“What did he say?”
“Yeah, what do you gotta do?”
“Why?” Kiol signed to Nirin.
Nirin’s smile was gentle and mischievous and adorable. “I won, so I can choose the favor, right?”
“Why something like that, though?”
“I’m hungry.” Nirin blinked up at him innocuously. Kiol narrowed his eyes, not buying the innocent act. He could see the others were still jeering at them. It was better to get it over with. He picked out a steamed rice cake with sweet bean paste in the middle, smelling it discreetly to be sure it had no meat.
Everyone else watched in trapped anticipation when Kiol returned, finding it even more captivating when they didn’t know what favor had been set. Kiol stopped in front of the boy and sighed.
“I can’t believe you’re making me do this,” he signed accusingly. Nirin just kept smiling. Kiol raised the rice cake and Nirin opened his mouth, leaning closer to accept it. The group burst into unconstrained laughter, slapping and grabbing at each other as they howled.
“He made him feed him!”
“~~~ that’s like one of your favors!”
“Mine are even more degrading than that, he’s lucky I didn’t tap his card! I wouldn’t go easy on him!”
Nirin’s lips were precariously close to his fingers. For some reason Kiol’s entire body tingled, like a million needles were pricking him. He should have dropped it into Nirin’s mouth and hastily retreated but he found he couldn’t, instead placing the cake gingerly on Nirin’s soft pink tongue like a florist adding one final flower to an arrangement. Nirin’s lips closed and he chewed it thoughtfully.
“Delicious,” he signed. “You chose well.”
“Is it?” Kiol signed back, wondering if he should try one himself. But when he looked over at the cart he inevitably caught sight of the others still shouting around the table and his reality was yanked harshly back into the room, bursting the peaceful world of just him and Nirin. Even Caelin was holding back a smile. Heat spread from his collar up his neck. “Next round,” he said loudly, feigning annoyance to cover his embarrassment, not for the first time since he met Nirin, which annoyed him for real.
The game got harder as it went on, most everyone having to lie. Kiol hadn’t been keeping track of what runes were already claimed so even if he wanted to try tapping a liar he would be guessing blind while others were making educated moves. For Nirin, of course, it didn’t matter. He continued to win and soon enough they had all their questions answered.
“No, no, you have to finish the game!” Sterren pleaded as they started to leave.
“No they don’t,” another protested.
“Let them go, boss, that boy ruined the fun!”
Kiol was leaving no matter what anyway. Somehow the brothel didn’t seem like such a bad place to be anymore. The cramped streets that had seemed so dark and unclean before were a welcome burst of light and fresh air.
He examined the money-lender's route and the alley on the way. Like Idretis said, the alley stunk of blood and gore, filled with offal from the butcher shop. Stray dogs were fighting over a pheasant carcass that was little more than bone, but then again the dogs weren’t much better themselves. Like all the stray dogs in the east district, they ignored humans until they were specifically targeted and chased away, but Kiol didn’t care enough and left the dogs to their fight. He’d seen what he needed to, anyway. The alleyway did only have the one exit and all three walls were made by tall buildings that couldn’t be easily climbed over or jumped down from.
Kiol stopped outside the brothel, remembering the madam’s words. “If you find such a boy, invite him to meet me.” The hair on the back of his neck stood up. From the corner of his vision he saw Nirin look at him peculiarly and he looked away even though it wouldn’t obscure anything from Nirin’s observation. He opened his mouth, about to tell him to stay outside, but then he remembered where they were. Both the street and the business were not good places to leave him unattended. And besides, Kiol needed him to witness the questions so Nirin could take whatever insights from her reactions.
“Stay between me and Caelin,” Kiol told him. “Don’t wander.” He looked to Caelin to be sure she understood too and she nodded. On his own, someone as cute and pretty as Nirin would be crushed under the wave of solicitation. Between two uniformed soldiers, only the most daring would approach. Naturally, in such a place, there were plenty of those. As Kiol led the way through the now unfortunately familiar rooms, he told off half a dozen people and had to keep a constant glower on his face to ward off plenty more.
Unlike the other victims, the madam had not bothered to increase security. She was in the same room with the same four guards, giving orders or reprimand to the staff bowing before her. When they left she gestured Kiol closer but he only took a few more steps into the room. “And what are you back for?” she asked. Kiol was calculating how to speak when Caelin stepped up and spoke for him.
“Idretis was returning from a meeting with you when he was attacked by thugs.”
Madam blinked. “So?”
“What was the meeting about?” Caelin asked. Kiol appreciated that she stood in front of him but turned enough that he could see her mouth. Very few others were as considerate even knowing his handicap.
