"Wow! I can't believe we're finally in Shenkuu!" May exclaimed, his bushy tail swinging behind him as he swiveled every which way.
"It's beautiful," August agreed. "I can't believe you've never been. We live right over in Altador."
"I've always wanted to come here and play this Kou-Jong I've heard so much about," said July, pushing her spectacles up.
"Kou-Jong? Boo-ring!" said June. "I'm gonna check out the weapon shop!" The speckled Acara was off, making a beeline for the building with the flag of two crossed swords over it.
May chuckled. "Typical! What do you want to do first? Ooh! Let's go try some exotic foods!"
"Yeah, then we can go next door to Culinary Concoctions. It's supposed to be quite interesting!"
The green Usul and the yellow Xweetok were off, without bothering to wait for August's response. They didn't even look back to see if she was following. She sighed, wondering what she should do. She thought about climbing up to the lunar temple, but the others would probably want to go later, and August could tag along then.
The red Wocky decided she may as well go find June and give her some company. They met as June was leaving the shop with an armload of goods. "Oh, I thought you were with the others. Look at this neat throwing star I got--it's dangerous AND beautiful! Maybe even May will like it. I should go show him."
"Okay," said August. "They went to the food shop."
"Cool," said June, setting off. "Well, come on then."
So August sighed and followed, retracing her steps without actually getting to look inside the weapons shop. Oh well, she told herself. She wasn't that interested in weaponry anyway. The outdoors were more interesting to her. The steep mountains, shrouded in mist, had trees growing out of the sides and swaying bridges hanging every which way.
They met up with their brother and sister twenty minutes later. After sampling some different foods, they started debating what to do next, before it got dark.
"We could go on a nature hike," said August. "I heard there's some really cool ones around--"
"Ooh! Let's go check out the Cyodrake's Gaze!" said June, pointing a speckled paw at the ship barely visible through the mist.
"Yeah!" agreed May and July at once.
August sighed. "Okay, sounds cool."
No one had heard her.
Her siblings were gone when August woke up the next morning, all three of them. August decided to enjoy her solitary morning, eating a delicious breakfast at the restaurant in the cozy neolodge they were staying at. She then headed out for the nature hike on her own.
She didn't see her siblings until late that afternoon. They were sitting outside Exotic Foods, eating fried noodles and kimchee. By the time August bought her Lotus Rice and met up with them, they were taking their last bites.
"Sorry, August!" said July through a mouthful of food. "We waited for you for a bit, but we were starving and no one knew where you were."
"No problem," August sighed.
"We're gonna go visit the lunar temple now," May announced. "We were just talking about it while you ordered your food. If we leave now, we can be there around nightfall."
August followed along. She chattered with her siblings as they hiked up the winding mountain path to the temple, but she couldn't shake the feeling that they didn't care either way whether she was there or not. She didn't want to start drama, so she said nothing, but wondered to herself what would have happened if she had never happened across them during lunch. Probably they would be on their way to the temple without her.
When they arrived at the top of the mountain around twilight, her worries were briefly forgotten. The great temple towered over the trees. They had risen above the mist, and the tops of mountains and the taller buildings of Shenkuu were visible below them. After marveling for a few minutes, they stepped inside the red stone building. Windows along every wall brought in natural light and a view of the stars outside.
They made their way up the stairs that spiraled around the perimeter. "Hey, it reminds me a bit of the observatory at Altador, doesn't it?" said July.
"I haven't been there yet," August reminded them.
"Oh yeah," said July. "We went when we first moved."
Suddenly, July, June, and May were reminiscing about when they first moved to Altador, chattering and laughing as they looked at lunar models and charts. August fell silent once again. By the time they were leaving the Lunar Temple, their topic of conversation had shifted to their first vacation as a family, to Terror Mountain. August had not been there for that either.
Just to see what would happen, she hung back as they made their way back down the mountain. She waited to see if one of them noticed and came back for her. None of them did. She sat down on a rock and looked up at the stars. Looking up at the vast expanse of sky, August had never felt so small.
