" The little Puppy turned towards her daddy and found the adult wrestling with the esteemed rebel leader near the shore, getting all muddy and soaked in water again. Her mother was walking towards them in a leisurely pace, her hands placed demurely in front of her and appearing absolutely harmless.
"She will pummel them," Heidi sighed exasperatedly at the now frozen Sabertooth and Alsatian, "those two will never learn…"
Tail wagging fervently now, Elaine watched rather keenly as Alainna rolled up her sleeves and pulled Hector up by the scruff of his shirt.
"Wait, Ala-" The Sabertooth was thrown over her shoulder before she approached her nervously chuckling husband.
"You are not setting a good example for Sakura or Elaine, dearest."
"Er… right, but I don't think violence is a good example eith-" Tal yelped when the blonde woman twisted his arm behind him and smoothly tripped him. After he face-planted onto the ground, she gracefully sat on his back as if she didn't just subdue two veteran fighters in a few swift moves.
"H-How?" Sakura gawked, her antennae and whiskers frizzled like she was zapped by electricity. Alainna's eyes sparkled in mischievous triumph as she tweaked her husband's lowered ears in affection, which made him grin weakly.
Elaine blinked slowly, amazed at how strong her mother was. She knew that the regal woman was only ever un-lady-like around her two best friends but it was still astounding to watch it happen in front of her eyes.
"Your father didn't sneak Ala away from her castle," Heidi spoke affectionately, "she was the one who… kidnapped them…"
"Really? I always thought Hector took Ala because she's rich or something!" Sakura flicked her tail, garnet eyes sparkling in unsuccessfully masked joy as she munched on the baby carrots given by the chuckling Maned Wolf.
"That was what Father thought. Soooo he sent Heidi and I as well as a cavalry of knights to track them down," Alfonso twirled his brush as he laughed brightly, "instead, we all ended up joining the Rebellion!"
"Because we're that charming aren't we, pal?" Hector rumbled as he crouched in front of the still restrained Canine, ruffling his hair as he displayed his elongated fangs in a smug grin.
"No, it was I," Alainna pulled his whiskers, earning a loud yowl. "You two did not really do anything, if I recall correctly."
"Yeah, it was all thanks to her we got to gather enough funds and eventually followers," Tal didn't seem to mind, for he was grinning so proudly that the blonde Husky kissed his ear and finally let him go.
"I am charismatic…" The Sabertooth grumbled as he rubbed his abused whiskers, sighing in resigned fondness at the Husky's rather cheeky smile. "Heh, you two Puppies, hard to imagine you're parents already! Let's hope sweet lil' Elaine doesn't inherit your idiocy, Tal, or your violent tendencies, Ala-"
Sakura laughed breathlessly when the two Canines pounced on the large Feline and caused them to tumble into the river once more, except it seemed Alainna was no longer concerned about proper decorum.
"Wow, that's amazing," Elaine was practically bouncing on her seat with the way her tail wagged like a propeller. "I didn't know mother was so involved in the Rebellion!"
"I was merely one of the sponsors and sometimes the spokesperson, ma fifille," the Husky said lightly as she returned to shore to wring her soaked dress. The two men were still brawling in the river, but at least they didn't have to worry about her punishing them anymore. Alfonso seemed to have given up on painting for now as he munched on bone-shaped cookies with great enthusiasm.
The little Puppy looked between her parents in great admiration, not sure who to view as her role model because she respected them equally. She's always wanted to be like her daddy, so energetic and charismatic in his own way, but she also wished to have her mother's refined mannerism and still retain a 'badass' aura, as Sakura put it. Well, she could become someone with both of her parents' qualities, a loyal friend to the Foxroach just as how Tal and Alainna were to Hector!
"Your mother's quite the unconventional heiress, but that's what makes her fun," Heidi's smile then turned playful, "but she can't swim, not at all."
"I see you are telling stories about me, mon amie?"
Giggling, Elaine wisely hopped off the Maned Wolf's lap so the latter could escape before Alainna could approach them. The red-haired Canine was smart for she dove into the river and swam a good distance away from the shore to escape her persecution. Now in need of a new target, the blonde Husky turned towards her younger brother, whose cheeks were still puffy with cookies even as he scrambled to his feet. Sakura was lying on her back now, laughing so wholeheartedly that her fluffy tail swept the ground enough to create some dust.
The silly humor in the air was too infectious, for Elaine found herself holding her stomach and rolling on the ground at the dramatic yips and barks in the background. How she loved her extended family! They were each so amazing in their own ways, yet they could all play together like eager Pups and show how deep a bond they had with each other.
She stood up shakily, her lips still stretched in a wide smile as she tried to contain her mirth. Now that she found out there was something even her mother couldn't do, she was determined to master this skill called swimming!
Under Sakura's fearful eyes, Elaine held her head and tail high as she marched towards the river and bravely dove in after taking a long deep breath.
She soon found herself paddling desperately to stay afloat.
And still sunk in the end.
Smiling stiffly, Elaine paused before she shared her childhood story, wondering if she became so fearful of water since then. Her daddy had clumsily whacked her back until she coughed up all the water but even then, she could still taste the metallic tang of mineral-rich river at the back of her throat whenever she recalled the incident.
She flattened her ears and decided to tell her audience a condensed version instead, which seemed to be amusing enough.
"I knew Hector was a great guy! He sounded like so much fun, heheh," Clarice then burst into giggles, "that Puppy too… man I can see Kura all frizzled already!"
Since Mariel did not know who Kura-chan was, she only listened silently but she seemed intrigued by the Rebels' story with the way her mahogany shone in admiration.
"Anyways, unlike the great Sabertooth, this time I will do it!" The Lynxlioness climbed ashore and twirled her tail into an S shape like a declaration banner. "I, Clarice Teresia the Cloverfield Knight, shall kidnap Elaine Alsace the Princess of Fenrisyr, with the help of my sidekick Hammy!"
"What! I'm not your sidekick! And why am I the only one without a title? No, that's not the point, will you call me by my name already!"
When the infuriated Hamster chucked the rock with stunning force, the Feline made a dramatic caterwaul as she dodged the projectile. "Hey, careful there Hamham, you almost hit this beautiful face!"
"Beautiful? You call that beautiful?"
"Aww… how about sexy?"
"Pff no way!"
"Ha, it's terrible alright!"
"Y-You hurt m-my feelings~!" Clarice covered her face and made mewling sobs. Alarmed, Elaine quickly stood up and placed her hand on the brunette's shoulder.
"Mary, that was too much…"
The Hamster winced under the older girl's stern gaze, but she puffed her cheeks defiantly and squeaked, "Y-yeah, maybe, but don't fall her tricks, Lain!"
