Intermission: Unmasked Pt.1

The girl’s little hand punched Kiao’s right eye blinding her. She was recovering from the previous hit to her left eye and was left squinting.  The young woman fought to contain the flaying limbs of the now wailing little girl. All she wanted to do was pick the splinter that was embedded from under the girl’s tiny fingernail. However, all attempts of doing so were barred.

“She usually calms down when she’s sitting on a lap,” said the mother of the tantrum child.

Kiao found that statement unbelieve as she was stuck in a standoff. She had one arm wrapped around the girl’s body while holding onto the hurt hand. Her other hand, held her tweezers and the good hand of the girl. The child did the only thing she could do and started kicking.

Kiao refused to bow to the terror on her lap desires and held on. When the girl realized she was losing the battle of attacking Kiao’s shins and let out a mighty high pitched wail. The young woman’s vision blurred as her inner ear felt ready to explode. She squeezed her watering eyes shut, wishing she could do the same with her ears. All she did was sit still. As a priestess of Dias, she was supposed to be the embodiment patients and tranquility. She spread Dias’s voice with her love and her ability to heal wounds. The role was one to be taken with gladness despite it being an often thankless duty.

Dias, help me not fling this child back into the dark maw where she spawned, she thought as she gritted her teeth.

She took a deep breath and waited. Patients would win her fight. Eventually the child would have to breathe. The little girl seemed to have an endless supply of air stored in her lungs, but she did stop kicking and moving. The act seemed to take a lot of her concentration and became prone by her endless wailing. Kiao worked quickly. She deftly righted the tweezer with her finger, took the girl’s hand, and plucked the sliver of wood out from under her nail. There was a little blood, but no more wood. Kiao had it cleaned and healed just as fast as she had taken it out.  The girl started sniffing and stared at her short finger.

“Was it that bad,” she asked.

The girl replied by renewing her bawling and reached out to her mother.

“There, there,” said the elven woman, clutching the child, and mouthing, “thank you.”

The young woman sat her bluish eyes on her next patient, a boy who looked completely terrified. He cradled his swollen arm closer to his body.  Kiao wiped the tears and sweat from her face and summoned up what little resolve she had left. She imagined her time in the society house would be horrid but she didn’t think her duty would consist of nothing more than being the outlet for children in the need of a good cry.

After, a round of tears and a set arm, Kiao found herself alone. She blew the hair that sagged in face and then took advantage of the three wooden chairs in the small room where she had sat up her “clinic.” She lay across the seat of all three of them followed by resting her arm over her eyes.  The silence that fell of the room was a well-deserved treat.

Kiao heard the chiming of tiny bells coming down the hall. It was Edithyln the wise woman, returning. If it had been a week or two earlier, she would’ve worried about the woman suspected something seeing her stretched out. Someone like her should’ve been observant enough to tell she wasn’t male. However, the wise woman was oblivious like everyone else.

When she strolled through the doorway, she gave Kiao a quick glance and focused on putting her things she brought for the house call early that day and spoke.

“Brother Kiao, I’d imagine a young man your age would have boundless energy.”

“Screaming children have this amazing ability of crushing my body and soul.”

“Ah, I passed by Ayla. She told me that her daughter gave you a hard time. She’s quite the crier and a sensitive little thing. Doesn’t like anyone holding her save her mother.”

Kiao lifted her arm up and rolled her head towards her. “Are you serious?”

“Yes. Don’t tell me Ayla let you hold her?”

Kiao could only blink in affirmation.

The wisewoman started laughing. “These women certainly like to test you.”

They certainly did. They wanted to see how Kiao handled an array of situations since she arrived. Her first day and the only time a woman asked for her help was a mother who had mastitis. She supposed they wanted to see how flustered she would get. The mother was on her second child and obviously old enough to know what was ailing her. There was really nothing Kiao could do about mastitis other than tell her a bunch of information that any woman there could’ve given her. Not to mention, the infection was clearly almost gone.

