(Nine days later.)
The door to Nirin’s room slid open. Both he and Kiol looked over in surprise, since none of the inn staff would have been so disrespectful. Kiol was already halfway to his feet, hand on the hilt of his dagger, when Corva stepped in. He stopped on one knee, staring at her. Caelin slid in after, looking very ashamed and apologetic. She offered them quite a few bows, making whatever she said invisible to Kiol. But he supposed the apologies were more to Nirin, anyway. The boy stood and patted the air reassuringly.
“Why?” Kiol demanded.
Corva crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “It was Caelin’s idea, not mine.”
Caelin looked even more humiliated at that. She stared off to the side, at the wall, a blush turning her tan cheeks rosy. Then she raised her hands and signed, slow and clumsy, “The Harvest Celebration is today. I thought… the four of us could go together.”
Kiol blinked and looked at Nirin. But Nirin, standing in front of him, didn’t meet the gaze. He tilted his head with a smile. “You learned sign-speak.”
Caelin raised her shoulders. “A little,” she signed.
“Did the Archbishop teach you?” Kiol asked. He couldn’t think of anyone else who knew sign-speak who would teach her, Ruadhan certainly wouldn’t. But the word ‘Archbishop’ made both the women bristle. Corva in her typical angry way, Caelin almost like the word terrified her.
“Of course not,” Corva barked.
Caelin waved her hands in attempt to keep the atmosphere peaceful. “I taught myself,” she signed when she had successfully quieted her twin. “Scrolls in the library. Will you come to the Harvest Celebration?” Kiol’s lip curled. A day of festivities throughout the whole city, games and entertainment and contests. All the streets, not just the market district, would be flooded with vendors and civilians from nearby farms and other towns. Absolutely nothing about it appealed to Kiol.
He brushed past Nirin before the boy replied, moving close with enough intensity that the twins both took two steps back. “Don’t ever,” he said, voice neutral but eyes burning, “come here again without permission from me or Nirin.”
“I told Corva to knock—” Caelin started to excuse, but Kiol’s look silenced her.
“Not to this door, not to this inn,” Kiol said. The twins exchanged a look.
“We can’t even come to the inn?” Corva scoffed. “You can’t keep us from here, it’s open to anyone.”
“Why would you come here?” Kiol demanded. Most soldiers weren’t allowed to sleep outside martial temple premises, so there was no reason for either of them to need use of any inn, let alone this one. It wasn’t really a question and Corva knew it. She closed her mouth and glared at him. Caelin held onto her arm, laughing nervously.
“Okay, okay, we won’t, we apologize,” she assuaged. “I just couldn’t find you anywhere in the temple, so I thought…” She shook her head, not bothering to finish. Kiol pressed his lips into a line. She shouldn't have even known where to find him, but at the same time it wasn't like his being here was unusual. He spent most days with Nirin lately, partly from fear of Ruadhan going back on his word, partly because he had nothing else to do as he hadn’t received another assignment, and partly because…
He spoke over his own thoughts. “Leave now.”
Nirin came forward then, shaking his head. “I want to go,” he signed. Caelin looked between the two of them.
Kiol frowned down at him. “It’s no fun,” he signed quickly. “Not worth it.”
“I want to go,” Nirin signed again definitively. But he softened the statement afterward with a smile and a gentle pat on Kiol’s arm. “You don’t have to come.” Nirin knew perfectly well that Kiol would not let him go alone. He grit his teeth and crossed his arms. Nirin turned his smile to the twins. “Where?” he signed.
Caelin hadn’t realized that Kiol’s actions were his acquiescence. “Well, I thought to the south district, but, we can stay north…?”
“South is okay,” Nirin signed, and gestured out of the room.
Kiol trailed after the three, arms still crossed. Like every year the city had gone to great lengths to decorate. Grain wreaths placed over doorways and windows, orange and yellow lanterns strung along eaves, pumpkins and gourds decorated streets and front steps. Red charms with seals like Fortune - Abundance - Health were hanging everywhere. Paper tapestries were draped down the sides of doorways and stalls, beautiful calligraphy reading ‘Creator’s Blessings’ and ‘Ancestral Good Will’.
