Kiao returned to the society house the next day to deliver supplies.
She didn’t want to be there.
Not for her usual reason, but because Soletus was there.
She felt embarrassed and it clung to her like wet clothing. She felt like a stupid girl for fancying him. On top of that, she felt bad when she remembered that she was supposed to be on a trial period with Mien. He seemed to have a better idea what that met than she did. She couldn’t look him in the eye either after than and just keep herself busy for the rest of the day.
She was confused and she hated feeling confused. Maybe that was the reason why elven society let parents do the matching. She was doing a poor job and would’ve loved is she had her mother there to tell her she was being stupid. That she was so attracted to a boy’s voice and physical attributes that she missed something so obvious.
Soletus was what, six years older than Mien. The contrast between them was remarkable. Mien gave her a gift. Then he was running and opening doors for her. Letting her have whatever she wanted on the platter they shared first. Just being an adorable gentle fellow. Soletus disinterest in girls palatable given how she seen him react the same again and again. Yet she never put it together.
Kiao almost let out a scream because she was still thinking about it all as she pulled out stock from the box she had brought.
“I’m being irrational,” she muttered to herself. She squared her shoulders. A priestess shouldn’t act like a stupid young woman bemoaning about how her first match was a disaster. And forever the priestess, she shoved them all in a back of her mind shutting the door to them and locking it away like the storage trunk in her room.
She focused on passing a bottle of wound wash and some other supplies to the Edithlyn and heard yelling from the back. Soletus was thundering and Briar snarling again. The wise woman glared at the door.
“I declare, I’ve never witnessed such a horrible attempt of matching in my entire life,” she said.
Oeric’s voice then rose above theirs, telling them both to shut up. Kiao thought the man would go hoarse screaming like that.
Edithlyn let out a humorless chuckle. “It took him long enough. Everyone thinks they’ll make a good match because they are a lot alike. I’m not too sure.”
“Why,” said Kiao curious if Soletus being neth was obvious.
The wise woman shuffled around the room, finding spots on the shelf for the items in her hand. “Briar wants to stand toe-to-toe with Soletus to prove she’s better than him. Soletus doesn’t want a rival. He wants cooperation.”
That was an interesting way to put it.
Another round of arguing flared up and Oeric voice clapped it down quickly.
Edithlyn continued to look like a disapproving grandmother. “Such nonsense. I wish Mae and Cordy would listen to me and stop torturing their children.”
Kiao couldn’t agree more and exited the room so she could see if anyone had gotten hurt in the latest round of quarrelling. She was greeted by the sound of clapping wood-on-wood as she got closer to the back door. When she stepped through the doorway, she saw Briar was laying a heavy assault on Soletus. She fought dancing, trying to connect her blows on the young monk who was blocking and parrying with ease.
“Watch your feet, Briar,” said Oeric, standing with his arms crossed tight across his chest. Kiao drifted towards him despite his disapproval exuding from him.
“Greetings First Warden.”
He turned his ear towards her and kept his attention forward. “Didn’t expect you here today,” he returned.
“I had to drop supplies off,” she answered, observing the fight. “What are you trying to gleam from that?”
“You can learn a lot from a person by watching two people fight.”
Kiao wasn’t sure what he saw. She just saw sparring. “Such as?”
“Briar’s movements are terse and aggressive. She’s too busy trying to prove a point than learning,” he explained.
Kiao was curious to know what that point was.
“And then there is Soletus,” he said with disappointment. “He’s sparring with her just to get it over with. It’s a dismissive action not a teaching action.”
Kiao thought about what Edithlyn just told her. Oeric came to the same conclusion in his own way.
“So basically, there’s tension between them,” she said, trying to draw out a little bit more of his insight.
“Something from childhood,” he answered. “It’s Soletus story to tell, however those two never got along.”
“Then why bother putting them together?”
“He needs to learn how to work with people he doesn’t care for.”
Kiao blinked at him, surprised for his reasoning.
His attention switched from the fighting to look at her. “I’m sure he told you why he’s on disciplinary leave?”
“He did,” answered Kiao. “And how does this fix that issue?”
“This will help him be a bit more tolerant of things he’s not in the position to change. He cannot change someone’s personality and he cannot change another’s thoughts unless they listen. Most of all, he can’t continue meeting them with the same amount of hostility they’ve shown him.”
