A month wasn’t enough time. Kiao had no idea on how to do that other than to stand tall and tell her side of things. That would keep it simple. However, she didn’t want to tell because she had so much to lose.
She thought Soletus’ fear silly, but now she was facing something that was similar, and it terrified her. She still had her family to return to if the order rejected her. However, over the years, the monastery became her home, even though she missed Summerset. She didn’t want to leave it. Everything she needed and wanted was there. Then there was the biggest thing. At the end of her edict, she was told, by her guide, that she was where she needed to be. She still believed that. However, what she feared mostly was everyone changing their opinion of her. The only reason they wouldn’t allow her as a girl was the fact they didn’t think a female healer could handle work there. In fact, like Soletus, she was afraid they would think her weak and incapable.
Kiao felt ill at ease and did the only thing she would do and that was seek Brother Hickory. She didn’t know if he was busy or not. And that day, he was at the dais with a small group up front, listening as he taught.
She wanted too as well, but a wave of nausea hit her making her feel warm from her head to her toes. She stumbled over to the nearest seat, let her legs crumple, and took in deep breaths to chase the sensation away. It felt like an eternity had passed before it abated. When Kiao could rise to her feet again, she made a beeline for the back, glancing at Brother Hickory, who had caught sight of her and continued teaching. Instead of going to his living quarters and finding a seat at the table, she went to the small room.
She lived there when she first arrived, like Mien. And both still had a habit of returning to it because of its comforting security. It was warm and welcoming. The cot there was an excellent place to lay off her dizziness.
Kiao pushed open the window to let in some fresh air and lay down on her back. The sensation of the room spinning abated as the light breeze coming through the window cooled her clammy skin. It lolled her into another nap. After that, she lost track of time. She didn’t know how long she lay there, however, she felt weight on the edge of her bed followed by a hand pushing her hair out of her face. She cracked her eyes to see Brother Hickory’s perturbed aged face looking down at her. He wore that expression when he found her.
“Why are you here,” he asked.
“Just because I’ve flown the nest doesn’t mean I have no need for you,” she retorted.
“I suppose something came out of the hearing with the Patriarch that wasn’t good,” he said.
“Oh no, that went as good as it could get, though I have an entire family that hates me. It’s what happened afterwards. The Patriarch found out the truth. He knows am female.”
Hickory’s forehead became wrinkled in surprise.
Kiao struggled to a sitting position and said, “It wasn’t my fault.”
“I didn’t think it was,” he told her.
“No, but you have that ‘you’re such a bother, child’ expression on your face.”
“Then stop providing me problems with no easy solutions,” he said, and frowned, confused. “Why are you here? Hasn’t he told anyone?”
“No, he’s not telling anyone until I do. I’ve a month to come out with the truth. He wants me to have the advantage because he wants a priestess in the order.”
“Really,” said Hickory with genuine surprise.
“It’s startling he wants that. Then again, Lord Kharis is not he predecessor. He’s started showing his different style and approaches in dealing with matters. Is that the only reason you’re here?”
Kiao then said to her hands. “I don’t see what I need the another reason. The entire thought terrifies me.”
“Understandable,” he said, giving her a kind look. “You’re dropping the mask and leaving it behind. It’s been your defense. Of course, it would scare you.”
“Everyone is going to make a big deal about it and hate me now,” she said, pulling her legs to her chest. “I’m going to lose my rank. People are going to accuse me of being inappropriate because I slinked into this for a boy or something.”
“Who among your friends will hate you,” he asked gently, using his reasoning voice. “They all know and support you. As for the Arch Priest, I don’t know. The priest’s assembly, yes, they’ll be especially harsh towards you for lying. They’ll push that you to be removed for that fact alone. However, Mien will probably keep that from happening.”
Kiao grimaced. “You want to tell them that as well?”
“If you are going for honesty, you need to tell them. Besides, that’ll help you. They can’t separate the two of you.”
“I wish there was another reason other than that and won’t you and Brother Oli get in trouble as well? I mean, they could take away your position.”
“They could remove me from the chapel, but who else is trained as a counselor other than me? And while Mien’s custody was given to the Brotherhood, I’m written specifically. If you think about it, their own inactivity caused this situation. Oliver wanted more help in the infirmary, no one volunteered. He picked you as a willing individual. And that comes to the kink in this situation.”
“They won’t let me become the head of the infirmary.”
“The chances are slimmer now. Perhaps if you are older and proven yourself to Dias, they may be talked into it by Oliver. However, Olive’s isn’t getting younger. I don’t think he’s going to be alive to see it done.”
Brother Oli’s age was getting more and more apparent.
“The other day, he had me read some poetry to him after lunch. He fell asleep and didn’t wake until the next morning,” she said.
Brother Hickory grimaced at hearing that. “He’s sleeping that long now?”
