Kiol stepped into Ruadhan’s office and closed the door. The man didn’t look up from his writing. Kiol seated himself in front of the desk and waited. Another two minutes went by before Ruadhan finally set his pen aside and wordlessly handed the scroll he just finished across the desk. Kiol took it and read it over thrice, slower each time, memorizing the information, then he handed it back. Ruadhan rolled the scroll up and stuck it into the lantern flame. He twirled the burning paper slowly, his eyes never leaving the glowing line that spread up the roll and left only black crumbling ash in its wake.
“You will do this tonight,” he said. Kiol nodded. A much shorter deadline than usual, but nothing he couldn’t handle. “He will be in that room three hours after sunset. You will clean up after yourself.” Kiol nodded. Ruadhan waved his hand and Kiol stood, dipped his torso, and left.
The bustle of the food hall compared to the tranquil emptiness of Ruadhan’s quarters was annoying. Kiol put his meal into stack boxes and was about to retreat to his room when a skirmish at the other end of the large space drew his eye. He stopped and eyed the small gang of neophytes that had cornered a soldier he vaguely recognized. They were picking a fight with her, but it wasn’t much of a fight. Novices or not, it was nine against one.
Kiol was about to start walking out again when the same cornered soldier came into the hall right beside him. She paused, then burst into a run. Kiol’s eyes followed as she sprinted to her twin and immediately started throwing hands with the first of the gang that she reached. That was all the instigation needed; the jeering ended and a brawl began.
With a beleaguered sigh, Kiol set his food down and moved across the hall.
He pulled off the first neophyte and twisted his arm out of its socket as he threw him away. The second he knocked unconscious, the third he may have broken her leg, his bad, though it effectively incapacitated her. He tossed them all off until only the twins remained, backed up against the wall together and watching him throw aside their attackers, still in a fighting stance with fists raised. When he stopped at them and did nothing, they lowered their arms and both began talking at once. He couldn’t keep track of their lips so he turned away. A hand reached for him. He spun around, knife in grip, and the girl stopped. It was the twin who had started the fight.
“Thank you,” she said. He stuck his knife back into its sheath and shrugged.
Ordinarily, the guards would have stopped any fighting, especially in the common halls. But not for the sake of twins. If they weren’t enthusiastically watching, they at least weren’t going to risk misfortune by interacting on behalf of a Cursed Birth, so could only wait out the results. Kiol, on the other hand, didn’t give a rat’s ass.
“Why did you help?” she asked.
“It was annoying,” he said coldly, and left.
He waited until every last residue of sunlight was gone. Then he walked to Ruadhan’s quarters, nodding to the guard on duty as he stepped into the hall. He only went a little ways down it before hopping onto the open windowsill and climbing up to the roof from there.
Ruadhan always picked the best nights. Slim moon covered in swaths of thick cloud, making Kiol in his all-black garb near invisible as he moved swiftly across the rooftops of the city. It was a chilly night, but nothing too bad, and even if it was bitterly cold it wouldn’t have affected Kiol too much. When he had his mind on a mission, nothing could distract him. He ended on a rooftop that was lower than normal, but despite that it wasn’t obscured with shadow. No other buildings were built around it, because right beside it was the library.
Even with its ragged walls where the top half crumbled centuries ago, its previous splendor was easily imagined. It took up huge areas of both land and sky, its glittering stones burnt in places from fire but kept clean otherwise. Even the pathetic attempts to patch up holes and fill in the top with the dismal gray wood most buildings were made of did not detract from the image of grandeur. And no one dared to build near it. Even were it not an unspoken taboo to tarnish Creator’s visions with unworthy architecture, it was embarrassing to have your building in constant contrast with it.
The one exception here was the little house built beside the library in which the archivist lived. The man who kept surviving records and knowledge safe while slowly accumulating more. It was one of the highest positions in the city that was not a rank within the Society. Many wanted to take the position. Ruadhan certainly did not, and as far as Kiol knew had no reason whatsoever for wanting the man dead. But the reason didn’t matter. The order did.
