The twins were rarely apart. They ate, trained, and relaxed together. Given that no one else would go near them and Caelin got bombarded with jeers as soon as she was alone, they couldn’t be blamed for sticking together. But intermediate soldiers had strict schedules, which could only deviate on grounds of an assignment or an order. And since Corva and Caelin were always assigned together, Kiol was surprised that he found Caelin alone only a day later. She was in her dorm during the short free period intermediates had before mid-day, practicing calligraphy. The room held twelve beds, meaning twelve intermediate occupants, but she was the only one currently inside. She looked up in a panic when he approached, until she saw who it was and her sigh of relief was visible. She finished the rune she was painting and set the brush aside to stand.
Kiol didn’t comment on the calligraphy, despite the fact that he had never seen a single other soldier practice it. Calligraphy was a disciple’s pastime, meant for introspection and art and reflection on beauty. Soldiers had no need for such crap, and typically had no patience for it either.
“Where’s Corva?” he asked. What he really needed to know was, “will she be back soon?” but he couldn’t ask that without suspicion.
“Interrogating that thug,” Caelin said. It was Corva’s right to do so, given that the man was captured from her assignment, but Kiol wondered whether the guards would let her. He didn’t care to bring that up either.
“Can you tell if this is tainted?” He held the charm out to her.
Caelin was taken aback by the question but she obligingly looked it over. After some minutes of inspection she shook her head. “It could be. I can’t tell. The calligraphy is… exceptional. Someone with immense skill and experience wrote these runes. And if that’s the case, if they wanted to taint this charm I doubt even the most meticulous eye could tell.”
Kiol stuffed the charm back into his pocket. Caelin almost looked like she was going to stop him, but she closed her mouth. Kiol knew no one else would dare carry around a tainted charm and would have thought him insane for doing so. He thought they were imbeciles for believing in such nonsense so it measured out. He digressed. “I need your assistance with a mission. Corva cannot know about it.”
“Why?” Caelin’s brows furrowed. “I don’t know that I could keep it from her, and I wouldn’t want to. Why are you asking me anyway? She’d be a better help.”
“No. I’m asking you. Do you accept?”
“She’ll be able to tell I’m keeping secrets from her, you know. Especially if I’m wandering off without her.”
“Doesn’t matter. She can know you’re on a mission. She just can’t know what it is. Yes or no?”
Caelin shifted, her eyes shadowed with indecision even after she answered. “Okay. What’s the mission?”
“You know of the fake soldiers?” Kiol verified. He continued when she nodded, “I’m finding the one sending them. I need to question civilians. That’s all I’ll tell you for now.”
“What exactly do you need me for, then?”
Kiol ignored the question. “We should find out what information the thug gave Corva.”
“Hm? You still want to help us with that? I already agreed, you don’t need to—”
“It’s not to help you,” Kiol said. “Let’s go.” He started out of the dorm without waiting for her to clean her work space. He really didn’t have an instinct for such things but he couldn’t shake the feeling that the thugs were connected to the fake soldiers. It was far more likely he was wrong but he had to make sure, had to cover all possible trails to their end. It may not have been the fastest route but Ruadhan hadn’t given him a deadline.
Caelin caught up to him far down the hall. When they stepped inside the prison, the interrogation chair was empty. The only soldiers were the always-stationed guards. Kiol glanced at Caelin but she looked just as confused. “Corva said she’d be here… she wouldn’t lie to me.”
“You.” Kiol pointed to a guard. “Was her twin in here?”
“Yeah,” the guard said, eyeing Caelin with disdain. “But she found that man dead.” He nodded towards the cell they had put the thug in and Kiol noticed the door was ajar. What he’d first taken to be a sleeping form he saw now was a body with a sheet draped over it. Whenever prisoners died the guards took them to the collector at the end of their shift unless a higher up demanded otherwise. In the meantime they left them where they were. It was no sweat off their backs.
“How?” Kiol asked. The man had been alive—unconscious, but alive—when they’d left him in the cell.
The guard shrugged. “Must have died from his injuries.”
Kiol glanced at the impostors he had interrogated the previous day. They looked even worse, time giving them scabs and darker bruises, but they were alive and shivering in their cells. Kiol hadn’t hurt the thug badly at all, and neither had Corva—there was no possible way he died from the injuries he sustained. Kiol walked into the thug’s cell and crouched down to inspect the body. He was definitely dead. There were plenty of prisoners who pretended to be dead to try and escape—but the thug was white, his body in that limpness that not even sleep could mimic, and his skin sagging. But based on the smell and body temperature, he’d been dead under an hour. Kiol leaned in closer, trying to identify a scent under the layers of others. It didn’t belong. It had not been on the man the other day and it was nothing that should have come from a corpse. It was concentrated most strongly around the lips so Kiol’s best theory was a poison, but not one he could identify, so he couldn’t be sure.
He looked up to see Caelin and the two guards watching him with mixed expression. Watching a man smell a cadaver would unsettle anyone. “Who else came in here in the last hour?” he asked the guards.
“That girl, the interrogator, and a medic checking on those two.” The guard who answered gestured to the fake soldiers.
“Who came close to this man?”
“Just the girl.”
“The whole day? No one else?” The guard nodded. Prisoners didn’t get their one meal until mid-day either, so it couldn’t have been from that.
Kiol examined the rest of the body. Nothing else was out of place, no other wounds, not even an injection site. Could he have poisoned himself to escape torture? But the guards yesterday would have thoroughly searched him, there was no where he could have hidden poison. Kiol growled into his teeth.
“Come with me,” he told Caelin as he stormed out. She did as he ordered. If she had protests, Kiol strode in front of her and couldn’t see. Corva would definitely know something was up when Caelin wasn’t in the dorm and didn’t join her for lunch but Kiol didn’t care.