Suddenly, he looked old and weary. They were the two oddities in the order and were two sides of the same coin. Brother Oli healed wounds soothed injuries and Brother Hickory healed minds and soothed hearts. They were good friends.
Kiao didn’t like the fact he grew quiet and paused far too long. “Hickory,” she said.
He’s eyes focused again. “Oh, yes well. He’s an old fellow, and we should enjoy the time we have with everyone we meet and connect to,” he said, brightening up again and continued. “With the Patriarch behinds us, I think he’ll want you with some meaningful duty. You were a gift given to us. The only thing make things difficult is pride.”
Kiao nodded, but she knew the pride of men could make entire civilizations fall into ruin.
She then threw her legs over the edge of the bed. “I know it’s already getting onto midday. I need to get to the society house. I wanted be there today.”
“Perhaps you should share the truth with Edithlyn,” suggested the Priest with a disarming smile.
Of course, might as well get this over with, she thought and left for the society house.
When she got there, the woman was with a few patients. She joined in saying hello letting her finish with the couple that she was assisting and then took over afterwards with the last two who were waiting. Kiao put on as friendly of a smile that she could muster. However, she was growing more and more fatigued and nauseated again.
When the last elf walked out, Kiao opened the window and stuck her head out into the fresh air. She didn’t realize she had a thin layer of sweat on her forehead until the wind brushed it. A hand rest on her down between her shoulder blades and patted it.
“Are you okay?”
“It’s nothing bad.”
Edithlyn took her by the shoulders. “Come, sit down.”
Kiao straightened up. “Why?”
“Sit,” she said, pointing to the examining table.
Kiao gave her a confused look.
“Sit down,” she said, a bit more firmly than before. Kiao walked over to the table and pulled herself on it as Edithlyn pulled the window closed, followed by the door. It was clear the discussion was private.
The wisewoman placed the palm of her hand on her forehead. “How old are you?”
“I’m 32,” she answered.
The woman then started feeling the side of her neck. “How long have you worked in the infirmary?”
“Officially? Since I was twenty.”
“Amazing. Wisewomen won’t even take an apprentice who isn’t even twenty-two. But if you are capable, then you are. I supposed they made you learn anatomy?”
Kiao nodded and wondered what the woman was going on about until she reached for her hand and held it up.
“I’m sure, at some point, compared your features to everyone else, and found them to be different.”
“I’m not following.”
“Your hands are a lot like an androgynous elf.”
Kiao snatched her hand away. And then let out a nervous fit of laughter and ran her hands through her hair.
“There’s no reason to be embarrassed by it.”
“You’re the only one I’ve met who connected this little trait of mine to that,” she said, wiggling her fingers and then noticed her hand was trembling slightly. She clasped them together and leaned forward on her knees. “I suppose I have a bit of a gender anomaly, but you are incorrect.”
“That I’m male,” she said, pausing a moment to watch the older woman’s face transformed into confusion. Kiao pushed on. “I won’t go into details but, internally, there are things that aren’t proper compared to other women. Brother Oli thinks it messes with my body’s make-up a bit. Like my hands, voice, and height. I suppose it’s made me appear more masculine. Not to mention my seasons are sporadic."
Edithlyn held up her hand to stop her. “You’re female?”
Kiao smiled. “Yes. We kept it a secret so I could be in this order. Don’t worry; it isn’t going to remain much longer.”
The young woman didn’t know what to expect. She figured rejection. Perhaps even anger for lying. The older woman instead put her hands on her hips.
“You should’ve told me right off,” she exclaimed. “Saved me from devising this talk.”
“Sorry, I didn’t want anyone here to know,” said Kiao in a small voice.
“Why? You think there’s something wrong with being a woman?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I’m not ashamed of being a woman. It’s just other women in the past made it a point to make me not feel as if I wasn’t one. I ended up running away from them.”
“The Dias Sisterhood.”
“I’ve worked with the Sisterhood in the past. In fact, I lived and trained in High Perch before I came down here for work. I know a lot of members there and they can be just as prideful as the Brotherhood, but still good people.”
Kiao’s heart sank when she heard that. She felt fear stir in the pit of her stomach. If Edithlyn was from the area, then she probably shared the same bias as they did. “That’s because your parents aren’t Tad and Hera’Meadowlark.”
The Wisewoman brow shot up. “As in the Meadowlark Dress Company?”
Kiao nodded. “Gown designers for the performers of the arts. I’m their youngest daughter. We serve everyone, performing chanters and even Queen Nethera. And if you know who they are, you know why the Sisterhood doesn’t like my family.”
“I remember the grumbling when I was there. They didn’t like the fact they supported chanters who choose to use their voices to perform. Though it was just grumbling then.”
