Kiol spun and caught the kick on his arm, using his other hand to yank Nirin behind him. He dove into the fight but pulled back from killing when he saw the soldier uniform. A soldier. A fellow soldier was attacking him. Kiol was also in uniform so it wasn’t as though they didn’t know. Seeing two soldiers fighting, the sparse crowds had already taken off in panic.
Kiol blocked the soldier’s moves easily but pulled all his parries and attacks and couldn’t put an end to the fight. He’d never killed another soldier before, and without knowing why this one was attacking he didn’t want to. If he could question them… but there was no way to restrain them in a position that allowed lip-reading.
Finally he decided to knock them unconscious and deal with it later when the person lurched unnaturally and was halted in their attack. A crossbow bolt was struck through their chest. They stared down at it, uncomprehending, until they sank to the ground as life left their body.
Kiol’s eyes focused on the man walking towards them from down the street. Ruadhan. Kiol reached behind himself instinctively and a slender hand took his own. He had done it without thinking, to be certain Nirin was okay, but for some reason that hand in his seemed like it was the one comforting him.
“I’m disappointed in you,” Ruadhan said when he was closer, walking with predatory ease, crossbow held loosely in one hand. A chill spread down Kiol’s body. “To not tell the difference between a fellow soldier and an impostor.” Kiol glanced at the body by his feet. The clothes were official, and how was he to recognize any soldier as one of the hundreds he didn’t know? He realized then, belatedly, that the man had been fighting with a different style than a soldier would have; messier, more desperate. But in the moment Kiol hadn’t had time to notice any of that.
Ruadhan crouched down and ripped the bolt from the body, making it convulse. The person hadn’t died yet. Kiol drew his sword and stabbed it through their neck to end them. Then he faced Ruadhan.
He didn’t reload the crossbow. He stood, watching Kiol with a dark expression. Then his gaze slanted down and a depth of resentment Kiol had never seen before—from Ruadhan or anyone else—flashed through his eyes. Kiol followed the look to Nirin standing by his side, hand still clasped in Kiol’s as he faced Ruadhan with his usual steady calmness.
A strange flare of embarrassment choked Kiol and he looked back to Ruadhan, feeling like he ought to explain. But explain what? Why he stood hand-in-hand with the enemy, like two children crossing the street? How? Why did he care any longer what Ruadhan thought?
“Won’t you introduce us?” Ruadhan said, prying his stare from Nirin back to Kiol.
Kiol hesitated. “Don’t you… already know…?”
“I know of the boy, yes, but I haven’t had the pleasure of a formal introduction.”
“This is…” Could he give Ruadhan Nirin’s name? He likely already knew it. But still, it made Kiol’s skin crawl. “This is Nirin. Nirin, Ruadhan.” Nirin inclined his chin in greeting. Ruadhan only continued staring down his nose at him with a dangerous glint in his eye.
The long pause that followed made Kiol’s flesh bump and crawl until he wanted to tear it off. The unfathomable hatred in Ruadhan’s eyes was made all the more chilling for how still the rest of his face and posture was. Kiol felt as though he were not there at all, like it was only Nirin and Ruadhan facing each other on the street, peace in silent standoff with hostility. It was eternity before Ruadhan gave Kiol his attention again.
“I have an assignment for you,” he said. “Report to my office in a half hour.” And he disappeared down the street without another word.
Kiol didn’t speak until he was out of sight. “You have to leave.” He was about to grab Nirin’s arm to make him follow when the boy shook his head.
He signed, “No, I will stay.”
Kiol thought he would burst a blood vessel from stress. “Your allies are gone! There’s nothing in the city for you and no where to hide from the Temple General. Ruadhan is going to kill you!”
“No he won’t,” Nirin signed. Kiol could have split stone between his teeth.
His hands shook as he signed, “Are you blind as well as mute?! The way he looked at you—when Ruadhan wants someone in the city dead, they die. That’s the only outcome.”
“He wants me dead but he won’t kill me. There is something he wants more from me than my death.”
Nirin tilted his head. “I don’t know. I will likely find out one way or another.”
“So torture in place of death,” Kiol signed, exasperated. “That is worse. Get away while you can, I’ll accompany you to the forest safely.”
“No need.” Nirin’s gentle smile squeezed Kiol’s heart and infuriated him at the same time. “I will stay. Go report. I’ll be at the inn.”
