Kiol had apparently gone too quiet even by his normal standards. As they walked down the road Caelin waved her hand in front of his face to get his attention.
“Finally,” she sighed when he looked at her. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said. As inconvenient as it was, he had a job to do and would follow where it took him. And regardless, he wasn’t about to tell Caelin how much he despised a constant stream of strangers trying to touch and converse with him.
“Are we going to the brothel, then? You’re going the wrong way.”
“No,” he said. “We finish the trail.” The last spot the thugs had attacked, before the brothel, was a gambling den. Just a small one, but nonetheless Kiol had been trying to understand how a small group of thugs had managed to overpower skilled and experienced guards on their own turf. It was becoming more obvious that they were not the low-level thugs the Society originally thought. At the very least, their leader had been knowledgeable in strategy, and likely knew how to best utilize his men’s individual strengths to improve the whole.
The den was in a cramped street, more cramped than usual, and seedy-looking people were lingering about trying to get passerby attention. Some trying to sell rudimentary tapestries, their bodies, or their personal belongings in order to have money to play. Nirin, with his fine clothes and approachable serenity, already drew a lot of notice. The first person to reach out to him and he stopped politely to hear her pleas and look at the dingy wooden utensils she was trying to pawn.
“No,” Kiol snapped at her, grabbing Nirin’s arm to drag him off. “Ignore them,” he told the boy, and looped an arm around his shoulders to keep him pressed to his side. He glared at anyone who so much as glanced their way and it was enough to make them turn their attempts elsewhere.
The small den was even more cramped with barely a spot to walk and lit hazily by paper lanterns. Every inch of the floor had either a table, a person, a lantern, or a game. Kiol led the way, shoving through bodies without care and swiftly kicking off anyone who tried to grab him in their anger.
The owner was in a back room, closed off to anyone without his permission. The guards were less acquiescing than the money lender’s and Kiol was about to fight his way through when a pressure on his arm stopped him; Nirin’s quiet restraint. Kiol met his unassuming look and dropped back with a sigh. Only a minute later the door slid open anyway and a ruffled man emerged, rubbing his head. From his crumpled clothes and messy hair one would think he’d been doing something physical, but inside was only a gambling table and a group of men playing a game, laughing and shouting over each other.
“What, what?” the man griped when a guard leaned over. After being told, he looked to Kiol. He looked him up and down, and Caelin and Nirin. After a moment of thought which looked painful, he gestured them in. “Fine, fine, I’ll tell you whatever, just stop interrupting my game.”
Kiol would have thought any good den owner would purposefully refrain from their own peddled recreation. He held back his judgments and eyed the guards as they finally moved aside to let them in. The private game room had an oak table with velvet spread across the top, and a delicate tea cart tucked into the corner with manicured snacks and wines. The three people around the card table gladly moved aside for the newcomers.
“Boss, you have more friends?”
“Nah, boss doesn’t have any friends, you know that!”
“Come play with us, pick a spot, come on!”
“The more the merrier!”
Kiol shook his head and the other two didn’t move. It didn’t matter. The players rearranged themselves and their pieces to accommodate three more people anyway. The owner—Sterren, Kiol remembered from the report—waved his hands lazily.
“I said don’t interrupt my game, didn’t I? You have to play if that’s the case. Don’t worry, don’t worry, we don’t bet with money.”
“Then what do you bet with?” Caelin asked it. She stood slightly behind Kiol but Nirin quickly signed it for him.
Sterren’s smile had a bit too much glee in it. “Favors.”
Kiol would much rather bet with money. “We’ll watch,” he said.
Sterren shrugged. “Then you’ll have to wait.”
Caelin stepped up to the table. “I’ll play. If I win, you will answer our questions.”
“It’s a fast game,” Sterren said. “One question per win.” Caelin nodded.
Nirin moved and Kiol tried to stop him but again found his hands grasping air. Nirin was at the table before he could say anything, picking up the chips allocated to his spot. With an annoyed sigh, Kiol joined. “Fine,” he told the man. “Same conditions as her.” He gestured to Caelin with his chin. He didn’t recognize the game but he would be terrible at it whether he knew or not.
What he’d taken to be chips were thick, small cards with plainly written runes on one side. A group of the same type of cards were placed in the center of the table and one-by-one the players claimed a card by putting another from their hand face-down over it. Kiol had no idea what was happening, and chose one of his runes at random to put down. All at once hands shot out over the table and Kiol stepped back on reflex, dragging Nirin with him. They landed on his card in a pile of limbs and the players started shouting at each other.
Nirin smiled softly at Kiol’s bewilderment. “If they think a player is lying and doesn’t have a match, they tap their card,” he signed. “But they must be the first to tap it. They are arguing over who was first.”
“Match?” Kiol signed.
Nirin gave a nod. “You want your rune to be the same as the one you claim. If it is, nothing happens. If it isn’t and you get away with the lie, you win the round.”
