Pretense wasn’t new to me at that point. As a fighter, I had to act as if I owned the ring, even if my handler purposely found a short giant with biceps the size of my head to fight. Pretense was how I made it home after that mission. I acted as I knew everything and pretend to be the leader they needed. And in doing so, I ignored what Talore always told me even when I met him in my dream that evening after it all happen. Never be afraid to show myself. Instead, I tried to be my brother, who appeared to have no weakness. Who was an exemplary warden in appearance, the best of the best, and it worked. However, this act wasn’t sustainable. My fiends would always manifest themselves spectacularly from time-to-time. My mouth would always work its way free, showing my lack of thoughtfulness and I would act on impulse. What reminded me eventually was my son.
Oeric’s declaration didn’t surprise Kiao. It was inevitable with the way he was progressing. However, the most prudent thing for the warden to do was go to the Arch Monk and let him handle it. However, why let someone do something for you when you could do it yourself?
Kiao should have stopped him. She believed he needed to have a little more care for his condition. Yet after he left Lady Lass, she followed him, curious about how he was going to do it. He was taking full strides, and she came right up on his rear and quickened her steps so she was matching him.
“You sound determined, First Warden. I can only guess you know where to at least look for them.”
He took the reins of his horse and acknowledge her as if he didn’t realize that she was there.
“I excused myself right after you did,” she told him.
“Shouldn’t you at least stay and speak to her about you and Mien,” he said. “She is going to be your future mother-in-law.”
“Mien hasn’t been very truthful with his mother. He’s omitted details about you and me. It’s a bit awkward.”
Oeric tugged his horse forward and started walking towards the monastery gate, slower this time. “A bit awkward? Sister, you are being far too generous. Try miserably awkward,” he said. “Anyway, my being able to find them is what I wanted to talk to you about. I know where they are going. They are headed north.”
“Yes, that point has been established.”
“I’ll explain more when we’re inside. I need a map to show you.”
Oeric led her across the grounds and left his horse to an unfortunate warder who was loitering outside the main building with his friends. He ordered him to take the creature back to the stables. Once inside, he went directly towards the boy’s dorm and stopped beside the entrance. To the side of it was where the bulletins, the field roster, training clutch list, duty roster for monitors, and whoever was the current senior warders and senior junior wardens. Soletus name was etched at the bottom of the slate board with his status listed as “on mission” in chalk.
Oeric pointed to the map of their province. It included the next one to the west and the one to the north, and south. The map ended with the drass wall with everything beyond that, a blank with drawing of twisted trees. He was focused on the boarder of the province they were in and the next one to the west.
“In the reports I read, they all mentioned that the bridge in Crossing was washed out. However, there was no time frame on when that had happened. Since Soletus didn’t arrive, I’m going to assume they came across the bridge being washed out a well. Without a bridge, they would’ve defaulted on their training and followed the river north if they are south of Grace’s Hope.”
“Then shouldn’t they have arrived?”
“This is one of the few areas it’ll get them in trouble.” His finger traveled up the river and stopped to what appeared to be two rivers converging into one. “You see this point where the two rivers meet? There is a waterfall here and the rivers combine just before it. However, you can’t see all of this from the road. You can hear the water. There is a ferry further up, but is down a cliff and again, you can see it if traveling on the road that keeps going north.”
“If for some unknown reason, they don’t have a map, they could follow the river thinking it was the Branch. The Westerly runs going southeast. They are traveling northwest, they would end up traveling further away.”
“You think they would’ve noticed something like that,” she remarked.
“My guess they were forced in that direction because Soletus, at least, should’ve noticed. Then again, they might’ve been waiting for a place to cross. As I said, there is that one crossing because the Westerly is a very rapid and unsafe.”
She then stared at the map and tried to trace whatever path they might’ve taken. “That’s a lot of country for no bridge.”
“Not many people live that far out, too dangerous. Between the drass beast and the unlawful, the only people who live out there are those who want to be alone. The best place to cross the river is way up here,” he said, pointing to a spot northwest of Grace’s Hope. The closest marked town was Wateree, and that was across the Branch. However, past that point, there looked like there was a lot of nothing to search.
“That’s a lot of north to cover. I wish there was a way to get their precise location,” said Kiao and was then struck with a thought. “Can you witness the same vision twice? Maybe we could find out more information,” she said, regarding him to find him staring down at her with a particular light in his eyes. “What’s with that look?”
“I already know how to get a precise location.”
Kiao waited for him to explain. His gaze was pointed to her. She pointed at herself. “Me?”
“Why? Because of my current state? First Warden, the channel my bond keeps trying to connect with? It has a distance limitation. I need to be close to him. There is too much wilderness between us.”
