Almost the exact second Kiol reached the inner edge of the crowd, Nirin’s eyes flicked open and caught his gaze. Any doubts Kiol might have had about it not really being who he thought was dashed at that stare. The boy kept playing without missing a beat, eyes locked on him. Kiol didn’t know whether to be angry or surprised or confused, but he wished he could pick one so all three would stop warring inside his head.
The slender fingers stopped their dance and the flute lowered. Nirin stood languidly and pressed his palms together around his flute to offer the crowd a few bows of gratitude as they tossed coins and even paper money onto the cloth laid on the ground. Not an insignificant amount of money. It must have been a good show. Kiol’s anger found a direction— at these strangers who could hear Nirin’s skill and he couldn’t.
Some went up to speak to Nirin after the crowd dispersed, all women, and to whoever was speaking Nirin listened intently and seriously, giving them his full attention. They didn’t seem to think anything was wrong with patting his arms and playing with his long hair, like he was some sort of doll or animal that could be fondled without concern.
Kiol shouldered the woman away and they stumbled back, shocked, then upset. He ignored their twisted expressions and unreadable complaints. “Go away,” he said, blocking them from moving closer again. “Go away.”
No matter what, even though he wasn’t wearing his soldier uniform, with his aura the women knew better than to keep insisting. They muttered to themselves and stalked off.
Kiol turned to Nirin, hands trembling with anger as he signed, “What the hell are you doing here?”
Nirin glanced around, almost like he was confused and double-checking his surroundings. “Working,” he signed, and crouched to gather up the cloth. When he stood again he noticed Kiol’s wide eyes and tilted his head.
“Your leg,” Kiol signed. “Your… your injury!”
“It’s fine now.”
“It can’t be!” He grabbed Nirin’s shoulder to turn him around, prodding without thinking at the thigh. Nirin stood there patiently even after Kiol realized what he was doing and let him go in haste. Quite a few people in the passing crowd were giving them looks and Kiol glared at them so they turned their eyes away.
Nirin tied the cloth into a pouch and then tied the pouch to the sash inside his robe. He was wearing different clothes now, a dark and light green long-tunic with yellow embroidered accents and a yellow waist sash, all covered by an opened purple outer robe. Once again it looked like too fine fabric for the context he was in— it wasn’t ridiculously fancy but it wasn’t coarse and simple either like other street busker’s clothing. Even with the abnormal amount of money given to him, it wasn’t enough to cover the price of basic living and such clothes.
Nirin tucked his flute into his sash and rolled up the straw mat. Kiol stopped him from walking away. “Where are you going?”
“Food,” he signed. “Do you want to come? I have money now.” Kiol looked at him. Someone who had to entertain a street crowd for money shouldn’t have been offering to buy another person’s meal.
“I’ll pay,” he said gruffly. “Where do you want to go?”
Nirin started walking again and Kiol followed. After a few steps he remembered with a start and grabbed the boy’s arm to get his attention. “Hey, where the hell did you go before? Who took you away from the cave?!”
Nirin blinked back at him but didn’t stop walking. He lifted his hands, but hesitated. It seemed unbecoming of him. “A friend,” he signed at last.
“How did they know where you were?”
“I told them.” Kiol squinted but couldn’t question further because Nirin stopped walking and gestured to a food cart. It looked almost rundown, made with sagging planks of wood and the painted sign on the front was faded and scratched beyond recognition. It was so far at the end of the market district that no other vendors were around, yet even without competition no one was giving them business. “Let’s eat here.”
Kiol eyed the old woman stooped over a small fire and roasting some vegetables. She didn’t look very clean, and neither did the food. But he nodded consent and Nirin walked up.
The grandma peered up at them as they came over. After some squinting she broke into a mostly-toothless grin. “Ah, it’s you! I was worried when you hadn’t come in so long.” Kiol actually had trouble reading her words when she had so few teeth. He had to fill in from context more than usual.
Nirin nodded and patted his torso reassuringly. Then he pointed to what she was cooking and tilted his head.
