Kiao was thrilled to continue her tradition of dressing up for her friends when they found out. She used the fear of Briar showing up as an excuse to wear a something brighter than normal, a red and orange themed outfit her mother had sent her on the grounds it was something male Kiao wouldn’t wear. It consisted of a skirt, vest, and a thin blouse. As always, she changed in the chapel in one of the back rooms. Brother Hickory spotted her with her bundle as he was talking to a patron and waved at her. She waved back.
There would be time to update him on her progress with Mien and the women’s society another day. She was too excited about seeing Soletus’s reaction to stop and think about anything else.
“It’ll be wonderful,” she said to Emmery, who rode on her shoulder and was making herself snug around her neck. Kiao ignored her claws, digging in as she vaulted over the fence. Having the consort was a blessing, even if the ability she gave her was rather mundane and silly. She could change her hair color. Not just her head, but also the hair on her body. Her eyebrows and eyelashes could go from silvery flaxen to the riches of blacks, so she never had to pay money for a wig or dye.
She chose black that day. Raven colored hair was something she loved. When she met Edithlyn, she could help but admire the mane of black and silver curls. Most elves didn’t have black hair. It was such a rare color. The closest a ruling house came to it was House Heron, who was currently on the seat. King Aurberon had russet hair and both his daughters. In fact, the whole house had brown hair color. It was said if an elf had brown hair, they had to be related to house Heron.
Kiao’s own hair was a dark mahogany just as her father, who possessed oddly wavy hair of the same color and speckles on his skin as a kanu. And an odd skin tone for an elf. However, not the tans and browns as a Kanu like Edithlyn. Sometimes Kiao wondered if his grandfather was really his sire. He looked nothing like him.
When she arrived at the bridge, Soletus wasn’t there. She climbed on the railing and sit, watching elves walk by. She didn’t observe many. That was good; she didn’t want people around. However, behind two old arguing men, strolled Briar.
“Is she that determined,” muttered Kiao. Briar tenacity for being nosey amazed her. The huntress tried to walk as if she was just passing through. It was obvious though she was looking for her. She used the people in front of her as a shield as she kept on looking side to side and stood on her toes to look over them.
Kiao adjusted the mute choker around her neck that hid her chanter’s lit and spoke. “Are you looking for someone?”
Briar nearly leapt out of her skin as she spun around.
“I… no! I’m just…” she trailed and narrowed her eyes at her. “Have we met?”
“You’ve probably seen me in town once or twice,” said Kiao.
Briar tilted her head. “Is that the only place?”
“This is the only town I visit,” she said enigmatically.
Briar stared at her head.
“Lovely color, isn’t it?”
“If you say so,” said the huntress, now coming close to her and then stopping. “You a half-elf or something?”
“Hardly,” said Kiao pleasantly.
Briar still eyed her suspiciously. “Anyway, have you seen an odd-looking young man? He’s dark, muddish red hair, fine faced, and a chanter?”
Kiao resented at being described as having muddish red hair. However, she couldn’t say anything other than no. Behind Briar's head, she caught sight of Soletus. He wasn’t wearing a uniform for once. He had on a dark brown pair of trousers and a short-sleeved shirt that cut off at his elbow. Over that, he was wearing a dark muted purple vest. He was also wearing his hair down. It always had a strange effect on his appearance. He looked common with his hair in a loose braid. With his hair down, he looked like a roguish lord’s son.
“Soletub,” greeted Briar when he got close. “What a surprise. You come here to meet Ko-ko?”
He couldn’t have given her a more frosted stare than he did then. “How do you know that?”
“I know all, hear all, and see all. Besides, I wanted to speak with him, and he doesn’t seem to be here yet. Well, at least I made an interesting friend. This is…”
“Lianna,” said Kiao.
Soletus regarded her as if he just noticed her. “Greetings,” he said.
Kiao smiled. “Greetings, I like company. Plus, if I lose my balance on this rail, I’ll at least have someone to fetch me out of this pond. I don’t know how to swim,” she said, looking directly at Soletus, hoping he took the hint.
The young monk gave the water a quick glance and said with his voice low and unfriendly. “The water is not that deep.”
Annoyance rose in Kiao that he was being stony towards her. She wasn’t even trying to flirt with him like some pesky girl.
She leaned forward, resting an elbow on her knee. “I’ve seen you before. You’ve usually with a fellow that looks a bit like you with the double braids, and a younger tod, a fox-top.”
Soletus bobbed his hand.
“The group of you like to order buns from the shop in town. Lyndon always gets a nut pastry, you get the sweetest thing that’s fresh, and Mien is the rebel of the two of you. He gets a butter onion bun.”
Soletus scowled suspiciously. “Who are you?”
Kiao’s lips spread, revealing her teeth. “I know all, see all, and hear all too,” she said, winking and jumped off the bridge. “I’m going for a walk. Hope you two find your friend.”
She knew Soletus wouldn’t talk or stay around Briar for long. She hurried off and trying to find a private place to talk. There weren’t many elves, but they were all occupying every single bench, table, or under the branches of a convenient tree out of ear shot of anyone. The young woman began to wonder if she needed to circle back round again to see if either of them left and just wait for Soletus to return.
