Changes: The Monk and the Princess Ch. 13
Chapter 13 Soletus Pt 13
Despite the desire for a warm bath, obtaining one was not feasible. No servants were allowed to run the halls. In fact, it made it all eerily quiet. Soletus did have the pitcher in his. 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. That was one of the few times that having long hair was a problem. He was glad it wasn’t covered in mud.
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 relax him. The smell of blood was gone. Meditation would put him right to 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 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?”
Logically, the shared heat would chase the chill away quicker. 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 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 other's 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 the 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 had 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 from 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 benefits 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 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 a 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 your 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?”
“I’m trained to do stealth missions,” she said. “With my hair, right attire, and mud on my face, I blend in well with the 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 while the others 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 enjoyed being made to shiver like that. It felt strange, and pleasant at the same time. If the involuntary action concerned her, she didn’t show it.
“My father wanted me to learn about the world. 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 border 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, 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. The humans would escort them back to the border their border officials. Killing them causes tension between us and Sutherland. 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 will 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. “But 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 are dragged to some brothel, an elven girl can spend decades there because she’ll stay 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. They have hunting squads who specifically hunt them down. However, that isn’t what keeps them away. There are stories that Kanu roads and caravan trails are lined with human bones. They don’t bury them. They just leave them for the wildlife to eat. Because of this, humans believe their land is haunted. To release a human spirit, they must be burned. If not, their souls are trapped in the land and they become 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 the fact we seal our kings and queens in sunglass caskets.”
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 had left to tend to the fire or she tore herself away from him because she was uncomfortable at their closeness. When she finally turned around, 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 go back.”
“Stay with me,” he asked softly on impulse.
All expression washed from her face.
“Certainly, warming me up had its purpose, but you were enjoying cuddling up to me as well.”
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,” 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 wanted 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 sound 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 the others to some filthy auction house if I hadn’t come in with my sword swinging. I beheaded their leader. Then I order my men to castrate who was left. The problem was, I should’ve given up the 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 and cool headed. He didn’t think she could act outside of the control she displayed.
“I’ve never been so angry. And still am,” she said. Her voice dripped with disgust. Her hand clutched the fold of his robe. “I hate that I have to 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 rot in the deepest blackest pit in the Maw. And you know what happened to me?”
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 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 kissed 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 a monk would act so sweet. I mean your 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 efforts aren’t congratulated, instead we face scrutiny. Sounds 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?”
Soletus wasn’t uncomfortable in the least. However, he suspected she wanted that, so he obliged. “That’s fine with me,” he said and settled on his side. He held up the blanket flaps and without any hesitation 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 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. “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 finding it impossible to focus on that. He didn’t want to. There was something about holding someone made 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 to get up. She waited passed the time his breathing changed. He relaxed quickly, but she couldn’t get herself to do the same. She didn’t understand why, as she was the one who talked herself into doing it. 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 couldn’t 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 about was how young, he suddenly looked. She would’ve bet against her entire squad that he was older than she was. It took a few questions for her mother, who spoken a great deal with the monk’s mother that he was 29. A year younger than herself. Was it his voice or that composed expression that the 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 they both lacked showed up 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 with no effort. She always thought her father’s foolish warning against such a thing. She worked with men and didn’t care about a lot of their attitudes. It didn’t help 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 as possible about him and his order and put 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. Really, she just 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 the ways of 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 was employed by House Heron for decades. She had grown up knowing what he was. He was mostly at her father’s. He would follow him without complaint whether that was too some formal gathering or going with him as far south where giants roamed. All in all, an intrepid servant who was good at being a nurse, playmate, and story-teller as well. When he was around and her 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, enabler, and teaching her all sorts 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 he could find someone more suitable to watch his 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. 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. If she could find someone.
She always felt very alone and very different, no matter her age or the elves she was around. She had strange thoughts or acted odd compared to others. Even among neth females, she never met one who would admit to wanting physical contact with another, a male especially. However, she never asked one 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, “Oh, he needed time to figure out when to tell his parents he a unicorn. He’s not lying at all.”
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 the 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, he was annoyed at her early on. 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 becoming 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 from him when she touched him. Sometimes she would feel the vibration of a timbre from 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.
Author Commentary: Sorry for the late update. Technical difficulties. Also, upon re-reading this, Soletus is terrible at reading women. Well, we all have our weaknesses.