Even after the procession was over and the crowd dispersed, most didn’t go far. Huge groups of people wandered the temple grounds, sat in gazebos, admired the gardens, talking and laughing. Kiol pulled Nirin across the bridge and through the streets, trying to find somewhere private. But on a day like this, there wasn’t a single street corner free. He decided to return to the inn. When he reached Nirin’s room door, he realized they were still being followed and he turned around to Caelin and Corva.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Caelin hesitated, scratching her face and looking away. “I thought… we could help. I—well I know the temple grounds well and, charms…”
Kiol paused. “You can help. She can’t.” He nodded to Corva.
“If my sister is getting involved with your bullshit, so am I. You already dragged her off on some other mission without me, didn’t you? That’s not happening again.” Kiol looked at her but she met his gaze defiantly. She stuck out an arm. “Break my arm again if you want, I’m still staying.”
“I didn’t break your arm,” Kiol said. Corva scowled. He didn’t care enough. He turned and went into the room, letting them decide whether to follow or not. Once inside he realized he was still holding tight to Nirin’s hand and let him go quickly, subconsciously wiping his palms on his shirt. “Sorry,” he muttered. Nirin smiled and cleaned off the table for everyone to sit around it.
“Why would the Archbishop give me a tainted charm?” Kiol asked when they were all seated. Nirin tilted his head in thought, but Caelin spoke first.
“Well, it may not be tainted at all,” she said. “I couldn’t tell that it was. Could you?” she asked Nirin. Nirin shook his head but was still looking at Kiol and Kiol understood without any words. That message, from the blind man. It had said the charm was tainted. Maybe it was wrong, Creator herself had admitted her future knowledge was fallible. The note had also said not to allow one of the twins to get involved, but they both were now. Kiol sighed into his teeth. It was too late, and even if it wasn’t, he had to stop using some random dead man’s message as a guiding beacon.
“What can we do about it anyway?” he muttered. “Go and ask Hida directly?”
“He likes you,” Nirin signed slowly. “Why would he give you a tainted charm? What was the seal again?” Kiol took it out and dropped it on the table. Strength - Protection - Solace.
“Weakness, danger, anguish,” Caelin said. Kiol stared blankly at her. “Those would be the opposites,” she explained. “If it was tainted, that is what it would bring to you.”
“Well I’m not weakened,” Kiol said. “And nothing is dangerous to me.” Granted, that didn’t mean the intent behind the charm wasn’t bad, because tainted or not Kiol knew it wouldn’t do shit.
“And anguish?” Corva raised an eyebrow. Kiol looked back at her flatly.
“No,” he said.
Caelin waved her sister off. “Why would the Archbishop want you to be weak, in danger, and in anguish?” Caelin asked. “That’s the question.”
“If I thought someone would get in my way, that’s what I would bestow upon them,” Corva said.
Kiol looked at Nirin. “You said he was planning something,” he signed. Nirin nodded. “Maybe it was something I could get in the way of…” His hands fell to the table and he stared forward.
“What?” Nirin signed.
“The letter,” Kiol whispered. Ruadhan would have long ago destroyed it, but it had mentioned the Archbishop, Kiol was sure of it. Hida was the one who gave the archivist the painting. Then Ruadhan had the archivist killed… had Ruadhan known where the man had gotten it? Had Ruadhan just not wanted to kill the Archbishop? “Ruadhan,” Kiol said. “He’s going to do something to Ruadhan, he’s worried I’ll stop it, that I’ll protect him.”
“Wait—what? Huh?” Caelin shook her head. “The Archbishop? Why would the Archbishop turn against the Temple General? They’ve worked together for decades, they’re an unstoppable pair.”
Kiol stared down at the table, mind reeling. “I don’t know.” If they’d known each other for that long, based on the painting, it went without question that the Archbishop knew of Ruadhan’s eternal youth. There could be any number of reasons to turn against him. To take the eternal life for himself or perhaps to stop Ruadhan’s centuries-long reign? He shook his head. “Wait. But that’s what we want.” He was talking to Nirin but the twins both raised their eyebrows.
“Excuse me?” Corva barked.
Kiol glanced at them, then switched to sign-speak. “The Archbishop is wrong to think I would stop him. We should just let him do what he wants to Ruadhan and we’ll wait to see the results.”
Nirin shook his head. “That is conjecture. You don’t know his plan is really to turn on Ruadhan, and with you staying in the sect, you could get tangled up in this anyway. Or, if you did nothing to protect Ruadhan but Ruadhan got out unscathed, wouldn’t he realize your loyalties have changed and get rid of you?”
