Kiol had been exhausted many times in his life. Nothing compared to the exhaustion now. He hadn’t slept or eaten in almost forty-eight hours, had been moving, if not running, most of that time, and the emotional fatigue from the stress and panic wore him to the bones. Nirin lay a gentle palm on Kiol’s arm but Kiol shook him off.
“We can’t stop,” he said, knowing what Nirin would suggest. “We can’t get caught.”
“You’re going to drop unconscious,” Nirin signed, clumsily around the iron rings at the end of the chains he was holding. “At least find something to eat.”
“No. I’ll be fine. Are you tired?” Kiol finally did stop, looking at him. “I can carry you.”
“No you can’t,” Nirin signed, matter-of-fact.
Kiol frowned at him and kept walking.
It was morning again by the time they made it to the cottage. In the dew and dawn light it looked too picturesque, as though Kiol had really dropped unconscious and was dreaming. He glanced at Nirin walking by his side. His posture straight as usual and the hair he’d taken down hung around his shoulders with slight curls from the braids. He looked equally perfect and dream-like, eyes forward and steps steady. But Kiol saw the tired droop to his eyes.
Kiol walked right in to the cottage. The fire was out and aside from the hazy morning sunshine, the place was dark. Creator wasn’t in the kitchen either. “Where the hell did she go?” he growled.
“No matter,” Nirin signed, settling down in front of the fireplace. “She’ll be back soon. Let’s sleep.”
“It’s not safe,” Kiol signed back. “We need to find Creator and go somewhere else. Farther away. More protected.”
“It’s safe,” Nirin signed, already laying down and closing his eyes. “Please trust me.”
The sight of Nirin curled up on the rug, looking soft and fragile, tugged viciously at Kiol’s heart. He cleared his throat and knocked on his chest to dislodge the feeling, and sat down on the side of the rug.
“Fine,” he said. He was determined to stay awake and keep watch. He only realized he had failed when he was waking up.
He sat up in a hurry. A fire had been started and it warmed the room. A room that was empty save for Kiol. He jumped up and spun around only to see Nirin coming in from the kitchen. The boy had changed from tunic and pants back to his usual softly colored robes. He smiled when their eyes met and Kiol looked away.
Something was pushed into his hands. He looked down at the bowl of soup but his attention turned immediately to something else. “They’re gone,” he said, taking Nirin’s wrist. He was free from the chains.
The boy gently took his wrist back. “Creator took them off,” he signed.
“I thought she created, not destroyed,” Kiol replied flatly.
“She created the key,” he signed back, his lips quirking up. “You better eat.”
“Ah, right,” Kiol sighed. He sat down and ate the vegetable soup in mere minutes. It wasn’t bad, necessarily, but it would have certainly been better with meat. He looked to Nirin and was surprised when he signed an explanation without him needing to say anything. Before remembering, of course, that that was what Nirin did.
“My parents never fed me meat. When Serul first gave me meat I became very sick. So I have never eaten any after that.”
“Your parents?” Kiol wondered. So he did have parents. Well, naturally, he had parents, but it was weird to think about. “Were they cultists?”
Nirin bit his lip, eyes downcast. Even Kiol could tell he’d made him uneasy. But Nirin replied before he could fix it. “You could say that,” he signed. He looked back up with a bright smile. “Creator wants to talk to you.” He pulled the bowl from Kiol and left it on the floor, then led him to the garden outside.
Judging by what Kiol could see of the sun hidden behind clouds, it was mid-day. Creator was kneeling in the dirt, digging up vegetables and tucking them into a basket. Kiol stopped by the edge of the plot and watched her work for a second before saying, “Just create them.”
Creator looked up with a smile. “I am, aren’t I? There is more than one way to create something. And I like gardening. It takes a product and makes it about the process. Isn’t that beautiful?” Kiol shrugged. Creator laughed and stood, brushing dirt from her hands. “I am glad you found Nirin.”
“Ruadhan will look for him. And me. We have to leave.”
“We’re safe here.”
Kiol pressed his lips together. “We’re not! We’re close to the city, and now the twins know of it. I… I didn’t exactly leave them on good terms. And they’re loyal to Ruadhan.”
Creator sighed and nodded. “Well, the twins are a problem, but there is very little probability that they will lead anyone here.”
“Whether they do or not, we may still be found.”
“No,” Creator soothed. “This location is protected. It cannot be found unless someone who knows of it willingly leads them here.”
