Kiol was speechless for a second, unable to move, before he finally signed, “You said it wasn’t Creator.”
“It’s not,” Nirin signed back. “The Cult of Envy doesn’t follow her anymore.”
“But… the cult was trying to awaken her.”
“No, they were trying to awaken Envier. Only Serul and I knew the truth.”
Kiol blinked. “Serul?”
Nirin also paused at that. “Creator. I knew her as Serul before...” Before Kiol killed her. Nirin felt Kiol’s dip of guilty discomfort and quickly continued. “She let people think what they wanted because they wouldn’t believe otherwise. No one else knew Creator had become a remnant.”
“I know where the other remnant is,” Kiol realized. “We could show…” Nirin’s hand on his arm stopped him.
Nirin shook his head. “It’s not so simple. And the Cult of Envy is what it is. They still want to awaken Envier, which we can’t let happen.”
“Why would they send fake soldiers to terrorize the city?”
“I don’t know. That’s why we must ask.”
“The vendors? We can question them, they’re still in cells.”
Nirin shook his head. “They’re not cultists. They were recruits for Creator. People I knew we could trust with the knowledge of her existence.”
Kiol swallowed. Knowing Nirin felt his trepidation just made it worse. They would suffer for Nirin’s trust. And out of the nine, one would surely break and tell the interrogator that Creator was secretly gathering a force. Whether or not anyone else believed them, Ruadhan would. And then he’d know Creator had woken.
“How do we find them, then?” Kiol asked.
Nirin’s expression had not grown better the entire conversation and now Kiol swore it got even darker. The boy couldn’t look formidable, but he looked so grim it was frightening in a different way. And entirely unlike him. “We go to the one place they will always be,” he signed. Kiol really hoped it wasn’t another brothel.
It was a charm shop. A small, quaint store that sat above another selling incense. It reminded Kiol of the charm he still had in his pocket, but it wasn’t a good time to ask Nirin about it. He didn’t understand Nirin’s gloom and couldn't understand why cultists would come here. Charms were intrinsically tied to Creator and the Society’s disciples.
The shop was bright and cheery, with charms hung from the ceiling, along walls, from standing racks—all positive fortunes and seals. It wasn’t even clandestine, situated almost in the center of the city and quite near the always-crowded market streets. It seemed to be a well-liked store too, given the several people browsing inside when Nirin and Kiol came in.
Charms were more than the runes on them. The color or style of knot added significance and extra decoration, different calligraphy or a different material for the rune talisman added aesthetic. It was unspoken but unanimous knowledge that charms bought at shops like this one were ornamental more than effective. If someone wanted a charm with actual potency they would have a disciple make it. Of course, Kiol didn’t think those did shit either, so whether commissioned or bought it was all the same to him. “Pretty” charms were especially popular as gifts to a girl one wanted to pursue, with some ridiculous seal like Love - Devotion - Eternity written on a pure-white stone pendant. Which was exactly the one Kiol was looking at now. He was trying to look like a natural customer but the frivolity of it made him roll his eyes.
“What now?” he signed to Nirin. The boy was watching the sales counter with a feral sort of stillness. The lady behind it was talking and smiling politely to a customer as she wrapped a charm. Before Kiol could say more Nirin returned to his usual steady calm. He pressed closer, so close Kiol could see the wisps of hair caressing his forehead and each long, dark eyelash framing his eyes.
“You must ask the right questions in the right way,” Nirin signed, the gestures hidden between their bodies and the wall. Kiol doubted anyone in that store would understand sign-speak, but it was for the best anyway. “Pay close attention.” Kiol had no trouble memorizing Nirin’s questions. Whatever Ruadhan’s motive for requesting Nirin’s help, Kiol was just glad to have someone to tell him what to do.
Before he could take a step, Nirin stopped him. “You need to be less…” Nirin gestured wordlessly. Kiol looked down at himself, not understanding. He was wearing civilian clothes and they covered any scars or other hints of his occupation. In uniform, with the onyx diamond dangling on his belt, everyone knew his identity immediately, but in civilian clothes he had more anonymity. It didn’t stop people from instinctively avoiding him, but what more could he do?