Kiol crossed his arms. “He can’t get rid of me,” he said. Ruadhan wouldn’t anyway, would he? The soldier he’d personally trained, the boy he practically raised… he wouldn’t mercilessly kill him. Kiol remembered Ruadhan’s emotionless smile when he’d asked if the archivist was a rebel. “He was a friend.” Maybe he would.
The twins had both been talking and Kiol had been ignoring them, but he turned his attention to them then. “—everything he does for us, for the city,” Caelin was saying.
“Calm down,” Kiol said. “You’re the ones who wanted to be part of this. Leave if you want.”
“But you do?” Corva asked. “You want to get rid of Ruadhan?”
“No,” Kiol said, and it was the truth. “It might not be the Archbishop’s desire either. It was a guess.”
“So we’re back at the beginning,” Caelin said. “Why would the Archbishop give you a tainted charm? Uh— possibly tainted,” she amended. “Maybe it was just a normal charm, and he’s trying to help you.”
But that just brought the question of why the Archbishop would feel the need to give him protection all of a sudden, and from what. By the rest of their expressions, they realized this too. It was a mystery either way. Asking Hida straight was out of the question, so Kiol would have to learn another way.
“I can get into his personal quarters,” Kiol signed.
Corva slammed the table. “Stop signing!” she snapped. “It’s suspicious!”
“So?” Kiol asked coldly. “I don’t care.”
“Stop, stop it,” Caelin flustered, pulling at her sister’s arm. “I understand a little anyway. He thinks he can get into something.”
I don’t think I can, Kiol commented silently, annoyed. I know I can.
She had said it to Corva but Kiol thought it was more a reminder to him, that his and Nirin’s signs were no longer as secret as they thought. He frowned at her but the woman just looked back with pleading eyes. “I want to help,” she said.
“Why?” Kiol asked.
“You’ve already helped me a bunch,” Caelin pointed out. Kiol was not impressed. She sighed and looked away. “And… well, I’m not a huge fan of the Archbishop. He did nothing to stop me from being kicked out of his stupid temple. And he’s just a figurehead, even if the city doesn’t know it, Ruadhan is the one who does everything. Actually protects people, helps them.”
Kiol said nothing. Corva rolled her eyes. “Forget it, Cae. Let’s just go.”
“No,” Caelin said to her, turning back to Kiol. “I know the temple grounds well and anyway, I can be a distraction if you need it.”
“And Corva?” he asked.
Caelin looked pleadingly at her sister. The woman sighed and clenched her jaw. “Whatever, I don’t like the guy either,” she muttered. “If Caelin is helping, I’ll help.”
Kiol looked to Nirin but the boy watched the twins with a masked expression and didn’t meet his gaze, so he couldn’t determine anything Nirin might have thought. If it turned out the Archbishop was plotting against Ruadhan, the twins would likely want to put a stop to it. Well, it wasn’t like Kiol cared, they could do what they wanted. They all could, and he would stay out of the way and wait for the dust to settle. But he needed to figure out what role he had in this first so he could get out of it.
“Fine,” he said. “You can help.”
The temple was quiet. All disciples went to sleep at nine exactly, and the guards that patrolled the perimeter were lazy about it too. No one ever dared break into Society grounds. Except the four doing it that night.
They’d gone through several different plans. Kiol had spent every day of three years going to Hida’s quarters to study, so he had the most intimate knowledge of the place. At first consideration, one would think going during the day would be the best option. The grounds were open to whoever, and Hida would likely be dealing with his various responsibilities, out of his quarters. This was what Corva and Caelin suggested.
But during the day the grounds were swarming with not only disciples but civilians. A lot of people to see them, especially four as conspicuous as them; twins, the deadliest soldier in the sect, and a stunningly beautiful man. And if Hida wasn’t in his quarters that made it all the more suspicious to see anyone going there. Beside, Kiol knew what few others did; at night, when all the other disciples went to sleep, Hida walked the gardens for hours. Kiol knew the schedules and habits of every prominent figure in the city, so of course he knew the Archbishop’s.
The twins were intermediate soldiers, and Nirin wasn’t a soldier at all, so Kiol was worried the whole thing would fall apart before they even got inside. If it was just him alone it would be the easiest thing in the world, but he couldn’t expect the others to climb and hang and jump and see in the dark like he did. So crawling along the underside of the bridge, climbing onto the roof and moving around there, or hiding in ceilings were all out of the question.
They went over the wall that surrounded most of the grounds. Rudimentary, old school, but it worked. Kiol hopped up first, checked that no one was around, then he reached down for Nirin’s hands and pulled him up.
He hadn’t wanted Nirin to come at all, but the boy had insisted. His knowledge of runes and all that could prove useful anyway, and Kiol didn’t forget that his life was potentially— probably— in danger when they were apart. At least together, even doing such a thing as this, Kiol could protect him. Nirin wore pants and a short tunic for once, and his hair was braided and tied up in a knot, a look that really didn’t suit him. Somehow it was still cute.
