Kiol stayed on that street for two days, walking its length, waiting for his mother to come find him. The vendor who had first yelled at him almost seemed to take pity on him. He gave Kiol a cup of water and told him to go to the temple, that they’d take care of him there. But that was what Kiol was scared of the most, after his mother’s reluctance to ever go to temples. He ran away from the vendor and made sure to avoid him from then on. But his mother never returned to get him and hunger finally drove him onto other streets.
If that one street had been intimidating, the whole city was terrifying. All the buildings rose up too high, all the people were strangers, and all the strangers made it hard to see where he was going. Without his mother it seemed colder and bigger than before. Plus he didn’t know what to do. He’d never been on his own before. The roiling pain in his stomach had turned to a dull ache, which had become no hunger at all, but Kiol knew from experience that that was a bad sign.
He didn’t have anything to pawn and he didn’t know how to clean or sew like his mother had for work. All he knew how to do was beg. He had never done it himself, had only sat to the side and watched his mother, but it was easy enough to mimic. He knelt by the side of a busy street and cupped his hands together.
“Money or food,” he called out. “Money or food for the hungry poor.” He stretched his hands out imploringly to anyone who passed close by. “Some charity for the hungry poor,” he pleaded. They all glanced at him and recoiled away. He was there half the day and hadn’t gotten even a half coin. Usually his mother had a coin or two at that point. A shadow loomed over him and he immediately started, “Money or f—” before his eyes adjusted and he realized it was a soldier.
“Are you alone, young man?” she asked. No one had ever called him ‘young man’ before. But his mother had warned him to be cautious of soldiers and so he didn’t care how politely he was spoken to.
“No,” he lied.
“Then why are you begging?”
“My mom is here,” he said.
“Then why. Are you begging?” she repeated.
Kiol didn’t know what else to say to get the soldier to leave. His mother had told him soldiers might bring him to the temple and he’d have to work for them for the rest of his life. He didn’t know exactly what work it was but he knew he didn’t want to do it. Besides, if he was in the temple and his mother came to find him, she wouldn’t be able to. He knew she'd never go there.
He jumped up and sprinted down the street. The soldier called after him and gave chase, but even as weak and lost as he was, Kiol easily darted through the crowd and into narrow spaces that she couldn’t follow him through. When the soldier was nowhere to be seen and Kiol was sure she wouldn’t catch up, he leaned against a wall to catch his breath.
He wandered to another road far away and began begging again. Everyone continued ignoring him.
When the sun was going down a young lady crouched in front of him. Having long since given up calling out, he was just slouched against a wall. But seeing her not blatantly ignoring him, he sat up straight and held out his hands. “Money or food for the hungry poor,” he recited.
She fished in her robe and took out a rice ball, placing it in his hands. He bit into it right away, devouring it as she watched him with a sad expression.
“If you don’t have a home, I can show you to the temple,” she said gently. He stopped eating and looked up at her. “They’ll take you in and you’ll have hot meals and a warm bed every night. Wouldn’t that be nice?” He gripped the rice ball harder and stared at her, ready to run. “They’re in the northern district,” she told him. “It’s not too far.” He gripped the ball too hard and felt the rice crumbling apart in his hands. He shoved the rest into his mouth before it broke apart too much and took off, leaving the lady behind.
When his mother was with him, despite being in the exact same circumstance he was still in, she was recognized as his guardian. People might spit and curse at her for keeping her son in this kind of life, but they wouldn’t dare call soldiers. Or, if they did, soldiers wouldn’t dare be seen ripping a child from his mother. But alone, he was viewed as the Society’s responsibility. Very few would give him anything no matter how much he begged, and he couldn’t stay in the same spot for too long or inevitably a soldier would show up to bring him to the temple. Begging got him nothing but starvation. So he resorted to stealing.
