The rest of Mien’s time in the infirmary was awkward. The blighter crazed man woke up shortly after everything settled to a calm afternoon. Mien wished he had Brother Oli’s phrase of peace put him off to sleep longer. Or at least long enough that he would be in his right mind. The man wanted nothing to do with him and kept screaming at him to stay away. Mien tried to spend most of his time out of sight from him and Kiao. He felt embarrassed every time he saw her after she come back. It didn’t help that she remained at her perch by the podium overlooking the infirmary. He felt like her eyes were always on him. Mien’s embarrassment grew because the man refused to drink the flush and spat it on him and Alder. Kiao told them to stop and try again later. He felt he couldn’t do anything right, so he fled when his shift was up.
He thought about going to the chapel. It was still a sanctuary for him. It was peaceful and not the emptiness and loneliness of the dark corridors of the barely occupied priest wing. However, he didn’t want Brother Hickory to think there was something terribly wrong with him. He decided it was best if he just went to his room and hide.
Mien walked into his small yet cozy room and shut the door. He looked around for something to occupy his mind. There were the books on the small shelf on the floor he could study. Then there was the letter he received yesterday from his sister that sat at his desk. He snatched that up and flopped on his bed. He pressed the letter a few times and became impressed by the thickness of it. She always rambled on forever if something good happened to her. It was the short letters that made him worry.
Of all his family, it was his sister he missed the most. They were quite the pair as children. Mien was well-behaved if she wasn’t around, and she was always around then. They always got into mischief and usually of their planning. One of their more memorable incidences was the day they tricked the kitchen staff into giving them more cookies. They were both young enough at the time that it was hard to tell a difference when dressed in the same clothing.
It was a convoluted plan that took a lot of observation, waiting for the perfect moment. Daily they got a cookie. So at the same time, dressed in their own clothing, got a cookie each. They could get an extra cookie by being helpful. So the two of them dressed as Mien, and got a cookie from one cook, while distracting the other helping them out in the vegetable garden. They both got a cookie for their separated deeds. They returned as his sister, repeated the process. And for being so helpful that day, they each got an extra cookie to split and share with the other. An unexpected windfall. They had four cookies each and only expected three.
They would’ve gotten away with it if not for their mother getting cookies for a guest and wondering why so many were missing. The cooks described what occurred and then realized they had be tricked.
She went straight to them and found two Nerva’s in their nursery eating their ill-gotten goods. She took them to their father to be punished. From the moment his mother pushed them through the door, his father was unable to breath from laughter. He paused, snickering, to hear their explanation before being immobilized by amusement again.
He thought it was too funny and too brilliant to really punish them for it. Though their mother told the staff that his sister had a birthmark on the back of her neck, and he didn’t. That didn’t work for very long because Nerva figured out how to paint one on him.
He missed that. He missed having someone who knew what he was thinking. That person he could huddle up to and talk about anything with. He would do anything to have her there to clear his head because the image of Kiao’s breasts was burned into his mind.
They were just there. And then he wondered, Was I gawking at her or them? He couldn’t remember looking at her face. He didn’t want to be that tod who stared at girl’s breasts and they knew it. Then again, he probably wasn’t looking at her face because of how embarrassed he was, which was more embarrassing but expected on his part.
Maybe she took it that way? She probably did, Kiao is smart, he decided and pulled the seal of the letter apart and tried to read it. However, he read the same paragraph repeatedly before his mind drifted to earlier that day. He dropped the letter on his chest and stared at the ceiling.
Brother Hickory told him he shouldn’t let things get to him. He didn’t as much as before, but things still liked to niggle in the back of his mind. Either he could let go of what he couldn’t control, or he could work them out. This felt like something he needed to work out.
Mien as he ran his hands through his hair. Okay, think of this logically. Why do I feel this way? What’s wrong with Kiao being a young woman? Kiao is a brother of this order, a priest, and an intelligent individual who just happens to a girl. Nothing’s wrong, other than me who’s a stupid idiotic dod who couldn’t say anything decent, he thought and beat his forehead with his fists.