“Half of them wanted me in the ranks to show my parents the error of their ways and the other half chose to be offended that Dias made me a chanter. They thought me to be too snobbish because I grew up as a minor noble. And when that didn’t really affect me, they moved onto something that hurt. They found out I had fertility issues and told everyone,” she said, feeling her eyes watering. She forced herself not to cry and continued even though she hated talking about it in detail, because it also made her angry. “They let the girls my age spread rumors that I had male parts or that I was actually a boy with girl parts. I didn’t look like a girl, so they started calling me toddy-girl. I was a freak to them and there wasn’t a woman there that didn’t make me feel deficient on some level.”
The older woman let out a snort. “And here we give our daughters to a bunch of, excuse my language, high-headed skanes.”
Kiao was a bit surprised to hear her say that.
“It’s shameful that they missed out on having such a strong young woman because of her parents. You’re intelligent, observant, and not squeamish in the least, you tolerate…well that needs to be worked on. There needs to be more priestesses in the world like you. It’ll be even more shameful if the Brotherhood didn’t as well. You need to march yourself over to the Patriarch and tell him.”
“Well, he’s why I’m telling you. The Patriarch found out from a stupid letter,” she said and realized she was losing her battle to not cry. “I didn’t think they’ll bother remembering me, seeing as they didn’t even want me back. But it certainly doesn’t stop them from trying to ruin me at every chance.”
Kiao ran the palm of her hand over her eyes to dam the tears from flowing from her eyes. She wanted to hide them, but it was far too late for that.
Edithlyn responded by petting the top of her head and said, “I suppose Mae and Cordy know?”
“Of course, that explains why they come to me like two squealing schoolgirls and told me you were packaged as a young man. I mean, their reaction to you should’ve been a sign of what everyone else’s would be.”
There was a tap at the door. “Can I come in,” said Maelyra from the other side.
The wisewoman regarded Kiao. The young woman cleared her voice. “Come in.”
Maelyra stepped in bright eyed and then it fell. “What’s wrong,” she said, rushing towards Kiao. “Why are you crying?”
She wiped the tears off her face with her smock sleeve. “It’s nothing.”
“It is very much well something,” stated Edithlyn. “Why didn’t you just straight up tell me, Mae.”
The woman pulled out a handkerchief and started cleaning Kiao’s face. “I promised not to.”
“Your husband found out,” said Edithlyn.
Maelyra’s face grew red and regarded the young woman she was mothering. “Did Kharis bully you?”
“No,” assured Kiao. “He was beyond respectful, but he told me I had about a month to prepare because I had to come out with the truth. He wants me to stay as a priestess and figure out a way to bolster my argument to stay.”
“Then we’ll help,” offered Maelyra. “I know we’ve very little sway in that stone fortress, but we know men who can. We’ll figure it all out. Right now, I need you to do me a little favor.”
“I just need you to ease my mind. Before this, Kharis and I had another little one. However, the pregnancy ended in a very late miscarriage, and he’s been terrified at the thought of me having another child. I figured if I have this one watched more closely by a chanter, he’ll not be so anxious.”
Kiao completely forgot they wanted her to do that. She wondered if it was a good idea to inform them it was her sitting among them disguised the other day. If Cordea figured it out without a word, then she probably told her.
“Well, certainly, I can. But I don’t know what to look for if there is something wrong. How far along are you?”
“Oh, I’m getting closer to three months.”
“I’m not sure if you can hide it much longer,” said Kiao, sliding off the table and helping Maelyra up.
“No, but I just need to know everything is well before I tell him. Reassure him I’m not going to die. He was to be married to another woman before he met me.”
Oh, that was what he spoke of, she thought and hovered her hand over her heart.
“She was killed in a carriage accident,” continued Maeylra. “They weren’t married long, but it was enough that he avoided trying again for nearly ten years. Then he saw me on the streets and decided that I was be his next wife and that pestering me was the best way to achieve that goal. I told him to leave me alone for months before he figured out how to charm me.”
Kiao smiled, concentrating on traveling through Maelyra’s veins. “And how did he do that?”
“He figured out how to dance proper. Well, Orrie taught him. To this day, I would’ve paid all the gold coin in the known lands to see how he did it.”
Kiao would pay gold to see that as well. She finally observed Soletus’s parents dancing to reels. It was exhausting just watching them, but at least they had fun. When Kiao got to her destination, she held her breath, hoping that she wasn’t going to see something dead. She knew something very small was no bigger than a large nut with little pink hands and, more importantly, it felt alive. It sounded alive. She was certain she could hear a little heartbeat from it.
“I’m going to guess everything is okay so far from that smile you’re wearing,” she said.
“It’s tiny but it has a heartbeat,” she said. “It’s too tiny to tell what it is gender wise, but it’s alive.”
Kiao pulled out, coming back to the seeing world feeling lightheaded and euphoric. Edithlyn was right. She needed to touch life.
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