Mien’s effort to avoid Kiao didn’t go well. The following day after their adventure wasn’t terrible. He slept in late and Kiao didn’t even leave her room. It was the day after that he realized that that there was a channel between the two off them. He couldn’t feel a thing other than her presence. It made it easier to avoid her. He knew her location at any given time without having to see or hear her. The downside, he longed for her. It made him feel like a living contradiction.
He tried to tell her several times during the course of a few days and he couldn’t. His ability to speak just left him and he sat there miserably silent. All his friends noticed it, Oeric and Nimbus did as well it, and Brother Oli watched him carefully. Alder was out of the loop and was too busy giving Soletus dirty looks whenever he came in to speak with Kiao which was often times just a quick update on the situation.
Soletus and Kiao had spoken to the Arch Monk about the ruins. Mien expected that they would get in trouble being in a restricted area without the guidance of someone of high rank. Then Kiao did something she normally didn’t do. She pulled rank and got them free from trouble. The young woman was a Canter. He didn’t realize that was the priest equivalent of a second warden. Her commanding officer, so to speak, was Elder Brother Oli and she was acting on his behalf. Of course, the old chanter priest didn’t deny that he gave permission for Kiao to act without even consulting him.
From there, the Arch Monk took over, and set Master Marth into investigating it and from there it got a bit bizarre.
“All my papa would tell me is that they’re gone,” Soletus told them a couple days later with Lyndon at his side.
Kiao face’s face twisted in confusion. “Gone?”
Mien was surprised too. He was across the room smoothing out the sheets of a freshly emptied bed listening.
“As in vanished from town just like the trees they planted in the ruins,” he said.
Mien actually got angry when he heard they cut down the trees to the point there was nothing more than a splintered stomp on the ground. They even dragged away the drass beast Soletus and him killed. They couldn’t empty out the reservoir or hide evidence that someone had been coming or going with all the cut trees. They left clear evidence that something had been dragged away. It was a hurried and rushed clean up job. However, there wasn’t a lot of concrete evidence other than the four of them being able to identify one of the guards. He denied being involved and a large number of guards supported his claim of being in town all day. Last Mien heard he had been taken off the guard roster.
“Okay, so they just ran out of town,” Kiao asked.
Soletus bobbed his head. “And leaving family behind.”
The young started back writing in the ledger. “That’s incredibly selfish.”
“Master Marth suspects that the families were in on it.”
“And the rest of the guard?”
“Denying that they ever knew, and that’s where the investigation is at right now. Their commanding officer has been temporarily removed until the hearing is over. And First Warden Icus has taken over as interim First Officer and probing the guards.”
“I’m unware of who Icus is,” she told him.
“He’s works beside of Master Marth, basically, his replacement when Marth retires.”
Lyndon then put in, “Always wears a military top-knot and is as mean as a hornet. If he’s involved, the Patriarch said something.”
“So basically a shake-up up in the guards,” said Kiao with a broad smile.
“You better be counting you’re blessings he’s not shaking us up,” Lyndon said.
“He’s rough on younger members,” Soletus told her.
“Tits, he’s not just rough, he’s like a rabid panther,” snorted Lyndon. “He’s getting harder and harder to shake off every time I make things interesting around here.”
Mien had meet Icus. He had come to speak to Oeric one day on the field a year ago. He didn’t like him. Even Oeric, didn’t seem to care for him either. The man was as stiff as a statue and he spoke as a stone would, dead and cold. The only love the man seemed to have was a love of justice. And while that was a good thing on one hand, it was a dangerous thing. Mien couldn’t help feel that he was someone to keep his eye on.
The young chanter priest went onto his next bead and caught Alder glaring in Kiao’s direction. It became a scowl when Lyndon threw his arms around Kiao shoulders. Mien decided that he might need to intervene and explain to Alder that Lyndon was that friendly with everyone.
The infirmary door opened. Mien listened and didn’t recognize the person’s footsteps. They were very soft and over the sound of swishing fabric. A short woman floated in wearing long muted green day gown with a silver chain around her waist that jingled as she walked. She stopped midway down the aisle and searched the room going from face to face. Her presence elicited a strange reaction out of Soletus and Lyndon. The cousins smoothed out their clothing and stood tall, clasping their hands behind their back. Kiao stepped from behind the podium.
