They learned on arrival, that Captain Gyrfalcon was participating in the meetings that day. While they waited, Arlwin decided to take them back to her quarters and hid the sack in a locked trunk, but removed one of the vials to be examined. Soletus stood at the doorway of the state quarters that was given to the royal family. It was the same size as his parent’s quarters, but it had a balcony view of the front gardens. The furnishing were also nicer as it was colorful. There was no lack of fabrics, cushions, and flowers that decorated the place. Not to mention a great tapestry of red and gold depicting nothing more than ornate vines in geometric shapes.
“The Gyrfalcon’s built this place with guests in mind. They probably have the largest estate of all the ruling houses,” said Arlwin in response to Soletus’s admiring everything before him. “You also don’t have to hover like that. Nothing is going to bite you.”
Wal then manifested from a corner and caused Soletus to jerk in surprise. “Ah, Lady Princess, I see you come back before lunch. Come in, young sir. How about something to drink.”
Soletus stepped in as a chanter began to sing from the outside. It was a woman’s voice. Not Kiao. Her voice wasn’t as high and ethereal like the one he heard. Mesmerized, Soletus followed Arlwin to the door to the balcony and stood looking down. Soletus looked down and saw the Queen singing. Her hands were on Mien’s shoulders with Kiao on the other side of him doing her best to encourage him as well. He saw the top of his mother’s head, Lady Maelyra, Lord Kharis’s mother, and a host of other women. Briar was there too, looking around either because she was bored or being alert. Of course, she looked up at him and waved.
Arlwin listened to her mother and Kiao singing and was soon joined by Mien who ears were now the color of his hair.
“Beautiful,” she said. “I love my mother’s singing. I’ve been gone for months and that was the first thing I wanted to hear.”
Soletus started swaying to their voices and closed his eyes listening. There was something nostalgic about the song they were singing. It was a gentle and a little sad sounding in tone. In fact, the last he heard it was that night in Crossings. His mind wandered back to that evening. Mien had left Lyndon and him alone at a outdoor bar. Soletus drank his cider. Lyndon had a pint in his hand. They spoke about their mission. Laughing about what had gone wrong and was amazed at what had gone right. Then Lyndon said something to him that had started out sounding like the drink talking.
“Just so you know, I’m proud of you,” the young scout told him.
Soletus stood in wonderment at where the statement had come from.
“I mean everyone thought you were a rolly-poly who couldn’t do anything. A far cry from your father, uncle, and grandfather. And there you were, today, swinging on the back of a drass beast like you’ve the spine of a cat.”
He laughed at him and told him that if he didn’t wimp out, he could do the fun work instead of shooting from a tree. And then he remembered Lyndon looking him in the eyes and said. “No, I mean it. You’re impressive. Always remember I’m the one who told you that when you get your own command.”
Soletus then returned saying, when that happens, he could be his second. Lyndon grimaced a little.
“When we get home, I have to get a sight evaluation. I think I’m going blind,” he told him so blandly it had to be a well-practiced statement.
Soletus didn’t think he breathed for a long time through all of Lyndon’s explanation saying that he was having a harder time seeing distances. Not to mention his left eyes’ peripheral vision had been progressively getting worse.
The bolt that killed him came from the left side.
The music stopped. Soletus was back in the present. It scared him a little. The silence that greeted his ears made his ears ring. He stepped away from the balcony and turned just in time to meet Arlwin with a cup water in her hand.
“I wasn’t sure if I needed to pour this over your head to get you out of whatever state you were in,” she said.
“What are you talking about,” he said stuffing the unease he felt in the back of his mind.
“You were standing there completely out of it. Like you were in your own world.”
Soletus rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry, I was in my thoughts.”
Arlwin considered him while he took the cup from her hands. She then wrapped her hand loosely around his wrist. “Please, come and sit down. I want to discuss something with you.”
He thought about remaining where he was, but she did say please. She presented him one end of the couch and she sat on the other.
“Lady Briar and I had a discussion last night. I was told she was neth and she told me you were as well.”
Soletus braced himself. He didn’t know if she was going to be inquisitive or filled with a bunch of misconceptions.
“It’s not a secret. The entire order knows,” he told her.
“I see,” she said. “I know other neth females, such as myself, before and I wanted to talk to you about your experiences with it. See if it was different.”
Soletus’s gaze shifted from the rim if the cup to across it stunned.
“Surprise,” she said, wiggling her fingers in the air. “It’s not something that’s widely known as I’m not frequently in the public eye. Princesses are expected to be intelligent, strong, and fertile beings. That’s my sister and people adore her. I’m just the king’s other daughter and I prefer it that way.”
