When Nirin woke the next day Caelin was gone and Serul was sighing to herself and shaking her head as she wove new clothing. When Nirin stepped into the room she set it aside and passed the woolen robe to him. Instead of trying it on he asked, “Where is she?”
Serul sighed again. “I could not convince her to stay. She thought Corva might return to the old cottage.”
“But it is dangerous there,” Nirin signed.
“Of course,” Serul said. “I told her that. When I knew I couldn’t convince her, I tried persuading her to at least stay long enough for me to make her new clothes, but clearly she did not.”
Nirin sat beside her, fiddling with the cloth in his lap. Serul looked up at him.
“You want to go too?”
He shook his head. “Not to the cottage.”
He smiled and pulled on the robe. It fit him perfectly. Serul had made so many clothes for him, naturally it would. “I will not go,” he signed then. Serul squinted at him, but was reassured. Nirin left to the kitchen to prepare breakfast and be away from Serul’s observations. It was better to stay, he told himself. If he stayed, he would not have to tell Kiol what he’d done. But the worry nagged at him still, that he needed to find Tori, find the remnant, before something terrible happened.
Kiol frowned at the plate of tofu when he finally emerged from his room to join them in the parlor. Nirin smiled apologetically. “There is still rabbit from yesterday,” he signed. Kiol grumbled and stalked back into the kitchen.
“What do you plan to do about Ruadhan now?” Nirin asked. Serul closed her eyes and dropped her hands into her lap.
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “He cannot be left unchecked but we do not have the manpower to affect any change. Perhaps we never did.”
Serul looked at him, setting her jaw. “Her goals do not align with ours.”
“They do a little.”
Serul shook her head. “No. She is selfish and short-sighted.”
“She is not as bad as she used to be. And she’s recruiting rebels and gaining new followers every day.”
“For Envier, Nirin. Not me.”
“Do not tell her you are Creator, simply say Serul never truly died. We could make it work.”
“I said no.”
Nirin sighed and turned away. If Serul continued to refuse help, their cause was futile. Tori had power and influence, Nirin had seen it first-hand. And while she and Serul had never liked each other, they worked well together. There was no reason they could not again.
Kiol stomped back into the parlor and dropped down beside Nirin, eating a leg of rabbit. Nirin swallowed his disgust. It was one thing to see meat in a bowl of porridge, but so indiscreet as that was nauseating.
“Where’s Caelin?” Kiol asked, his voice indifferent as usual, but Nirin felt the genuine tinge of concern in Kiol’s breast.
“She wanted to find Corva,” Nirin signed. Kiol turned annoyance to Serul.
“You let her? But not me.”
“She is smart enough not to go barging into the soldier sect,” Serul replied, which set Kiol’s eyebrows low. “She thinks Corva might be trying to find her, anyway, and knows she will not if she is here.”
“And when they do find each other? What then?”
Serul looked at Kiol, bemused.
“It’s not a future-telling thing, it’s a real question,” Kiol grumbled.
“I don’t know. It is unlikely they will come back here.”
Kiol glanced at Nirin. “So it’s just the three of us, then?” Even Nirin could not determine Kiol’s emotions, but perhaps that was because the boy could hardly do so himself. A mix of relief and trepidation, at least.
“That seems to be the case. For a little while, at least. There is not much we can do until spring arrives.”
Nirin took a steadying breath to prevent himself from sighing. Neither Serul or Kiol felt a sense of urgency, but dread pricked at Nirin’s spine at the thought of doing nothing. He supposed he should have trusted Serul; if something truly terrible had a likelihood of happening, she would want to stop it. He pushed aside his feelings and quietly ate the rest of the tofu.
Winter settled around the cabin in a soft hush of gray. The only real color in the landscape was the red of the cottage door and of the berries that grew in the forest. Even when the sky was clear, it was a thin blue that looked about to give way at any second.
Kiol did not trust Serul’s conjured meat, so he spent the short days setting up traps or checking them. Nirin cooked and cleaned and Serul created whatever needed to be created, or repaired what broke.