“Less forceful,” Nirin finished. Kiol still didn’t understand. The boy looked him up and down again. “Your aura is too intense. You need to soften it. View yourself as part of society, not outside it.” Kiol’s heart stuttered and Nirin looked up at him, concerned.
“They’re the ones who view me that way,” Kiol signed, setting his jaw. “Not me.” Nirin patted his shoulders and Kiol’s stubbornness drained out of him with the affection in that touch.
“You’re just another person here. They don’t view you as anyone outside them until you give them reason to. So don’t give them a reason.” Nirin squeezed his hands, only for a second before Kiol pulled his away and tucked them behind his back in a tight fist. For some reason they were tingly and numb and his heart was thrumming faster.
“I’ll try,” he muttered.
He grabbed a charm of protection and with Nirin trailing behind, went to the counter. “Was this written by a disciple?” he asked when he laid it down. The woman looked at him with the plastered smile of someone about to deal with a difficult customer.
“All of our seals are made by disciples, sir.”
Her smile faltered at that but didn’t fall. “Of course. What other disciples are there?”
“There are fake soldiers running about. Will this charm work against them?”
“Protection charms work best when you work alongside it. If you throw yourself in front of danger, it might not save your life. If you do your part to keep yourself safe, it will enhance and ensure that.”
Bullshit. What bullshit. Kiol took a breath. Soft, soft. “I want a custom charm too. Do you do that?”
“Of course, sir. One moment.” She reached under the counter and pulled out a piece of scrap paper and a pen. “What do you need?”
“Purple charm with a crown knot and a seal for loyalty, justice, and sorrow.” The woman paused at that, her pen hovering above the word ‘knot’ she had just written. A drop of ink splotched onto the page and she quickly put the pen down. He couldn’t read the expression in her stare. He assumed Nirin, still hovering behind him, could.
She eyed him, not saying anything for a moment. Then she nodded. “Fine. We can do that.”
He paid, took the protection charm, and followed Nirin out. “Was that even useful?” he asked as they returned outside. Nirin did not respond. Seconds later a hand reached for Nirin from the side of the street. Kiol grabbed it and spun the man around, pinning him to the nearest wall.
Nirin touched Kiol’s arm, looking up at him, and Kiol released the man.
He stumbled back, rubbing his arm and still cringing from pain. Kiol didn’t catch what he said, but he assumed it was mostly cursing and angry exclamations so he didn’t try too hard to read. He wasn’t directing his anger at Kiol anyway, but at Nirin, who stood undisturbed beside him.
Kiol held his arm in front of the boy as though it could block the man’s vitriol from reaching him. “Calm down first,” he ordered. That got the stranger’s attention and he turned a stink eye to him.
“And who are you?” he demanded.
“A friend,” Kiol said.
“Recruit,” Nirin signed. The stranger apparently understood sign-speak. He scowled.
“You show up now, after years, with some random recruit? What game are you playing?”
“No game,” Nirin signed. “He fights well.”
The man glared at Kiol. “I noticed.”
“You have no need of another fighter,” Nirin signed. A statement, not a question. The man took it as one anyway.
“You know we welcome anyone.” His anger had lessened, but he still spoke with an offended sneer. Kiol wanted to cut it off his face, but he stayed back, watching their interaction closely. “But if you’re running around gathering recruits, why haven’t you come back?”
“I had no desire until this situation with the false soldiers.” Kiol wondered how Nirin could remain so calm. Making himself devoid of emotion was easy for Kiol, but it wasn’t that, it was never that in Nirin’s case. The boy was fully present, open, watching this man with a tranquil compassion despite his ire and rudeness. And yet—Kiol could see, now that he knew—under Nirin’s calm manner was a calculating study of the man. Unhurried, unforced, unconcerned.
Kiol had used his gift to kill hundreds, had grown up amidst a violence that few could stomach as adults let alone as children, but as he came to fully understand the extent of Nirin’s capabilities, a chill swept him from head to foot.
You could resist being killed. Not that resistance had ever done much for Kiol’s targets, but nonetheless, it was some futile comfort of control. But this… to have yourself opened more thoroughly than any sword could accomplish, and be unable to resist at all. That was terrifying.