The south side of the city was setting up for the procession that wound through the wide main street up north to the temple, but despite the biggest street being closed off, the surroundings roads were packed with festivities and it was still stiflingly crowded. Kiol made the group stop by a bank so he could collect a hefty bundle of money, and bought Nirin a roasted sweet potato from a vendor outside. After some gentle staring from the boy, Kiol muttered under his breath and bought one for himself and the twins too.
He caught up to them at another booth, this one a game. The participant needed to toss a little paper crafted bug onto a fake spiderweb, and if they got it to stick they won a prize. On a day like this, the twins' presence couldn't disturb the high spirits and the game-master easily handed over a paper craft for Corva to throw. Even a well-trained soldier would have difficulty with such a game; paper was unpredictable as a projectile and it was almost guaranteed the game was rigged. Still, of three tries Corva landed one and was handed a bag of hard sugar candies. She immediately passed it to Caelin. Before they could walk off Kiol thrust the sweet potatoes towards them.
“Oh!” Caelin blinked up at him as though seeing him in a new light. “Thank you.”
“Not me, Nirin,” Kiol said gruffly, looking away. Caelin and Nirin smiled at each other.
Caelin shared the sweets with Nirin and they munched on the potatoes as they wandered around. Tossing rings, catching goldfish, solving riddles, string-and-hook fishing, paper folding, charm decorating, tapestry painting. There was a lot to see and do, on top of the myriad booths selling food and wares. The problem was there were so many people it was difficult to get to the front of the booths to do any of it. Still, they managed. The twins would start wriggling through a crowd and upon seeing their faces, others reflexively moved away. All Nirin had to do was tug on Kiol’s hand, point, and Kiol would forge through the cluster of bodies to make a path.
One of the booths was for fortunes. For one coin a person shook a wicker ball until three rune stones fell from the gaps onto a velvet mat, and that was their fortune. The twins had followed them here, so Nirin let Caelin go first.
Pain - Love - Deception. Not a great fortune, and the only positive one had come out second, which was itself a bad sign. But Caelin laughed it off and Nirin took the next.
Deception - Hope - Death. Seeing the ‘death’ rune tumble to the counter, Kiol’s heart skipped a beat and his muscles stiffened. He forced the feeling away. It was just a stupid game, a meaningless superstition, and it didn’t even mean the person themselves died, just that there was death in their life. Which was already true in Nirin’s case. But even after forcing his body to relax, Kiol was light-headed. Nirin only smiled at the fortune and gestured for the next ball to be handed to Kiol.
Kiol looked at it in his hands. He hadn’t wanted a fortune. But Nirin gestured encouragingly, so he sighed and shook. Deception - Progress - Justice. A better fortune than the others, which genuinely shocked Kiol, silly superstition or not. But another deception… Even the booth-keeper acknowledged it with raised eyebrows.
“Three deceptions in a row? How strange. We only have one rune of each inside, Creator’s promise.”
Corva scowled at the attempt to hand her one. Caelin hugged her arm and said something to her. After marked hesitation, Corva allowed it to be passed to her. Then Caelin had to nudge some more for her to finally shake it.
Love - Loyalty - Knowledge. Even with the best fortune, Corva’s scowl remained and she rolled her eyes. “Waste of coin,” she muttered to Caelin. Caelin just grinned at her and thanked the booth-keeper with a bow.
At another booth, Caelin and Nirin had an impromptu competition of calligraphy. Even with Nirin’s flowing, intricate style, Kiol had to admit that Caelin’s was better. Everything down to the changing stroke widths was perfectly placed and executed. As they walked off from that, Nirin pressed the seal he had made into Kiol’s palm. He furrowed his eyebrows and tried to give it back, but Nirin had already skipped forward to walk alongside Caelin and continue teaching her sign-speak.
Kiol looked down at the seal, a dark polished wood with white calligraphy. Love - Happiness - Affection. He’d thought it was a strange seal when Nirin first wrote it, now it seemed even stranger in his hands. He supposed Nirin just didn’t want to hold it. He tucked it into a pocket.
