Mien put all his effort into avoiding Kiao. The day preceding their adventure, he slept in late as well as Kiao, who didn’t even leave her room. Her back would take some time to completely heal. It was the day after that he realized there was a channel between the two of them. What flowed between them was just her personal timber. He could tell where she was without hearing her. It made it easier to avoid her because he knew her location. The downside, he wanted to find her as it came with a sense of longing. It made him feel like a living contradiction. He lost the will to speak and was miserably silent because he was afraid.
All his friends noticed the change in his behavior. Oeric and Nimbus did as well it, and Brother Oli watched him carefully. Alder was out of the loop and was too busy giving Soletus dirty looks whenever he came in to speak with Kiao, which was just a quick update on the situation they discovered.
Soletus and Kiao had spoken to the Arch Monk about the ruins. Mien expected that they would get in trouble being in a restricted area without the guidance of someone of high rank. Then Kiao did something she normally didn’t do. She pulled rank and got them free from trouble. The young woman was a canter. He didn’t realize that was the priest equivalent of a second warden. Her commanding officer, so to speak, was Elder Brother Oli, and she was acting on his behalf. Of course, the old chanter priest agreed he gave Kiao permission to act without even consulting him. And in his opinion, he would have done the same. Mien was of the opinion he was being a doting grandfather again. The Arch Monk saw no problem with it, so he let it all go.
From there, the Arch Monk took over the investigation and set Master Marth on it. From there, it got a bit bizarre.
“All Papa would tell me is that they’re gone,” Soletus told them several days later with Lyndon at his side.
Kiao face’s face twisted in confusion. “Gone?”
Mien was surprised too. He was across the room, smoothing out the sheets of a freshly emptied bed.
“Yeah, just like the trees they planted,” he said.
Mien became very annoyed when he heard they cut down the trees to the point there was nothing more than a splintered stomp on the ground. They even cleaned up the remains of the drass beast Soletus and him killed.
“At least there was other things they couldn’t hide. Like the char marks from the drass beast that was killed or empty the reservoir full of an uncommon algae or hide the evidence of that someone’s coming and going. There was a case being built up,” he said.
Kiao frowned. “They only had the one guard who come in here and he still tried to deny everything with other guards supporting his claim of being in town all day. He should’ve been arrested and not just removed from the rooster.”
“Well, that’s the thing. That was all of what Master Marth would tell me. You see, the person who took over the case is his replacement, Enforcer Icus.”
Lyndon winced. “That’s why they ran from town.”
Kiao became confused. “I’m unfamiliar with Icus. Who is he?”
“Former first warden, who started working with Master Marth. Now Master Marth is stepping down and Icus is taking over his position. He is a hound when it comes to figuring out wrongdoing.”
“Tell me about it,” said Lyndon. “Most of the pranks I can’t pull is because of him. He’s rough on everyone.”
“Okay, so they just ran out of town because he was investigating,” Kiao asked.
Soletus bobbed his head. “He must have had something substantial. Because if I had to guess, he was likely going to happen to them would’ve been an example out of them. Probably would have handed them over to the Seat. So, four guards just straight up fled, leaving behind family and all.”
The young woman started back writing in the ledger and said with her voice bland. “That’s incredibly selfish.”
“Master Marth suspects the families were in on it. But, they are claiming ignorance.”
“And the rest of the guard?”
“Denying that they ever knew. Their commanding officer has been temporarily removed and likely is going to be replaced. And Enforcer Icus has taken over as interim First Officer and is cleaning house.”
Kiao’s brow rose. “How is it that I don’t know about him?”
Lyndon then chuckled. “Because Marth doesn’t always unleash him. If up see him, you know why. Always wears a military topknot and is as mean as a hornet.”
Mien had met Icus. He had come to speak to Oeric one day on the field a year ago. From the stiff tone of Oeric’s voice, he didn’t care for him either. Mien couldn’t help feeling that he was someone he needed to watch his step with. If a single word could be described him, it would be dogmatic.
The young chanter priest went onto the next bed and caught Alder glaring in Kiao’s direction. It became a scowl when Lyndon threw his arms around Kiao's shoulders. Mien decided that he might need to intervene and remind him that Lyndon was that friendly with everyone.
The infirmary door opened while he had his back to the door. The footsteps were of someone he didn’t recognize. They were wearing slippers and over the sound of swishing fabric. He turned and found a short woman floated in wearing a long muted green day gown with a silver chain around her waist that jingled as she walked. She stopped midway down the aisle and searched the room, going from face to face.