His picked up the letter again. As Soletus told him, he needed to stop thinking so much. He could read, he just had to focus on it. However, his mind still wondered about how he could’ve handled that situation better been less awkward. Kiao probably thought he was awkward. He dropped the letter yet again and stared at the celling a long time.
“I’m an idiot,” he muttered and placed the letter back where he got it. His mind was wondering too much, and he decided if he was going to think, he would think of anything else. He let his mind drift to something else. And he wondered what would his father have done or what would his father say. Then the usual cascade of wistfulness covered him. He desperately wanted his father to talk to. Then again, his father likely would’ve found the entire situation amusing. He fell asleep thinking of his father laughing.
The dinner horn sounded and it didn’t stir him. It was getting late in the evening when his nap was broken by the sound of his room opening. The noise was then followed by the sound of footsteps coming to the side of his bed. In his drowsy and fogged state, he thought it was Soletus. However, the person didn’t wake him as the young monk would. After Soletus shook him awake too quickly and caused Mien to fly in a panic, he would always squeeze his shoulder. This person patted his back.
“Wake up, we need to talk.”
Mien came to and saw Kiao leaning over his bed. He woke up quickly and scrambled to a sitting position. His mind jumped to thoughts of the trouble he could get in with her there. Then again, those who knew she was a female couldn’t protest too much because they didn’t want anyone to know. However, didn’t they tell her not to go in another boy’s room? Weren’t there rules in place for her on where she could and couldn’t go? Kiao never come inside his room before. Either she stood in the doorway, or they spoke some place else. Why his room now?
“I didn’t see you at dinner,” she told him and lifted a napkin wrapped around something and placed by his leg. “I was going to speak to you then. You also know my stance on skipping meals. Don’t do it again.”
Mien took the cloth napkin and unwrapped three stuffed bean buns.
Kiao settled on the floor between his desk and bed. “Now to get on to business about what needs to be said.”
Mien started on one of his buns and said between bites. “There isn’t anything we need to discuss.”
Kiao gave him a quirk of her brow. “Really? If my friend for four years suddenly revealed themselves to be different from what I believed, I would be a little hurt.”
He didn’t feel that hurt.
“I guess that means you’re more confused about how you should feel about this.”
“That,” admitted Mien.
“Well, I’m not here to tell you what to think. Think what you must. Feel what you must. I just want you to realize I’m still Kiao.”
Mien wished he could pick up things in her voice. It never really bothered him before, however then, it because it was hard to tell what Kiao was thinking facially. She had a lot of composure. When they first met, she was a bit stoic and didn’t waste time with emotions. He didn’t think she liked him after the phrase of silence incident. That wasn’t the case. She held up a slight wall there that she lowered after they got to know each other. He figured then she lowered another one by coming to him that evening.
“Ask questions, if you want,” she told him. “I know you have some.”
“Is Kiao your real name,” he asked. He didn’t think it was. The name was rather unique sounding.
“It’s a nickname. My name is a disgusting flowery princess name. And no, I’m not sharing it.”
“Why are you here and not the Sisterhood?”
“I was in the Sisterhood,” she said. “The priests who come for me were priestess. I spent my first few years of my chanter life in a frozen mountainous wasteland where all the women treated me like I was deficient.”
She gestured to herself. “I’m not exactly the perfect vestige of femininity.”
Mien tilted his head. He didn’t know why that would even bother them.
“I’m more likely to pass as lad than a lass as first glance. Besides that, internally, well, those my age have their cycle with the seasons. I don’t. I’m lucky, if it comes once a year.”
Mien felt discomfort in the pit of his stomach. He stared at his food. He knew enough about the female body to know that was unusual. Fertility issues in elves weren’t a rare thing, and they went both ways. He couldn’t understand why the Sisterhood would be bothered by something like that.
“You’re confused again,” said Kiao.
“I don’t see why that would bother them,” he told her.