Soletus arched an eyebrow. “The other daughter?”
“Yes, the one that tries but struggles to be of standard. However, I don’t want to talk about that. I want to know what your experience with being neth,” she asked looking excited.
“In what way?”
“In everything, I guess. When I was in training at a school for neth girls, I asked why there weren’t any boys there and everyone looked at me like I was stupid. The instructor stated that neth males were rare. Those who claimed to be, were likely lying. And our training wasn’t for them.”
Soletus was caught on her being trained. “A school, for neth females? That’s a thing?”
“Yes. It’s called the School of Graces. It’s an all girl institution. They have special training for neth females. It’s an alternative of the University in Eroden except you can only enter a certain age and graduate at a certain age. Girls learn to be proper noble women and can further their knowledge in certain fields. I was only there to learn how to be a proper neth woman.”
Soletus couldn’t imagine doing anything like that. It sounded incredibly boring. “And you did that for how many years?”
“I lasted a single year. I disliked being told to sit in a chair and watch the most ridiculous things going on in front of me and unable to react.”
“So you weren’t good at it,” he asked.
“No, I did well. I just hated the concepts they were teaching. Mostly that neth women are superior to all. And to gain that superiority we had show nothing about our feelings and thought. Not joy, no happiness, no appreciation, anger, or sadness. We had to become true neutral beings. Such as dress in neutral clothing and even take a substance when you are older to make sure you cannot reproduce.”
Soletus could see why Briar didn’t want to do any of that. She never explained other than saying the entire thing was stupid.
“I managed to get out after begging my father I wanted to be in the military and not study law. He wanted me to be an arbiter. So I left there and was allowed to go to a military school.”
“I didn’t know they had those either.”
“It’s a thing for nobility. You learn military history, strategy, handling of troops, and you get basic military training. By the end of it, if you meet all the requirements, physically and intellectually, you enter in the military as a sergeant.”
“But you’re a lieutenant.”
“I’ve been promoted as I’ve seen actual combat. Most nobility try to keep their children from any action. They usually pick cities where all they do is police. I’m stationed by the southern boarder dealing with smugglers. Even surrounded by men, I never met a neth one. The one time I asked, I was laughed at and told neth males were too meek for combat.”
Soletus let out a humorless chuckle. “Do I strike you as someone who is meek?”
“Not at all. Which is why I’m confused. I don’t understand why they say such things.”
“Because it’s not seen as masculine. It’s a weakness. The other neth monks in the order hide it and act customary to avoid the ridicule I guess. The only exception is the priest who has been helping me.”
“Oh. So there is no training,” she asked. He shook his head. “Not even a test?”
“There’s a test,” he asked surprised.
She looked astonished in return. “Yes. It’s performed by a trained chanter. At a certain age, girls get tested. It’s more common where I grew up in Summerset. It’s located at the foothills of the mountain so it isn’t that far from High Perch. The Sisterhood has a chapel right outside of the city, near where my family’s estate is.”
“Well, they seem to have something over the Brotherhood,” he said more to himself than her. He cleared his throat and said. “Anyway, I thought I was normal until I realized that I wasn’t.”
Arlwin sat back into the couch and looked at him oddly. “That’s the hard way of figuring things out.”
“There isn’t support for us unicorns,” he told her with a wry smile. “You just hide it. Unless you’re like me. Forced in a situation where it’s revealed.”
“Other than not being seen as masculine, why try and hide it?”
“I didn’t want to be more different and have more attention on me. I felt broken, but I didn’t want to change.”
“Because you don’t know how to be the alternative.”
“That,” he said. He never had it summed up so well.
“And your parents think nothing of it?”
“Amazing, I’m surprised that they wouldn’t try to push you towards being customary given you’re their only son.”
“They’ve been surprisingly understanding about it.”
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
He nodded, wondering what she thought she was asking the entire time.
“Do you…” she trailed off thinking and then tried again. “Do you want to be with someone?”
“Huh,” he said, bewildered at the turn of their conversation.
“Do you ever want to be alone with someone with no expectations. Just you and them doing, I don’t know, any other way to put this, enjoying each others presence?”
He was still puzzled by what she was asking.
The Princess looked a little frustrated. “Do you get the urge to want to cuddle with someone is what I’m asking. That you just want to be with someone. Spend the day with them doing whatever and end it with being alone with them. Again, no expectation of it turning into something other than just close friendliness.”
Soletus inhaled and chuckled. “Ohhhh, I don’t know.”
