As much as a warm bath would have been appreciated, there was no way to get one. There were no servants running the hall. In fact, it was all very quiet. The pitcher in his room had water in it. As well as the one in his parent’s room. He used those two things to clean himself as much as he could. His body wasn’t the issue after he stripped off his clothing. It was his hair. It was one of the few times that having long hair was a problem. He was glad it wasn’t covered in mud. The sour smell of pond water would not have come out so easily.
The emptied copper tub in his bedroom was still there. He used it to catch the water he cleaned his body with. He used soapy water to pour over his hair and rinsed it all away with what was left of the plain water. The process made him even more chilled than before, but he rid himself of the pond smell. He dried himself off and pulled on his sleeping trousers and the robe given to him. The process of cleaning himself did relaxed him. He also didn’t smell blood on himself. Meditation would probably prepare him for sleep, first he needed to get warm. He had all intentions to slide into bed however, the scent of smoke had been drifting into his room. He walked out of his bedroom to the common area and saw Arlwin. She was on her hands and knees, tending the flames in the hearth in the room.
“You’re still here,” he asked.
“I thought you would want to be warm while you spoke about what happened,” she said.
He didn’t like the her assumption that he wanted to talk but she was a demanding princess. At least the woven rug in front of the hearth though was inviting. He would enjoy the much needed heat from there. The only thing missing was something warm to drink. He strolled over and sat down as close as he could to the flames. The fire had just started burning clear and lapped at the wood and peat. She dropped a blanket over his shoulder before settling down herself and scooted under it as well.
“You need to get warm,” she told him. “Is this okay?”
The shared heat would chase the chill away quicker, logically. However, Yunus words entered his mind. If the wrong person walked in, practicality wouldn’t matter so much as what was appropriate. Being warmed by the Princess certainly wouldn’t be. However, he was far from caring at that point. Everyone who wanted to act like they were breaking some sacred code from holding each others hand, could shove it. He was cold and welcomed her.
When he took too long to answer, she pulled away a little.
“Is it okay?”
“Yeah, you’re fine,” he said and she started rubbing his back vigorously. He relaxed into it. It was physical contact. Touch was something he liked, but sitting there made him realize how much he was craving it. But he wasn’t miserable. Then he remembered more happened that night than a drass beast and a stabbing. Those two things made him forget about his visitation. It wasn’t something he needed to come to any conclusion about. Only acceptance. It felt like a weight was lifted off of him. He should have been at peace not wanting. He decided to take what he could from it, and relayed to her what happened after she was escorted away.
“It was clever of them,” she said. “Creating two distractions. Assuming we caught the culprit and then used a drass beast as the final one just for the chance at a Gyrfalcon. I hope Lord Kharis lives just to spite them.”
“Other than revenge, what would the benefit be,” he asked her.
She slowed her hand down to long strokes. He couldn’t tell if she did it purposely but he appreciated it. “Create instability. If they were to take the throne when this current cycle ends, Lady Valencia would be the next Queen. They are a ruling family. However, if you were to kill her, who would take her place? It may not be her sister. At that point, any first born Gyrfalcon would have the right to fill her spot. Such a thing usually sets a house to argue amongst themselves. And it might take years for them to get past that mess. It may even lead to the wrong Gyrfalcons becoming the ruling family. Such a thing can leave a house to ruin. That could’ve been their plan.”
“Sounds complicated,” he said, holding his hands out to the fire to get the stiffness of cold out of them.
“Complicated, yes, but effective,” she said and paused a moment to feel the skin on the back of his neck. Her hand was as hot as brand. “Still chilly,” she noted and then asked, “May I ask you a question?”
He chuckled. “You’ve not run out of them yet?”
A smile touched her face. “No,” she said and became somber. “Do I make you uncomfortable?”
He shook his head. “Not particularly. Have I made you feel that way?”
“Not at all. Though, I thought you would,” she said. “No offense, it’s just I that find you’re gender rather irritating to deal with at times. It’s to the point I avoid being around males.”
Soletus wasn’t sure how he was supposed to respond to that.
“In fact, you’re the closest I’ve been to a man that I wasn’t fighting. I find it curious as you don’t seem so large sitting down like this.”
Her being so short, that comment, as well as her calloused hands sliding against the cloth of his robes, brought forward a question. “Your Highness, I never asked. What you do in the army?”
“As I said, I’m stationed at the boarder. I’m trained to do stealth missions,” she said. “With my hair, right attire, and mud on my face, I blend in well with forest floor in low light and the dark. I’m part of a specialist squad. We deal with elven traffickers. I’m usually the one freeing the girls who have been kidnapped while the other’s deal with their kidnappers. It keeps them from fleeing as they trust a woman before another man.”
