Kiol and Caelin went out to hunt for meat. Neither of them wanted to subsist off of vegetables. Since most of the vegetables were preserved to last, Nirin and Serul decided to forage to save their stores for the winter. For a long while they worked in silence, picking berries and herbs and nuts.
“I’m sorry,” Serul said. Nirin looked over at her still tugging wild onion from the dirt. He did not need to sign for her to know his confusion. “I knew it was a possibility. You could have died. And I didn’t stop it.”
“You did try,” Nirin signed. “You tried desperately to get Kiol to return to the city. And I made sure he stayed.”
Serul looked up then, surprised. “Did you know?”
“I knew the charm Kiol carried was corrupted. It did not take long to figure out the nature of its condition, once I spent some time with Ruadhan.”
Serul’s jaw clenched. “You make it sound like you were his dinner guest,” she said, disgusted. Not with Nirin, but Ruadhan. And then, like always when that man was brought up, her feelings faded to sorrow and regret. They were not far off from Ruadhan’s own when he faced Nirin. And Nirin couldn’t make heads or tails of it. He brushed the confusion aside.
“Do you remember the temple in the town I grew up in?” Nirin signed. Serul didn’t respond. She never could decide whether Creator would have retained Serul’s memories or not. But Nirin knew she remembered, so he continued. “That imprisonment sigil is still strong. I thought with it, I could trap Ruadhan. But it didn’t work. Why is that?”
Serul sat back on her heels and gave a deep sigh. She didn’t want to discuss it. But Nirin waited.
“I assume you used your own blood?” Serul clarified. Nirin nodded. “And he took your blood, didn’t he?” He nodded again. He could already see where this was going, but he wanted the details. “He must have made a protection charm, against you, with your own blood. It requires the blood of the entity you wish to protect against to work in the first place, and on top of that with the potency of yours… you understand. It prevents sigils made with your blood from working on him.”
He turned back to the berry bush and plucked a few more. He wished he had known such a charm existed. He put the basket on the ground and knelt beside Serul. “Will you show me the seal?” he signed.
She produced a ball of clay and seconds later it was a charm. She handed it over to him. “That isn’t written with any blood, so it’s useless of course,” she said. “But if you’d like to learn it, you can keep it.” She knew exactly who Nirin was thinking of protecting, but she said nothing of it. “I think we have enough. Let’s go back.”
While the meat roasted they sat around the parlor fire in silence. Serul was busy making clothes for them all, and Nirin focused on stirring the pot of vegetable congee. It didn’t stop Caelin’s despair from reaching him or Kiol’s tense wariness. At least Serul knew how to keep her mind at peace. Nirin would have to teach the others if they were to spend whole days together.
The congee was simmering, and with it sitting in front instead of over the fire, Nirin doubted it would burn or boil over. He started out of the cottage, tapping Kiol’s shoulder as he passed. Kiol followed immediately, though he said nothing until they were outside with the door closed.
“Isn’t it too cold?” he signed. Nirin didn’t respond, staring up at the stars. Kiol turned his gaze to them too. The sky was vast and bright above them, coating the dead meadow in an ethereal haze.
Nirin had so much to tell him, but he didn’t know where to start. Or perhaps he just didn’t want to start. He wanted to pretend nothing was happening, nothing had happened, and Kiol would never be upset or mad at him again.
He looked at the boy, and wished he could see more than the dark outline of his face. “I am sorry I lied to you,” he signed, large enough for Kiol to see. “I do not wish to keep secrets from you and I don’t want you to distrust me.”
“I don’t,” Kiol signed, quick as always to reassure Nirin. He had no sense of worth, no care for his own grievances. It saddened Nirin. “I shouldn’t have, to begin with—”
“Yes,” Nirin signed steadily, “you should have. And you should.” He sighed, lowering his arms. For all that Kiol was honest and genuine, Nirin was deceptive and fake. He didn’t deserve Kiol’s loyalty, his companionship, his love. He knew he didn’t. But Kiol thought the same about himself, and would see any denial as proof of that. Nirin walked into the meadow, rustling past the stalks, and Kiol followed without thought. Nirin laid down in the middle of the field, watching the stars blink at him. Kiol stood above him, confused.
“There is so much bad in the world,” he signed, which confused Kiol more. He dropped down beside him.
“You don’t think anyone is bad.”
“I am not as good and compassionate as you think I am,” Nirin signed. Kiol didn’t believe him. Nirin shook his head. “I was like anyone else in the Cult of Envy. I thought the bad had to be eradicated. And I felt like the whole world had forsaken me, had chosen to hurt me, and deserved to suffer because of it.”
“You?” Kiol asked, astonished. “You wanted to end the world too?”
