I began packing as soon as I got to my room. I didn’t need to take everything, just the things that were the most cumbersome and difficult to travel with... of course. That was how high maintenance my family was. I often wished they were simple farmers or merchants so I didn’t have to work so floggin’ hard to make them happy. I grabbed my best dresses, which took up a significant amount of space and placed them as neatly as I could into a velvet bag. Then I took that lovely bag and threw it into an ugly burlap sack. If I traveled how I was encouraged to, I would be robbed in a heartbeat. I laid out a plain, conservative dress and some mud-caked riding boots.
I left my room and headed down to exit the castle. I needed to get my roots bleached before leaving, and I really didn’t want to try to do it myself. I almost destroyed my hair a year ago when I let the bleach sit for too long. I looked to the left to see the soldiers train and slowed down a little. Curan was dueling with another soldier. His opponent ran at him, but Curan sidestepped and the soldier tripped. A bunch of men on the sidelines laughed and Curan looked up at me. I didn’t know how he felt my gaze on him but he did. He stood straight, tall and true, staring at me with an expression I couldn’t decipher. The soldier tried to take advantage of Curan’s distracted state and rush him, but Curan redirected him with the flick of his sword... without looking away from me.
I blushed madly, so taken with his skill and beauty, and rushed to leave his line of sight. Anteno was right, he was a great man. He didn’t deserve what I’d said, and I didn’t deserve a second of his time.
My poor heart had finished frantically soloing with a pair of bongos by the time I reached Solcress Salon. Like usual, I suffered the fumes of hair alchemy for an indeterminable amount of time. I’d argue that it was just as hard to tell the passage of time in the salon as it was in the soul planes. Still, they did great work, and when I paid, I was pleased to see that my hair was even toned again. Mother is definitely not allowed to harp on me about my hair this time. It was a little lighter than it was before, but I didn’t think anyone would notice.
I returned to pack up the last of my luggage. The last item was a book that I had stashed under my mattress. I stuffed it in the bag at the very top, careful to keep it out of sight. There’d be plenty of time and privacy to read it on the road. I changed and dragged everything down to the stables. I did my best to stay out of Curan’s line of sight, since the stables were across from the training grounds, and went to find Glissandry. I came up to her stall and greeted her with a big hug.
“Oh hello, my gorgeous one. You are looking so pretty today! Who is pretty? You are!” I rubbed her cheek and gave her an apple. As she munched on her treat, I led her out of her stall to saddle her and secure my luggage. “Yes, you’re such a good girl!” I crooned as she patiently let me strap a ridiculous amount of bags onto her. I took a step back and let out a sigh. It was the bare minimum. What a ridiculous amount of finery, all to please my parents. The only finery I wanted was my beautiful horse, with her sweet temper, beige coat and luminous white mane. I adored her.
I checked all the straps and everything looked secure, so I performed a practiced swing to get my petite form mounted on my horse and turned Glissandry toward the exit. I led her out of the stables and towards the city.
“Netty?” I heard Curan’s voice from behind me. A ripple of anxiety flew up my spine. Oh souls no, he saw me! I couldn’t bring myself to look at him, so I pretended not to hear him. “Netty, where are you going?!” I urged Glissandry to go faster, to leave his confused voice behind in the castle yard. I rubbed tears from my eyes, feeling panic swell in my heart. I couldn’t tell if he yelled my name a third time or if it was all in my head... or if I wished he would.
I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. I didn’t even know if I would return.
I trudged out of the training yard confused as fuck. Netty had been acting odder by the day, and now she left without saying anything? I knew she’d heard me when she rode off on her horse. I knew she did! I grunted in frustration, kicking the mud off my boots before entering the castle. Then there was the way she stared at me when I was sparring with Euclid. It was the same look she gets when she spaces off, as though she’s dreaming of some unobtainable prize. Though this time she was looking right at me and blushing. Souls, this woman confused the fuck out of me. It was like when I asked her to the ball over a week ago—or was it two? She'd eventually said yes, but she sounded so upset that I thought it could have been a no.
Augh, Netty, you’re driving me mad.
I was planning on going back to the dining area to eat, but since I couldn’t get Netty off my mind, I strode on down to the library to see if Erudoven knew what was going on with her. There were a handful of people in the library when I arrived, but no one was in Erudoven’s study. I was about to leave a note for the mage when I heard laughing come from the courtyard. I peeked out the door to see my old teacher, Anteno, and Erudoven throwing paper airplanes at each other, laughing like toddlers. Keithabu, Erudoven’s familiar, was busy making more paper from the surrounding trees. She was also in rare form, actually breaking from her calm demeanor and getting caught up in the chaos.
I rushed out onto the green and picked up a fallen airplane, I tried to throw it at Anteno while his head was turned, but unfortunately, it was a trick plane, and it did a loop instead of hitting him. Anteno whirled around and skewered me in the heart with a plane. I fell down, pretending to die a painful, overly dramatic death. Anteno and Erudoven were laughing so hard I was starting to worry for their hearts. I grinned and stayed limp as I felt Keithabu pull me up, but I started to protest when she tried to give me mouth to mouth resuscitation.
I contorted, trying to get away from the orangutan, red-faced and laughing, “I normally can’t turn down a woman’s advances, Keithabu, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to reschedule our date for another time!” I could barely breath from the ludicrous lung workout, and I felt Anteno grab me under my arms and lift me to my feet.
