Harl took a short sharp intake of breath as the man raised his head to consider who was entering the tavern. Then he stopped breathing as the tall man squinted his flat green eyes at him, a frown creasing his forehead. He raised a hand, and Harl half expected to see the roarer there, even in the Light of Lios where weapons were left in a rack at the door after the bell. Before the bell the patrons were simple fops, the sons of local merchants who sought out the Light of Lios for its veneer of respectability, as though that made up for their drunkenness when the bell was rung and they were out, drunkenly falling to the gutters. Before the bell, like now, only a fool would bring a weapon into the Light of Lios. A soon to be dead fool.
And so it was that Cole was not aiming the barrel of his roarer at Harl. Instead his hand came up and made a dismissive gesture as the man himself returned to the large goblet he was nursing. And then Harl realised that the child-buyer was so deep in his cups that he had passed over Harl as an alcohol inspired dream. Instead of surprise or sudden action, all Cole’s weary eyes betrayed was a mild annoyance. So, it was not quite the moment of victory he’d imagined, but he enjoyed that bitter curve to the man’s mouth. But only for a moment.
Even if Cole had dismissed him as a drunken imagining, sewer stained clothes and all, the other patrons had not. Murmers spread about the fine room, from the nearest table to a dark place at the back, away from the fire, where five figures sat together in shadows. One stood and separated himself from the others, coming closer and revealing his face in the flickering firelight. Harl recognised the bulk of the city-voln man called Barlow, Jerekyn’s prime enforcer, and he took a step back, no doubt adding yet another muddied footprint to the floor about the door.
Before Barlow could reach Harl, another figure stepped in front of him, stopping him somewhat between the bar with the barely conscious Cole, and Harl. She was beautiful. City-voln certainly, but where grey eyes and dull thick hair made some of them look faded or just dirty, her long dark grey was sleek and lay in thick ribbons across smooth white shoulders, bare above a plunging neckline. Laughing moonstone eyes looked up at Barlow and sent him gently back to the shadows as she took up his mission, coming closer to Harl and bringing with her a gentle flowery scent that only slightly covered his own stench.
“Nice mess you’ve made of the floor there, handsome.”
Harl felt his cheeks reddening, nearing the auburn of his hair. He tried to avoid her smiling eyes and only found himself drifting over the corset of her dress… and what was under there.
“Traveller? Traveller? Would you be wanting feeding and somewhere to bath?”
“Yes… yes…” His voice was stuttering and hesitant. The she was leading him to the back of the tavern, past curious city-voln eyes that just as quickly turned back to more exciting gossip of the night moves of various city alderman and their mistresses. Cole looked up at them for a moment, confusion on his face passing as quickly as the burning liquid did across his lips a moment later.
“Thank you, but I have no coin-” He began, then his mouth came to a grinding halt as he felt the sharp point of a blade in his ribs.
“Keep walking traveller. You’ll get that bread and water. Then Jerekyn will see you.” Her voice was no less musical, but now it had a sharp edge warning Harl not to try anything.
“I know Jere-”
“And he knows you. Barlow was enthusiastic to get you to him, but the bell hasn’t rung yet. And the patrons here need handling with gentle hands before kicking out time.”
“You’re of his firm?”
They passed into the shadows, nearing the figures back there, Barlow standing out for his size. The others were harder to make out. But there, furthest back, was Jerekyn.
Some called him the Old Man, but never to his face… or within earshot of anyone wanting to get his favour. But he was old. City-voln of course, but worn thin by time so that his chin had lengthened under the baldness of his head. Shrewd eyes rested between narrowed eyelids, always calculating. It was that constant thinking that had got the thief-lord to this many years. And he’d always been smart enough to surround himself with the smartest city-voln, building his firm with those who had not been dulled by city life. Harl only hoped that Jerekyn still thought him to be sharp enough to be useful to him.
“What’s this Estille?”
There was no way that Jerekyn had not noticed his arrival or made up his mind already about what to do about it. Harl waited for that decision to become apparent, breathing slowly all the while Jerekyn and Estille went through their play act.
“Some lost and weary traveller who has found his way to this fine establishment, Fedori.” She used a fake name for him and Harl noted it. He could not call him Jerekyn, at least not until the bell sounded.
“Terrible. Has he hurt himself too?” Jerekyn’s concern was the interest of a snake considering his potential lunch.