“It just added to their dislike of me. They didn’t like me because of who my parents are. They are dress makers and work with theaters to design performers attire. They support chanters who perform. The sisterhood rather chanters use their voice just for Dias and not entertainment,” she said with audible bitterness. “They nitpicked me. I was never female enough for them. And when I thought I became woman enough for them, my cycle made me ill. The pain was bad, the nausea was severe from the vertigo, and the fatigue was crippling on top of having a fever. And it’s like that every time. From what I gathered, my body hates being female.”
“It’s just a condition,” she shrugged. “Nothing you can do about it. I was told I should avoid having children. That, of course, got passed around and then all the girls my age ant they twisted it into I was an androgynous elf. I don’t.
“Some of the older women who weren’t uppity tried to help. They tried to help me with herbal concoctions and whatever old nonsense they could dredge up in their archive. I refused to ingest any more of their rubbish after they made me eat an ewe womb.”
Mien looked at the bun he had been nibbling. It became unappetizing.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized.
Mien wished he had enough sense to end the conversation there. Instead, he furthered it.
“Sounds horrible. All of it, I mean. You can’t control what you are, right? You’re smart, you’re a good healer and chanter. What is more needed than that?”
Kiao’s face brightened. “You know, I wanted to tell you when I became your senior, but Oli told me not to. I told him it was a mistake, and he was being too cautious,” she said and rose to her knees so she could lean on his bed. “I thought having a person like you knowing would make it a bit easier for me. It’s been Alder, Oli, or Hickory and sometimes Nimbus helping me. Do you see an issue there?”
Mien shook his head.
“They’re not very intuitive. Oli is old, Nimbus gets all squirmy about everything, Alder is a dod, and Hickory…I love him to death. He’s insightful, but being neth makes him miss a few things here and there. Don’t tell him I said that.”
“And you believe I’m intuitive?”
“Yes. You’re sensitive to others around you, and clearly you don’t get completely squirmy about things.”
Mien looked down. “Ah yes, being sensitive, the most masculine of traits.”
Kiao brow met a little. “It’s not a trait mutually exclusive to being female. I was in an entire order of woman weren’t very sympathetic.”
Mien got uncomfortable with the look she gave him. He felt she was about to give him a speech and quickly asked, “How did you go from there to here?”
“The Brotherhood visits the Sisterhood every-so-often and they came when I was there. Hickory was with them. When I first saw him, I didn’t know what to think about him. He wasn’t how I imagined a priest. He wasn’t wearing a robe, just the travel cowl, and a combat chanter uniform. I didn’t know what a combat chanter was as the sisterhood doesn’t have them.
“I was drawn to him because he was different. No one believed he was neth because only females could be neth according to them. I mean, we are the superior sex and all. We’ve supreme control over our desires and men are weak.”
Mien tipped his head to the side again, feeling disturbed. That wasn’t all what Dias taught. “Is that what they teach?”
“The Brotherhood and Sisterhood might as well be two different sects of Fenndishism at this point. The Sisterhood’s superiority made the Brotherhood more than a little uncomfortable, especially with all the hostility showed towards Hickory. Unicorns don’t exist, you know. But like the stories about girls running after unicorns, I was compelled to follow him. I disguised myself as a boy and snuck their luggage cart.”
“And he didn’t know you were there?”
“Well, they found out once they settled down to camp for the night. They didn’t want to turn around and bring me back. I made up a great story about being an orphan and being a chanter made them hesitant to take me back even more. Problem was, I ate too proper for a street rascal and Hickory, being from a minor house as well, noticed. He also figured out I was a girl too, but didn’t tell anyone. He was more concerned about the fact I had come into my edict phrase, and I wasn’t handling it well. So, he took me with him.”
“Do your parents know you’re here?”
“Of course! Brother Hickory wrote them and brought them here and ask if it would be all right if I stayed given my treatment before. He liked me and said he always wanted a ward. They asked me if I wanted to go home. However, I’ve no future with them being a chanter and all,” she said, looking wistful. “I wanted to go home, but Hickory said I needed training. Then he would let me decide. But then Brother Oli heard about my healing ability. And he and Hickory started planning. They couldn’t convince the order to take me on as a priestess. They asked hypothetically. So, they conspired with me to join the Brotherhood as a boy.”