He wasn’t brave enough to pickpocket but in the areas with many vendors there was also a large crowd. He could slip unseen through them, grab a random item off a food cart, and slip back. It didn’t always work; sometimes he was chased down until he dropped whatever he stole, sometimes his wrist was caught and he was beaten. He memorized the streets and buildings that had before seemed so strange and foreign until he could navigate them blind.
He was used to sleeping on the cold ground, even in rain. He was used to hunger and scorn and being ignored. He did not bother crying after that first time his mother left, because there was no point and he had to survive, so he survived. But the fear never left him. Fear of the dark faces of strangers looming over him, fear of the helplessness and confusion, fear of the emptiness that surrounded him. Of the loneliness. Throughout his whole life, when everyone else had despised him, he had had his mother to comfort him. He had had her arms to fall into, her voice to soothe, her skill to repair what he damaged. Now when his shoes fell apart and his clothes tore, he couldn’t do anything about it. He went barefoot and had to steal clothing when he could, even if it was ruined clothes from others’ trash. If it could stay on his body, he wore it until it couldn’t any more, which usually did not take longer than a couple of weeks. And at night when he curled up in the dark with only his hunger and the stars, he wanted so badly to hear another story, to be transported from that life even if only for a few minutes. But he had no stories, no comfort, and no mother. After several months he had no hope of her coming back for him. And so he survived.
Every day bells would ring out across the city at a certain time, and shops would close, people would leave the street, and everything went still and quiet. His mother had told him that it was time for worship. But he didn’t know what that was or how to do it, and all his mother had done was sit quietly with her eyes closed. So every day he just wandered the empty streets, using the unsupervised time to dig through trash for scraps of clothing or food that people had tossed. Eventually, however, he noticed a pattern. After six days, there would be a day when the silence lasted much longer. And before the bells rang, a swarm of people would flow to the north.
He always avoided the north part of the city because he knew it was where the temple was. But he finally gave in to his curiosity and followed the crowd of people. They passed over a bridge and the giant red-painted face of a building eclipsed them all in shadow. Even though Kiol had never seen a temple before he knew that this was one. But the crowd was pushing him along so he couldn’t turn back now. He kept his head down and marched along with the others as an obnoxiously loud bell sounded across the manicured grounds.
Once in the enormous hall where everyone was kneeling on cushions, Kiol scurried to the side and pressed himself against the back wall. It took a long time for everyone to sit, but once they were all settled, a woman way at the other end of the room stood up. She was so far away she was no bigger than Kiol’s pinkie finger. Behind her was a statue of another woman, her arms outstretched. Kiol’s heart stuttered and he hugged his knees and buried his face in the darkness there.
Despite how far away the woman was, her voice carried across the hall and Kiol could hear it clearly even from his farthest seat.
“We welcome you all and please accept our gratitude for your company today. Let’s pray together now.”
The sea of people all bowed like a wave and their voices eclipsed each other as they prayed. Though they spoke in tandem the cacophony of their voices was unintelligible and the chorus of a thousand voices echoed between the walls. Kiol pressed his hands over his ears and looked around. There was no one guarding the doors. Kiol could easily slip out right then. But what caught his eye on the other side of the door stopped him. Against the other back wall was a long table piled with food. Food. An enormous pot filled with rice, plates of fruits and vegetables, still-steaming steamed buns, heaps of sweet rice cakes, and more than ten teapots.
Kiol looked around at all the bent over heads, all facing away from him save the one woman in the front, but her head was bowed too from what he could tell. He stayed crouched and crept along the back wall, past the doorway, to the table. He cast a glance around again. No one was paying attention to him. He reached up and snagged a steamed bun, eating half of it in a second. It had meat in it. Kiol devoured the rest and grabbed two more, stuffing one into his shirt and sticking the other in his mouth. Then he moved to the sweet rice cakes, sticking a few into his shirt as well. When he grabbed another and brought his arm back, it caught on one of the plates. Before he could stop it the dish ricocheted up, sending the sweets to the ground before the plate followed and shattered into pieces on the hard wood. The sound of it reverberated even over the endless voices and they trailed to a stop as thousands of eyes turned.
