Ruadhan sat between them and Hida passed the freshly poured tea to Kiol. He accepted it sourly and placed it on the table without taking a sip.
The old man regarded Kiol with his usual compassionate disappointment. His sign-speak was as careful and manicured as the rest of him. “Have you been well these past weeks, Kiol?”
“Fine,” Kiol replied, sitting stock straight and immobile, barely even moving his lips.
Ruadhan lifted his teacup and swirled the tea around inside it. “Your questions, then?”
Kiol didn’t want to ask with the Archbishop there, but there was no reason not to. They weren’t confidential questions and even if they were, Ruadhan would have said the Archbishop was trusted enough for any of that. “How many soldiers did you take down?”
“Sixteen,” Ruadhan replied, and sipped his tea.
“How many men and women?”
“When was the first report of them?”
“Four days ago.” And Ruadhan had taken them all down earlier yesterday. Kiol paused to consider his next question but Ruadhan spoke first. “You’ve already improved.”
Kiol’s eyes shifted to him, not daring to let his sudden racing heart show on his face.
“What improvements you’ve made, Kiol. I’m glad to see you utilizing your talents properly. Tell me your strategies for this next mission.” Back then Ruadhan was sitting across from him, handing a plate of fruit slices over with one hand while scanning Kiol’s most recent assignment report with the other.
Current-Ruadhan understood Kiol’s blank stare and elaborated. “You’re finally asking questions. I did tell you you’d figure it out.”
It couldn’t have been more different. Back then, Ruadhan would have offered detailed advice on how to best tackle a problem, not leave him to blindly stumble upon solutions and learn by making critical mistakes. With Ruadhan’s guidance he would have never abandoned a line of questioning at such a crucial time like he had in the brothel.
Kiol glanced at Hida still watching them both with keen interest. Kiol shrugged. “Yeah,” was all he said in response to Ruadhan’s half-compliment. “Do you have a report?”
“I did not give a report to the delegator. I told you I don’t know who I can trust in this situation. You’ll have to continue questioning. But please do go on, I’ll answer any you have.”
Kiol stared down at the table. He would have preferred to read all this, and without the Archbishop’s eyes on him. “They were all over the city?” he pressed on.
“They were concentrated in the south-west but yes, all over.”
“How were they terrorizing civilians?”
“They’d patrol as though normal soldiers before going into a store or up to a vendor and robbing them. They attacked or killed anyone who got in their way, especially my soldiers.”
So they were all men and bothering businesses, like the thugs were. That wasn’t particularly noteworthy, though. Vendors were easy targets and the most vulnerable to such strategies. The soldier sect had almost as many women as men, so an accurate fraud would want similar ratios, but if the impostors were spread out Kiol supposed it wouldn’t matter. But it may have offered a clue about where the impostors were recruited from.
“And the first report… who and where in the city?”
“South end, on Second Street off Main. A widow’s quilt shop was robbed by what she identified as soldiers.”
Kiol perked up. “Soldiers? More than one?”
“Yes. They were in groups of three, just like our patrols.”
The soldier that had attacked him had been alone. “So five patrols, except the one I fought was the sixteenth?”
Ruadhan finished his tea and put it down. “Yes.”
Why would one soldier go after him? He thought of the tainted charm still in his pocket. If real soldiers were working alongside the impostors… Was someone targeting him specifically?
Ruadhan watched him. When Kiol didn’t say anything else he asked, “Is that all?”
Kiol nodded and started to stand. Ruadhan held out a hand to stop him. Kiol grit his teeth and sank back down.
“Since you’re here,” Hida signed, “I thought we could talk about your avoiding worship.” He gestured as though he could fan Kiol’s grievances away before they even began. “I know your excuse, you needn’t say it again and I needn’t go through—again—why Creator’s current… condition does not allow one to shirk their spiritual responsibilities. We are all Creator’s children and we must strive to reach the enlightenment She desires for us, to follow the path She has set for us. You especially need to focus on such cultivation, to undress the darkness that your duties instill in you.”
Hida said he didn’t need to say it but he did anyway. Kiol sighed into his teeth and looked away. But with Ruadhan there he couldn’t avoid it. There was nothing to look at in the stark room anyway, except the golden tops of trees outside the window.
He decided to speak before Hida could continue his lecture. “I will go to worship after this mission is done.” Usually such promise was enough to placate the man but today he shook his head.
“Ruadhan has informed me that you are working closely with a cultist.” Someone might as well have dumped frigid water over Kiol’s head. He didn’t dare say anything and stared at the Archbishop as though he hadn’t spoken at all. “I worry about what nonsense he will lead you to believe. I’d like you to attend me every morning for the next few weeks.”
So it would be like the days when Hida taught Kiol sign-speak. The infuriating long hours he spent in private lesson with the insufferable old man. Hida used it as opportunity not just to teach Kiol to sign, but to lecture him about spirituality and force him to work on his calligraphy. It had been miserable.
“No,” Kiol said. Hida’s eyebrows shot up and the man blinked a few times.
“No?” he repeated.