Kiol reached out, resolved to force him out the city gates either way, but where he expected contact with Nirin’s arm, he grasped air. Nirin had moved aside just enough to dodge his hold. He had never avoided Kiol’s touch before. Well, Kiol just hadn’t expected it so he went to grab him again, this time ready for evasion, but it happened anyway. No matter how Kiol moved or changed tactics, it was like chasing a ghost.
He finally gave up, tossing his hands in frustration. “Fine! Get captured and die then!” He spat it out without thinking, an anger born from helplessness. Nirin’s easy demeanor shifted then and Kiol would have preferred a crossbow bolt to the pain that hurt expression stabbed through his chest.
But in that split second Kiol had already turned and taken a step. Pride drove him forward, stalking off and leaving Nirin a lonely figure in the abandoned street.
When his anger abated, which didn’t take long, he comforted himself with the very thing that had caused it. If Nirin could evade him he was not really in danger from anyone else. Of course, Kiol didn’t know how far that skill extended—to range weapons? To group attacks?—but somehow it seemed Nirin was more capable than the vulnerable aura he emitted.
Ruadhan was back in his office when Kiol arrived. He stood in front of the desk, arms crossed, expression unreadable. Kiol didn’t sit this time, standing against the door instead.
“Where’s the boy?” Ruadhan asked.
The Temple General didn’t lose track of a person of interest. “You know where he is,” Kiol said. He didn’t let his annoyance into his voice, but Ruadhan would have known it was there anyway.
“I meant, why isn’t he with you? You need him for this assignment.”
Kiol kept his expression neutral but his heart was suddenly pounding again. He didn’t let his thoughts run away from him, restraining them as he waited for Ruadhan to continue, waiting to hear what horrors the man would order him to commit against Nirin.
“Sixteen,” Ruadhan said. Had Kiol misread? Ruadhan arched his eyebrows. “I’ve taken care of over a dozen false soldiers. Running about the city, causing mayhem. Making our citizens feel unsafe and question their trust in my soldiers. You will find the person responsible for this and bring them or their head to me.”
Kiol’s eyebrows twitched together. That wasn’t his job. He received a target and he killed them. He didn’t lead investigations to seek out a nameless, faceless person. “That’s not my skill set,” he said.
“No, but it is Nirin’s.”
Was this the ‘something’ that he wanted Nirin for more than the boy’s death?
“Nirin isn’t a soldier,” Kiol said blandly. “He’s not even a disciple of the Society.”
“No, but he will help you if you ask.”
“You have others with the skills. Why not send a soldier who is equipped for this?” Kiol asked. Before, he would have never talked back like this, wouldn’t have questioned Ruadhan’s orders even if they were as nonsensically assigned as this. But that was no longer an option. Nirin’s life, possibly even his own, was on the line.
Ruadhan held up three fingers. “The city doesn’t trust any soldiers at the moment and won’t cooperate with an investigation. They will trust Nirin.”
“Why?” Kiol asked. Was that Nirin’s gift? Could he manipulate others’ emotions, make people trust him? Was that why… Kiol’s stomach soured.
Ruadhan continued as though Kiol hadn’t interrupted, holding up two fingers now. “No matter how skilled my students are, they do not have the gifts that the two of you have.” One finger. “These frauds are wearing official uniforms. I’ve determined there are several, perhaps dozens, in the sect who are part of this. Without knowing who, there is no one to trust.”
“I might be one of those people,” Kiol said dryly. “Nirin is a cultist, he could be operating this entire thing.”
“I know that’s not the case,” was all Ruadhan replied. “You will fetch him, and you will investigate. I have two false soldiers in cells you can interrogate, though I don’t believe they will be easy to crack.”
“I’ve never done an investigation before,” Kiol said. He didn’t even know where to start.
“You’re smart,” Ruadhan said. “You’ll figure it out.” Kiol narrowed his eyes.
“I will do this under one condition,” he said. “Nirin will not be touched or harmed, even after this is solved.”
Ruadhan almost smiled at that. Almost. It was just a slight wry twitch of his lips. “He is not who he says he is, Kiol.” Ruadhan hadn’t said his name so gently in a long, long time. Kiol swallowed, trying to ignore the way his throat constricted. “He is not what he says he is. He’ll only disappoint you.”
Kiol worked his jaw, summoning strength to keep his voice flat. Ruadhan saw his turmoil, but Kiol wouldn’t let him hear it. Somehow that was worse, like admitting weakness. Showing weakness was an inevitable condition of humanity. Admitting it was a personal failure.
“Do you agree to the terms?” Kiol finally asked.
