Soletus was led to the room he shared with his parents by his father. The entire Brotherhood was given part of wing to themselves. It included sleeping quarters as well as a sitting room for all of them to enjoy. However, the more the house Soletus saw, the less likely he was going to find anyone’s room save his own. If his father didn’t show him the way, he would get lost.
When they entered, he found his mother already dressed in a violet gown, pulling her hair apart from the braided bun she wore.
“I need your nimble fingers,” she said to Oeric.
“It was fine before,” his father exasperated. “I still need to get ready and here you are being a nitpick.”
His mother sat on a cushioned stool so his father could work. “The Queen is here. Did you know that? One doesn’t look like a country hen in front of the queen!”
His father let out a growling sigh. “You don’t look like a country hen. And yes, I found out. I was under the assumption that only Princess Silva would be here. I’m half expecting the king to be hidden somewhere.”
Soletus scouted his own room, leaving his parents to fuss alone. When he came into the door, he let out a low whistle. It was gorgeous and nicer than the inn in Arbortown. It had a round bed that only nobles possessed. He walked up to and pushed down on it. It was going to be like sleeping on a cloud. He admired the room admired the rest of the room from carved vine borders going along the top of the wall, to the full body mirror made of knotted silver and gold.
In the corner, there was tub in there of cooling water behind a screen on a slab of stone. He took off his clothing and dipped himself in, scrubbing in a scented bar that smelled was made from rose lilies. The scent had been soften so it was manageable. When he was done and dried off, he still smelled like the garden. He quickly donned on his dress uniform that was tailored for him. The clothier got tired of him of being unable to provide him with a uniform that fit properly. So him and his aunt worked on a jacket that supported his wide shoulders.
When he slipped on his jacket, his father shouted: “Get out here. They are making the call for dinner now.”
Soletus rushed out he was in his boots and sash in hand with his hair needing to be braided. Both his parents swooped in. His father took to braiding, his mother buttoned, and he worked on the sash. They dusted him off and inspected him and walked out tensely. When they opened the door, they found Briar in the hall. She was in a long, slender sleeveless gown that showed off her muscular arms. Her long hair was twisted up in a braid bun neat and adorned with gyrfalcon feathers and beads.
“Impressive,” he said with admiration on his face. “A sow’s ear can become a silk purse.”
Briar arched an eyebrow at him and looked him over impressed. “I see they had strong enough soap to conquer your stench.”
He offered her his arm. “Lady.”
She took it. “Thank you.”
Oeric then said from behind them. “Please refrain from being silly. We’ve most of the royal family here. They might not like your jokes.”
“Yes, I know Orrie,” said Briar. “I’m to entertain the queen tomorrow. They want to hear me stress a harp.”
Her playing wasn’t that bad, but she was far from performance grade.
“Is that right,” said Oeric looking at Cordea.
She nodded, looking as if she swallowed a frog. “What am I supposed to talk to the queen about?”
Oeric turned around taking her arm. “You both have children, so you talk about those.”
Cordea gave him a sharp look. “That’s so typical. I doubt she wants to hear about a commoner’s children.”
“I’m sure she would,” he said, kissing her on the head.
“Don’t feel bad, Mama,” said Soletus. “I’m going to be helping Princess Arlwin.”
“She’s taken a liking to Soletus,” Oeric explained.
Briar looked shocked. “Why?”
Soletus shrugged. “I’ve no clue.”
“You do realize that is unheard of,” she said. “Common folk and royalty don’t intersect.”
Oeric interjected. “I know it’s unheard of, but here we are. This will be the only day we’ll be sitting with the royal family, thankfully.”
“But the Sheldmartins are an important family,” said Briar. “You’re practically a minor house if not for the whole, no title rule the Brotherhood has, not that my father follows it.”
“He doesn’t because it benefits us if he keeps his title,” said Oeric.
They made it into a dining hall that put the Brotherhood messhall in shame. Not at the size just put the extravagance. The tall windows that were stained red and gold to the velvet curtains that hung. Most of the Brotherhood had a table to themselves. However, Soletus and his family was taken to the host’s table. It made sense for only the Patriarch, Arch Monk, and Arch Priest to be there. However, there family was allowed as there was only a few. However, at the Host table there sat Princess Arlwin, Princess Silva, and Queen Nethara herself. She, unlike her children, had a mound of golden hair spilling from her head. She also had eyes like burnished silver. His father’s eyes were very blue compared to hers.