"What do you- hyaaaaah!" The Husky let out an undignified yelp when the sniggering Lynxlioness slid her arms beneath the Canine's waist and knees to lift her off the ground. Stiffening, she could only watch in fear as Clarice carried her into the lake, seemingly ready to loosen her grip to drop the frightened blonde into the deep water.
"W-wait, no, please!" Whimpering, she instinctively wrapped her arms around the brunette's shoulders and pressed her nose against the latter's warm neck. Her eyes were clenched shut as she fervently prayed that her friend would realize that she was truly terrified of water.
She sighed in relief when she felt Clarice shift and gently set her down on her perch near the shore. "Awww! Gah, you're just too cute, you're making me feel guilty!"
"Which you should!" Mariel added and hurled another pebble, which was knocked down by the Feline's tail tuff but with a painful-sounding smack.
"Yow! Imma get you now you yummy-looking Hamster!" Clarice hissed playfully but she gave the blonde an apologetic pat on the head before lunging after the Rodent, who made a 'come at me' gesture.
Elaine breathed evenly to get her fear under control. Now she could somewhat relate to how the Hamster just froze when it came to Felines. Similarly, her limbs just locked up and refused to function. As she soaked her handkerchief in cold water again, she watched her friends' spirited dives and splashes, which made her ponder about the memory of that trip to the river and why the adults were so hyper then. They took a vacation in Northern Riphaeus near Lake Breton because Hector had some final preparations to make in Orinol. They were scheduled to return to Fenrisyr through the Calatrava Clan's private port in order to fight for the freedom of the Beryn Peninsula, which had been under Tyradum's control for five years since the Invasion. Therefore, as it could very well be their last chance to have a light-hearted family outing, the adults gave in to their childish sides and simply played.
Unfortunately, the worst did come to pass, as so many people died in the following battles on the Canine continent, including her uncle Alfonso. The loss of the kibble-loving pacifist weighed greatly on their minds, especially Elaine's parents, yet they still tried to be strong and cheerful around her.
The blonde wondered if Clarice was always so upbeat because she was trying to hide her inner pain? And Mariel had only shared a fraction of her experiences in the distant continents but she must have seen a lot as well.
The depressing musing continued to wander, making the Husky droop her ears at the thought of her childhood friend Kura-chan. Her mind never strayed far from the black-haired girl, always fretting over if she was eating properly or taking care of herself. The Foxroach always tried so hard to make a difference, no matter how miniscule the change was or what the hardships she had to endure. Now that Elaine was on a journey herself, even though it was merely the beginning, her respect and admiration for Kura-chan swelled.
She involuntarily reached for the small plushie in her backpack and cradled it in her lap, stroking its fluffy fur as if the comforting gesture would somehow reach her friend.
"You okay there, Princess?"
She looked up to find that Clarice had left the exhausted Hamster resting against a rock. In spite of her characteristic grin, there was unmistakable concern in those chestnut eyes. Tail wagging, Elaine smiled lightly, "I am alright. I was… just thinking about her."
"Heh, like I've said before, Puppy's lucky to have a friend like you," the Lynxlioness pinched the toy's cheek, which made its perpetual scowl extra prominent, "And! I'm sure she'd want you to have fun instead of worrying about her!"
"Are you… huff puff… trying to toss Lain …huff puff… into the lake again?" Though gasping for breath, Mariel seemed to have regained her endless energy for she quickly swam towards them with a protective glare.
"Of course not~" The naughty tail tuff swung towards the Rodent, who squeaked and barely avoided the lazy swipe. "I'll be nice and gentle this time. Come on, what do you say, Princess? Just take a dip in the water, you'll feel so much better."
"You are right," the Husky glanced at the clear surface, reassured by how she could see the ground beneath but her heart still quickened. "But I-"
"Tsk tsk," Clarice held up a finger and wiggled it, "No buts. Not everything's gonna start off easy of course, so you just need to take one step at a time and keep on practicing."
Elaine knew the philosophy well, for it was the principle she reminded herself every time she tried out something new, like the first time she played chess or held a saber.
"Just gotta do what you can, yeah?"
"J-just do the best you can-"
She blinked at the faint echo of her memory and held up the plushie as if the scowling toy had uttered those words. Its button eyes seemed to glimmer brightly like those particular garnet eyes of her childhood friend, encouraging her in its special way.
"Maybe I should just stop…"
Elaine drooped her ears and lowered the bow as the last echoes of her song faded in the vacant room. Sighing, she gingerly packed up her violin and decided not to linger in this rehearsal chamber, for she was disconcerted by the lack of audience. She had no problem practicing alone in the comforts of her home, but it felt unsettling, intimidating even, to do so here in the conservatoire without any spectators.
Maybe she just hated being alone.
She walked by her mother's classroom and had to tiptoe to peer at the small window on the thick door. Seeing how busy Alainna was, she just tucked a note beneath the frame to tell her that she was heading home. She knew that the older Canine needed to catch a train to Kaltrea later to have a meeting with her daddy, Hector, Heidi and the others, so they couldn't go back to their house together anyways.
She's been in a floating state of numbness ever since the Battle of Hodous. Everything was chaotic because of the Rebels' great loss in Fenrisyr and their relocation to Riphaeus, as well as their subsequent efforts to remain undercover. The adults of the young Puppy's life couldn't really spare much time for her, which she completely understood, but that didn't make her anxiety go away. She recalled Mr. Ed coming over to their house earlier to give her a mini-replica of the family heirloom, the Alarcos, to cheer her up. It was very kind of the elder man, reminding her that Uncle Alfonso's death would forever be honored by his comrades, yet it also reiterated the fact that the cookie-loving Husky was dead.
Elaine was having a hard time accepting the concept that a family member could be gone forever, never seen again, so she couldn't even dare imagine how her mother felt about this. Her grandfather Alcazar was also too grief-stricken by the death of his son and heir that he withdrew his financial support to the Rebellion. This decision consequently caused a ripple that cost the Rebels their connection to the other Dog Clans.
Many details weren't shared with the young Pup, but Alainna had told her that Alcazar still welcomed them if they ever wanted to return to his home in Alsailles. He even invited her to attend a prestigious school in Sidonia when she was old enough, so she could grow up with her fellow Canines to receive proper treatment and education.
As appealing as the offer sounded, Elaine wanted to stay in Riphaeus so she could be near her daddy and of course, Kura-chan. St. Petersburg Academy was known to be the best school in this continent and even better than some institutions in Tyradum, thus her reasoning was accepted by Alcazar.
But what should she do next? She didn't know what she could do to ease her fretful mind or help Kura-chan. The only thing she knew was to take care of herself so her parents would not have to worry about her on top of everything else.
Ears and tail drooping, Elaine fiddled with the hem of her skirt, distraught that her melancholy managed to take over her mind as it seemed to be doing often these days. There were many ways to distract this persistent mood but only one way or, rather, person was able to erase it completely.