“I don’t want to cultivate. The boy isn’t leading me to believe anything.”
Hida narrowed his eyes and returned to sign-speak. “It would be in your best interest, Kiol. I would reconsider.” He signed the last sentence with extra emphasis.
Kiol pressed his lips together and stared at the teapot in intense thought. “Okay,” he said at last. “I’ve reconsidered.” The Archbishop blinked again. “Answer’s still no.” Kiol stood and walked out the door.
He had a feeling Caelin, if not Corva, would be looking for him, so he didn’t want to stay in the temple. Plus Hida might also seek him out again if he stayed. He changed into civilian clothes then left through a window by the back of the temple grounds.
He had casually walked into Nirin’s room so often now that it seemed natural. He caught a glimpse of loose hair and bare skin and countless scars before he whipped himself around and almost ran straight into the door, forgetting he had already closed it. He stared at it instead, trying to calm his breathing while not dwelling on the details he’d just seen. The robes crumpled on the ground. The vivid black hair draped over a pale white shoulder. The latticework of scars that covered his arm.
Not dwelling. Not dwelling. Kiol breathed through his nose and out through his mouth and stared too intensely at the door. A touch on his sleeve made him skitter away and Nirin pulled his hand back.
“Sorry,” he signed. He was dressed now, in the robes Kiol had bought him, but his hair was still unpinned.
“No, no,” Kiol signed quickly. “I’m the one who’s sorry. Sorry—I’m sorry. I didn’t—I should have—”
“It’s okay,” Nirin signed. But the way he didn’t smile, not even a little, Kiol really thought it wasn’t okay. But he didn’t know what he could do to fix it. Nirin had turned around anyway, returning to the basin he’d been washing in and lifting the comb that was beside it. He scraped it through his hair and for some reason, even though Nirin was clothed now and not doing anything private, Kiol still felt like he had to avert his eyes. He stared at the window, but the lattice covering just made him think of those scars. Now Kiol knew they covered his legs and arms, but not his torso. He had no right to know such a thing, let alone think about it. He stared at the table instead.
Nirin twisted and braided and pinned up his hair in a similar half-up half-down style as usual. Then he stowed away the comb and extra pins inside his outer robe and started to lift the basin. Kiol brought his attention back at that and hurried over to take it from him.
“Don’t do that, that’s what the staff are for,” he chastised, but brought it out to the hall himself anyway. Nirin stood in the same spot when he returned, watching him. Kiol swallowed his guilt and discomfort. “Really… it’s my fault. I’ll leave if you want.”
Nirin shook his head. “I said it’s okay,” he signed. “I wanted to wash before putting on new clothes.”
“Yes… of course. Of course, yes.” Kiol cleared his throat. “The tailor finished them,” he said, “that’s good. They look good. They’re good.” The corner of Nirin’s lips twitched up and Kiol immediately grinned as well, relieved even if the smile was so quick and at his expense.
“You’re hungry,” Nirin signed. He was. He hadn’t eaten since the morning.
“Oh—I thought…” Kiol crossed his arms and looked away. “I thought we could eat. Together. We don’t have to. I just didn’t want to eat at the temple.”
Nirin nodded. “Yes, let’s eat.”
“I’m not feeding you,” Kiol said. Nirin gave a real smile at that.
“That’s unfortunate. It improved the experience quite a lot.”
In mid-afternoon the streets were quiet and lazy. It was before dinner time and chilly even so late in the day at this point in the season. Some ladies chatted in doorways and children played games but it wasn’t bustling with people going about errands or shopkeepers trying to lure others to buy their wares. Nirin wandered off and Kiol halted to watch him walk up to the small store selling fruits and vegetables.
He went over as well, sweeping his gaze across the display of fruit. Given the late season, it was only apples, pears, and one type of berry. A bored-looking woman wrapped in a shawl came from the store. “Would you like anything?” Before Nirin could reply, a group of kids ran past and one of them bumped hard into him. Kiol gripped Nirin’s shoulders to steady him, glaring at the boy who had not even stopped, but Nirin had another wrist in his hands. The unkempt girl he caught started struggling but he calmly restrained her, not caring about the dirt she got on his sleeves.
Kiol had seen her reaching for a fruit too, but he wasn’t going to say anything. The woman behind the display slapped the table and spat on the ground. “You disgusting vermin!” she cursed at the girl. “The lot of you are the same! Disgusting thieves!”
Nirin reached over and picked up a pear. He handed it to the girl and she stopped struggling, staring wide-eyed at it. One at a time Nirin gave her three more, enough for all four children. He let her go and she sprinted off without a word, following the other three who had long since run away. Then Nirin pulled out his pouch and counted out money for the shopkeeper.
“You shouldn’t help those brats,” the woman said as she accepted the money with a scowl. “It only encourages them and then they’ll be homeless and lazy for the rest of their lives. Let the temple deal with them.”