"A Gelert I knew back at the pound said you could wish upon a star and it would come true," said August to herself. "Both of us had the same wish every night, to get adopted. I thought I'd be happy when I did, but now I don't know what to feel. I finally have a family but I don't fit in. Mother says she wants me to feel at home. She said me and my siblings could bond on this vacation. But I dunno how well that's working. Am I allowed to ask for another wish, stars? Or did I only get the one?" She paused and asked in a smaller voice, "Did I waste it?"
August did not expect a response, but she looked around hopefully anyway for some sort of sign. Nothing happened. Sighing, she stood and continued down the trail. That was when she noticed a smaller trail branching off the main one. It seemed to lead to the next mountain over, but there wasn't anything there that she knew of.
After some moment's hesitation, August headed off down the smaller moonlit path, half out of genuine curiosity and half to spite her siblings by getting farther behind them. The path wound up and down the wooded mountainside. It was more overgrown, and she occasionally had to pick her way around brambles and briars.
She was just starting to wonder if she ought to turn back when a hooded figure stepped into the path in front of her.
August stopped in her tracks. The mist shrouding the trees suddenly seemed foreboding rather than mystical, and the trees themselves seemed to be a cage, trapping August with the hooded stranger. They had to be the only neopets for miles.
"Hello," said a soft feminine voice. "Are you lost? I could lead you back to Shenkuu if need be."
August relaxed a little. "No, I'm not lost, thank you. I'm just... walking."
"Me too," said the figure. She stepped a little closer, revealing white fur and pink eyes. "Shall we walk together, then?"
"Okay," said August weakly. Perhaps it was silly to fear a stranger in the night--after all, to this other Neopian, she was the stranger in the night.
The two neopets fell into step beside each other. The stranger absently twirled an amulet with a blue stone in her paw. August thought she might be a Cybunny. "I'm August," she said.
The Cybunny smiled. "Good to meet you, August."
"So, uh, what's your name?"
She seemed to think for a moment, as if one's name were something that took some time to remember. "Luna. Are you from around here?"
"No. I'm from... well, I've lived in Altador about a month now. I'm originally from Neopia Central. But, I dunno if that counts. I was mostly just in the pound."
"Oh," said Luna. "I bet you're very grateful to have been adopted, then?"
"I..." August felt strangely truthful under Luna's gaze. She didn't seem judgmental. Perhaps it was the fact that they were both out alone in the middle of the night in the wilderness, but something told her the Cybunny would understand. "I guess I should be."
"But you aren't?"
"I have a lot to be grateful for. I know Mother loves me very much, and she tries really hard. My siblings are nice too, I'm just not sure I fit in." August paused. "I sometimes feel like what everyone says a middle child is supposed to feel like, even though I'm the youngest. We have no middle child. My three older siblings are all the same age, and I was adopted a whole year after them."
"Wow," said Luna. "I can see how that would be frustrating. I'm the oldest of my sisters, and I also feel like I'm different from them sometimes. But that doesn't mean they don't love me, I've learned to remind myself that."
"I guess," said August. Did her siblings love her? She wasn't sure.
"I guess what I'm saying, though, is I think I know how you feel. I have plenty to be thankful for, but I can't help but want more at times."
August had never had her feelings summed up quite so well. "Does that make us bad neopets?"
Luna chuckled. "I don't think so. Being lonely isn't a crime, is it?"
Loneliness--is that what August had been feeling? She was quiet for a while, listening only to the sound of their footsteps.
"Will you tell me about Altador and Neopia Central?" Luna said, finally breaking the silence.
"Sure." August smiled, wondering where to begin. "Altador is really grand and beautiful. I haven't seen all of it yet, even. There's columns and statues everywhere..." August went on, going into a long description of everything she could think of about Altador. Luna listened with rapt interest, asking all kinds of questions about the foreign land, from the sights to the food to the Altador Cup. Following that August told her about her time in Neopia Central, too, which Luna seemed just as interested in.
"You really think it's that exciting, Neopia Central?"
"Sure. I've never been."
"Really? Where all have you been?"
"Nowhere," said Luna, a little sadly. "Just Shenkuu."
