Kiao was thrilled to continue her tradition of dressing up for her friends. She used the fear of Briar showing up as an excuse to wear a red and orange themed outfit her mother had sent her on the grounds it was something male Kiao wouldn’t wear. It consisted of a skirt, vest, and thin blouse. As always, she changed in the chapel in one of the back rooms. Brother Hickory spotted her with her bundle as he was talking to a patron and waved at her. She waved back.
She would update him on her progress with Mien and the women’s society another day. She was too excited about seeing Soletus’s reaction.
“It’ll be wonderful,” she said talking to Emmeri who was riding on her shoulder and was making herself snug around her neck. Kiao ignored her claws digging in as she vaulted over the fence. Having the consort was a blessing even if the ability she gave her was rather mundane and silly. She could change her hair color. Not just her head but all the hair on her body. Her eyebrows and eyelashes could go from silvery flaxen to the riches of blacks so she never had to pay money for a wig.
She chose black. She always loved black hair. Most elves didn’t of course. Too human, however, she met Kanu women one day when she was younger. They had dark and flowing volume of curls. It was so different from anything she ever seen, it was wonderful. Sadly, elves didn’t have that much variety in terms of hair color and texture. She would love to have such fluffy hair, but had to stick with straight reddish brown. At least she could change itmagically. She didn’t care how many people stared at her. If she were in another town, she might’ve not chosen such a brazen color. However, the people of Grace’s Hope were above throwing rocks at someone from a dark corner.
When she got to the bridge, Soletus wasn’t there. She decided to climb on the railing and sit, watching elves walk by. She didn’t count many. That was good; it she didn’t want that many people around. However, behind two old arguing men, walked Briar.
Is she that determined, wondered Kiao. The huntress tried to walk as if she was just passing through. It was obvious though she was looking for her. She used the people in front of her as a shield as she kept on looking side to side and stood on her toes to look over them.
Kiao adjusted the mute choker around her neck and said. “Are you looking for someone?”
Briar nearly leapt out of her skin as she spun around.
“I… no! I’m just…” she trailed and narrowed her eyes at her. “Have we met?”
“You’ve probably seen me in town once or twice,” said Kiao.
Briar tilted her head. “Is that the only place?”
“This is the only town I visit,” she said enigmatically.
Briar stared at her head.
“Lovely color isn’t it.”
“If you say so,” said the huntress now coming close to her and then stopping. “You a half-elf or something?”
“Hardly,” said Kiao pleasantly.
Briar still eyed her suspiciously. “Anyway, have you seen an odd looking young man? He’s dark muddish red hair, fine faced, and a chanter?”
Kiao resented at being described as having, muddish red hair. However, she couldn’t say anything other than no. She then caught sight of Soletus. He wasn’t wearing a uniform for once. He had on a dark brown pair of trousers and a short-sleeved shirt that cut off at his elbow. Over that, he was wearing a dark muted purple vest. He was also wearing his hair down and that always had a strange effect on his appearance. He looked common with his hair in a loose braid. With his hair down, he looked like a roguish lord’s son.
“Soletub,” greeted Briar when he got close. “What a surprise. You come here to meet Kiao?”
He gave her a frosted stare. “How do you know that?”
“I know all, hear all, and see all. Besides, I wanted to speak with him and he doesn’t seem to be here yet. Well, at least I made an interesting friend. This is…”
“Lianna,” said Kiao.
Soletus regarded her as if he just noticed her. “Greetings,” he said.
Kiao smiled. “Greetings, I like company. Plus if I lose my balance on this rail, I’ll at least have someone to fetch me out of this pond. I don’t know how to swim,” she said looking directly at Soletus hoping he took the hint.
The young monk gave the water a quick glance and said with his voice low and unfriendly. “The waters not that deep.”
Annoyance rose in Kiao that he was being stony towards her. She wasn’t even trying to flirt with him like some pesky girl.
She leaned forward resting an elbow on her knee. “I’ve seen you before. You’ve usually with a fellow that looks a bit like you with the double braids, and a younger tod, a fox-top.”
Soletus bobbed his hand.
“The group of you like to order buns from, the shop in town. Lyndon always gets a nut pastry, you get the sweetest thing that’s fresh, and Mien is the rebel of the two of you, he gets a butter onion bun.”
Soletus scowled. “Who are you?”
Kiao’s lips spread revealing her teeth. “As I said, I’m Lianna,” she said, winking and jumped off the bridge. “I’m going for a walk. Hope you two find your friend.”
She knew Soletus wouldn’t talk or stay around Briar for long. She hurried off and trying to find a private place to talk. There weren’t many elves, but they were all occupying every single bench, table, or under the branches of a convenient tree out of ear shot of anyone. The young woman began to wonder if she would circle back round again to see if either of them left and just wait for Soletus to return.
A whistle got her attention and she turned around to see him jogging towards her.
“Kiao,” he questioned when he got close to her.
“You finally figured it out have you,” she said with a smile however, it faded.