“Aren’t you afraid of being kicked out if the Arch Priest finds out?”
Kiao gave him a sly grin. “No, there are no hard rules in the order that states to be a chanter priest, you must be male to enter the Brotherhood.”
“Don’t you feel odd about it?”
“No. I’m not uncomfortable. Everyone here is nice to each other and most of my friends were boys growing, so it wasn’t like you were foreign beings to me.”
Mien then looked her over and asked, “How have you not been caught? How do you bath? The baths are public!”
Kiao smiled widened. “You get so excitable. I use the infirmary’s water closet. Plus, you saw my body shape. You can find more curves on a workbench.”
“And no one’s grabbed you by accident from horsing around.”
“If you’ve not noticed, the other priests are a dull bunch, and I didn’t start hanging out with non-priests until I met you.”
“And no one read it off your voice!”
“Can you,” she asked.
“No and I don’t know why! I’ve never been able to sense anything from you.”
Kiao tapped her finger on her chin in thought. “Given how timbre sensitive you are, you should. I was afraid you did earlier on. Something for you to look into because that’s odd.”
Mien then had an uncomfortable thought that appeared in his mind of something she did the other day. He grimaced at it and Kiao saw it.
“What is it? I told you, ask me anything.”
“The other day you were flirting with that girl who was hurt and wouldn’t calm down…”
Kiao’s face ripened as she became horrified.
“No, no, no, I was just asking or saying that you’re a really good actor,” said Mien.
She recovered a little. “I just do that stuff to blend in. It’s easy. I know what they want to hear. I should probably stop that if you notice I’m doing it. That’ll make it more difficult when my period of celibacy is over. I’ve not thought that far ahead, and I don’t want to be part of their pool of prey.”
Mien felt bad about that statement. He tried one a little less mortifying for her.
“So, when did Alder find out?”
“Actually, Brother Oli told him out right. Alder wasn’t going to say anything. I mean, he’s an orphan. He grew up in the Brotherhood and above and below it makes him infuriating.”
“I can tell. He gets upset when you do something he doesn’t like.”
“That because he made himself my protector like a bossy older brother.”
Mien couldn’t say that Kiao acted as if she needed protecting.
“It was a lot worse when I first arrived. He lightened up a lot until I started talking to Lyndon.”
“Why would he get upset by that?”
“Because Lyndon found out.”
Lyndon never even hinted that Kiao was a girl. He always came to her for his prank ideas. And Alder would always give Soletus’s cousin dirty looks when he appeared in the infirmary.
“He found out during an embarrassing incident when he pulled a prank on some other boys,” she explained with her ears flaring up red again. “We agreed he saw nothing. However, he made it a point to talk to me because he knows how dull Alder is. Alder then got the idea he likes me. It didn’t help that Lyndon called me pretty to flatter me into doing something I really shouldn’t have agreed to. I don’t know what he would think if he knew I like Soletus. His voice is so strong and husky.”
Mien had to admit, Soletus had a pleasant-sounding voice. One he wouldn’t mind having. His voice was distinctive in all the wrong ways. His sister claimed he sounded like a breath of wind. Mien took that as he spoke too soft and sound like he was trying to breathe on everyone.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve dumped a lot on you today and all I come here for was to tell you not to be awkward around me.”
“I don’t mind,” said Mien. “It’s nice to be something other than the helpless one that needs preaching to and help all the time.”
Kiao's lips quirked up. “Helpless, pffff, don’t think I didn’t notice you disarming that man today. The First Warden trained you right up. Thank you for that.”
That acknowledgement pleased him. Months of training had finally paid off.
“I remember there was a time when you couldn’t even take a compliment without getting all bashful.”
Mien’s face became warm, and he found it easier to examine the bun he hadn’t devoured than to keep eye contact with her.
Kiao stood to her feet. “What are you doing tomorrow? Any training with Nimbus and Oeric?”
“A little, but I should be free by the afternoon. Why?”
She gave him an enigmatic smile. “Come by the infirmary tomorrow when you get away from them. I want to show you something.”