“I don’t know about this,” muttered Briar finally. Soletus pulled her seat out for her. She sat and groaned. “Not this mess.”
He looked down and saw the arrangement of the silverware in front of him. “What is this again,” he asked. “This isn’t a course arrangement.”
“Nope, we’re under banquet rules,” she instructed. “It’s not as formal, thankfully, but you’re going to have to serve me. If it’s liquid, use a spoon. If it can be stabbed, use a fork.”
As names were called out and applause were given, welcoming guests, dinner was being held on carts to the side. Soletus’s attention was on those. Princess Silva then stoop up and started speaking. Normally he was very focused, but it was hard to focus with so many people around him and so many things. There was this strange twinge in his gut that something was amiss and he swept the room. From the tables to the ceiling to the many faces of elves around him. He turned his head as casually from side-to-side so he wouldn’t bring attention to his suspicion. He then felt a nudge at his side. He jumped and looked at Briar who pointed.
“I think her highness wants your attention.”
To his left, he saw the princess gesture with her eyes to the wine goblet in front of him. They were about to toast. He picked it up and toasted with everyone else. It was then Soletus noticed his father mirroring what he had done. Something was indeed off. Across from him at the other banquet table, Mien’s attention was to the wall. He could tell the young chanters eyes were glowing. Soletus knew it was impolite to leave the table when food was being served however, he needed to figure out what was wrong.
His father sat adjacent to him stopped him, saying in a low voice. “Hold. Nimbus is working on it.”
The Arch Monk heard him and he brow met. “What is it?”
“Worry about your meal, Sir,” said Oeric and became distracted. His lips parted and moved as he focused vaguely in front of him. Soletus then felt a warmth wash over his mind.
“Don’t fight me, cracked Nimbus in his mind. “Relax and listen. Mien is on edge. He said he felt a drass beast of an instant and now he can’t feel it. I saw you start to look around when he did. Oeric started looking because he saw you.”
“Sorry. I just felt something was off.”
“The Princess noticed too. She’s been watching you.”
Soletus chuckled and saw a platter of food being placed in front of him. “She’s had her eye on me. I don’t know why.”
“Who knows. Maybe she thinks you look interesting.” Nimbus then became silent for far too long. “I knew this trip was going to be a bit rough on you but your mind feels unbalanced.”
“Can we focus on that later?”
“Sure… well, I probably won’t, but your mind feels tense. If you’re worried, don’t be. Nothing bad is going to happen. Stay calm,” he said and then left and clearly hoped back over to his father.
Then Arlwin stated, “I’m guessing there is some kind of communication going on here. I sense something is up.”
Oeric broke out of his concentration and said. “There is. One of my chanters felt something abnormal but, he doesn’t feel it now.”
Soletus saw Mien leave the table with Nimbus in tow.
The Queen perked up. “Chanters,” she said. Her lit chimed in Soletus’s mind. “There is more than one here?”
The Arch Monk nodded. “Yes, normally we don’t carry this many. Usually a battle chanter and one of our priests. This year we’ve an extra battle chanter.”
The Queen smiled and pointed. “I would like to meet them, especially the young priestess over there.”
Princess Silva followed her mother’s arms to Kiao who was grinning in delight over something. “I thought the Brotherhood was an all-male order.”
“It is,” said Brother Rastor. “However, the Sister Kialianna disguised herself as a boy. By the time the truth was revealed, she tightly woven herself in our lives, there was nothing to do only accept her.”
Princess Silva became intrigued. “She looks familiar.”
Arlwin mirrored her sister. “What is her surname?”
“Meadowlark,” answered Rastor.
The Queen smile broadened. “Ah, I know her family. They design my stage dresses. She is the missing daughter that Hera’Meadowlark’s always talks about. That young lady looks remarkably like her father Tad.”
“Interesting, she must be quite the young woman,” said Princess Silva.
“You could say that,” said Brother Rastor.
“And you’re not happy about it,” said the Queen. “It’s better to work with her than fight an empty cause.”
Brother Rastor turned ashen. “I assure you my unhappiness about her is just merely how her situation has been handled in the passed.”
The woman’s eyes became pools of molten silver. “I’m not insulted. It’s just a simple fact, as there are many in this world.”
“Mother,” hissed the Princess. “You’re doing it again. If father was here—”
“He’s not, Dear,” said the Queen. “And Brother Rastor knows all about chanters. No need to act all embarrassed because you mother hears voices.”