However, she was far too objective with her assessment. Then they provided another test of the young huntress with the hurt ankle. She claimed it to be broken. It was just a sprained. She figured it was a test to if she would drop her distance. All they managed to do was make her feel insulted. Then there was the array of children with illness ranging from projectile vomiting, to fevers, to skinned knees, and one particularly violent kid who kicked her between the legs. Grant it, it hurt but didn’t hurt like if she was a male. However, she had to act the part and lay curled on the ground. It made her want to toss up a white flag on the arrangement agreed upon a few months ago.

“They just want to make sure you are as solid as Lady Maelyra claimed you to be,” said Edithlyn.

Kiao sat up and massaged her aching neck to lessen the growing tension in her head. “They can figure that out without pushing me to insanity.”

“Perhaps they would stop if you weren’t so stiff,” she said.

Kiao arched a high dubious brow. “Stiff?”

“You are far too straight and to the point. I’m sure that works with men, but these women are hoping for someone with more approachability.”

Kiao thought she was plenty approachable.

“You also tend to be snippy.”

“How am I snippy?”

Edithlyn leaned on the table and said sagely, “I know this is a learning experience for us all, however, you’re also not going to prove yourself to them by meeting their contest.”

“I refuse to be intimidated by them.” You nip-picking hen, she snapped in her mind.

“Dear, this is mare territory. A young stallion like you is outnumbered and they’re going to have their way whether you like it or not.”

Kiao’s face twitched.

Being referred as a male horse was irritating. Not only did she find it absurd, but also she was a mare too. It made her regret the decision of not telling select number of older members, such as Edithlyn, that she was female. However, she had Lady Maelrya and Madame Cordea to agree that they would tell no one and was paying for it. Then again, it didn’t seem to matter if she was male or female, women just didn’t seem to like her. Then Edithlyn had to add one more sting to her injury,

“One would also think as a priest, you would be more patient and understanding.”

“I’m well aware of what I should be,” she said and could hear that snippiness in her voice she tried to deny earlier.

“Then do it. It’ll make your life easier if you come in here smiling and not act as if you’re here under duress.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” the young woman said forcing to remain calm.

“Also,” Kiao restrained herself from rolling her eyes. “You should take that offer up on singing for the children.”

Kiao was willing to do it, if she felt some semblance of joy when she was in the society house.

“I’ll think about it,” she told her.

“Oh Ko-Kooo!”

Kiao tried not to visibly squirm at her name being trilled out as a song bird’s morning call. She swept the room desperate for a place to hide, there wasn’t. The window was the best option if she could climb out of it fast enough. She turned to Edithlyn for help. The woman had a widening grin on her face. There would be no assistance from her. Kiao decided to square her shoulders and accept her fate. A young woman entered the room with her squad of twin girls flanking her.

The young woman flung herself at Kiao and wrapped her arms around her.

“Hi Ko-ko.”

“Hello Briar.”

Briar was the Patriarch’s daughter and clearly a Lyndon person. She was shocked the two weren’t seen with each other all the time. They both liked ridiculous hairstyles. Briar hair was pulled up in a high ponytail with a hawk feather stuck between her hair and tie. They also decided very quickly on whom to call friend. Briar, like Lyndon, she decided to befriend Kiao after their first meeting. And like Lyndon, she couldn’t tell if the girl liked her or not. She never asked and assumed the two didn’t given neither made advances other than being exuberant.

“You look nice today,” said the girl vice like grip squeezed her one more good time. Briar wasn’t a cushion sitter. She would carry a cushion sitting young lady and toss her in a lake to liven her life up. If a comparison could be made, she was the female version of Soletus in strength with Lyndon’s personality.

“Thanks,” said Kiao smoothing out the loose vest she was wearing down.

“Girls, don’t you think Kiao looks handsome today,” said Briar.

“I think he looks handsome every day because he keeps his face clean and hair brushed,” said Eione, the twin on Briar’s right.