“Perhaps once he washes away the blood and the dirt we shall know. A meal would help too wouldn’t it?”
“It would be the charitable thing to do, my dear, wouldn’t it?”
“You are a good man of Lios, Fedori.”
Jerekyn nodded, and the woman led Harl by the arm towards a door at the back and the rooms beyond it. She brought him into one where there was a wash basin, a bowl of soup with a small loaf, and clean clothes waiting.
“How…?” Harl began, but Estille silenced him by gracefully reclining on the simple bed, shaping herself in a very pleasing way. Harl swallowed and tried to ignore her gaze.
“Lios is not the only one with eyes in Bara. You came in by a known route. And you were watched.”
“Does he remembered me?”
Estille laughed, and the sound of it reminded Harl of the birds he’d seen in the gardens of the temple here in Bara. “Jerekyn remembers everyone and everything. What he doesn’t know is what happened to his promising young second-story man?”
Harl found the story on the edge of his lips before he knew it, the woman’s eyes charming him. He turned and started using the water to rub at his face and hands.
“Don’t be shy now.” Estille’s voice was cold. “You must want something from him, or you’d not made it straight for him, idiot muggers or not. And he wants to know what happened to you, that’s all.”
Harl paused, thinking through his options, taking the moment when his eyes were away from her to practise the best face to go with his confession.
“I went to find my father. ‘e’s woods-voln too, so I left Bara and went to the woods. Didn’t go so bloody well, did it?!” He let a sob into the last of his words, fuelling it with his genuine exhaustion.
“Oh you poor thing.” The compassion sounded genuine, but Harl remained on his guard. He heard her move, the thickness of her skirts making her movement obvious. Then she was behind him, reaching around to undo his buttons.
“I… I, um, I can do that!”
She took no excuses and removed his tunic. Then she soaked a sponge and began washing his back. He kept his arms across himself, trying in some small way to hide his forearm and the marks there.
“That’s enough Estille.” Jerekyn stood at the doorway, leaning with arms crossed, a dark smirk on his lips. “I said to be gentle, but not too gentle.”
Estille merely nodded and placed the sponge down again. Harl snatched it up and took to cleaning himself quickly so that he could fling on the new clothes. Estille watched all the while, those shining eyes burning him up again.
“You are really more evil than Barlow, aren’t you, my dear?”
“Evil is a relative term, Jerekyn.” She gathered her skirts to leave. “Make sure he eats, he more bones than boy. I’ll go back to tending after the woods-voln.”
“Be good to him, Estille.”
Harl’s rage must have shown on his face.
“Ah, you do not care for our other guest this evening?” Jerekyn said, his mind already thinking through the possibilities. “The guest who is not saying what he seeks, but is definitely seeking something. Or someone.” He came in and sat on the bed that Estille had left empty. “And you left Bara to ‘seek your father’, as you told the beautiful Estille.”
Harl thought quickly. “I don’t want to see him again! He abandoned me, and me mother-”
Harl’s heart stopped for a second. Lying to Jerekyn, and him finding out, was a death sentence.
“I even admire the effort, but I know Cole of old. Perhaps he sired you. There’s many who might have done. But that’s not the reason that first brought you together. Cole buys boys with good king’s gold.”
“Aint gold he spends, its coppers!” Harl shouted.
Jerekyn paused, and then said through thin lips. “I once gutted a man with his own hook hand for raising his voice to me, boy.”
“Forgive me. Please.”
The old man made a dismissive gesture, repeating Cole’s hand’s flick when he’d seen Harl at the doorway. “So what does Cole do with all those lads? Sells them onto to boy-lovers in the south I always thought.”
Harl paused, thinking on how to tell the story. “There’s a castle to the West. The boys go there. Lios wants them there-”
“Stop. Stop there.” Jerekyn said quickly. “I aint getting burnt again.”
Harl must have looked confused.
“I don’t meddle with Lios and his priests, and he don’t meddle with me!” Jerekyn stood up and looked agitated. “You were the lad who got me that book, weren’t you?”
“The book of names?”
“Never had such a fucking disaster. Button men who’d turned eyes for coin for years were hunting for it. The priests began speaking out against the evils of the rogues in Bara when for years they’d let us rob the people just as blind as they had been doing all the while! I ain’t messing in Lios’ shit and he aint messing in mine again! So, you keep your stories of castles to yourself!” Darker clouds passed over the old man’s face. “Wait. Cole is looking for you!”