“Well it’s not working! I found this place, remember?” Creator fell into awkward silence at that, her gaze drifting to Nirin. Kiol looked too, and Nirin didn’t meet his eyes for once. “Did you…?” Kiol trailed off, thinking back to all of it. Of course. Of course Nirin had known he was following, had led him here on purpose. With his gifts, how could he not have known? “I still think we should go,” he muttered. “To be sure.”
“We can’t leave yet,” Creator said. She picked up the basket. “And you stink. I’ll heat up some water for you to wash and make you some new clothes.”
“Wait,” Kiol stopped her from turning away before returning to sign-speak. “You wanted to talk to me?”
“Oh. Yes.” She rested the basket of vegetables on her hip and sighed. “You need to return to the soldier sect.”
“What.” Kiol’s flat voice didn’t betray the jolt of confused anger such words gave him.
“If you do not, worse things will happen.”
“After all this I cannot imagine Ruadhan would allow me back in.”
“He would. He will.”
Movement turned Kiol’s head to where Nirin stood slightly behind him. He only caught the end of his signing. “—go back.”
Creator blinked sadly at the boy, as though seeing something pitiful about him for the first time. “I am sorry, Nirin. But he must. You know the truth of my words.”
“I don’t care about truth,” Nirin signed. “He’ll be in danger if he returns. He stays here.”
“Feel the weight behind my words,” Creator said. “Know I do not say them lightly. I know the paths the future may take. If Kiol does not go back to the sect, we will all suffer.”
“I am not afraid of suffering,” Nirin signed. He grabbed Kiol’s hand and pulled him back to the cottage.
“Is she lying?” Kiol asked when they were inside, thinking back to the message he’d found. Nirin shook his head. When he made no other comment, Kiol sighed and plopped down on the rug. “Then I’ll go back.”
Nirin spun to face him, looking the closest to angry Kiol had ever seen him. “No,” he signed. “Ruadhan will kill you.”
“So?” Kiol replied lazily. “If it keeps you safe, if it helps Creator—”
“Don’t you dare.”
Kiol blinked at him. He didn’t understand why Nirin was so indignant. Kiol could take on Ruadhan— he thought he had a chance, anyway. And after all, Ruadhan had broken his promise. Kiol did want him to pay for it. But despite his vitriol, Kiol had no idea if he had it in him to actually kill the man. Even if he couldn’t, Nirin shouldn’t have cared.
He met Nirin’s heated stare and for once managed to hold it. “Don’t you trust Creator? Don’t you want her to succeed?”
“Not if it means hurting you.”
“I’m just a pawn,” Kiol signed, annoyed. “I’ll die eventually anyway. Creator can change the world for good, for the better. I might as well be a sacrifice for a just cause and then one good thing will come from my life.” He stopped when he’d realized how much he’d signed and the storm of emotions it stirred in him. He swallowed them down. Nirin was looking at him with those eyes that saw too much.
He sat in front of Kiol, their knees touching. “You don’t know, do you?”
Kiol crossed his arms and looked away. “Know what?”
Nirin reached out and pried apart Kiol’s arms, drawing his eyes back to the front. He cupped Kiol’s hands in his own and squeezed them tenderly. Kiol pulled back and crossed his arms again, this time tucking his hands under his armpits. “What’s the matter with you?” he asked, annoyance covering the sudden pace of his heart.
“You do not have to make the world better in order to be good. That’s a heavy responsibility for anyone. You are good, just being you.”
Heat flashed across Kiol’s vision and tinged his ears. He gulped down the rising shock and discomfort. “Geez, you’re fucking weird,” he muttered, staring hard at his lap so he didn’t have to see Nirin’s earnest face.
“You don’t have to believe me for it to be the truth,” Nirin signed. “You asked to stay by my side, and you promised to protect yourself. So stay.”
“And then what? We just die together?”
“That’s not what Creator said.”
“More or less it is.”
Kiol glared at him. Nirin looked back just as stubbornly. Creator stepped inside with two buckets.
“Stop bickering,” she said. “Someone put the pot over the fire.”
While the water heated, Kiol watched with feigned disinterest as Creator wove garments from nothing. He should have put two and two together before, but he finally realized how Nirin had such elegant robes. It took her longer to make clothing than it had the other things. She explained that each thread was essentially its own creation, and as she made them she had to weave them simultaneously. Still, Kiol thought it was easier than spinning, weaving, measuring, cutting, and sewing.
After washing and changing into clean clothes, Kiol wandered back outside where the others were finishing gardening. He took the basket full of vegetables from Nirin’s arms and brought it inside for him.