Clutching his prizes in a bulging shirt, Kiol sprinted as hard as he could out of the hall, across the bridge, and disappeared into the city.
Kiol avoided the north district for more than a week. But eventually it drew him back, almost like he had no choice. It must have been the enticing prospect of food. At night it seemed no one was around, but the front temple wasn’t locked, both its doors opened wide. He crept inside and felt along the wall until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was no table of food along the back wall. He got on his hands and knees and felt around the floor for anything that may have dropped, but of course there was nothing.
He stood again and an unusual chill made him reach down. His pants knee had torn.
He looked around. All the big windows only let in a vague haze of light with the clouds covering a slim moon. But it was enough to see the shapes within the hall. There were still thousands of sitting cushions. At the other end the statue of Creator stood tall and proud with outstretched arms.
Kiol walked down the center of the room. The statue only got bigger. When he stood in front of it he had to crane his neck all the way back to see the face gently smiling down at him.
His mother had told him Creator had made everything. Even them. When Kiol worriedly said he thought she had made him, his mother laughed and hugged him and said she had, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Creator.
But he had never seen Creator, only these statues—usually much, much smaller than this one. And Creator had never done anything for them. Not when his father had hurt him, not when their house burned down, not when he and his mother were starving on the street. And there she stood in front of him, arms open like his mother used to open her arms for him to fall into, as though she deserved his love.
He threw himself at the statue and beat his fists upon the stone feet, not caring that every punch stung the sides of his hands. He attacked it with silent ferocity, but the stone did not crack. He ruined everything else in his life without even trying, but no matter how hard he hit, he couldn’t do anything to the statue.
His arm was caught mid-air and someone pulled him easily off the platform. Kiol writhed in their grip, lashing out and trying to squirm away, but he made contact with nothing.
“What are you doing?” a voice high above his head asked. Kiol didn’t stop fighting. His other arm was grabbed and held down. He resorted to kicking the air. “Would you like to explain why you’re attacking a sacred statue?”
“No!” he yelled.
“Why are you in the temple this late at night?”
“If you stop fighting I can give you food.”
He stopped immediately at that and looked up. The man holding on to him was tall and though he didn’t look particularly strong, his grip on Kiol was iron. His hair was blacker than shadow but his skin so pale it glowed even with a lack of light. He wasn’t wearing the white and gold disciple robes, but Kiol didn’t know who else would be in the temple.
“I won’t work for you!” he said loudly. “I won’t become a disciple! If you make me you’ll be sorry!”
“Oh?” The man raised an eyebrow no less stony than the statue’s. “How will I be sorry?”
“Because I’ll break everything! You’ll see! Everything’ll break and be ruined!” He glared as viciously as he could at the man. He did not seem perturbed at all, only looked down at him with curious contemplation.
“You won’t become a disciple,” he said. “Come with me if you want a meal.” He let Kiol go and walked off. Kiol stood for a moment, staring at the retreating back and debating on running out of the temple. But his stomach had more control than his head, and he followed.
They left the temple grounds and walked through the streets. A few patches of geometric light fell from windows, occasional bursts of conversation or laughter drifted by them, but it was mostly dark and quiet.
They walked along a stone wall Kiol had never seen before, though he hadn’t seen much in the northern district. Just when he thought it would never end, it opened to a wide archway guarded with four soldiers. All four of them bowed deeply to the man.
“General,” they chorused.
The man tilted his head in acknowledgment. Then he gestured to one of the soldiers. “Go wake up a cook and have them bring a proper dinner to my chambers.” The soldier gave another bow before heading off and the man continued on. Kiol stared up at the three remaining soldiers as he passed between them, but they did not give him a single glance, standing straight and staring ahead. He didn’t recognize any of them, though he had had many a run-in with the uniform they wore.