“I see you can hear the chorus of the world. Don’t get lost in it Queen Nethara and I mean no disrespect. It’s easy to get caught in it. Our Arch Priest has become entrapped in it and now stay days listening to it before coming out,” warned the priest.
Soletus didn’t like Rastor. The Assembly was controlled by him and from what he gathered from his chanter friends, was trying to become Arch Priest. It was a prospect none of them cared for. They were afraid they were going to loose Kiao because the majority of the assembly didn’t want her there. Yet, he was very okay with her going in Brother Oli’s place.
He felt a nudge and looked to see Briar pointing to the platter of roasted vegetable in front of him.
“Sorry,” he apologized and served her as he was supposed to be doing.
“Don’t worry about it. I was listening too,” she said.
“Young man,” he heard the Queen directing her voice at him. It reverberated through him. He swung his head to her.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Senior Junior Warden Soletus’Sheldmartin. I’m the Arch Monk grandson.”
Her eyebrows met with concern. “What happened to you? You sound like a cracked glass.”
Soletus was caught off-guard. He thought he was better as Vlory stopped complaining about his sorrow. Now another chanter was saying he still was broken.
“Answer the Queen,” prompted his grandfather.
There was no point in lying to a chanter and he told her, “I lost a bandmate a couple of months ago, your Majesty.”
“Oh,” she said and became apologetic. “I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just, there is something about your voice that makes it so clear sounding. Listening to you is like seeing through glass.”
“So I’ve been informed,” he said.
“Are you a chanter?”
“Mother, you don’t ask people that,” snapped Princess Silva. “It’s insulting.”
“No insult given,” said Soletus. “I’m chanter gifted.”
Silvia’s brow rose. “You easily just let that be known?”
“I can’t help what I am, Princess.”
She then picked up her wine glass speaking in a patronizing tone. “I know the Brotherhood aren’t the majority, but it would be wise if you never told anyone that. Even with a chanter as a Queen, people aren’t afraid to throw rocks.”
Princess Arlwin let out a faint sigh of annoyance.
“Good thing I’m good at deflecting them,” said Soletus.
Arlwin giggled, placing more food on her plate. Her sister gave her a dirty look and slapped her hand.
The Queen spoke. “Denying what you are hinders acceptance. I think it’s lovely that the Brotherhood is diverse in it’s own way. Your half Dyne?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” he said.
She then looked at Cordea and made the connection. “Oh, I never met anyone who was Fenndish Dyne before. Then your father must be, you, First Warden Oeric.”
“Your Majesty,” he said, inclining his head.
She scrutinized him. “Intriguing,” she said softly. “I can’t help but notice the scarring on your face.”
“I’m a former cur,” he said.
Her expression softened. “So I finally get to meet one. There is something we need to discuss. Captain Gyrfalcon spoke of you. He said you were a great aid in giving the location of Paradise and how to get in there to send scouts. My husband’s troops raided it successfully.”
“I’m very happy it was, your Highness,” he said.
“But even with bloodsports curtailed for now, we are still dealing with it. We’ve a lot of curs. The handlers we have in our possession are being dealt with lawfully. Most will be sent to the prison or death. The fighters, well, some of them were quite dangerous and executed immediately after they took advantage of their jailed state and killed those who wronged them. Troublemakers are being sent to work camps to help build and maintain our roads. However, I requested for those who keep to themselves be sent to the same garrison to be reformed. I have had many doubt this can be done including my husband the king. However, here you are, a gentle strong voice.”
Oeric placed his fork down, wearing a pained gracious smile. “Thank you’re, Majesty.”
“I’m curious about what sort of intervention we could perform on these men. The Brotherhood is known to reform those who are troubled. I was wondering if you could help us.”
Brother Rastor became intrigued. “We could do so. Depends on how many. We couldn’t do a mass of them. We still have to keep our own safe.”
The Queen beamed. “If you are interested, you can discuss it with me later. I would love to talk to you alone First Warden Oeric about it as well.”
The Princess however, was a direct contrast to her mother and looked displeased. “Mother, you should spend your time relaxing and not worrying about such things.”
“I can spend my time doing whatever I wish, Dear,” said she with a sharp smile. “You have so many responsibilities, let me have mine.”
