The Patriarch, who possessed the heart and wisdom of an arbiter, lost all his poise and the blood drained from this face. He slapped his hands on the side of his head.
“Why is the king here,” he demanded.
“He’s the 25% missing,” said the Captain. “The Queen, Princess Silva, and Princess Arlwin are here.”
“That’s even worse,” said the Patriarch running his hand through his hair.
“Khar, if I can come to peace standing on the edge, you can too,” said Captain.
The Patriarch became even more panicked. “I thought it was just Princess Silva. Why is the queen here?”
“She’s enjoying the medicinal hot springs as a breathing treatment. She isn’t here for politics. Princess Silva is going to be in talks with you and Solgard. It’s the royal lieutenant that is the issue. She needs someone who can keep up with her. She attached herself to me, but I’ve other responsibilities than to deal with than her endless speculating. I was going to use Briar, but he’s much better,” said the captain indicating to Soletus.
Tyr then asked, “Won’t she be bored with a handsome distraction who isn’t going to be very receptive to her?”
The Captain waved his hand. “She doesn’t do handsome distractions. She needs someone who will have her back while she sates her curiosity. Her shield isn’t present. She left them behind at the garrison. She arrived unannounced. Now she’s decided she must figure out what is going on.”
Tyr then said. “I think you have the wrong young man if you think they aren’t going to find trouble.”
“I don’t go purposely looking for it,” said Soletus.
“So you’re like your father,” muttered the Captain. “Wonderful. Can’t be helped. I need someone who isn’t going to annoy her. She’s taken a dislike to all my nephews. Come on, I know she wants to meet all of you. She’s been curious about the order for some time.” He then turned to Soletus. “Your best behavior. I love servicing this country and I need my head attached to do it.”
Soletus nodded and followed the group of men. They left the front of the home along a stone path that led through an archway built into the house. Soletus figured it was made to have better access to the back without having to walk all the way around. Upon exiting, a dirt path started and was boarded by white fragrant flowers. Their sweet odor was so strong, the young monk pinched his nose together. They were star roses. A single plant in a garden was fine. However, not bunches of them guarded by tall plants making the air thick. He was happy when the path opened up to the rest of the garden. He could feel air moving around him. The late afternoon sun spotted yard in golden light with the center of it the only shadowed spot. There sat a round sheltered banquet table. In one of the seats, sat a lone soldier. Instead of their topknot being colored either straw, golds, and reds. Their hair, was the color of winter leaves.
“Lieutenant Heron,” called Captain Gryfalcon.
They spun around in the seat revealing a young woman. She stood and waited for them to come to her. It gave time for Soletus to figure out what he could about her. She was a wearing a woman’s army uniform that was a half-skirt with pant legs. Her age was hard for him to determine. She had the wide hips of a woman, but the face and freckles of a girl. The only thing that announced her as royalty, was the silver diadem she wore. It wasn’t jeweled but simple woven metal. When the stopped close to her, he say her dark eyes were green as his where blue. And they were assessing him as much as he was assessing her.
This is King Auebron’s second child, he thought. He imagined princesses to be more regal looking and not so plain. If not for her hair color, she looked like any girl he would see in a market. Then again, he was told that his perception of beauty was terrible. And it was. Girls often looked the same. Colorful and unique clothing were likely to catch his eye than their faces.
Captain Gryfalcon saluted her despite being of lower rank than he was. Soletus then wondered how did someone so young got her rank.
“I’ve brought you some help,” said Captain Gryfalcon.
Her youthful face became bright with curiosity. “You’ve brought me Brotherhood?”
“Yes. This is a distant cousin of mine, Master Tyr’Gyrfalcon, and Brother Nimbus is one of their skilled battle chanters.”
The princess held out her hand to them. “No need to bow, I’m just a soldier right now,” she said and the Captain frowned clearly disapproving her casualness, but didn’t correct her. “Battle chanter, I’ve only heard they existed. Didn’t think I would meet one.”
Nimbus inclined his head. “Well, I’m glad to provide you the opportunity your, Highness.”
“If you must keep with formality, its Lady Arlwin,” she said briskly and then met Soletus with a frank stare. “Who is this?”
Captain Gyrfalcon then told her, “This is Senior Junior Warden Soletus’Sheldmartin. This is the Arch Monk’s grandson.”
The princess held out her hand. “Greetings, Junior Warden.”
Soletus took her hand and shook it firmly. They were calloused. She clearly used the sword resting against her hip.
“Greetings, Lieutenant Heron,” he said.
The princess face brightened. “Finally one who listens.”