Arlwin frowned looking annoyed. “What do you mean you don’t know? One would think by now, you would be aware of yourself. You either want this or not. Some of us like physical contact with others and desire a close companion. Others don’t. They rather live a very solitary life with little or no contact with another individual or is your education that lacking.”
Soletus bit down have on his tongue from making a sharp remark. So he explained mimicking his father’s even tone. “I mean, I don’t know. More often than not, I’m annoyed by the belief I need someone or I become crippled with loneliness with a lack purpose because I’ve no wife and children. At the same time, sometimes, I desire to be close to another. And it’s only certain moments.”
“And these moments are,” she prompted.
“When they come up,” he returned shortly.
He didn’t want to tell her it was when he felt miserable. All he wanted was to be comforted like a child. His experiences months ago made it clear it wasn’t a desire he could shove back. Mien seemed to be on the receiving end of it a lot. It helped a great deal that the tod was blessedly understanding. Soletus knew he didn’t like it, often referring to him becoming a “pastry”, but he allowed it anyway, offering what comfort he could. However, that didn’t make it less embarrassing.
“I see,” she said looking unsatisfied at his answer. She stared at him as if she had something more to say but said nothing.
“If I ever have that moment around you, I’ll promise I’ll share with you. On my blood and honor, I’m a man of my word,” he said. He doubted he would experience anything like that around her.
The princess smiled at him thinly, though she looked a little disappointed. “I suppose, I should be grateful you told me what you did. I did push you into the personal. Anyway, thank you for giving me another perspective,”she said standing. “Lunch?”
They went downstairs to the garden where everyone was happily chatting. It was then a man standing behind everyone spoke punctuating each syllable of the princess’s name.
“Johann,” chided the Queen mildly. “You don’t need to be so loud.”
“I’m sorry your majesty, but I specifically told the princess that she was to stay in the house if she didn’t choose one of the red guards. She vanished anyway,” said the man with a very familiar face in terms of structure. In that his nose was slightly pointed and his eye shape and color was very familiar to Soletus.
Arlwin then introduced him. “This is one of the royal shields. This is Guardsmen Thrush.”
Soletus shot Mien a glance. The young chanter gave him a nod. He was indeed related to Brother Hickory and a relative of Mien’s.
“I had a protector,” she said gesturing to Soletus.
Johann glared at Soletus and snorted. “A Junior Warden of all things. I don’t care if he’s a senior or not.”
Arlwin turned her head upwards at the young monk’s shoulders where his patch was, but unlike military, the Brotherhood didn’t keep their ranks there. “How can you tell his rank?”
“His sash. It’s yellow with the ends barred. The dark bar mean’s he’s a field warden and the red bar in that zig-zagged pattern is a duty pattern. Since it’s orange, he’s an honor duty. If he was a second warden, it’ll be red. You didn’t know did you?”
A winning smile flashed on the Princess’s face.
“You’re lucky he’s a grappler. He could’ve taken down anyone who would’ve harmed you.”
Arlwin swung her head to the young monk. “You’re a what?”
Soletus grinned. “Grappler or what common folks like to call, a drass beast wrangler. It requires a lot of hand-to-hand training and more advanced weaponry training. I’m skilled in staves, multiple pole-arms, hook, and thrusting daggers.”
“This is why spending all your time studying battle formations and not social studies make you unbalanced,” said Johann and then quoted, “’An ignorant soldier is just as bad as a weaponless one.’”
The queen laughed. “Oh, stop scolding her and let them have their fun. You know Arlwin can’t sit still.”
“Right now I am. It’s lunch time,” said Arlwin, flopping down beside her with the grace of an excited child. “Are you sure everything is alright out here under the tree?”
“Stop your fussing. You’re getting as bad as Silva. The day is clear and warm,” she said.
Soletus bowed to the queen and then scooted to Mien and whispered to him. “I’ve something for you to look it.”
The young chanter gave him a questioning look.
“It’s a vial, of something we found, but after we eat.”
To Soletus’s disappointment, it was a light lunch. Vegetable and fruit sandwiches. He knew there would be another feast that evening, but he was starving. He ate and remained quiet and listened to the Queen tell stories. Soon the women moved indoors for an afternoon rest for dinner. However, Briar, Mien, and Kiao stayed behind. Arlwin sat with them and handed Mien one of the flasks.
“I heard him tell you that he wanted you to take a look at this.”
Soletus frowned as well as Mien. They had exchanged that in a whisper.
Mien held it up to the sun and squinted at it.
“What is it,” asked Kiao, leaning into him to look.