“That’s not what I imagine a princess doing,” he told her and then a chill, very unlike the one he experienced before, coursed through him. The epicenter was her hand grazing the area between his shoulder blades. He wasn’t sure if he liked being made to shiver like that. It felt strange but pleasurable at the same time. If the involuntary action concerned her, she didn’t show it.
“My father wanted me to learn about the world and the army. Not all of it is glorious. It’s rough, not safe,” she trailed off and became pensive. She stared at the flames and shaking her head. “Sorry, just thoughts, Anyway, it’s not as rough as it would be if I were watching the boarder by giant country. There is so much tension in the air. You have to be on high alert. As much as the giants claim peace, they will take every opportunity to attack. My duty isn’t like that. But it wears on you because desperate men become more depraved in their actions and I have to take more drastic measures to stop them. There is less distracting slavers to free our people and more engaging and killing them,” she said. Her hand became still rested right on his spine.
“You didn’t kill them before,” he asked surprised.
“No, if they were elves, we would capture them and send them to an arbiter. Then there are the humans. We would escort them back to the border to their officials. Killing them causes tension between us and the humans. However, their current Sovereign is inept at controlling their people. Human raiding parties have increased. Some of them I recognize from being caught by me before. My father agreed with me that we’ll do what they failed to discourage. Humans who trespass without a passport and are involved in illegal activity are to be killed now.”
“Harsh,” he muttered. “It’s a great deterrent though.”
The Princess let out a tired sigh. “Not with the greedy. In Sutherland, the slaving of humans became illegal, but not of elves. Instead of paying workers as they should, they target us. We are perfect in their eyes because of our longevity. They can have a single elf slave to serve a child at birth to their great, great, great grandchildren. If they happen to be dragged to some brothel, an elven girl can spend decades there because she’ll stays young looking.”
“The Kanu are long lived as well,” he told her, wrapping his arm around her in an effort to make her feel better. “Is this okay?”
She leaned against him. “Yes,” she said in a small voice.
“Humans don’t dare to venture into the Shale. They may be a scattered people, however, they aren’t weak or vulnerable. Their rulers, put bounties on slavers. There are hunting squads who specifically hunt them down.
However, that isn’t what keeps them away. They’ve stories of Kanu roads and caravan trails with human bone lining them. They don’t bury them. They just leave them for the wildlife to eat. Better a human feed them than their people from what I was told. Because of this, humans believe their land is haunted. To release a human spirt, they must be burned. If not, their souls are trapped in the land and they becoming evil spirits.”
“Is that a universal belief,” he asked.
“I’ve not met a human who doesn’t cringe at our barrows and tombs. One diplomat was appalled by kings and queens being sealed in sunglass.”
She stopped rubbing and pulled away suddenly. It felt as if the blanket had been removed from him. His shivering had subsided. There was no need to have her there anymore yet, he wanted her back by his side. She fed the flames a log of peat and lingered with her back turned to him. He wondered if she left to tend to the fire or she tore herself away from him because she was uncomfortable at their closeness. When she turned around finally, he met her gaze. She looked away.
“You look better now,” she said suddenly and slapped her hands on the tops of her legs. “I really should be going back.”
“Stay with me,” he asked softly on impulse.
All expression washed from her face.
“Certainly warming me up had it’s purpose, but you were enjoying cuddling up to me as.”
She blushed slightly, but it was the narrowing of her eyes that suggested to him he was pushing his assumptions.
“I meant no offense, Princess. You can leave if you want,” he told her firmly. “I have no expectations. I just…” He trailed off, looking at the flames. “Nevermind.” He needed to not be impulsive and not say stupid things. However, he couldn’t shake not wanting to be alone at the moment.
Arlwin shifted into a sitting position and tilted her head. “You told me there were certain moments where you want to be close with someone. This doesn’t seem like that moment.”
“It isn’t,” he admitted. “Look, I’m fine. This will go away soon enough. I can use Khodi to rest against, that’ll help.”
She then settled down next to him again. She pushed his arm away so she fit against him again. “Cuddling with a consort sounds like a depressing way to deal with this. I think we can help each other. I’ve been feeling…I suppose needy.” The light in her green eyes changed. They became dark. “I left the garrison—” she stopped to laugh humorously and then became bitter. “No, I was running. I had a rescue turn sour. They ran and killed two girls that were slowing them down. They would’ve sent to some filthy auction house if I hadn’t came in with my sword swinging. I beheaded their leader and the one who would be taking them in chains. Then I order my men to castrated who was left. Problem was, I should’ve gave up chase the moment they crossed the border. I was well over the border and it caused a diplomatic incident.”