"Oh," said August. "I take it you're from here, then?"
Luna nodded. "I think we should probably turn around now, don't you?"
"I suppose so," August agreed as they turned around. She had almost forgotten they were wandering farther and farther from the main trail. It would be a good two hours walk back to Shenkuu by now. "So do you like living here?"
"Not really," said Luna. "I mean, it's okay. But I've always wanted to travel."
"Maybe you will someday!"
Luna smiled distantly. "I don't think that's possible."
"My father is very protective," she said.
"Oh," said August, not really understanding. "Well, my mother is sort of protective, but she lets us travel on our own. Maybe when you're a little older..."
"Well, my sisters would worry, and miss me as well."
"I don't think mine would," said August. "If I went off exploring Neopia without them."
"Yes, they would," said Luna with almost alarming certainty. "And they would worry, too."
"What makes you say that?" said August.
"Because, they're worried about you right now. They're looking for you. In fact, they want nothing more than to find you."
"I doubt that," said August. "And even if it were true, serves them right for ignoring me all the time."
Luna shook her head. "You can't think that way. I ran away once, actually, and caused a lot of trouble. Everyone was very distressed. I know it may not always feel that way, but your family cares about you."
"You couldn't possibly know that."
"Sure I could." She twirled the blue amulet in her paw again. "This is where we part ways--please go back to Shenkuu and meet your siblings."
"Where we--wait, what is this trail anyway?" said August. She hadn't noticed it the last time they passed by, but there was yet another small trail branching off this one. It looked almost like it was intentionally hidden. "You couldn't possibly live that way."
Luna shrugged. "It was nice talking to you. I hope we see each other again one day, and--"
August gasped as she finally put everything together. For some odd reason her first thought was that July would have figured it out ages ago. "Your name isn't Luna! It's Princess Lunara! I mean... your majesty. Isn't it?" She did and awkward little bow.
Luna--or Lunara, rather--chuckled. "Shh. I'm not suppose to be out of the palace. I know of a hidden passageway, though, and sometimes I go out at night just to get away. No one worries as long as I get back before they know I'm gone."
August was still gaping at the princess, unsure what to say. "All this time--"
"Being the eldest princess gets old sometimes," Lunara admitted. She tilted her head to the side, as if listening to some distant sound. "Some of the servants will be waking up soon. I should get home, and you should too. Farewell, August."
It took August a minute to respond, still in shock. "Farewell!" She finally shouted as Lunara disappeared into the trees.
The princess turned around one last time. "Till we meet again!"
"There you are, August!"
"Where have you been?"
"What happened? Did you get lost? We've looked all over for you!"
"Slow down, slow down," said August as her siblings crowded around her. "I just got off the main trail and..." She decided they didn't need to know about her meeting with the princess. She didn't want them going off to try and track down the hidden palace, or exposing that Lunara sometimes sneaked out at night. "And I guess I got a little lost, yeah. But I'm okay now."
"Thank heavens," said her brother, pulling her into a hug. "We were so worried about you, little sis."
"I didn't mean to make you worry," said August. After the words were out of her mouth, she realized that maybe they were a lie, and added, "It's good to know you did, though."
June rolled her eyes. "Well, what did you expect? We can't have our little sister wandering around unknown lands by herself, especially without me around to protect her!"
"Actually, Shenkuu is pretty safe as far as criminals go," said July. "The greatest danger is probably rockslides."
"Well, I didn't get caught in any rockslides," said August.
"Good," said July seriously. "Now, let's get back to the Neolodge."
"What should we do tomorrow?" said May. "It's our last day. We should do something as a group."
"It's August's turn to pick," said June.
They all looked to her expectantly. "Hmm," said August. "I heard there's a mysterious negg cave around here somewhere. Maybe we could try to find it."
"Yeah!" said May excitedly. "Cool!"
"That should be fascinating," July agreed.
"Mysterious cave? Sounds like an adventure," said June happily.
Somehow, everyone was happy, chattering as they made their way back to their room at the Neolodge. August smiled to herself. She looked up at the stars, and suddenly no longer felt as if she needed another wish.