A whistle got her attention, and she turned around to see him jogging towards her.
“Kiao,” he questioned when he got close to her.
“You figured it out,” she beamed, however her smile faded because of the way he looked at her.
Lyndon looked amazed at her transformation. Mien was stunned. Soletus, on the other hand, was perplexed.
“What,” she asked.
He shook his head. “It’s nothing. You just look and sound different. Lianna?”
“It’s as close to my actually name I’m willing to tell people. It’s a disgusting princess name. Anyway, I’m wearing a mute choker. It hides my lit. It’s an old-world artifact. And Emmery gives me the ability to change my hair color.” The ermine moved, showing her brown head to Soletus.
Soletus chuckled. “I thought he…she was some kind of clothing accessory.” His still looked as if something was wrong.
Kiao sighed. “It’s the skirt, isn’t it?”
“No,” he said, becoming apologetic. “It looks nice on you. It just feels like I’m talking to a different person, is all.”
Kiao looked around, took him by the arm, and pulled him down the path until they went around a bend. It was there she concentrated and turned her hair back to normal.
“Sorry, I can’t take the choker off, but is this better?”
“Sorry,” he said, cringing a little.
“Don’t apologize; I probably should’ve warned you.”
She was disappointed. He ruined something that should’ve been fun.
“That’s okay,” he said.
She then studied his appearance. “You’re wearing your hair down. Someone told you to cut your hair again?”
Soletus acknowledged her suspicion with a roguish grin.
Kiao wanted to like him with long hair. However, that stupid saying was true about females not liking males having hair longer than theirs was true. She was jealous and would love to have that length. It made her missed the array of braids she wore as a girl and getting her hair brushed. In fact, she had a strong desire to brush his because he never spent enough time on it. She could make it shine like corn silk.
“Why even wear it long when everyone gets on your back about it?”
“Because I like it. It’s a silly custom anyway.”
“And what’s with you all dressed differently,” she pointed.
Soletus glanced down and tugged at the vest he wore. “Oh, this. Since I’m not on duty and not growing out of everything I own, my aunt made me some nice cloths,” he said.
“They look nice.”
Soletus’s amicable smile broadened as he fell into step beside her. The girl in Kiao skipped for joy inwardly. He was never awkward when it came to being in proximity with others. He liked people being comfortable around him. He said it was because he was so tall, he didn’t want anyone to feel imitating by him, unless on purpose.
“Let’s sit over there,” she suggested and pointed to a mossy spot under a tree. It was off the path, but in view of it so they could see if anyone was coming towards them. Kiao plopped down, failing to be lady like with the fabric of her skirt, fluffing out everywhere. She tried to gather it up while Soletus lowered himself gracefully to avoid sitting on the fabric. She noted he looked troubled again.
“So, what’s up? This isn’t about a health issue, is it?”
He clasped his hand together and rubbed his thumbs together. “That would be simple to deal with.”
Kiao became concerned. He was pressing his thumb into the skin of the other, making it red. She wanted to reach over and stop him, but he wasn’t injuring himself.
“Is it really that upsetting?”
He leaned closer to her and whispered. “I think I’m neth.”
The girl inside her started wailing, Noooo!
Kiao on the outside swallowed her surprise and kept herself composed. “Wouldn’t Brother Hickory be the better person to talk to since he is one?”
Soletus swayed his head. “I wanted to talk to you before talking to him to see what you think. I mean, I rather be slow than completely broken.”
Kiao shoved him. “Being neth doesn’t mean you’re broken. Seriously, does Brother Hickory act broken to you?”
Soleus swayed his head. “No. It’s just how I feel about it.”
She pushed him harder, it slightly unbalanced him. “Sol, that’s not something you should think and feel. It can mess you up if you let yourself believe it.”
His gaze veered to his hands. “I know but, I would like at least something about me to be normal. I mean, look at the way they treat Papa because he’s different.”
Kiao pressed her lips together. That was true, and even she had mixed feelings about him. He hurt Soletus in a fight that was supposed to be fair combat because of being a former cur. Everyone kept it hushed. Now it was easy to think of him as an unthinking brute.
“I think that’s a little different,” she said. “Most wardens feel he’s unworthy because he chose his actions. Elves who are the children of Lenneth, well, that’s different. You’re an echo of her. You’re born that way.”
He regarded her again with a shake of his head. “True, but they forget that if you’re male. There’s no such thing as unicorns. If you do admit being one, other males don’t take you seriously.”
“No one says anything about Brother Hickory,” she returned.
“Because he’s a priest and not in a combat role,” argued Soletus.
“He was a combat chanter for a little bit.”
“And when he quit, they thought him weak for it.”
“He stopped because he had survivor’s guilt,” explained Kiao. “There are plenty of wardens who stepped out of field work because of seeing band members getting killed while they lived. You’re over-thinking this.”
“I’m not,” he exclaimed loudly.
Kiao was a little taken aback by his outburst. She couldn’t understand why something like that bothered him. He wasn’t someone she thought was self-conscious.