“You’ve always interesting motivations for what you do, First Warden,” she remarked.
He folded his arms behind his back, looking more like a tired father. “I want Soletus to succeed. But my actions had caused something inside him to change where he’s become more stubborn and less accepting. More initiative to do what he feels he need to do. It what everyone wanted, but it’s not coming from the right place. He feels threated. He’s with the wrong first warden if all he’s done is make him worse.”
Kiao was surprised at his observation skills. In fact, if he knew all of that, then likely he knew the truth about Soletus. He wasn’t concerned about matching at all.
“Soletus really doesn’t like Valhart.”
Oeric bobbed his head in acknowledgment. “Ideally, he needs to transfer before Valhart makes it impossible. That’s not going to happen.”
“Wouldn’t it be much better if you can get him into a better band now?”
“We can’t always get what we like. It’s better he understands his nature and control it,” he told her.
Then, in the corner of her eyes. Kiao saw Soletus flip Briar to the ground.
Soletus then snarled, “I told you the next time you did that—”
Oeric then shouted for Soletus to step away. Kiao took that as a sign to retreat into the society house. When she stepped in, Soletus’s mother presented a saucer with a slice of cake covered in whipped rose cream to her. The women there were all having a meeting. From Kiao’s observations, it was just an excuse to to drink berry water and eat cake.
Cordea smiled at her and waved for her to come into the large open room. She then went around the table, making sure everyone had cake slices. Kiao wasn’t sure what to make of Soletus’s mother. She thought her to be all looks and nothing else.
She was beautiful with strong feminine features as Soletus was masculine. She was Dyne and like all females of her people, they were taller and have fuller figures compared to another Fen elves. They also had noticeably paler skin and lower smaller ears to deal with their cold climate and little sun. They also had the palest of all elven hair. Her was a silky lighter version of her son’s hair.
However, she was more than just looks. She and Lady Maelyra ran the society house beautifully. She couldn’t imagine how much planning and knowledge it too to run it. They did a lot for the community, helping other families, especially those who were the wives and widows of field warden. However, that didn’t make Kiao interested in being there as they had hoped.
They talked about women’s things. Things that Kiao didn’t really have much interest in and probably would never be able to talk about. She just felt like an outsider listening to them asking about the rose flavored cream recipe that was used.
An argument flared up again from the outside while Cordea was trying to sit down and enjoy her cake. She dropped her saucer loudly on the table. Lady Maelyra gave her an unhappy frown.
“Cordy, I would like this tea set to survive longer than the last one,” she said.
“They sound like a pair of squabbling siblings,” Cordea grumbled.
They certainly did. Kiao was listening to them call each other names while she took a dainty slice of her cream covered cake savoring it.
“They’re just working everything out,” said Maelrya, though she didn’t sound very convinced of her own words.
Edithlyn then stated, “Face it, you two, it’s a horrible match.”
“Matching wasn’t exactly our full motivation for this,” admitted Cordea.
That got Kiao to peer over her cake and listened to see if they knew.
Maelrya then added. “It’s a test, but we wouldn’t mind it if they would grow fond of each other. I mean, after all these years, one would think they would let bygones be bygones.”
Kiao couldn’t hear Soletus’s voice anymore. Apparently calling Briar a graceless screeching crow shut her up. However, it was followed by the sound clapping of wood again. Then a yelp of pain and a line of curse words that she never thought Soletus was capable of stringing together.
“Clearly not,” stated Edithlyn who looked to catch a few of his words. “My two boys fought every day but, they were never that fierce.”
Another woman, Wen, laughed. “Well, that’s how some young people are.”
Kiao had to swallow an amused snort as well as large forkful of rose cream. She started coughing.
“I’m serious; we are witnessing the buds of love.”
A chorus of uncertain voices rose from the table.
Edithlyn swung her head between Cordea and Maelrya. “Just stop torturing those two before they hate you.”
“There still Oeric’s part of this bargain. He wants Soletus to learn tolerance,” answered Cordea.
“Perhaps if that son of yours didn’t grow up to be such a hot-tempered fellow, he would have some,” said Wen.
Kiao nearly snorted the cake out of her nose. His temper did flare up from time to time. However, he was moody than reeking of fury.
