“About time you showed up,” Corva hissed to him when he stopped beside her. He gave her a nod of acknowledgment and she rolled her eyes as she turned back to the situation. He examined it as best he could. One of the men, the forward-most, was talking with a guard. Making demands, it looked like. But Kiol didn’t think he was the leader. No, the one in the back, arms crossed and calmly watching the proceedings from a vantage to see it all, was the leader.
The report had detailed five thugs, well-coordinated but ill-trained, who threatened some small businesses with violence if they didn’t give them part of their earnings, and promised them protection if they did. Protection from what was unclear, but Kiol had to wonder about it coinciding with the fake soldiers. He hadn’t been paying attention so he didn’t know how long the frauds had been parading around but he got the impression it hadn’t been more than a day or two. Ruadhan wouldn’t have tolerated it longer than that. But these thugs had been harassing people for a week.
Supposedly the thugs spent plenty of time in this very house, but Kiol had taken that to mean giving them business, not threatening it. It was too large an establishment to fit their usual standard. Of course if they had expanded their numbers, they may have decided to expand their reach as well. How convenient they chose today.
Kiol couldn’t really see what the demanding thug was saying. After he and the guard went back and forth a few times, Kiol sensed another presence behind him and glanced to see the madam walking up. Even faced with this scene she was collected, though her expression radiated fury. She brushed past Kiol, past the guards, and stood in the middle of both parties. Whatever she said alarmed the twins and they exchanged a glance. Kiol gestured, catching Caelin’s eye, and she shuffled a bit behind her sister to speak to him.
“She’ll let them kill the girls. She’d rather a few dead workers than cede her money and dignity to such low-lives.”
Kiol turned a more discerning eye back to the madam. He didn’t know much about business, but casually allowing the death of some employees seemed bad for morale and her workers’ trust. Even for soldiers, who understood the possibility of death as part of their jobs, commanders would never consent to their subordinates’ deaths so easily.
Some of the thugs added pressure to the knives at their hostages’ necks and tears leaked from the girls’ wide eyes.
A tiny streak flashed by. Kiol saw it, but apparently no one else did, not even the thug it had landed into. Another, then another. Not until the first man suddenly slumped to his knees was anything noticed. Kiol dashed forward a fraction of a second before anyone else and in two quick slices, killed the last thugs holding hostages. The girls stumbled forward in a panic and he glanced back to make sure Corva and Caelin were protecting them before dodging through the attacks attempted on him.
The leader was in the same spot, arms crossed, watching the fight unfold. Not until Kiol advanced did he finally take the sword from his side to block Kiol’s swipe. He smiled in the face of all Kiol’s attacks. Unlike the other thugs, this man was genuinely trained and good at fighting. But again, Kiol was faced with a dilemma. He didn’t want to kill the man, he had to capture him for questioning. Kiol ignored the mounting frustration and focused on attacking. It was so much easier to just kill people.
He grit his teeth and feigned three attacks before he got an opening. Kiol grabbed the front of the man’s robes and bashed his own head full-force into the leader’s. The man went limp, nose broken and sword falling to the ground. Kiol dumped him to finish off the remaining thugs. Corva and Caelin had done well and there were only four left. Kiol killed them in seconds, then stood among the strewn bodies painting the ground with blood.
The madam had not moved at all that entire time, and she curled her lip at the mess around her. The guards stood before her, having only protected her and leaving the actual offense to the soldiers. “Clean this up,” she told them curtly. “It’s not good for business.” Then she turned and strode into the house.
Kiol examined the first thug who had fallen. A dart stuck out of his neck, barely longer than a fingernail and as thin as a flower stem. Kiol pulled it out and smelled it. A deadly concoction of poison. He’d seen its trajectory; it had come from the second floor of the brothel. Both windows facing the street were empty now.
Kiol stood when he noticed Corva inspecting the unconscious man. “The leader,” he explained. “Tie him.”
Corva squinted at him. “Don’t give me orders.” Her sister spoke—Kiol assumed anyway, because Corva threw her an annoyed look before reaching into her robes where she’d hidden her belt. She bound the man’s hands and feet with rope then patted him down for any concealed weapons. He stirred a bit then and started struggling, and Corva slammed his head into the ground to knock him out again.
Caelin was gathering all the weaponry into a pile and she added the leader’s sword. This was really a task for more soldiers. Kiol blew a breath into the hair that had come loose from his ponytail, cursing the superstitious idiots he had to live with. He went to stand by Caelin. “What’s a tainted charm?” he asked.
