The Patriarch, who possessed the heart and wisdom of an arbiter, lost all his poise. The blood drained from this face. He slapped his hands on the side of his head.
“Why is the king here,” he demanded.
“He’s the 25% missing,” returned his brother. “The Queen, Princess Silva, and Princess Arlwin are here.”
“That’s even worse,” said the Patriarch, running his hand through his scalp.
In contrast, Captain Gyrfalcon stood stiff. “Khar, if I can come to peace teetering on the edge, you can too,” said the Captain.
The Patriarch became even more panicked. “I thought it was just Princess Silva. Why is the queen here?”
“She’s enjoying the medicinal hot springs as a breathing treatment. She isn’t here for politics. Princess Silva still is. It’s the royal lieutenant that’s the issue. She needs someone who can keep up with her. She attached herself to me, but I’ve other responsibilities than to deal with than her endless speculating. I was going to use Briar, but he’s much better,” said the captain, pointing to Soletus.
Tyr then asked, “Won’t she be bored with a handsome distraction who isn’t going to be very receptive to her?”
The captain waved his hand. “She doesn’t do handsome distractions. She needs someone to watch her while she sates her curiosity. Her shield isn’t present. She left them behind at the garrison and arrived unannounced. Now she has decided she must figure out what is going on.”
Tyr then returned, “I think you have the wrong young man if you think they aren’t going to find trouble.”
“I don’t purposely look for it,” defended Soletus.
“So, you’re like your father,” muttered the captain. He let out a sigh of resonation. “Wonderful. Can’t be helped. I need someone who will not annoy her. She’s taken a dislike to all my nephews. Come on, I know she wants to meet all of you. She’s been curious about the order for some time.” He then turned to Soletus. “Your best behavior. I love serving my country and I need my head attached to do it.”
Soletus nodded and followed the group of men. They left the front of the home along a stone path that led through an archway built into the house. After they crossed it, stone became dirt and then the path was boarded by white, fragrant flowers. Their sweet odor was so strong, the young monk pinched his nose. They were star roses. A single plant in a garden was fine. However, not bunches of them guarded by tall plants making the air thick. He was happy when the path opened up to the rest of the garden. He could feel air moving around him. The late afternoon sun highlighted the yard in golden light with the center of it the only shadowed spot. A round sheltered banquet table was built there. Sitting there was a lone soldier. Instead of their topknot being colored some shade of straw, gold, or red, their hair was the color of winter leaves.
“Lieutenant Heron,” called Captain Gryfalcon.
They spun around revealing a young woman. She stood and waited for them to come to her. It gave time for Soletus to figure out what he could about her. The woman’s uniform was a half-skirt with leggings was plain as well as her riding boots that went to her knees. Her age was hard for him to determine. In fact, the only item that announced her as royalty was the woven silver diadem around her head. And even that was simple as well.
When they stopped close, he saw her dark eyes were green as his were blue. And they were assessing him as much as he was assessing her.
This is King Auebron’s second child, he thought. He imagined princesses to be more regal looking and not so plain. She had the wide hips of a woman, but the face and freckles of a girl. If not for her hair color, she looked like any girl he would see in a market. Then again, he was told that his perception of beauty was terrible. And it was. Girls often looked the same. Colorful and unique clothing were likely to catch his eye than their faces.
Captain Gyrfalcon saluted her despite being of lower rank than he was. Soletus then wondered how someone young got her rank. Or was it the fact she was the king’s daughter as everyone seemed to think that was the only reason why people were promoted.
“I’ve brought you some help,” said Captain Gyrfalcon.
Her youthful face became bright with curiosity. “You’ve brought me Brotherhood?”
“Yes. This is a distant cousin of mine, Master Tyr’Gyrfalcon, and Brother Nimbus is one of their skilled battle chanters.”
The princess held out her hand to them. “No need to bow, I’m just a soldier right now,” she said. The captain frowned, clearly disapproving her casualness, but didn’t correct her. “Battle chanter? I’ve only heard they existed. Didn’t think I would meet one.”
Nimbus inclined his head. “Well, I’m glad to provide you the opportunity your, Highness.”
“If you must keep with formality, it’s Lady Arlwin,” she said briskly and then met Soletus with a frank stare. “Who is this?”
Captain Gyrfalcon then told her, “This is Senior Junior Warden Soletus’Sheldmartin. This is the Arch Monk’s grandson.”
The princess held out her hand. “Greetings, Junior Warden.”
Soletus took her hand and shook it firmly. They were calloused. She clearly used the sword resting against her hip.
“Greetings, Lieutenant Heron,” he said.
The princess’s face brightened. “Finally, one who listens.”
Soletus let go of her hand. “Thank you, Ma’ma.”
“Even gives me a ‘Ma’ma.’ I would be impressed if it wasn’t for the fact, you’re looking at me as if you see a spectacle. Work on your ability to assess someone a bit more.”