Edithlyn then said. “He really isn’t. He’s not close to what I’ve seen from Oeric when he loses his temper, no offense Cordea.”
“None taken,” said Cordea digging at her cake. “They are a lot alike and very different.”
“Him being on disciplinary leave sounds a bit like Oeric,” Wen said.
Cordea’s eyes tightened a little. “It does.”
“Doesn’t it worry you? I mean, he’s getting more unruly.”
“My husband simply spited authority when he was younger. My son is highlighting some problems of leadership in the Brotherhood.”
Kiao bobbed her head in agreement.
Edithlyn spoke up again and said, “He might not be his father, but he has enough of his blood in him. Oeric was a little slow and Soletus is following that pattern. He’s completely full of himself. And someone who is going to constantly challenge him will not make him ready for a relationship. And Briar is nearly the same way. However, I think she would do better with a nice young man like Brother Kiao.”
Kiao had her tongue hanging out in the middle of licking her fingers that touched a bit of cream when the group of women brought her into the conversation.
“You don’t have to be so quiet,” said Edithlyn.
“Men don’t like to be disturbed while they’re eating,” Wen said.
Kiao didn’t believe anyone like to be disturbed while eating cake. She certainly didn’t.
“So, what about you Kiao,” asked the wisewomsn. “Your old enough to have a sweetheart by now and don’t tell me you being a priest is keeping you from fancying a girl or two.”
Maelyra’s eyes shifted towards her. Cordea sliced off a large chunk of her cake and stuffed it in her attempt to not give her eye contact. It looked as if the woman was trying not to laugh.
Kiao then said to her cake. “You know, Dias doesn’t like lying.”
Wen then said. “Oh, come on. You’re such a fine-looking young man.”
“So, I’ve been told, but I’m a chanter.”
“So? Many girls out there would love to wed a chanter,” Edithlyn pointed out.
“It’s a romantic thought, but I don’t think they really know what they are getting themselves into,” she told them. “We chanters are particular. Not just any person will do.”
“So, you’re holding out for a special someone,” asked Wen.
“Dias will point me out to the person who I’m supposed to be with,” she said, knowing that no one there would debat a statement like that from a priest. She then heard footsteps come into the door and then to the back. She thought it was Soletus from how loud it was.
Kiao scraped the last bit of her cake. “I really need to get going. Thanks for the cake.” She retreated into the hall. There she found Briar sitting on the table.
“You’re done practicing,” Kiao asked.
She sat there pouting. “No, Oeric sent me away because I wouldn’t be nice.”
“And you come in here because…”
“Because I want to talk to you, Ko-ko. I didn’t see you in the arboretum the other day.”
“You should’ve looked harder,” she told her.
The huntress made a face and then stated. “I didn’t see you at all. I stayed with Soletus the entire time before he left. He spoke to a young woman before that.”
“Really? She must’ve been something for him to talk to.”
“She wasn’t very pretty.”
Kiao entire body let out an involuntary twitch. She heard those words all the time in the sisterhood. It’s only her opinion, she said to herself and kept her composure. “Why you say that?”
“She was gangly and shapeless like a boy with coal colored hair.”
Kiao started organizing the nearest shelf to distract her. There was nothing on it except a stack of small, empty woven baskets.
“I’ve seen her around in town now that I think about it. She dresses in horrid bright clothing, so she has to be a noble or something. I can’t think of a single house she would belong to. Probably some half-elf bastard child.”
Kiao stopped trying to organize empty baskets and went over to the satchel she brought with her. There was nothing in there, so she looked and saw a stray jar on the shelf where the herb shelf stood in a dark corner. Kiao reached for the jar and sought out whatever dried material she could find in an attempt to keep her mind distracted from being baited. Because that was what Briar was clearly doing. And as she reached, the band around her chest rode up again. She had no way to pull it down with Briar’s gaze fixed on her.
Briar took in another breath. “You know, that must get uncomfortable.”
The huntress leaned forward and rested her elbow on her knee, watching her. “Going around dressed like you did.”
Kiao whorled on her. “What are you gabbing on about?”
The huntress said to her frankly, “You’re a very odd young man.”
“Did Soletus strike you on the head,” she said with her defensiveness thick in her voice.