Soletus began to wonder was if common to bring the tip of one family issues to the table in noble society. He sipped his wine and nearly spit it out. He hated wine. Reds especially. The smell and the way it made him woozy in the head didn’t sit right with him. He would drink a cider here and there, maybe even a light ale. In fact, he wouldn’t have minded some there. However, he knew nobles did things differently. They even had different music as there was a harpist tucked in a corner plucking lightly at the strings of her instrument. It was relaxing, but also very boring. He reached for the cup of water that was served at the table and drank it and worked on his meal while listening to the conversation around which was completely unexciting.
“Now you see what I dislike this,” said Briar to him. “The food is excellent, but everything else is bland and proper, thus boring.”
Soletus then felt like he was being stared at and sure enough, at one of the other long banquet tables was a youngish woman possibly around 50 was watching him and Briar.
“Who’s that,” he said. “The one wearing the lacy collared dress.”
“That is my cousin Via,” stated Briar without looking up from her wine. “She’s trying to figure out who you are.”
“Should I avoid?”
“At all cost. That wonderful man you see beside her, that’s Veshner. Another cousin. Also to be avoided. He likes to pick fights,” she told him. “Beside him is one another one of my other cousins, Brytan. He is the oldest of my aunt Valencia. She the one who is taking over from Grandmama. She doesn’t like, me. Her husband doesn’t, and so he doesn’t as well. If there was also someone to stay away from, it would be Brytan too.”
“So who is part of the Captain’s family?”
“Who, Uncle Liamus? He has a son. But he isn’t here because he lives on his own in Wateree.”
“That’s the arrangement. His mother is dead now and they never married.”
Soletus didn’t know how to take that information given to him. “So he doesn’t take care of him?”
“Of course. However, he’s older than me. He lives a very comfortable life as a shepherd. Very sweet and very not customary, or so, I suspect. No one talks much about him. I met him several times when I was younger. He would take me to see the sheep and we would walk around the rolling hills out there. I was kind of envious of him living out there alone.”
“You wouldn’t like it,” said Soletus. “Too dull and not enough people to see how magnificent you are.”
“You’re right about that,” she agreed.
Dinner went by a little quicker as they spoke. Soon desert was severed. It was a tiny slice of tart that left Soletus wanting more . He was proud to be able to suffer through it, but by the end of it he was tired.
Then the group split. The men all followed where Captain Gyrfalcon and the Patriarch to a sitting room off to the side. All the women, followed Lady Gyrfalcon and her daughters as well as the queen. And Soletus was hoping that he could retreat to his room, however, Briar took his arm.
“Sorry, we aren’t done yet,” she said. “We’ve to socialize with the young folk,” and led them out to the back of the house where there were globe lamps strung and lit all around them. From what Soletus gathered, the group consisted of her cousins, various other younger, nobles and Princess Arlwin who made their way to them.
“I didn’t know you two were a couple,” she said.
“Us, no,” said Soletus and Briar at the same time.
Briar then stated and said properly. “He’s here to look impressive at my side, your Highness.”
The young woman sighed. “Please, can it be Lieutenant, Lady Briar.”
It was then the cousin named Via sashayed to them. She was a tall slim angular faced elf. Her golden hair seemed to glow in the lantern light. Everything about her was sharp, her ear tips were pointed as were the ends of her eyebrows even her mouth seemed pointed. Someone out there might find her beautiful, but Soletus was repelled from her. It was like looking at the marking on an animal that was poisonous.
“Princess Arlwin, you shouldn’t be bothered with my cousin,” she said. “It’ll do you no good being with a useless hinny.”
The princess rolled her eyes and swung around. “Are you claiming to be more useful than she? You’ve not impressed me yet, Lady Via.”
Lady Via looked as if she had just been stung. There someone shouted for Princess Arlwin from the doorway. The woman who did so didn’t look Gyrfalcon and was probably a member of other noble families attending.
“Excuse me,” said Prince Arlwin. “Another need my attention. When I come back, you can regale your accomplishments to me.”
The pinched look on Lady Via’s face suggested she had none. When the princess was out of sight, a man rose from the table around the covered seating area and walked towards them. It was Lord Veshner. Soletus didn’t like the cool smile on his face. It screamed annoying nobling. He was well-dressed, a broad forehead that housed a tiny brain, and wore a mischievous glint in his eyes. He sauntered over as if he lorded over everything.
“I see you finally found your own escort, Cousin. How much did you have to pay him to be your escort,” he said.
Briar groaned and said to Soletus. “Sol, these are my cousins. Lady Via and the Lord Veshner. Cousins, this is Senior Junior Warden Soletus’Sheldmartin. He’s a friend.”