“Can I help you?”
The woman examined her curiously and muttered, “She was right.”
Kiao walked forward some more and the woman closed the distance between them.
“I’m sorry we’ve never met before. I rarely speak to anyone in the order that isn’t Orrie and a few others. I’m Lady Maelyra, the Patriarch’s wife.”
Kiao took her hand and bowing kissing the top of it to make up for her lack of manners before. While it was proper etiquette, the woman was surprised and troubled all at the same time. “I must apologize.”
“Are you from a house?”
“House Meadowlark,” replied Kiao.
Lady Maelyra pulled her hand from Kiao’s. “And studied her up and down. “My you are tall,” and then said very quietly. “It’s a bit disturbing how well you pull this role.”
Kiao dropped her hand and stepped away from her.
“I’m sorry,” apologized the women reaching out and taking her hand. “It’s just that, you’re quite the sight to behold. Anyway, I was sent here.”
Kiao’s brow met. “By whom?”
“Initially it was Madame Cordea. She then directed me to Brother Hickory and he informed me I needed to have a little mercy on you and I’ve not. I must apologize.”
Kiao glanced back at Soletus and gave him a quick death glare while Lady Maelyra spoke.
“Anyway, I run the Women’s Society and I’ve been told that I needed to press that this isn’t an offer of membership. I mean, we reserve that honor to men who shown great kindness to us like Orrie, I’m sorry it’s what we like to call him there, First Warden Oeric.”
Mien didn’t know is he should laugh or feel embarrassed for the man. Maybe a little bit of both.
“Anyway, I’m here to request for your assistance. Cordea mentioned you might be the bridge we need. You see, many of the women in town don’t like the thought to come here if they’ve an illness.”
At hearing that, Kiao’s face softened. “Why?”
“I know the infirmary is open to the public, everyone knows it. They feel it’s uninviting because, well, there’s no way to put it delicately, full of young men now.”
“Everyone under my supervision is respectful. We are trained to see the patient not who the patient is. We’ve female patients before. We’ve have private rooms, screens, and we do allow family members to visit or stay if they desire.”
“I understand, but many of them don’t. We’ve a wise woman as part of the women’s society who sees to ailments and such. The most they might come here is for a broken bone. However, we had a friend die from an infected injury and it pushed me to reach out but I didn’t know to whom. Cordea said you were the person I needed to come to.”
That statement made Kiao’s face pucker up again. “I see.”
“She said that you were in charge. I could hardly believe that. I mean you’re so young.”
“Brother Oli actually is, but I speak on his behalf. He’s rather old.”
“That was the only reason why I was so hesitant to come here too. He’s older than the hills and for the longest time he didn’t have reliable help. I didn’t want to ask him to come down to the society’s house. I’ll was afraid he’ll just die in the streets for the walk. What I would like is for you to tend to those who need looking after one day a week. Maybe even bring another with you. That’s all I’m asking. I think that would be enough to encourage everyone not to be afraid to come here.”
“Certainly,” said Kiao without hesitation.
The woman brow shot up in surprise. “Really?”
“I’m a healer; we can’t deny help to anyone. And I rather this entire town feel comfortable about coming in here despite our ages.”
“Good, I can give you more details later in a more private setting. How about the society house? Cordea’s son can show you were it’s at.”
She waved to Soletus and squeezed Kiao’s hand that she had been holding. “Anyway, I’m glad we finally had a chance to meet.”
Kiao wore a forced smile. Lady Maelyra then left the room. Kiao waited until the outer infirmary door closed before turning to Soletus with her face heavy with disapproval.
“Really,” she said.
The older tod held up his hands. “Look, I’m sorry. I had no idea she would tell anyone especially her. However, she wasn’t lying to you.”
“I figured she wasn’t,” said Kiao. “We rarely have anyone to come in from town especially women. However, she didn’t have to say what she did to me or look at me like I’m something unusual and unbelievable.”
Kiao stopped at the podium and began to write.
“I don’t think she meant it to be rude,” Soletus said.
“Of course, she didn’t say it to be rude, she just said it because look at me. I’m tall, gangly, and boyish looking.”
“And I think only one of those things came out of her mouth.”
“You didn’t hear what she said,” muttered Kiao.