She paused, then slowly added the last knife to the pile before looking up at him curiously. “A charm made with ill-intent that reverses whatever it is sealed with, having the opposite effect.”
“So a seal for strength would bestow weakness?” Kiol asked. Caelin nodded. “How can you tell a charm is tainted?”
“The reverse runes are written on it somehow, but usually cleverly. Stained into the charm with water so to be invisible, or written inside the lines of the shown runes. If done well, a tainted charm would be near impossible to detect.” Kiol nodded slowly. Caelin wanted to ask more, but she was smarter than that.
“You and Corva take the man back,” she said. “I’ll stay here until you can get a recovery party over.”
“I’ll stay,” Kiol volunteered. But Caelin shook her head.
“If you request a party they’ll send it. For me or Corva it’ll be too much of a hassle. Please help out one last time.”
Her words were true, so Kiol assented. Corva had maneuvered the unconscious man over her shoulder. “Let’s go then,” she barked.
Another body in the cells. Kiol hadn’t seen the prison so full since they were eradicating the Cult of Envy. He still had to deal with the fake soldiers. They had been stripped of their uniforms and wore the coarse prison garments that couldn’t even be called clothes. Kiol was well and truly done with the day but he had no other excuse to put it off. He hauled them one at a time to the interrogation chair.
Ruadhan had been right; they weren’t giving up their information easily. Through the blood and shredded skin and broken bones they hardly looked human anymore, but still neither spilled. It meant one of two things. They were trained and prepared to an extreme degree, or they feared promised repercussions of talking more than they feared excruciating pain. Given the untrained state of the soldier Kiol had fought, he doubted it was the former.
Kiol dragged them mangled and broken back to their cells and told the guards to keep them alive for the night. Then he washed and left his bloodied clothing to the launderers for cleaning. Even if they got the blood stains out, Kiol needed to buy more civilian clothes. So after a large dinner and a long night of sleep, he made his way to the inn.
Some part of him said that Nirin wouldn’t even be there, that he had left. That he had fled the city and was safe; that he was gone and Kiol would never see him again, never get answers. But when he asked the attendant they said the boy was in the same room, and so he was.
Nirin sat on the bedroll, hugging his knees to his chest and staring at the swirling patterns on the blanket by his feet. Kiol halted before he was even fully in the room, struck by how small and forlorn the boy looked. Pitiful, even. Kiol cleared his throat. Not to announce his presence, but in an attempt to get rid of the strange knot that had twisted there. The noise nonetheless made Nirin’s gaze tilt up.
Kiol slid the door shut and moved closer. So many questions tangled in his head and his chest and he didn’t know what to say, what to ask first. Nirin watched him, not offering conversation either.
Finally Kiol signed, “You were right. Ruadhan wants your help.” The boy nodded, not at all disconcerted by this. “He said the citizens will trust you,” he continued, then faltered. Nirin blinked, slow and incurious. “Your gift,” Kiol signed. “Is it the ability to make others feel the way you want them to? To… to manipulate their emotions?”
Nirin watched him for a long moment, then tilted his head. “You want that to be the case,” he signed. “Yet you are disgusted by it at the same time. Why?”
Kiol’s soul seized at being so called out, so quickly. Nirin knew that too, then. That Kiol hated the thought of being so obliviously manipulated. That he hoped he had been so he had an excuse for all the emotions and actions that were so unlike him. “Tell me,” he said.
“No, it is not,” Nirin signed. “God-gifts affect only the gifted, they never directly affect another person like that.”
“Then what?” Kiol asked. “What is your gift?”
Nirin stood and stepped closer with purpose. If it was anyone else, it would have been threatening and Kiol would have been on guard. But he wasn’t. He watched Nirin close the gap between them without moving an inch himself. “When I look at someone,” Nirin signed, “I know them. What they feel, intend, hope, fear.” Kiol narrowed his eyes. “I cannot read minds,” Nirin answered his unspoken question. Kiol’s eyebrows twitched up and Nirin finally smiled, understanding the irony. “But it is the closest thing to it,” he admitted.
Kiol tucked his hands under his arms and looked away from Nirin’s piercing stare. No wonder it always felt like the boy was peering into his soul. “I have to… buy some clothes,” Kiol said with a sigh. Compared to everything else happening, that had happened, it was stupidly mundane. “Will you come with me?” Nirin’s smile widened and he nodded.
