Nirin caught up to Kiol but didn’t try to comfort him again. He simply walked beside him and Kiol stared forward as though the boy wasn’t even there. But with no warning, Nirin’s presence was absent from his side. Kiol stopped and spun around, heart in his throat, to discover that the boy had only stopped walking and was looking off into the crowd. Kiol was back with him in two strides and followed his gaze to a man struggling through the masses.
He recognized him. It was the gambling den owner who’d been attacked by the thugs.
Kiol grabbed Nirin’s arm to drag him away before the man could make it over, but he hadn’t even touched Nirin’s sleeve before the boy imperceptibly moved away. Sterren finally made it to them, huffing for breath. He leaned on his knees as he spoke, “You— you— you kid, help me out!” Nirin nodded and he beamed. “Really? Yes, good! Come here!” He took Nirin’s wrist and started leading him through the crowd.
As soon as the man’s palm made contact, heat rushed to Kiol’s head. Nirin avoided his touch but let this annoying man grab him?! They hadn’t gone far before Kiol yanked the man’s hand off Nirin and Sterren glanced back in surprise.
“You can lead without dragging,” Kiol said coldly. The man rubbed his arm, looking anxious.
“Sure, sure,” he said, and continued. Nirin patted Kiol’s chest, smiling up at him, and followed Sterren again. He led them into a building, up three floors and over one, to what Kiol realized belatedly was a gambling den. He wanted to spit blood. Instead he stuck close to Nirin and put on his most sour expression as a young woman approached, dressed in flowing almost translucent robes.
“You’re back,” she said to Sterren, with as much enthusiasm as a clothespin. Sterren nodded vigorously.
“Yes, is she here? I’d like to play one last game.”
“Another? I don’t mean to offend, sir, but I don’t know what else you have to bet. And she’s quite busy just now…”
“I’ll give her my life,” Sterren blurted out. “Whatever she wants to do with me, make me into a slave, a sacrifice, I don’t care! But if I win, I want what she won back. Tell her that. Go tell her!”
The lady blinked at him, but seemed to understand that ‘no’ would just cause more inconvenience and grief. With a sigh she turned around and flitted to the back of the room.
“What the hell did you get us into?” Kiol asked. Sterren waved him away. Nirin hadn’t moved, standing calmly behind the man, so Kiol huffed an annoyed breath, crossed his arms, and waited too. When the woman had disappeared behind a thick curtain, Sterren spun to face Nirin.
“You’ll help me win, right?” he whispered frantically. “Last time wasn’t a fluke, was it?” Nirin nodded and shook his head respectively. Sterren patted his shoulders with both hands gratefully, absently, not stopping until Kiol shoved him. Sterren took a step back and looked at him. “Why are you here?” Kiol’s cold, emotionless stare was enough to make him drop the question and turn back around.
The young lady came back, a dubious look creasing her perfectly painted face. “She will see you,” she said, and gestured for him to go.
Behind the curtain was a lavish room similar to Sterren’s own back room, only much more opulent. The game table was low to the ground but every inch of the dark wood, aside from the velvet inlaid top, was carved into tiny detailed scenes of animals and people. Silks and cushions were placed strategically around, a velvet low sofa was tucked into one corner and at its other end was a table full of glass decanters of wine and stocked with dishes of extravagant food. Even fresh peach slices were laid out, and Kiol hadn’t seen those for months.
A woman sat on the sofa with an easel in front of her, painting. Her confidence and assurance reminded Kiol of Domora, but the resemblance ended there. She was dressed conservatively but in silks and jewels of the highest quality, and her cosmetics were refined, not gaudy. Her coiled-back hair didn’t have a strand out of place and was decorated with draping chains of silver as thin as a strand of hair itself. She was the very picture of sophistication. She paid them no mind when they first came in and the three stood there, Sterren shifting between his feet anxiously.
Finally the woman set down her brush and turned to them. “Brother,” she greeted warmly. Kiol glanced between them, not believing they were siblings. Not only did they look nothing alike, they acted nothing alike. There was no way they were brought up in the same household. Sterren strode forward.
“You agree to the terms then? We’ll have another game?”
Her smile was gentle and apologetic. “I did not say I agreed. Just that I will see you.”
“Is that not the same thing?” Sterren demanded. “Don’t agree and then back out!”
She shook her head, still smiling. “Please, Ster. Don’t cause a scene.”
“You’re the one who already caused a scene! Humiliating me! For what? To teach me a lesson?” She watched him without saying anything but her silence just made his face redder. “Cut the crap! I get it, okay! So I’m not asking you to hand me anything anymore, I’ll win it back on my own!”
You just asked Nirin to win for you, Kiol thought, irritated.
“That isn’t why I—” she stopped herself and sighed. Then she stood and gestured. Kiol stepped aside as two staff rushed inside and began setting up the table. Kiol had thought they would be playing that same awful card game as before, or another one he didn’t know, but it was a board for Sword Six. When the staff were done, the woman looked at Nirin. “So you’re encouraging this?” she asked. Kiol frowned at the rudeness, but Nirin only nodded.
