Someone was beside him. Kiol sat up, looking down at the soft presence. Only when he saw the slender face did he remember who it was and where they were. Nirin lay on his side facing Kiol, hands curled by his cheek and hair loosely spread across the sheets. He stirred at Kiol’s motion but didn’t wake. Kiol held his breath, watching those delicate eyebrows scrunch together and the soft pink lips turn down. He’d never seen Nirin look so pained, not even when he was seriously injured, not even when he’d been crying in the morgue. There was a despair on his face that choked Kiol’s insides. Someone as precious as Nirin should not have to experience an emotion like that. Kiol wanted to rip that misery straight from Nirin and never let it return, but what could he do?
He got up, careful not to disturb the boy. Last night it seemed he had folded Kiol’s vest that he'd thrown down and put it and his boots neatly to the side wall. Kiol redressed and left the inn as discreetly as he could. It was getting to noon and the streets were as busy as they’d get. He bought rice porridge with vegetables and extremely fine, extremely expensive, tea leaves.
Nirin was still asleep when Kiol returned. He set down the gourd of porridge and the boiled water and bowls he’d requested from the front desk, then watched the back of Nirin’s hair. After a moment he moved closer and settled down beside the bed. The boy turned and Kiol froze, thinking he’d woken him, but his eyes remained closed. He had seemed to turned automatically to the warmth behind him. And his expression had cleared, which lightened Kiol’s chest with relief.
He remembered one of their many conversations last night, which at the time he hadn’t thought much of.
“Why do people want to waken Envier anyway? Do they want to die?”
Nirin shook his head and turned his teacup in his hands. “There are many reasons. Many different people are cultists so naturally they all have different reasons.”
“Then what’s the most common one?”
Nirin turned his face from Kiol, staring hard at the opposite edge of the table as he signed. “Envier represents scorned loyalty and revenge against injustice. Cultists usually feel disregarded by others in their life.” The sharp twinge in Kiol’s head made his confusion about Nirin’s behavior push to the back of his mind.
“That’s no reason to kill themselves and everyone else,” he said.
“What most feel disregarded by is the Society. They don’t believe Envier will kill everyone but will take their side and destroy the ones who scorned them like Creator scorned him. That he will kill the Society and Creator and they can start anew with Envier as the One True God.”
“Stupid,” Kiol muttered. So cultists were throwing a temper tantrum because they didn’t make it as far in the Society as they wanted? Because they were being ignored? Who fucking cared about such shit? Kiol dealt with it without a desire to destroy the world. Well… not to that extent, at least.
“It’s not stupid,” Nirin signed. He was still faced away. Kiol wondered if he knew others’ emotions even when he wasn't looking at them. “Humans need a reason to live; if they’re struggling to continue on, they need to know what they’re struggling for. When they’ve spent their whole life striving for a goal only to realize late in life that they’ll never achieve it… they need a new beacon. Envier offers that beacon: a new goal and a hope that they can make the world a different place from the one that spat them out so harshly.”
“A different place,” Kiol scoffed. “For themselves, maybe. And everyone else gets to die. How selfish.”
“Everyone is selfish.”
Nirin looked at him then, not replying. Kiol hadn’t known what emotion was on his face at the time. But now, thinking back, it had been a shadow of the expression Kiol saw that morning. So it was Kiol’s fault Nirin was feeling such things in his dreams. Of course. He should have known as much.
He returned to the table and rested his head in his hand, staring at the wall. He had perhaps gotten everything too early. The porridge and teapot was cold when Nirin finally sat up. He rubbed his eye with a fist, making his sleeve fall to his elbow and expose scars. There really were so many. Not just on one side, either. It was the same as his legs where the back and front and sides had seemed to be cut indiscriminately. Nirin dropped his hand in his lap and his arm was covered again and Kiol acted as though he hadn’t noticed a thing.
“S’cold now,” Kiol said when Nirin looked over at the table. “Sorry.” Nirin nodded and with heavy motions got out of bed. It was obvious the boy didn’t deal with fatigue well. But he styled his hair as Kiol got some staff to reheat everything, and by the time they had food and tea in their bellies Nirin was back to his elegant self.
They still had half a day ahead of them. When Nirin asked what Kiol wanted to do, he gave a long, angry sigh before signing, “Worship.”
“It already started,” Nirin signed. Kiol nodded. They went anyway. The Archbishop wouldn’t leave Kiol alone until he did, and despite the man saying it wasn’t good enough, Kiol hoped it would be.
