The next morning, Soletus woke at a reasonable time. He was prepared to go to the Princess before she went to him. He opened the door to his room and was immediately greeted upon opening the door by Wal. The valet wore a pleasent smile.
“Good morning, young Sir,” said Wal heartily and motioned him to stand aside. “I see you are ready for us this time.”
Soletus obeyed only because of the wave of servants behind the valet needed to go somewhere. They had trays and a cart full of food to decorate the table sitting in the middle of the common room. One servant placed a table cloth over the table, while another placed a vase of flowers then plates, fork, spoon, knife, saucers, teacups followed by a teapot. Another then placed down a platter of pasties, both savory and sweet, and then a bowl of four boiled egg followed by a tray of cheese.
Soletus was glad his parents had already left. Given the way his mother looked at him last night, she would be bound to say something to him about his “arrangement.” Part of him wanted someone else’s opinion on what was displayed in front of him. He was certain a typical shield didn’t have breakfast with the Princess. He of course thought better to err on the side of not caring and stood behind the chair she assumed she was going to be sitting. Wal took him by the shoulder and positioned him a little better as she strolled in.
She inspected the room before her gaze fell. “Good, you’re awake,” she said.
Soletus was expecting her to be more fantastically dressed than she had been the last few days. She seemed to prefer a military uniform with the only jewelry around her head being her circlet. However, that day she was in a pair of wide-legged woman’s pant and a tunic that was house color. However, it was all very plain. Nobles loved ornate. Even Kiao and Briar had a penchant of wearing things that were embroidered when the mood suited them, especially Kiao.
She took the chair and he made sure she was settled before taking his seat. He was starving and could consume half of what was in front of them by himself, but controlled how much he pilled on his plate. Arlwin, didn’t possess that restraint and piled everything she could. There was even gravy for the savory pastries and he was certain she poured more than just half. It struck him that she wasn’t very princess like or what he imagined what a princess to be like.
“I talked to Captain Gryfalcon about the man we captured last night,” she said, foregoing greeting or explaining why she choose to eat breakfast there. It was just straight to business. He liked that. “They have him locked in a paddock in the stable. The staff complained keeping him in the cellar would be disruptive. The Red Guard tried to question him with yes and no questions. The only thing he revealed was that he was working alone.”
Soletus cut a pastry into quarters. “He’s lying.”
“I tried to tell them that,” she exclaimed leaning forward and tapping her fingers on top of the table.
“The Red Guard believed him. Your father was in agreement with me and told them that no assassin works alone. However, this Palm is a little known group apparently. They aren’t considered a serious threat by authorities.”
“It’s because this isn’t the capital,” he explained. “If it’s not in the capital’s province or close to it, its not consider a threat.”
He expected her to become offended at the mentioning of the Seat’s shortcomings. Her eyes narrowed a bit and nodded.
“There needs to be a push to change that,” she said. “However, your father said he would make sure your order stays watchful.”
“Is there anything we can do about it,” he asked.
“Not really. Guardsman Thrush wishes for me to stay out of it, but I can’t just let something happen when I can stop it. I greatly dislike being made helpless because I’m royalty. I have to do something,” she said pouting and stuffed more food in her mouth. It was the white of her knuckles from her gripping her fork caught his attention. He didn’t think it was worth getting that upset over, however, he understood her frustration.
“I know how you feel. It’s like being told to stand back while watching a drass beast tear through a herd of sheep. You have the shepherd screaming at you for not saving their flock. However, the rest of your band using the distraction to save school children hiding in the brush. Sometimes you just have to stand back,” he told her.
She then looked curious. “Did that really happen?”
“Yes. Hard decision I had to make. It appeared I could’ve taken that drass beast alone. However, once actually tackling it with my bands help I discovered it wasn’t as simple as I thought. Not only was did it have toxic claws, but it spat venom. And in the end, it munched on a couple sheep, so no real damage done.”
“I’m sure the shepherd didn’t see it like that.”
“I learned since then, two sheep can be replaced easier than my soul being brought back to my body. I almost lost my life to a drass beast.”
She sliced a pastry on her plate in half and raised it to her mouth and asked, “And you you’re still a grappler?” Then shoved the entire slab of it in her mouth.
Soletus knew better than comment on a girls eating. A normal girl would be made self-conscious and shamed. If they were someone like Prince Alrwin, he got the impression they would be casting daggers at him with their eyes and smart off a nasty insult at him. However, he was intrigued at how fast she was cleaning her plate off.
“That was before I became a grappler,” he told her. “It nearly ruined me. You can’t be terrified of a drass beast. If you’re attacked as badly as I was, you hold that memory. You can’t be a field warden. I managed to resist that part of it. They still terrify me, but I’m able to do what I do.”
The princess stopped chewing and swallowed everything to, say “What?”
