Soletus arrived at the room he shared with his parents. The entire Brotherhood was given part of a wing inside of the estate to themselves. It included sleeping quarters and a sitting room for all of them to enjoy. However, the more the house Soletus saw, the less likely he was going to find anyone’s room save his own. If his father didn’t show him the way, he would have gotten lost.
When they entered, he found his mother already dressed in a violet gown, pulling her hair apart from the braided bun she wore.
“I need your nimble fingers,” she said to Oeric.
“It was fine before,” his father exasperated. “I still need to get ready and here you are, being a nitpick.”
His mother sat on a cushioned stool so his father could work. “The Queen is here. Did you know that? One doesn’t look like a country hen in front of the queen!”
His father let out a growling sigh. “You don’t look like a country hen. And yes, I found out. I was under the assumption that only Princess Silva would be here. I’m half expecting the king to be hidden somewhere.”
Soletus scouted his own room, leaving his parents to fuss alone. He let out a low whistle. It was gorgeous and nicer than the inn in Arbortown. It had a round bed that only nobles possessed. He walked up to it and pushed down on it. It was going to be like sleeping on a cloud. He admired the room, from the carved vine borders going along the top of the wall to the full body mirror made of knotted silver and gold.
In the corner, was a tub with cooling water behind a screen on a slab of stone. He took off his clothing and dipped himself in. The soap he had to scrub himself with was a scented bar was made from essence of rose lilies. The scent was softer than the overwhelming flower so, he used it. When he washed and dried off, he still smelled like the garden. He quickly donned on his dress uniform that was tailored for him. The clothier tired of him of being unable to provide him with a uniform that fit properly. So he and his aunt worked on a jacket that supported his wide shoulders.
When he slipped on his jacket, his father shouted: “Get out here. They are making the call for dinner now.”
Soletus rushed out with sash in hand and his hair needing to be braided. Both his parents swooped in. His father took to braiding, his mother buttoned, and he worked on the sash. They dusted him off and inspected him and walked out tensely. When they opened the door, they found Briar in the hall. She was in a long, slender sleeveless gown that showed off her muscular arms. Her long hair was twisted up in a braid bun, neat and adorned with gyrfalcon feathers and beads.
“Impressive,” he said with admiration on his face. “A sow’s ear can become a silk purse.”
Briar arched an eyebrow at him, looking impressed. “I see they had strong enough soap to conquer your stench.”
He offered her his arm. “Lady.”
She took it. “Thank you.”
Oeric then said from behind them. “Please refrain from being silly. We’ve most of the royal family here. They might not like your jokes.”
“Yes, I know Orrie,” said Briar. “I’m to entertain the queen tomorrow. They want to hear me stress a harp.”
Her playing wasn’t that bad, but she was far from performance grade.
“Is that right,” said Oeric, looking at Cordea.
She nodded, looking as if she swallowed a frog. “What am I supposed to talk to the queen about?”
Oeric turned around, taking her arm. “You both have children, so you talk about those.”
Cordea gave him a sharp look. “That’s so typical. I doubt she wants to hear about a commoner’s children.”
“I’m sure she would,” he said, kissing her on the head.
“Don’t feel bad, Mama,” said Soletus. “I’m going to be helping Princess Arlwin.”
“She’s taken a liking to Soletus,” Oeric explained.
Briar became stunned. “Why?”
Soletus shrugged. “I’ve no clue.”
“You do realize that’s unheard of,” she said. “Common folk and royalty don’t intersect.”
Oeric interjected. “I know it’s unheard of, but here we are. This will be the only day we’ll be sitting with the royal family, thankfully.”
“But the Sheldmartins are an important family,” said Briar. “You’re practically a minor house if not for the whole, no title rule the Brotherhood has, not that my father follows it.”
“He doesn’t because it benefits us if he keeps his title,” said Oeric.
They made it into a dining hall that put the Brotherhood messhall in shame. Not the size, but the extravagance. The tall windows that were stained red and gold to the velvet curtains that hung. Most of the Brotherhood had a table to themselves. However, Soletus and his family were taken to the host’s table. It made sense for only the Patriarch, Arch Monk, and Arch Priest to be there. However, the Sheldmartins were allowed because it was only three of them.
At the Host table sat Princess Arlwin, Princess Silva, and Queen Nethara herself. She, unlike her children, had a mound of golden hair spilling from her head. She also had eyes like burnished silver. His father’s eyes were very blue compared to hers.