The Society temple grounds was more northern than the martial temple, and huge. The main temple wasn’t one building but eight interconnected, and there were another scattered twenty around. Its grounds held fifteen different gardens, three manicured ponds that could have been called lakes, and plenty of open space and gazebos on top of that. The only official way to get onto the grounds was over a long stone bridge across one of the ponds, which led straight to the temple’s enormous front doors. As one walked across the bridge the building rose up, towering above them with its dark gray eaves and vibrant red pillars and pristine white paper lanterns.
Any civilians who wanted to join the main temple for worship was welcomed, though home worship was perfectly acceptable as well. But this was the one day a week soldiers were required to go to the Society temple for their worship. For everyone but disciples, worship was once a day for half an hour. Disciples worshipped three times a day, and in the afternoon it was for ninety minutes. Which meant on this day, soldiers were also stuck here for an hour and a half.
The bell for afternoon worship had already been rung and everyone was where they would be. Save the two lonesome figures walking across the bridge. The closer they got, the more reluctant Kiol became, until he was practically dragging his feet. Nirin patted his arm comfortingly and took the initiative to go inside first.
The front hall was a sea of kneeling bodies. At the other end, so far away it actually looked small, was the statue of Creator. She stood over the room, arms outstretched and eyes gazing down at them with compassion made of cold stone. With long straight hair and a lithe body, she looked nothing like Serul. Standing before her was a priest, an advanced disciple, who was giving a sermon instead of leading everyone in the usual prayer chants they had the rest of the week.
Beneath them all, unknown to everyone but Kiol, was a gaping cavern that held the anguished remnant of Envier.
He brushed past Nirin to lead him silently around the outer edge, past the sea of bowed bodies, down a long colonnade only separated from the outside with columns and a short but beautifully carved railing.
Normally, in their daily prayers, the neophyte soldiers and acolyte disciples were separated from the rest, as they had to chant out loud while the rest did so mentally. But on this day all soldiers and disciples were crowded into the second largest hall to listen to the Archbishop’s sermon.
He stood at an alter in front of another statue of Creator. This one stood with chin held high and one hand in a fist by her side, the other lifted gently and outstretched as though reaching for a flower. Despite the other statue being the largest and showing a kind, loving Creator, this was the statue coveted by everyone, the one most often recreated in smaller forms for households and pockets and charm decorations. A Creator that was confident, but humble; fierce, but soft; wise, but graceful. The ideal for everyone to strive towards.
The Archbishop noticed them come in and his lips tilted up in a smile, though his sermon didn’t pause. Kiol leaned against the back wall and crossed his arms, face set in bored disinterest.
There were no more sitting cushions. Nirin didn’t seem to care. He knelt on the hard stone in front of Kiol and watched the Archbishop with unwavering attention.
Kiol watched obediently for a while, but even if he bothered to read the Archbishop’s lips everything he said was boring and things Kiol had heard hundreds of times before. His gaze drifted around the room. The disciples all sat on the left and the soldiers on the right. The two couldn’t have been more distinct from each other with the bold soldier uniforms of black, gold, and red contrasted by the flowing white, cream, and gold of the disciples. While both sat straight, the soldiers were rigid like boards while the disciples held themselves with a comfortable tranquility. Save for the children, who were the same no matter where or who they were. The younger acolytes and neophytes both shifted and let their eyes drift and their hands pick at their clothing.
Even though they arrived half an hour late, there was still an hour of worship. Kiol was bored out of his mind. He stared at the back of Nirin’s head. Two braids were pulled from the front and coiled around the bun at the back. A hairpin with a dangling charm was stuck through its middle. He sat as straight as the others but somehow his posture was even more poised and dignified than anyone else. The lines of his robes, draped across his slim shoulders and pooling to the ground, were soft and perfect. Amid the sea of black and red and gold, Nirin’s green robes were like a fresh seedling sprouting from ashes. Kiol had never had something nice to look at during worship before.
Nirin did not move the slightest bit for the entire hour, eyes trained forward. Worship ended but Kiol didn’t notice until Nirin stood and brushed off his robes. He grabbed the boy’s arm, ready to drag him out, but the door was already filled with the others leaving. An imposing presence came up behind them and Kiol turned to the Archbishop, yanking Nirin protectively against his torso.
“I’m so glad you joined us today, Kiol,” Hida signed. He peered down at Nirin with a forced smile. “And who is this?”
You know who it is, Kiol thought bitterly. But he signed around Nirin’s shoulders, “A friend.”
Hida asked, his smile unbroken, “Did you enjoy my sermon, young man?” Nirin nodded. Hida’s smile actually turned a bit genuine. “You have the focus of a disciple. Perhaps you could consider becoming one. Creator welcomes all and approves of any who cultivate to improve their souls.” Hida thought with enough guidance and time, he could turn even the staunchest insurgent into a loyal follower of Creator. Kiol couldn’t help the twitch of his lips. If only Hida knew that Nirin already fulfilled that role—better than the Archbishop himself.