Her presence elicited a strange reaction out of Soletus and Lyndon. The cousins smoothed out their clothing and stood tall, clasping their hands behind their back. Kiao masked her surprise quickly with a smile and stepped from behind the podium.
“Can I help you,” she asked.
The woman's eyes locked on Kiao and muttered, “She was right.”
Kiao walked forward some more, and the woman closed the distance between them.
“Do we know each other?”
“I’m sorry, we’ve never met before. I rarely speak to anyone in the order that isn’t Orrie and a few others. I’m Lady Maelyra, the Patriarch’s wife.”
Kiao took her hand and bowing kissing the top of it to make up for her lack of manners before. While it was proper etiquette, the woman was surprised and troubled all at the same time. “I must apologize. You don’t get many ladies around here.”
“Are you from a house?”
“House Meadowlark,” replied Kiao.
Lady Maelyra studied the top of her head. “My, you are tall,” and then said quietly. “It’s a bit disturbing how well you pull this role.”
Kiao dropped her hand and stepped away from her.
“I’m sorry,” apologized the women reaching out and taking her hand. “It’s just that you’re quite the sight to behold. Anyway, I was sent here.”
Kiao’s brow met. “By whom?”
“Initially it was Cordea. She then directed me to Brother Hickory, and he informed me I needed to have a little mercy on you and I’ve not. I must apologize.”
Kiao glanced back at Soletus and gave him a quick death glare while Lady Maelyra spoke.
“Anyway, I run the Women’s Society and I’ve been told that I needed to press that this isn’t an offer of membership. I mean, we reserve that honor to men who show great kindness to us like Orrie. I’m sorry it’s what we like to call him there, First Warden Oeric.”
The image of a bunch of women greeting Soletus’s father as “Orrie” was amusing and embarrassing all at the same time.
“Anyway, I’m here to request your assistance. Cordea mentioned you might be the bridge we need. You see, many of the women in town don’t like the thought to come here if they’ve an illness.”
At hearing that, Kiao’s face softened. “Why?”
“I know the infirmary is open to the public, everyone knows it. They feel it’s uninviting because, well, there’s no way to put it delicately, full of young men now.”
“Everyone under my supervision is respectful. We are trained to see the patient, not who the patient is. We’ve female patients come in, so we all been trained properly. We have private rooms, screens, and we do allow family members to visit or stay if they desire.”
“I understand, but many of them don’t. We’ve a wise woman in town who is a society member. Her clinic is in our house, but she isn’t a chanter. We had a friend die from an infected injury and it pushed me to reach out, but I didn’t know to whom. Cordea said you were the person I needed to come to.”
That statement made Kiao’s face pucker up again. “I see.”
“She said that you were in charge. I could hardly believe that. I mean, you’re so young.”
“Brother Oli is, but I speak on his behalf. He’s rather old.”
“That was the only reason why I was so hesitant to come here, too. He’s older than the hills and for the longest time, he didn’t have reliable help. I didn’t want to ask him to come down to the society’s house. I was afraid he’ll just die in the streets from the walk. What I would like is for you to tend to those who need looking after one day a week. Maybe even bring another with you. That’s all I’m asking. I think that would be enough to encourage everyone not to be afraid to come here. Edithlyn, the wisewoman can only do so much using her skills. A healing chanter can do more.”
“Certainly,” said Kiao without hesitation.
The woman's brow shot up in surprise. “Really?”
“I’m a healer; we can’t deny help to anyone. And I rather this entire town feel comfortable about coming in here despite our ages.”
“Good, I can give you more details later in a more private setting. How about the society house? Cordea’s son can show you where it’s at.”
She wiggled her fingers in a waved to Soletus. “Anyway, I’m glad we finally had a chance to meet.”
Kiao forced a smile as it didn’t reach her eyes. Lady Maelyra then left the room. Kiao waited until the outer infirmary door closed before whirling to face Soletus with her face heavy with disapproval.
“Really,” she said.
The older tod held up his hands. “Look, I’m sorry. I had no idea she would tell anyone, but I’m not surprised she told her. They’re best friends. However, she wasn’t lying to you.”
“I figured she wasn’t,” said Kiao. “We rarely have anyone to come in from town, especially women. However, she didn’t have to say what she did to me or look at me like I’m something unusual and unbelievable.”
Kiao stomped back at the podium and began to write with her hands speeding across the page.
“I don’t think she meant it to be rude,” Soletus said.