Soletus held back a snappy retort. He could put his foot in his mouth at his own expense, but not others. The Princess arched an eyebrow, looking a bit disappointed. “The silent type? You don’t strike me as someone who get tongue-tied.”
Master Tyr then spoke, sounding relieved, “He’s a bit quicker with his words around us.”
“Ah, it’s nothing more than being out of his environment,” said she said, then said to Soletus. “How about a bit of work? That’ll set you back right. I’ve plenty of it. Let me brief you on it.”
Princess Arlwin led them to the house. They cut through the dining room and then into a large sitting room that was free of people. The only thing that caught Soleus’s attention was the single dark table that didn’t belong with the white wicker furniture. On the surface, it had something stretched out that, at a distance, looked like a piece of rope. However, on closer inspection, there was a diamond pattern. It was a dead snake.
“There have been traps set across the house,” she said. “Traps that are there to kill the person who opens a cabinet or sticks their hand in a large vase to clean it.”
Nimbus examined the snake. “Well, I’ve not seen one of these around here.”
Master Tyr studied it and nudged Soletus. “What do you think this is?”
Soletus looked down at the headless snake. “Red adder. They live in rocky places to the north where king blacks don’t live. We’ve plenty of king blacks around here that keeps poisonous snakes like this away.”
“So it isn’t something you’ll dig around in the garden for around here,” stated the Princess. “This little fellow was brought here to kill someone. The house workers seem to be targets.”
“What has been done already,” said Master Tyr.
“Well, I, and what few red guards that are here, searched this place high and low for belly crawlers. Another one was found in a washbasin. We’ve not found anymore. What I need is to figure out who is doing this. In a few days, my mother is to sing.”
Soletus studied the snake again and thought it strange. Why go through the trouble to plant a snake that would be indiscriminate to the staff if the Patriarch said his family was receiving threats?
“The quicker we find this person, the sooner I can stop worrying about finding any more of their toys and pets,” stated the Princess. “I want the Brotherhood to ask the staff. They get stiff jawed when speaking to anyone with a red jacket. A few brown jerkins would make them more at ease.”
“Better to have Lady Maelyra speak to them,” suggested Tyr. “The staff is soft on her.”
Captain Gyrfalcon bobbed his head in agreement. “That’s true, but don’t expect her to do it quickly. She’ll want to have tea with every one of them.”
“Well, if that’s what it takes, make it happen,” said the Princess.
Tyr inclined his head. “As you wish.”
“Now, is it alright if I borrow Sheldmartin here to help me,” she asked.
“Of course, I don’t see why not,” said Master Tyr.
The princess beamed. “Excellent. I need someone…” she said, sweeping her eyes over Soletus. “Well-muscled. Come with me.”
Soletus stood there to collect himself. She was brisk and quick to action. Tyr shoved him forward. “Do what she says.”
He followed her out of the room, feeling a bit like a dog at her heels. They exited into a posh hallway with a floor of polished stones.
“Walk beside me because I can’t stand talking behind me,” ordered the princess.
Soletus stepped in-line with the pace of the short young woman. He didn’t know how she walked so fast and wasn’t running.
“I found something earlier but didn’t want a bunch of people to know. I don’t want to scare whoever is doing this off.”
Arlwin took him to a spiral staircase the twisted up to the next two floors. Soletus barely had time to admire the architecture. He came to the quick conclusion that the Patriarch home, which he felt was large, was small. What he walked in was something extravagant. It was beautifully decorated with paintings of elves and scenes of history, or maybe even tales he didn’t know of. They passed by guests and servants who immediately stopped what they were doing and bowed to the young woman who breezed past. Her only acknowledgment to them was a hand raised that was elegant with care and grace.
Soletus found himself comparing her to his noble friends. Mien could be elegant, but he didn’t have a brisk nature at all. Kiao was confident, but she wasn’t full of herself. Briar, well she was so much against noble life she might as well not be one while still being one.
She stopped at a slim door and opened it. Behind was a set of stairs that twisted upward.
“You’re not afraid of enclosed spaces, are you? I just now thought to ask?”
“No,” said Soletus.
The princess grinned with approval. “Good, it’s a bit tight and shadowy.”
Soletus followed her up the stairs. His shoulder brushed either side of the tight passage. Once at the top, they entered into the attic. It was warm up there and wasn’t much to see in the gloom. There were shapes covered in sheets. A single round port window that shined a beam of light only in the middle strip.
“You aren’t afraid of heights,” she asked as she pushed the window open.
“No,” he said from beside her, looking out.
“Good, I am. I need you to crawl out on the roof and retrieve something suspicious for me. If you look to your right, you’ll see what looks like a copper coin near that chimney stack. Bring it to me.”