“You can change your hair and voice, but not that eye color and face, but I know it was you. You’re about as lady like as a donkey in a tea hat.”
Kiao sat the jar down in her hand with a loud thud so she couldn’t hurl it at huntress and said indignantly, “How dare you!”
“If it wasn’t you, then prove it, show me your consort. I bet it’s an ermine. And by the way, that’s an oddity of its own. Nobles don’t keep consorts.”
Kiao didn’t know what to do or say. She had been careless. Briar was far too observant for her own good. No one really paid attention to her. No one had figured it out without actually having to see her shirtless. Even Lyndon did as well. He was trying to get away from a bunch of tods came through one of the chapels’ windows and found her changing. She worked mind trying to come up with an excuse.
“What not going to go for the twin sister defense or anything?”
There really wasn’t any excuse to be had. Kiao was good at keeping the secret but, wasn’t very good at keeping people away from the truth when they arrived to it.
A smug grin stretched across Briar’s face. “Oh, come on, it doesn’t have to be a sister, perhaps a cousin. How about you can make a double via a consort ability? If you can, I’ll love to see that.”
Kiao told her quietly. “The answer is simpler.”
“What can be simpler, that you’re a girl,” she laughed.
Kiao pulled the band on her chest down and stared at her.
The smugness Briar wore faded a little. “Are you serious?”
Kiao strolled over to the door of the room and shut. She whirled around said in a terse hiss, “Yes, I’m serious, unless I’m just that ugly looking to make it that unbelievable.”
“I don’t believe— what are you doing,” Briar demanded when Kiao pulled the cord around her waist and smock off all in one motion then stared removing her shirt.
“You want to know the truth so badly,” said Kiao, wrestling with her button. When she got stuck on the fourth button, she yanked the shirt over her head off and throwing it to the floor.
Briar green eyes became large.
“Here’s the truth, I’m a shapeless and gangly girl,” she told her.
Briar sat wordlessly with her mouth parted to say words. When it was clear the huntress wasn’t going to speak, Kiao started dressing again with her hands shaking in anger. It wasn’t until she got her smock back on did, she started talking.
“I ask that you tell no one,” she said, working on fixing the knot in the cord correctly. As she did so, Briar slid off the table and took a few steps closer to her.
“I’m sorry,” said the huntress. “I thought–”
“You thought? Please, you didn’t think,” she spat. “All you wanted was to goad me and call me out with whatever nastiness you could think of.”
“I wasn’t going to do anything nasty. I was just going to- Look, I didn’t know. Has anyone told you that you have really pretty eyelashes?”
Kiao pointed her finger viciously at the huntress. “Don’t placate me.”
“I’m sorry,” exclaimed Briar, reaching for her shoulder.
Kiao slapped her hands away and backed up.
Briar withdrew her hands. “I just… Your right, I didn’t think. I’m really sorry. I don’t know. I just found it odd, and they say humans cross-dress and with your hair being so dark, I thought you were a half-elf this entire time.”
“If I were part human, I couldn’t be a chanter!”
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” said the young woman quietly. “I’m sorry for assuming.”
Kiao threw her arms in the air, wanting her to shut-up and stop apologizing so she didn’t have to hear the sincerity in her voice. She wanted to ignore it. She wanted to be angry. However, it was hard for her to stay mad at someone who voice and words became tangible as her own when chanting her phrases. She then walked over to the set of chairs there and sat down.
Briar stood off to the side, fiddling at her fingers like an admonished child. “Are you okay,” she asked in a small voice. “You’re all red.”
Kiao felt like she was hot rod of iron in a blacksmith forge. However, she kept that ire from getting out of control. She felt like she often did in the Sisterhood. This time, she didn’t want to scream and attracting attention. She also didn’t want to start sobbing either. The young woman took in deep breaths and stared reciting the names of the bones in the elven body starting with the hand. She muttered each name to herself and ignored Briar, who was encroaching on her personal space again. She took to the seat beside her with an empty chair between them.
After a few minutes with Kiao moving to bones in the arm, Briar slide over one more seat, reached for her head. Kiao leaned away from her, and the huntress plucked something off her head and held it between her fingers. She held the silk tie she used to bind her hair.