“I don’t know about this,” muttered Briar finally. Soletus pulled her seat out for her. She sat and groaned. “Not this mess.”
He looked down and saw the arrangement of the silverware in front of him. “What is this,” he asked. “This isn’t a course arrangement.”
“Nope, we’re under banquet rules,” she said with annoyance. “It’s not as formal, thankfully, but you’re going to have to serve me. If it’s liquid, use a spoon. If it can be stabbed, use a fork.”
As names were called out and responded with applauses to welcome guests, dinner was being held on carts to the side. Soletus’s attention was on those. Princess Silva then stood and spoke. Normally, he was very focused, but it was hard to focus with so many people around him and so many things. A twinge twisted his gut. Something was amiss. He swept the room with his gaze from the tables to the ceiling to the many faces of elves around him. Then turned his head casually from side-to-side so he wouldn’t bring attention to his suspicion. Then he felt a nudge at his side. He looked at Briar.
“I think her highness wants your attention,” she said, pointing.
To his left, he saw the princess gesture with her eyes to the wine goblet in front of him. They were about to toast. He picked it up and toasted with everyone else. It was then Soletus noticed his father mirroring what he had done. Something was indeed off. Across from him at the other banquet table, Mien’s attention was to the wall. He could tell the young chanter’s eyes were back-lit. Soletus knew it was impolite to leave the table when food was being served. However, he needed to figure out what was wrong.
His father sat adjacent to him stopped him, saying in a low voice. “Hold. Nimbus is working on it.”
The Arch Monk heard him and his brow met. “What is it?”
“Worry about your meal, Sir,” said Oeric and became distracted. His lips parted and moved as he focused vaguely in front of him. Soletus then felt a warmth wash over his mind.
“Sorry to burst in likes this,” cracked Nimbus in his mind. “Relax and listen. Mien is on edge. He said he felt a drass beast for an instant. Though now he can’t feel it. I saw you start to look around when he did. Oeric started looking because he saw you.”
“Sorry. I just felt something was off.”
Nimbus then became silent for far too long. “I knew this trip was going to be a bit rough on you, but your mind feels unbalanced.”
“Can we focus?”
“Sure, but your mind feels tense. If you’re worried, don’t be. Nothing bad is going to happen. Stay calm,” he said and then left and clearly hoped back over to his father.
Arlwin then stated, “I’m guessing there is some kind of communication going on here. I sense something is up.”
Oeric broke out of his concentration and spoke. “There is. One of my chanters felt something abnormal but, he doesn’t feel it now.”
Soletus saw Mien leave the table with Nimbus in tow.
The Queen perked up. “Chanters,” she said. Her lit chimed in Soletus’s mind. “There is more than one here?”
The Arch Monk nodded. “Yes, normally we don’t carry this many. Usually, a battle chanter and one of our priests. This year we’ve an extra battle chanter.”
The Queen smiled and pointed. “I would like to meet them, especially the young priestess over there.”
Princess Silva followed her mother’s arms to Kiao, who was grinning in delight over something. “I thought the Brotherhood was an all-male order.”
“It is,” said Brother Rastor. “However, the Sister Kialianna disguised herself as a boy. By the time the truth was revealed, she tightly woven herself in our lives. There was nothing to do, only accept her.”
Princess Silva became intrigued. “She looks familiar.”
Arlwin mirrored her sister. “What is her surname?”
“Meadowlark,” answered Rastor.
The Queen's smile broadened. “Ah, I know her family. They design my stage dresses. She is the missing daughter that Hera’Meadowlark’s always talks about. That young lady looks remarkably like her father, Tad.”
“Interesting, she must be quite the young woman,” said Princess Silva.
“You could say that,” said Brother Rastor.
“And you’re not happy about it,” said the Queen. “It’s better to work with her than fight an empty cause.”
Brother Rastor turned ashen. “I assure you my unhappiness about her is just merely how her situation has been handled in the past.”
The woman’s eyes became pools of molten silver. “I’m not insulted. It’s just a simple fact, as there are many in this world.”
“Mother,” hissed the Princess. “You’re doing it again. If father was here—”
“He’s not, Dear,” said the Queen. “And Brother Rastor knows all about chanters. No need to act all embarrassed because you mother hears voices.”