Kura-chan had always been able to cheer her up just by being herself, but the younger girl must be more stressed due to the grand task she's been entrusted with. A few days ago, the Foxroach told her that during their recent trip to Torden, Hector had named her the successor to the Rebellion if anything were to happen to him. Elaine couldn't believe why he had chosen her of all the people, because she was still just a kid, a fact that Kura-chan grudgingly agreed.
However, the would-be leader also swore that she would grow into her role one day. It was good that she started so young, enabling her to learn and absorb the ways of the Rebels. There was so much determination in those garnet eyes that Elaine knew her childhood friend had made up her mind.
To Elaine though, it seemed that Kura-chan signed a contract with death. Her conviction was noble and admirable, and the blonde really wanted to be supportive, but she could not let her dear friend rush to an early demise by living this way!
What was a young Pup supposed to do?
Her ears perked in surprise at the sight of a familiar figure up ahead at the intersection connecting her neighborhood and the park. The small silhouette was leaning against the wall with her arms folded and her face scrunched up in a familiar scowl aimed at the fancily dressed pedestrians. The blonde would have missed the black-haired girl if it weren't for the bushy tail that stood out so much from a crowd of light-colored hair and clothes.
As well as the fact she was leering at a vendor selling carrot-flavored sweets.
Amethyst eyes were alit with joy as she quickened her pace towards her childhood friend.
The young Foxroach flicked her ear in greeting and immediately launched into a tirade about how Tal dragged her from Torden and just left her here. Flicking her long tail irately, she then grumbled how she didn't chase after him because it was the only way to get away from him whenever he was in that doting daddy mode.
"Seriously, Lainy, your father is crazy!"
Elaine tilted her head and giggled quietly at the younger girl, who flailed her arms about in annoyance. Kura-chan was always so energetic. What she lacked in size she made up for it with her liveliness, her spirit and her dream. She was so expressive and turbulent in contrast with the calm blonde girl who didn't have as much bounciness as she had as a younger Puppy.
Truly, it was easy to tell that the Foxroach was raised and taught by Hector, for she had an indomitable conviction and sense of justice just like the great rebel leader. There was no one stronger than her steel-will, as demonstrated by how she overcame her fear of heights a few days ago in Torden. Now looking at her young friend, Elaine was beginning to see that one day, Sakura Kurama just might be able to lead the rebels better than Hector Arthland ever did and finally liberate the world from terrible oppression and extortion with the Sabertooth's guidance.
"Now now, Daddy's just… worried," she smiled amiably and held the black-haired girl's hand. The Foxroach stiffened upon contact but did not shy away. Soon enough, she was back to her rant with her hand loosely gripping the taller girl's.
Elaine wagged her tail at the acceptance, reminiscing about a time when this voluntary gesture seemed impossible. Truthfully, Kura-chan was more vulnerable and fragile than she appeared. When she first came to Riphaeus years ago, she was wary of letting anyone close, especially those with impeccably clean pasts like Elaine or affectionate people like Tal. The younger Foxroach would have pulled away her hand out of discomfort just now, but the current one was more tolerant of her presence after practically growing up together.
She has known the black-haired girl ever since she could remember. According to her mother, Kura-chan first came to their house gently tucked in Tal's arms, so tiny and brittle. It was obvious that she cried herself to sleep, all curled up in a small ball with only her unusual antennae, large black ears and white-tipped tail visible.
Elaine's instinctive surge of protectiveness remained even today, and strengthened even more so throughout the years. She vowed that she would be the one to take care of her and make sure she was never lonely.
Yet again, that brought her back to the question of how could she do so, when she was a mere civilian and Sakura the future rebel leader?
"Lainy? You okay?"
Her gruff yet concerned voice brought the Husky out of her reverie. Elaine's ears shifted as she turned to regard the younger girl with a soft smile. Garnet eyes were brimming with countless emotions, blazing as if they contained a fire so intense that nothing could extinguish it.
Indeed, she was a precious jewel to be treasured and polished. The ten-year-old blonde thought about the magnolia flower that bloomed in the backyard under her care and made her decision then. Sakura was right, that if she tried hard enough she might succeed. While there was no guarantee, nothing would ever come to fruition if she didn't do anything at all. The Husky held her head high and nodded to herself. She will devote herself to Kura-chan anyway she could, starting with attending St. Petersburg Academy and learn everything she could about the world from a different approach than her friend.
"Ugh, these merchants are always selling those fancy stuff," the Foxroach buzzed irately and pointed to a popular stand that had a group of students surrounding it, "who would buy those things? And what use are those anyways?"
Elaine tilted her head at the petite bottles packaged in ribbon-wrapped transparent boxes. "Love potion 25…?"
The black-haired girl stuck out her tongue, her whiskers frizzled, "yuck! That sounds nasty already!"
The blonde Puppy was more intrigued by the number though. Did this mean there were twenty-five in total? Was this one of the trinkets where one had to collect everything in the series to win a grand prize?
"Hey, that actually looks nice!" Yipping, Kura-chan scuttled towards a nearby vendor, where a rather intricate collection of stationary was on display. "This is pretty!"
Elaine nodded readily, also mesmerized by ballpoint pen with a beautiful shade of red as its metal casing. The garnet color gave the instrument an austere yet lively aura in contrast to the bright but simplistic gold pen beside it. Since her friend rarely showed interest in daily items, the blonde wanted to purchase it as a gift but before she could take out her wallet, the Foxroach had already bought it.
And then, garnet ballpoint pen was placed into the confused blonde's hand.
"I like the color, but you're way better at writing so you'd make better use of this than me," the younger girl flicked her antennae anxiously, her gaze averted, "it has black ink anyways, so you can even use it to write me letters even on those fancy parchment…"
"B-But… are you going somewhere?" Elaine gripped the gift, her heart thudding in both delight and apprehension, "You can just come over to Ahkalin whenever you want…"
"Huh? I thought you're going to a school in Fenrisyr or something," the Foxroach looked up in befuddlement.
"No, I'm going to St. Petersburg Academy," the Husky said firmly, elated that her friend might actually miss her in that case.
"Oh, I see. Okay then… well, I'm still giving you the pen," Kura-chan smiled a little, her white-tipped tail now swishing in relief, "So, that's a really good school huh?"
"Yes, the entrance exam sounds rather complex…"
"Er well, j-just do the best you can, Lainy, you can do it!"
The blonde Puppy was filled with such inexplicable happiness that she had to hastily wipe her eyes.
"L-Lainy-?" The younger girl's squeak was borderline panicking, so she took a deep breath to quickly recompose of herself.
"I'm alright, Kura-chan. It's getting dark, so let's go home."
The Foxroach's whiskers twitched at the word that the Husky used to describe their destination but she did not comment on it. Elaine smiled fondly before leaning down to peck her forehead.