“No, I did. Again, she didn’t mean it to be rude. She was surprised. And to be fair, it is surprising.”
Kiao shot a mean looked at Soletus. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means exactly what it means,” he said crossing his arms. “I’m surprised. Is that something I’m not allowed to do?”
“So you think I play the role disturbingly well too,” Kiao said with such a tart tone in her voice Mien could taste the sourness.
The young monk narrowed his eyes as his mother would. Instead of coming up with a retort, he walked away from her and started down the aisle. “I don’t have time to argue. I’ll come back later when you’re in a better mood.”
Kiao opened her mouth as if she was going to shout out after him. Instead, she sank back down on her stool.
Lyndon then told her gently, “You know he didn’t mean anything by it just as much as Lady Maelyra right? I was surprised too.”
“You didn’t look as if I was doing something wrong.”
“Did she really or was it because she was a woman.”
“No,” Kiao denied. “And what’s Soletus problem?”
“He’s a lot of respect for Lady Maelyra. Other than the Patriarch’s wife, do you know who she is?”
Kiao thought a moment. “I do, the First Warden saved her.”
“He did. When he returned home, he didn’t have an easy time of it from what Soletus told me. It was Lady Maelyra and Aunt Cordea who helped him. Lady Maelyra understood when most didn’t because she was suffering a bit from everything that happened to her.”
Mien watched Kiao bow her head. “So basically I’m being a rude dod getting defensive about nothing.”
Lyndon patted her shoulder. “Yes. Maybe give the Women’s Society a chance. They aren’t the Sisterhood. To be honest, I’m surprise Lady Maelyra contained herself enough for not announcing you as an inspiration, and build a statue in your honor.”
Kiao started at him stunned. “What?”
Lyndon’s lips spread in a grin. “They’re going to love you there. When you get comfortable in the society’s house, you should make friends with her daughter, Briar. I think you’ll have fun together.”
After that, Lyndon left to find Soletus. Mien wondered if he could slink off to speak to him too. Instead, he snuck down stairs after he finished his bed. He tried his hardest to find something to occupy his mind as he waited for his shift to be over. He went through the row of jars trying to find something he could easily make and refill. He saw that they needed more mint tea powered for upset stomach.
He was alone for a while before he heard footsteps coming down the stairs. He hoped it was Brother Oli, maybe even Alder. No, the footsteps were subtle as got louder as they stopped at the foot of the stairs. Mien could see Kiao leaning against the door frame on a single shoulder.
“So what’s been bugging you,” asked Kiao. Mien didn’t have an answer for her so he went on working. “You’ve been quieter than usually. Almost like when we first met. Accept then you weren’t avoiding me.
Mien glanced up at her. “I’ve not been avoiding you.”
“No, I’m pretty certain you’ve been avoiding me. So, what’s bothering you? Is this about what happened that night? I asked Brother Hickory and he told me to speak to you.”
“Was it my bright idea of us dual healing. I’m not sure what you managed to gleam from me that would make you avoid me.”
Mien’s throat locked up again. He swallowed and continued spooning leaves into thin parchment paper and folding it into packets.
Kiao let out a frustrated sigh. “Okay, we’ve been through this. Find your voice, speak, and don’t turtle up.”
He stopped his work and stared down at his hands.
“Is it so bad that you forgot how to speak?”
Mien swallowed the lump in his throat and spoke softly. “Everyone assumes I know what to say about everything. I don’t. Words don’t come to me just like that, you know. I like to think before I speak. Isn’t that better?”
“Sometimes, it’s better just to say what’s on your mind instead of rolling your thoughts in your head until you convince yourself to say nothing at all.”
Mien straightened his spine up. “If that’s what you want, sit down and listen. I don’t want you interrupting me or it’ll make it harder.”
Kiao looked around and sat down on the squat stepping stool in the corner.
Mien pushed his forelocks out of his eyes and started in a measured voice. “My avoiding you has more to do with me than you. What happened scared me because it came on suddenly. It scares me now because I don’t know what to do about it.”
Kiao grinned. “This must be serious if you’re talking about this in that tone.”
She shut her mouth.
“What happened was a quirk, that’s what Hickory called it, between male and female chanters,” he said hearing his voice quake and stopped.
Kiao eyes grew large. “What quirk do you speak of?”