They walked around a building that on the surface resembled the temple, with its sturdy wooden construction and red painted columns, but where the temple eaves and railings were carved in intricate decorations, these buildings and colonnades were basic and stark.
More guards were patrolling the walls and grounds, but they only ever bowed to the man before continuing.
The man’s chambers were bigger than Kiol’s house had been. They entered the first door on the left side of the hall and Kiol looked around as the man lit several lamps. An open window on the far wall, a bed in one corner, a standing wardrobe, and several chests. At the man’s gesture Kiol sat at the low table in the center of the room and the man sat across from him.
“What is your name?” he asked.
Kiol crossed his arms and glared.
The man continued without concern. “My name is Ruadhan. I am the Temple General. Do you know what that is?” Kiol continued glaring. “It means I am in charge of all the soldiers not just in this city, but in the realm. Soldiers protect people and fight against anyone who wants to harm others.” Ruadhan rested his arms on the table. “They learn how to fight properly, how to defend themselves, and how to use many different weapons. Would you like to learn how to fight?”
Kiol still said nothing. The man stood and went to a chest, pulling out paper and an ink set. He sat again and rolled some ink, dipped the brush, and began writing. Kiol watched him deftly paint lines on the paper until there was a knock at the door. “Come in,” Ruadhan called without looking up.
A man entered carrying a large tray. Ruadhan moved his things aside and it was set in the middle of the table. Kiol had to swallow the pool of saliva that immediately flooded his mouth. Steam floated off bowls of rice and sauced vegetables and bite-sized pieces of meat. Ruadhan lifted a teapot and poured a cup to place in front of Kiol. Then he put a pair of chopsticks on the table. “Eat slowly,” he advised. “You’ll get sick if you eat too fast. But you may eat your fill.”
Kiol couldn’t take his eyes off the food. Even when he had still had a home, they’d never had a feast like this. He grabbed the chopsticks and the bowl of meat and shoveled it into his mouth, disregarding Ruadhan’s words. He ate some rice next before venturing to try a vegetable. Unlike the bitter, mushy taste he was used to, it was covered in some sweet sauce that made it taste good. He alternated between bites of rice and vegetable then, stuffing his mouth to capacity before slowing to swallow some only to instantly add more.
He finished every last morsel and licked the plates clean. When he put his chopsticks down, Ruadhan gestured to the untouched cup. “Please drink.” Kiol had never liked tea very much, it tasted bitter like vegetables. But he lifted the cup to drink anyway, downing all of it in one go. When he put the cup back on the table, the porcelain cracked.
Terror whipped through him like an icy wind. He couldn’t move. He certainly couldn’t meet the man’s gaze. Hands stretched towards him from over the table and he flinched away. But they only lifted the cup and placed it gently on the tray.
“Is this what you meant?” Ruadhan asked mildly. “Do things you touch often break?” Kiol hugged his knees to his chest. Ruadhan tilted his head. “I see. Would you like to know how to stop?” Kiol looked up at that, then shifted onto his knees.
“I can be fixed?” he blurted.
“In a way. If your destructive tendencies are focused and intentional, it will prevent involuntary destruction.” Kiol stared at him blankly. “You must break things on purpose,” Ruadhan explained. “Then accidents will occur less.”
Kiol’s face fell at that. “But I don’t want to break things at all,” he mumbled.
“We can discuss it later. It’s late now. Would you like to return to the streets or will you allow a bed to be made for you here?”
Kiol watched him with suspicion. He didn’t want to be trapped here. But the man offered for him to leave, so it was his own choice. “I can stay,” he said.
Ruadhan nodded and stood. He paused at the door and looked back. “May I hear your name now?”
Kiol pressed his lips together, reluctant. But the word forced its way out. “Kiol.”
“Kiol,” Ruadhan repeated gently. Kiol stiffened and fire laced under his skin. He had never realized that the only voice that had said his name before was his mother’s. “Thank you, Kiol,” Ruadhan said. “I will arrange a space for you to sleep.”
