Gasping for breath through fits of uncontrolled giggles, Furixie said, “You should have seen your FACE!” before dissolving into laughter again. She was clutching her fluffy black tummy and rolled right off the queen’s desk.
Oliver, her younger brother, chuckled when she hit the dirt floor with a thud. “Serves you right! You can pretend to be the cat next time and I’ll slay you!” He bent down and flung his head, knocking the stick that they pretended was Nym’s staff to the other side of the office.
Still giggling, she wiped the tears from her eyes with her front paws, flopped to a side, and looked up at him. His white teeth gleamed like the rest of his body. His shiny, dark blue fur with thin silver stripes running from his nose to his tail, also known as a scut, made him look much more regal than her, the official heir to the Rabbun Kingdom of Carright Castle and surrounding area of Carrington. Her black body, sleek except for the fluff that stuck out from her tummy and the one long tuft of black hair that frequently embarrassed her by refusing to stay between her medium-sized ears, were plain features for a Rabbun. She had a bright white scut and light brown eyes, all plain, like the rest of her. It hadn’t bothered her much until recently.
A forceful foot thump, expressing great irritation, brought them both up short. She hopped up and sat next to Oliver, her ears drooping as she saw Janessa’s glare. Oliver grimaced, then cast his silver eyes to the floor. Oh, how she missed Annie the Nanny. Now that she was almost thirteen springs old, Annie was no longer in charge of her. She frowned as she remembered her father, sleek and black like her but large like her mother and with an all-encompassing silver mane, saying, “You’ll be a teenager soon, Furixie. It’s time to stop being a kit and start learning how to rule one day.”
Janessa cleared her throat. “Well? What were you two doing in here? The queen’s office is not a playroom, and Furixie, I thought your father made it clear your days are no longer to be idle.”
Without thinking, the whisper escaped her lips, “Mom’s office.” She swallowed, hoping Janessa hadn’t heard, but that stupid lock of long hair between her ears shot straight up, almost declaring, “I talked back! I talked back! Punish me!”
Janessa’s pink eyes narrowed, staring between her ears. She gulped. The matron’s taupe body had wide, dark bands of fur over it. She thought the dark colored band of fur running across pink eyes ruined the matron’s elegant look and warned of the grumpy disposition. Janessa said, “One: No more playing in here. Ever. This is an invitation-only room. Two: No dessert for a week, Princess. Oliver, I will speak to Annie where you’re concerned. Furixie, put your face back to rights! Have you ever seen your mother with her face looking like that?” Janessa sucked in a breath. “If they express shock at the change, you may tell yourself and others that you’re growing up and making more nutritious choices.”
The long clump of hair was almost vibrating. She had to force her face back to a neutral position. She wasn’t thirteen springs old yet. Was she supposed to just give up her life already? It would be ages before she ever became queen and didn’t want to, anyway.
An idea struck her. Maybe she could just say politely—no thank you. Yes! That was it. Her shining brother would make a much better ruler, and he already looked the part more than her. Relief washed over her and she felt the hair between her ears settle down on her head. What was a week of no dessert, really? By the end of it, she’d be free of this burden. And Janessa.
Oliver was nodding his head in agreement when her eyes came back into focus. Janessa was glaring at her. She gave a sharp nod of consent and stood still, attempting to look remorseful.
After a sweeping glance over the both of them, noting the deflated hair, Janessa said, “Good. Oliver, return to the royal boys’ room. Furixie, you are to meet with Onus in the king’s advisors’ office. You’re nearly late.”
She had totally forgotten. A few days ago, her father dropped his announcement of all the fun being sucked out of her life. In addition to Janessa being in charge of her instead of sweet, gentle, let-you-get-away-with-anything Annie, she was to start security training with Onus, today, on rest day of all days. Did anything sound more boring than security training? Dad had said it was the first step in preparation of being the future queen. She shuddered at the memory, remembering being determined to enjoy the last days before her life completely changed.
“This is the last time you won’t be cleaning up your own mess, Princess,” Janessa stated before turning and hopping to the bell nook near the entrance of the room. The taupe nose nudged the suspended bell.
The pretty tinkling sound brought a small smile to her lips. She remembered loving the bell nook so much she’d try to play songs on it when she was a little kit, when she was with her mom all the time. Annie would keep coming in after each summons, until finally giving up and plopping down in the office, purple scut sticking out from under the pink apron the nanny usually wore, and with an exasperated smile would start playing with her. When Annie got tired, she’d try to count all the sharp purple symbols on the nanny’s violet fur. She sighed. That seemed like forever ago now.