Mien felt his face warm up. “The sort of quirk where male and female chanters bond with one another.”
“If that female happens to be timbre sensitive,” she snapped.
And what does that implies about me, he thought. He then said to her. “Well, it happened, sorry.”
The young woman jumped to her feet knocking back the stepping stool to its side. “Are you serious? You formed a timbre bond with me!”
Mien nodded and watched as she ran a hand through her hair and tugged her short pony-tail down stunned. Mien wasn’t sure she was breathing.
“I guess, you know more about this than I do.”
She didn’t answer him. Instead took to pacing to one wall to the next. He didn’t stop her or say anything. He felt it was best to hand back and keep his mouth shut. While she marched, he couldn’t help but to admire her again. She didn’t look as colorful as she did on the bridge. She was in a formless bland uniform. It didn’t flatter her at all. Then again, perhaps it was the point so it didn’t draw to much attention to her body shape. As much as she claimed she didn’t, she did. Well slightly. Or maybe he just noticed because he knew the truth.
Silence settled in the room that made Mien uncomfortable. He had expected her to do all the talking or crying in despair. He didn’t know what to say but was glad when she stopped walking and settled down on the bottom step of the stairs. She leaned forward and clasped her hands together under her chin, looking ahead of her. She started muttering to herself.
Mien looked down at his hands. They weren’t shaking too much, just very sweaty and rubbed his palms on his trousers. He didn’t know what else he could say.
Kiao rested her forehead down on her knuckles. “You’re too young for this.”
“Hickory mentioned that.”
“And for me.”
“Sorry,” Mien said to the floor.
She straightened up and stretched her legs out. “I’m not going to lie, this isn’t my ideal. I’ve dreamed of being able to choose my mate given my circumstances. This takes away all choice.”
Mien nodded in agreement. “Even in arranged marriages, we’ve the option to say no, well a limited amount of refusals.”
“I don’t think I can refuse you. However, your voice is so is unremarkable to me, I’m not sure how this will work. My voice must sound something to you.”
It’s lovely, wonderful, delightful, went his thoughts. To her he said. “I’ve been miserable these last few days trying to avoid you if that says something.”
“I don’t get it. If you like me, why avoid me?”
“I didn’t want to say anything or do anything strange. Mainly, I didn’t want a repeat of that night.”
“Which you’ve not explained yet.”
Mien tightened his jaw.
“I really don’t know how timbre bonds work so you’re going to have to explain.”
He only swallowed.
“I remember the Sisterhood looking down on them. They felt it wasn’t the natural way of things. I think it amounted to the fact they couldn’t control them. They kept timbre sensitive separate in a cloister of their own including other chanters. I was a little surprised when Brother Hickory told me you were one and he wanted me to expose you to as much as I could.”
“Maybe that’s what needs to happen with me,” said Mien.
“Then you can’t work on your penitence. You also can’t learn how to deal with this.”
“But I don’t know how,” he cried. The young tod wasn’t in the mood for logic at that moment. If there was any logic in the world then what had happened would have not happened.
“Don’t we all start out not knowing what to do, we learn.”
“What am I supposed to learn?”
Kiao sighed. “You asking the sort of questions you are makes me like this situation even less and I’m willing to make the best of it.”
The young tod just stared at her with raising frustration. “What’s the problem with my questions?”
“You’re question shows how inexperienced you are. Above and below, you work on making this bond work on some level so that it’s not making either of us miserable. It’s not that complicated, Mien.”
“But it is,” he said. “People aren’t just given someone else to be declared theirs.”
Kiao’s brows met. “What?”
“That’s what terrified me. Some crazed part of me declared that you were mine so strongly…” he stopped. He didn’t want to tell her anything more than he hand.
Mien covered his face. Hopefully she was smart enough to put it together.
“I’m not sure if I should be disturbed that you were pushed to feel that strongly about me or not. Then again, I was shirtless.”
“That’s not an excuse,” Mien shouted. “I don’t want to lust after you! That’s animalistic and not what I want at all!”
“Then what do you want?”
“I don’t know,” he exasperated, sagging his shoulders. “I just want to be normal. Going about this like a normal person at a normal age and being strong and more appealing to you like Soletus.”
