Ruadhan sat at his desk, hands resting on its surface as though he had been waiting like that for hours. He didn’t move until Kiol closed the door. That was when he raised a hand and gestured to the chair before him. His face was expressionless as always: not happy, not upset. Stone.
Kiol took the seat. He kept his face neutral, but in comparison to Ruadhan’s eyes of steel it felt like a childish ploy.
“Did you find the portrait?” Ruadhan asked. Kiol nodded. “Did you think on what it could mean?”
Kiol hesitated, then signed, “I try not to think at all.” Ruadhan preferred speech, and he would never sign himself, but Kiol knew he could understand sign-speak and he didn’t trust his voice in that moment.
“But clearly you did,” Ruadhan replied. “You did think, and you acted. So tell me what you think now.” He still hadn’t moved, expression or body, and of course Kiol couldn’t hear his tone, but he could tell from the words alone that Ruadhan was pissed. Relief bloomed a little in his chest. He knew where he stood now, at least.
“I think…” he signed. “I think you are not who you say you are.”
“Then who am I?”
Kiol shrugged. “Creator? Envier? Someone else?” He shrugged again. “It does not matter to me. You are Ruadhan, Temple General. Leader of Soldiers.”
Ruadhan watched him for longer than usual. Kiol tried to read his eyes. Did they soften? No, it must have been a trick of the light. “Are you not curious?” Ruadhan finally asked, after at least a minute of silence.
Kiol spoke now. “As I said, sir, I try not to think.”
Ruadhan tapped the fingers of one hand on the desk, then rose and walked around it. Kiol stayed sitting even as Ruadhan came to stand beside him, arms crossed. He looked up at his shaded face.
“Have you lost faith in me?”
Kiol stared forward again, but he did not dare keep his gaze away for long. If Ruadhan spoke he wanted to know what he said. But he didn’t speak. He stood and watched Kiol, eyes shaded from emotion or light, waiting patiently.
“Sir…” Kiol began. He faltered, then lifted his chin high and met Ruadhan’s stare. “I lost faith in you long ago. As you did me.” They stared at each other, neutral, as though the air were not snapping with tension around them. After a long few minutes, Ruadhan turned away and walked to the window. He looked outside at the thin tree scraping the wall, its scraggly branches holding only a few tufts of golden leaves, still clinging to the remaining days of autumn. In the moonlight, framed by the dark walls around the window, the man looked even paler. He stood there, hands clasped behind his back. Kiol wondered if he was dismissed, but just as he wondered, the man turned again.
“I never lost faith in you, Kiol,” he said, slow and careful. “That you have for me, fine. But why then obey my orders?”
“Because you are the general,” Kiol replied without missing a beat.
“You have plenty of money. You have skill and experience. You could have left this life long ago. You could leave now. Will you leave the temple when I dismiss you from this office tonight?”
Ruadhan’s face was even more shadowed with the backdrop of the window behind him. Kiol saw anyway, and was surprised Ruadhan came close to looking pensive. “Then you trust my orders?” he asked.
Ruadhan nodded slowly, moving just as slowly back to his seat. When he sat, straight and tall as always, his gaze had hardened once more. “And the orders I give now, you’ll obey them?” Kiol nodded. Ruadhan folded his hands together on the desk. “Good. Then these are your orders. That boy you were with today—follow him.” Kiol’s heart seized and lunged into his throat. Ruadhan noticed him stiffen and raised a thin eyebrow. Somehow, it only added to the stoniness of his expression. “So you won’t obey?”
Kiol summoned all of his willpower to keep his voice steady. “I will.” Ruadhan nodded and raised a hand, but before he was dismissed Kiol continued. “Is he a rebel, sir?”
“No,” Ruadhan replied easily, but the short drop of relief did not last long. “He is worse. He is trying to rebuild the Cult of Envy.”
Kiol’s heart dropped to the floor. It was not shock of this news, but despair that Ruadhan knew Nirin was a cultist. Because him knowing meant Nirin’s death.
“Follow him and find out where the base is.”
“And when I do?” Kiol signed.