“Of course, she didn’t say it to be rude, she just said it because look at me. I’m tall, gangly, and boyish looking sight to behold.”
Soletus crossed his arms. “I think only one of those things came out of her mouth.”
“You didn’t hear what she said,” muttered Kiao.
“No, I did. Again, she didn’t mean it to be rude. She was surprised. And to be fair, it’s surprising.”
Kiao shot a dirty look at Soletus. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means exactly what it means,” he defended, with his voice rising. “I’m surprised. Is that something I’m not allowed to do?”
“So, you think I play the role disturbingly well too,” Kiao said with such a tartness in her voice Mien could taste it.
The young monk narrowed his eyes as his mother would. Instead of coming up with a retort, he put his back to her and started down the aisle. “I don’t have time to argue. I’ll come back later when you’re in a better mood.”
Kiao opened her mouth as if she were going to shout out after him. Instead, she sank back down on her stool.
Lyndon then told her gently, “You know he meant nothing by it just as much as Lady Maelyra, right? I was surprised too.”
“You didn’t look as if I was doing something wrong.”
“Did she or was it because she was a woman?”
“No,” Kiao denied. “And what’s Soletus problem?”
“He’s a lot of respect for Lady Maelyra. Other than the Patriarch’s wife, do you know who she is?”
Kiao thought for a moment. “I do. The First Warden saved her.”
“He did. And from the stories Soletus was finally told, when Uncle Oeric returned home, he didn’t have an easy time of it. Lady Maelyra and Aunt Cordea were the ones to help him a great deal. Lady Maelyra had a better understanding of how much he suffered.”
Mien watched Kiao bow her head. “So basically, I’m being a rude dod getting defensive about nothing.”
Lyndon patted her shoulder. “Yes. Maybe give the Women’s Society a chance. They aren’t the Sisterhood. To be honest, I’m surprise Lady Maelyra contained herself enough for not announcing you as an inspiration and where you wanted the statue to be built in your honor.”
Kiao stared at him, stunned. “What?”
Lyndon’s lips spread. “They’re going to love you there. When you get comfortable in the society’s house, make friends with her daughter, Briar. I think you’ll have fun together.”
After that, Lyndon left to find Soletus. Mien took that time to sneak downstairs after he finished his bed. He tried his hardest to find something to occupy his mind as he waited for his shift to be over. He went through the row of jars, trying to find something he could easily make and refill. He saw they needed more mint power for upset stomach.
He was alone for a while before he heard footsteps coming down the stairs. He hoped it was Brother Oli, maybe even Alder. No, the footsteps were subtle, as they got louder as they stopped at the foot of the stairs. Mien glanced up to see Kiao leaning against the door frame on a single shoulder.
“So, what’s been bugging you,” she asked. Mien didn’t have an answer for her, so he went on working. “You’re acting like when we first met. Accept then you weren’t avoiding me.”
Mien swallowed and shook his head.
“I’m pretty certain you’ve been avoiding me. You aren’t even talking that much. So, what’s bothering you? Is this about what happened that night? I asked Brother Hickory, and he told me to speak to you.”
“It was my bright idea for us to dual heal and I’m not sure what you gleam from me that would make you avoid me.”
Mien’s throat locked up again. He swallowed and continued spooning ground leaves into thin parchment paper and folding it into packets.
Kiao let out a frustrated sigh. “Okay, we’ve been through this. Find your voice and speak. As an adult, you can’t turtle-up when you’re afraid to say something.”
He stopped his work and stared down at his hands. He remembered Brother Hickory’s words about communication.
“Is it so bad that you forgot how to speak?”
Mien swallowed the lump in his throat and muttered. “Everyone assumes I know what to say. I don’t. Words don’t come to me just like that, you know. I like to think before I speak. Isn’t that better?”
“Sometimes, it’s better just to say what’s on your mind instead of rolling your thoughts in your head until you convince yourself to say nothing.”
Mien straightened his spine up. “If that’s what you want, sit down and listen. I don’t want you interrupting me. It’ll make it harder.”
Kiao looked around and sat down on the squat stepping stool in the corner.
Mien pushed his forelocks out of his eyes and started in a measured voice. “My avoiding you has more to do with me than you. What happened scared me because it came on suddenly. It scares me now because I don’t know what to do about it.”
Kiao grinned. “This must be serious if you’re talking about this in that tone.”
She shut her mouth.