He lowered himself to the top of a window emitting a faint glow. After a second he lowered his head and peered inside. The man was reading a scroll by candlelight. Almost as soon as Kiol looked in, though, he set the paper aside and brought the candle over to his bedside. Kiol lifted his head before he was seen. The light inside was snuffed out and the room cast in darkness. He looked in again. For anyone else the darkness would have been all encompassing and impossible to see through, but he saw the outlines of everything. It wasn’t as clear as with light, of course, but even the charms on the wall were visible to him, down to the protective runes written on them. Clearly those worked.
Just before he was about to flip in, the man sat up in his bed. Kiol shot back up to the window top and watched the room fill with light again. He crouched on the balls of his feet, ready to launch himself to the roof if he looked outside, but the light only drifted further away. It stopped while still in the room. After a while of silence, Kiol risked a glance. The man was back at the desk, at the scroll, only he was writing now instead of reading. Kiol stopped his annoyed sigh in his throat and forced his breaths to continue evenly through his nose.
He lowered himself easy and slow onto the sill, his eyes never leaving the target’s back. A thrown knife would be the easiest way, but Kiol didn’t resort to such tactics without dire need. It rarely killed the target quickly, giving them a chance to make noise, and it tended to leave more of a mess.
He crept closer, feeling the wood planks with his feet to be sure they wouldn’t creak before transferring his weight. He moved with glacial speed, patiently making his way closer. Just as he was within arm’s reach, the man turned around. In the split second as he was turning, Kiol had his dagger from his sheath and struck it through the target’s neck. It really was unfortunate that it was the most efficient way to kill and keep quiet, because Kiol hated the crunch he felt vibrate his hand as the blade went through cartilage and bone.
The archivist was still watching him calmly. Calm. Fearless. It brought another pair of eyes to Kiol’s memory and he stepped back involuntarily, leaving the knife. Blood dripped from the man’s mouth and stained his eyes. He turned, reaching under his desk and pulling out a short sword. Kiol jumped forward then. He didn’t draw any of his own blades to combat, the man was at death’s door, there was not much he could do that Kiol couldn’t counter. But instead of pointing it at him, the man pressed the dagger tip to his own heart.
He pushed it through shirt and skin, blood bubbling from his mouth as it opened in his moan of pain. Bone stopped him from piercing fully through. His chest sunk as he wheezed, drooping a little, and it took Kiol a second to realize he was gesturing for him. When Kiol didn’t move, the man calmly reached over and took his hand, guiding it over the other on the sword hilt.
Kiol pushed, his expression flat even as his mind turned over and over in confusion and horror, as he did as the man wished and cracked the sword through his chest to pierce his heart. He ripped the knife from the man’s neck and he collapsed off the chair, muscles twitching as his body gave in to eternity. Kiol stared down at him long after he was dead, mind reeling. None of his targets had ever done that. Even as their life bled out in seconds and their bodies refused to cooperate, they still struggled, still fought for life.
But it certainly made things easier.
It even did the clean up for him. The man used his own weapon, his own hand (because it was his hand, even if it was Kiol’s strength). His fingers were still curled around the hilt. Kiol thought about his calmness and his activities, and his eyes drifted to the scroll on the desk. The top of it was packed with writing, hard to read, a stark contrast to the clean, evenly spaced lines below. It immediately seemed off. He stepped up to the desk to read it.
There were two different handwritings at the top. The same one as below, then another scrawled between the lines of the first. Although clearly done in a hurry, and with a slight tremor, it was unmistakably the handwriting of someone who wrote for a living, legible and elegant.
It was not a suicide note. Damn. Kiol started to turn away but the words pulled him back and he read it more carefully, all the way through this time.