“You will report everything back to me, of course.” Ruadhan saw Kiol’s hesitation. “The boy will not be killed. You can personally ensure that. But—do not meet with him again until he has led you where we need. He will know something is wrong if you do.”
“He might know something is wrong if I don’t,” Kiol signed.
Ruadhan narrowed his eyes. “No,” he said, and Kiol saw the force behind the word even if he couldn’t hear it. “It is riskier to show yourself. These are my orders. Trust them.”
Kiol swallowed. Nodded. Ruadhan waved his hand in dismissal. Kiol stood and was almost to the door when he turned back. “Sir?” Ruadhan glanced up. “Was the archivist a rebel?”
Ruadhan smiled, then. It was a rare sight, but it was not a smile of joy. It was calculating, unfeeling. “No,” he said. “He was a friend.”
Kiol trailed Nirin in the shadows for three days. He didn’t do much. He played his flute on the street for money, bought food with it, wandered around without going into any buildings or meeting anyone. Kiol was worried he would sleep on the streets, but he did always return to the inn at night. Ironically, Kiol did sleep on the streets to stay close. He was used to it though, and it wasn’t like he had to fear being taken advantage of.
On the fourth morning Nirin left the inn and headed straight for the city gates. Kiol lingered in the crowd of people leaving, never letting Nirin out of his sight until the crowd became too dispersed to stay hidden. Then he let the boy get a lead on him and followed by scent. He walked for a long time down the forest road, turning onto a smaller path, and then a trail. From a point on the trail he veered into the woods. Then there was no path at all, just underbrush and rough terrain.
As night began to fall, Kiol expected Nirin to stop for the night. He moved more cautiously. But the trail kept going, and going, even when the moon had hit the tops of the trees. In the distance he saw a light, but it wasn’t the flickering light of campfire. He stopped at the edge of the tree line and stared.
On an island in the center of a large pond was a cottage. Kiol wasn’t sure if that was really the correct term for it. It was small, but it was built beautifully with white stones purer than Kiol had ever seen before, and a shingle roof of black stone. Stretching across the pond to reach it was a long bridge of gray-wood with golden-lit lanterns set into the posts along its length.
The light from the cottage was soft and gentle, but it had been enough to see from a distance. That this place existed just a day’s walk from the city and no soldier had found it on their tours of the woods was astounding.
Kiol crept along the ground to the bridge, then flipped himself below it. Like a bug on the ceiling he crawled hand-over-hand along the bottom of it, fully swathed in its shadows. When he reached the island he crept along the ground, out of view of the windows, and climbed easily onto the roof. It was the best way to look inside, because if anyone glanced at the window, their eyes naturally fell to the middle or bottom of it, not the top, and gave him time to move. It was also ground advantage if he needed to fight or flee.
He lowered his head down and peered inside the first window. A small fire was in a hearth, surrounded by sitting cushions, but no one else was in the room. He made his way to the back. There appeared to be only the two rooms, and the back room was a small kitchen. Kiol didn’t know a single other building that had two rooms-- if it had to have two, it would have three. The people inside the kitchen both had their backs to the window. There was no hearth in here, it was lit by the steady glow of some paper lamps that were resting on shelves. Nirin stood in the center of the room, signing, though Kiol didn’t know how that was working when the other person wasn’t even looking at him. They were at the counter, chopping vegetables and adding them to a pot. From their figure, clothes, and hair, Kiol guessed they were female. Like Nirin she wore nicer robes, but then again one must have been fairly wealthy to afford such a well-made home in the middle of the woods, regardless of its size.
He doubted this was the Cult base. It was too small, too close to the city and main Society Temple, and too conspicuous. The base he had infiltrated years ago had been hidden underground, crudely carved from dirt and built with scrap wood. It had long been burnt down and then forcefully caved in, so it wasn’t like Kiol thought they would be in the same spot, but. This homely cottage was too far off the mark. And it was on an island, so it couldn’t even be hiding any large system beneath it.
The woman at the counter turned and Kiol was a fraction of a second from vanishing back up to the roof when the familiarity of her features froze him in place. And in that fraction of a second, without any pause as though she turned specifically to see Kiol, he met the gaze of the Cult Leader. The woman he had killed six years ago.