“Then there can be several winners,” Kiol pointed out. Nirin nodded again.
“That is why you want to catch a liar. If you do, you are the sole winner of the round and the liar is the loser. Ordinarily that means your money would go to the winner, but…”
Nirin’s attention turned back to the table and so did Kiol’s. Apparently they had sorted out who had won, and whether because he owned the place or had actually done so, it was Sterren. He smiled at Kiol.
“Well, my favor might be a bit impossible for you, and it’s your first time, so I’ll go easy and change it.” The man tapped his chin in thought. “Call me ‘master’ for the rest of the game.”
Kiol bristled on the inside but kept his face and voice flat. “That’s not a favor.”
“It is here,” Sterren said, his grin not budging.
Kiol stepped back up to the table. “Fine,” he muttered.
“Fine what?” Sterren prompted.
“Master,” Kiol said through grit teeth. Sterren smiled.
“Okay, another round, another round!” The other players collected their claimed pieces while Sterren took Kiol’s and more cards were placed in the middle of the table. This time Kiol was careful to put down a matching rune. No liars on this round. Everyone collected their pieces and another round began. This time after the first player had gone, Nirin reached out and tapped the card without hesitation. The man laughed in good-nature and flipped the card to expose his lie.
“What can I do for you, darling?” He winked. Kiol subconsciously pressed closer to Nirin.
“He’s mute,” he said. He hadn’t been expecting Nirin to take such initiative at all.
“The owner must answer a question,” Nirin signed. Kiol repeated it to the group and Sterren furrowed his brow.
“No I don’t, I didn’t lose.”
“He agreed to the conditions,” Nirin signed. “Caelin said if we win, he answers a question. She did not specify that he has to be the loser.”
Kiol huffed a laugh under his breath and told Sterren the same. The man rubbed his head and squinted as he thought. “Ah… I guess so,” he said, and laughed. “Okay, okay, fine!”
“Ask what you want,” Nirin signed to Kiol.
This was far too much trouble for some simple questions, but they didn’t seem to have a choice. Kiol turned to Sterren. “How many thugs attacked this place?” Sterren raised his eyebrows expectantly. Kiol watched him blankly until he caught Caelin mouthing ‘master’ to him. He pressed his lips together and managed to get out a, “Master.”
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Sterren said, seeming quite pleased with himself. “It was chaos in here. They killed a guard and one of my customers and everyone was fleeing and panicked.”
“You said five in the report,” Kiol reminded him. “So that was a lie?”
Sterren waved his hands frantically. “No, no, not a lie! Well that’s what I assumed, after hearing about the five men harassing businesses. But I guess it could have been more. Sorry—it wasn’t a lie, wasn’t a lie, I promise.” He didn’t seem to recognize who Kiol was, but he apparently knew enough to understand the consequences that came from lying to the Society.
Caelin calmed the man down with reassurances that he wasn’t in trouble and he quickly went back to his lackadaisical excitement.
They played round after round and without fail, Nirin won them all. Kiol should have known, of course he would be godly at such a game. Probably at most games that weren’t entirely up to chance. The men started complaining and saying that he was cheating, but Sterren laughed them off with a, “How could he cheat at this game?” Since Nirin winning only meant Sterren answering some impersonal questions, it was not as though it was some enormous loss. Still, it was unbearably boring for all the men who had come for a good time.
In one round, someone claimed the matching rune Kiol had his eyes on. There were four of each rune so it did not necessarily mean he was lying, and Nirin didn’t move at all meaning he must not have been. But that left Kiol without a match. He placed a card at random and in a flash, Nirin had tapped it. Several others had jumped to do so, but of course Nirin was first.
“Why didn’t you tap it the first time I lost?” Kiol signed, annoyed.
“I tried,” Nirin replied. “You pulled me away.”
“Oh yeah,” Kiol murmured.
“What the hell are they saying?” a player asked Caelin. She shrugged. “Well, what’s the favor, tell us the favor!”
“You have to answer a question,” Kiol reminded Sterren. “Uh, Master,” he added in after thought. He was annoyed that he was starting to get used to it and it didn’t feel so weird.
“No, no,” Sterren replied. “That’s only for winning against my associates. You’re not in my party, this is between you two.” And he gave Kiol the most shit-eating grin he’d ever seen that it took him conscious willpower not to punch the man in the face.
“He doesn’t have a favor,” Kiol said, turning back to the table. “Let’s play the next round.”
“No, there has to be a favor! Come on, this is the first time something interesting can happen!”
“Yeah, hurry up and do it!”
Kiol looked down at Nirin with a sigh. He was not worried, the boy would likely just tell him to give him a coin or something that he’d return later. But his words made Kiol’s soul seize. Nirin pointed to the cart of treats in the corner before he signed, “Feed me one of those.”