Kiol was appointed to the rare group assignment, one in a smaller group with every soldier acting of their own accord and instructions, no need for a commander. But it was a deeply important mission; another group of rebels had cropped up. The third in five months. They could not just be killed, they needed to be brought back and interrogated. If a mission needed to be a guaranteed success, it had Kiol in it.
The forest was littered with ruins from the Old City that had been reclaimed by nature. Most of the architecture was rubble and ash from the Thousand Night Battle, but some buildings still remained upright, even if ravaged with time. The once shining paint was in grimy patches, the marble and stone cracked from encroaching tree roots and covered in moss and ivy.
Kiol and his companions had rounded up eight rebels when a figure shot out from the fallen pillar a soldier had been inspecting. She gave chase, but Kiol was faster, sprinting with ease through the roots and shrubs and branches that slowed his companion. It did not seem to slow the refugee, but they still were not faster than Kiol. And they couldn’t escape his skill. He drew the curved throwing blade from his belt and with less than a second to judge the speed, position, and distance, he let it go.
It embedded into the fleeing thigh with perfect precision even through flowing robes. The person fell and landed heavily on their stomach and elbows. Kiol jogged up to them as they struggled, knowing even if they could get themselves up they would not make it far with a pierced hamstring. He grabbed their shoulder to haul them around and froze. The dark, quiet eyes that stared back at him were the same ones that had watched him six years before as he left behind the dead body of the cult leader.
Though the boy had grown older and changed drastically, Kiol recognized those fearless eyes without hesitation. They had haunted him for six years. When Ruadhan’s team returned they said nothing of a boy and Kiol had not known what happened to him. And here he was now, long hair tied and pinned up in what was likely a clean style at some point, his features definitely older but still soft. With his elaborate hairstyle and delicate face, any would think him a woman if not for the male robes fitted snugly to his chest. Kiol had not had time to think about it while chasing him, but his appearance didn’t match the other rebels either. Those people wore coarse low-class garments and from their smell Kiol knew they hadn’t washed in over two weeks. The person in front of him wore finer fabric and through the smell of salty sweat was a light fragrance of clean body and flowery perfume.
Kiol realized they had been staring at each other for too long now. He whipped around to look into the trees behind him but could not see or detect the soldier coming. She likely thought there was no point with Kiol on the trail.
But he wouldn’t take any chances. He knelt down, his hand still on the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, though he didn’t know why. The boy clearly wasn’t scared at all, nor even angry or pained despite facing the man who had just attacked him.
Kiol moved his arm around the slight shoulders and scooped the other under his legs. The boy finally had a reaction then, wincing in pain as Kiol hefted him up in his arms.
Slender hands gripped the front of Kiol’s vest as he loped through the trees. The boy was not that heavy but despite that, Kiol’s movement was hindered. He may have been slight of frame but he was still almost a fully grown man. Kiol knew he couldn’t take much time, meaning he couldn’t go far, and though he was in the forest often it wasn’t as though he had it memorized. He wanted to find a cave of some sort but quickly abandoned that idea. Instead he sank down by a fallen tree whose uprooted end had dragged a wall of earth with it. He placed the boy down as gently as possible but he still winced and jerked in pain.
“Stay here,” he murmured. “Don’t take the knife out, it’ll become worse. I’ll be back before nightfall.” He usually tried not to talk for too long, even though he could, technically. He depended entirely on the feel of vibrations in his throat and the memory of speech in order to do so and he was never sure if he spoke comprehensibly or not. Most people seemed to understand him well enough, but it was still sometimes annoying. It was easier to just say one or two words. But in situations like this, where it was necessary, it came in handy.
He stood but a movement drew his eye to the boy’s hands. He was gesturing—no, he was signing.
Kiol’s eyes widened and he signed back, “You know sign-speak? Are you deaf too?”
The boy shook his head and signed again, since Kiol’s shock had made him miss it the first time. “Why are you helping me?”
Kiol froze. A reasonable question to be sure, but one he didn’t want to answer. One he had not even asked himself.
Because the truth was, he had no idea. And while responding with that answer wouldn’t help the boy trust him, more than that, it frightened Kiol himself. This was a rebel and someone who had been at least associated with the Cult of Envy if not a part of it. Kiol had known him for less than a collective minute. And yet, he felt compelled to help him. Had not considered anything else.
“Because I know you,” he signed back without truly thinking. But then he considered his own answer and thought it really did not feel like a lie. Well, he had seen the boy before, of course, but that wasn’t knowing.