“They terrify me and they can make me physically sick,” he explained. “They are also very fascinating. For example, a true creature has an array of survival instincts. They know when to run or when to fight. Drass beasts don’t. They don’t know when to run. They don’t have fear. I can say I’ve ever seen fear in those white eyes. They just attack.”
“They have white eyes? How do they see?”
Soletus shrugged. “Beasties are unnatural. A creation or manifestation of corruption. I don’t know which. It’s not alive, yet it is. Steel of any kind, cannot kill one. Yet a wound created by tao stone can and will kill it. In fact, there is something we call the impossible shot. An arrow through the eyes that hits the brain of a drass beast so it dies instantly. Only a skilled marksman can pull it off.”
“Interesting,” she said. “Are you a skilled marksmen as well?”
Soletus laughed. “My bow work isn’t great. I can shoot something, but I’m far from a sniper.”
“I wouldn’t mind my bow right now,” she said. “I think focusing my mind on a target would make me feel better. I don’t want to wait around for the worse to happen again.”
Soletus chewed thoughtfully and said, “You know what, after we finish eating, you should do something to clear your mind. Walk around or even meditation.”
She lowered her fork. “Meditation? You mean, you actually do that sort of thing?”
“I’m still a monk,” he told her.
“Do you meditate in cold water or ice like they say?”
Soletus shook his head and suppressed an eye-roll. “I’ve never understood why people think that. A quiet space and a mantra to repeat is all you need. Usually, we pick a verse or verses from Dias’s Word to repeat. And you don’t have to do this for hours. Well you can, but you need to build your way up.”
“And how long can you meditate,” she asked, genuinely curious and not asking as if she was going to scoff at him like others out in the world. He figured she was Fenndish herself but unlikely orthodox like he was.
“Until an hour glass runs out. Believe me, I just learned how within the last handful of months,” he said. It was one of the only things that helped ease his mind during the day when he started talking with Hickory. Meditation wasn’t something he practiced eagerly before.
Arlwin stared at him with her face going back to neutral and assessing him again. “I see.”
“What is it?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think I have the attention span to meditate. I like movement. We can go out for a walk instead.”
After they finished their food and tea, Soletus escorted her outside. They weren’t stopped this time. He got the impression that there was a sense of safety there wasn’t before. They started walking along the path leading to the inn where they were having the meetings. There was a hall in there. However, whatever was left of the Brotherhood escort was patrolling around now. They had staff in hand walking back and forth. There were some guarding the well. They passed by Yunus and the men he travelled with as they walked. He inclined his head towards them and they bowed in their direction. Prince Arlwin gave them a courteous wave and she walked onward regally.
“I want to ask you something,” she said abruptly.
“What is it?”
“What happened to you?”
He stared at her dumbly.
“You told my mother your bandmate died and mixed in with a bunch of other things you’ve said, it has some effect on you. I’m curious what happened.”
“It’s a long explanation,” he told her, hoping that would sate her curiosity. He didn’t want to talk about.
“As far as I can see we have all the time in the world,” she said. ”I’m very aware that I live a life very different from you. I, it believe or not, would like to, occasionally bridge that gap. However, I am discouraged by those who avoid speaking to me. I was hoping that you would be a little different given how honest and open you’ve been.”
Soletus then felt shame, but it was strange sort of feeling like it was his own emotion and wasn’t at the same time. He felt such a thing before. That same pressure of something persuading him. Except the she wasn’t forcing his voice at him. It was more subtle, a slight nudge, a gentle persuasion. It was then Soletus realized her eyes weren’t as dark as they were before. There was a hint of vivid green around her iris.
“You’re chanter gifted,” whispered Soletus and was stunned by that fact.
Arlwin maintained her calm. “We’re talking about you, not me.”
“I’m chanter gifted, remember. It makes it difficult for a chanter to push their voice on me. I can feel it.”
“Really,” she said surprised. ”I never can.“
“You should be careful; people might take offense to it,” he warned.
“Thanks for telling me. You’re the first chanter gifted person I met,” she hissed.
“Who trained you?”
“My mother,” she said. “But come on, answer the question. Is it painful to talk about?”
Reluctance tightened Soletus’s throat. Everyone he knew already knew a lot about it. However, she was new and curious.
He raised his hand to give him something to look at that wasn’t the ground. What do I tell her, he wondered. Did he tell her about how after Kellas and the other’s left, he tried to clean his hands in a bucket of water with a rough stone. That he rubbed parts of his hand raw despite the calloused on them. His hands burned the following day as he used the shovel to bury people. He didn’t care that it did. He wanted physical pain worse than the emotional pain he felt. He wanted his muscles to ache. He wanted to dig and move rocks to the point he couldn’t do anything else but pass out when night came.