“No it because he’s smiling today,” said Helene, the twin on Briar’s left.         Kiao could feel her facial muscles struggling to remain at resting position and not laugh at the three trying so hard.

“I think it’s because he’s out of uniform,” added Briar to the thick sweet-talk, but couldn’t end it there. “You certainly look dashing in a vest.”

Kiao clasped her hands behind her back, “Your flattery is much appreciated. What do you want?”

Briar let out a mock gasped. “How dare you assume that I would want something from you?”

Kiao arched a high brow at her.

The young woman sighed. “Well I was going to go on how smart and intelligent you are but if you want me to stop…”

“Oh no, keep going, I love my ego stroked,” said Kiao, and kept herself from saying anything more than that. Pretending to flirt with a random girl in the infirmary was fine to get them to calm down. However, in a place where she had to continuously visit wasn’t acceptable. It didn’t help that Lady Maelyra was very uncomfortable with her acting. She had watched her the previous weeks so Kiao made sure to keep friendly distance with everyone especially her daughter. However, it was a little hard to keep distance with Briar when she wanted to be glued to her side.

A grin spread on Briar’s face. “Aren’t you priests supposed to be humble?”

“Yes, and Dias forgive me for being conceited. Now, what do you want?”

“Well, Orrie is here to do some special training with use and I want you around to make sure no one is hurt.”

“Okay,” said Kiao. She was never asked that before.

“Well, not him. He’s as gentle as a lamb. He’s brought along someone else to help,” she said with her voice oozing with disenchantment. Kiao wondered who the “someone else” was.

The society house was nestled in the east side of the city and a few blocks from the chapel. There wasn’t a lot of space in that part of the town. However, even with it surrounded by houses on all sides, it managed to have a decent sized back with an herb garden and enough space for children to play as well as the huntresses to practice. There were already six girls standing there ranging in ages. Most of them were younger than Briar and all of them had their eyelashes fluttering on who was beside of First Warden Oeric. Kiao had enough self-control that she wasn’t flustered, but she smiled at seeing her friend.

Soletus was doing his best to look ordinary while leaning on his staff. That wasn’t something he could do. He was fetching. He was the tod girls liked to talk about, but very few braved to speak to him. Some managed and he would fail at catching their interest or if they were laying it thick, he would act very cool towards them. Kiao figured he wasn’t interested in games or doeish girls who lost all ability to speak. He contrasted his cousin who was eager to chat with all the ladies.

Kiao like him because he was a gentle fellow and sometimes irritatingly courteous. And that made it difficult to keep him in the friend category. As a friend, she shouldn’t admire his jawline when it wasn’t for comparison purposes in elven bone structure. She shouldn’t like catching a glimpse of his muscles hidden under his shirt or seeming him practicing his forms.

I’m a priestess, she reminded herself.

She was to be mindful of her thoughts. Aside from that, there was Mien. He formed a timbre bond with her but it was hard to find meaning to it when was Soletus more fascinating. In fact, that curiosity made her wonder why he was there.

He had come back from a short patrol with Kellas’s band a few days ago. He seemed busy and she only caught him long enough to say hello. Lyndon told her they were leaving out again that day and yet there he was. It was good, as she wanted to speak to someone else. All she had for company were her fellow chanter priests in the infirmary, Alder and their trainee Lionel. Mien had passed the trials and was now on the road in a training band led by Oeric.

If Soletus’s father was there, then Mien was back too. She would speak to him later and tell him the results of her research on their bond.

Soletus regarded her and gave her a quick flash of a smile before going back to waiting stoically for everyone to get settled. Briar hadn’t joined the rest of the girls in front of Oeric who was now giving out instructions. Instead, she stayed beside of Kiao and tapped her shoulder.

“So that’s Orrie’s son, right?”

It was hard for her not to laugh at the name the Women’s Society gave him. She had witnessed the full extent of the name when a bunch of women greeted him one day in tandem. He didn’t appear to be discomfited by it. No, he wore the expression of a tired soldier that had lost a long battle.