Oeric didn’t seem discourage. “He’ll tell us enough.”
“Who’ll tell you?”
“The Arch Priest. Lyndon said he’s seen something for you to take care of and I need to come with you. It all leads to up north.”
Kiao then remembered the painting. It was the same one the Arch Priest was working on when he told her to watch him. That he dreams. Now there was Oeric telling her, that he knew the Arch Priest seen something. She didn’t find the new development as them moving a one step forward as much as a disturbing step.
She frowned. “So you’ve known a lot more than what you’ve shared with me.”
He then peered around him and over her head before speaking in a low voice. “You do realize that the only person I’ve ever talked about these things too is Cordea?”
Kiao didn’t like that answer but, she wasn’t surprised. “So, no one knows, not even your father? Not even the dreams of how troubled you can be.”
Oeric looked away from her to the map again and traced a finger to the spot where he had left it at before.
“Does he know about those,” she asked.
He gave her a sideways glance. “As far as he knows, I stopped having them decades ago. Otherwise, I would experience listening to something akin to Lady Lass’s words. Him questioning every action I make and involve himself in my life more than needed because I’m simply incapable. I don’t envy you, Sister, if you decide to marry into that.”
“I’ll deal with it when the time comes for me to deal with it. Dias knows I have no patients for those kinds of people. Maybe by then I can explain the truth to her without wanting to slap her.”
“You’re like my Fern. She doesn't tolerate that sort of thing. Though, she would likely just slap her,” he then exhaled and regarded her again. “Anyway, the way Lyndon interacted with me was different. New even. He said several things without context and stressed I wait until something happened and do this. It was a confusing list of instructions that been getting clearer and clearer as time had gone by.”
“So what’s left unclear?”
“Why I’m to go with you and not the other way around? Everything seems to be leading up to me going to find them but, I’m to go with you?”
“Sister Kiao,” shouted a voice.
She turned around to see a young acolyte jogging towards them. “Brother Rastor has been looking for you for ages. He’s in the infirmary.”
“Brother Rastor,” she said, puzzled. The name sounding vaguely familiar. “Who’s that, and why does he want to see me?”
The acolyte looked a little embarrassed. “Well…uh…it’s about what happened to you and Elnos. He’s on the assembly.”
“Oh. Great,” she sighed.
The acolyte remained where he was regarding Oeric.
“Also, you’re First Warden Oeric, right?”
The man nodded.
The young man’s face lit up. “Oh good. He did say I would get two birds with a single stone. The Arch Priest wants you.”
Oeric gave Kiao an arched brow before the two of them walked towards the priest’s wing and separated. She walked in the infirmary and found Alder was with a warden behind the screen closest to the door, giving instructions on what sounded like how to make a sling. Lionel was at the podium, tapping his fingers against the wood in aggravation.
“What’s going on,” she mouthed.
Lionel pointed to the man Alder was standing with. “The new Assembly Head.”
Kiao turned around and saw a silvering priest. She then whispered to him. “Who is it?”
“That’s Honored Priest Brother Rastor.”
Kiao swung her head around to see him. “They replace Elnos that quickly?”
The man caught sight of her. He stared at her for a very long time. He didn’t remind her of the dusty priest that plagued the halls. His eyes were young even though his face and hair wasn’t. He was around Brother Hickory’s age. Alder touched the man’s arms to get his attention. He wasn’t done with his instructions.
“Pray he isn’t going to try and change everything like Elnos. Well, at least don’t let him push you around while I’m gone.”
Lionel became distressed. “How long of an absence?”
“Two weeks but, it might be longer,” she said. “Anyway, what do you know about Elnos?”
He leaned in close to her. “From what I could piece together, the Arch Priest forced Elnos to step down as assembly head and ordered him into isolation. After that, they’re think about sending him away.”
Shock rattled Kiao. “Wait what?”
“Brother Oli spoke, and he urged something to be done. Nothing but flattened bread, beans, and water for a month inside of a stuffy room for him.”
“And Rastor was put in his stead?”
Lionel nodded. “Voted in. In fact, he was the one who suggested that Elnos be sent away.”
Kiao wondered immediately why Rastor was chosen. They assembly had to have some sort of ulterior motives for it. They wouldn’t make just anyone Assembly head.
Kiao turned to see Brother Rastor hurrying up the isle towards her with Alder trailing him.
“You’re finally here,” he said, offering his hand. “I’m Brother Rastor’Nighthawk.”
“Brother Rastor,” she said, shaking his hand. “I know of you, just never talked to you at length.”
“Well, I’m one of the teachers here. I’m mostly around my students who are all monks. Anyway, the Arch Priest wished I speak with you before you speak with him. I think we could just talk along the way to him.”