Kiao’s brow quirked up in confusion. “While I find his voice and appearance pleasing, Soletus is Soletus. I can’t expect every male to be him. That would be annoying actually.”
Mien tilted his head. “But he’s a wonderful fellow.”
“He is” she said crossing her arms. “And I’m being a dumb girl, enjoying the time I can spend with him because why not? But, I don’t know if he’s the one I want to put all the effort into trying to be with. I’ve noted a few things about his behavior I don’t like.”
Mien couldn’t even imagine what that would be. Soletus in his mind was normal, therefore a perfectly acceptable person in every circumstance. That just met Kiao’s standards where high and he couldn’t possibly even meet one of them.
“And there are things that I don’t like about your behavior. Mainly your ability to be as self-deprecating as you possibly can like right now. I don’t understand why you hate yourself so much.”
“Well, because I’m emotional.”
“Your timbre sensitive, that’s a common and expected trait.”
“But I’m short.”
She shrugged. “I’ve stopped growing and you’ve not. We’re basically the same height right now so you will be taller than me.”
“I’m also a disturbed anxious mess.”
“Have you tried or desired to kill someone else? Do you regret nothing that you did?”
She gave him a dismissive wave. “Forget about it then. You’re also not as nervous as you were before.”
“I’m also plain and boyish looking.”
Kiao studied at him and shrugged her shoulders. “You look fine. I imagine you’ll turn heads when you’re thirty. Most will ignore you because of how you wear your hair and I can’t say I care. It’s shorter than mine.”
Mien stared at her suspiciously.
Kiao laughed. “I’m trying to relieve your doubts and you really don’t listen very well. I told you, I’m willing to make the best of this. I’m intrigued and I want to see what happens.”
Mien shook his head. He wasn’t sure if he heard her right.
“Your lack of comprehension amazes me at times,” she said walking over to him. “Perhaps, I’ll work on that first.”
Mien slide off his stool and used the table as a barrier. “Work on that, what am I some sort of experiment to you?”
Kiao stopped and put her hands on her hips. “No, I was looking at the personal experience of it all.”
Mien gape at her and told her softly, “B-b-but Brother Hickory said you wouldn’t be happy with it.”
Kiao rolled her eyes. “Maybe if I was sixteen again, I wouldn’t. He has a such a hard time seeing me as an adult. However, don’t you see, we’ve the opportunity to do something different. We don’t have to stick to culture conventions and the few that matter we’ve hit. We’re both minor nobles so that pesky notion of having to wed someone of our social standing or high is taken care of.”
Mien couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He felt light-headed and made his way back to his stool. He dropped on in it as Kiao went on talking.
“I mean there is the minor detail about children. You being okay with the thought of the likelihood of not having one?”
Children! How did we get on children? Weren’t we just talking about marriage and why are we talking about this, his mind snapped. All the blood had drained from Mien’s face and he stared at her wide-eyed.
“Or you could still be terrified.”
“I was more worried about you would hate me not you planning weddings and children.”
“Sorry,” Kiao apologized in the way that she wasn’t that sorry.
“You’re going too fast!”
“You learn fast.”
“This isn’t something you learn from text and memorized or observe and listen to instruction,” he exclaimed shaking his hands in the air.
Kiao took hold of one and held it. She patted the top of it and told him gently. “True, this personal and that’s a little different.”
“I don’t understand why you are pushing for this? Wouldn’t someone, anyone, be more worthy of you,” said Mien breathlessly.
Kiao eyes narrowed. “It’s my decision to decide who is worthy, not yours,” and she said that with such finality that Mien was compelled to bob his head in agreement.
She brightened up again. “Good. I know you need time. And I’m willing to give it.”
Mien pulled his hand out of her grasp. “Why do this, give me a single reason why you would even agree. You said so yourself, my voice is unremarkable and voice is everything to a chanter.”
Kiao stood so her face was leveled with his. He felt her breathe as she spoke. “Perceptions can change. Also, I told you, I like smart boys.” With that, Kiao straightened up and grabbed his hand again, kissing his middle knuckle. “I need to get back to work. I’m going to tell Alder not to bother you so you can dwell in peace.”
Mien stared down at his hand. That gesture was completely wrong. It was a male to female gesture of familiar affection. If he was petty, he would have corrected her or be offended. Instead, he watched her disappear up the stairs touched.