“You always have your little entourage with you!” Sterren spoke up quickly. “I thought I could bring support of my own this time.”
“They can stay,” she said, with emphasis to mean she had not been planning on kicking them out anyway. “And wouldn’t you know, I sent both my boys off to enjoy the celebration, so it’ll be just me today.” She sat on one side of the board, adjusting her skirts. Sterren sat at the other and Nirin took a spot slightly behind and to the side of him. Kiol continued to stand, arms crossed.
“Won’t you have a seat?” the woman asked. He shook his head. She smiled and blinked a few times, but didn’t take her eyes off his face. Sterren turned around.
“Sit down, sit down,” he rushed. “We can’t play if you’re standing there peaking at everything.”
Kiol stared back. So they thought he’d cheat. Wasn’t Sterren already kind of cheating? Kiol still hadn’t moved when Nirin gave him the slightest tilt of his head in a beckoning gesture. So with a few breathless grumbles he sat on Nirin’s other side. Sterren was already leagues better at the game than Kiol was, lying strategically and placing his rune pieces more calculatingly. But he called every single one of his opponent’s lies without falling into a trap. At first Kiol couldn’t determine how Nirin was telling him. The boy sat straight and immobile, hands resting atop each other in his lap, watching the game. Only after halfway through did Kiol notice that every once in a while, Nirin would tap his finger against the back of his other hand a few times, and seconds later Sterren would call. At the end of the game, Sterren had five pieces left after capturing all the woman’s. When he took the last one he slapped it onto his side of the table with a triumphant grin.
“See! You can’t win against me without your stupid toys!”
The woman was watching him closely, not quite suspicious, but intrigued. “They don’t help me win,” she dismissed casually. “If anything they’re a distraction.”
Sterren lifted up on his knees and held out a hand. “Give it back.” She examined his palm, then looked up at his face, which almost instantly turned red. “Are you not going to?!”
“I would like to play against him first.” She nodded at Nirin. Sterren glanced at him in guilty surprise, but quickly recovered a neutral face.
“Because I would like to,” she repeated. He pressed his lips together, eyes narrowing.
“He doesn’t talk,” Sterren warned, but Nirin had already moved up to the table and Kiol followed.
“I can speak for him,” Kiol said.
“Aren’t you worried they’ll cheat?” Sterren asked. Kiol’s icy gaze swept across him but he wasn’t even looking.
“No matter,” the woman said. “We don’t have to play for a bet, so cheating or not is no issue.”
“I would like to bet,” Nirin signed. Kiol glanced down at him in shock, but he looked expectantly back up at him.
“He would… like to bet,” Kiol said.
“Okay,” the woman agreed. “For what are we playing, then?”
Nirin stared her in the eyes as he signed, “I want my flute back.” Kiol was too surprised to repeat right away, but a corner of the woman’s lips turned up. Had she understood? Did she and Nirin already know each other? Kiol watched her without saying anything.
“And if you lose?” she asked.
“I will make you a more powerful instrument.”
Her smirk turned into a smile at that, not pleased, but… amused. She knew she couldn’t win anyway. She agreed to the terms and one of the staff from before rushed over again to remake the board and shuffle the card deck. Sterren also realized something was going on and he watched the game with focus. Of course, Nirin could only win. There was something new to his calmness and confidence as he played. Kiol did not watch the game, he couldn’t take his eyes off the side of Nirin’s face long enough. The way he studied the board, how he glanced at his card for a mere second before putting it down as though he hadn’t even seen it, the sharp movement of his eyes as he glanced between all the pieces. He was so serious, so focused. So intelligent. Kiol always knew, of course, but Nirin covered it with softness and eye-smiles. To see it spelled out so plainly on his face, in his strategizing... a hot lump formed in Kiol’s chest.
When the game was over, Nirin with ten pieces left, the woman’s shoulders shook with laughter. “How fun,” she commented. “It’s been so long since we’ve gotten to play together.” Nirin nodded. Sterren glanced between them, the confusion Kiol refused to show plastered across his face enough for the both of them.
“You… you know each other?” he asked, incredulous.
“Oh yes,” the woman sighed, patting her chest. “Many years now. Well, we don’t see each other much anymore, do we?” Nirin nodded. “And certainly not for some casual games.” She laughed again, then stood and went over to a wall. With one knock on it, a line split down its middle and she pushed open a secret compartment. She took out a flute and a handful of things including a small statue, a folded paper, and a jade waist ornament.
She handed the others to Sterren, who grabbed them all and started checking over the ornament carefully. The flute she handed to Nirin.
“You were going to get it back eventually,” she told him.
“I’d rather have it back now,” he signed. He tied it into his sash and stood. “Thank you.” He gave her a bow. She dipped her head back. Then Nirin started out, and Kiol quickly followed.
“Who the hell was that?” he muttered as they walked, rather briskly, back to the street.
“Tori,” Nirin signed. Kiol halted, but Nirin didn’t so he had to start moving again almost as soon as he’d stopped.