At the same time, he wanted to scream the agony out of him. He couldn’t bring himself to do it. Then Dias gave him a reason to care. Mien woke up. He would’ve held on to the panicking young chanter for the entire day if he could. However, that relief didn’t ease everything he felt. Anger rose up out of the black morass of emotions he felt. In fact, that was all he felt after awhile. He was angry at himself, his bandmates, but most of all, at Kellas. All that time of traveling, it boiled inside of him. The longer time went on, the more he felt that killing Kellas would be the solution. He would have done it if not for that part of him that hesitated. He was lucky it was still active and allow Mien and his father to stop him from doing something he would have regretted later on. He come to realize that he couldn’t blame Kellas for what happened. He alone was responsible for it. And only the only way he could be at peace if he let go. Easier said than done. And guild wracked him once again.
A hand came into his field of vision. The princess rested her fingers on his palm.
“I see,” she said to his silence. “I am very sorry. Seeing someone die in front of you is shocking.”
Soletus stared at her. “How do you know that?”
“Death isn’t something new to me,” she told him enigmatically. “You don’t have to speak about it if you don’t want to.”
The young monk wrapped his hand around hers. Thankful for the option of holding his silence, but he felt that he could tell her. He didn’t know why. “We can talk about this but not here.”
He gestured to the gazebo that sat nearly in the center of the pond between the estate and the inn. It was in sight for anyone to find them if they needed to be approached. There he sat on wooden boards and she sat on the railing listening to him telling about what had happened. She didn’t say much of anything. Didn’t inject much. When he was done, she looked out.
“Sounds like your order has deeper issues. I’m glad they released him to the Seat. It’s not uncommon for them to shelter a member who is a fiend. I don’t think you should be so hard on yourself for wanting to see him dead. There are elves in this world who deserve whatever death justice can give them.”
Soletus then remembered the story his father told him about Kellas and the former cur as well as Mien. “Perhaps, in the eyes of justice. However, I should be better than thinking that I’m the one who should tie the noose and pull the lever.”
It was then Soletus saw a group of males making a beeline for them. Veshner was leading them up the bridge of land connecting the structure to land.
“Great, a bunch of stupid rutting stags,” muttered Arlwin. “Stay there, let me take care of them.”
Soletus obeyed and observed.
“Princess Arlwin, why are you out here alone,” stated Veshner.
“I wanted to see the pond. Enough about me though, state your business and move alone,” she said cooly. In fact, her voice was like the stone-like voice of Icus.
“I wanted to extend an invitation to you to join us on the exercise fields. We were going to spar with each other,” he said.
Soletus looked at their hips and every single last one of them wore long swords. He was always curious about swords. The Brotherhood didn’t use them as Dias told Stephren the only tool that he needed was a staff.
“I heard her royal princess has excellent sword work. We wanted to see how glorious you are,” he said.
The princess blinked. “As much as I like the sound of steel against steel. I’m not dressed to be fighting and neither do I feel like it.”
Veshner then pointed to Soletus. “Then can we borrow your interim shield to prove how unworthy he is. Anyone would’ve been better given I bested him.”
Of course he had to say that. “You wouldn’t be able to do it again,” said the young monk, standing to his feet.
“Really,” said Veshner with a wicked smile. “It’ll give me a chance to show my friends about how terrible fighters unicorns are.”
Soletus stood tall with his arms folded behind his back. “You can even use your sword if you want.”
Princess Arlwin didn’t object and stepped away, giving them room. In fact, all the other young men got out of the way to view the fight. Briar’s cousin slid out a very impressive black steel sword. The metal looked as if he held a sliver of the night sky. If Soletus used swords, he wouldn’t mind one that looked like that. The noble charged at him and Soletus danced aside. He grabbed the man’s sword arm, used his momentum to flip him. Veshner sailed over the gazebo railing and landed into the pond with a satisfying splash. His sword remained in Soletus’s hand. The young monk spied Arlwin gaping at him well as the other young men. He pretended not to see them and went to admiring the sword he held. Lord Veshner cursed angrily from the water and all the young men erupted into laughter. They encouraged him to swim to shore even if was through snorts.
Arlwin found her voice again and asked, “How exactly did you get hit the other night if you can move like that?”
“I was distracted,” he said testing out the weight in his hands. “How does one spar without hurting the other person using this?”
“There are blade guards you can get or use a wooden practice blade,” she explained. “Otherwise, you learn to hit other’s with the flat of your blade and they learn not to be struck. Yes, the slaps hurt and, yes, you can get cut. I’m certain it’s the same when you train with a staff.”
“It is,” he said testing out the blade’s edge with his thumb. It felt dull.
The other men helped Veshner out of the water while Soletus gave the sword a few practice swings. “I don’t like this. Doesn’t seem very versatile.”
“And a staff is,” questioned Arlwin.
