Ruadhan’s office was the same as always. Stark, austere. In natural sunlight it just looked like a clean and orderly office, but with lantern light flicking dark shadows across the walls and ceiling, it felt ominous. Kiol was annoyed at himself. How often had he stood here in the middle of the night? He had never been bothered before.
“You’re later than usual. Was there a problem?” Ruadhan asked. Kiol shook his head.
“It is done. Suicide. Stabbed neck and heart.”
“Heart?” Ruadhan’s eyebrows rose. “That is unlike you.”
Kiol stared hard at him, examining his face, his body. He had convinced himself that he had just forgotten what Ruadhan looked like, had remembered him younger than he truly looked. But no. His face was smooth, only a few, faint wrinkles that any adult had. He did not look over thirty.
“He had a short sword,” Kiol said as way of explanation. No need to mention that he hadn’t attacked with it. He watched Ruadhan’s face not just for age, but for emotion. Any hint of regret that a friend was dead. But there was nothing. Of course there wasn’t. It was Ruadhan.
Ruadhan narrowed his eyes. “Sloppy is unlike you, too.” Years ago that would have felt like a harsh criticism, but Kiol had long since fallen out of his favor and knew it, and so the disappointed comments did not hurt much. Could never hurt as much as the rejection and isolation did before he became used to it.
“Well, we will see,” Ruadhan concluded, and waved his hand. Kiol walked out.
He stuffed the stolen scroll under his pillow right before his head hit the top, and he fell into deep sleep.
When he woke it was long past breakfast. He rolled over and blearily rubbed his eyes, then remembered. He shot upright, grabbing his pillow, and the scroll was still there. He read it over again. Maybe you should start... If you can question…
If you can question. If. A simple phrasing made him see red. He crumpled the paper and chucked it at the floor. Why did he read it like it was from those dark eyes? “Can you free them? If they aren’t already dead.” He leaned over his knees and gripped his head.
He had tried for days, long after the trail vanished, to follow it further into the woods, to find out who had taken Nirin and where, but it was fruitless and he had given up. At the time stopping had seemed the only option, because it was obvious he wouldn’t get anywhere, but now almost three weeks later he was pissed at himself. Before, he had at least known where the trail went cold, he could have searched the vicinity more, had a slight chance of finding some other clue; he had had options but he told himself he didn’t! And now he truly didn’t.
He grit his teeth and closed his eyes. The other option, the option he always chose before, was to not care and not think about it. And he had tried. But he couldn’t do it this time. He couldn't forget Nirin. And that pissed him off, too. Who exactly was that stupid kid to have this effect on him?
He got dressed, then snatched the scroll from the ground and stuffed it into his vest. It was too late for breakfast but too early for mid-day, so he went to the common hall. When he was noticed, everyone inside stopped and looked at him. It was a place for socializing and chatting, with tables of various strategy games and a big hearth that warmed up the room on cold autumn mornings exactly like this one. Naturally it wasn’t a place Kiol went often. Or ever.
He sat down at a game of Sword Six and looked around the room. “No one playing?” he asked. The dozen or so soldiers there all looked at each other. After a drawn out moment, one of them stepped forward. The dangling gems from his rope belt were square and purple, marking him an intermediate. No one Kiol particularly recognized, but there was no doubt all intermediate soldiers knew him.
The man sat and tidied the board, pushing all the rounded-square pieces to their proper locations. Then he drew a card. Kiol did the same.
The paper was old and the painted image faded, but it was obvious enough what it was. A woman laying face-up on the ground, watching the clouds above, though the clouds were little more than streaks of blue anymore. Kiol examined the runes carved into the pieces before him. The card only allowed him to move a common one. He did so. His opponent moved another common, they set their cards face-down and each drew another.
Five turns in and Kiol had only drawn commoners. What bad luck. His opponent took his move, and for the third time, moved a rare. The chances of drawing three aristocrats or higher in a row was unlikely.
“Call,” Kiol said. His opponent’s eyebrows slid up, but he nodded. Kiol showed his commoner. His opponent rested his card down. An image of a darkened, contorted figure, seemingly in the throws of anguish, was painted on its surface. A cursed. Kiol really had bad luck. He took two commons off the board. But still, a cursed did not allow a move at all, and so his opponent had to take his piece off the board too. But one was still better than two lost pieces.
Everyone else in the room had gathered around the table, though a distance away, to watch. Kiol saw their lips moving, but when he glanced their way they quickly shut their mouths and he could not know what they said. It wasn’t until someone directly behind his opponent spoke that he could read.
“Ah, he’s not good at such games, who would have thought.”