“Just a friend,” asked Veshner sizing him up.
“No, silly. Briar is as neth as they come,” she said to him and stepped closer to Soletus. “Why would she even bother bringing a striking fellow like you. She’s untouchable. A complete tease to you.” She stepped in close to him to put her hands on his chest. However, he pivoted, causing her to stumble forward.
“I consider it very rude to touch another without permission,” he said.
“A common stallion like you should appreciate the attention I give you.”
“Thank you, but I prefer quality attention.”
Soletus then felt someone behind him lift his braid from his back.
“He’s a long tail back,” stated Veshner.
Soletus spun around and whipped his hair from his grasp to face them both. He was on his guard now. “Jealous?”
“Hardly,” he said. “It looks puerile. I can only guess there is a reason why you would wear your hair like that. And the only reason Briar would be bothered with a man. Could it be, you’re a unicorn?”
Briar placed herself between them. “Vesh, leave him alone!”
A savage smile formed on his face. “He is, isn’t he?”
“So what if I am,” said Soletus.
Briar whirled around and hissed at him through her teeth. “Why can’t you keep that fact to yourself.”
“Why should I hide it,” he said, locking his eyes on Veshner.
The cruel grin of his deepened. “So what do you do in the Brotherhood. You’re not a small fellow. Do you carry their equipment?”
It was obviously a bait. He didn’t need to fall for it. He needed to let it go, just like water on a ducks back. Just let it bead off to the water. Now he couldn’t. When did it change? When did people’s words started getting under his skin? When did every man become Valhart?
“I could, but, there has to be something for the mules to do,” said Soletus. “What I do depends on what is needed of me. Officially, I’m a grappler.”
Soletus didn’t think he would know what that was, but the man in front of him mouth quirked up. “A grappler. You’re one of those who wrestles with drass beast. It makes sense being a son to a cur.”
The young monk stilled his hands from forming a fist and smashing it in his nose.
“It must be embarrassing to know that your father was once a cur. I’m surprised he even managed get with a woman to have you,” he said walking towards Soletus and said next to his ear. “I heard they like other men more than women.”
“Sure you’re not projecting? You’re getting awful close to me,” said Soletus and saw the man’s hand whip up and he caught it before it struck his face. What he didn’t catch was Lord Veshner’s fist that caught him in the side under his ribs. The pain from the blow was exquisite. Black spots form clouded his vision. Soletus clutched his side and fell on one knee. If he had his staff with him, he could defend himself from another attack. Briar, though had his back. She came in fast striking Veshner in the face. He stumbled once and recovered far too quickly for someone untrained in combat.
“Briar, stop,” he croaked.
He watched as her cousin took a swing at her. She ducked and jammed her elbow in his torso right under his rips. He grunted and dropped to the ground. Via screamed, getting everyone attention and started crying. Briar ignored her.
“So what if he part of some fist fighting club,” said Briar guarding him again. “You trained me! Why should I worry?”
“You stupid sow,” shouted Via loudly. “What did we ever do to you two? Why can’t you just act like a normal lady! This is what happens when you are friends with a cur spawn. You hurt people.”
Before Briar could offer a retort another voice rose over hers.
“Stop insulting every female dead and born with your fake tears,” commanded Princess Arlwin, stepping into the light. Her hand rested on the sword hilt at her side.
Lady Via eyes widened. “I meant know offense, Princess, but those two–”
“Had the misfortune of being forced to participate in your silly game,” she said, walking over to Soletus who rose to his feet on his own. His hand still applying pressure where he was struck. “Are you two alright?”
Interrupted Via her. “She innocent! She hit Veshner!”
The Princess looked over her shoulders and sounded unforgiving. “Explain to me why you earned this to right tell me what to do.”
The woman balked and became silent. Veshner moaned and she lowered herself at his side.
The Princess focused her attention to in front of her again. “Clearly, that’s paining you. Come on,” said Arlwin reaching out for his arm. “I will take you to the house physician.”
“No need,” said Soletus, brushing her hand away. He wanted to be left alone. Offense transformed on her face. She met his eyes with her own direct stare of warning. He didn’t let up his cold and unwelcoming expression. He was in no mood for anymore nobling behavior, Princess or not.
The Princess became mystified and then she smirked looking impressed. “Very well, Lord Monk,” said the young woman and took Briar’s hand. “Come with me, Lady Briar. I wish to speak with you, alone.”