Late afternoon saw them sitting around a table of a restaurant eating bowls of hot noodle soup. The procession would start in the evening, when the sun went down and the sky was lit by the thousands of paper lanterns decorating the streets. Kiol and Corva wanted to return, but Nirin and Caelin wanted to see it. Naturally, the latter two got what they wanted, so they had a few hours to waste.
All three soldiers were used to eating large meals in fifteen minutes, so they had long since finished and sat around the table munching roasted chestnuts as Nirin ate at a more normal pace. Caelin was explaining the significance of the embroidery they’d seen in the streets. Kiol watched her with half-closed eyes, elbow propped on the table and head leaning on his fist.
“You should be a disciple,” he said when the conversation lulled. It suited Caelin far better than martial arts ever could. But Corva and Caelin froze, eyes glued on Kiol as though he told them he had spat in the soups they’d just eaten.
Corva was almost too upset for words. “You—” she began through clenched teeth, then seemed to think better of it and just glared at him.
Caelin fidgeted with her chopsticks, staring into her empty bowl. Even Nirin seemed affected by the change of atmosphere, putting down his own bowl and looking at Kiol. But Kiol couldn’t read his expression and gave him an innocent shrug to show he hadn’t meant any offense.
“I was,” Caelin finally said with a sigh. “For a brief period of time. I would gladly return, but of course they won’t let me.”
“Won’t let you?” Kiol questioned. Corva seemed as though she wanted to say something, but stopped herself again and looked away, gripping the table with white knuckles.
Caelin nodded, setting her utensils down and straightening a little. “My sister and I were abandoned when we were kids…” Corva elbowed her and Caelin elbowed her right back, continuing. “I was very sick and our parents couldn’t afford the medicine, and, they were reluctant to rear us anyway… we were twins, after all. I don’t remember much from back then. Corva took care of me, found shelter and food and medicine. But I guess… well it wasn’t always in the most moral of ways. We had to move from town to town because my sister always got labeled a thief and miscreant. But she had to, even with temple charity it wasn’t enough to keep us both alive, especially with my illness. But in one town Corva pick-pocketed a priest and instead of confronting her, the priest followed her back to me. When she saw the state I was in, she took us in. With her care I got better. She taught us to read and write, calligraphy, sewing…” Corva clenched her jaw so hard Kiol wondered if she was splitting any teeth. “She never minded that we were twins, never treated us any differently, never blamed unfortunate accidents and situations on us.” Kiol’s scalp tingled and an echoing void seemed to have filled his ears, but he couldn’t look away, still reading Caelin’s lips. “But, in the end, our nature…” Caelin pressed her lips together and swallowed. After steeling herself she continued, “She contracted a sickness of her own. Corva and I tried, we tried everything but, she…”
“She died,” Corva said for her, eyes and face cold.
Caelin nodded. “The townspeople ran us out of town. I wanted to be a disciple, I wanted to become a priest like Yvelis, but of course no temple would take a twin. It was Corva’s idea to come to the capital. So many people here, and far away from our home, we wouldn’t be known or recognized. I went to the Society temple and Corva became a soldier, and for a while everything was good, even if we had to sneak around to see each other. But eventually it was found out that we were twins. The disciples shunned me and the head priests complained to the Archbishop, pointing out all the terrible things that had happened since I’d arrived. So finally one of the priests kicked me out, saying I had broken the rules by lying. I had never said I wasn’t a twin, though.” Bitterness had taken over Caelin’s features, but as soon as Kiol noticed she seemed to realize as well and smoothed her expression. She glanced at her sister.
Corva’s face remained bleak and icy, but she spoke, “Unlike those churlish halfwits, Ruadhan didn’t care. He even let Caelin become a soldier with me.”
Kiol looked down at the table and shrugged off Nirin’s hand on his arm. He didn’t see anything else the twins said. After a minute he dropped money onto the table and stood. “The procession will start soon,” he said, though there was still at least an hour. He didn’t look at the others before walking out.