Lyndon looked amazed at her transformation. Mien was stunned in awe. Soletus on the other hand examined her as if something were wrong.
“What,” she asked.
“It’s nothing. You just look and sound different. And Lianna?”
“It’s as close to my actually name I’m willing to tell people. It’s a disgusting princess name. Anyway, I’m wearing a mute choker. It hides my lit. It’s old world stuff. And Emmeri gives me the ability to change my hair color.” The ermine moved showing her brown head to Soletus.
Soletus chuckled. “I thought he…she was some kind of clothing accessory.” His still looked as if something was wrong.
Kiao sighed. “It’s the way I’m dressed isn’t it?”
“No,” he said becoming apologetic. “You’re dress is fine. It looks nice on you. I just feels like I’m talking to a different person is all.”
Kiao looked around, took him by the arm, and pulled him down the path until they went around a bind. It was there she concentrated and turned her hair back to normal.
“Sorry, I can’t take the choker off, but is this better?”
“Don’t apologize; I probably should’ve warned you.”
She felt disappointed he ruined something that should’ve been fun.
“That’s okay,” he said.
She then studied his appearance. “You’re wearing your hair down. Someone told you to cut your hair again?”
Soletus acknowledge her suspicion with a roguish grin.
Kiao wanted to like him with long hair however, that stupid saying was true about females not liking males having hair longer than theirs. She had to admit she was jealous and would love to have that length. It made her missed the array of braids she wore as a girl and getting her hair brushed. She wanted to brush his because he never spent enough time on it. She could make it shine like corn silk.
“Why even wear it long when everyone gets on your back about it?”
“Because I like it, besides, it’s a silly custom anyway.”
“And what’s with you all dressed differently,” she pointed.
Soletus glanced down and tugged at the vest he wore. “Oh, this. Since I’m not one duty and not growing out of everything I own, my aunt made me some nice cloths,” he said.
“They look nice.”
Soletus’s amicable smile broadened as he fell into step beside her. The girl in Kiao skipped for joy inwardly. He was never awkward when it came to being in close proximity with other people. He was a bit like his cousin with being friendly only toned down. He liked people being comfortable around him. She figured it was because he above everyone and could look just as imitating as his father could.
“Let’s sit over there,” she suggested and pointed to a mossy spot under a tree. It was off the path, but in view of the path so they could see if anyone was coming towards them. Kiao plopped down, and failed to be lady like with the fabric of her skirt fluffing out everywhere. She tried to gather it up while Soletus lowered himself gracefully to avoid sitting on the fabric of her skirt. She noted that he looked troubled again.
“So what’s up? This isn’t a health issue is it?”
He clasped his hand together and rubbed his thumbs together. “That would be simple to deal with.”
Kiao became concerned; she could hear the conflict in his voice. He was pressing his thumb into the skin of the other making it red. She wanted to reach over and stop him, but he wasn’t injuring himself.
“Is it really that upsetting?”
He leaned closer to her and whispered. “I think I’m neth.”
The girl inside her dropped to her knees and started wailed, Noooo!
Kiao on the outside swallowed and kept herself composed. “Wouldn’t Brother Hickory be the person you want given he is neth.”
Soletus swayed his head. “I wanted to talk to you before talking to him to see what you think. I mean, I rather be slow than completely broken.”
Kiao shoved her hand in his shoulder. “Being neth doesn’t mean you’re broken. Seriously, does Brother Hickory act broken to you?”
Soleus swayed his head. “No, it’s just how I feel about it.”
She shoved him in the shoulder again. “Sol, that’s not something you should think and feel. It can mess you up if you let yourself believe it.”
His eyes dropped down from her face to his hands. “I know but, I would like at least something about me to be normal. I mean, look at the way they treat my father because he’s different. ”
Kiao pressed her lips together. That was true and even she had mixed feelings about the First Warden. He had a sordid past compared to all of the other wardens. He was a troublemaker before he ran away to becoming a mercenary. When that failed, a bloodsport fighter. He came back and had trouble adjusting back in. Then there was what happened 4 years ago. It was easy to think of him as an unthinking brute.
“I think that’s a little different,” she said. “Most wardens feel he’s unworthy because he choose his actions. Elves who are the children of Lenneth, well, that’s different. You’re a reflection of Dias in mind. You’re born that way.”
He regarded her again with his brow meeting slightly. “I know, but people don’t listen to that. You know the saying, there’s no such thing as unicorns. Therefore, Neth males don’t exist and other men don’t take you seriously if you admit to it.”
“No one says anything about Brother Hickory,” she returned.
“Because he’s a priest and not in a combat role.”
“He was a combat chanter for a little bit.”
“He quit and they think him weak for it.”
“He stopped because he saw a friend get killed. He had survivor’s guilt. There are plenty of wardens who stepped out of field work because of that. You’re over-thinking this.”
“I’m not,” he exclaimed loudly.
Kiao was a little taken aback by his outburst. Soletus had to be ruffled the right way for him to go into being exasperated. She couldn’t really understand why something like that bothered him. He was never one for carrying what people thought of him. Yet here he was caring.