“Ah, yes, yes, I will wrap you some. Do you want the same amount as usual?” Nirin nodded and the woman dug under her cart to pull out a burlap sack. It was hard to discern with its brown color, but Kiol was fairly certain it was as dirty as the rest of the stall. The woman gathered up not just what had been out for display on her cart, but everything that was cooking over the fire too. She tied it all up in a bundle and handed it over.
Nirin reached for his pouch but Kiol stopped him. “I said I’d pay,” he reminded him. Nirin shook his head and gently pried the hand from his arm. It was the first time he had actively resisted anything Kiol did and he was too surprised to stop the boy as he untied his entire pouch and dropped it into the woman’s gnarled hands. Then he took the burlap sack, bowed to her, and walked off.
Kiol stood in disbelief for a moment longer before hurrying after him. “That was all your money!”
“Surely some unseasoned vegetables aren’t worth so much?!” He had to switch to signing to say such long things, so he made sure he was striding nearly in front of the boy. “They didn’t even look fresh!” Nirin just blinked at him. Kiol stared back, anger choking his muscles again, and he stepped in front of him to make him halt.
“Does your ‘friend’ live in the city?”
Nirin shook his head, which Kiol had expected. From where the trail went it wouldn’t have made sense. But then again, very few things seemed to make sense whenever Nirin was involved.
“Where are you staying?” he signed. “It’s getting late. Let’s go back first.”
Nirin glanced around. “These streets are quiet,” he signed. It took Kiol a second to realize that that was his answer.
“The streets?!” he exclaimed, louder than he’d said anything in a long time. He bit his lips and returned to signing furiously. “You’ll sleep on the streets? Why did you give all your money to that grandma? It could have bought a couple nights at an inn!”
“She needs nights at an inn more than me,” Nirin replied, not at all put off by Kiol’s anger. He patted the straw mat under his arm. “I can sleep anywhere.”
Kiol grabbed his arm and Nirin followed along peacefully as he dragged him down the street while berating him. “What’s wrong with you, kid? You can’t sleep on the street! Look at you! You’ll be mugged or worse.” He dragged him back through the stalls of fabric and tools, spices and trinkets. He plowed easily through the crowd, even pissing off some people. He didn’t stop until he was in the emptier streets, not by the temple but still in the northern section where vendors weren’t allowed.
The inn was spacious and comfortable. The front room was filled with patrons but still didn’t seem crowded. Kiol brought Nirin to the desk and dug into his pocket to grab some money and slap it down. “One room.”
The attendant nodded graciously and scooped up the paper, jotting down in a journal. Then he looked back up to ask, “Two beds or one large, sir?”
Kiol startled, and took a second to reply. “No, not two, just for him.” He pointed at Nirin standing complacently beside him. The attendant nodded and jotted something else down. Then he counted out Kiol’s money and gave him some coins in change.
Kiol looked at the coins on the counter, then turned to Nirin. “How long are you staying in the city?”
“Perhaps… three or four days.”
Kiol pushed the coins back to the attendant and added more money. “Four nights. And…” He looked sternly at Nirin. “If you need a place to stay, come to this inn.” He looked back to the attendant. “Whenever he stays, just charge it to Kiol in the soldier sect.”
The man’s hand fumbled at the name and he tried to recover smoothly but Kiol had noticed anyway. “Of course, sir,” he said, and tucked away the money. “~~~ will take the young sir to his room.” He gestured to a woman and she hurried over, leaning in to listen to him speak in her ear. Then she smiled sweetly at Nirin and gestured for him to go with her. When Kiol followed along as well she paused.
“Oh… Boss assigned wrong, there is only one bed.” She looked to the attendant but Kiol spoke before him.
“One bed is fine,” he said. “I am only visiting right now. Am I not allowed?” He didn’t turn around, but from the girl’s expression, the attendant was making some wild gestures. She quickly donned another bright smile.
“Of course! Of course, sir, yes. Feel free to visit any time.” And she led them up the floor.