“Wow, Anteno,” I chuckled, trying to catch my breath, “Are you lifting weights?”
Anteno grinned and flexed for me, “Absolutely not.” I pinched his tiny bicep and chuckled. Not bad for an old man, though. Erudoven was slowly catching their breath and smiling at me.
“Nice to see you, Curan,” they said, huffing and puffing. “You broke our stalemate.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, I’m pretty sure Keithabu here was winning,” I grinned and pointed a thumb back to the gleeful orangutan, who was busy making planes fly around with her plant elemental magic. They chuckled and Anteno cleared his throat.
“So Curan, what brings you down to the library?” he asked. There was something about both of their stances and facial expressions that puzzled me, that maybe they were expecting me.
“I uh... wanted to know if you knew what was going on with Netty? She just... fled the castle on a horse, pretty much. Looked like she had a lot of luggage packed on Glissandry...” I breathed in through my teeth and scratched at some day old stubble while I waited for their answer.
Erudoven and Anteno looked at each other, seemingly disheartened. “So, she left after all,” Erudoven sighed.
“Where’d she go? Is she alright?” I asked, starting to get concerned. Was this why she was acting weird?
“Netty has been having a hard time adjusting since the Alugahl fort. She has not forgiven herself for killing those two men. Since she hasn’t been sleeping, I mentioned that maybe going home to family would help her heal,” Erudoven said, watching me closely.
“Why didn’t she come to me?” I asked, more to myself than to them. I frowned, feeling a little hurt that she didn’t trust me enough to confide in me. I scratched my chin again, then rubbed my eyes in frustration. I could have had that talk with her, the talk I had with any new recruit who killed for the first time. I could also be gentler about it; she wasn't a soldier.
I felt Anteno’s hand on my arm and looked down at him, uncovering my eyes. “Netty’s feelings are complicated, Curan. You’ll only get that answer if you talk to her and if you wait for her answer. Patience is the key with Netty.”
“Alright, well where is she going? Where is her family located?” I scratched the back of my neck and sighed. I was too fidgety, and I needed to resolve this. I didn’t want her suffering a day more over those Alugahl bastards.
“She’ll be on the west road for a couple of days. She’ll be heavily packed as usual, so catching up to her will be easy,” Erudoven disclosed, gesturing back toward the library for me to get moving. I backed up to the library and waved at them.
“Thanks, I’ll... try to sort this whole thing out,” I called and spun around to go find my squad leader.
Sergeant Axhel, thank the All Soul, was in his office and not in some mystery location within the castle. I was already frazzled trying to sort out my last minute plans. His door was open, so I poked my head in to find him bent over some paperwork that had seals on it.
“Sergeant? Could I have a minute of your time?” I asked.
“Cosum Curan Seacoal!” he acknowledged. Sergeant Axhel, looking a little tired, waved me in and gestured for me to sit in front of his desk. “You got here fast, I just gave the message to the servant.”
“Hmm, what now?” I asked, confused. “I didn’t get a message, I was coming to ask about something.”
“Oh,” Axhel said, taken aback and relaxed in his chair. “What do you need?”
“Er no, you can go first. It sounded like you had something important to say.”
My Sergeant looked out the window into the training fields, his eyes following the new recruits who were doing laps. “I know I say this every year, but this year I am finally going to retire...”
“I believe you,” I prodded.
“And I’d like you, Seacoal, to take my place as Sergeant of our Combat Summoner squad,” he said, turning to look back at me and raising his grey, prickly brows.
Holy souls. Sergeant of the Cosums? That was unexpected. “This is a huge honor, Sergeant...” I managed to get out, at a loss for additional words. I felt a bit like Netty, actually.
“You don’t need to decide now, in fact I believe the King has offered you some time off for your part in the Alugahl research fort raid. If you want to take some time to think about your next steps, you’re welcome to it,” Axhel said, raising his palms in placation. Well, that was perfect timing. Now I can just gallivant off and find Netty.
“I’ll do just that...” I looked Axhel firmly in the eyes and said, “Thank you sir. It means a lot to have your trust.”
I got up to leave, but my Sergeant asked, “Didn’t you have something you needed?”
“Oh,” I said and grinned, “Uh, never mind. I’m going to visit my family.”
Axhel cleared his throat and drummed his fingers on his desk. “Just so you’re aware... there’s been some unusual activity and violence in west Saulidom. We have other units investigating, but there seems to be some... anti-summoner sentiment going around. No one has mentioned it openly yet, but... I’m concerned Alugahl is dipping a hand in where it shouldn’t. We’re still waiting on their reaction to the raid. Please keep that in mind and... stay safe, Seacoal.”
“Yes sir,” I nodded and strode off to my room to pack. If Netty is riding west, she may end up in the middle of some ugly business. I needed to catch up to her as soon as possible. I wasn’t going to be caught unprepared this time. It was stupid that I'd left my armor behind when I was escorting Giles to shifter territory. I wasn't taking any risks with Netty.
I packed my armor with the rest of my travel gear and made sure to put extra weapons on my person. Fortunately, I just had my sword sharpened, so I threw my sword belt on and ran down to the dining area with my bags to request some rations for the road. Corabby, a sweet lady who worked in the kitchen, rushed to the back and procured enough food for Netty and I to share for several days. If she insisted on going west, then I was going to escort her, damn it.