“It’s thick and green. Not a single substance, a compound of sorts. Not separating. Solvable compound perhaps and obviously been colored.”
“Is it a poison,” Arlwin asked.
Mien looked at the corked. “Waxed with black wax, yes. I can’t tell you what kind without opening it. I rather I didn’t. I can’t seal it again.”
Arlwin then said. “We found a stash of these, about nine more flasks.”
Mien’s face twisted with horror. “That’s a lot of poison. A little poison generally goes a long way.”
“If someone were to use that much poison, how would they use it?”
Mien thought a moment and then said. “If this stuff is as concentrated as I believe it is, then all those vials could spoil a well.”
Arlwin stood up. “Is there a way way you could examine and identify these contents, do so. I’m going to find Captain Gyrfalcon.”
“I guess to the kitchen. Maybe I can find a bowl and an unfortunate rat,” said Mien.
Soon Soletus found himself with Captain Gyrfalcon, his father, a red guard of some kind, Prince Arlwin, and Mien all at a table in the back. Mien had one of the kitchen boys find him a rat in the shed and had put it in a crate. The young chanter was pulled on waxed gloves focusing hard on his work. There were probably too many men he didn’t know around him. If they were all women, he would’ve been talking a little than being tight jawed and focused on what he was doing.
Soletus thought he was going to have to take him to the side. However, his father had them all stand back, giving him space. Mien lifted the crate with a wired top on the table and studied. He then worked on the seal of the flask breaking it and then poured the contents into a tao stone bowl. he lifted it to eye level and swirled it before sniffing it. Mien then tapped the table twice with his finger in thought. He dug into his vest pocket and pulled out a piece of bread and dipped it into the bowl of liquid before he dropped it in the crate with the rat. The creature ignored it at first before curiosity got the best of it. It started nibbling on it.
Mien winced at the sight.
“Well,” asked Captain Gyrfalcon.
Mien watched the rat and spoke with his back turned. “Give me a moment to think.”
Soletus watched the rat finish its meal and then it started winding around the crate again, looking for a place to get out.
“Is this the sort of thing standard in the Brotherhood,” asked Captain Gyrfalcon.
“No,” said Mien softly, looking regrettably at the rat. “I’ve had a good bit of training as an alchemist, so it’s nothing new to me. Sister Kiao on the other hand, would be upset. She doesn’t allow experimentation on creatures. In this case, I had little choice.”
Arlwin then said. “So from what I gathered you’re a priest, battle chanter, apothecary, and alchemist who is a skilled singer?”
Mien turned to face the crowd with a lopsided smile. “I can also play the flute.”
The young woman looked impressed. “Have you consider going to the university in Eroden.”
“That is my plan for the future,” he said, and then cleared his throat and spoke so everyone could hear him. “The poison is a sweet smelling and plant based poison. It has been dyed which doesn’t surprise me. You dye poisons so you know if they’ve gotten on a surface. Meaning that who made this cared about the craft and since poison are dyed with green or red in a universal code, it narrows this down to six slower acting substances.”
“Six, and you can get it narrowed down from there,” said the captain.
“Well, if yon rat dies in a certain way, then I can narrow it down to 5 or 1. Poisons do different things to the body.”
Soletus then saw the spinning rat stop and lay on its side.
“Mien,” he said and pointed to the crate.
His friend turned around and looked down once again, wincing. Soletus could hear it thrashing.
“Sweet smelling, plant-based, and causes seizures in high dosage, and soon asphyxiation due to swelling of the air passages. This isn’t a perfect experiment, but the results would likely be the same if I had a full kit. This is a poison that goes by the street name of shakers breath.”
“That’s a highly illegal substance,” snapped the captain. “How do you know about it?”
“My master informed me on all illegal substance and how to process them. Not so I would make them, but how to identify them so to make an antidote. There is one, but not something you can make in a couple of hours. It would need to be administered very quickly. I’m very thankful this was found. People would die from this.”
The Captain rubbed his face. “What in Dias’s name is going on here?”
“Well, whomever it is had means of coin or a rich benefactor. This is a difficult to make and in this large of a quantity. It’ll cost them 50 golden leafs.”
There was squeak behind Mien and he flinched.
“I’m very glad I took the trip to get this,” said Arlwin. “Thank you, Brother, I’m sorry I inconvenienced you.”
Mien bowed. “I’m glad to be of service, your Highness. I need to go and dispose of this rat. It’s just suffering now.”
“Then take your leave. Everyone can,” said the Princess Arlwin. “Except, the Captain and the First Warden Here. I think we need to do something about this soon. And I have a plan.”