"W-w-w-what was that for?" Ears stiff, Kura-chan blushed deeply and hopped away from the taller girl. Mirthful amethyst eyes gazed at the fuzzy tail swinging side to side briskly to express the owner's embarrassment. Elaine's own tail wagged rapidly in response as she giggled into her palm.
"For the present and for shining so brightly, Kura-chan."
The blonde suppressed another giggle at the adorable pout on the girl's face. Indeed, she will grow up into the leader she was meant to be and maybe, just maybe, she would allow Elaine to stand by her side when that time came.
"May I cuddle you?"
"No braiding my hair?"
"No ribbons or braids I promise."
"A-alright then. Five seconds."
"I'll make you carrot cookies~"
"…f-fine, sixty seconds."
As Elaine wrapped her arms around the black-haired girl, she decided that things were fine the way they were now. She loved the harmonious atmosphere between them and their intangible bond was simply a fun puzzle she had yet to solve. She did not mind staying like this forever. They were barely out of their puppyhood after all, so it wasn't as if they were destined to drift apart. As for the Foxroach's involvement with the rebellion, it wasn't as if her fate was finalized either.
For now, they should enjoy the present and, as Kura-chan had put it, do the best they can.
"I already got the message that Daddy is still in Kaltrea because Maman will go find him instead. Therefore, you're more than welcome to stay for the night. Thanks for coming all the way here to see me."
"Oh, sure, no proble…wait! No! Er, I-I j-just saw Stryk going around on his bike a-and-!"
The blonde giggled into the flustered would-be leader's warm cheek. She certainly enjoyed these impromptu visits and the bad excuses her childhood friend used to hide her intentions.
Elaine smiled softly and gave the plushie another fond tweak to its ear before putting it back into her backpack. Her hand lightly brushed over the surface of the side pocket, where the garnet ballpoint pen she used to write her journal was placed. "Alright, I'll try my best."
"Alright! That's the spirit!" Clarice whooped and slung an arm around the Husky and the Hamster. Mariel elbowed the Feline immediately while the blonde flinched at the cold water seeping into her blouse.
"Oops, didn't mean to get you wet," the Lynxlioness rubbed bruised side as she whacked the Rodent's back with her tail tuff, making the latter topple into the lake.
"It is alright, I will just change into a simple shirt and shorts," Elaine giggled and quickly took a few steps back when Mariel wrapped her arms around the brunette's ankles underwater and pulled, creating a large splash as the Feline fell.
Oh, these two were just so much fun!
As she retreated to the sparse trees and bushes nearby to change, she couldn't help but glance back at her companions and felt a fierce pride in herself as well as her friends. Their quest just began, they hadn't done much and they didn't know much about each other yet, but they were already seeing and learning so many things about the wrongs in this continent, let alone the rest of the world. People turning a blind eye on injustice, parents teaching children how to hate others, people fearing others simply due to appearances, and people who were simply ignoring the fact that these wrongs existed, that they were only some of the issues that must be seen and experienced in order to solve. Perhaps people just didn't realize because the wrongs were the norm and thus accepted.
And so, how could people's eyes be opened?
Education was the first solution that came to her mind. Having attended one of the most prestigious schools on this land, she was able to enjoy a relatively objective point of view, untainted by bias and prejudice for the most part. Her parents valued education because it opened people's minds, and she had no doubt that it would help right the deeply embedded ignorance somehow.
Mariel was a living example after all. The Hamster had been so terrified of Clarice because of the aforementioned reasons, but she was playing with the older girl like they've been friends all their lives. Elaine deduced that any remaining bouts of fear were out of habit and instinct rather than an actual pervading reason.
"Argh! Stop that grin, stop that annoying grin I say!" The Rodent seemed to have snapped for she charged towards the sniggering Lynxlioness and grabbed her whiskers.
"Yoooowwww!" In spite of her pained yowl, Clarice was somehow keeping up that lazy smile, which prompted Mariel to tug harder. "O…pe…ning!"
Because the Hamster's middle was now unprotected, the brunette deviously began to tickle the shorter girl, who shrieked and abruptly loosened her hold.
As she stumbled backwards and fell into the waters once more, her leg kicked out and caught Clarice's abdomen.
"Not… again…" Mewling, the unfortunate Feline hugged her waist and slowly sank as well.
Indeed, Mariel didn't seem to like Clarice, not yet, but at least she was comfortable enough to be in such close contact with the brunette. It was such a refreshing change from the terrified Rodent they had first met in the woods more than a week ago, and Elaine could tell that the Lynxlioness thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the younger girl in spite of the physical abuse.
The Hamster might disagree, but Elaine wished there would be more Felines like Clarice so people would see that not all Cats were bad people.
Being well-travelled definitely helped expand one's horizon, whether through first-hand experience or tales from others. The blonde remembered a particular term at her school years and how her own perceptions were changed too, through an incredible substitute teacher.
Several girls laughed at what appeared to be an engaging topic, gesturing animatedly with their hands and chatting in excited voices. They talked about what they could do after school, the radio talk shows they could not afford to miss tonight and about how the handsome exchange student down the street was having a party this weekend.
Elaine glanced at the passing girls and smiled politely in greeting, only to receive stiff, forceful ones in return. She effortlessly masked her disappointment and continued her way towards her classroom in dignified steps, her mind already thinking about her schedule for the day. Since she already went to help out the fencing instructor in supervising the matches yesterday, she did not have anything to do in her free time today. Perhaps she should go over to the conservatoire later to help her mother? She enjoyed helping out whenever she could, and the older Husky did mention the roster grew in numbers recently.
Once her agenda was confirmed, Elaine's mind returned to the image of the group of schoolgirls who seemed to enjoy being around each other so much, sharing stories and joy.
Close friendship was something the young blonde did not have.
In a vast Feline-dominated school, even a prestigious one like St. Petersburg Academy, prejudice could not be avoided. The students mostly came from some of Tyradum's wealthiest families after all, and any non-Felines either came from equally affluent families of Fenrisyr, Vertalis and Samaria, or they had connections that shielded them from the blunt of the Felines' disdain. To those who knew, Elaine was often scorned for her mother's choice in marrying a distasteful vagabond like her father, that fallen nobility like her shouldn't mingle with them.
So instead of just hanging out with friends like most girls her age did, she devoted herself in studying various disciplines yet her achievements only distanced her from her peers more than her bloodline did. Her apparent popularity with boys did not help her gain any female friends either, while the boys kept a careful distance for some reason. The more forward ones all lost interest due to her polite aloofness, something she couldn't help due to their rather touchy manner.