He lowered his eyes back to the board and the aristocrat he had finally drawn, and moved a rare. He was close to one of his opponent’s pieces, next turn and he could probably capture it. Then he saw the man’s mouth move. He didn’t catch what he said, but there was only one thing he could have said. Kiol bit back an annoyed sigh and gave a nod, and the man showed his hand. A soldier with his sword proudly held aloft. A card that could move only commons, but beat every card except a cursed. Kiol dropped his aristocrat down onto the table and took his rare piece off the board.
The turns continued and slowly all of Kiol’s pieces were either captured or forced off the board. When he had none left, his opponent still had thirteen—he had only lost three.
Kiol didn’t need to read lips to know the surrounding audience were making remarks. “Wow, someone like him, so bad at this game.” “Who was intimidated by him? Hahaha…”
He gave a nod to his opponent and stood. The talkers all shut their mouths and moved back, making way for him, and he calmly walked from the room.
The food hall was just setting out the options. He grabbed a tray, loaded it, and took a seat. It was not long before others came and the place filled, but no one took a seat anywhere near Kiol, leaving him at the end of the long table. Halfway through his meal, two presences came beside him and didn’t continue on. He cast them a glance, gripping his chopsticks harder on instinct. The twins from before stood by his end of the table.
When he looked at them they seemed to take that as permission and they sat across from his seat. He eyed them, thoroughly annoyed.
“You don’t usually eat in the hall,” one of them said. Wearing the same training garb, with the exact same sharp features and light brown hair pulled back into buns, it was impossible to tell which was which. Not that Kiol knew either of them in the first place.
He continued eating without responding. They glanced at each other, and one cautiously picked up her utensils and began eating small bites.
The other shrugged. “Just, no one usually sits down here with us.”
He stopped with his food almost to his mouth. So, it was like that. Here he was thinking they were encroaching on his personal space, when he was the one who had taken their seats. He put his food back down on the tray and stood. The same soldier held out a hand as though to stop him, though she didn’t dare touch him. “No, really, it’s okay. You can sit.”
The other glanced up shyly. “We can be the ones to move,” she said. Her sister elbowed her and she raised her shoulders, giving a look back.
Kiol looked blandly between the two of them, then sat again. “S’fine,” he muttered, and continued eating. Really, the reason he was eating in here was because all the movement and commotion was a distraction, and that was all he wanted. To not think about that boy. To not think about that portrait. Not think about Ruadhan.
They ate in silence for a good while. Just as he was about finished, one of them spoke again and he looked up, only catching the tail end of what she said and so without context unable to understand at all. They were watching him expectantly. He just stared back.
He continued staring. They looked at each other and the more talkative one seemed like she was trying to mentally nudge the other with her eyebrows. The shy one turned to him with a forced smile.
“I can make charms. I’m quite good at it.” He narrowed his eyes. Charms were made by disciples, not soldiers, and certainly not by a twin. And was she offering to make some for him? How stupid.
Supposedly, charms were calls to Creator. Charms that she alone heard and blessed from wherever she was hiding, bestowing her love and mercy upon her children even as she was too heartbroken to face them. If a charm didn’t work it was because the disciple was not faithful enough, or because Creator deemed the holder unworthy of whatever was asked. That Creator was simply not there was never a conclusion.
Of course, Kiol knew that Creator was in a prison of her own making and couldn’t do anything, let alone bless some hundreds of charms made every day.
“No thanks,” he said. He picked up his tray and walked off.
He dressed himself in the one civilian outfit he owned, still muted colors of cream and brown, and went into the city. He wandered the quieter streets near the temple for a bit before making up his mind to go to the market district. He hated the market district. There were shops in quieter parts of the city that sold anything he could need; the market district was like a free-for-all of vendors. Not just stores but carts lined the streets, buskers took up any extra space, and there was always a crowd pushing against each other from every which way. The senses were bombarded with every type of color, texture, shape, or smell imaginable. Kiol could well remember the nonstop ruckus too, and could almost hear the echoes of it in his ears as he wandered.
He shoved through the crowded and twisted streets with no destination in mind. His annoyance took up most of his attention and in that way somehow he was happy.
There was a particularly large crowd at one end of a street, but surprisingly they weren’t all jostling each other. They stood watching something against the wall. Kiol saw them leaning in to talk to each other, meaning they didn’t even want to raise their voices. And whatever it was, was drawing even more people over. From the looks of it, Kiol thought it was something they were hearing, but even he felt a strange pull to this type of crowd that he would normally avoid under any circumstance.
He stepped up and did what no one else dared to, shoving through the people to get further in and see.
Sitting cross-legged on a straw mat, eyes closed, elegant fingers dancing across a bamboo flute—the picture of serenity—was Nirin.