She slid open the door and bowed out of the way as they stepped inside. She spoke but her face was to the ground so when she looked up Kiol just stared blankly at her. Nirin signed by his side, “If we need anything we can visit the desk or ring the bell.” Kiol glanced at the small service bell mounted just outside the room, with a string for ringing pulled through the wall and dangling inside.
The woman was looking at them strangely after Nirin’s gestures. The general public didn’t know Kiol was deaf and he preferred it that way. He pushed Nirin behind himself. “Fine,” he told the lady. She forced another smile, gave another bow, and shut the door.
When Kiol turned around, Nirin had already laid down his straw mat on the floor and his sack of vegetables onto the table. Kiol watched him sit without any issues and still couldn’t believe his leg was already healed. He had made and then dressed that wound himself and he knew it would take at least six weeks to heal to a functional degree. Not half that time and it seemed to be negligent. It was physically impossible.
Nirin reached into the sack and pulled out a roasted carrot. Kiol grabbed it inches from his mouth and chucked it back with the others. “Don’t eat that.”
Nirin still had his fingers next to his mouth. He lowered his hand and peered up at Kiol, tilting his head.
“It’s dirty,” he said, sitting down heavily before switching to sign-speak. “We’ll get food here. It’s a nice inn, they’ll have good food.”
“I don’t eat meat,” Nirin reminded him. “These places always serve meat or something made with meat. My vegetables are fine.”
“You’ll get sick if you eat those.”
“I won’t. I’ll get sick by eating here.” Nirin picked up a small tomato and popped it into his mouth. Kiol watched in disgust but didn’t want to keep arguing over it.
“Who is your friend?” Kiol signed. “How did you tell them where you were?”
Nirin paused in chewing a pepper. He seemed to contemplate seriously for a bit, slowly returning to eating. “I made a charm,” he finally signed.
“You what?” Kiol asked out loud, voice even flatter than usual. It was clearly a lie, and yet for some reason Kiol didn’t think Nirin would lie.
“Not those trinkets,” Nirin signed. “Maybe it can’t be called a charm.” He ate another veggie, face serious as he thought some more. “A rune seal,” he finally signed, as though that was any more logical an explanation. Kiol stared at him blankly. He just stared back, his expression in that pleasant smile-not-smile.
“A rune seal?” Kiol signed after it seemed Nirin would not elaborate on his own.
“Rune seals are what go on charms,” the boy signed. “But they don’t have to.”
Kiol scoffed. “I know what a rune seal is,” he signed back. “They’re useless, just like charms are useless. How does that explain anything?”
“Not useless. But you have to make it with blood.”
Kiol was stuck in place. Nirin casually reached inside the sack to continue eating. He got through another three mouthfuls before Kiol collected his mind again. “Blood?” he signed. Nirin nodded. “Is that why you took the knife out?” Another nod. Kiol pressed his forehead into his hand and closed his eyes. This kid…
“Hey!” The exclamation made Nirin’s gaze snap up, the closest to startled Kiol had seen. He pointed his finger at the boy. “You could have died! Don’t do that again!”
“I will not if you don’t throw a knife at me again,” Nirin signed, which shut Kiol up immediately. He pressed his lips together, but Nirin didn’t seem to mean it sarcastically, looking at Kiol in earnest.
“I’m…” Kiol started, but he couldn’t finish. He shook his head and sighed. “Hey,” he signed this time, Nirin was already looking at him and he didn’t need to get his attention. “Don’t let people just touch you like that, okay? I mean, me too…” He sighed again, irritated at himself, or Nirin, or both, or maybe just everyone. “But those women on the street, too. They shouldn’t touch you like that.”
“Oh, they didn’t mean anything by it,” Nirin signed cheerfully. “They weren’t going to hurt me.” Another pang in his chest, though Kiol was sure Nirin didn’t mean to remind him that he had hurt him.
“It doesn’t matter,” he signed forcefully. “Don’t just let strangers do whatever to you. How old are you that you don’t know that? Geez…” He muttered the last word out loud, thoroughly annoyed.