Kiol jumped to the ground and turned with arms outstretched to catch Nirin. The boy crouched on top of the wall, gripping it and staring back at him with an ashen face. “Hurry, before you’re seen,” Kiol signed. Nirin gave a slight shake of his head and Kiol furrowed his eyebrows back. “I’ll catch you, I promise.” Another shake of his head.
The twins had already vaulted over the wall and were waiting off to the side. When Kiol glanced at them they gestured for answers, but he had none to give them either.
“Nirin,” Kiol whispered, low and worried. The boy hadn’t stopped clinging to the wall, and wouldn’t lift a hand to sign anything either. If he was scared of heights, Kiol really wished the boy had said something before this.
He jumped up and caught the edge of the wall. Then, dangling off it with one hand, offered his other to Nirin. Like a scared kitten, the boy got one trembling arm then the other around Kiol’s neck, and clung tight to him. Kiol wrapped Nirin tight as a vice and hopped back down. “It’s okay,” he murmured once both his feet were on solid ground again. He jostled the boy a little. “Look.”
Nirin lifted his face from where he had wedged it into Kiol’s neck, then shakily unstuck himself from Kiol’s torso. Kiol kept an arm around his waist to keep him balanced. When Nirin seemed stable, Kiol gestured for the others to follow. Naturally they couldn’t go straight across the grounds, instead maneuvering in a sort of corkscrew fashion as Kiol kept them between the guard patrols and away from the gardens Hida was most likely wandering around. Once inside the temple it was easier; the corridors were dark and everyone was asleep.
The Archbishop’s quarters were far more luxurious than Ruadhan’s. Dozens of tapestries were on walls and pillars, extinguished lotus lamps hung from the ceiling, and exquisite porcelain vases lined the sides of the corridor. Ruadhan’s quarters were stark, but large, holding an office, his bed chambers, a private bath, and a prison. Hida had only a private worship hall and his bed chambers, though granted his bed chambers had a private bath and a study, but both were small. None of it was locked.
Kiol went to the study first. He was so familiar with it he could have navigated even without night vision but the room had no windows so he took a candle from his vest and lit it for the others to be able to see. Then they worked through the shelves and drawers. Scrolls, bound papers, paper talismans— for such a small study it was packed. A lot of it was sermons and speeches. None of it was useful. Even the talismans had no trace of the runes on Kiol’s charm. After covering every inch, checking the desk for secret compartments, looking in vases, nothing stood out to any of them.
The bedroom had even less, though it was full of wall tapestries and the futon had five layers of blankets over it. Nothing in the wardrobe, nothing, nothing, nothing. Kiol even checked the bath for good measure.
There was really only one place left to check, though Kiol knew nothing would be there anyway. The Archbishop’s private worship hall.
It was bigger than his bedroom. An altar stood at the far wall, full of fresh food, incense, and other offerings. A medium-sized statue of Creator sat behind it, legs crossed and hands resting gently on her knees. Her eyes were closed, her face peaceful. Kiol had been in here a couple times on Hida’s insistence. Then, the white candles that lined the walls and shelves like a wave had all been lit. As little as Kiol cared for worship and farces like that, he could admit it was a calm and beautiful atmosphere to be in. In the dark it felt different. Foreboding.
He held Nirin’s arm and kept him close.
Even with the hundred or so candles and the pile of dishes on the altar, the place didn’t seem cluttered. It was immaculately clean and everything was strategically placed. He swept his gaze over the candles, along the floor, looking for any hint of a secret compartment, paying attention to the floor beneath his steps to see if he could feel a hollow.
He got to the altar table and stared down at it. Bowls of soup, plates of vegetables in sauces, piles of dumplings and steamed buns. It was all cold now but fresh food was put there every morning by the Archbishop himself. It was such a waste. Kiol sighed in disgust and crouched to peer under the table.
It was an ordinary, simple table, pressed back against the stone dais that supported Creator’s statue. Kiol remembered when Ruadhan brought him to the Envier remnant and he stood again. “Stay here,” he told Nirin, and went around the side. The dais was against the back wall, nearly reaching Kiol’s hip, and the sitting statue was several heads higher than his. The dais made of granite and the statue made of marble should have been as immovable as the building itself. Kiol gripped the edge, braced his feet against the floor, and pushed.
At first nothing happened. It took considerable strength, and he wasn’t even sure if he was just pushing futilely against stone. But then with a crack that he felt vibrate up his arms, the dais slid. As he pushed, a dark line stretched wider beneath him until it gaped into a square hole with a steep staircase leading into the ground.