“I see you can hear the chorus of the world. Don’t get lost in it, Queen Nethara and I mean no disrespect. It’s easy to get caught in it. Our Arch Priest has become entrapped in it and now stays days listening to it before coming out,” warned the priest.
Soletus didn’t like Rastor. While he allowed his friend to stay and for his chanter friends to be together, there was something about his actions. While they seemed noble, with him working to get the priesthood stronger again, he appeared to be pushing for power. Being head of the assembly wasn’t enough. He was pushing to become Arch Pries, and no one was stopping him.
He felt another nudge and found Briar pointing to the platter of roasted vegetable in front of him.
“Sorry,” he apologized and served her as he was supposed to be doing.
“Don’t worry about it. I was listening too,” she said.
“Young man,” he heard the Queen directing her voice at him. It reverberated through him. He swung his attention to her.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Senior Junior Warden Soletus’Sheldmartin. I’m the Arch Monk grandson.”
Her eyebrows met with concern. “What happened to you? You sound like a cracked glass.”
That caught Soletus off-guard. He thought he was better as Vlory stopped complaining about his sorrow. Now another chanter was saying he still was broken.
“Answer the Queen,” prompted his grandfather.
There was no point in lying to a chanter and he told her, “I lost a bandmate a couple of months ago, your Majesty.”
“Oh,” she said and became apologetic. “I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just, there is something about your voice that makes it so clear sounding. Listening to you is like seeing through glass.”
“You’re not the first who has noticed that,” he said.
“Are you a chanter?”
“Mother, you don’t ask people that,” snapped Princess Silva. “It’s insulting.”
“No insult given,” said Soletus. “I’m chanter gifted.”
Silvia’s brow rose. “You easily just let that known?”
“I can’t help what I am, Princess.”
She then picked up her wine glass, speaking in a patronizing tone. “I know the Brotherhood aren’t the majority, but it would be wise if you told no one that. Even with a chanter as a Queen, people aren’t afraid to throw rocks.”
Princess Arlwin let out a faint sigh of annoyance.
“Good thing I’m good at deflecting them,” said Soletus.
Arlwin giggled, placing more food on her plate. Her sister gave her a dirty look and slapped her hand.
The Queen spoke. “Denying what you are hinders acceptance. I think it’s lovely that the Brotherhood is diverse in its own way. Your half Dyne?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” he said.
She then looked at Cordea and made the connection. “Oh, I never met anyone who was Fenndish Dyne before. Then your father must be, you, First Warden Oeric.”
“Your Majesty,” he said, inclining his head.
She scrutinized him. “Intriguing,” she whispered. “I can’t help but to notice the scarring on your face.”
“I’m a former cur,” he said.
Her expression softened. “So, I finally get to meet one. There is something we need to discuss. Captain Gyrfalcon spoke of you. He said you were a great aid in giving the location of Paradise and how to get in there to send scouts. My husband’s troops raided it successfully.”
“I’m very happy it was, your Highness,” he said.
“But even with bloodsports curtailed, we are still dealing with it. We’ve a lot of curs. The handlers we have in our possession are being dealt with lawfully. Most will be sent to the prison or death. The fighters, well, some of them, were quite dangerous and executed immediately after they took advantage of their jailed state and killed those who wronged them. Troublemakers are being sent to work camps to help build and maintain our roads. However, I requested for those who keep to themselves sent to the same garrison to be reformed. Many doubt this can be done, including my husband the king. However, here you are, a gentle, strong voice.”
Oeric placed his fork down, wearing a pained, gracious smile. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
“I’m curious about what sort of intervention we could perform on these men. The Brotherhood is known to reform those who are troubled. I was wondering if you could help us.”
Brother Rastor became intrigued. “We could do so. Depends on how many. We couldn’t do a mass of them. We still must keep our own safe.”
The Queen beamed. “If you are interested, you can discuss it with me later. I would love to talk to you alone, First Warden Oeric, about it as well.”
The Princess Silva however, was a direct contrast to her mother and looked displeased. “Mother, you should spend your time relaxing and not worrying about such things.”
“I can spend my time doing whatever I wish, Dear,” said she with a sharp smile. “You have so many responsibilities. Let me have mine.”
Soletus began to wonder was if common to bring the tip of one family issues to the table in noble society. He sipped his wine and nearly spit it out. He hated wine. Reds especially. The smell and the way it made him woozy in the head didn’t sit right with him. He would drink cider here and there, maybe even a light ale. In fact, he wouldn’t have minded some there. However, he knew nobles did things differently. They even had different music, as there was a harpist tucked in a corner plucking lightly at the strings of her instrument. It was relaxing, but also very boring. He reached for the cup of water that was served at the table and drank it and worked on his meal while listening to the conversation around, which was completely unexciting.