“What happened was a quirk, that’s what Hickory called it, that can happen with a timbre sensitive chanter,” he said and heard his voice quake and stopped.
Kiao's eyes grew large. “What quirk do you speak of?”
Mien felt his face warm up. “The sort of quirk where they become bonded to another.”
“If a female chanter happens to be timbre sensitive,” she snapped.
And what does that imply about me, he thought. He then said to her. “Well, it happened, sorry.”
The young woman jumped to her feet, knocking back the stepping stool to its side. “Are you serious? You formed a timbre bond with me!”
Mien nodded and watched as she ran a hand through her hair and it got caught on the binding around her hair. She was stunned. Mien wasn’t sure she was breathing.
“I guess you know more about this than I do,” he said in a small voice.
She didn’t answer him. Instead, took to pacing from one wall to the next. He didn’t stop her or say anything. He felt it was best to keep his mouth shut. He felt terrible that he was causing her distress. In fact, he was wondering if he maybe isolation was the best thing for him. He responded too much to the world around him. He didn’t even know how much worse it could all get.
Silence settled in the room, and it made Mien uncomfortable. He had expected her to do all the talking or crying in despair. He didn’t know what to say, but was glad when she stopped walking and settled down on the bottom step of the stairs. She leaned forward and clasped her hands together under her chin, looking ahead of her. She started muttering to herself. Mien looked down at his hands. They weren’t shaking too much, just very sweaty, so he rubbed his palms on his trousers.
Kiao rested her forehead down on her knuckles. “You’re too young for this.”
“Sorry,” Mien said to the floor.
She straightened up and stretched her legs out. “For what? Isn’t this out of your control?”
“True, but…I feel that I ruined your life. I mean, I don’t know how much control I have over the bond. Because we could be spiritual friends but…” he trailed off.
Mien felt his face heat up, going all the way to his ears.
He then spoke in a voice so small that he was certain the mice and crickets couldn’t hear him. “I like you.”
Once again, he didn’t hear Kiao breathe.
“Okay,” she exhaled. “Okay, so apparently my voice sounds something to you to say that.”
It’s lovely, wonderful, delightful, so is the rest of you, went his thoughts. To her he said. “I’ve been miserable these last few days trying to avoid you if that says something.”
“I don’t get it. If you like me, why avoid me?”
“I didn’t want to say anything or do anything strange. Mainly, I didn’t want a repeat of that night.”
“Which you’ve not explained yet.”
Mien tightened his jaw closed.
“I can’t experience what you have. Your voice is unremarkable to me and I’m righ so you’re going to have to explain.”
He only swallowed.
“I remember the Sisterhood looking down on them. They felt it wasn’t the natural way of things. I think it amounted to the fact they couldn’t control them. They kept timbre sensitive chanters in a cloister of their own away from other chanters. I was a little surprised when Brother Hickory told me you were one and he wanted me to expose you too as much as I could.”
“Maybe that’s what needs to happen to me,” said Mien.
Kiao became frustrated. “Then you can’t work on your penitence. You also can’t learn how to deal with this.”
“But I’m terrible at dealing with everything,” he cried. “It feels like I’m tumbling down a mountain, unable to stop on my own. I might run into something that stops me. Then I stand up and slip again, careening downward. How long until I find a cliff and fall again?”
Kiao stared at him. He knew she knew that there was no logic or reasoning she could that wouldn’t make that true.
Kiao then said gently. “Don’t we all start out not knowing what to do? We learn.”
“What am I supposed to learn?”
The young woman rubbed her forehead. “You are asking those sorts of questions you are makes me like this situation even less, and I’m willing to make the best of it.”
The young tod just stared at her with raising frustration. “What’s the problem with my questions?”
“Your question shows how little you actually pay attention to yourself. You’ve improved so much. You work hard, you are more than what people assume you are. You are certainly the smartest head in this infirmary.”
“No, you’re smarter.”
“Please, I don’t have the knowledge you do. Who would have thought that the children were getting sick by a subterranean stream? I didn’t think that.”
“My father's field of study was the earth, rocks, and minerals. Those were things he taught me.”
“On top of your already extensive knowledge of alchemy for an apprentice as young as you, now you are including healing on top of it. Mien, you’re brilliant.”
Mien shook his head. “I don’t feel brilliant. If I was, I wouldn’t be here.”
“But if you weren’t here, then we would never meet,” she countered. “We would have your expertise. And really, my point is. If you learned all of this. Absorbed and soaked it up as you have, then we can make this bond work on some level so that it’s not making either of us miserable.”