Soletus let go of her hand. “Thank you, Ma’ma.”
“Even gives me a ‘Ma’ma.’ I would be impressed by your formality if it wasn’t for the fact your looking at me as if you see a spectacle.”
Soletus held back a snappy retort. He could put his foot in his mouth at his own expense, but not others. The Princess arched an eyebrow, looking a bit disappointed. “The silent type?”
Master Tyr then spoke sounding relieved, “He’s a bit quicker with his words around us.”
“Ah, it’s nothing more than being out of his environment,” said she said then said to Soletus. “How about a bit of work, that’ll set you back right. I’ve plenty of it. Let me brief you on what is.”
Princess Arlwin led them to the house. They cut through the dinning room and then into a large sitting room that was free of people. The only thing that caught Soleus’s attention was the single dark table that didn’t belong with the white wicker furniture. On the surface, it had something stretched out that at a distance, looked like a piece of rope. However on closer inspection, there was a diamond pattern, it was clear it was a dead snake.
“There have been traps set across the house,” she said. “Traps that are there to kill the person who opens a cabinet or sticks their hand in a large vase to clean it.”
Nimbus examined the snake. “Well, I’ve haven’t seen one these around here.”
Master Tyr studied it and nudged Soletus. “What do you think this is?”
Soletus looked down at the headless snake. “Red adder. They like rocky areas like places to the north.”
“Correct,” said Arlwin. “Not something you’ll dig around in the garden for around here. This little fellow was brought here to kill someone. The house workers seem to be targets.”
“What has been done already,” said Master Tyr.
“Well, I, and what few red guard that are here, searched this place high and low for belly crawlers. Another one was found in a washbasin and that was it. I’ve not found anymore. What I need is to figure out who is doing this. In a few days, my mother is to sing.”
Soletus studied the snake again and thought it strange. Why go through the trouble to plant a snake that would be indiscriminate to the staff if the Patriarch was worried about someone targeting his family?
“The quicker we find this person, the sooner I can stop worrying about finding anymore of their toys and pets,” said the Princess “I want the Brotherhood to ask the staff. They get stiff jawed when speaking to anyone with a red jacket. A few brown coats would make them more at ease.”
“Should have the Patriarch speak to them,” suggested Tyr. “He’s a way with talking to people. Not to mention the staff is soft on him.”
Captain Gyrfalcon bobbed his head in agreement. “That’s true, but don’t expect him to do it quickly. He’ll want to have tea with every one of them.”
“Well, if that’s what it takes, make it happen,” said the Princess.
Tyr inclined his head. “As you wish.”
“Now, is it alright if I borrow Sheldmartin here to help me,” she asked.
“Of course, I don’t see why not,” said Master Tyr.
The princess beamed. “Excellent. I need someone…” she gave Soletus a good look over. “Well-muscled. Come with me.”
Soletus stood there to collect himself. She was brisk and quick to action. Tyr shoved him forward. “Do what she says.”
He followed her out of the room feeling a bit like a dog at her heels. They exited into a posh hallway with a floor of polished stones.
“Walk beside me because I can’t stand talking behind me,” ordered the princess.
Soletus stepped in-line with the pace of the short young woman. He didn’t know how she walked so fast and wasn’t running.
“I found something earlier but didn’t want a bunch of people to know. I don’t want to scare whoever is doing this off.”
Arlwin took him to a spiral stair case the twisted up to the next two floors. Soletus barely had time to admire the architecture. He came to the quick conclusion that the Patriarch home, which he felt was large, was small. What he walked in was something extravagant. It was beautifully decorated with paintings of elves and scenes of history, or maybe even tales he didn’t know of. They passed by guests and servants who immediately stopped what they were doing and bowed to the young woman who breezed pass. Her only acknowledgment to them with a hand raised that was elegant with care and grace.
Soletus found himself comparing her to his noble friends. Mien could be elegant but he didn’t have the brisk at all. Kiao was confident, but she wasn’t full of herself. Briar, well she was so much against noble life she might as well not be one. He didn’t conclude his thought as he noted she stopped at a slim door. She opened it and there were a set of stairs that twisted upward.
“You’re not afraid of enclosed spaces are you? I just now thought to ask?”
“No,” said Soletus.
The princess grinned with approval. “Good, it’s a bit tight and shadowy.”
Soletus followed her up the stairs. He nearly needed to slide through sideways. Once at the top, they entered into the attic. It was warm up there and wasn’t much to see in the gloom. There were shapes covered in sheets. A single round port window that shined a beam of light only in the middle strip.
“You aren’t afraid of heights are you,” she asked as she pushed the window open.
