The arboretum wasn’t a place Mien visited often. He should have been attracted it because it was quiet. The problem was it was a gathering place. There were plenty of elves around talking and walking along the path or having a picnic there. He came there once or twice with Kiao when she was training him. It was often to get his mind off whatever was vexing him and relax by watching the carp in the pond. Sometimes the regular friendly elder elves would talk to them and tell them three hundred years’ worth of their life story.
He walked to the town square to the burning ash tree and made a left, away from the market. Soon homes gave way to a narrow path that cut through shrubs. No horses were allowed through the arboretum. Elves walked among the variety of trees that the Patriarchs of the past brought in to at least make the town a beautiful sanctuary, as the world outside wasn’t as safe.
He heard shrills of a group of kids playing tag, their parents sitting nearby, speaking to each other. He glanced over at the children and smiled at their games. There were two older men sitting at a stone game table and bench playing four corners. One was sitting very smugly while the other’s brow was creased with concentration. It reminded him of the last game he played with Lyndon. It didn’t end up well for the young scout at all.
Maybe I should come here more often, he thought.
When he come to the bridge, he didn’t see Kiao. Instead, there was a young woman leaning on the rail of the bridge, watching a mockingbird chirping above her head and then mimicked its song. She stood out not just because she was tall, but her hair was short and black. For a moment he wasn’t certain she was elf of not, but her ears came to a point.
Her clothing was bright. She wore a red woman’s vest covering a shirt with airy sheer sleeves. To complete her ensemble, she was wearing a pair of wide legged woman’s trousers held up by a wide and long tasseled sash with the ends fringed with feathers and beads. Clearly, someone of flamboyant tastes compared to the simple elves in town.
She was also, loveliest girl he had ever seen.
Part of him hoped she didn’t spot him, and he could wait without interrupting her and him turning into a nervous wreck. Then again, she looked older than him and the likelihood of her paying any amount of attention to him was slim. He was walking toward the other side of the bridge when she straightened up and stared at him.
Her hair color might’ve been different. Both the face and eyes were Kiao’s.
“There you are,” she said, sounding completely wrong. She didn’t sound like a chanter. Her lit was missing. She put her hands on her hips. “Don’t gape at me.”
“What wrong with your voice,” he said when he got close. It was listening to a chorus and there was a singer that was flat.
“You’re such a chanter. Everyone’s been staring at me because of my hair color, and you’re worried about my voice,” she said, pointing to her neck. “I’m wearing a mute choker. It’s a old world Kanu device. Brother Hickory gave it to me.”
Mien stared at the device around her neck scornfully. It was Kanu magical tech that created the wasteland Drass Tarn and every drass beast that inhabited it. Not to mention, it felt funny. There was some sort of vibration coming from it, but it made no sound.
“It’s not going to summon a drass beast and pollute the ground. Kanu devices are safe to use. Well, this one is.”
“Why are you using it?”
“So, no one knows it’s me and I can have time to be myself,” she explained.
Mien noted that she sounded less androgynous with the mute choker. Or maybe it was her appearance.
“Without the lit, people don’t recognize me. Emmery helps too by changing my hair color.”
It was then Mien noticed the ermine that was her consort around her neck. She showed him what Emmery could do while he was learning how to summon his own consort, Glen. She even showed him what the magical ermine could do by turning her hair gold. However, since he didn’t know the context, he always thought it was a rather pointless ability. Not to mention now he realized how epicene of a name Emmery was.
“Why black,” he asked. It made her eyes stand out. They were violet in the sunlight.
She fanned her hair. “Why not? I like black hair despite the fact everyone thinking I’m part Kanu or something.”
I think it makes you look exotic, thought Mien.
“I just wanted you to see me so you can at least recognize me if I want to say hey in my semi-natural state.”
Yet her voice ruined it all. “You don’t sound right,” he said.
She shrugged. “I figured you wouldn’t like me without the lit.”
“No, I just…” Mien looked towards the water, embarrassed. “It shouldn’t matter what I like or not.”
“I’m not taking it personally. You’re a timbre sensitive chanter. Sound is everything to you. I probably sound as if I’m singing off key,” she said, and then grimaced. She wrapped her arms around her middle.
Mien reached for her, then stopped. He didn’t think touching her would be good. “It still hurts, doesn’t it?”
“Only when I move a certain way. I should stop that.”
“Then you should be resting instead of walking out here,” he said.
“I rarely get time to myself, and my mother recently sent me this tunic and pretty vest,” she said, spinning around for him to see it all. “I thought I should wear it. I like color and the order lacks it.”