Nirin loved talking to Kiol and Serul while sitting by the warmth of the fire. Serul told them what life was like before the Thousand Night Battle, when things called trains carried goods and people between cities, temples were numerous and grand, people were content and well-fed. When priests were not guardians of order, but of knowledge and benevolence. She remembered when temples were not the source of community, but the product of it.
When they were alone outside or in a bedroom, Kiol and Nirin talked about almost anything. Nirin refused to speak of his past and so Kiol would not talk about his either. But other than that, they had long conversations about the soldier sect, the Cult of Envy, their different educations, the curiosities of life, the mystery of Creator. They had plenty of arguments, too. Sometimes as light as different preferences for herbs, and sometimes as heavy as whether they should continue helping Serul, or the world in general.
Nirin’s God-gift was not needed to see that Kiol was done with helping others. He only wanted to keep Nirin safe, and thought living out here for the rest of their lives was perfectly acceptable. It wasn’t, to Nirin.
After one such argument, Kiol stomped outside. Nirin knew it was a good thing that he brought out emotions in Kiol, as no one else seemed to more than a fraction that was quickly smothered or forgotten. And yet the fact that it was only ever Nirin that hurt Kiol, hurt just as much.
When Kiol came back an hour later, he burst through the door with breathless excitement.
“Come outside,” he said, and Nirin let him grab his wrist and pull him out.
It was snowing. The muted colors of the landscape glistened with sparks of white. Nirin had a hard time looking at it, distracted as he was by Kiol’s stony-faced delight.
“It’s so clean,” he said, staring at the stalks in the field as they began to be weighed down. “In the capital it seems to fall from the sky dirty.” The snow dusted his dark hair and broad shoulders. Caressed so gently by it in such a way, Kiol looked delicate for the first time. Nirin pried his gaze away and held out a hand to let the snow fall onto his palm and melt there.
“Spring bleeds what winter weeps, but never unfeeling shall they meet,” Kiol said. For someone who could not hear, he spoke the words with confident rhythm.
Nirin blinked at Kiol, staring again just as soon as he had stopped. Kiol glanced down, saw him staring, and looked away in a huff.
“Hida forced me to memorize poems like that,” he grumbled.
“I have never heard that one,” Nirin signed.
“Really?” Kiol asked, surprised. Nirin bit back a smile.
“I told you I did not get much of an education, let alone a classical one.”
“You’re lucky then,” Kiol signed. “Although maybe you would have enjoyed it.”
“I think I would have.” Nirin hadn’t finished the sentence before Kiol stepped in close to him.
“You’re shivering.” He cupped Nirin’s hands between his own calloused palms as though they were delicate baby birds. Kiol’s hands were not warmer, having been outside for much longer, but his body so close kindled a heat in Nirin’s breast that seemed to warm him through instantly. He turned a hand over and gripped Kiol’s back, brushing his thumb along its rough side. The gentle graze set Kiol’s heart thrumming. He still wasn’t used to an affectionate touch but he at least didn’t recoil from such things any more.
But rather than stand outside waiting for them both to freeze to death, Nirin tightened his grip with one hand and broke away the other to lead Kiol back into the parlor.
“It’s snowing,” he signed to Serul adding logs to the fire.
“I’ll make noodles, then,” she said, and left them to go into the kitchen.
“Will you recite more poems?” Nirin asked Kiol.
“No,” he said gruffly, more embarrassed than anything else. Nirin grinned and pushed him to sit by the fire, grabbing a blanket to put over his shoulders. Before he could move off to help Serul, Kiol grabbed his wrist and pulled him to the floor beside him.
“You’re cold too,” he said. Nirin sat still as Kiol draped half of the blanket over him, allowing it to crumple to the floor when Kiol took his arm back.
“You have to hold it,” Kiol told him impatiently.
“No, you’ll have to hold it for me.” Nirin blinked at Kiol, though he couldn’t keep his mischievous smile to himself. Kiol set his jaw, but said nothing as he picked up the blanket and hugged it around Nirin. Nirin wiggled closer to Kiol’s side, resting his head on the boy’s shoulder. Kiol’s arm was strong, his breathing careful and deep. The fire was roasting-hot in front of them, but somehow Nirin felt all the real warmth was between that blanket.