“She’s right,” Kiol said, scooping up a handful of berries. “You should ignore them.” He pretended not to notice the concerned curious look Nirin gave him, paid for the berries, and started back down the street. He popped one in his mouth then held the berries out for Nirin to take one. “You knew they were going to do that,” he said casually. “That’s why you went over, isn’t it?” He glanced sidelong at Nirin but the boy didn’t reply, only taking another berry.
They sat on the second floor of a restaurant, by the window because of Kiol’s insistence so he could see both the stairwell and outside. He ordered probably too much food and ate the main dishes while Nirin picked at the vegetable and tofu sides.
“You have a lot of money,” Kiol said after he’d filled his stomach enough to stop its ache. “Were you busking again?” Nirin looked up at him and Kiol frowned. “Stop doing that, it’s dangerous. And degrading. I’ll give you money.”
Nirin set aside his chopsticks. “I don’t need money,” he signed.
“Then why are you busking?!”
“I cannot walk up and start conversations with people. But they will with me if I do that.”
“Why the hell would you want to have conversations with people?” Kiol signed.
“To know them.”
Kiol wrinkled his nose. After a second he signed, “Why were you at those ruins that day?” He didn’t need to specify more than that.
“To see if those people could be trusted with Creator’s mission.”
Kiol had already suspected that exact reason but he wanted to be sure. It did make sense; of course rebels would be a good source of recruits, if Creator wanted to dismantle the Society they already shared that goal. He stabbed at a dumpling on his plate with his chopsticks. “Why are you helping me?”
“You’ve been helping me,” Nirin pointed out.
“Yes but not… not with something like this.”
“But you will.” Kiol looked up. Nirin was watching him, eyes unreadable.
Kiol put down his chopsticks. “Is that why?” he signed. “That’s why you’ve been letting me stick around? Because I could become some loyal follower for Creator?”
“No,” Nirin signed. “It’s because I like you.”
Kiol froze, but for some reason his mouth didn’t and he blurted out, “Why?”
Nirin smiled and tilted his head, bringing a pickled radish to his mouth before signing, “To dislike a person, you need a reason. But I don’t think you need a reason to like someone, sometimes you just do. All the small details become something important and precious and unexplainable, and more than anything, you don’t want them to leave your side.” Kiol stared at Nirin’s nonchalant smile, his throat and chest constricted to stone.
“That’s stupid,” he whispered.
“It is,” Nirin agreed, his smile unfaded, and he ate another pickle. Ruadhan had been so confident that Nirin would help him, despite thinking he was a cultist. How had he known? It wouldn’t be because he knew Nirin “liked” him.
Kiol was gripping his pants too hard under the table. He forced himself to relax his grip and gladly steered the conversation away from the previous topic. “Do you know Ruadhan? I mean… did you meet him before?”
“I don’t think so.”
“He really seemed to know you.” Even though Ruadhan himself had said he hadn’t been introduced to Nirin before, but that didn’t mean anything.
“He did,” Nirin signed. Kiol lifted his gaze back up from the table and furrowed his brows. “He knew me.”
“Like… like you know, with your gift…?”
“No, just normal knowing I think. It… it was hard to read him. He was mostly hate and resentment. But that’s why…” Nirin paused, uneasy. “You need a reason to dislike a person,” he signed again. “I don’t think anyone could hate another so strongly without knowing them.”
“He knows you’re God-gifted. Maybe he hates you because you gifted something to Creator?” Speaking of… “Creator seemed to know him too,” Kiol signed thoughtfully.
Despite the topic, Kiol couldn’t help the laugh that escaped his throat. On the surface Nirin’s gift sounded useless, but really… it was even better than his. “Do you know how she knows him?” Nirin shook his head. Kiol started to sign but hesitated. In the end he lowered his hands, and though Nirin looked curious, he didn’t ask. Kiol was glad, because it was obvious Ruadhan didn’t want anyone to know about his… what? Immortality? And if Nirin knew it would just be further incentive for Ruadhan to kill him.
A silence stretched between them. They both ate a few more things but the meal had long been over.
“You want to question civilians,” Nirin finally signed. Even though it was a statement, Kiol shook his head.
“It’s too late now. We’ll start tomorrow morning.”
“Is it too late? The sun hasn’t gone down.”
Kiol stared at his plate. So much had happened this day that he really just didn’t want to do more. Nirin resumed eating without saying another word. When they were officially done Kiol paid and they walked slower back to the inn. They were only a street away when Nirin stopped walking. He stared forward for a second before turning around to look at the homeless man they’d just passed.
He was cross-legged with one elbow resting on a knee and his chin propped on his fist, watching the two with bright eyes. Kiol hadn’t paid him much attention; despite being the nicer part of the city, the Society was generous to the homeless and so they were often around. But now that Kiol looked he realized that despite the rags the man wore, he was clean shaven and his hair was cut too cleanly to truly appear homeless.
Nirin walked over and Kiol instantly followed, all his focus on alert. The man didn’t have a violent aura but it was not exactly a pleasant one either.
“Good evening, Nirin,” he said, straightening when they were close and gripping his ankles almost playfully. “How have you been these past four years?”
Nirin inclined his head in greeting. “I’ve been well,” he signed. “And you, Emalen?”