“Money, of course.”
“Did you owe him money?”
“My dear, you don’t have a business like mine without owing and being owed some money.”
“Some?” Caelin prompted.
“Some,” Madam repeated, eyebrows twitching up as though daring her to question further. “I’m not about to open my finances for your prying eyes, soldiers or not.”
Caelin had gone quiet so Kiol butt in. “How long?”
“Excuse me?” The woman turned her high eyebrows to him, putting her hands on her hips.
“Your dealings with Idretis,” he clarified.
“Oh. Years, now. Perhaps… even a decade?” She waved her hand in front of her face as though swatting the question away like an annoying fly. “I don’t know, what does it matter?”
“So you’re familiar with him?” Kiol asked.
“I wouldn’t say familiar,” she scoffed. “We’ve long been associates, yes.”
Kiol gave Caelin a look and was surprised when she picked up on it. “The thugs that attacked him were recognized as frequent clients here,” she said, taking over again. “Did you recognize any of them when they were here?”
Madam sniffed. “I didn’t look too closely, to be honest.”
From the corner of his vision Kiol saw Nirin’s head lift as though something caught his interest. Kiol narrowed his eyes at the woman. “Think harder,” he said. She turned an unimpressed look to him.
“A lot of men—and women—come in here. I see a lot of faces, inside and outside my house. I suppose some of them looked familiar, but that doesn’t mean they were clients, let alone frequent ones.”
“She knows more—” Nirin signed, but stopped abruptly when the madam turned to him. Kiol didn’t know what startled him enough to stop him mid-sentence, but given how he seemed incapable of being surprised, it didn’t sit well.
Madam spoke before Kiol could. “You found him then?” She turned a sharp smile to Kiol. “I’m surprised such a boy exists.” She moved closer and Nirin shifted back, pressing closer to Kiol. He placed himself between them, scowling at the madam, but her smile hadn’t changed. “Many of my patrons would pay a high price for such beauty, in male form no less. Unbreakable silence on top of that? You could be rich in one night, my dear.” She tilted her head inquisitively at Nirin even as he shrank further behind Kiol. “What do you say? I’ll find you a nice, gentle client and we can split the commission.” Delicate, pleading fingers curled into the back of Kiol’s shirt.
“Stop,” Kiol said, his tone so sharp and dangerous that it worked. She stepped back and held up her palms placatingly.
“It was just an offer. I can’t pass up a good opportunity when I see one, can I?”
“You can,” Kiol growled. The madam laughed.
“You say because you have no business acumen, soldier.”
Caelin had inched closer as well, helping to stand guard before Nirin. “Enough of this,” she said, though rather uncertain, casting a wary glance in Kiol’s direction. “Did you recognize any of the thugs or not?”
“Well there were quite a lot of them, of course I recognized some. But I couldn’t tell you who they were.” She scooped her hair over one shoulder and sat down on the low sofa, crossing her legs. She leaned on an elbow, cheek propped up by her hand, and smiled at them. “I suppose they may have been patrons and recognized Idretis when he stopped by. That they shook him up is not my problem, and certainly not my fault, he should have hired better protection. If you’re insinuating I sent them after him myself, I can tell you now that you’re wrong. Idretis and I have a good relationship and a good understanding. And even if we didn’t, I wouldn’t resort to such uncivilized tactics. Are we done here?”
Kiol looked at Caelin and she looked back. Neither could think of any more questions to ask. And Nirin was still clinging to Kiol in such helpless desperation that he felt his own legs weaken. “For now,” he assented. He turned around and grabbed one of Nirin’s hands, holding too tightly to it as he walked out. He must have had such a dark look on his face that this time no one had the guts to approach as they passed through the house.
Once outside Nirin tried to tug his hand free but Kiol didn’t let go. He kept a relentless grip on the boy until they were out of the east district entirely and in quieter streets. Then he stopped walking and turned to the others.
“She was lying,” Kiol said, though it was more a question for Nirin.
“I think so, too,” Caelin said.
“Not lying,” Nirin signed. “But she knows more than she said. And she knows sign-speak.”
“She knows sign-speak?” Kiol repeated, incredulous. Nirin nodded.
“The madam does?” Caelin asked. She looked between them. “Can you teach me sign-speak?” she asked.
Nirin nodded at the same time Kiol said, “No.” The corner of Caelin’s lips twitched up.
“Why do you want to learn?” Kiol asked.
“Well it’s handy, isn’t it? Being able to communicate without making a sound, in a language not many others know. And spending all day with you two I’ve gotten tired of being left out. Plus it’ll be easier for you, won’t it?”