“That was the—” Kiol couldn’t finish, even in sign-speak it was too risky. The leader of the Cult of Envy. Well, the cult was certainly doing much better for itself than it had been when Kiol murdered most of them in the dingy underground cave system they’d made. “What’s so special about your flute?” he signed.
Nirin just smiled and patted it, safe under his outer robes. Not long after, two familiar faces dodged through the crowd towards them.
“There you are!” Caelin said. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you, we thought you had left!”
“Caelin’s been looking everywhere,” Corva corrected.
Caelin spoke over her. “The procession is about to start!” She hurried them after her. They managed to force their way through the people thick as sand around the main street.
The procession was orderly, but with so many a part of its long, snaking line, it looked as crowded as the sides of the street. The front of the line was a huge, grotesque monster. Its head was too big for its body and thus too heavy, lolling to the side as though its neck were broken. Its swollen tongue hung from its mouth, its bulbous eyes staring up but in two different directions, and its pale face was covered in blue veins. Wispy hair hung off its skull in patches and it had not four limbs, but seven. Its small, floppy body wavered and pulsated. This was because it was held up by twenty people. Despite looking like real flesh and hair, it was made mostly from paper and it was the people underneath, moving in unison, that made it especially gruesome.
Most soldiers got the day off to celebrate but two groups didn’t— guard patrols around the city and the ones part of the parade, but they were two vastly different roles. In the procession, the soldiers went through a routine of moves and though it was choreographed and beautiful, it was really just showing off. They walked behind the monster, as though attacking it when they were really attacking air, moving in time with each other. Behind them was a long parade of disciples, carrying paper lanterns on sticks with prosperous runes written down their sides. Then more giant costumes of dragons, tigers, and other creatures, then beautiful women throwing colorful ribbons and candy to the crowd.
As the tail of the parade went by, the guards blocking the street allowed the crowds past and they flooded after, carrying their own homemade charms and banners and lanterns. Kids snatched up dropped ribbons and candy from the ground. Kiol had no choice, with bodies pressing in from all sides and urging them onward, he followed. The feel of being surrounded, helpless, crashed into him like the waves of people but he couldn’t move any faster or slower to escape.
Chilly fingers grasped onto his own. He glanced at Nirin beside him, but Kiol couldn’t watch him for long, he had to watch where he was going so he did not step on other’s feet. The slender hand in his almost slipped out as the crowd bustled them along but they both simultaneously adjusted, clasping each other’s palms more securely.
Eventually the whole procession reached the Society temple, crossing over the bridge and settling in the eastern courtyard. The monster and some of the soldiers had gone up onto a stage set there, battling. It was exaggerated and ridiculous, but that didn’t stop the cheers from the crowd, and people tossed flowers and charms of protection or strength up onto the stage.
Then from the bottom of the stage, a veiled figure clothed in ethereal robes of crimson silk slowly stepped up the stairs. As they walked towards the monster, they gently laid a palm on the shoulders of those they passed, and the soldiers one-by-one stopped fighting and dropped to a knee, bowing not just in worship, but with rested relief. The crowd’s cheers had fallen to murmurs and electric excitement that buzzed across the thousands of heads. People lifted their children to their shoulders to watch as Creator, alone among the stage of bowed soldiers, confronted the monster.
It charged. With a single outstretched hand, Creator stopped its attack, froze it in its place. Then she raised her hand and swiped down, and the monster exploded into a burst of ribbons. The people beneath the costume dropped to the floor and the deflated body fell with them in a heap. Cheers erupted through the crowd, people throwing their hands high.
Kiol looked above the heads and the hands, to the balcony on the third floor of the temple. Ruadhan stood with the Archbishop, cold eyes locked onto the stage, face and body rigid. The Archbishop was smiling, much gentler, and giving the occasional nod to the crowd as he was noticed and praised. Two soldiers stood from the others and pulled on strings dangling from the balcony. Two silk tapestries with impeccable red calligraphy painted down their gleaming white faces unraveled, all the way to the ground from the third floor.
Creator’s Blessings. Ancestral Good Will.
A sharp movement turned Kiol’s gaze to the side. Caelin had whipped to look at him over Nirin’s head, her eyes strange. “Do you have that charm still?” she asked. “The tainted charm?”
He did. He had just left it in his vest. He handed it over but she wasn’t interested in taking it, she only gave it a glance, and her face paled so that her complexion almost matched Nirin’s skin tone. She met Kiol’s eyes again. “That’s it,” her mouth read. “It’s the same calligraphy.” Kiol glanced at the seal on the charm, then up at the tapestries. They did look similar. Nirin gripped his wrist and lowered the charm to inspect it as well. Then he glanced up at Kiol, too.
With two of their hands clasped and now the other two connected, they couldn’t sign, but Nirin didn’t need to sign for Kiol to know. The boy agreed with Caelin— the calligraphy was the same. And only one person ever painted the Harvest Celebration tapestries.
Kiol looked up at the Archbishop smiling down at all his subjects.