“What are you waiting for?” Janessa’s shrill voice broke through her thoughts and her and Oliver scurried away.
* * *
“I can’t believe you got us in trouble again,” Oliver breathed as soon as they crossed into the earthen hall.
“You were having as much fun as I was, and at least you get dessert still,” she hissed as they passed Janessa’s office.
They turned into the main hall and she stopped when she reached the first tunnel, leading to the king’s advisors’ office and her father’s office. “Oliver…”
He shook his dark blue head, not looking back. His silver stripes seemed to gleam with his irritation at her. She sighed. He was always more reserved, always more serious than her. It just made more sense for him to be heir.
She turned into the hall and immediately into the advisors’ office. Her father had four advisors: Davidson, the oldest and newly retired, Vulmon, now senior advisor since Davidson’s retirement, Connak, brought on by Vulmon when he became senior advisor, and Onus. She didn't know them very well. Onus was her favorite, simply because he always acknowledged her, and not in the pompous “Your Highness” way, but as if he was genuinely interested in her as an individual. He never bored her like Davidson or gave her the creeps like Vulmon, who had a thin, scraggly mane of grey fur protruding below the black patch of fur on his chin, nothing like the full, thick mane of her father’s. She brightened. Maybe, just maybe, Onus could make security lessons better than she was expecting. Her ears perked up when she reminded herself it was Oliver that would be taking these lessons soon, and she would be back under the warm brown eyes of Annie, who was kept quite busy with her younger siblings, especially Flip.
“Hello, Furixie.” Onus sat near the back of the room, which was large enough to comfortably fit four desks. She smiled when she saw it was just her and Onus, happy she wouldn’t have to make awkward conversation with the other advisors or have them watch her try to not fall asleep during her lesson.
“Hi, Onus.” While she waited for instruction, she looked around the room she hadn't been in before. Like all the other rooms in the underground palace, the rounded walls and ceiling were smooth tunneled earth, and the ground was hard, packed dirt. The four desks sat opposite each other on both sides, leaving a square of emptiness in the middle of the room. Behind Onus looked to be several boring posters put up for her benefit. She tried to muffle her premature yawn.
Onus chuckled. “Yes, I imagine security lessons by an old advisor of your father’s was not on the top of your list of things to do on rest day. I’m sorry, Princess, but we all have our duties.”
She bristled. “Do you have to call me that? You’ve always called me by my name.”
“I see no reason why, in our lessons at least, I can’t continue to address you by your name.” He frowned. “However, you are indeed the princess, the heir—”
“I know.” She clamped her mouth shut and willed her eyes to not roll like they wished. This was off to a rocky start.
Onus sat in silence, watching her with his dark eyes. His body was covered in short white fur everywhere except for his blue ear tips and the yellow circle patterns that formed a cross on each of his sides. He was stout, wider than most Rabbuns. The head of security, Rufus, was broadest.
“I’m sorry, Onus. I didn’t mean to—”
“Cut me off? Have your thoughts reveal themselves?”
She looked up at him, his bemused expression surprising her.
When she didn’t respond, he continued. “One day, whether you like it or not, you will be queen.” She frowned. “And I will be so bold as to guess one day you shall warm up to the idea.”
Her look hardened, but for once she didn’t speak.
“My point is, you will have to get used to being addressed by your official title. Proper etiquette dictates the rest of the kingdom shall show you respect in this way.”
Arguing wasn’t going to get her anywhere. She didn’t want Onus to dislike her. Hopefully, he would get on with the lesson and be done with it.
“Shall we begin?”
“Very well. I beg your pardon while we start at the beginning, for thoroughness, you know.”
She sighed, but nodded.
“Rabbuns are similar in structure to our rabbit cousins. We are small, furry, and rather attractive.”
She couldn’t help it. She rolled her eyes.
“Bear with me, Furixie, or I shall have to call you Princess during our session.” He nodded at her look of horror. “However, instead of the brittle hollow bones of common rabbits, Rabbuns have solid bones that are very durable, their forepaws can grip things tighter, such as quills, and their fur usually has irregular patterns or vivid colors. They also commonly work in an upright position, with all of their weight on their hind legs, but almost all hop as rabbits do to get around, unless it’s for a short distance. Your parents, Rufus, and Vulmon being the exceptions, of course. Oh yes, and we sleep at night and are awake during the day, unlike our crepuscular cousins, who are active mostly at twilight. Now,” He hopped closer to her. “This matters from a security perspective. Tell me why.”