“I know you too,” the boy signed. Kiol stopped at that, still half-stood up. A heavy few seconds kept him there as he wanted to question further but knew he had already pushed his time more than he could. The boy watched him, breathing heavier from pain than Kiol was from exertion.
“Stay here,” Kiol signed again. “I’ll be back. I promise.” And he sprinted off through the woods.
He slowed when he was close to the ruins and stepped out. The five other soldiers all stared, then looked between each other. Kiol didn’t need to attempt reading their lips to know what they said— he came back empty handed from a chase? How was that possible?
“Got away,” he told them gruffly, stomping over. His indifference was nothing new to them but surely even the notoriously uncaring Kiol would be outraged at being bested?
One of them moved and Kiol studied his lips. “You couldn’t track him?”
He shook his head. Another exchange of glances and with their faces turned away he couldn’t determine their words. Then a soldier grabbed one of the prisoners by their hair. “Who was that?!”
The rebel was turned away completely so Kiol had no hope of reading his lips. But judging from the soldier’s reaction, the answer had not really been an answer.
“Don’t fucking play games with me and answer straight!” He kneed the man in the face and kicked him over, ready to stomp on him before Kiol raised a hand.
“Question later. Bring them back first,” he ordered. He was not a commander, and technically they were all equals, but no one would dare disobey him because more than anyone there, he had the strength and skill to subdue them all. Kiol could tell there were grumbling sighs, but the rebels were brought to their feet and they started the trek back. Whether behind or ahead, Kiol couldn’t see the others’ conversation, and turning back to look would be obvious and shameful. It was the part of his gift that he would never get used to. He was sure they were talking about him.
They dumped the rebels into holding cells and the others eagerly stayed for interrogation. At this point Kiol usually left for the food or training halls, but he needed to hear who exactly that person was. If any clues were given to his identity or base location, Kiol needed to know as soon as the others. He was aware that staying there meant leaving that person out in the wilderness, with a bleeding knife wound and open to the elements and any person or animal that came along. So, while not eager, he was even more motivated to get confessions.
He watched the interrogator break bones and slice skin. That was what pleased him the most about his gift—he no longer heard the agonized screams of the tortured. It was not long before the rebels fessed up to their dealings. They were not associated with the other rebellions, but had been inspired by them. They were not residual members of the Cult of Envy. The eldest woman confessed to being their leader, which she had done from the start, likely in an attempt to save her companions from torture. She hadn’t. But in even the highest pain, none of the rebels admitted to knowing the person who got away. They were all there, they said, it was only the eight of them. They had not even known that that person was nearby.
If the soldiers had gotten a good look at the boy, they would have noticed the stark difference in appearance and might have accepted such answers. But that boy had escaped Kiol’s pursuit, and so there was no way in their minds that he was a random passerby who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kiol stepped up to the man currently strapped into the chair and the interrogator moved back respectfully. He pulled the long dagger from his belt and slit the man’s throat in one smooth motion. The interrogator didn’t sit back idly then, jumping forward as though to stop him, but Kiol brushed aside the attempt to grab him. The man was dead anyway, there was nothing that could be done. He did not bother looking at the other soldiers’ shocked expressions, and went to the bound, kneeling prisoners. He grabbed the leader by the back of her head and held the dagger to her throat.
“Who was the one who escaped?” he asked. He did not demand; he never raised or lowered his voice. It was for practical reasons, because otherwise he would not know how truly loud or soft he spoke, and so he kept without deviation to the most natural level that came from his throat. But to others, he noticed it sometimes unnerved them. The rebels now were unnerved, eyes and mouths wide, full of tears and strings of bloodied saliva.
“—don’t know!” he saw from two. The others had bowed over their knees and screamed into the floor as they banged their heads to plead.
Kiol shoved the leader aside and she fell heavily into the wall. He turned back to the others. “They really don’t know,” he said. He wiped his dagger clean on his pants, sheathed it, and left.
A hand on his shoulder stopped him on the way to the food hall. He turned to Ruadhan’s pale face, not startled despite how few people could grab him undetected. It was exactly because of that that he wasn’t startled; Ruadhan was the only one, and so it announced his presence better than he could himself. He was also one of the few who did not enunciate obnoxiously when talking to him, so Kiol could read his lips without a problem.
“Where is your throwing knife?” he asked.