“I won’t tell anyone,” said Briar gently. “On my blood and honor, I won’t. I think it’s amazing.”
Kiao gave her a sideways glance. “Amazing?”
“Well yeah,” said the young woman slowly reaching and pulling the hair back from Kiao’s face. “When I was a girl, I tried to sneak in the brotherhood, but my father spotted me right off before I could even get through the introduction. I can put this back on?”
Kiao felt a lot calmer and twisting in the seat so her back faced her. She wanted to hide her bewilderment that Briar was sincerely excited.
“I’m not sure how you managed,” said the huntress.
“Well, working in the infirmary has its benefits, not to mention having people I trust who know,” she told her, still guarded.
“So Soletus knows?”
“Yes,” Kiao replied feeling gathering her hair and combing it with her fingers. She had forgotten how relaxing it was. She started to enjoy and then Briar dropped another hot coal on her lap.
“So, if he knows, and you were all nice looking, are you two secret sweethearts?”
Kiao twisted around. “No, why would you think that?”
Briar became deflated. “No reason other than, it would’ve been nice because I don’t want him to like me.”
“Believe me, he doesn’t. You made a lasting impression on him by tormenting him as a boy.”
Briar thrust her hands on her hips. “Now that’s a little strong. Though, I was counting on him to remember me. I mean, if he doesn’t like me, good.”
That was even more confusing than Briar’s change in attitude about the matter.
Briar paused to lick her lips and then said, “Well, since I found out your secret, I’ll tell you mine. I’m neth.”
Kiao blinked at Briar a couple times before going into a snickering fit.
Briar mouth twisted down. “I don’t find this amusing at all. I just don’t want to be sent off to the Sisterhood or be trained to be an advisor. I want to stay here. Make the huntresses into something.”
“It’s not you,” she said, holding her hands up. “It’s that Dias has certainly made this situation very interesting. You need to speak to Soletus and tell him what you just told me.”
Briar wrinkled her nose. “And what’s that going to do?”
“It’ll help tremendously.”
“No. I only told you because I feel bad about forcing you to spill your secret. He’ll tell my father.”
“He’s not like that. It’ll be fine,” said Kiao.
Briar wore a dubious expression on her face. “Fine, I’ll talk to him. Just for you because I like you,” she said as she stood to her feet. “I guess we should get this over with.”
“Why not? Training is basically done.”
They left the room and found Soletus again sitting in the shade, leading against the foundation of the society house. He was resting with a mug of water in his hands. Briar kicked the sole of his boot and he jerked awake. He regarded Briar with a scornful frown.
“I decided that we need to talk,” she said with her head high as a queen.
Soletus then growled out, “About?”
“Well, if you’re going be like that,” said Briar and turned around.
Kiao grabbed her by the upper arm. “Stop making this harder than it really is.” Briar’s face puckered. Kiao pointed down at the ground. “Sit!”
The huntress sank slowly down in front of Soletus. Kiao situated herself beside of him. The young monk looked between them both as if he didn’t know what to make of the situation. Briar straightened her spine and said more pleasantly.
“Hear me out. My family is trying to encourage me towards a traditional future of a woman. I am half-classed, a hinny if you want to get vulgar about it. Even the son of a minor noble would have no interest in me. However, a commoner whose family is of high standing, such as Sheldmartin, is more promising. In their eyes, they are trying to set me up with the best possible match they can provide for me.”
Soletus told her, “Or it could be as simple as our mothers are friends and they think it’ll be cute if their children marry.”
Briar sniffed. “Or it could be that simple. Either way, I don’t want to participate in tradition. I find the act pointless because I am neth.”
Kiao watched Soletus’s entire body language changed. He was no longer slouched with disinterest. His face lift and he drew in his legs, sitting up straighter. Briar continued as if she didn’t notice.
“However, I do not wish to impart this tidbit about myself to my parents, as the outcome would be much worse than if I were matched. They will send me away to train as an advisor or go to the Sisterhood. I don’t want to do either of those things as I feel my purpose is here to help huntresses and train inspire more dedicated members into joining.”
Soletus then stated, “So, to sum it up, you don’t want to tell your parents because they’ll make you do something you don’t want?”
“And you’re telling me this because…”
“Ko-ko is under the impression that you are trustworthy and understanding. I trust her.”