Nirin only watched him like usual. After a stretch of silence, he tied up the sack.
“Sorry for all this trouble,” he signed. “I know you only want to help me.” Kiol huffed a breath, wishing he wouldn’t say it like that. He wasn’t helping him he was only… Ah, shit. Nirin was looking at him again and when he met the boy’s gaze it was like someone wrapping a warm blanket around his shoulders. Kiol felt a pit he had long since closed off opening in his stomach. “Thank you,” Nirin signed, a genuine smile on his lips.
Kiol looked away, tempering the emotions welling inside him and keeping his face straight. “Better go,” he muttered. “Getting late.” He stood, digging out the last money in his pouch and putting it on the table. It didn’t matter, it was a drop in the bucket of all the money he had accumulated over the years. “Buy some real food tomorrow.” He left without looking at the boy, but somehow knowing that poignant gaze was on his back.
Kiol walked through the dusky training grounds, still aggrieved. Still seeing—no, feeling—that boy’s gaze. He stared at the ground as he walked, clenching and unclenching his fists.
A sense of movement drew his eye to the fields. One of the instructors stood cross-armed by an obstacle course that a figure was struggling through. The figure’s face was paled and bun disheveled, but even at the distance and with the encroaching darkness, Kiol recognized her.
So that was how he recognized the twin the other day, too. All of the soldiers were just nameless, faceless beings to him, he only bothered to look at their uniform and belt to determine their status because it would predict how they’d react to him. It was strange for him to know one more than any other, but he remembered now. He often got back to the temple late, and many times saw this same scene. Whenever a soldier was unsatisfactory, they were forced to stay behind and redo the training until the instructor was satisfied. Usually only one or two times was enough for soldiers to wise up and try their hardest from then on to give exemplary performances, but this girl… Kiol couldn’t count the amount of times he’d seen her out here. Because he had never kept track, of course, but he also knew it was an uncountably large number.
Despite the twins being indistinguishable from one another, Kiol knew which this one was. It wasn’t hard to know. He vaguely wondered where the confident twin was, whether this bothered her. He shook the thoughts from his mind, annoyed that he was considering some random soldier’s feelings. He didn’t care. He didn’t care!
He locked himself in his room and reached under his pillow for the scroll. His hand grasped air. He flung the pillow off and the mattress was empty. He searched around the bed, dug into the pillow case, looking everywhere, even places it couldn’t have randomly fallen to. It was gone. Someone had taken it.
That anyone would dare enter his room in the first place was one thing, but to take something from it as well? But there hadn’t been any signs of entry. Even if someone had managed to avoid leaving physical traces—a strand of hair, the slightest misplace of his pillow, Kiol would have discovered—there would be the unfamiliar smell of another person still hanging in the air. There was only one person Kiol could never detect.
He sank onto the bed, staring at the opposite wall of his small, empty room. A lot of soldiers had no family to bother putting up ancestor tapestries but even still, they hung charms or decorations on the wall space by their beds. Kiol had a whole room to himself and it held only a wardrobe, a chair, and a bed.
He couldn’t know what Ruadhan’s reaction was going to be. How long had he known the man? Kiol didn’t know how old he was when he joined the sect, but he had been young—perhaps six or seven. So he’d known him at least fifteen years, had worked more closely with Ruadhan than any other person besides the Archbishop, and yet he still could never determine what the Temple General would do in situations. When Kiol expected punishment, Ruadhan would sometimes reward him. When he expected satisfaction, the man would sometimes criticize him.
That he had taken a scroll from a target and hidden it away, hadn’t informed Ruadhan when it directly involved him, would he be angry? Would he be pleased? Kiol could not imagine why he would be the latter, but there were plenty of times Ruadhan had been glad when any normal person would be upset. The time Kiol broke Ruadhan’s personal, favorite sword came to mind.
He sat and stared at the wall for a long time. It was well past dinner when he finally dragged himself up and out the door. The walk to Ruadhan’s quarters was somehow both more arduous and far shorter than it had been any time before.