“Now you see what I dislike about this,” said Briar to him. “The food is excellent, but everything else is bland, proper, and boring.”
Soletus then felt like he was being stared at and sure enough, at one of the other long banquet tables was a youngish woman, possibly around 50 was watching him and Briar.
“Who’s that,” he said. “The one wearing the lacy collared dress.”
“That is my cousin Via,” stated Briar without looking up from her wine. “She’s trying to figure out who you are.”
“Should I avoid?”
“At all cost. That wonderful man you see beside her, that’s Veshner. Another cousin. Also, to be avoided. He likes to pick fights,” she told him.” Beside him is one another one of my other cousins, Brytan. He is the oldest of my aunt Valencia. She is the one who is taking over from Grandmama. She doesn’t like me or my uncle, and so he doesn’t as well. If there was also someone to stay away from, it would be Brytan too.”
“So, who is part of the Captain’s family?”
“Who, Uncle Liamus? He has a son. But he isn’t here because he lives on his own in Wateree.”
“That’s the arrangement. His mother is dead. They never married.”
Soletus didn’t know how to take that information given to him. “So, he doesn’t take care of him?”
“He does, however, he’s older than me. He lives a very comfortable life as a shepherd. Very sweet and not very customary, or so I suspect. No one talks much about him. I met him several times when I was younger. He would take me to see the sheep and we would walk around the rolling hills out there. I was kind of envious of him living out there alone.”
“You wouldn’t like it,” said Soletus. “Too dull and not enough people to see how magnificent you are.”
“You’re right about that,” she agreed.
Dinner went by a little quicker, with him speaking to her. Before he knew it, desert was severed. It was a tiny slice of tart that left Soletus wanting more. In the end, he was proud to have been able to suffer through it. And unlike any other banquets, he was exhausted by it. However, he wasn’t done yet.
Those attending the dinner split into groups. Most of the men all followed where Captain Gyrfalcon and the Patriarch to a sitting room off to the side. The women followed Lady Valencia. And Soletus hoped he could retreat to his room. However, Briar took his arm.
“Sorry, we aren’t done yet,” she said. ”We’ve got to socialize with the young folk,” and led them out to the back of the house where there were globe lamps strung and lit all around them. From what Soletus gathered, the group comprised her cousins, various other younger nobles, and Princess Arlwin. Her attention zoned in on them.
“I didn’t know you two were a couple,” she said.
“Us, no,” said Soletus and Briar at the same time.
Briar then stated and said properly. “He’s here to look impressive at my side, your Highness.”
The young woman sighed. “Please, can it be Lieutenant, Lady Briar?”
It was then the Briar’s cousin Via sashayed to them. She was the tall and slim angular-faced elf seen often in paintings. The tips of her ears had earcuffs that ended in golden points and her eyebrows were shaped into points. Someone out there might find her beautiful, but Soletus found her sharp aesthetic a warning he wouldn’t like her.
“Princess Arlwin, you shouldn’t bother with my cousin,” she said. “It’ll do you no good to associate with a useless hinny.”
The princess rolled her eyes in annoyance and swung around. “Are you claiming to be more useful than she? You’ve not impressed me yet, Lady Via.”
Lady Via looked as if a wasp stung her. Then someone shouted for Princess Arlwin from the doorway. The woman who did so didn’t look Gyrfalcon and was probably a member of other noble families attending.
“Excuse me,” said Prince Arlwin. “Another needs my attention. When I come back, you can finally regale all your accomplishments to me.”
The pinched look on Lady Via’s face suggested she had none. When the princess was out of sight, a man rose from the table around the covered seating area and sauntered towards them. It was Lord Veshner. Soletus didn’t like the cool smile on his face. It screamed smug nobling. His broad forehead likely housed a tiny brain.
“I see you finally found your own escort, Cousin. How much did you have to pay him,” he said.
Briar took a deep breath and stated. “I’m not you going into town and buying the attention of a pretty common girl desperate for coin. This is Senior Junior Warden Soletus’Sheldmartin. He’s a friend.”
“You have male ‘friends,’” asked Veshner sizing him up.