“Why don’t you two walk with me?” Hida gestured to the side hall that led to a garden. He didn’t seem to have ill intentions but Kiol’s instincts were blaring.
“No thanks,” Kiol said flatly and herded Nirin along. The disciples and soldiers walked amicably together. After all, despite their stark differences they were cut of the same cloth, both agents of the Society. But two stood out from the rest, literally, as the others went out of their way to avoid them. Even the disciples, supposed to be loving and accepting of everyone, cast them dirty glances as they passed. The two were, of course, the twins. Corva put herself between Caelin and the rest, head high and unperturbed, but Caelin stared at the railing with hunched shoulders.
Nirin glanced up at him. “Let’s go over,” he signed. Kiol shook his head. Even though Corva wouldn’t do anything here, not even raise her voice, he was sure she was still mad at him. And like he’d told Caelin, they weren’t friends, so he had no reason to walk alongside them. “Do you think that mission is the one you needed Caelin’s help for?” Nirin asked.
Kiol had forgotten about that, actually—why he’d dragged Caelin along in the first place. Maybe if he’d taken her when he went to find the families, they could have saved them… He grit his teeth and shoved the thought from his mind. “Whatever,” he muttered. It was too late now anyway. And he didn’t have to believe what some blind man half a century ago had said.
“Is there something on my back?” Nirin signed. Kiol glanced down at him, confused, and checked his back.
Nirin smiled up at him. “You were staring at it for so long earlier I wasn’t sure.”
Kiol halted mid-step and Nirin stopped with him. Some people behind skirted around them, annoyed.
“So you can tell even if you aren’t looking,” Kiol signed accusingly.
“I have to be looking if they’re far away. But I can feel anyone if they’re close enough to me.” Nirin’s sweet smile didn’t fade. “Even if I’m looking, though, it does get harder the farther they are.”
Kiol glanced around then signed, “The Archbishop?”
“He’s strange,” Nirin signed, uncertain. “I would be wary of him.”
“Already am,” Kiol muttered, then switched to sign-speak, “Never liked him.”
“He likes you.”
Kiol blinked. “He does?”
Nirin nodded. “But he… he’s planning something. And he’s conflicted and worried.”
“Does he know the remnant is…?”
“I’m not sure.” Nirin started walking again and Kiol followed. It was probably a good idea, the crowd had dispersed and they were standing alone and conspicuously in the corridor. “His devotion to Creator is real. Or at least… his idea of her, and what she stands for in his mind.”
Kiol understood, somehow. Nirin meant that Hida wouldn’t be a good recruit for Creator, despite being her embodied representation to the world. A shame, really, because with his status and influence he could single-handedly bring Creator back. He was the head of the Society of the One True God, on a level above everyone else, even Ruadhan. No matter what Ruadhan said, if Hida said something different that was what would be spread as the truth.
With plenty of time left, Kiol trailed Nirin in the market as he flitted from booth to booth. He seemed greatly attracted to colorful fine fabrics or shiny hair accessories. He never showed any intention of actually purchasing the things, satisfied with admiring them. But Kiol had started to carry around a lot more money and he ignored Nirin’s protests as he bought whatever the boy showed interest in, until he ran out of the funds in his pocket.
He looked into his empty pouch then met Nirin’s triumphant smile. “I’ll go get more,” he said and turned, but Nirin latched onto his arm and dug his heels into the ground, as though he had any capability of actually stopping him. Kiol put up a show of struggling against the restraint, then dropped the subject with a sigh. “Fine, I won’t.” He tilted his head so that his hair covered his half-smile.
“It’s getting dark anyway,” Nirin signed. They returned to the inn and Kiol set down the pile of satchels he’d bought. They went over their plan one last time, then Kiol went to the martial temple. He ate dinner and waited in his room. An hour after the last bell rang out over the temple grounds, Kiol slipped into the hall.
He knew the guards’ rotations and schedules, and unlike during the day, dressed in all black at night and in the shadows of buildings, he could be near invisible. But it was hugely annoying to sneak past the eighty guards set for the grounds, and then the three hundred that patrolled the streets and manned the city walls. It wasn’t until three hours later that Kiol arrived in the forest. It was so late at night at that point that it was almost early morning. He stalked along the path, heart pounding harder than it had while he was sneaking over the city wall. It had taken him longer than he wanted. If anything had happened to Nirin…
Right where they’d agreed to meet, Nirin knelt below the fiery red maple tree with his back to the path and head lowered. It took Kiol a second for his eyes and nose to coordinate and when they did he realized the red that covered the ground weren’t fallen leaves, but a pool of blood.