“Easier?” Kiol asked blankly.
“Talking to me.”
He curled his lip. “We’re not friends.”
“We’re kind of friends.”
“We’re not,” he repeated flatly. Caelin smiled. He turned around. “Let’s go back.” Corva was probably losing her mind by now, anyway.
They saw Nirin safely to the inn before parting ways at the martial temple. Kiol had to figure out the next step. How could he learn how the thugs knew about the soldiers—if they had known at all? If they were clients of the brothel, surely some of the courtesans would have known them. But the madam would tell them to keep their mouths shut, if she hadn’t already. He really should have questioned others while they were there but he’d been so focused on getting Nirin as far away as possible. Maybe that had been the madam’s plan all along; she didn’t care about any ‘business opportunity.’ He clenched his jaw and his fists with enough force to crack stone. This wasn’t his skill, he was shit at this kind of work. Surely Ruadhan had someone he trusted enough to do this, who could do it significantly better and faster than Kiol.
Well, at least he had predesignated targets for his anger. He interrogated the impostors for another hour each. Reopening old wounds was almost worse than creating them in the first place, but they still wouldn’t talk. He even asked them what they were afraid of talking for, offered help to protect them from whatever it was, and they wouldn’t take it.
When he put the second back in his cell, he noticed the vendors still hadn’t been touched.
“Has anyone questioned them?” Kiol asked the guard on duty.
“Not on my shift,” he said, and looked to his companion. He shook his head too.
“Who’s been given permission to interrogate them?”
“No one,” the guards said. Meaning only the Temple General. Ruadhan must have been too busy. With one meal a day, which typically consisted of a bowl of porridge, the vendors were already looking gaunt. They likely wouldn’t survive an interrogation. Kiol couldn’t believe he was actually considering ways to help them escape. After even Nirin had told him not to.
But if he spoke to Creator, surely she could get them out somehow. She was the “One True God” after all. But how could he reach her? Especially now... he wouldn’t be able to leave the city without arousing Ruadhan’s suspicion, and neither could Nirin.
He returned to his room and for the first time in a long time, lit the lamp on the wall so that he wasn’t sitting in darkness. He took the seat by his desk and stared at its surface, his mind turning over nonstop as though going through the exact same details enough would magically make a new possibility appear.
It felt like he’d hit the end of the road with the thugs. He could question the brothel workers but at this point he had little hope it would lead anywhere else. He had to get back to following his actual mission, anyway. All this had felt like some sort of practice, though. He realized he needed to ask more questions of Ruadhan than he had. If you can question. Dammit, dammit, dammit! The archivist was dead and, Kiol assumed by now, replaced. The letter was gone. The painting was gone—he’d checked. Likely turned to ash if Ruadhan was that upset about its existence that he’d kill a “friend” over it. Kiol was supposed to forget about it, pretend he hadn’t seen anything. That’s what he was good at, forgetting, not caring. Lately it had been taking more and more effort.
Kiol stood so abruptly it crashed his chair over. He didn’t bother fixing it before walking to Ruadhan’s quarters. He wasn’t in his office. Kiol went immediately to the man’s bed chambers but paused outside the door. He hadn’t been in there for six years, maybe more. Back when Ruadhan heard his reports over tea and actually cared about the details, forced Kiol to self-reflect and gave him suggestions and advice to improve. When he would casually pull out another cup to replace the one Kiol always, inevitably, broke; not saying a word or appearing the slightest bit agitated as he personally cleaned up the mess. When Kiol had returned from that pivotal mission he had reported to Ruadhan in his office, and that was how it had been every time since.
He raised his fist to knock on the door but it opened before he could and Ruadhan stood in the doorway, framed by the sun setting in the window behind him. He still appeared as put-together as always, his black hair sleeked back and his gold-and-gray uniform pristine.
“Have you made progress then?” he asked.
Kiol hesitated. “Maybe. I have questions for you, though.” The words coming from his mouth, right to Ruadhan’s face, felt akin to slapping the man. But Ruadhan wasn’t put off. He moved aside, opening the door wider. “Come in, then.”
Kiol stepped inside and paused. “Oh,” he said, the sound dying on his lips. He started to turn around. “I can come another time.”
Ruadhan had already shut the door. “Now is fine,” the man said, gesturing to the low tea table in the center of the room. Kiol took a deep breath through his nose and turned back around to sit cross-legged and rigid on the floor. Across the table in his usual elegant, wide-sleeved robe, the Archbishop gracefully poured another cup of tea.