There was an incident in her first year at the Academy, when she brought homemade treats to her class and temporarily succeeded in getting acknowledgment from her peers. However, after the bullies from other classes 'talked' with her classmates, the acceptance quickly vanished and never again did she try making desserts for anyone but her family. She pursed her lips in bitterness at the thought of the clay model of the moon she made for a contest that was shattered in half in the display room by an unknown perpetrator before the judging could commence. Unfortunately, the unfair treatment spanned even the adults, for she was denied eligibility for chess championships in Tyradum in spite of winning first place in many local matches.
Perhaps her peers were not as narrow-minded as back then, but she could not bring herself to make friends with them unless they showed that they had no ulterior motive. As it was, the stalemate went on until her polite aloofness was more or less a defense mechanism than friendliness.
However, she never forgot Kura-chan's words, so she continued to try her best in everything. While she loved making her parents proud, her main goal was to join the Rebellion in the future so she could assist her daddy and childhood friend Sakura. Naturally, they were still against the idea of involving her, an outsider, in this risky business now that Hector was gone. It was the reason why she and her mother still lived so far away from the center of the operation, Torden and the frequented city of Kaltrea.
For years she tried to obtain her daddy's approval, to show him that she would be able to withstand the perils of being a Rebel. She knew that Drasgard was suffering, yet all she could do was staying idly in this shelter while her important people were risking their lives out there every day. Sure she was only a fourteen-year-old teenager, but Sakura was even younger and she was almost killed by a traitorous compatriot. Fortunately, the eleven-year-old Foxroach was saved by a fellow Fox called Rui Brewfort, who owned a bar named the Cog Weasel.
As happy as Elaine was for her friend to have found another Vulpine to feel at ease around, she couldn't help but feel saddened since Sakura didn't visit as often anymore. Sometimes, just for a little bit, she wondered what it would be like if her childhood friend had opened up to her instead. Her dejected mood caused her to recall the incident she had earlier after she left her house. The Lorenzos, a family of Chihuahuas who lived in the same neighborhood, had immigrated from Fenrisyr and loved to taunt her about her parents' unequal social status. However, she could not bring herself to get angry at them because of how the little boy, Luis, seemed to like her even after his mother's warnings about interacting with a 'wild girl' like her. At the very least, she found solace at his innocent mindset, accepting her for how nicely she treated him instead of judging by her bloodline.
If only her peers could share the same view as the young boy.
She was so absorbed in her discouraging thoughts that she collided with another person when she turned corners at the hallway.
"I am so sorry!" Her red ears flattened in mortification when stacks of papers flew in every direction, making a few passing students snicker at her blunder.
"It's okay, I wasn't looking either."
She felt her heart skipped a beat when she realized who it was. Ragnur Dalquest's long ears seemed to wave off her apology as he crouched down to gather his files.
"Besides, it's nice of you to help me. Thanks, Miss Alsace."
Elaine nodded mutely, her ears turned redder if that were even possible. Whenever the Snow Hare was around, she's always found it difficult to articulate her thoughts or even organize the jumble of mess in her mind into coherent thoughts. The eighteen-year-old brunet was a travelling scholar who came to their Academy as a guest lecturer because of how well-travelled he was in spite of his young age. The principal, Dimitri Kosov, was usually a conservative Sphinx Cat but he valued worldwide knowledge enough to allow the Herbivore to stay for a term.
Ever since the first lecture, Elaine was spellbound by the colorful tales that Ragnur always brought to life. In the beginning, due to his species, he was looked down by the staff and student body alike especially because he was shorter than most Felines and Canines. However as time went by, the people in his class were all riveted by his stories, as well as the morals he's learned through his broad experiences. The passing students who did not help out just now were simply unfortunate not to have been able to know the charismatic Hare.
The young Husky was reminded of the fleeting thought she had earlier, that if more open-minded lessons were taught to the people, racism just might be able to disappear or subdued to a minimum. After all, Luis was a living proof that people were not born with prejudice.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Elaine yipped then blushed in mortification for being caught staring into space while holding a piece of paper mid-air as well as letting out such undignified sound. Ragnur only smiled kindly and waited for her to gather her bearings with the patience of a benevolent teacher. The teenager smoothed the nonexistent wrinkles of her skirt as she stood up stiffly.
"I-I was just thinking, Mr. Dalquest," she coyly handed over the files she'd helped picked up while keeping her gaze on the ground, afraid that her cheeks might erupt in flames. She had embarrassed herself enough already so if any more mishap were to happen, she might faint on the spot. On the bright side, those festering musings were temporarily blown away.
"Thinking is good," the summer-coated Hare chuckled in approval, "but you're always quite the attentive student, Miss Alsace, so I do wonder what it was that made you daydream."
Surprised but pleased that the Hare recognized her from a class of more than two hundred students, Elaine tried to stammer out a proper response as they headed towards the lecture hall. "Well, truthfully… I was just wondering why we do not have more teachers like you."
Ragnur's ears twitched inquisitively. "Like me? How do you mean?"
Judging from how heated her cheeks felt, the Husky knew she must be blushing in spite of her preventive attempts. "I-I mean, teachers who have been around the world. I-I truly enjoy your classes, Mr. Dalquest, I always find myself pondering over the lessons and feeling the same impact as if I were personally there at the places you have described."
"Why, I'm honored you think so highly of my stories," it could be her imagination but the furry black tips of Ragnur's ears darkened a shade at her sincere words. "My aim is to evoke thinking, yes, because I want the students to explore the possibilities their minds can offered, unbounded by physical limitations such as being confined in one town and unable to go outside their boxes. Sometimes though, the answers each individual seek can only be found in their own minds, and only after a certain life-changing incident too."
"Haha, I'm not trying to confuse you, Miss Alsace," the Hare's pace became slightly more energetic as they entered the classroom, "consider that a preview to the topic we're going to discuss today. I will be sharing the story that encouraged me to leave my comfort zone and see the world for myself."
Though confused, Elaine nodded keenly as she headed towards her usual seat by the window.
"Wait, don't forget your printout!"
The teenager blinked at the single question on the mostly blank page, something she did not notice in her haste to stay composed while picking up the papers earlier.
"What does knowledge mean to you, and what does education have to do with it?"
Beguiled by this simple yet profound query, Elaine sat down and eagerly listened to the teacher after the class had settled down.
"You think education is the process of a teacher imparting knowledge to the students? Only partly," the Hare smiled, "What's the purpose of education? It's to help you become useful in society, or so some of the textbooks defined. To me, education is also how you choose to apply your knowledge… if you'd use it to become a better person. Now, I'm going to share a story that may very well get me fired from the Academy, but I feel it's worth the risk."
