Kiol’s head hurt and exhaustion turned his eyes to sand. Nonetheless, he walked to Ruadhan’s quarters. The man was standing bent over the desk, hastily writing a letter. He looked up, pen still in hand.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
Kiol paused in closing the door. “You asked for me.”
“Yes, I know that. I told the guards to summon you as soon as you’d returned. Which should not be this early. Did you follow that boy?” Kiol nodded. Ruadhan set the pen aside and straightened. Kiol wasn’t sure, the man’s countenance remained steel, but he thought Ruadhan was a bit… frantic. “Tell me, then.”
“He didn’t do anything. He played on the streets, bought things, walked around.”
Ruadhan held his elbows in contemplation, tapping a finger against one. “He left the city,” he said.
Kiol nodded. “He went into the forest.” Ruadhan stared at him. Kiol resisted the urge to shift. “There was no base, sir.”
“Then why did he go?”
“He went to eat. Then came back.”
“To eat?” Ruadhan questioned. “Eat what? Where?”
“Vegetables. In the woods.”
“Just… in the woods. Not even in a house?” Kiol shook his head. Ruadhan’s jaw twitched, but he turned away.
“I will keep following him,” Kiol said. Ruadhan didn’t respond. After a long moment he waved his hand and Kiol left. He was glad he’d only had to tell one lie because he was shit at lying, especially to Ruadhan, and he was too tired to keep any deception cohesive.
He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
He woke up. Damn. He had hoped for a coma. Kiol sat up and rubbed his head, looking around the room. It was only then he noticed the charm on the ground. It was by the wall, pushed there when he opened his door last night. He had been too tired to notice even something so obvious and gaudy as that red tasseled knot. The runes inscribed on the wood dangling alongside the tassel were beautiful penmanship, elegant and crisp. Strength - Protection - Solace. It reminded him. He reached into his vest, heart pounding, but his hands connected to hilt. He still had it. He pulled the dagger out and held it loosely, reveling in the comfort and familiarity of a lost friend.
Ruadhan had given it to him. For the Temple General to give a present of any sort was unheard of, and the rest of the soldiers had been astonished. Kiol himself hadn’t thought it overly strange. An incredible honor, of course, but not an impossible reality. After all, Ruadhan was like a father to him. Had been, rather. Had been like a father to him.
The dagger wouldn’t damage his leather vest too badly, but Kiol didn’t want to run the test of time on that. He put it back in the inner pocket and resolved to buy a scabbard for it. Then he scooped up the charm and headed out.
He’d slept through the entire afternoon and into the morning. When he arrived at the food hall, breakfast was being put away but he hadn’t eaten in almost two days. He grabbed the back of a worker’s jacket and yanked them off the platter of hard-boiled eggs they were about to pick up. They yelped and scurried away. He took the whole platter and a jar of pickled vegetables to a table. Some of the newer kitchen workers stood far off and watched him, amazed, as he devoured the lot of it. Then he left the empty dishes for them to take care of and went to the training grounds.
There were three different grounds, though they weren’t actually separated by anything except that they were each on one side of the temple. Kiol walked the colonnade, watching the fields closely. Each one was enormous, able to hold six hundred soldiers with ease. The obstacle course had been put away and replaced with neophytes practicing command reactions. The other had intermediates running laps, and the last held seasoned soldiers sparring. They were brutal with each other, attacking as though their lives really were on the line; even with practice swords… wood was not a soft material. They were not as brutal as Kiol had been. Kiol had broken many of those swords, and many bones alongside them.
He scanned the pandemonium, but even his eye couldn’t pinpoint the twins. Too many brown buns and tan skins did not make them stand out. He was sure they had been intermediate so he hopped onto the railing along that side and lounged against a column to watch them run. After a while he finally saw one. She stood out because she started to lag behind, slowing down while the others had sped up. They were all spaced fairly evenly around the perimeter, but the slowest moving one was obvious to anyone. The one always chosen as prey.
Eventually the others finished their ten miles and filed off the field. All that was left was the prey. And her twin, who stood in the temple shade to rest a bit while she waited. The girl finished six minutes after the others and immediately leaned on her knees, gasping for breath. Her twin wandered over and Kiol hopped off the railing to follow.
The confident one handed a flask over and her sister chugged half of it before handing it back and wiping her face. Then her eyes fell to Kiol and the other turned quickly, tense for action. When she saw who it was she relaxed. If Kiol had been an instructor he would have reprimanded her for that, for assuming he was safe.
He thrust the charm out towards them. “I told you I didn’t want one,” he said.
They eyed it, then exchanged a look. “That’s not one of mine,” the shy girl said, still catching her breath. She glanced at her sister.
That one held up her hands. “You know I can’t make charms for shit.”
Kiol drew it back and looked at it. Who else would be slipping charms under his door? The twins were watching him. He tucked it into a pocket. “You should quit,” he told the shy one. “If you can’t handle it, this will kill you.”
The other bristled and stepped in front of her sister, blocking her from view. “Fuck off! Who are you to give such shitty advice? You don’t know us!”
Kiol looked her in the eye and her brazenness deflated a little at the savage coldness she saw there. “She’s holding you back,” he said. That sentence returned her grit in an instant and she flung out a fist. He caught it without looking and twisted her arm, forcing her to her knees. She clutched her arm as though she could wrestle it from him, face contorted in pain. “This is kindness,” he said. He let her go and walked away.
He ordered a custom scabbard in a small shop at the edge of the city and was on his way back when something compelled him to change course.
This time when he entered the inn, with his soldier uniform on, the patrons quieted and stared and shifted out of his way. It was a different attendant than before but Kiol had no doubt they spoke at length about the goings on of the inn, especially when it involved a character like him.