“Yes,” she told her.

Briar studied him harder. “He looks different than I remember. Do you know him?”

“We’re friends.”

“You’re kidding,” she exclaimed. She then stared at him and tilted her head to the side completely bewildered by that fact.

“He’s good company,” said Kiao.

“He always hung out with his cousin and didn’t really get along with everyone else. Not surprising he joined the Brotherhood.”

“Why?”

“Everyone, including me, picked on him. He wanted to get away from us.”

Kiao didn’t know how she felt about that. When Soletus was going through his training with Master Ealdred, he shared some of his past with her. He told her about the hard time he had with other kids in school. Reason being he was fat or claimed to be so. She remembered the few times she had seen him. He was, well, not thin. He was chubby. She remembered hearing Master Marth and Brother Oli discussing his weight in front of him. She felt sorry for him. He sat there hanging his head down in embarrassment. She didn’t even know who he was at the time but walked over there and told him not to worry about it. She figured he would lose it or grow out of it.

He did a little bit of both.

The most vivid memory of him was a couple of years later. He was apologizing profusely to his sparring partner for fracturing his arm. By then, he hit a grow spurt and was still round around the face with chub turning into muscle. He was also awkward when he moved and didn’t know his own strength. She might have questioned his depth perception just based on how clumsy he was. When he kept getting in the way and accidently bumped her, she might’ve said something sharp to him about his lack of grace. His response was a sheepish, “I’m working on it.”

Funny I wasn’t attracted to his voice then, she thought. To Briar she said, “I’m surprised your parents allowed you to go to a schoolhouse and not be tutored”

“Father said it would be best if I learned to be around the common folk despite what his family wanted. They wanted to take me because they thought my mother wouldn’t raise me properly since she wasn’t of noble blood. So he let a cousin take me and they promptly sent me back after I gave his daughter a black eye. He told my father it was too late for me. My father started laughing in his face.”

Kiao had about the same experience with a snooty cousin. She gave her a black eye for ripping off the leather armor she had made for her doll. She wanted her equipped to face all sorts of dangers and the girl thought it was silly.

“I just hope the dod doesn’t hurt my girls,” muttered Briar as Oeric finished with his instruction. Soletus stood with a staff in his hand while a huntress stood across from him armed with two clubs dual-wielding them.

“This isn’t exactly a lesson in restraint for him,” returned Kiao. “Plus, do you really want him to soften his blows too much,” she said watching the training with little interest.

Briar was more intensely watching. “No, but I don’t want to think he had an advantage over them because they’re girls.”

Soletus would think that, but not in the way she was thinking. They weren’t a well-trained lot and stood in a motley row yawing or paying more attention to Soletus than what he was doing. He would go easy on them just for that.

Oeric then spoke getting Kiao’s attention, “Son, the purpose of this wasn’t for you to keep your mouth shut.”

Kiao heard Soletus let out a sigh he reserved for his father and said, “Stop, stop, stop,” to the girl in front of him. He stepped out of his stance, backing up and planted the end of his staff in the ground. “You’re leaving yourself open to strike me. Take your stance and swing at me slowly.”

The girl glanced over at Briar. The huntress gestured for her to pay attention. She did as she was told striking with the stick in her left hand on Soletus staff. The young monk bent his arm, swung the end of his staff, and tapped her on the side of her head.

“Do you see where your right arm is at? It’s behind you,” he told her. “Do you think you could‘ve raise it in time to parry me?”

The girl’s face flushed pink. “No.”

“Keep your arm up, elbows bent, and eyes on me. You want to see what I do without watching what I do. Try again.”

Kiao looked at Oeric. She could see a glint of approval in his pale wolf-like eyes.

A lesson in teaching, I see, she concluded.

As far as teaching went, Soletus did fine. However, the bolder girls who had watched their sisters before them tried to find an opening to teach him instead. It was impossible. The young monk had better reflexes and their strikes were always parried. Soletus was amused at the attempts always answering them with an amicable, “too slow.”