Alarmed, Elaine swallowed nervously as Mr. Dalquest spoke of a young Reindeer named Shira Krasami living near his home village in Northern Fenrisyr. Her betrothed was murdered in front of her eyes by a gang of Wolverines, and then they assaulted her to the point she couldn't even return to her cabin. It was in that bloodied state that Ragnur, who was only fifteen then, found his friend crying for help. In spite of her testimony, however, no one was able to help her and the Wolverine authorities believed the killers' fake alibis instead. After all, Shira and Ragnur were just Herbivores and these Wolverines were brought up to believe that Carnivores were superior. On top of that, she was a mere female so the injustice done to her went unresolved. In fact, some of the other Reindeers even blamed her for needlessly aggravating the Wolverines, ostracizing her because she was on the lower end of the social hierarchy, an unwritten order that had been passed down from generation to generation.
While the class was buzzing with horror at the tale, Ragnur continued his tale in a deadly calm voice and dropped another bomb. "With no one but myself on Shira's side, what was a young Hare to do against the might of the Wolverines?"
Elaine swallowed slowly at the glazed look in the teacher's eyes.
"So, I killed them."
Silence instantly fell in the lecture hall.
"At first, I confronted the murderers at the edge of the forest, urging them to turn themselves in. They refused of course, so our arguments escalated to the brink of violence until something suddenly happened," he paused and dipped his head before speaking softly, "an avalanche. To this day, I still don't know how I survived. Was it divine justice? Was it simply a coincidence?"
"It was an accident… you didn't kill them."
Elaine didn't know who murmured those words, but that summed up her class's sentiment.
"Though indirect, it didn't change the fact I killed them," the Hare said solemnly, "I met them with the resolve and intention to kill them if necessary, but it just so happened that the avalanche did the dirty work for me. I thought death was the only way to punish them, but after that I became the one with the weight of their lives on my mind. No matter what crimes they had committed, I had no right to execute them. Think about it, if that were the case, an act of revenge would only spur on more revenge and continue this chain of vengeance and hatred. What do we get after that?"
"War… and feuding sides," a young Cobra whispered almost sadly.
"Yes," Ragnur nodded and hopped down from the podium, "This incident taught me that I can only achieve something if I took the matter into my hands, but it also cautioned me the possible consequences of doing so. I remember standing there, numb to the tip of my ears, rendered speechless at the sight of destruction by the avalanche. It was almost as if I was born anew."
With his long ears solemnly rigid, he smiled lightly at his hushed students. "I'm no longer a simple village boy now. From that moment on, I want to do something meaningful with my life so the ones who had perished, whether it was Shira's fiancé or the Wolverines, won't have died in vain. After all, I've lived while they did not. I've been given a small peek at a world I've never seen, as well as a side of myself I didn't know existed. I realized that I must leave my comfort zone if I want to learn more about the world. I want to see if it's only these remote villages that have such prejudice passed down from generation to generation. So I began my journey and, three years later," he chuckled at his class, "here I am."
Elaine sat still in her seat, her mind trying to understand this tale and the morals behind it as well as piecing together the various stories he'd shared since he became a substitute teacher here. There was a story of a hermit Wolverine who had given the traveling teen his food and heavy fur coat and almost died of pneumonia due to this selfless act. This incident taught the Hare that not all the Wolverines were evil. Later on, Ragnur had helped a preteen Fox who got lost in the Plains and they traveled together for some time, exchanging anecdotes of their diverse cultures and learned a great deal from this experience. He also met a Culpeo and a Munchkin, a happily married couple who were well-loved by their Reptile neighbors on a supposedly chaotic Samarian island. His journey revealed that at different parts of the world, diverse race was able to live together in harmony. Of course, there had been less than pleasant encounters as well, including several Silverfish gangsters in Iblav who wanted to cut off his long ears to sell to the black market.
Most communities were still bound by tradition, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but such conservative thinking did make them wary of unusual matters and more difficult to tolerate the differences.
Therefore, Ragnur began to introduce various cultures by traveling throughout Fenrisyr and inviting people to tour their home continent with him. Before, only pilgrims would do so, for only very few businessmen would go far because the expenses were too high for frequent trips. With the Hare helping the northern villagers, they were able to visit as far as the Plains and even the coastal cities. Several people of various races had joined his cause too, including Shira who had recovered from her trauma with the Hare's help. Slowly but surely, locals and travelers were becoming more open to the touring.
"That sounds so dangerous, Mr. Dalquest," a Borzoi spoke up incredulously, "I get so tired of visiting my relatives in Ebro already, and passing through cities like Xenoc scares me because of all the hooligans there. I cannot imagine how it is like, going around the places like you do."
"Oh I won't lie," the young Hare chuckled as he rubbed the back of his head, "I'm terrified most of the time, especially in the wilderness. But at the same time, I get thrilled at this challenge. What's more rewarding than braving your fear? Every time I complete a trip, I feel like I've become a stronger man. I believed in what I'm doing is worthwhile…and that's enough for me to keep walking."
He looked around his students and grinned boyishly, "One step at a time, yes?"
Elaine smiled to herself as she took ginger steps towards the lakeshore, now donned in simple pink shirt and shorts. She was quite infatuated with the Hare, was she not? He was definitely one of her most important role models, for he shared that same powerful determination her parents and Kura-chan had. Encouraged and impressed by his conviction and bravery, she happily shared the story with her mother after class. The elder Husky had a peculiar glint in her eyes at the time, and now looking back Elaine understood that the woman knew her little girl will set out on a journey one day, just as she had done as an adolescent.
Was that why Alainna readily allowed her to leave Ahkalin with Clarice? Did the older blonde saw something in the Lynxlioness that was similar to Hector and daddy?
She wondered if Ragnur was teaching elsewhere or resumed his travels. She'd love to listen to more of his stories and learn. Although, rather than being an inactive participant, she was already gaining so much by experiencing the outside world herself, was she not?
"Heh, that took you a while, Princess," Clarice seemed to have recovered from the kick and was floating on her back leisurely near the shore, "you could've just dived in with your undies, we wouldn't mind!"
Heat quickly crawled up her cheeks, mortified at the mere thought of such underdressed state. Seeing the brunette's wide grin though, Elaine quickly realized her friend was just teasing her yet again.
"You're such a pervert!" Mariel yelled from a rock, stretched out on her stomach where a small ball of a tail could be seen from the Husky's perspective but probably not the Lynxlioness's, otherwise the latter would have pounced already.
"What! Like you don't want to see more of Princess, Hammy~"
"I saw everything~" Clarice flicked her tail lazily like a paddle, steering towards her Rodent friend, "each night at camp, you always snuggle up to her~ Who's the pervert now?"
"I-I like Lain's warmth, okay!"
The Hamster just did a belly flop on the surprised Feline. Elaine couldn't help but burst into laughter, though she tried to muffle her mirth by covering her mouth.
"Asadfadf Princess! This evil Bear is molesting your favorite kitten!"
"I'm a Hamster and no I'm Lain's favorite!"