All of this passed through his mind in seconds, and the stranger was oblivious to it all as he continued responding to Nirin. “False soldiers? What does that have to do with anything?” He seemed to realize and narrowed his eyes, casting a slanted glance around before leaning close. “Do you think we have something to do with those fools?”
Nirin smiled. “No,” he signed, and Kiol thought it was to him more than the stranger. “I don’t.”
The man straightened, hands on his hips. “Then you want to help people again?” Nirin’s smile faded at that. “Your charms could keep people a lot safer than those silly disciples’ things, certainly more so than the trinkets in this ol’ shop.”
“There are other ways to help people,” Nirin signed, and once again his calm aura had darkened to a severe bleakness.
“Maybe, but none so effective. When did you get so selfish?”
Nirin turned and walked away. The man exclaimed, “hey!” and tried to reach for him again but Kiol grabbed his fingers and bent his hand back until he felt the snap of bones breaking. The man screamed and clutched his hand, falling to his knees.
“Be glad I didn’t use my dagger,” he said coldly, and followed Nirin. The boy didn’t stop walking and Kiol didn’t bother trying to make him, following him all the way back to the inn.
“So it’s not the cult?” Kiol said when he’d closed the room door behind them. Nirin settled to the floor. Having calmed over the walk he sat placidly at the table.
“Not necessarily,” he signed. “It could still be their doing, just a higher level decision.”
“What higher level? With Cre—Serul gone, she was their leader, right?” Kiol dumped himself down far less gracefully across from Nirin. “And even when she was around, I thought there weren’t official positions like we have in the Society.” Then again, Kiol couldn’t say anything about the cult with any modicum of certainty.
“There were people close to Serul… who spread her word or enforced it. They were known among the followers and two of them rose to take her place when she died. But to tell you the truth… this really doesn’t seem like her work.”
“Her? You said two. What about the other?”
Nirin shook his head. “Tori makes all the decisions. Emalen, he is the face of her decisions and keeps everything running smoothly, but he would not act on his own.”
It sounded like Nirin knew them personally. Kiol wanted to ask, but before he even lifted his hands Nirin gave him a quiet, beseeching look. So he didn’t. He didn’t need to ask anyway, to know that Nirin must have been one of these ‘well-known’ people. He had been right in Serul’s quarters that night, after all, and some random man had recognized him from the first inquiry they made.
“Why the charm shop?” Kiol asked instead. “Isn’t that a bit…”
“Almost every charm shop is run by the Cult of Envy.”
Nirin signed it so nonchalantly, like it was a comment on the weather and not a world-bending vital piece of information that Ruadhan would have offered up his own soldiers’ lives for. Kiol was struck into incredulous silence. When he hadn’t moved in another minute, Nirin continued, answering the questions he knew Kiol wanted to ask. “Hide in plain sight,” he explained. “And it is an easy way to send and receive messages, also in plain sight so there is no reason for anyone to get suspicious. Plus it offers an income…” He splayed his hands in a casual shrug.
Nirin waited patiently while Kiol pulled himself out of a stupor. All this time, and they were right under their noses. Not that the Society had been concerned about cultists in years. He hadn’t even known it was on Ruadhan’s radar until the man mentioned Nirin trying to start it again. But he had it wrong, Nirin was collecting followers for Creator. Except Ruadhan was trying to awaken Envier anyway, so why did he care about the Cult of Envy in the first place? But... he knew the true identity of the remnant they were trying to awaken, that even they didn’t. He must have known Nirin’s true intentions, knew exactly what cause those vendors were following, and wanted to stop them under the guise accepted by everyone else.
Kiol dropped his head into his hands, digging his fingers into his hair. He was dizzy with tangles of thought again. None of it made sense, except that it did make sense, but it was a sense that couldn’t possibly be true. A cool palm over one of his hands made him jerk his head up and Nirin pulled back. Kiol propped his elbows on the table, meeting those gold-specked eyes and feeling his stress and tension drain from him, replaced with a different tension in his chest.
“In any case,” Nirin signed when Kiol had calmed. “I think we are back at the start again. Should we question citizens who had run-ins with the soldiers?”
“No,” Kiol said. He pried his gaze from Nirin’s with difficulty, looking instead at the lattice window and running a hand through his hair to get it out of his face. It fell right back anyway. “We must ask someone for help first.”