“No,” he said standing beside he looking out.
“Good, I am. I need you to crawl out on the roof and retrieve something suspicious for me. If you look to your right, you’ll see what looks like a copper coin near that chimney stack. Bring it to me.”
Anyone would be a little tepid about the height they were at. The tiled roof didn’t scare him even though it was steep. It wasn’t as slick as he thought one would be. He made his way out going down, keeping his body low, to the coin. When got to it, he found it wasn’t a coin but a pendant of something kind attached to a leather chain. He took it and slowly made his way down. Admiring the view of the courtyard out front and then he swung back in.
“Thank you,” said Arlwin. “I walked outside one evening and saw a figure up there. I shouted at them and by the time I run up here, the door was open as well as this window. I had a lantern in my hand and spied that coin.”
“It’s a pendent,” said Soletus holding it out.
“Let us see,” she said giving her head tilt. “Strange symbol.”
It was a foot with a nail through it with droplets of blood going down it.
“It reminds me of something I’ve seen,” Soletus thought aloud. “A brand…We should take this to my Papa, he may know.”
Arlwin’s eyes flicked up. “Papa?” Her mouth worked up to a smile. “I forget I’m west of Asteria. They’ve a few differences here than what I’m used to. You’ll get burned in the military for that. Papa’s are for boys.”
Soletus felt a twinge of annoyance and embarrassment. He had a good retort for that, but clenched his jaw. It was starting to ache.
“Let’s see if we could find…what is your father’s name?”
“First Warden Oeric’Sheldmartin.”
“Just a first warden,” asked Arlwin.
She laughed. “At least you didn’t tell me ‘No.’ You’ve still not discovered you can have a wider range of vocabulary around me.”
He couldn’t tell if she was purposely digging at him or trying to encourage him to say something off to her. Either way, it was annoying him.
After a few inquiries, they found Oeric outside speaking to Captain Gyrfalcon.
“There you are,” said Gyrfalcon. “Lieutenant Heron, I want to introduce you to the Arch Monk’s son. This is First Warden Oeric’Sheldmartin.”
The Princess held her hand out. “First Warden Oeric.”
His father shook it. “Lieutenant.”
“Here I thought my mother was the only one with a pair of wolf’s eyes. Perhaps you can use them to enlighten us on this.”
She handed Oeric the pendant. His father’s neutral expression faltered and he scrutinized the image he saw etched on it. “Where did you get this?”
“It was dropped by a suspicious figure. What is it?”
“It’s a handler’s brand,” he told her.
She became bemused. “You’re going to have to enlighten me on what that is.”
“It’s a symbol that handlers who own curs in bloodsports use. They brand their fighters with symbols like this. Though, a coin like this doesn’t belong to a fighter but rather a trusted subordinate. This is basically a badge or pass to deliver messages and money exchanges.”
Captain Gyrfalcon then asked, “You think some handler has it out for my family because I was involved in cleaning up their filth?”
“Unlikely. One, they would be more interested in someone like me. Two, whomever this belongs to worked for a handler named Thornfoot. His fighters turned on him. They were put down because of it. It was during my time there. So that was decades ago.”
If Arlwin was surprised or disgusted by Soletus’s father’s past, it didn’t register on her face. She became grim from hearing that the man was dead.
“If one’s boss is dead, why keep such a thing?”
Oeric turned it in his fingers one more time. “This is clearly a keepsake. These coins are kept hidden and not on necklaces. They can’t be easily tossed if one is caught by soldier.” He handed the coin back and added. “Their father, brother, uncle, cousin, or someone close, was the handler. As their real name, I don’t know. Handlers rarely use them.”
“I see,” said Arlwin gripping the coin. “Another dead end, but a worthy clue. I wonder where that man went. He’s clearly still near this property. Maybe disguised as a servant. Perhaps they can yield some information. How are those interviews—”
“Princess Arlwin,” interrupted Captain Gyrfalcon. The young woman didn’t look stunned or insulted that she was stopped. “You are young and full of energy, but the world doesn’t run on a cup of tea for the entire day. It’s dinner time.”
Her gaze shifted skyward. “So it is.”
“And I’m sure the young warden would appreciate you giving him time to wash up. He’s been on the road for days. Not to mention your sister expected you to be inside.”
And it was then her self-assuredness waiver into a wince. “Aye, certainly she does. Thank you Captain,” she said and turned to Soletus. “I apologize for keeping you Sheldmartin. Tomorrow, we can continue our investigation.”
“Certainly,” said Soletus, becoming intrigued. When did it become their investigation.