Now standing at the edge, Elaine blinked down at the surface and felt her confidence receding. She was suddenly very aware of the fact she was at this foreign town that was miles away from anyone she was familiar with. Certainly, her companions were very nice and around her age but it didn't change the fact that they barely knew each other.
Her ears drooped, disliking the direction her thoughts were taking.
Sometimes, it didn't matter if she knew a person for a long time or not. There was something deeper than that, a bond that existed either through blood or simply, a strong bond formed by similar interests.
Didn't she learn this in that unforgettable summer at Sidonia?
She was light on her feet, her expression blank but focused on her opponent as she hopped back out of the wooden saber's jab. Immediately, she lunged forward with a powerful thrust, forcing her foe to block the attack by bending his arm in an uncomfortable way.
The stalemate persisted as they calmly smiled at each other, their gazes solely fixated on their stances to disregard the noise from their spectators. The practice swords trembled with strain as the fencers tried to disengage even though neither was unwilling to relent their lock. Amethyst eyes stared into blue-grey ones, searching for the slightest waver in order to launch into another series of slashes. Maple leaves slowly drifted around them, stirred by the heat enlivening this autumn weather.
The tall Malamute's lips quirked a little, then all of a sudden, he twisted his wrist to knock away her saber. As she staggered back from the force, he followed up with a lightning strike that snapped the wooden sword in half. Her eyes widened at this maneuver, but she merely flattened her ears in grim resolution and readied herself. Before he could point the tip of his blade against her neck to call match, she fell back and supported her weight with her hands to kick upwards.
His weapon was knocked out of his grip and fell on the edge of their ring with a dull crunch amidst the fallen leaves.
The black-haired Malamute and their spectators were staring at her in surprise, which made her slightly proud of her reckless but ultimately successful move. After all, it was not an official duel judged by a certified referee, so there was nothing wrong with being a bit clever, or resourceful as Kura-chan always said.
"Did you see that?"
"Goodness, what an uncouth trick!"
"She is the spawn of that stray, remember?"
"Indeed, the daughter of that blunt Calatrava woman…"
"Does she not know she is wearing a skirt? How vulgar, exposing her undergarment in such a manner!"
Mortified, she immediately crouched down and wished for the ground to swallow her. She wore her shorts beneath her skirt so it should have been fine, but she didn't anticipate such hurtful comments, because of a spontaneous feat she was so proud of too. The heated whispers continued to echo maliciously as her red ears sank against her fair hair and her tail curled between her legs. This shouldn't bother her anymore, yet she couldn't find the strength to stand on her feet especially now that the euphoria from the battle faded and left her cold with shame.
Today, on behalf of her maternal grandfather, the seventeen-year old blonde had attended the birthday banquet of Diego Aragon, the ruler of Sidonia and patriarch of the Aragon Clan. The elderly Husky was sick with flu, so Elaine had come to the city along with a few of his representatives. She was supposed to represent one of the four ruling Clans of Southern Fenrisyr, yet she had already embarrassed her family in this icebreaker match with Diego's son.
"Splendid match, Helena."
She slowly looked up to see an offered hand and a kind smile from her opponent. Carlos Aragon smiled at her encouragingly as he pulled her up with ease.
"Since you have defeated me in a chess match last night and our duel a draw, it would make our tally one-nothing," he spoke rather loudly so their audience heard him and stopped murmuring. "Now, I believe Senorita Takeshiro has a performance prepared for us?"
As if on cue, the demure-looking Shiba wearing an exquisite kimono moved towards the other side of the field, where a carpet emblazoned with the Sakamoto Clan's four-wheeled insignia was already laid out. She kneeled in front of a wooden, thirteen-stringed instrument known as the koto and began playing serenely. Under the maid's calming melody, the tension in the air gradually faded as the spectators became absorbed in the traditional song, which allowed Carlos to lead Elaine away from the scene.
"It is hard to change the rather narrow way they think, is it not?" The Malamute chuckled amiably as they came to a pleasant spot beneath a grand tree, where two Canines were waving at them.
Unable to trust her voice yet, Elaine nodded bashfully and sat down on the picnic sheet to join their friends. Renee Dobrezynski, the sisterly Saint Bernard, immediately fussed over her and murmured comforting words. "Do not listen to those prudish elders, Ellie! We do not get to see you often as it is, yet they always act so hostile towards you…"
"Totally. We're surrounded by bakas!" Hideki Sakamoto, the playful Akita, sniggered as he rolled a riceball in his palm, "I mean, it doesn't really matter if Ellie-chan here flashed her panties or not, it's to her future hubby after all~"
Elaine's cheeks darkened a shade from the reminder as well as from the teasing remark. The four of them were the youngest Canines in the four Clans and thus always hung out together whenever she came to Fenrisyr to visit her grandfather. Since Hideki and Renee were happily engaged, the Akita often joked that she and Carlos should get hitched too.
"I mean, I miss Renee-chan already even though we live several cities apart. I can't even imagine what it's like to be on different continents!"
"True, distance makes the heart grow fonder…" Renee smiled fondly at her fiancé as the couple's tails wagged like no tomorrow. The two had been lovey-dovey with each other for as long as Elaine could remember, which was quite fortunate considering arranged marriages tended to disregard the feelings of the people involved.
"I adore Helena as the little sister I never had," Carlos calmly took a bite from the sushi Hideki brought, though the tips of his ears were slightly red.
"And you are like my big brother," Elaine spoke amiably at the Malamute who was two years her senior. Even though she didn't get to meet with them often, she considered the three as her friends and vice versa. Unlike most members of their Clans, the three adolescents were quite accepting of her. Moreover, in contrast to his father, Carlos was also a benevolent heir who genuinely cared about the welfare of the people living in Sidonia. Along with his tutor Matthias Draque, the young man often made trips around the Southern Fenrisyran cities in preparation for the day he would become a Clan head.
"Well, Ellie-chan, not long ago our asexual Carlos-kun here finally found a girl he likes~"
"Hideki…" Carlos muttered warningly, but the said Akita only stuck out his tongue like a good-natured Dog.
"Oh? Do tell me more," Elaine wagged her tail rapidly, very intrigued by the way the Malamute's cheeks darkened in embarrassment.
"Remember the yearly fiesta in Palencia? He met this beautiful dancer and he cannot stop talking about her since~" Even the mild-mannered Renee joined in the teasing, her floppy black ears twitching in amusement at his miffed frown.
"I have done no such thing, mi amigos," the Malamute coughed quietly and was able to regain his composure with just that, an ability Elaine was envious of due to how easy she tended to blush. "Besides, we have not heard you talk about your crush for a while, Helena. What happened?"
"M-Mr. Dalquest is not my crush," the Husky despaired at her flushed cheeks, in spite of vowing not to blush again moments ago. "He was only at Ahkalin for a term and he never came back. I suppose he returned to his home town in Northern Fenrisyr."