“No, silly. Briar is as neth as they come,” she said to him and stepped closer to Soletus. “Why would she even bother bringing a striking fellow like you? She’s untouchable. A complete tease.” She stepped in close to him to put her hands on his chest. However, he pivoted, causing her to stumble forward.
“I consider it very rude to touch another you’re unfamiliar with,” he said.
“A common stallion like you should appreciate the attention I give you.”
“Thank you, but I prefer quality attention,” he returned.
Soletus then felt someone behind him lift his braid from his back.
“He’s a long tail back,” stated Veshner.
Soletus spun around and whipped his hair from his grasp to face them both. He was on his guard now. “Jealous?”
“Hardly,” he said. “It looks puerile. I can only guess one reason you would wear your hair like that. And the only reason Briar would be bothered with a man. Could it be you’re a unicorn?”
Briar placed herself between them. “Vesh, leave him alone!”
A savage smile formed on his face. “He is, isn’t he?”
“So, what if I am,” said Soletus.
Briar whirled around and hissed at him through her teeth. “Why can’t you keep that fact to yourself?”
“Why should I hide it,” he said, locking his eyes on Veshner.
The nobling’s cruel grin deepened. “So, what do you do in the Brotherhood. You’re not a small fellow. Do you carry their equipment?”
It was obviously bait. He didn’t need to fall for it. But that was hard now. Before he could just let it go like water on a duck’s back. Now he couldn’t. When did it change? When did people’s words start getting under his skin? When did every man become Valhart?
“I could, but there has to be something for the mules to do,” said Soletus. “What I do depends on what is needed of me. Officially, I’m a grappler.”
Soletus didn’t think he would know what that was, but the man in front of him mouth quirked up. “A grappler. You’re one of those who wrestles with drass beast. It makes sense being a son to a cur.”
The young monk stilled his hands from forming a fist and smashing it in his nose.
“It must be embarrassing to know that your father was once a cur. I’m surprised he even managed to get with a woman to have you,” he said walking towards Soletus and said next to his ear. “I heard they like other men more than women.”
“Are you sure you’re not shifting your feelings? You’re awful close to me,” said Soletus and saw the man’s hand whip up and he caught it before it struck his face. What he didn’t catch was Lord Veshner’s fist that caught him in the side under his ribs. The pain from the blow was exquisite. Black spots form clouded his vision. Soletus clutched his side and fell on one knee. If he had his staff with him, he would take a swipe at him. Briar attacked him. She came in fast with her fist, striking Veshner in the face. He stumbled once and recovered far too quickly for someone untrained in combat.
“Briar, stop,” he croaked.
He watched as her cousin took a swing at her. She ducked and jammed her elbow into his torso right under his ribs. He grunted and dropped to the ground. Via screamed, getting everyone attention, and started crying. Briar ignored her.
“So what if he’s part of some fist fighting club,” said Briar, guarding him again. “You trained me!”
“You stupid sow,” shouted Via loudly. “What did we ever do to you two? Why can’t you just act like a normal lady! This is what happens when you are friends with a cur spawn. You hurt people.”
Before Briar could snap back, another voice rose.
“Stop insulting every female dead and born with your fake tears,” commanded Princess Arlwin, stepping into the light. Her hand rested on the sword hilt at her side.
Lady Via eyes widened. “I meant no offense, Princess, but those two–”
“Had the misfortune of being forced to participate in your silly game,” she said, walking over to Soletus, who rose to his feet on his own. His hand still applying pressure where he was struck. ”Are you two alright?”
Interrupted Via her. “She’s not innocent! She hit Veshner!”
The Princess looked over her shoulders. “Explain to me why you earned the right to tell me what to do?”
The woman balked and became silent. Veshner moaned, and she lowered herself to his side.
The Princess focused her attention on Soletus. “Clearly, that’s paining you. Come on,” said Arlwin reaching out for his arm. “I will take you to the house physician.”
“No,” said Soletus, brushing her hand away. He wanted to be left alone. Offense transformed on her face. She met his eyes with her own direct stare of warning. He didn’t let up his cold and unwelcome expression. He was in no mood for any more nobling behavior, Princess or not.
The Princess became mystified and then she smirked, looking impressed. “Very well, Lord Monk,” said the young woman and took Briar’s hand. “Come with me, Lady Briar. I wish to speak with you alone.”
Sorry folks, my brain was sufficiently dead and not working yesterday. Today is better, but I am fatigued.