“I get it, it bothers you because you think they’ll think you’re less of a male,” she told him gently. “But being a grappler should show them otherwise. You’ve a rooted fear of drass beasts and still do it. If anyone thinks of you as being less virile than they are, tell them to straddle one.”
His dubious expression remained. “But that’s not going to work on my parents. Sons get disowned for being neth. I’m useless. I won’t keep the family line going.”
It was true, but she countered it with, “Your parents don’t strike me as being that shallow.”
“I know, but they’ve been all about this whole Briar thing.”
Kiao rolled that in her head and then asked, “Have you ever thought that maybe they want to see what you do because they suspect something?”
Soletus stared at her wide-eyed. “I didn’t think it was obvious.”
“It isn’t,” she said, then reconsidered that statement. “Well, you’re a little oblivious sometimes and then you act as if you trying to push girls who are really trying too hard away.”
“Because they act as if I’m brainless and that eyelash batting and pouting is going to get me to move mountains for them.”
“And I wouldn’t jump to you being neth. I’ve a reputation for not putting up with prissy try hards. Honestly, though, it seems like something your father might pick up on.”
“Then he would’ve said something by now.”
“He has given you a lot of space since your incident,” she offered as reasoning.
Soletus rubbed his face. “The only things that’s changed is that he doesn’t treat me like a child, but he’s still Papa. He still has to help. And I don’t think he would care, but he and Mama are close. I don’t think they’ll understand and make it all worse.”
Kiao sighed. “Have you considered that you might be worried about nothing? Some elves need a rooted emotional attachment before they show any interest.”
Soletus blinked at her a few times. “What sort of interest?”
“Well, being with a young lady in your case,” she said as if it was obvious.
“And I would want that because…”
“The point of it all is so you don’t get lonely,” said Kiao. Her concern was growing that he was right.
“See, I don’t get that. Dias made the world full of people where I can find a worthy friends. I have you, Mien, and Lyndon right now. I could have more if I tried. How would I get lonely?”
Kiao went into her thought to think of a counter to the evidence he was supplying. She couldn’t.
His gaze dropped to his hands. His thumbs worked harder to bruise each other. “I’ve more. I’ve kissed a girl.”
“Who? When,” she demanded.
Soletus plucked a few blades of grass by his legs. “I decided to test the waters when I was on the road. We stopped in a town during a festival a few weeks ago. I stayed with the first young lady who latched herself to my side. After some dancing and a drink later, we kissed.”
He looked up and told her frankly, “It was the most pointless thing I’ve ever done. Smashing my lips against a wine-soaked prune isn’t what I call enjoyable.”
Kiao didn’t think she would ever hear someone else take all the joy and wonder out of a kiss that wasn’t Brother Hickory.
A bashful smile formed on his face. “I’ve convinced you, haven’t I?”
Kiao pursed her lips before smoothing out the creases in her skirt, wishing it weren’t true. “Let’s just say with the evidence provided, you really should talk to Brother Hickory.”
Soletus let out a groan. “I was afraid you would say that. I will… maybe. I don’t know.”
“Then at least talk to your father so you don’t have to worry about Briar in your life. He might reassure you more than I ever will. That’s what you what you want because that’s why you told me, right?”
Soletus pushed his hair back from his face to behind his ears. “Am I that transparent?”
“Yes. I think, anyone in your position would want to see what their friends think. And I don’t care. You’re still the same person,” she said, though her heart aching like it had been stabbed.
She knew there was Mien, but part of her held onto a chance with Soletus like a stupid girl. In fact, she felt like finding a corner to hide. She wanted to think of an of a reason to excuse herself. She wasn’t going to go through it, mostly he engulfed her in a rib breaking hug. When she squeaked, he finished it off with touching his forehead against hers. There wasn’t another gesture more neth than that. That was probably as much affection as she would ever get from him. It made her feel worse.
“Thank you,” he told her.
“So, does Lyndon and Mien know,” she asked when he pulled away.
“No, I wanted to tell you first.”
“I’m surprised you did choose Lyndon. He wouldn’t care.”
The young monk shrugged. “He’s family, and he really liked going out and talking to girls. I’ll probably tell him last because of it. I wanted to tell you first because I felt lied to when I found out you were female and then I felt bad for it because I wasn’t exactly telling the truth either. So, I guess it evens us up.”
Kiao then saw Briar down the path through the branched of some shrubs searching for them. She ducked and turned her hair back black. Soletus stood up and scowled.
“I thought she gave up,” he told her.
“She’s looking for me. I should go.”
It was too late. The huntress caught sight of the two of them. “Well, well, well, this is interesting.”
“Why you say that,” asked Kiao mildly.
“You talking to him, of course,” she said. “He’s not very friendly.”
Kiao then rose to her feet, beating her skirt to free it from grass and bugs. “Well, I gave him reason to be , and that’s all that matters.”
Soletus followed and said, “We should talk again, Lianna.”
“It was nice to meet you as well,” said Kiao, walking past Briar.
Briar then stated, “I didn’t notice before, but you’re a tall one.”
“So, I’m told,” she said and waved goodbye to Soletus, smiling, and then walked off with the corners of her mouth dropping. She exhaled, glad that she didn’t have to sit there marinating in the double dose disappointment.