"The North… man, I really don't get this tension between us and the Wolves," Hideki gobbled down slices of sernik, the traditional cheesecake his fiancée had baked. "We're brethren after all. If we can just work together…"
"Hideki is correct," Carlos' soft expression was unusually grim, "the Webgate Fortress is growing in strength. Soon any signs of unrest in mid-Fenrisyr will vanish, overwhelmed by its power. We must never let Tyradum gain a full control of the center and allow them to divide the Dogs and Wolves further."
Elaine almost blurted out her daddy and Kura-chan's efforts for the Rebellion but managed to stop herself in time. While her friends knew the gist of the situation, the Rebels were a sore topic for the other Clan members, thus she could not talk about the matter openly here. She interlaced her fingers contemplatively, filled with guilt that she was enjoying a relaxing afternoon here in the untouched land of Sidonia while her important people were working so hard in Riphaeus.
"Ellie, I know you must tire of me asking every time but," Renee gently touched her shoulder, bring her out of her reverie, "will you not consider living permanently in Fenrisyr? We have heard about the situation in your Academy, so you might be better off in the colleges we have in Carrera…"
"Thank you for your concern, but I am afraid Ahkalin will always be my home. It is not only because my family is there, but also… my dear friend," the blonde smiled unwaveringly, "that is where I belong."
"Right, that Kura girl, we totally understand," Hideki grinned and thumped his fluffy tail against the picnic sheet, "maa, we can't help you with anything as we are now, but maybe… in the future…"
He trailed off, his arms folded for the dramatic pause. The Akita did not have to complete his sentence, for the four of them have long vowed to watch each other's backs and actually do something with the influences and powers given to them as their birthrights about the divisions in Fenrisyr. This continent was symbolized by an emblem of a three-headed Canine, but before the different heads could work together, the individual unit must join as one first. The four Dog Clans, the three Coyote Tribes and the three Wolf Packs must eventually find a way to work together if they wanted to stop the expansion of Tyradum's power.
"You are certain that you wish to stay in Riphaeus?" Carlos gazed at Elaine evenly. There was no judgment in his blue-grey eyes, only a search for her sincerity.
"Oui," the Husky's tail wagged furiously in spite of her solemn expression. "I will try to help Kura-chan any way I can."
He smiled affably at the zealous appendage and gave her a soft kiss on her forehead. "Understood. Just remember you will always be welcome here, no matter what. That is the one time I will exploit my power, and I will be quite happy to do so. After all, we are Canines."
"We may not be related by blood…" Renee pecked her cheek while Hideki shook her hand. "But we're family!"
"Thank you…" Bashful under their heartfelt gestures, Elaine simply expressed her feelings the truest way she knew. She smiled brightly and allowed her tail to swing as fast as it pleased.
"You can do it, Lain!" Mariel shrugged off Clarice, who was draped over her head, and swam towards the shore to reach for the Husky.
Now with her newfound confidence, Elaine's furry tail was wagging fervently again under her friends' encouragements. After taking the Hamster's hand, she carefully dipped her toe in the lake and shivered instinctively at coldness, even though she was already overheated in this arid climate. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to just step into the water.
She felt her consequent yip to be justified.
"Awww, no worries, you'll get used to it soon. Your body's just adjusting to the temperature differences right now," Clarice grinned as she waded towards the trembling Canine to take her other hand. "There there, we won't let you go."
Since the water only reached up to her waist, she felt silly for making such a fuss.
"There's a dip, so for now keep to the shoreline until you get used to the temperature," Mariel said calmly like an experienced instructor, which she probably was because of all the kids she looked after. She even beamed at the bashful blonde before loosening her grip. "We should still start with some sort of float though. I'm gonna look around to see if there's a good drift wood!"
"My Hamster can't be this handsome!" Clarice purred like an enamored maiden but before she could pinch the Rodent's cheek, the squeaking target already dove out of reach.
"Oh, enough of that already!"
As the two older girls watched their companion swim away, they couldn't help but smile affectionately.
"To be honest, I thought it'd take longer for her to be this comfortable around us… well, mostly me, but I'm really happy about our progress!" Clarice chuckled and squeezed Elaine's hand before letting go, seeing the latter was not in danger of stumbling or anything.
"Indeed, I am satisfied with what we have already," the Husky's tail wagged sluggishly under the water, making the Feline giggle at the sensation of a current brushing past her.
"Hehe, I'm sure you'll be a great swimmer in no time with the propeller tail of yours, Princess~"
Miffed that the uncontrollable appendage was under scrutiny again, she splashed some water onto the brunette's grinning face. She giggled somewhat proudly at the way Clarice gawked at her.
"This Kitty is not meant to get wet!"
"But you were already wet, you were swimming before after all," she tried to control her ever-widening smile, her tail still wagging slowly beneath the water. "I am merely keeping you hydrated."
"Oho~ That means I should help ya cool down, Princess~"
Elaine yipped at the Feline's predatory grin and frantically tried to paddle way from the shore, but she was still too afraid to leave the solid ground to swim a good distance away. She tried to kick off from the sandy floor and paddle with her limbs, though it didn't have the desired effect for she had to touch the bottom every few moments.
"I left you alone for just a bit and you're molesting her already!" Mariel shrieked in outrage when she saw the Lynxlioness's arms wrapped around the squealing blonde.
"Quick, Hammy, we need to dunk Princess underwater!"
"It's like a ritual! Come on, hold your breath, Princess!"
Though unimpressed, the Hamster smiled encouragingly and gestured at the piece of driftwood she found somewhere. "Crazy Cat's actually right, in a way. I want to see how long you can stay underwater so I know, well, how to teach you."
"Yeah, we'll pull you right up when you want us to," Clarice was still giggling, but she took a step back and twirled her tail tuff, watching like a vigilant lifeguard.
"Oh… alright, I can do that," Elaine swallowed nervously and glanced at her companions one more time before crouching down. She fearfully gazed at the surface, which was now up to her chin, and took a deep breath. Her heart thundered uncomfortably against her ears but she focused her awareness on her friends' presence and dove beneath the clear water.
Being submerged underwater was definitely a sensation she would take a while to get used to, along with the uncertainty of where her direction was and whether if she would surface or not. At least, in comparison to her puppyhood, she managed to swim the distance of twice her height away from the shore all by herself.
"Great job, Lain, keep going!"
"Yeah, Princess, we got your back!"
Besides, she had her wonderful companions to help her achieve that extra mile.
Like Kura-chan said, just do my best. Take one step at a time, and paddle away!
AN: This marks the end of the first Arc of The Bell Keeper: Clarice Chronicles. We hope that you enjoyed reading. Do tell us your thoughts in a review, we would love to see our readers' opinions.
Ce n'est rien, ma chere soeur - it's nothing, my dear sister
mon petit chiot - my little puppy