Jerekyn grabbed him by the arm, wrenching it as he dragged him back into the large common room, yanking him towards Cole.
“Ring the damn bell!” He bellowed at the meek looking barman just pouring Cole another measure of something thick and dark.
“Its hours early!” The man hissed back, but he quailed under Jerekyn’s rage. “Of course.” He reached for an ornate silver bell and gave it several pealing shakes, as Harl pulled and struggled against the man as he brought him to Cole. The other patrons reluctantly and loudly left, Barlow making a move towards the few stragglers, who promised to never return to such an inhospitable tavern!
“Here! Here is the boy you are looking for!” Jerekyn shoved him towards the slumped man.
Cole at least had enough wit left to turn and face the old man and the boy. There were days of grow in the hair on his chin and cheeks, and greyness under his eyes, but there was some of the sharpness of him still in his eyes. He looked Harl over carefully, this time really looking.
“I ain’t buying today.” He slurred.
“This one you already bought. Sure as blood is blood.”
Cole looked from Harl to Jerekyn. “Just some lad. Aint nothing to do with me.”
“By the bastard gods I say you know him!”
Cole looked about with exaggerated care. “Aint this the Light of Lios? I thought I were in the Light of Lios. I thought I heard someone call upon the bastard gods just then-”
“Fuck you, the bell’s been rung!”
“Has it now?”
Whip quick, even with his blood half full of whatever he’d been drinking, Cole brought out his roarer, hidden Harl knew not where. He aimed it full in Jerekyn’s face.
Several other daggers, roarers, and crossbows appeared in the hands of the remaining figures in the tavern. Cole began to laugh.
“I aint dying for this fucking worth-nothing boy.” He lowered his roarer, and the other weapons followed suit before Jerekyn barked at them, rage turning his face red.
“I’ll fucking decide that!”
Cole shrugged, turned and went back to his glass. “Kill me. Don’t kill me. I got drinking to do.”
Jerekyn looked from the woods-voln man to woods-voln boy. “Oh, fuck both of you.” He released Harl and went to move back to the shadows. “By the Bloodied One, fuck both of you.”
“The boy wants a job.” Cole slurred. But Harl was wondering how much of that slur was real now. He seemed more awake than he had done before, but if he wasn’t as deep in his cups as he had seemed, why had he dismissed Harl before? Why hadn’t he grabbed him??
Jerekyn turned back. “With other Lios-fuckers looking for him? No way.”
“Why you so sure?”
“Because they found his body at the bottom of a sea-cliff not so long ago.”
Harl held in his gasp. Fysiwon!?! Had his body…?!
Jerekyn was thinking, the lines of his face deepening. “So you’re clever.” Something seemed to occur to him “Or perhaps very, very, stupid.” Cole shrugged, and the older man continued. “But even so, a woods-voln in Bara is going to get attention. It always did. Just takes one Lios-fucker with half a brain hearing about the boy with green eyes in the very same city they took one from…”
Cole sighed. “Gods, but you know how to kill a man’s fairly bought joy.” He chugged back the last of the drink in his glass.
Jerekyn stared at him, a dark smile forming. “You. You’ll be his handler.”
“The fuck I will.”
“You’ll keep watch out for curious eyes. And he’ll pay for your life by stealing for me.” Around them the weapons raised again.
“I told you, I don’t give a shit if you kill me. So, I tell you, the fuck I will.” Cole stood, wobbling.
“You will.” Jerekyn turned and walked away through the watching weapons.
“The fuck I will.” Cole muttered, and gestured to the barman to refill his glass, pushing small coins towards him. Harl stood aimlessly near him, half watching the roarers, daggers, and crossbows and half waiting for what he should do next. Estille threw him a smile, which as it was coming from behind her crossbow, Harl ignored.
Cole finally turned and looked at him as Jerekyn’s firm stood down and went back to their nightly pleasures.
“You eaten anything, lad?”
Harl was surprised and stumbled out an answer. “There was a meal, in the back, but I never got to have it.”
More coins were pushed towards the barman. “Get him some feed.”
“Thank you.” Harl said to the tall man, noticing how seated they were almost the same height. Cole’s dark eyes flashed, and for a moment they seemed more coloured for the deepness of the woods that his mother had always described to him, than dulled as Harl had always thought.
“Oh shut up Harl.” Cole said simply, and turned his attention to his new drink.