You kill without question. Perhaps you should start. Why would Ru want me dead? I did my job too well. That is why. That is all. Is it worth death? Death is worth as much as the killer is willing to pay. What a shame Ru is my killer. I should not have taken those portraits from the Archbishop. If you can question, find the portrait in the library before
Kiol had to read it twice, his mind going blank halfway through the first time. Was this directed to him? Who else could it be for? How did the archivist know? Maybe he didn’t know— he hadn’t mentioned Kiol by name. But he mentioned Ruadhan by name— sort of. No one ever called Ruadhan anything else, but the man had been short on time. Unless he hadn’t meant Ruadhan and thought a different “Ru” wanted him dead? The archivist position was particularly coveted and sought after. Kiol leaned his elbow on the desk and pressed his knuckles into his temple, trying to slow his dizzying thoughts. Was the archivist a rebel? Why would he let the last words of a rebel give him such grief?
Those calm eyes.
Not the archivist’s green ones. Nirin’s dark, gold-speckled ones.
“You can save them. Try.”
Kiol growled into his teeth and snatched up the scroll, rolling it and not caring if the ink wasn’t dry. He stuffed it into his belt, checked over the scene and righted some things, hid away some things, made it truly seem like an anguished suicide.
He stopped on the windowsill, poised to jump to the ground. He launched himself up to the roof instead and from there to the library.
He had only been to the library a few times before, and it was long ago. Back when he was a young boy and had just joined the Society’s soldier sect. All new recruits were used for various chores, so sometimes he had been sent to the library to bring back information. That was really the archivist’s main job; finding the scroll that held information a person wanted and copying it down on new paper for them to take along. It had been the same archivist he had just killed. Seeing the neophyte uniform of white, black, and red, people would often disregard them, but the archivist had always been attentive and kind. He had also mentioned being Ruadhan’s friend.
Kiol stopped just inside the window of the third floor. Ru. A nickname of familiarity and intimacy. When the archivist mentioned the friendship, all those years ago, Kiol had brushed it off. Even as an initiate it had been obvious that Ruadhan had no friends and the archivist was just exaggerating the relationship. But Ruadhan had known this man’s habits. Three hours after sunset. He had told Kiol all the information in order for him to get the job done immediately, when it was usually up to him to gather that information and make the plan.
Kiol hurried through the levels, past the endless shelves of scrolls, going down to the first floor as he wracked his brain for the memories. Portraits. Paintings. Where was art kept? He’d have to find the directory, and he didn’t know where that was either. Except—if they had just been obtained, the archivist likely hadn’t had time to catalog them. Which meant they would be in… storage? Kiol went to the cellar.
He dug through the huge crates there, with a carelessness that would make any archivist cringe. It was mostly scrolls, artifacts, antiques. He looked around. Even with his enhanced vision, the cellar was underground with no lights whatsoever, and he had to squint and guess what vague shapes were. He was looking for a bundle, anything that seemed like it could be a stack of paintings. It occurred to him then that that might have been the problem, looking for multiple paintings. He looked instead for what could be a single painting, and his eyes fell to what he had before thought was a shelf.
He fumbled in his pouch for a lighter and struck it for temporary light, holding the flame probably too close to the portrait to see. It was the Archbishop and Ruadhan.
The Archbishop was seated in a plain but grand chair and Ruadhan stood beside him just slightly behind, hands clasped dutifully behind his back. Both were straight-backed, their expressions severe, their faces youthful. It was a well-kept painting but must have been made long ago, because the Archbishop Kiol knew now had a face full of wrinkles and what little hair he had left was silver. Nothing like the smooth face and thick black hair the man in the painting had.
He examined every little detail he could before the flame hit the end of the match and he crushed it between his fingers to put it out. It was just a portrait. Maybe that was why the archivist was a target—he had simply gone mad and Ruadhan wanted it dealt with. Maybe it was even compassion for a suffering friend.
Kiol sighed and started back to the main floor, but a few steps up and a realization made his blood run cold. The Archbishop had looked fifty, sixty years younger in the portrait. Ruadhan had looked exactly the same.