He searched the temple—the dorms, food hall, common halls, training grounds, everywhere. The twins weren’t in the martial temple at all. He went to the delegator.
Her office was more like a library than a meeting place. Shelves separated the room into segments, full of scrolls and stacks of paper with subordinates rushing to and fro to gather, check, organize, deliver. The delegator looked up from the report she was reading when Kiol dropped his hands onto her desk. He didn’t know her well; someone else had been in the position when he was younger, before he started reporting directly to Ruadhan. But of course she knew Kiol.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Where are the twins? Those girls?”
The woman put down the paper. “Why do you ask?”
“For my mission,” Kiol said.
She hesitated. Normally the details of another’s assignment were only given with express written permission from the Temple General, but Kiol himself might as well have been that permission. He only received orders from Ruadhan, after all. She rifled through one of the dozens of piles on her desk and handed Kiol a paper. He read it quickly. They were dealing with a group of thugs that were terrorizing businesses on the east side of the city.
“Just them?” Kiol asked. Assignments never had two soldiers. If it required more than one, it would be at least three. And a mission like this should have had at least six.
“No one else will accompany them,” the delegator said flatly. “Are you going?”
He nodded. “Mn.” The delegator sighed and handed over a scroll.
“Read up then.”
The east part of the city was a strange assortment of homes, slums, entertainment, and “entertainment.” Soldiers patrolled here twice as often but it didn’t stop problems from cropping up. It was almost its own little economic bubble, and the disparity between destitute and affluent was only seen more strongly given that the well-off were often the ones peddling the poor; their skills, wares, and bodies.
Kiol moved by rooftop—it was more convenient and less annoying than dodging through crowds. Despite it being only the afternoon, people below didn’t notice him. He moved fast, but really most people just weren’t craning their necks to see the sky that often. Especially given that it was raining.
Kiol found the building, its haphazard construction spread out over both buildings beside it and hitting three floors in height as well—impressive. He dropped down one eave at a time to reach the ground, startling a group of girls who were standing under the roof. He had changed into civilian clothes, but that may have just made it all the more confusing. They patted their hearts and reprimanded him but he didn’t even look at them, brushing past the thick curtain to get inside.
Immediately he was bombarded with smoke, from pipes and incense. His mind turned to the charm and its mysterious lender, but it wasn’t the same. The incense here was only lavender and honeysuckle, strong fragrances that covered up the musky tobacco and opium and other unsavory smells that accompanied such houses. He waded through more curtains of cloth or cheap gemstones, not exactly in the way but still hung obnoxiously, sometimes strung along the ceiling, sometimes pooling against the ground.
He hadn’t gotten through the front hall before someone approached. It wasn’t with violence, but it was with an intensity that still put him on guard and he dodged out of their attempt to grasp his arm. The woman pouted at him, swaying her hips.
“Aw, sweetie, you shy?” she cooed, sidling up closer but not trying to touch him again. He recoiled from her anyway.
“Twins come in here?” he asked.
She blinked. “Twins? Why are you looking for a curse when you’ve got a miracle right here?” Her smile was near venomous in its seduction and she tried to press against him. He skirted away from her and continued into the house. He had to avoid several encounters, at one point even fleeing a particularly persistent woman at an actual run, but eventually he found what he was looking for. Or, half of it anyway.
She was lounging across a low sofa, smiling sweetly in conversation with a courtesan leaning over the top of it. Kiol had the twin’s names from the report, but even so there was no telling which this was, Corva or Caelin. Like him she wore civilian clothes, though hers were soft pink and purple robes. He debated waiting, lingering along the perimeter of this open room until she was less occupied, but he hadn’t stood there half a minute when someone honed in. He didn’t bother even trying to read the woman’s lips, stepping away from her attempts to caress him.
“I’m here for someone else,” he said abruptly. As he knew would happen by now, she tried to change his mind, but he had already made his way—quickly—into the room.
Corva or Caelin glanced in his direction and her eyebrows furrowed. She sat up, said something to the woman she was speaking with, and stood to meet him halfway. Kiol had assumed this was the confident one, as she seemed rather at ease, but after the morning he doubted that that sister would have reacted so mildly to his presence.
“Why are you here?” she asked when she was closer. He hoped she was speaking quietly.
“I’m helping you,” he replied. That just deepened the crease between her brows.
“Because when this is done, you’re going to help me.”
“I’ll tell you later.”
She blinked slowly at him, then nodded. “Corva has gone to speak to the madam of the house. We’re trying not to be seen together. But I think it may be best if I tell her you’re here.”
“Yes,” Kiol agreed. So his instinct was right, this was the shyer sibling, the one whose arm he hadn’t almost broken. “I will look around some more.”
He wandered in and out of rooms, putting more work into staving off propositions than looking for the targets. He was on the second floor, about to make his way to the third, when he dodged an attempt to grab him. It was not a courtesan, it was Corva. He could tell because she looked like she wanted to snap his neck.
“What the hell are you doing here?” She spoke through her teeth and Kiol really had to focus to understand. He already didn’t want to deal with this.
“Did your sister tell you?” he asked, bored. “Go ask her.”