It had been a long time since Kiol shopped for anything other than absolute necessities. He wasn’t even sure where to go, but Nirin led him to a tailor shop. Now that Kiol was paying attention, people did act stranger than usual around him. People saw his soldier uniform and quietly slipped down other streets, closed doors, or hid their children behind them. Kiol had not noticed because for him personally it wasn’t strange for others to avert their eyes, scramble out of his way, or stop talking when he went by. But this was more than that.
Even the tailor, when they entered, straightened and eyed Kiol warily. Nirin gave the man a soft smile, taking hold of Kiol’s arm and patting his chest to show he was harmless. The pressure of his fingers through Kiol’s shirt was gentle yet jolted sparks straight through to his skin. Nirin’s hand lowered before Kiol even had time to register any of it. With the tailor reassured, Nirin went to the shelves filled with robes, his eyes bright. Kiol followed behind, arms crossed. After starting the day seeing Nirin so pitiful and sad, it was hard not to smile at how delighted the boy was browsing the different clothing. But the tailor was still watching, so Kiol kept his face flat. It might have been the first time in his life that he had to struggle not to smile.
He stood in silent toleration as Nirin held up robes and tunics and pants to his body, all different styles, materials, and colors. Nirin looked at not just the held-up clothing but Kiol’s face. Most of the time Nirin would examine the piece a bit and if he didn’t like it, refolded and put it back. If he did like it he draped it over Kiol’s arm. But if he looked and Kiol had even the slightest doubt or dislike, Nirin instantly put it back without giving it a glance himself. It was too bizarre to have someone know and obey his interest without him needing to say anything, not even give a look. Kiol wondered how he hadn’t noticed Nirin’s gift before.
Kiol had never strayed far from black or brown colors. The fabric on his arm included different shades of green and red, even some white. When Nirin was satisfied, Kiol followed him to the service desk and dumped the lot down. “I need an outfit immediately,” he told the tailor. “The rest can be done later.”
“Of course sir.” The tailor gestured to the back room. Kiol glanced at Nirin.
“I can stay here,” Nirin signed.
Kiol’s collar grew hot. “No, it’s fine,” he said, sounding annoyed to cover up his embarrassment. “We’re all men, don’t act like it’s something.” And he strode into the room in a huff.
Nirin sat placidly on the ground, looking around at all the colorful fabrics and threads and devices in the room as Kiol undressed to his underpants. The tailor took his measurements, then shifted through the pile of clothes Nirin had chosen. He handed pants and a tunic for Kiol to try and, after eying the fit, took them back and immediately set to work. In less than an hour Kiol had an outfit: a cream shirt that fastened with knot-loops instead of ties, and soft burgundy pants. His uniform was wrapped into a neat parcel, even his dagger tucked safely inside.
He paid the tailor for that and the future work that the man promised to be finished in a week’s time, the quickest he could do it. Kiol didn’t care, he gave the man whatever money would get it done fastest. He was almost out of the shop before he thought of something and turned around, blocking Nirin from leaving. “Hey kid, did you want to buy your own?” he asked rudely.
The boy blinked up at him. When he didn’t respond Kiol scoffed. “You haven’t changed in days,” he signed. “If you need clothes I have money, it’s nothing to me. Besides, you stink.”
Nirin actually looked like he laughed at that. Kiol couldn’t help his own grin. They stood in the doorway grinning at each other until Nirin signed, “Okay,” and went back into the shop. He had clearly already thought about what he liked because it took him only a minute to gather the robes. Robes were easier to tailor than pants, but with Nirin’s body no male garments were made closely enough to his size to be a quick adjustment. Nirin refused measurements, writing them down for the tailor instead, and Kiol paid. Then finally they left.
“Are we going to question people about the soldiers now?” Nirin signed. Kiol stopped walking to look at him. “That’s what Ruadhan wanted my help with, wasn’t it?” He smiled at Kiol. “And why you wanted these clothes to wear.” Damn, the kid was astute. Kiol didn’t know how much of it was Nirin’s gift after all or if that was just his natural intelligence at work.
“You’ll help?” Kiol asked. Nirin nodded. Kiol glanced around then signed as small as he could, “Did Creator…?”
“She didn’t do this,” Nirin signed resolutely. Well, that was answered at least. But Kiol had no idea who else would, or could. The martial temple was kept under tight watch, as were all assets on the grounds. Uniforms couldn’t go missing without it being known. He supposed that was why Ruadhan thought multiple real soldiers were part of it, keeping the inventory numbers under wraps. Nirin was watching him.
He lightened his expression and signed, “Do you know where to start then?”
Nirin nodded, but his expression was darker than Kiol’s had been. “We start with the Cult of Envy.”