He almost brought his hand instinctively to the empty hilt, but he stopped himself. “I did not bring it.”
“Yes you did. None of my students would, but you especially would never leave a companion from your belt.”
If Kiol was thought to be emotionless, Ruadhan was a statue. No one could read him, and even now, despite the chill dripping up Kiol’s back, he was not sure if it was his own conscience or if it came from some instinct of Ruadhan’s suspicion.
It was true he would never leave it behind, but he would never lose it, either, in the field or otherwise. Changing his story now would just be worse, anyway. “I did not bring it,” he doubled down. “I did not check my belt well.”
Ruadhan glanced him over. Kiol’s tunic sleeve was stained with blood from the boy’s injured leg, but the black fabric made it near invisible. And even if Ruadhan noticed it, he had just come from interrogation and killing a man. It was not out of place. The general released his shoulder and after another second of thought, waved his hand to dismiss him.
Kiol took exactly the same amount of food as usual in three layers box: noodles, a few side dishes of vegetables in various sauces, green onion pancakes, and roasted meat. He brought it to his room and ate the noodles, then re-stacked the rest and tied it into a bundle with a cloth. Then he sat on his bed and waited.
He was lucky enough to have his own room, a rare privilege in the soldier sect, but that did not make it easier to sneak out. His room had no window, and only the hall that held Ruadhan’s chambers were ever free from people. People who could bear witness to Kiol leaving at a strange time of day without any orders to blame. He was not particularly tall or wide, but still somehow he was imposing and he drew attention no matter where he went. And even if he could slip unnoticed through the temple, he had to report to the guards that patrolled the grounds before leaving the premises.
There was an easy solution to this, not one that Kiol was particularly keen on, but few other options would work as well. And so he waited.
When the time came he tied up his hair, tucked the bundle into his vest with some money, and slipped from his room. The guards made no remark on the reason for his excursion, and he went into the city. Within minutes, the front of his hair had fallen from his stubby ponytail and hung about his face in an unkempt curtain. Even though citizens did not know the extent of his job— otherwise he would not be very good at his job— they knew the extent of his abilities. And regardless, his aura kept everyone on edge around him. So people skirted out of his way and stopped walking when he approached.
He found the pharmacy he wanted, a shaded little shop tucked into the bowels of a pile of buildings. Like most sections of the city, houses were not built side-by-side. They leaned into each other and one building might have been extended and built over the top of another, only to have another building on the other side built the same over its top. The pharmacy was a single story, squat building under a construction like this and dipped slightly into the ground, like the weight of three additional roofs over top of it was crushing it down into the earth.
Kiol ducked past the low hanging paper lanterns marking the store and stepped inside. It was dark inside with only a single candle lighting up a face over the counter. Beyond its flickering light one could faintly see the rows and rows of tiny drawers that covered the walls. The pale face at the counter stood languidly when Kiol entered.
“Ah, you,” she said bluntly, then stopped speaking. She likely did not expect Kiol to know what she said at all. He ordered medicines for a knife wound and she prepared the concoctions without a word. When she handed the two packages over and he didn’t move, she stopped mid-seat and stood again, looking at him curiously. He sighed and ordered another mixture for constipation tea. The side of her lips quirked up but she righted her expression and prepared it for him. It was not that bowel movements were amusing to her, this was her profession after all, but for Kiol to request such a thing was inevitably a conflict with his image, and created an ironic sort of humor, and she was not as trained in inhibiting reactions as the guards. With that tucked away among the other packages and the pharmacist paid, he returned to the streets.
He angled himself in such a way through the city that he was never in a spot that would be overtly strange or out of place, and at the edges of the city he stayed to the shadows until he could slip into a farmer’s cart that was leaving the gates. He lay beside a basket of half-rotten cabbage and counted the distance. Once he was sure they were past the farm fields and in the trees, he slipped out again and crouched by a trunk until the cart turned a corner and was gone.
Then he ran.
Without holding a cumbersome weight he could run fast and agile, but he was still human, and he wasn’t running at a sustainable pace. He paused a few times for rest and breath and by the time he reached the ruins from before, the sky was dusky gray. Fortunately it was early autumn, so it didn’t get too cold even at night. Still, he had promised ‘before nightfall.’ He sprinted full speed the rest of the way. He slowed to a walk when he saw the fallen tree, not wanting to burst into the boy’s sight and frighten him.
He stopped at the wall of lifted earth and looked at his knife laying in a pool of blood. The boy was gone.