Soletus’s head swung to her when Briar said “her.”
Kiao gave a little shrugged.
Soletus let out a slow, “Okay,” and then told Briar. “And the reason you’ve being irritating to deal with…”
“Because I don’t want you to like me.”
Soletus barked out a laugh.
“Oh, come on, is it that hard to imagine that you could fall for a lovely creature such as myself,” she said fanning her golden hair.
Soletus rolled his eyes.
Kiao jabbed him in the side with her knuckle. “Be good,” she told him.
He rubbed the spot and spoke. “Anyway, what’s your point?”
“My point is, since you obviously have a grudge against me, and I’m not interested in the life of a customary elf. You need to go tell them how much misery I’m causing you, then they can go on struggling to secure someone else and I’ll be happy again.”
Soletus thought about for a briefly and then returned, “Or we pretend to be together and not have to worry about being tortured by matching.”
“What,” Kiao exclaimed.
Briar looked just as stunned.
“Hear me out. This won’t be easily fixed by me going to your parents. Papa will have us together because he knows I don’t like you, and he knows I don’t work well with people I don’t like. And this will go on until we get along whether there’s matching involved or not.”
“That is how he is. And besides, I want to help the huntresses.”
Briar’s brow shot up.
“I like the thought of the huntresses and you’re the dedicated person they need. They’ll take things more seriously if you aren’t constantly hashing it out with me.”
“Those two things benefit me, what do you get out of this?”
“Well, I’m not interest in living the life of a customary male elf,” he whispered.
Briar’s face twisted up.
Soletus gave her a brittle smile, “I won’t tell if you don’t tell.”
The huntress started shaping words with her lips before she gave up and paused. She tilted her head and then scowled. “I don’t believe you. Aside from what’s his name in the chapel–”
“Brother Hickory,” said Kiao.
“Aside from him, I didn’t think anyone else so stupid to admit they are,” exclaimed Briar.
Kiao then told her, “Brother Hickory had nothing to lose. He abdicated from his house.”
Briar’s brow rose.
Soletus turned to Kiao to explain.
“It means he stepped down from being house heir,” she said. “He was first born. But unlike being disowned, his family can’t deny his existence. In society’s eyes, he’s about as much standing as a bastard child.”
“But this dunderhead does,” she said and then told Soletus, pointing at Kiao. “Why me? Why not pretend to be with her?”
Kiao regarded Soletus, who looked as if that thought never occurred to him.
“It wouldn’t be right,” answered Kiao, looking away.
“It wouldn’t be fair,” he told Briar.
The huntress crossed her arms. “And being with me is supposed to be fair. My pinky finger doesn’t even like you.”
“How hard would it be to pretend just when we’re in front of our parents,” he asked.
“I would rather go through childbirth.”
Soletus’s brow arched. “And all the motions to get that child as well?”
“It’s a figure of speech,” Briar exclaimed.
“I just find it funny that you’ll compare me to that when I’ve no intentions or desire of putting any woman through that.”
“You could just be slow and in two months, you’ll start admiring and pinning over me, wanting to be sweethearts.”
Soletus dropped and he head and covered his face with his shoulders started shaking in silent laughter.
He lifted his head and told her sharply. “Why would I want to pine over someone who told everyone that if you cut me, I would bleed lard?”
Briar then became sober. “I admit, I said a lot of mean things to you when I was a girl.”
“Or when you started shaking the desk when I walked by and said I started earthquakes.”
Briar’s brow went flat. “Dias says we shouldn’t hang onto the past.”
“Or my very last day in the schoolhouse, I told one boy I was answering the call and what were your words. Oh, I know, you said I wouldn’t last a day and they’ll have to roll me off the training field.”
Kiao then looked at Briar with disbelief. “Really?”
“I was a brat okay. But look, I changed,” said the huntresses to her and then to Soletus.
“It’s fair to say you have an unfavorable opinion of me that supersedes any attraction you may or not have for me.”
“Way more than fair.”
“And yet you’re willing to help me train my girls?”
“It’s called compromising. I’m sick of being bruised below the waist,” he said. “Besides, I don’t want us to do this forever. I just need time to figure how to tell my parents.”
Briar bit the top of her lip. “I need time to think about it.”