Anyone would be a little tepid about the height they were at. The tiled roof didn’t scare him, even though it was steep. It wasn’t as slick as he thought one would be. He made his way out, keeping his body low, to the coin. When he pulled it up, a leather chain came with it. He took it and slowly made his way down. Admiring the view of the courtyard out front, and then he swung back in.
“Thank you,” said Arlwin. “I walked outside one evening and saw a figure up there. I shouted at them and by the time I ran up here, the door was open and this window. I had a lantern in my hand and spied that coin.”
“It’s a pendent,” said Soletus, holding it out.
“Let us see,” she said, and he handed it to her. As she examined it, her head tilted. “A strange symbol.”
It was a foot with a nail through it, with droplets of blood going down it.
“It reminds me of something I’ve seen,” Soletus thought aloud. “A brand…We should take this to my Papa, he may know.”
Arlwin’s eyes flicked up. “Papa?” Her mouth worked up to a smile. “I forget I’m west of Asteria. They’ve a few differences here than what I’m used to. You’ll get burned in the military for that. Papa’s are for boys.”
Soletus felt a twinge of annoyance. A good retort bubbled up and, before it could spill out, he clenched his jaw. He didn’t need to push Lord Kharis further over the edge with his mouth.
“Let’s see if we could find…what is your father’s name?”
“First Warden Oeric’Sheldmartin.”
“Just a first warden,” asked Arlwin.
She laughed. “At least you didn’t tell me ‘No.’ You’ve still not discovered you can have a wider range of vocabulary around me.”
He couldn’t tell if she was purposely digging at him or trying to encourage him to say something off to her.
“A First Warden is the highest rank among the field wardens. There are only two of higher authority among the monks. The Enforcer and The Arch Monk. He was asked to be Enforcer at one point. He said no.”
“I see. Why?”
“He doesn’t like attention.”
The Princess fell silent after that. She had no more questions. She did have plenty for those around her to find Oeric. After a few inquiries, they found him outside speaking to Captain Gyrfalcon.
“There you are,” said Gyrfalcon. “Lieutenant Heron, I want to introduce you to the Arch Monk’s son. This is First Warden Oeric’Sheldmartin.”
The Princess held her hand out. “First Warden Oeric.”
His father shook it. “Lieutenant.”
“Here, I thought my mother was the only one with a pair of wolf’s eyes. Perhaps you can use them to enlighten us on this.”
She handed Oeric the pendant. His father’s neutral expression faltered, and he scrutinized the image he saw etched on it. “Where did you get this?”
“It was dropped by a suspicious figure. What is it?”
“It’s a handler’s brand,” he told her.
She became bemused. “You’re going to have to enlighten me on what that is.”
“It’s a symbol that handlers who own curs in bloodsports use. They brand their fighters with symbols like this. Though, a coin like this doesn’t belong to a fighter, but a trusted subordinate. This is basically a badge or pass to deliver messages and money exchanges.”
Captain Gyrfalcon then asked, “You think some handler has it out for my family because I was involved in cleaning up their filth?”
“Unlikely. One, they would be more interested in someone like me. Two, whomever this belongs to worked for a handler named Thornfoot. His fighters turned on him. They were put down because of it. It was during my time there. So that was decades ago.”
Soletus watched the princess’s reaction. If she was surprised or disgusted by his father admission, it didn’t register on her face. She became grim from hearing that the man was dead.
“If one’s boss is dead, why keep such a thing?”
Oeric turned it in his fingers one more time. “This is clearly a keepsake. These coins are kept hidden and not worn as necklaces. Like this they can’t be easily tossed if one is caught by a soldier.” He handed the coin back and added, “Their father, brother, uncle, cousin, or someone close, was the handler. As for their real name, I don’t know. Handlers rarely use them.”
“I see,” said Arlwin, gripping the coin. “Another dead end, but a worthy clue. I wonder where that man went. He’s clearly still near this property. Maybe disguised as a servant. Perhaps they can yield some information. How are those interviews—”
“Princess Arlwin,” interrupted Captain Gyrfalcon. The young woman didn’t look stunned or insulted. She just acknowledged him. “You are young and full of energy, but the world doesn’t run on a cup of tea for the entire day as you do. It’s dinner time.”
Her gaze shifted skyward. “So, it is.”
“And I’m sure the young warden would appreciate you giving him time to wash up. He’s been on the road for days. Not to mention your sister expected you to be inside.”
And it was then her self-assuredness waver into a wince. “Aye, certainly she does. Thank you, Captain,” she said and turned to Soletus. “I apologize for keeping you, Sheldmartin. Tomorrow, we can continue our investigation.”
“Certainly,” said Soletus, becoming intrigued. When did it become their investigation?
Arlwin = girl boss.
Edit. Whoops. I guess you get a free chapter. I don't feel like deleting this and making a brand new post to schedule. Happy Friday.