Soletus was startled. She had been so collected. He didn’t think she was capable acting outside of the control she displayed.
“I’ve never been so angry. And I still am,” she said. Her voice dripped with disgust. Her hand clutched the fold of his robe. “I hate that I keep repeating what I shouldn’t have to do. I shouldn’t have to sneak in the night, freeing scared girls taken from their homes, lied too, families threatened to be killed or give their daughters up because of some debt. Then I’m surrounded by women at events like this who don’t realize how lucky and safe they are. Some even ignore the fact we have a problem. Then men. Human men! How dare they come to my country to plunder my people so they might live in pleasure and ease! I told their official who caught us, that him and his people can be swallowed by the Maw and rot in the deepest blackest pit. And you know what I was?”
Soletus shook his head.
“I was removed from duty. I was told I was being too emotional. That as a neth woman, that I shouldn’t feel. That there was something wrong with me,” she said bitterly. “I was ordered to manage the message networks until I could have an evaluation. That made me even more upset. I decided, to do as a any girl would do when she is hurt, run to mama. I sat on the floor with my head on her knees. She told me it would all be alright. And I thought, being near her would make it okay. It hasn’t. I can still feel it here, burning in my chest.”
As gently as he could, he plucked her hand off his robe and held it tight in his. Then without thinking, he kiss the top of her head. He felt her become stiff and he let go of her before he had a chance to verbally reassure her.
“You shouldn’t do that?”
“Why,” he asked confused.
“I didn’t think Brotherhood would act so sweet. I mean you’re order doesn’t think highly of those who kill the races of the world.”
“It’s the act itself we don’t like. And just because we don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s an excuse to ignore another’s heartache. Especially when their heartache is akin to mine,” he told her. “Helplessly witnessing a tragedy and the only power we have left is saving those we can. Our effort aren’t congratulated, instead we face scrutiny. Sound so very familiar to me. As for my being sweet. I don’t like people being upset or scared around me.”
He raised his arm to invite her back to lean against him. She took the invitation. After a long moment of silence, she suggested right above a whisper, “You know, instead of sitting up like this, wouldn’t you be comfortable lying down. We could cuddle that way. Sitting like this must make you uncomfortable.”
Soletus wasn’t uncomfortable in the least. However, he suspected she wanted that, so he obliged. “That fine with me,” he said and settled on his side. He held up the blanket flaps and without any hesitation on her part, she scooted back until she was contoured against him.
All at once he was nervous. What would happen if one of his parents entered? Their positioning might’ve suggested the more going on to a customary elf than what it really was. It was more than he wanted. Cuddling facing each other was what he expected or her lying on her back him on his side. Her current position was something he would’ve reserved for for someone he knew better.
“Is there something wrong?”
“No, this is all new to me,” he admitted with an uneasy chuckle.
“You never took the opportunity to do this with Lady Briar?”
“Lady Briar doesn’t welcome touch so this is my first time for something like this.”
“Me too,” she said. “If you don’t want to do this, then I can roll over.”
“No,” he said trying to work on logistics on where to put his arm. Was it okay to put it around her? “Is it okay to place my arm around you.”
She nodded and he settled down, laying his arm over her waist.
He lay there stiffly for a moment, going through all the rules of the order. There were strict rules and he wasn’t technically violating any of them. None of them took being neth into account. So it was alright. He didn’t think that Dias would strike him for being stupid or his father, maybe. He listened to the quiet to hear if someone was walking down the corridor. However, he was starting to find it impossible to focus on that. He didn’t want to. There was something about holding someone him feel…he wasn’t sure what the word was. It wasn’t complete. It wasn’t an overwhelming sense of pleasure that controlled him and neither did it bring it about. It did make him aware of what Brother Hickory warned him about being touch starved. He didn’t think he needed anything like this, but clearly he did.
The fire crackled in front of him and the sight of it blurred. He was getting sleepy. Holding Arlwin felt a lot like being lolled off to sleep by Mien’s singing however warmer and under his volition. He squeezed her lightly and sighed in contentment, glad for the companionable silence. He closed his eyes and soon he found himself drifting into a dark sleep.
Arlwin waited as long as she could, past the time his breathing changed. He relaxed quickly, but she couldn’t get herself to do so the same. She didn’t understand why as she was the one who talked herself into doing what she was doing. She knew how risky it was. If one of the red guards figured out where she was, the young man, who agreed easily to her idea, would wish he was dead. He seemed to have a good life. However, she could help herself when she was curious.