He wasn’t exactly a good cook— in fact he’d never cooked anything in his life. But he helped cut up the vegetables and did whatever else Nirin told him to. They were drying, pickling, and preserving some of them for the winter, and making dinner for that night. Kiol was already starving; he didn’t know if he could get used to not eating meat.
“Have you decided?” Creator signed over her bowl as they ate.
“He’s not going,” Nirin signed before Kiol could reply. Kiol shot him a look that was ignored.
Creator looked between them, then quietly went back to the soup without word or expression. Nirin stared at her a few more seconds in study before also continuing to eat. Knowing the two were well aware not only of his emotions but each other’s made Kiol feel extremely out of place, like he was missing an important part of the conversation. Not that that was anything new to him.
“What will happen if I don’t go back?” Kiol signed.
Creator glanced up without moving her head, then lowered her gaze again and seemed to think for a long time. Finally she signed, “I can’t tell you.”
Kiol scoffed. “Why not?”
“For one, it wouldn’t quite make sense to you. Two, as I’ve said before, there is no one answer to easily give. And three, telling you the possible results would very likely lead to disaster anyway.”
“But so would not returning, you said.”
“Yes. So I wish you would trust me and go.”
Kiol slanted his gaze to Nirin. The boy stared intently into his soup, not eating.
“I understand,” Creator signed. “I am not forcing you one way or the other. If you change your mind, do let me know. I’ll prepare some things for you.”
Kiol nudged Nirin. Before he even began to move the boy glanced his way, but he did it anyways, bumping the side of his hand against Nirin’s arm. “Did Ruadhan say why he wanted you dead?”
Nirin sighed. “No. He just wanted to know the location of Creator’s remnant.”
Kiol glanced at Creator, whose face had quickly become guarded. “But there is no remnant now.”
“Exactly,” Nirin signed. “What could I tell him? I gave him the location it was at before.”
“If you told him Creator had woken maybe he would have…” Kiol’s words died on his tongue when he remembered what Creator had said. If Ruadhan doesn’t know I’m awake, he won’t kill Nirin. Did that mean if he did know, he would kill Nirin?
“Yes,” Creator answered the question even though Kiol hadn’t spoken it. “He would have killed Nirin without a second thought.” He glanced at her, surprised and annoyed. For supposedly being unable to read minds, both her and Nirin seemed eerily capable of doing so.
“Why?” Kiol asked.
“Because he would no longer need to find out where the remnant is. He’d have no use for Nirin.”
“Why does he hate Nirin?”
Creator blinked at him. “What do you mean?”
“He despises him. Nirin said so, but even without your weird abilities it’s obvious. But he barely knows him.”
“I suppose he knows enough about him,” Creator said grimly.
“But Ruadhan doesn’t hate anyone— Ruadhan doesn’t feel anything towards anyone, no matter what he knows about them.”
Creator actually laughed at that. She shook her head, then just buried her face in her hand. She stayed like that for some seconds, then took a deep breath and sat back up. “You couldn’t be more wrong. Ruadhan hates many. Especially me. And he feels more intensely than I think you could fathom. Being skilled at keeping a straight face does not mean one is emotionless. Surely you of all people know that well.”
Kiol stared back at her and she raised her eyebrows in a very clear, ‘you are proving my point.’ He pressed his lips together and looked away. He didn’t know if it was something about Nirin, or knowing that he could see Kiol’s emotions regardless, but since meeting him Kiol had found it harder and harder to keep his expressions in check. He didn’t want to be reminded of it.
Nirin stood and began gathering the dishes. Without a word Kiol and Creator stood as well. After cleaning it was already night. Despite only being awake six or so hours, Kiol had gotten less sleep than that, so he happily took a cushion and passed out in front of the fire.
Someone was above him. Kiol flung himself up and drew out his knife in one swift motion. But there was no killing intent and he saw it was only Nirin hovering over him. He hurriedly put the dagger away. Nirin had not flinched.
“We must go,” he signed.
“Huh?” Kiol muttered, exhaustion hitting him after the rush of adrenaline. He rubbed his hair and squinted at the boy.
“We must go now,” Nirin signed. “Take what you want and follow me. But pack lightly.” Kiol continued squinting at him. Nirin sighed silently. “Do you trust me?”
Kiol didn’t have to sign it. And Nirin needed no other confirmation. He picked up Kiol’s vest, handing it over to him. Kiol shrugged into it and looked around for his other things. It seemed the cottage was once again devoid of Creator. He double checked that he had all his items before following Nirin out into the night.