Nirin ignored the question. “It’s funny, actually. I felt like that when I was with Serul, but she always saw the good in people. Then when Serul died—” Kiol’s immediate guilt. Nirin wished he would get over it. “—I spent all my time with Tori, who hated the world. And it was by her side that I realized getting rid of all the bad wouldn’t do anything. It was the easy way out, and easy way outs are never exits, they’re just detours. You have to work hard. Work with the bad to turn it into good.”
Kiol was silent. He didn’t know what to say. But he was thinking that Nirin had done that with him. Nirin smiled, reaching out to squeeze his hand. For a split second he almost pulled away. Then he didn’t, and he squeezed Nirin’s fingers back. He chased after them when Nirin pulled away to sign.
“No. You were always good. I didn’t do anything to change you.”
“But you did change me,” Kiol signed.
“I changed your perception,” Nirin corrected. “Not who you are.” Kiol didn’t believe him again. Nirin gave up and turned back to the sky. “I love the sky.”
“Me too.” Kiol smiled, but it was sad.
“Can you tell me about your mother?”
All of Kiol’s ease vanished. He straightened, looking away and deliberately pretending he didn’t see the question. Nirin sighed and sat up.
“I’m sorry. Let’s go back inside.”
Kiol nodded and stood stiffly. Nirin hesitated, almost reaching out to stop him. He didn’t, and watched Kiol march back inside.
The warmth was not much more inviting, even coming in from the cold. Caelin was still melancholic, and now Kiol was in a strange mood, too. Nirin shook his head at Serul’s inquisitive look and sank down beside her as he knew she wanted. She compared the warm robe she was weaving to his size.
“What do you think?” she asked. “Do you want it a little bigger than usual, more cozy?”
Nirin forced a smile and shook his head. She went back to her work, though her eyes lingered a bit longer on him. He could not stand the roil of emotions in the room.
“I am tired,” he signed, mostly to Serul. The others weren’t paying much attention.
“But you haven’t even eaten—” Serul began.
“Good night.” He walked off to the bedroom they had decided was his. Instead of sleeping, he pulled out the protection charm Serul had given him and studied it. He was determined to memorize it, and then the second he had any bit of Ruadhan’s blood, he’d make another.
He was there long enough to get a decent start on that task when Kiol stepped in holding two bowls.
“Food is ready. Why are you in here?”
“It is too loud out there,” Nirin signed. Kiol furrowed his brows and glanced back.
“But no one is talking. Where is the noise coming from?”
Nirin smiled and shook his head. “Not that kind of loud. Nevermind. Thank you for bringing food.”
Kiol sheepishly handed him the bowl. “You are still in recovery,” he signed clumsily around the other he held.
“Sit down,” Nirin signed. Kiol did, setting the bowl on the ground with severe caution.
“You must eat well. You already don’t eat meat,” he finished.
“I do not think meat replenishes blood and spirit as everyone thinks,” Nirin replied. Kiol’s frown was almost a pout, and it was painfully cute.
“If you’ve never eaten meat, how would you even know?” he signed accusingly. Nirin watched him for a moment, biting his lips together, then decided not to remind Kiol of his abilities.
“Fair enough,” he acquiesced, and lifted his bowl to begin eating. Kiol did not and after only a few bites Nirin lowered it again to sign, “What is wrong?”
“Do you… want me to leave?”
Nirin tilted his head. “No, I don’t.”
“Then why did you leave the parlor?”
“I already told you that.”
Kiol still thought it was because of him.
“I thought you were the one who was upset,” Nirin continued. “I did not want to be a further source of distress.”
“No,” Kiol said, leaning forward as though to grab Nirin, but he stopped himself. “You aren’t. You weren’t.” He shook his head. “It is only… it was so long ago,” he mumbled. “I should not care any more.”
“Do not force yourself to speak of it,” Nirin signed. “I only asked because I thought it might help to talk.”
Kiol frowned at him and for once Nirin could not determine what thought was behind it.
“What is it?”
“It feels like you know everything about me, that you can look straight into me, but I know nothing about you.” Nirin looked away, but of course it did nothing to hinder his comprehension of Kiol’s sign-speak. “Your life sounds a lot more interesting than mine.”
“It’s not.” He lifted the bowl and began eating. Kiol watched him for a moment, sad and disbelieving, before picking up his own bowl and eating in silence. Nirin almost wanted to tell him, to blurt his life story out, but once more he couldn’t bring himself to tell Kiol what he deserved to hear.
Nirin was not used to talking about himself. That was his excuse. It was more though; the fear that if Kiol knew the truth of who he was, what he’d thought and felt and done, he would see him differently. Too differently to like him the same. And so Nirin continued with his disingenuity, letting Kiol see the false side of him. The honest, compassionate, courageous facade that he was ironically too cowardly to set aside. When the food was finished, Kiol took the bowls out and didn’t return. Nirin slipped into his bed and stared out the window at the stars hovering above the trees until he fell asleep to their cold gaze.