“Is that boy here?” he asked.
“Ah, yes, yes sir, he is. Shall I have someone fetch him down?” He started to lift his hand to beckon a person over.
“No,” Kiol said before he could. “Same room?” The attendant nodded and Kiol found his own way.
He did not try to be quiet at all, yet when he slid open the door and stepped inside Nirin didn’t look up. He was kneeling on the floor, bent over his knees and writing. It wasn’t until Kiol moved closer that he saw he was writing on a pouch. Of all the materials to use as parchment, that may have been the strangest. He stood, watching over his shoulder as Nirin finished a sequence of runes that Kiol had never seen before. He hadn’t even known there were more runes than those he knew. Then Nirin washed the brush in water and laid it on its case to dry.
He looked up at Kiol, the angle making his eyes even bigger and his face even smaller. Kiol’s heart pounded like he had finished a five-mile sprint and he looked away.
“Ruadhan knows about you,” he signed, eyes glued to the lattice window. It showed only the gray siding of the building next door. “He has informants all over the city. You have to be careful.” Of course, he couldn’t see if Nirin acknowledged, let alone replied to the warning. He was just about to peer back down when he felt a hand in his pants. He grabbed it on reflex, blood running ice cold, and his widened gaze snapped down to Nirin on his knees before him. “What are you doing?” he hissed.
Nirin blinked at him, innocent as a lamb, not even trying to break away from Kiol’s painful grip on his fingers. “Charm,” he signed with his free hand.
It took Kiol’s addled brain a second to comprehend, and when he did he let go of the boy and took the charm from his pocket to drop in front of him. “Just ask next time! Geez…” He backed up and since Nirin didn’t seem willing to stand, he sat on the floor with him. Nirin lifted the charm and examined it closely, turning it over and over. Kiol didn’t know what he was looking for. “Yours?” Kiol asked. Nirin shook his head. Kiol hadn’t actually hoped to solve the mystery that easily, especially since there was no way the boy could have gotten into the temple even if he had known where Kiol’s room was.
He watched without care as Nirin unraveled the knot and untied the wooden slab, effectively dismantling the whole thing. He looked confused about something and was still looking over the pieces when Kiol finally took the bait and sighed. “What is it?”
Nirin looked up. “Where did you get this?” he signed.
“It was in my room,” he signed back. “Slipped under my door. I don’t know who put it there.”
“Do you have any idea who it could have been?”
Kiol shrugged. “No. Unless that girl was lying and it was hers.”
“Girl?” Nirin perked up. “Twin?”
Kiol blinked at him. “Yes. How…” Nirin left the broken charm on the ground and went to the table, lifting up a burlap sack. Kiol huffed in disgust. “Did you go back to that dirty stall? Stop eating there.”
Nirin held out the sack and it took a second for Kiol to realize there was writing on it. He grabbed it then, brows furrowed as he read the messy lines, made harder to read on the rough fabric.
Deaf soldier with tainted charm. Ask girl for help, don’t let her say no, don’t let twin join. The mission is more important than its parts. DON’T LEAVE SECT.
Kiol read it over several times, but it made less and less sense. Finally he squinted up at Nirin. “What the hell is this?”
“A message,” Nirin signed, sinking back to his knees. “She’s never given me one like this before. I can’t understand it. I think… I think it’s meant for you.”
“A message,” Kiol repeated, before signing. “From that vegetable lady? For me? Does she even know who I am?” Before Nirin replied Kiol’s eyes widened. “Wait!” he exclaimed, looking the sack over. It was turned inside out to expose the writing. He twisted around to look at the pouch where Nirin had left it to dry. It was inside out.
He whipped back around to sign, “Is this how you’re communicating? Those vendors—those vendors are cultists?”
Nirin hesitated. “Not cultists…”
“Whatever!” Kiol burst out, standing in a hurry. “Your allies! They’re your allies?” Nirin nodded. Kiol threw the sack onto the ground and sprinted out of the room. He vaguely had the sense of Nirin following, but he didn’t slow. Not until he reached the end of that market street. The vegetable cart was there, dingy as ever, but the grandma was gone. No blood, no sign of a struggle. That was how soldiers did it. A needle of paralytic poison injected into their spine, then carry them away on the premise that they had fainted and were being brought to the temple infirmary.
Kiol realized what he was doing and turned around, heart in his throat. Nirin was coming up behind him, panting for breath, but safe. Kiol grabbed onto his hand. “Don’t separate from me,” he said, and took off to the next stall he’d seen Nirin visit, dragging the poor kid after him. But one after another, they were all the same. Vanished without a trace.
He finally stopped, letting Nirin catch his breath, though he didn’t release his hand.
“Are they dead?” Nirin signed one-handed.
Kiol ground his teeth. “Dunno. He’ll want to interrogate them. But they’ll die eventually.” Nirin’s fingers tightened around his and he glanced at the boy. Nirin’s face was carefully still. “I can’t save them,” Kiol told him before he had a chance to say it. “Really, I can’t.”
“No, you can’t,” Nirin signed, surprising him. He seemed like someone who would try anything against the worst odds to save another’s life. “The mission is more important than its parts,” he continued. “You can’t leave the sect.”
Kiol curled his lip. “Like I said, that grandma didn’t know me. Don’t put such weight on her words.”
Nirin shook his head. “They weren’t her words. She wrote them, but they were from someone else.”
“I don’t know. But I trust them.”
“You can’t trust someone if you don’t even know them,” Kiol scolded. Nirin met his eyes and didn’t need to say anything for Kiol to know his words. We don’t know each other either. He shook his head. “Whatever. You have to leave the city.” He gripped Nirin’s hand tighter, ready to pull him along again.
He hadn’t taken a step when he sensed the violent aura behind them.