The bed was soft and the blanket warm. Kiol had no problem sleeping in a room with so many others, he’d spent almost a year sleeping on the streets in full view of crowds, after all. But the bed was too comfortable. He tossed around trying to find a spot that he could sleep on until exhaustion knocked him out.
He woke with the bustle of others waking. Everyone in the room got up at the same time, washed their hands and faces, and got dressed. Kiol hid under his covers. He heard them filing out, but footsteps paused by his bed.
“Hey new kid, you’d better get up if you don’t want latrine duty and whatever punishment the commander feels like giving. It’s usually a hundred laps.” Kiol shrunk further under the blanket. The feet walked off. He poked his head out to see that the room had emptied. He swung his feet off the bed. They hit something smooth and chilly and he recoiled.
A pair of leather shoes was placed by the bed. Folded neatly beside them were some garments.
The door opened and he yanked the blanket over his head again.
“The Temple General has requested your presence. Please wash and dress and I will take you to meet him.”
Kiol stood out in a dirt field, looking between Ruadhan and the straw dummy. The man watched him patiently for another few minutes before stepping up again and kneeling beside him. “Shall I show you again?” he asked. Kiol shook his head. “You know the move?” Kiol nodded. Ruadhan examined him a moment. “Then why won’t you show me? I will not mind if it is done badly, in fact I expect it. No one will perfect anything on the first try.”
Kiol mumbled under his breath. Ruadhan raised an eyebrow. “Please know, Kiol, that I do not tolerate mumbling or muttering in my presence. If you speak, you must speak clearly.”
Kiol frowned and bit his lips together. He stared at the ground and gripped the simple black tunic he had been given. Simple, but better than any clothes he’d worn in a long time. He hoped if he was quiet for long enough Ruadhan would give up and leave him be, but the man did not move or speak, he only waited patiently. “I don’t want to break things,” Kiol finally said, a bit louder. “I told you. It’s bad.”
“It is not bad,” Ruadhan told him. “Destruction is not inherently bad. In fact, it is unavoidable in several parts of life. This target is made of straw, it is worth nothing, and it is made to be broken. Do you understand?” Kiol nodded, still staring at the ground. “Will you show me now?” When Kiol stayed silent, Ruadhan stood and walked to the dummy. He pulled some pieces from the belt around his waist and with a few flicks, sparks caught on the straw. In seconds it was up in flame.
Kiol watched, astonished.
“Do you see?” Ruadhan asked. “It is no matter if they are destroyed.” He beckoned over some soldiers. One brought water to put out the fire and the other brought another dummy, staking it into the ground where Ruadhan indicated.
Ruadhan returned to Kiol’s side. “Show me now.”
Kiol looked up at him. He turned back to the dummy and took a deep breath, then lunged forward as Ruadhan had shown and hit the heels of his hands, one after the other, in the middle of the target.
Ruadhan crossed his arms. “Harder please.” Kiol did it again. “You’re holding back,” Ruadhan chastised. “Whether you want to break things or not, Kiol, you always will. So you can take control of it and decide what to break, or you can continue destroying the things around you without discretion. Which would you prefer?”
“Neither,” Kiol said.
“You have to choose one.”
“I don’t want to!”
“You have no other choice.”
Kiol crouched to his heels and buried his face in his knees. He was not crying, but he couldn’t stop his shoulders from shaking or his breath from stuttering. After a moment a hand rested on his back.
“What are you afraid of?” Ruadhan asked. “I already showed you I won’t be angry.”
“You’ll leave,” Kiol whispered. “It doesn’t matter what I do. You’ll leave eventually.”
Ruadhan was quiet for a while. Then he pulled Kiol up. “Kiol, I promise you. No matter what you break, I won’t leave. You can break my arm, all the plates in the temple, you could burn down the temple itself.” Ruadhan gripped his shoulders and forced Kiol to face him. “I promise. I will never abandon you.”