Nirin was eating when Kiol let himself into the room. The boy set the bowl of soup aside and nodded in greeting to Caelin. She looked completely lost now, glancing at Kiol as though he would provide answers (he wouldn’t), but she dipped her head in return. Nirin beamed at that and stood.
“Change of plans,” Kiol said before Nirin could sign. “We’re going to the east district first.” He already started to move again but paused. “Have you been before?” he asked. The boy was so innocent and pretty, he could become seriously traumatized from such a place. But Nirin nodded. Of course he had been there, he had been all over the city for Creator and when he worked for the cult.
Still, when they reached the first poor house Kiol gestured Nirin closer. “Walk only beside me and stay close,” he said and was gratified when Nirin obeyed.
Kiol still remembered the names and locations of who the thugs terrorized. Most were street food carts, which was the easiest place to start. Since they were questioning about the thugs, which was Caelin’s assignment in the first place, Kiol let her do most of the talking. She and Nirin were the less intimidating front, while Kiol stood to the side with arms crossed. He had to admit, despite his criticism of Caelin, she put on an admirable act of confidence. Her aura of insecurity and shame wasn’t gone but when it came time to do her job she held herself with no hint of the timidness that seemed to plague her otherwise, moving and speaking with a laid-back ease that fooled even Kiol into thinking she was competent.
When they walked off, Nirin retold the vendors’ answers in sign-speak to be sure Kiol got all of it. It was a decent enough system, but the answers were largely unhelpful. It tended to go as follows: A group of men surrounded the cart, threatened the vendor and demanded part of their money. If they didn’t cooperate the men roughed up the cart and products a bit. If they still didn’t comply they roughed up the vendor, though that only happened to one of them and in the end when she still refused to comply the thugs stole her earnings anyway. But some of what they said to her was exactly what Kiol was looking for. They warned her that she wouldn’t have their protection when the ‘streets took a turn for the worse.’
It could have meant several different things but to Kiol it meant one thing: they had known some impending change that others didn’t. Whether that was pertinent to his mission couldn’t be said but it was enough to keep him on the trail. The question was, how did he track people who didn’t exist anymore? All the thugs were dead and even if they weren’t they would not necessarily lead to the person behind the fake soldiers. Their connection was entirely Kiol's speculation. And so far, after Ruadhan had killed or captured all the soldiers, there had been no further reports of impostors.
Beyond street vendors, the next victims were a performing troupe, who said much the same. They were ambushed, demanded part of their earnings for protection. Then the thugs moved on to a money lender, so they were getting cocky. The money lender was the first victim with any real influence, the one who got the Society involved. At the attack the lender had had body guards but apparently it hadn’t been enough.
Now he had eight. Two of which greeted them at the door. No longer a time for Nirin and Caelin to be the face of their entourage, though hopefully Nirin’s presence proved they weren’t impostors, Kiol stepped up.
“We need to question your boss,” he said. Compared to the guards he was not at all imposing, they both stood a head higher than him. Their condescending glances shifted when they noticed the onyx gem on his belt but they held steady.
“Mr. Idretis answered questions already when he reported the incident.”
“And now we have more questions,” Kiol said. He stared them down, unmoving, unfeeling, until the two men glanced at each other and one of them moved aside, saying something. Kiol didn’t catch it, but he took hold of Nirin’s arm to keep him close and walked inside. The guard led them through the short hallway and through a small antechamber to the man’s office. Two more guards at that door, and four in the room. There was barely space for them all. The money lender stood up, eyes shifting warily across the three unfamiliar faces and then turning with scorn to the guard.
“What is this?”
A short back and forth and Idretis seemed resigned to his fate. He waved the guard away and gestured for them to have a seat but the movement fell short when he realized he only had one chair in front of his desk. He coughed into his fist and straightened his tunic.
“How can I help you?”
“Where did those thugs ambush you?” Kiol asked.
“I already told you people. I was on my way from a meeting and they caught me in the street. Five against my two body guards, it—”
“No,” Kiol interrupted. “Where exactly? What street?” Whatever the man said was unintelligible to him. Without even needing to ask, he saw Nirin sign from the corner of his vision. Havish Maple. The Havish Estate with the maple tree had long been abandoned and then demolished to be turned into more cramped housing for the poor, but the street retained the name. Idretis was looking at Nirin queerly and Kiol shifted in front of the boy on reflex.
“And the men? What did they say to you?”
Idretis sighed and pressed his fingers to his head. “They wanted the money I had just collected. After taking down my two guards, what other choice did I have but to give it to them? They left me five coins,” he rolled his eyes, “and thanked me. They said if I continued funding them I would receive their protection from any others who wished to hassle me. Ha! I hadn’t been bothered in years until they showed up! So I was paying them to protect myself from the very same! What ridiculous…” He trailed off into angry mumbles and Kiol lost track of the words. He put out a hand to stop Nirin from translating.
“Did you see where they came from? Havish Maple is a wide street, how did they catch you unaware?”
The man sorted himself out and stood indignantly again. “Three came around a corner behind me and two from an alley. The alley by the butcher shop—they smelled of blood and death, which I suppose must have been agreeable to such barbarians.”
Kiol didn’t know the east district enough to know what he was talking about, but Nirin tugged on his sleeve and Kiol slanted his face towards him to see what he signed. That alleyway only had one exit.
Meaning it only had one entrance. They had to have gone into it before Idretis was walking past and waited, likely for him specifically, meaning they also knew his route beforehand. That certainly wasn’t the work of some low-skilled thugs.
Kiol got the location of where Idretis had been walking from. It was the brothel.