It was very ornate, with the embroidered peacock on the back. It wasn’t something that he thought wasn’t very Kiao. Maybe because all he ever saw her was in a uniform and if she wasn’t, she wore neutral colored clothing as most common people did. Brightly colored clothing was for nobles. They could be gaudy sometimes. Yet seeing bright colors on her made him appreciate it. Maybe it was because they looked good on her.
“Aside from this, I want to talk to you about finding the seller.”
“The seller?” He wasn’t following her.
Kiao lowered her voice. “The blighter seller. Did you happen to walk into the infirmary today?”
“Yes, you mean the boy?”
She bobbed her head. “Exactly. I was there when his mother brought him in. She was so distraught and had no idea where he got it from.”
“It is odd that he got a hold of some. Children aren’t normally targets for blighter.”
Kiao shook her head. “The way he got it is irrelevant. It’s the fact he got a hold of it.”
Mien wanted to tell her it mattered. He just couldn’t work it out how a boy would get the blister he had. Instead, he went with, “Shouldn’t we just let the peaceguard take care of this?”
“That’s all fine and dandy if the guard wasn’t involved,” she declared boldly.
He was stunned she would accuse any member of the order of doing something so foolhardy as distributing blighter. However, if he examined everything that was going on, break-ins that and the last one where the window just looked broken, well, she had hat the right to be suspicious.
Her lips spread into a smirk. “Good, you’re not trying to talk me out of it like Alder was trying to. It makes sense when you consider their response. Normally, the guard is on top of everything like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “We had three break-ins, with a lot of broken glass, but not a drop of blood or a torn slip of fabric. I find that hard to believe. And given how poorly made that blighter is, do you think an addict would have the mental capacity to safety whisk in and whisk out?”
“No,” he answered. They could be a bloody mess huddled in a corner or they could fly into a rage.
“The only way I can see this being done is if it was someone in the order. And a peaceguard makes the more sense than a field warden not only distributing it, but the maker of the blighter?”
Mien swayed his head. “If they are a member of the peaceguard. Another member should stop him.”
“There are a lot of small groups within the monks of this order. So not all the guard needs to be in on it. All it would take is at least one of high rank to cover it up.”
Mien thought about that for a moment. There really weren’t many flaws in her logic.
“It’s a little disturbing if that is the case. They are willing to put people’s lives in danger for coin,” she said. “Though honestly, I’m speculating, so feel free to tear it apart.”
Mien studied the surface of the water. “It’s a logical explanation, given how badly made that blighter is. A real seller knows if they supplied a poorly made product, someone is going to turn them in. Or at least, that how it works in the noble world. The only problem is how did the peaceguard find the ingredients to make blighter?”
“I guess it’s difficult?”
“The main ingredient is a plant that prefers a warmer climate. It grows mostly in the southern plains near giant territory.”
Kiao started pacing the bridge, holding her hands up in front of her chest wiggling her fingers.
“What if they pulled the bark from the possession of someone traveling in? Isn’t possessing the raw bark prohibited as well?”
“Well, instead of destroying it, they kept it, and tried to make it themselves,” she said with rising excitement. “What if their mixture is wrong, and that’s why the boy is fevered and has blisters?”
He watched her amused going back and forth looking what he summed up as her being cute. But he had to burst her bubble. “The problem is with that is that the bark doesn’t cause the blisters. It’s an alga. It can cause contact irritation and if the person ingests enough of it, the same thing. However, you use very of it to make blighter. It is what happens when you use too much of it though.”
“Details. That can be worked out later. We should focus on who is making it. Too bad we don’t have a peaceguard friend,” she put her hands on her hips, thinking in the middle of the bridge.
Good thing no one’s coming, thought Mien and mentally chuckled at her walking into someone. “Lyndon is friends with everyone,” he said aloud.
“That is right, but would Lyndon want to get involved with going against a fellow monk?”
“If they’re passing blighter, he would jump at the opportunity. Problem is, he’s gone to the culling with Soletus.”
“Tits, I forgot that,” she muttered.
Mien smiled. There was something charming about hearing her swear. Expression cleared from her face.
Mien washed all expressions from his face and swayed his head. He could feel heat spread across his face.
Kiao tilted her head at him. “I’ve a feeling you’re finding me entertaining.”
Mien grinned despite himself. He let her believe that.
“Use your brain instead of being so occupied with my behavior,” she said.
“We wait until Lyndon comes back,” he suggested. “The culling group should be back soon, and Kellas usually takes a break from patrols until after the trials. He uses that time to recruit. Soletus and Lyndon will be free for a few weeks.”
“Good,” she said. “We’ve the start of a plan. Dias willing, we won’t have any more addicts coming into our procession.”