“She told me. But we don’t need help. Especially not from you.”
“You do,” Kiol replied. Her eyes narrowed.
“You force your help only to blackmail us with it? What bullshit is that? We never asked for your help and we have no obligation to return it.”
“Then don’t,” Kiol sighed, and started up the steps. The third floor was less dim than the second, but shawls draped over windows and curls of smoke impaired vision anyway. Instead of a corridor through separate chambers, the third floor opened into large dens. Kiol had to cross one to get to another, and each held worse iniquity than the one before. Drugged and limp bodies lounging in the first room made way for naked, writhing ones in the next, became chained and bloodied in the last. It seemed the most likely place to find thugs; a den of pleasure and pain. But none of the people there matched the descriptions.
Kiol was about to leave them to their depravity when a scene caught his eye. One of the strung-up women being carved into had a blindfold over her eyes and her body covered in old and new scars. Her slender and pale legs, their delicacy turned brutal from cuts, are what halted Kiol. A hard lump settled in his stomach and rose in his throat and he thought he would be sick. Him. Sick from the sight of some consensual violence. But it wasn’t the violence or the blood or the twisted pleasure. It was the familiarity and what that might mean.
It was impossible to say which were clients and which were courtesans on either end of the act. Kiol did not understand either way. He went back down to the first floor, forgetting to even keep an eye out for why he had come. The madam of the house was obvious, not just because she was older than her workers but because she was dressed more expensive and modest. Not that wearing a long-tunic without pants and with the top flared open above the belt could be considered modest, but. In comparison. More modest.
She was speaking with one of her male courtesans and though he looked distressed she appeared quite leisurely, draped across a pile of cushions and plucking grapes from a bowl to eat. Kiol was ready to shoulder in, but thought better of it and waited. He couldn’t see the man’s face but he got the madam’s side of the conversation.
“—what he wants, he gets. It is what you are paid for.” … “No, it is not my job to change his mind. Not that I could.” … “I did not say it was your job either, did I? Your job is to do as you’re told.” For some reason Kiol’s hair stood on end and he looked away so he wouldn’t know the rest of the conversation. Eventually the man left in a bit of a huff and Kiol stepped up.
The madam gave him a sharp, appraising smile, like a butcher deciding which cow to slaughter. “My dear boy, you’ve been wandering all over my house for a while now without picking any fruit.” She popped another grape from the vine and, with the same smile, bit it in half. “This is not a gallery, young man. If you won’t buy what you’re looking at, you will be escorted out.”
Kiol was not surprised. Like Ruadhan knew all the happenings in his domain, this building was her territory as well as her livelihood, so naturally she knew who had entered and what they were doing. “I’m looking for someone,” he said. “A mute boy, not over twenty, long black hair, slender figure.”
“My, my, you certainly know what you want,” she said, her smile slanting. Kiol ignored the sudden sweat on his back.
“Has anyone like that ever worked here?”
She sucked at the second half of the grape, eyebrows high and eyes glinting. When Kiol continued watching her blankly, she finished eating it and leaned back with a sigh. “I’m afraid not, though if you find such a boy, do invite him to meet me.” She flashed a wolfish grin. Kiol refrained from barking an immediate “no” and turned to leave. Two large men were blocking the exit. He casually turned back to the madam. Her smile had faded and she was sitting upright.
“Why is an unannounced soldier here acting suspicious when I have two already invading on the premise of some mission?”
“I’m helping them.”
“Helping? Or causing trouble?”
“Helping.” Kiol met her gaze steadily.
“Then why weren’t you in the rundown I was given?”
“I arrived after. They didn’t know. They know now. Ask them if you must.”
She gestured to whoever behind him and Kiol turned his head just enough to see one of the men slip out the door. Of course, Kiol could have taken both of them easily, but he wasn’t about to draw attention and risk the assignment, plus piss off the largest brothel owner in the city. Degenerate as her position was, she was still highly connected and influential. Perhaps even more so than beloved public figures; certain benefits came with fulfilling desires and knowing secrets that others wanted to keep locked away forever.
The man returned and leaned into the madam to whisper in her ear. For a moment Kiol was worried he had gotten hold of Corva and out of spite she had told him Kiol wasn’t there with them. But when the man straightened the madam only sighed.
“Fine, fine. You may go, soldier. But know that any trouble or damage will be greeted with immediate repercussion.”
Kiol dipped his head and this time the door-guard stepped aside when he turned around. He shouldn’t have been worried. Pissed or not, Corva was a soldier and on an assignment, and she wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize it. He decided to meet up with Caelin again to see if the twins had found anything. But she was not back where he had first seen her. As he started to wander the floor to search, a crowd of panicked people, workers and clients both, rushed towards him. He stepped aside, flattening himself against the wall and watched them trample past. Then he started towards where they had fled from.
At the front of the house, the girls Kiol had first startled on his arrival were being held at knife-point. Corva and Caelin were already there with some of the brothel guards, facing them down. Including Kiol there were seven of them, which should have been more than enough to deal with the five boorish thugs detailed in the report. The problem was, there weren’t five. There were eighteen.