He then gestured for her to lead. Kiao did as she was told giving Alder a quick glance back. He made shooing motions with his hands. Rastor waited to speak to her until they were in the wing's corridor.
“To start off, I want to apologize to you for the way the assembly has treated you.”
Kiao was stunned and she didn’t bother hiding it.
“I’m aware that most of us are complacent older men. Most don’t see change before them and when they do, they immediately strike it down, make excuses, and keep things the way they like it.”
“So I noted.”
“Because of it, the older priests don’t talk to the younger ones or even the combat chanters. In fact, the priests are splintered into small inclusive groups.”
Kiao wondered what group he came from.
“I honestly wish to end that. Brother Elnos had the same intention in mind. Though his execution was a bit off. I liked the face he had members of the assembly spread to all corners of the Brotherhood. However, the hardest entry point was the infirmary.”
“Because of me?”
“Yes, but mostly because of Brother Oliver. He doesn’t want just anyone there. To him, you are the best and deserve to have the best working alongside of you.”
That didn’t surprise Kiao at all. “I can understand. You can teach anyone, but they have to be comfortable working with young chanters who know more than they do.”
“And that’s the true hurdle. Most are like me, know nothing about the infirmary. And I very little excuse for not learning what it all entails. I was a warden.”
“You were a warden,” she said, not entirely surprised. Many priests were retired wardens.
“Not a very good one I’m afraid. I just filled out the ranks. I retired because my soul needed rest, so I entered the priesthood. I wanted to do something with my time so I taught language lessons for our newest and youngest of fighting brothers.”
“And they just let you be the head of the assembly?”
“Yes. I’ve a different perspective than the shut ins of this order. As the Arch Priest mentioned, things have gotten stale around here. And the ones who are content can’t lead it.”
“Anyway, I’ve learned about you some time ago when you first arrived here. Brother Hickory and Oliver had you segregated from the rest of us for more obvious reasons than I thought. However, I hope that distance can be bridged. You have been a glorious asset to us.”
Kiao was wary of praise from a person she didn’t trust. However, if the Patriarch claimed she would be good at playing the court game, so she put on a good face.
“Well, this is refreshing. The assembly sent someone who is going to help and not wish to oppose me,” she said.
“I wouldn’t dream of doing that. The most I’m going to do is evaluate your bond between you and Brother Mien.”
All friendliness evaporated from Kiao. She stopped walking. “Now we get to your purpose.”
He stopped short of her. “I was told that I shouldn’t get into this with you right away. However, I thought it was best for you to know, given the situation that’s come into light.”
Kiao crossed her arms. “I don’t need another man telling me how to handle my personal life.”
“Agreed. I’m willing to let you handle it.”
This was one of those moments that Kiao needed her bond partner. She didn’t know how sincere that statement was.
“I know nothing of timbre bonds. I’m not a chanter. What few chanters that are in the assembly urged me to take some kind of control over the two of you. When asked why I should, the answers were puzzling.”
“There’s nothing puzzling about it. I’m a chanter who lied about her gender and so she could join a male order, and I fooled them all. I was allowed to stay unpunished and now they are doing it the only way they can.”
Rastor studied her. “Well, that’s not what they said.”
“Of course not,” she said with a humorless chuckle. “They would never admit the truth. They probably told you all sorts of excuses that our age gap is inappropriate, or they are concerned it appears they are breeding powerful chanters, and my favorite, Mien, is too unstable and thus dangerous.”
He bobbed his head, looking a bit perplex. “Something along those lines,” he said and considered her silently as she spoke.
“You expected to speak to a different sort of person, didn’t you? A little girl, perhaps? That's what they told you, didn't they? The truth is, I joined this order simply for the fact, I liked the two priests who took me under their wing and I was finally good at something. I could heal others in ways I never dreamed possible. That has always been and still is my underline goal. However, that doesn’t mean I need to spend the rest of my life alone. I’m not neth. And if you want to talk to me about Mien and me, wait until he gets back,” she said.
Rastor bobbed his head in agreement. “That is preferred.”
“I’m glad you agree, because I’m not his keeper. Elnos seemed to forget that. I’m not the one that formed the bond with him. I just agreed to it.”
“I understand that and as I said, I won’t do as he did.”
However, that met he was still going to do something.
They came out of the hall; she was once again taken to the indoor garden. The Arch Priest was alone this time with three seats arranged behind him. Oeric sitting in one, the other empty. And as before, the elder was again with his painting. This time, the figure he had spent painting had an even larger shadow coming off of it. There was an edition of four figures. Three were standing back while there was one reaching for the figure in pain.
“Sister and my brother sit. I won’t keep you long,” he said, turning around. His blue eyes were iridescent. “It’s getting harder and harder to see and I have to paint so much.”