“Certainly. You can do a lot with a staff. You can jab, smack, hit, club, sweep, crush, and use it for extra balance all while not killing a person. Granted, you can because there are killing blows. This just seems all very hack and slash.”
Veshner stomped over to him dripping. “Of course it’s for hacking and slashing, cur spawn! That was cheap!”
“Cheap shot for a cheap shot,” said Soletus, turning the sword in his hands and presented the hilt for him to take. “No need for name calling.”
Veshner snatched his sword. “I should bury this in your liver.”
“You may certainly try,” said Soletus, using some of that monkish composure to contain his amusement at flustered the noble was in front of him.
“And I don’t recommend it,” said Arlwin. “Just from observation, he slung you aside while disarming you in the same movement. Any sort of action on your part will be meant with the same reaction. Now, you have borrowed him, I’m taking him back.”
Veshner sneered. “Your Highness, he is an insult to elven men. His presence is beneath you.”
Arlwin crossed her arms. “I find his presence rather refreshing given that most young men my age are eager egoistical show-offs. They do so whether I’m a concern of theirs or not. In fact, I am no concern of yours, specifically since you are to be betrothed. I supposed it’s a family issue. You and Lady Via seems to have the same inability to know what that means.”
“She meant nothing by it, she was just entertaining herself,” explained Veshner. Even Soletus knew that was the wrong thing to say and shook his head at the poor man.
Arlwin arched a brow at him. “So, I’m entertainment as well?”
All the blood drained from his face. “No, that’s not what I was suggesting. She was just playing with him. Young women do that too males all the time.”
“So are you suggesting that I should participate in such juvenile behavior because I’m useless and have no aspirations other than being a creature leeching off the benefits of her house?”
Veshner worked his jaw and started to sweat. “N-n-n-o Princess, not at all. A woman of your standing have skills and commitments they must see to and are above such childish behavior.”
A smile as sharp as a blade formed on her face. “You’ve grown a considerable amount of wisdom in such a short period of time. I expect you to continue that growth for the remainder of my stay.”
For the first time since they met, she was acting like what Soletus expected of an elven princess, terrifying.
She gave Veshner a parting pat on the chest. “Warden, come, I wish to go back inside.”
He placed himself at her side. When they were some distance away, she stated, “That was rather impressive. I was hoping to see a real Brotherhood fight though.”
“That falls within our style of fighting,” he said. “It’s about making your opponent lose the will to fight. You do so in three ways, negotiation, disarming, and combat. I did tell him he would not beat me, but he chose to fight me.”
“Seemed like you encouraged him to try.”
Soletus shrugged. “I was feeling antsy and needed some involved exercise to ease it. Anyway, disarming proved to be the most effective means to stop him.”
“So you fight when negotiation is out?”
“Yes and you may repeat the steps. The end result cannot be death.”
“And that includes throwing someone in a pond?”
“Did it work,” he said, smugly.
She looked forward amused. “I can see why the army finds the Brotherhood irritating at times. Such a difference in ideals and ways of dealing with a situation. Veshner likely expected an honorable duel.”
“If he wanted an honorable fight, he should’ve stated it before. In all seriousness, I didn’t want to hurt him. Tossing him in the pond is less trouble for me. You forget, Lieutenant, I am not a noble. I don’t have the privilege to hurt someone and nothing will happen to me.”
“You forget, that I am a princess, had you hurt him, I could find your action justified.”
“Really? So if he charged at me, I took his sword and stabbed him, would my action be justified then?”
Arlwin bobbed her head. “Certainly, but you cannot replace the situation before us. You dunked a young noble a pond not gut him.”
“But I could’ve.”
“No you would not, Lord Monk,” she said and slowed her brisk pace to a stop. “This,” she said, pointing to her head, “was still active. The sergeant who did my initial training told us that our hearts can fail us. In that, instance we need to think and fall back our training. And when we do, the answer isn’t always what we want and what others want around us. But it’s what we have to do.”
Soletus then asked. “And if the way you were trained is wrong?”
“In that case, I offer you what my father the King told me after my sister treated me unfairly in a game. If you know something in your heart and mind is wrong, as you see it, then the only option is to change it.”
“And what did you do to change the situation with your sister?”
“I got better aid. Instead of relying on my father, who offered words, I went to my mother who offered action,” she said laughing. “He got upset saying that I needed to learn that I can’t cry for her help every time it suited me. My mother told him he needed to give wiser advice.”
“I’m going back inside to be with my mother. I suppose I don’t need you anymore, unless something comes up. I’m certain you need to check in with those in your order.”
He then gave her a sweeping bow. “Thank you for the honor of serving you,” he said. “Lieutenant Heron.”
She smiled and touched the top of his head before straightened up. “No, thank you,” she said. “It’s all been very pleasant.”