He looked up at Kiol’s chin, kept stiff and straight. “See, now I can sign easily.”
Kiol cast him a glance, not fooled in the least about Nirin’s true intentions.
That night, Nirin pulled on every warm layer he had, wrapped a satchel of food, and left. He didn’t know where Serul had built the cottage, but he knew it was likely farther north than the original, so he headed south. He walked through the night to combat the cold, though when the world lightened, it was still snowing. It did not bother him, it would better cover his tracks.
The first village he came to was more a scattering of houses. Nirin gratefully accepted an old couple’s hospitality and slept by their fire. They pleaded with him to stay, as the snow did not appear to be stopping a second day in, but Nirin continued. He didn’t make it to another village before the snow and winds drove him to shelter in a damp cave. He fell asleep listening to the howl of winds and when he woke, the entrance was blocked entirely by snow and ice. It made the impromptu shelter warm, so Nirin was loathe to escape, but he also knew if the temperature changed the snow might turn fully into ice, and then he would have triple the work trying to get out.
He had not dug an arms’ length when another presence on top of the snow began shoveling down. Nirin sighed and sat back to wait patiently until Kiol broke his way through. He should have known even layers of snow would not stop his tracking.
“Are you okay?” Kiol asked, diving straight into the cave and grabbing Nirin’s arms. Nirin nodded and Kiol’s concern turned to anger. “What the hell were you thinking?! Why did you leave in the middle of a blizzard?!”
“I didn’t know it was a blizzard when I left.”
Kiol grit his teeth so hard Nirin thought he might break one. “You don’t leave in the middle of the night when it’s snowing either way! Is there something wrong with your head?”
“Probably,” Nirin signed. Kiol turned as rigid as a board.
“Were you looking for Tori?” Nirin didn’t reply. Kiol let him go and almost stood, except the cave was not tall enough and he smacked his head on the top. He growled into his teeth, sinking back to his knees and rubbing his head. Nirin reached over but Kiol slapped him away, the pain just adding fuel to his fury. “Why are you so reckless?!” he snapped. “Do you have any survival instinct at all? Fuckin’ hell, kid! You could have died out here!”
“You are just as careless with your safety,” Nirin accused back.
“I haven’t almost died tw— three times now!”
“I am not dying. I am fine.” Kiol glared at him. Despite all the show, Kiol was more exasperated than angry. Nirin gestured out of the cave. “Are you going to force me back, then?”
“You know I can’t force you to do anything.” Kiol crossed his arms and turned his glare to the wall. “I’m coming with you.”
“You don’t want to.” Kiol didn’t even turn his eyes to see Nirin’s sign-speak. He sighed and shuffled out. When he started north, Kiol grabbed him.
“I thought you were heading south.”
“I’m not going to force you to do something you don’t want.”
“But you’re not going to stop trying, are you?” Nirin didn’t reply. “Exactly. So let’s get this over with.”
Nirin stared down at the snow he stood knee-deep in. If Kiol went with him, he’d have to tell him. He was fine with Kiol’s anger, but the boy’s hurt disbelief stabbed Nirin through the heart and soul. He didn’t want to be the cause of any of Kiol’s pain, and yet he was so often.
“I don’t have enough food for both of us,” he signed in attempt to convince Kiol away.
“Kid, you don’t even have enough food for yourself.” Kiol held out a hand and Nirin accepted it. It wasn’t the same with mittens on. He let Kiol take the lead.
The forest was usually alive with animal calls and insects buzzing and leaves rustling, but in the silence of winter the only sounds were the crunch of their footsteps and the occasional birdsong. Nirin stopped walking and tugged Kiol to a halt.
“If we’re going to find Tori, then you must know something.”
Kiol faced him, crossing his arms. “Okay.”
“Those rebel families you tried to save… the ones under the bathhouse.”
Kiol’s mild disinterest turned to apprehension. “What about them?”
“They weren’t captured by rebel guards. Those were cult members, under Tori’s orders. And I helped them.”
Chapter 37<< >>Chapter 39