Kiao just bobbed her head.
“Not much time. I wish I saw as clearly when I was a lad. I heard her cry and didn’t understand. I understand now, but I’m getting ahead of myself. You spoke to Brother Rastor?”
Kiao nodded. “We spoke.”
“I can hear your suspicion. And I understand it. However, some things need to happen. I can assure you, there is no need to fear that Rastor will become a wedge like Elnos.”
That didn’t reassure her.
The Arch Priest then gave her a sad look. “I’m sorry. I should’ve done more. But what happens needs to happen. I want you to be done teaching Mientheoderic. Soon he’ll have a teacher that’ll help him where I couldn’t.”
Kiao frowned. “Sir, you aren’t making much sense.”
“My wife tells me that. I speak in half thoughts. You see it’s late. The curse of insight is you see is knowing too much and having to say little. I’ve not the mind for it anymore. However, I need to lay a foundation. The last piece is in place.”
He pointed to the figure in his painting. “You need her. She needs to be here; you need to find her and bring her home. Brother Mien will do what he can, so she doesn’t need much convincing.”
“Her? Who is she?”
“Oh, she’s a chanter, and she’s in pain. You two are the only ones who can help her.”
“So, you’re sending me out to get her,” asked Kiao growing more and more confused.
“You’re on leave from the infirmary, are you not? Also, where she is at, are where the missing ones are at.”
Oeric, who had been silently listening, leaned forward. “Excuse me?”
The Arch Priest pointed to the painting. “Your son is headed towards her.”
Oeric looked at the painting.
“You dream. You’ve seen him dead.”
The first warden stiffened.
“You don’t care for it, I know,” he said with sympathy. “However, echoes can tell us a lot. He’s told you something.”
Oeric rubbed his hand on the top of his legs before admitting, “He did. He told me that you were going to tell me what I need to do and where to go.”
“I need you to escort Sister Kiao,” He said, pointing to the bent figure. “She is a graceless chanter, but she needs to be saved. Dias is a god of second chances. However, to truly free her, she needs your help, Sister Kiao.”
Kiao gaped at him. “So, you’re sending me with First Warden Oeric and who else?”
“Just you two. And you need to leave as soon as possible.”
Kiao pointed at Oeric. “He’s still ill.”
“I’m well enough, Sister,” assured Oeric. “We can leave as soon as possible.”
The Arch priest smiled. “Good, it all works out in the end. She must not die, and you must bring her here. This is where she belongs, and that will be the last of all things I can do.”
“The last of what things,” asked Brother Rastor.
The Priest didn’t answer him. Instead, he continued to lay out instructions.
“You need to go across the river and travel down some familiar roads. You may encounter some stumble blocks, however, there you will find your band.”
Oeric crossed his arms. “My band?”
The Arch Priest then said. “You will have your band. They are already there. Why do you think I’m sending you? They need their leader.”
Oeric searched the elder’s face. “Excuse me. I’m their leader?”
“Yes, and they’ll follow you under the brightest sky and down the darkest road. One day you will have to let go them go and give them to him. And then you’ll see what I’ve seen.”
Then the Arch Priest fell silent. He continued painting. They waited for him to speak again. When it was clear he wasn’t, they then looked between themselves. Brother Rastor hung his head down and shook his head silently.
“This order needs more,” he muttered and then said aloud. “I think that’s it. If you two need to prepare. I’ll feel better if you two would choose someone else.”
“Nope, the two must go alone,” said the Arch Priest. “It might seem inappropriate. But there have been many a priestess with a monk to protect her.”
“He’s a father. What more do you want," questioned the Arch Priest.
Kiao was certain for that person not being Oeric.
“I think I can handle a priestess,” stated Oeric, standing. “We need to get prepared to leave.”
Brother Rastor eyed him. “If she doesn’t come back in one piece—”
“It’s not you who I’ll be answering to. I’ve never had to answer to you, and it doesn’t start now,” he said to him and then held his hand out to Kiao. “Come with me. I doubt you know a thing about what to carry on this sort of trip.”
He was right, she knew nothing about being on the road and yet she was about to go traipsing across the countryside on a mission.
End of Part Two.
This chapter didn't need much work. Which I was grateful for because I didn't really want to spend another chunk of my time revising.
Anyway, this is the only chapter this week. I'm on a two-week break after this week to finish up another story and then I'll come back Nov. 8th I think. Hopefully by then. I'll only be down to two drafting and 1 editing project. My advice: Never work on multiple stories. Just save yourself the frustration of never getting anything done on time.
Also, Week of 10/11/22 had been added with news and book updates. And Nethism has been added to the Extra information section. Enjoy.