Ruadhan watched him. Though it was his response expected, it felt like Ruadhan was the one waiting, not Kiol. Waiting for Kiol to come to his senses? To take back his requirement? Kiol stood strong and defiant, meeting Ruadhan’s unfeeling stare.
“I agree,” the man said at last. “Now do your job.”
Kiol shut the door to his room and leaned back against it, gripping his head. Was this Creator’s doing? Sending false soldiers into the city to sever people’s trust of the Society? How could Ruadhan hold such animosity towards Nirin, know he was a cultist, but still be so sure this wasn’t his ploy? Was this what he had to ask a twin’s help for? And which twin? Why couldn’t that stupid message have specified! And Nirin…
He shook his head and sank to the ground. Why had this happened to him? Getting caught in the middle of this web, these mysteries, these lies. He would have been content to live out his life following orders. He hadn’t asked for this, this game.
Someone was at his door. He opened his eyes, but the presence had retreated. A bright red caught his vision and he looked down at the charm laying beside him. Strength - Protection - Solace.
He snatched it up as he bolted to his feet and opened the door. There was no one, he knew that already. The air was choked with a scent—no, many scents. Smoky, fragrant, earthy, flowery, like someone had sat in a room with a hundred different incense sticks. Maybe they had. It would mask their true scent from Kiol’s senses. He ran down the hall, following the smell, shoving past soldiers who didn’t dare protest. But without him noticing, the scent had waned, and all at once he found himself with no trail to follow. He stood in the corridor, looking at the faces drifting around him. It was one of the dorm halls so naturally it had a lot more people. He grabbed the nearest one and they looked at him, terrified.
“Did you see someone run this way?” Kiol asked. The boy shook his head vigorously. He grabbed another, and another, but none of them had seen anyone. None of them had even a vestige of that smell on them.
He took a few deep breaths. Not to smell, any more, just to steady himself. There were too many threads to follow and he didn’t know which was the most pertinent. At the moment, though, he wanted answers to the questions he’d had the longest. He made his way to the prison.
From the outside it looked no different from the rest of the temple, but inside was lined with walls of thick stone and separated into two parts: the front room with its various instruments of torture and the larger back room divided into four dozen cells. A guard in the corridor, a guard at the door into the back room, and two guards with the prisoners. All of them gave Kiol a nod as he strode past.
The eight rebels from the forest were long since disposed of. Kiol pinpointed all the vendors, separated by at least one cell between them, and the two fake soldiers were easy to identify too. The old woman was sitting cross-legged on the floor in her cell. He crouched before the iron bars and she looked at him. She hadn’t been touched yet—looked like none of the vendors had. Despite obviously being part of those who had imprisoned her, the grandma smiled at him.
“You again,” she said. “How were my veggies?”
“The message you wrote,” he said. “Who was it from?”
She nodded sagely, as though about to impart great wisdom onto him. “A beautiful man.”
He blinked. “…The boy I was with?” he asked.
“No, no,” the grandma laughed, exposing her spotty gums. “Although he is beautiful too, isn’t he?” Kiol pressed his lips together. “No, a beautiful man… decades ago. Decades. He saved my life, you know. That’s why I remembered. Not that I forget much.” She tapped her head.
“Decades?” Kiol asked. The woman nodded. “How many decades?”
“Oh, how many, how many… too many, son, I’m too old. I was just a foolish flit back then, not even a woman yet. A beautiful man with blind eyes saves your life, you remember his words.”
“A blind man?” Kiol confirmed. She nodded. He couldn’t help the curl of his lip, his gaze sweeping the floor. A blind man decades ago told her to write a message specifically to him? What the hell! She must have been crazy. “Why?” he asked. “Why did you write those things?”
“What why? I told you. He saved my life. I promised this in return.”
“Promised what? What did he ask of you?”
“He told me when I was much, much older I would meet a mute boy who was always alone. Except one day that mute boy would walk side-by-side with a storm-eyed stranger, and then I should give him that message. ‘Deaf soldier with tainted—’”
“Alright, alright,” Kiol said sharply. She smiled at him.
“Was it right, then? Didn’t make any sense to me, but then it wasn’t meant for me, was it? Sixty… no, seventy? Seventy years, yeah. I bet he had no hope. If I was willing, would I remember? If I remembered, would I be willing? But don’t beautiful men always get what they want?…”
Kiol had long since stood up and was examining the charm, ignoring her and ignoring the looks the guards were giving him. He turned it over, studying it like Nirin had done. He knew nothing about charms. How could one tell it was tainted? But…
That made a decision for him, at least.