“I get it, it bothers you and makes you uncomfortable because you think they’ll think you’re less of a man,” she told him gently. “But if that something that’s supposed to make you less of one, then being a grappler should show them otherwise. I’m you’ve a rooted fear of drass beasts and still do it. If anyone thinks of you as being less virile as they are, tell them to straddle one, I bet they’ll shut up.”
“I guess you are right,” he said looking very unconvinced. “But that’s not going to work on my parents. Sons get disowned because of this.”
Kiao knew it, but she countered it with,
“I don’t think your parents will.”
“I know, but they’ve been all about this whole Briar thing.”
Kiao rolled that in her head and then asked, “Have you ever thought that maybe they want to see what you do because they suspect something?”
Soletus stared at her wide-eyed. “I didn’t think it was obvious.”
“It isn’t,” she said then reconsidered that statement. “Well, you’re oblivious sometimes and then you get a little impatient with girls who are really trying too hard.”
“Because they act as if I’m brainless and think eyelash batting and pouting is going to get me to move mountains for them.”
“And I wouldn’t jump for neth because you’re not simple. If I was a young man, I wouldn’t put up with prissy try hards. However, honestly, that seems like something your father might pick up on.”
“Then he would’ve said something by now.”
“He has given you a lot of space since your little incident. I mean, that not something you go around accusing people of let alone your son,” she offered, hopping that would satisfy him.
Soletus rubbed his face. “That’s not how he works. If anything, he’s more direct with me and doesn’t treat me so much like a child, but he’s still Papa. He still has to help. And I don’t think he would care, but him and Mama are really close. And I don’t think they’ll understand why I don’t want that.”
Kiao sighed and said. “Have you considered that fact, you might be worried about nothing? Some elves need a rooted emotional attachment before they show any interest in another.”
“But I’m not interested at all. I don’t see how having a mate would make my life better,” he exclaimed.
“The point is so you don’t get lonely.”
“Dias made the world full of people. One can have a friend as a companion without them being a mate.” Soletus gaze dropped to his hands. His thumbs worked harder to bruise each other. “I even kissed a girl just to see if that might spark something and it was the most pointless thing I’ve ever done.”
“What? When,” she demanded.
Soletus plucked a few blades of grass by his legs. “I decided to test the waters when I was on the road. We stopped in a town during Summer Feast and some young woman latched herself to my side. After some dancing and a drink later, we kissed.”
He looked up and told her frankly, “It was like smashing my lips against a wine soaked prune.”
Kiao didn’t think she would ever hear someone else take all the joy and wonder out of kissing that wasn’t Brother Hickory.
“I’ve convinced you haven’t I?”
Kiao pursed her lips before smoothing out the creases of her skirt wishing it wasn’t true. “Let’s just say with the evidence provided, I think you really need to talk to Brother Hickory.”
Soletus let out a groan. “I was afraid you would say that. I know talking to Brother Hickory is helpful and all but, not right now.”
“Then at least talk to your father so you don’t have to worry about Briar in your life. He might reassure you which is more of what you want because that’s why you told me right?”
Soletus pushed his hair back from his face to behind his ears. “Am I that transparent?”
“Yes because I think, anyone in your position would want to see what their friends think. Personally, I don’t care. You’re still the same person,” she said, but it hurt. She had hoped even, though it was the slightest wisp of a chanced, that her and Mien would just be partners and not mates so she had a chance with Soletus.
Soletus engulfed her in a hug. It was unexpected, rib breaking, and caused her to let out a little squeak. He finished it with touching his forehead against hers. Kiao didn’t know what to think of the gesture other than it being very neth in that was probably as much affection as she would ever get from him. It made her feel worse.
“Thank you,” he told her.
“So, do Lyndon and Mien know,” she asked.
“No, I wanted to tell you first.”
“He’s family. I’ll probably end up telling him last. I wanted to tell you first because I felt lied to when I found out you were a girl and then I felt bad for it because I wasn’t exactly telling truth either. So I guess, it evens us up.”
Kiao then saw Briar down the path through the branched of some shrubs searching for them. She ducked and turned her hair back black. Soletus stood up and scowled.
“I thought she gave up,” he told her.
“She’s looking for me. I should go.”
It was too late, the huntress caught sight of the two of them. “Well, well, well, this is interesting.”
“Why you say that,” asked Kiao mildly.
“You talking to him of course,” she said and whispered loudly for Soletus to hear. “He’s not very friendly.”
Kiao then rose to her feet beating her skirt to free it from grass and bugs. “Well he was to me and that’s all that matters.”
Soletus followed and said, “We should talk again, Lianna.”
“It was nice to meet you as well,” said Kiao walking past Briar.
Briar then stated, “I didn’t notice before, but you’re a tall one.”
“So I’m told,” she said and waved goodbye to Soletus smiling and then walked off with the corner of her mouth dropping. She didn’t know how long she could sit there marinating in disappointment.