“But people aren’t just given someone else to be declared theirs.”
Kiao’s brows met. “What?”
“That’s what terrified me. Some crazed part of me declared that you were mine so strongly…” he stopped. He didn’t want to tell her anything more.
Mien covered his face. Hopefully, she was smart enough to put it together.
“I’m not sure if I should be disturbed or not. Then again, I was shirtless.”
“That’s not an excuse,” Mien shouted. “I don’t want to lust after you! I’m not some beast who just wants a body!”
Kiao tilted her head and then asked calmly. “Then what do you want?”
He didn’t know how she could be so put together.
“I don’t know,” he exasperated, sagging his shoulders. “I just want to be normal. Going about this like a normal person at a normal age and being strong and more like Soletus. He’s so put together compared to me.”
Kiao’s brow quirked up in confusion. “Soletus is Soletus. I can’t expect you to be like him. That would be annoying, actually.”
Mien tilted his head. “But he’s a wonderful fellow.”
“He is,” she said, crossing her arms. “And I’m being a dumb girl, enjoying the time I can spend with him because why not? But I don’t know if he’s the one I want to put all the effort into trying to be with. I’ve noted a few things about his behavior I don’t like.”
Mien couldn’t even imagine what that would be. Soletus in his mind was normal, therefore a perfectly acceptable person in every circumstance. That just met Kiao’s standards were high, and he couldn’t possibly even meet one of them.
“And there are things that I don’t care for about your behavior. Mainly your ability to be as self-deprecating as you possibly can like right now. I don’t understand why you hate yourself so much.”
“Your timbre sensitive. That’s an expected trait.”
“But I’m short.”
She shrugged. “I’ve stopped growing. You’ve not. We’re basically the same height right now, so you will be taller than me.”
“I’m also a disturbed, anxious mess,” he said.
“Have you tried or desired to kill someone else? Do you regret nothing that you did?”
“Well, no, but—”
She gave him a dismissive wave. “Forget about it then. You’re also not as nervous as you were before.”
“I’m also plain, boney, and boyish looking.”
Kiao studied at him and shrugged her shoulders. “You look fine. I imagine you’ll turn heads when you’re thirty. Most will ignore you because of how you wear your hair, and I can’t say I care. It’s shorter than mine.”
Mien stared at her suspiciously.
Kiao sighed, smiling. “I’m trying to help. I’m willing to make the best of this. I’m intrigued, and I want to see what happens.”
Mien shook his head. He wasn’t sure if he heard her right.
“What if we experiment with the bond a little bit? I’ve never really been with anyone,” she said, walking over to him. “Perhaps we can do something of a trial.”
Mien slid off his stool and used the table as a barrier. “What, am I some sort of experiment to you?”
Kiao stopped and put her hands on her hips. “No, I want some personal experience of it all. You know, be a little normal.”
Mien gape at her and told her softly, “B-b-but Brother Hickory said you wouldn’t be happy with this.”
Kiao rolled her eyes. “Maybe if I were nineteen again. However, don’t you see, we’ve the opportunity here. It can be like matching. Except we’ve arranged this together ourselves. And we can make this into what we want.”
All the blood had drained from his face, and he stared at her wide-eyed. He didn’t expect this at all.
“Or you could still be terrified,” she remarked.
“I was more worried about you would hate me!”
“I don’t,” she told him and sighed. “Maybe we should back up and establish a few things. Did I expect this? No. Do I hate you for it? Not at all. It’s actually kind of flattering that you like me.”
That sobered Mien a little.
“No one has told me that.”
“Even still. Wouldn’t someone, anyone else, be more worthy of you,” said Mien breathlessly.
Kiao's eyes narrowed. “It’s my decision to decide who is worthy, not yours,” and she said that with such finality that Mien was compelled to bob his head in agreement.
She brightened up again. “Good. I know you need time. And I’m willing to give it.”
“Why do this? Give me a single reason why you would even agree? You said so yourself, my voice is unremarkable, and voice is everything to a chanter.”
“Maybe that can change. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I am almost timbre deaf. Also, I told you, I like smart boys.” With that, Kiao went back towards the stairs. “I need to get back to work. I’m going to tell Alder not to bother you so you can dwell in peace.”
Mien watched her disappear up the stairs, feeling it was a terrible idea. But at the same time, a part of him wanted it. He wanted to try. The trajectory of his life took on a new direction when Brother Hickory came to his rescue and not it seemed to be taking on a new one.