When the last girl had been tested, Oeric then fixed his attention on Briar’s direction. “Your turn.”

Briar pointed at herself. “Why? I already know how to do this.”

“A good warrior never stops learning,” returned Oeric and gestured for her to take her place where all the other girls had stood.

Briar regarded his son and Soletus stared at her coolly. Kiao shivered.

I suppose he remembers Briar well.

“But, I don’t want to fight Soletub.”

Oeric pale eyes flicked to his son who began to bristle with his muscles tightening. He coughed and Soletus gave his father a sideways glare. The man swayed his head. Soletus tucked his displeasure under the surface and took his stance he had for the other girls.

“Fine, but I want to spar,” said Briar.

Soletus’s brow rose with curiosity.

The huntress pulled out her own weapons that had rested by her side in a sheath. They were shorter and stouter than the thin short weapons known as whip cane everyone else had. The ones she wielded were club like and the length of a short sword. She spun her weapons in her hand and too her stance low to the ground.

Soletus studied her, clearly unsure what to think.

“What, you never spared with anyone using stout canes before?”

Kiao took that moment to see what First Warden Oeric had to say. He still hadn’t voiced an opinion on the matter. He was clearly wanted to see what would happen. The two started circling each other.

“Aren’t you going to do something,” taunted the huntress. “I didn’t think grapplers hesitated.”

Soletus wasn’t hesitating, he was examining her. The young man then reversed his circling. Briar’s response was to leap back charge out of the circle and then attacked him. Even her lack of knowledge, Kiao knew how silly that was. Soletus just pivoted and let her rush passed him. He then swung his staff and smacked her in the back. She stumbled face first into the ground.

“No grapplers don’t hesitate,” said Soletus. “Some of us are just patient.”

Briar pushed herself up off the ground and glared at him. She rushed him again. Kiao didn’t know what she was trying to do. Overpowering Soletus wasn’t even an option in her case. Trying to move faster than he could block was futile. It was as if Briar didn’t get that Soletus was above her in skill. He had years of training. He just waited for an opening so he could strike hard and fast. He whacked her in the hip after she failed to jab him. Briar was sent to the ground again. Soletus stopped and planted the end of his staff in the ground.

“Interesting style of fighting you have, but your too slow and you keep fighting me wrong.”

Briar remained on the ground.

Soletus then turned to face the rest of the girls. “This goes for all of you, don’t try and over-power someone who is stronger or faster than you. Fight smart and don’t be impatient.”

During his short speech, Kiao watched Briar rise back up again and before the young woman could cry out a warning, Briar slammed her one of her clubs right into Soletus’s crouch. The young monk dropped to the ground and curled up. All the girls started laughing. Briar stood over him in triumph.

“Briar,” growled Oeric.

“I get it, fight smart,” she said with a wide grin.

Kiao jumped from her post by the door and was only able to take two long strides from the before she saw Briar drop to the ground. She didn’t know what happened until she saw Soletus now lying on his belly with his staff in hand.

“But still learned nothing,” said Soletus between his teeth.

Oeric marched over to them and stood between them. “Enough! I expect better behavior out of both of you. Especially you,” he said to his son. He then wore a full scowl at her. “And Briar.”

“Yes Sir,” she said rising to her feet and dusted off her battle skirt.

“While that is an effective means of defense, save it for a man with ill-intent and not someone who is going to replace me.”

Briar’s smugness fell. “Why,” she demanded.

“I’m going to be gone on the road more often with my training band. Soletus is on extended leave and volunteered to take my place for the time being.”

Kiao drop to her knees at Soletus’s side. “Really?”

Soletus rolled to his back and wiped the tears that had formed in his eyes. “I’ll explain later,” he croaked.

The rest of the girls were begging Oeric to stay. Briar limped towards him doing the same. Clearly, nothing was broken. She was just smarting which was well deserved given the animosity she showed towards her friend.

 

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