She blinked at him. Considering she zoned out right after “instead of hollow bones,” she had no idea how to answer him.
He sighed. “This can be as boring as you expect, Furixie, or it can be interesting. But you must invest yourself. Alright, imagine you are outside of Carrington’s borders.”
Her hair tuft shot forward. “We aren’t allowed beyond the borders.”
Onus looked away. “Technically, that is true. But it wasn’t always so and may not be in the future. You will be ruler one day and it will be your decision whether or not travel is permitted.”
Her heart beat faster. She had never considered that being queen would mean she would make up the rules…
“I see I’ve gotten your attention. Can you explain why the differences between rabbits and Rabbuns are important for security, especially if you were outside of Carrington?”
“Um… well, it’s good we don’t die as easily as rabbits?”
“True. Anything else?”
She couldn’t think of anything. Rabbits were weak and boring, Rabbuns were stronger and prettier. Well, most Rabbuns anyway.
“Why is going beyond the border prohibited, Furixie?”
“The Cats hunted us to near extinction. It took many springs to thrive again. Carrington has everything we need. Keep concealed, keep alive,” she recited the four sentences taught every school year and repeated at home for good measure. Everyone knew why they had to stay inside the borders.
“Yes. So, pretend you were outside the borders. Why do the differences matter?”
But she wasn’t listening. She couldn’t pretend she was outside the borders. It was what she longed for more than anything, to see something new, something different, to see a sunrise or sunset, to see the pastel colored trees and lush grass that were supposed to be outside the fortification, and whatever lay beyond them. Not even being heir got you a pass beyond the fortification. Every time she got near the gate she’d been reprimanded.
“Onus, have you been beyond the borders?”
He studied her for a moment. “Yes.”
“What’s it like? Does everything look the same, or are there different trees? Is grass green everywhere? Does the sky look the same everywhere? Is—”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because it’s boring here! Nothing ever happens. I mean, do the Cats even exist? Didn’t they go extinct? Why do we have to be so careful?”
He was studying her again. “If I give you a glimpse, not literally, of course, of other parts of Harmonyterra, will you do your best to be a better student? Not just for me, not just for you or your parents, but for your future role as queen?”
She paused. How could he give her a glimpse, without taking her outside of Carrington? Maybe tell her something he remembers? But being a better student, for her future role as queen? What about getting Oliver to take over the title of heir?
“I appreciate you considering your answer beforehand, but I do have another appointment I must be getting to. Do we have a deal or not?”
“I… I don’t promise things unless I’m going to keep them.”
“An admirable quality in anyone, especially a future leader. Still, decisions must be made.”
She looked at him with pleading eyes. She wanted to know more about the rest of the world, Harmonyterra, but she didn’t want to commit to becoming queen yet, even though everyone else had already decided for her. It was different if she agreed to it.
Onus gave her a small smile. He hopped to his desk, his head disappearing from view for a moment as she heard parchment and other objects get shuffled around. He hopped back to her, a scroll tucked under his right foreleg. “This is something very important to me. Have you ever heard of Nym?”
Her eyes bulged. “Of course! The brave adventuress that saw more of Harmonyterra than any other rabbun since we settled at Carrington. She died with the rest of the company that settled another Rabbun colony somewhere else in Harmonyterra. The Cats.” The last part came out as a growl. “But some say she finished them off before dying, so we could continue to adventure.”
He raised his thin white eyebrows. “Is that what they say?”
She looked at the ground. Once she had heard some old rabbuns talking, saying the Cats must have died out, since they hadn’t seen nor heard of them since the failed crossing. She may have embellished the story a bit with Nym’s part in the Cats’ demise. Every time she brought it up in school or at home, they shut her down. It was as if the grief of the loss was too much to even consider discussing.
“Our next meeting is tomorrow, same time, same place. You show up with a proper learning attitude, and I may share some of Nym’s tales.”
She stared at the scroll tucked under his foreleg, eyes widening. “That’s The Lost Adventures of Nym?” she whispered. “The scroll that contains all her entries?”
“Not lost, although I would appreciate you not mentioning it to anyone.” He paused. “Even your father, at least for now.”
Her eyes darted to his, heart pounding. It was so tempting, but was it worth a lifetime of servitude?
“See you tomorrow, Furixie.” He nodded toward the hall, dismissing her.
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