She pushed his arm up, it was heavy, but then he moved it without waking. The only thing he did was moan softly and settled down again. She studied him. It was the first time she really took the time to examine his face. She could sort of see why her sister claimed it looked like she was showing off a handsome stud decorating her side. Maybe he was good looking, but all she could think how young he suddenly looked. She would’ve betted against her entire squad that he was older than she was. It took a few questions to her mother who spoken a great deal with the monks mother that he was 29. A year younger than herself. Was it his voice or that composed expression that Brotherhood tended to wear that made her think he was older. However, as time went by, his face showed to be more malleable. The light of youth that both of them lacked showed up in his eyes and he would grin like a cocky rogue.
She smiled at the memory of him sending Lord Veshner into the pond. He wore a satisfied smirk and pretended he didn’t see the looks of awe around him. She had to admit to herself, it was funny. She would love to have him as her shield. But she could see a problem with it already. He disarmed her without any efforts. She always thought her father was foolish warning against such a thing. She was neth and yet here was a male that intrigued her.
It wasn’t because of his face or his body. Though his build was interesting. It was that direct stare when he spoke to her and the fact he acted like a lordling when she offended him. A normal commoner would apologize for being a target of her concern. She gathered as many details about him and his order and putting it against the things that she knew to figure it out. However, the answer was simple. It was because he was a neth male. She didn’t want to think of herself at being that shallow, that was why she was so interested. She wanted to see what a young neth male would be like. Would he be different from Wal.
While Wal never presented himself as a teacher into being neth, it was knowing him that made her dislike the teaching at the school of graces. That neth males didn’t exist and that if she knew one, they likely were lying. Wal went against that. He had been employed by House Heron for decades. She had grown knowing what he was. He would be at her father’s side mostly. He would follow him without complaint whether that was too some formal gathering or going with him as far south where giants roamed. He was an intrepid servant who happened to be good at being a nurse, playmate, and story-teller as well. When he was around and his father had no need of him, he was helping her own adventuring when she was a girl. Her sister didn’t play with her so Wal was her partner in crime. Her enabler, teaching her all sort of things including the basics of sword play. Her father always accused him of spoiling her. Wal’s answer was always the same. “If his majesty disapproves of my actions, then you could find someone more suitable to watch your daughter,” and he would always say it with a smile. And he was never replaced.
Arlwin thought him to be unique. The only unicorn out there. And yet she was presented with another and young at that. She didn’t know what to expect. It was also an opportunity. She wanted to know what it was like to cuddle with someone. In fact, it seemed like the ultimate form of comfort. Though a rug in front of a hearth didn’t meet all that she dreamed about. She would have to try better next time.
She always felt very alone and very different no matter the age she was at or the elves she was around. She had strange thoughts or act odd compared to others. She never met a neth female who would admit to wanted physical contact with another, a male especially. A young man would be her best bet, or so she though in sating the curiosity and desire. However she never asked because of the expectations that would follow. Someone she would likely meet once could work. Someone she would likely meet once and was neth would be better. That was why she spoke to Briar at first. However, the young woman was clearly not interested in such things and she didn’t have to ask to figure it out. It became clear when she asked about her and the Arch Monk’s grandson.
“Oh him? I allied myself with him and agreed to pretend to be sweethearts,” she told her. When Arlwin asked why he would agree to that. She told her, “He’s going to blab anyway. He’s no social self-preservation, but he’s a unicorn.”
Arlwin was stunned.
“Seriously, you can ask him, but beware, he has to warm-up to you. Honesty goes far with him if you want to be friends.”
She didn’t think that would be a problem as one had to warm up to a princess of the seat quickly. Then she learned how bad she was at making friends. People always approached her and she never approached them. Half the time, though he did keep it tempered, he seemed annoyed at her. Other times, he was more than happy to talk to her. Sometimes he clearly didn’t know what to make of what she was doing, but he adapted to it and went along. He was easy going. She hoped that would help her convince him to go off alone at some point. However, his answer to her personal questions made her doubt he would be a willing participant and then him become guarded didn’t help as well. Then again, she had insinuated he was stupid. Wal told her that was rude and he clearly needed more time to consider what he wanted, but he seemed to be the type of neth who was happy with being solitary.
It was her being able to touch his hand that made it clear that as solitary as he might be, he could accept touch. He even held her hand and there was something very magical about it in the most literal of senses. She felt something off or him when she touched him. Sometimes she would feel the vibration of a timbre off of a ward if she touched the spot where it was made. It felt like that. So it was also true he was chanter gifted. Everything about him was the perfect friend in her mind. To bad, they likely wouldn’t meet again if she didn’t make it happen. She hoped in the future, she could. She had more questions for him.
“Sleep well, Lord Monk,” she said in his ear and left the room.